Marun had known Isabella since when he was a kid, and he had loved her since ever he could remember. For a long time, they had been best friends, even though their upbringings divided them. Isabella was the daughter of Sheikh Khalil, the local lord, who dwelt in the castle of Smar Jbeil. Marun had been brought up by Butros, a handyman at the service of Sheikh Khalil. But Marun was as small as his father was large, and he had immediately developed aptitudes for learning. In those times there only were few scholars, but Sheikh Khalil wished to expand knowledge to transform his fief and perhaps even his nation, and so he encouraged Butros to allow his son to pass most of his time studying. It is there that Marun and Isabella met, as they followed the lessons given by the same instructor who was an Italian man Sheikh Khalil had brought to Mount Lebanon. He taught them to speak and write Italian and French, he made them learn the history of the nations of the world, he taught them to count, he introduced them to biology and botany. There were a few other children in their small school that wasn’t truly one, as they either followed the lessons indoor in a room of the castle, or outdoor under a tree. Since the beginning Marun and Isabella started talking, sharing the same curiosity for life, and the same sensitivity for beauty. Marun was frail and didn’t enjoy the games other boys played, and so he spent most of his time with Isabella.
Until the day Isabella’s mother died. That day, everything changed. Sheikh Khalil had met his wife in Naples, as he had travelled across Europe on a merchant ship of his father during his youth, with the aim to bring back new ideas and inventions to Mount Lebanon. One stormy dawn in Naples, a woman had come running toward their ship, begging Sheikh Khalil to take her aboard. The sailors didn’t want a woman on their ship as it was widely considered as an ill-omen, especially in such a storm that would have discouraged most sailors from taking the sea for many days. But Sheikh Khalil was with them, and he was the boldest man anyone knew, and he absolutely needed to leave the harbour of Naples that precise morning, because he had received news of the death of his uncle in Mount Lebanon and needed to hurry to take care of the succession of the fiefdom. And, reading the distress in this mysterious woman’s eyes he had decided to take her aboard. Caterina at first intended to land in another Italian republic, but for the first time in her life she tasted freedom, the wide open air, the sun and the storms, and as she was an artist in the heart she took a liking for the life on the ship and remained with them till Mount Lebanon. Slowly she opened up to Sheikh Khalil, as he asked questions and tried to understand her story. Caterina was a noble woman who had married an abusive man and after his death she had ended in jail because of his debts, or that’s the story she told Sheikh Khalil. She had succeeded to make her escape during a riot, and run toward the port, the sea, her only chance to disappear. In Gallipoli, Sheikh Khalil had bought Caterina an easel and some colours as he learnt she loved painting, and she started painting the scenes of sea life, the approach toward foreign towns in the distance, the nightly sky lit by the stars and a crescent moon and the shimmering of the surface of the sea. Slowly, the two fell in love with one another and by the end of their journey the decision of Sheikh Khalil to marry her had been made. He didn’t care about the uproar it would create in his family, as everybody expected him to marry his cousin Asma, as in the custom. He liked Asma, but he didn’t feel for her what he had felt for Caterina, and since ever he knew he didn’t wish to wed his cousin. And so Khalil became Sheikh, and he decided to restore the abandoned castle of Smar Jbeil, a village in a strategic position situated on a mount over the valley, with a broad view on the coast. He decided to make his dwelling there, not too close from the sea where the Ottomans could easily send ships and soldiers. Not too far away in the mountains to be unconcerned by what happened. Smar Jbeil was in a strategic position between the mountains and the sea, the perfect place for the ambitions of Sheikh Khalil of transforming his fiefdom to escape more and more the Ottoman authority and make alliances with some Italian republics, thus bringing the knowhow to develop agriculture, industry and armaments, and to secure some trade partners.
And six months later, Caterina gave birth to Isabella who had been conceived on the ship. No wonder then to see Isabella had almost the temper of a man. She had one part of her that was very sensitive, and even more artistic than her mother. But the other part of her was very decided, firm, bold, almost rude. And Sheikh Khalil encouraged that, as Caterina only gave birth to another girl, and he had no son. Another man would have been despaired, but Sheikh Khalil simply trained Isabella as he would have trained a son. He taught her to climb on a donkey and on a horse, to fight with a sword and with her hands, to give orders to her militia men and make herself respected. For many years Isabella lead this double life of being a girl and a boy, and she enjoyed both sides, and when she was a girl she spent all her time with Marun. But whenever her father called her for her trainings, she ran to him and bravely fought.
Until the day Caterina died after a long illness. That day entirely changed Isabella, at least with Marun. Without any explanation, probably because of the pain of losing her dear, dear mother, of seeing her father fall in the most utter despair, and remarry with Asma, his cousin, who had also become a widow as Sheikh Francis, the brother of Sheikh Khalil, had been called back by heaven too soon too. Under the pressure of the family and because of the despair in which he had fallen, Sheikh Khalil married Sheikha Asma, and that brought him even more misery as Asma was not very fair, and manipulative, and she wanted to favour her own kids over everyone else. Isabella immediately took a disliking for Asma, and as her father was absent, she somehow started to take the reign of the castle. Isabella started giving orders to militiamen herself, she started spending her time on a horse and fighting instead of reading or studying. People were at first shocked to see such an outgoing girl who behaved as a boy, a young prince, but as she was quite skilled and firm into it, and the orders she gave made sense, they started respecting her. And those who did not respect her, she did not hesitate to fight with. Even if she was only fourteen, she wielded the sword like a veteran already. She soon became famous across the entire fiefdom for going from village to village to inspect harvests and herds and people, and she was ever frowning on her horse. She didn’t smile and laugh much, always favouring efficiency over manners. She made a really good captain of her father, and she tried to shake him out of the new habits he had acquired of drinking. She tried to bring him back to the leader he was, and to some degree she succeeded, but for the rest of his life, she was the pillar on which he resided, she prevented him from leaning and falling when he was too sad and melancholic. She was the strong person in the castle, and she waged war mercilessly to Asma who was a vain woman who liked to spend the money in jewellery and other needless comforts. If Isabella was harsh to everyone, and first of all to herself, she was also fair and wanted peasants to lead a decent life, and most of all she wanted to keep the Ottomans away, as she shared the hate of her father for them. And so she convinced her father to expand the defences of Smar Jbeil, fortifying the castle and building a wall around the town that was newly developing, and to train the men and the women of each village to wield weapons in case of an invasion. Traditionally each Sheikh only had a few militiamen and in case of war the bells called all peasants to take up whatever weapon they had and come fight. But it was a first to have such an organized strategy, and train these people to fight.
All this, Marun observed from the external, as after Caterina’s death, Isabella started to avoid him entirely. She only went a few hours to lessons, sometimes chatted and laughed with the other boys, but she treated him very coldly, almost ignored his existence. Marun had grown into an awkward teenager, and the change of Isabella with him destroyed the little self-confidence he had, as other boys mocked him since he was so different. And, worst of all, he discovered at that time he was a bastard, and not the son of Butros as he had always believed, and he heard that story from the other boys who made fun of him.
Butros was in love with a woman, Nur. Seeing Butros, one wouldn’t imagine such a large and big man capable of so much sensitivity, but in fact he had a very tender heart. He showed his interest to the Nur’s family, but had to accompany Sheikh Khalil in his exposition to Europe, and that delayed the wedding. Upon his return Butros discovered Nur was pregnant, without knowing of whom, and that her family shamefully hid her. Later he learnt Sheikh Abdullah, the brother of Sheikha Asma, had lured Nur into thinking he loved her, used her and discarded her when he discovered she was pregnant, making her swear not to say the truth to anyone, and offering many threats to her family. Nur didn’t love Butros as he loved her. In her naive heart, she had had more ambitions than marrying such a stocky man. But when Butros came to visit her, Nur looked with shame at him and said she did not deserve her. Butros told her he still wanted to marry her, but Nur refused. Upon giving birth, something broke in Nur’s body, and in a starry night she lost too much blood and died. Butros was there the next morning and said to the family he wanted to take care of the boy, as if he was his true father. And so did he, as the family of Nur was poor and couldn’t afford to nourish another mouth, that was a bastard of a Sheikh on top of everything else. And so Butros took the tiny Marun under his wings, and protected him, and gave him all the love a father and a mother could. He was stocky, true, but he had love to give in his heart, and that can transform any defect in a quality. Even if Butros didn’t know how to read and write, he could guess that Marun was happier on the bench of the little school than learning a craft, or worse becoming a war man, and so Butros encouraged Marun to cultivate what he truly loved doing. Sheikh Khalil loved Butros, as the man had the loyalty of a dog to him and would have spilled all his blood on the ground to save his Sheikh. And so he also took a liking for Marun and allowed him to study with Isabella.
Until Isabella changed. Without any reasons. Was it the pain she tried to repress that made her so harsh toward Marun? Marun who brought her closer to her emotions, closer to her femininity. Since the loss of her mother, Isabella refused to be a woman, she refused all the emotions in her, and wanted to keep everything under control. And so she did. She shouted, gave firm orders, laughed sometimes, but never cried. She had seen what despair emotions could produce in her father who had been struck twice by the hand of life, losing his beloved wife and his brother at once, and she didn’t want to make the same end. She needed to be strong, to offer a counterweight to Asma and prevent her from spoiling all the efforts her father had done to improve the fiefdom and give it the semblance of a free nation.
Marun tried to talk to Isabella a few times, but she always was distant, cold, almost haughty to him, and he didn’t dare pierce past this wall, didn’t dare to speak his heart and ask her why she was so changed, and where was the magical girl he had once known, who seemed to love him as much as he loved her. And as time passed things became even worse, as Isabella started becoming close to her cousin, Francis, the son of Asma. She didn’t like the mother, but the son often was in opposition to his mother, more out of haughtiness in Marun’s opinion, but that didn’t seem to disturb Isabella, as she made of him a friend, and soon everyone started to whisper they would get married one day. Francis didn’t like Marun and he treated him as a servant, even though Marun was much more skilled than him at school. Or perhaps for that particular reason. Francis could reproduce the reasonings of the teacher fairly well if he was focused, but he could not make up his own reasonings, express his own ideas. Marun was the best student, and the teacher always appreciated the things he could come up with. The only other student who could be brilliant, when she was interested, was Isabella. When she was in the right mood she could write beautiful essays, she could come up with the most interesting ideas, and Marun always listened to her fascinated, enraptured. But the next moment she would be laughing with Francis, or giving some orders around, and that would chill Marun’s heart.
Still he felt a burning love for her in her heart, and he often tried to catch her gaze. And one day, the strangest thing happened. He was taking a walk out the village, in the valley, when he came across her. It was very surprising to see her on foot, there where usually no one went as the place was damp and rocky with shrubs and thorns and wild yellow flowers that embalmed the air. One of the secret passages of the castle lead there, and Marun loved to take the narrow winding tunnel of stone and visit the valley. That day, Isabella stood in front of him, to his surprise. And she talked to him, she talked to him as when they were still children. She was gentle with him, almost tender, asked him his opinions about the plants and the flowers, and also some existential questions about the fief. Isabella was tall and very lean, slightly taller than Marun was, but Marun hoped to grow to her height as he knew boys usually continue growing after girls stop their growth. It was very strange to be again with Isabella, as if all this time had not passed, as if they still were friends. Marun wanted to ask her for explanations, but he didn’t dare to, he didn’t dare to break the perfect moment. And at the end they returned together to the castle through the secret passage.
But the same night Isabella was again her cold distant self only smiling and laughing with other persons, and Marun knew her emotions then never came from the heart. He at the contrary felt aloof and lonely and melancholic and angry. Why to give him hope in such a way, look tenderly into his eyes, and then put again her mask of harshness. How to approach her again?
It happened another time, many months later. Marun was sitting gloomily in the court of the castle when Isabella came to sit next to him and talk with him as if they still were best friends. For a moment she even placed her hand on his shoulder, and Marun felt a warmth radiating there. But the next moment Francis arrived, and he frowned looking at Isabella, telling her she shouldn’t lose time with such lowly people, and he asked Marun to go fetch him some water from the castle. “I’m not your servant,” Marun replied, his anger and sense of unfairness giving him some courage. “Go now!” Francis shouted, “don’t dare reply to your lords in this way!” Marun looked imploringly toward Isabella, but she was looking elsewhere, already cracking a joke with Francis as the lordling moved away without waiting for Marun to obey. Marun felt deeply betrayed.
But his sense of betrayal was minor compared to the next incident that happened, when Isabella asked him harshly to go get for her and her friends some refreshments. That day Marun looked at her with utter shock, almost fear. It was the first time she treated him openly so unfairly. As he didn’t move she repeated her order with even more fierceness, and Marun obeyed. He brought back some coffees and juices and syrups from the kitchens, without looking into anyone’s eyes, feeling judged and ashamed and sensing the contempt of the lordlings. Move away now, Isabella shouted at him afterwards.
Why was she being so harsh to him, Marun wondered. A little voice in his mind said it was because Francis had noticed something strange between them, and out of jealousy he had started saying Isabella was in love with the stable boy and now she needed to disprove his lie. But, was it a lie?
It seemed, at least by how unfairly Isabella treated Marun during the following months. She tried to humiliate him in every circumstances, and it was so hurtful for Marun he simply accepted her humiliations without reacting, lowering his head. And the most he lowered his head and tried to avoid her, and the most she became harsh and unfair, getting out of her own way to torment him. She showed him very clearly and in front of the other lordlings she did not think him a man as he was incapable of defending himself, incapable of fighting. He was a weaklet, not a man.
A horrible mask now deformed Isabella’s face and rare were the times when Marun could still see her beauty, and whenever she looked at him she did it with contempt and hate. Her ideals toward her people and her nation had grown corrupt, as she was always more obsessed with her troops and her army, forcing men and women to neglect their fields, their harvests, their hearths and their children to train. She sometimes mentioned with the other lordlings the possibility of invading other fiefdoms. Sheikh Khalil followed her, but he was only a puppet between her arms now. Since the death of his wife something had broken in him. His ideals, his ambitions, his fairness, had been drowned by alcohol and despair. He still could inspect and command men and climb on a horse, and do as his daughter ordered, but his will of steel had been destroyed. People did not understand how the death of someone could have changed a man so much, but they little knew Sheikh Khalil and how Caterina had tempered his harshness and brought music and sensitivity to his soul, and how after she had mollified his heart and quieted his tempers she had died, leaving him alone with a feeling of having been betrayed, abandoned. He didn’t have the daringness of his youth anymore, because Caterina had transformed his ideals. He as a young man believed in war and strength, but Caterina had taught him about compassion. And now she was gone.
And so it was Isabella who ruled. Asma had control over a section of the kitchen and the castle, but apart from that Isabella outweighed her as she treated men in a way Asma could not, and both men and women respected and feared her despite her young age.
One day, after the umpteenth time Isabella had gone out of her way to threaten him, Marun had dared replying to her in anger. Why do you hate me so much? he had cried. Lordling Francis who was nearby shouted at Marun, “how dare you insult your Sheikha. This boy needs to be corrected Isa.” “Leave it to me,” Isabella said, going down from her horse. “Do you resist me now, weaklet?” she looked at Marun into the eyes and gripped him from the collar of his shirt. “Yes, I’m fed up of your unfairness,” Marun said, or rather whispered. “Am I unfair?” Isabella asked Francis. “Of course not my dear!” “Am I unfair?” she shouted in Marun’s ears holding him violently. “Yes.” Then Isabella lost all control and started punching Marun, on the belly, on his face. She was stronger, way more angry, and he didn’t try to defend himself. He just felt the horror of the situation of the girl he loved beating him, destroying him. She smashed his lips, his nose, he started coughing blood and fell on the ground, and she continued to kick him with her foot. She was so strong. Marun tasted blood and mud and dust in his mouth, on his face, in his hands. He lied lifeless on the floor when she was done with him. “May it be a lesson,” Isabella shouted at him, “never defy me again.”
That night Marun returned at the castle in shambles. Butros started weeping when he saw him. Who did that to you my son, who? But Marun did not speak. He did not say anything and let Butros stitch his face and his body without saying a word, still under shock. For two weeks he remained in bed, asking Butros to say he was sick to the teacher. In his bed his thoughts tormented him. The cruelty and hatefulness of Isabella haunted him. And despaired him, because he still loved her, because he still could see her beauty underneath. He still could remember the nights they spent on one of the towers of the castle that was not in use by the garrison, how they stealthily climbed the stairs, bringing some candles with them, lighting a small fire, telling one another stories, and watching the darkened sea and the mountains, the moon and the stars. A few nights of summer they had even slept there on mattresses they had brought, talking with one another until the night was well over and waking up with the sunrise, looking at the orange glow behind the mountains of green and blue and violet slightly troubled by a morning haze. Looking at the sea of pale azure, almost green, becoming of a firmer azure with time, and at the fishing boats that looked orange because of the rising sun. And the paleness of the blue of the sky over the sea. And all the nature waking up, and the dew on the grass. The excitement of a new day that starts. The idea of all the games that will be played, all the new discoveries that will be made. Looking into one another’s eyes and smiling excitedly. Such a deep and tender friendship their bodies almost kissed even if they never touched physically. But there was so much proximity in their hearts.
And now, now, all had become gray and dark and red and anguishing. Isabella was becoming a monster, bringing the fiefdom to its loss, Marun thought gloomily. She hated him. That twitched his stomach and he started vomiting again. Never again would he enjoy the complicity he once had with her. Never again would they spend time together, on their own, and feel the song of life alive in their hearts. Never again. Marun’s stomach twitched even more, and he vomited the little he had eaten. Pain. So much pain. Despair. So deep a despair.
After a few weeks Marun could walk again slowly, but could he confront again the lordlings in class? He did, and was welcomed by many a jeering, not only from the lordlings but also from the other students. Nobody liked him. They all thought him weird. Different. Dangerous. Only the poor Butros cherished Marun in his heart and swore to protect him. But what could Butros do against the lordlings? Marun didn’t want to bring him in trouble. Isabella would be capable of killing him. She had become very scary to Marun.
So Marun simply returned to classes and continued learning, with less pleasure than before. Everything he did in his life was done with less pleasure. Less appetite. He tried to avoid Isabella, and for a time she let him be, without hesitating to sneer at him and hurt him whenever she could.
One day Marun resolved himself to write her a love letter and beg her to become again the gentle girl she was and promising to help her and cherish her. He placed it in the book about warfare she was reading, and disappeared. Two days later, Francis came to him when he was walking in the fields. Marun noticed Francis had followed him, and Isabella too was coming. They both were on horse. Francis jumped from his horse and punched him in the face. “How dare you bastard, how dare you give her your vomit of words?” “Leave him to me,” Isabella shouted. She unsheathed her sword and placed the cold steel on the neck of a terrified Marun. “Please stop,” he begged, and he started crying. “Please, I won’t do it again.” “Is this the coward who pretends to love me?” Isabella spitted on his face. And she slightly pressed the sword in his flesh and Marun started to feel some blood rippling down his chest. And then, he lost consciousness.
When he woke up again after a long time of darkness, Butros was curing him and he had many sword wounds in different parts of his body. They weren’t deep enough to kill him, as long as they didn’t get infected, but they were extremely painful. In his pocket, Arno found a short missive. “You said you wanted to help me bear my pain my dear, and you are now served, for this is the pain I every day feel.” Isabella. Isabella. Why. Why so much cruelty, and then write him as if she loved him. Why.