The story of Marun and Isabella – Part 2

Marun spent two months healing of his wounds. He was already eighteen years old, and so that meant he wouldn’t go anymore to school. He didn’t want to see Isabella again, it was too painful, and so he resolved to travel a bit across the fiefdom and perhaps work as an itinerant scribe. He went to Batrun, a coastal town, and spent some time there, exploring the sea shores, and smelling the scent of fish in the port, dreaming of exploring the world. But his heart was still in Smar Jbeil. He still loved Isabella. He couldn’t leave, couldn’t go away, and he felt an irresistible pull to come back.

There was a drought, combined with bad harvests, and as Marun walked from village to village he saw a lot of misery. He didn’t want to return to Smar Jbeil yet and be beaten again. He wasn’t ready for that. And so he settled in a small village on another hill and helped there to work the fields and build new houses, and he got to know common people, to whom he belonged, but he had never frequented as he lived in the castle. The physical efforts were very tiring for him at first as his constitution was weak, but season after season he grew stronger as his resolve strengthened. He had learnt at his own expense that being a helpless scholar was not a position he enjoyed in the current state of affairs. Even if he didn’t defend himself because of his boundless love for Isabella, he loved too much justice and fairness, and her, to continue accepting the blows and bowing his head. He needed to help her, and if it wasn’t of her own will, then he would do it in a different way. How, he still didn’t know. It would probably cost him his life, but what was his life worth in the absence of his true love.

For a moment Marun wondered if he could forget Isabella and perhaps courtship and marry a peasant girl. But that thought tortured him and he spent all his nights doing nightmares and dreaming of Isabella. No, he could not do that. He would not do it. It was even more painful than being beaten by Isabella. After all she had told him herself that she was so cruel because she was so much in pain, and somehow for a moment Marun had felt even closer to her with all the pain in his body.

The idea that Marun caressed was to mount a revolt and attack Smar Jbeil’s castle in surprise. That would either put an end to him, or to Isabella tyranny. The lordlings would probably win, but at least he would prove to Isabella he had the courage to die for his ideas and for his love. But between the schemes the mind elaborate and the moment we tell them to the people around, there is a gap. A gap Marun couldn’t bridge. No one of the peasants he worked with was the least bit enthusiastic about trying to rebel against the lords. It was pure folly they said. And anyway as bad as the lords were, the Ottomans were worse, and after all Sheikh Khalil and Sheikha Isabella had protected them well from the Ottomans. And so Marun soon had to abandon that plan of his and think of something else.

The same years, the Ottomans who were waging wars in Europe needed money and wheat and so they came to Mount Lebanon and the regions around to exact heavy taxes. Isabella refused to pay any tax, and the Ottomans sent her an army out of retaliation. The army had landed in Beirut and it came all the way along the coast to besiege Smar Jbeil. The lords knew about this attack and so they called upon all men and women of the fief capable of holding weapons, and Smar Jbeil soon was filled with thousands of people sleeping in tents ready to fight with the Ottomans to continue to hold the right to cultivate their land and exert the faith of their choice, to continue to walk freely in their mountains without having foreign invaders beating them at every street corner and abusing of their wives and their daughters. Marun too had no other choice but going to Smar Jbeil, but he didn’t sleep at the castle. It was very strange to see these throngs inside his village. There he saw Butros again and embraced him, and Butros explained to him the strategy Isabella had prepared. She had hid hundreds of men in the depth of the valleys, with the order to come out from their hiding only when the Ottomans attacked the town, surprising them from the back. The secret passages of the castle would also be used to surprise the Ottomans, and pyres had been prepared in these passages to make them collapse if the Ottomans discovered them. It was the first time the people of Mount Lebanon would offer such a resistance to the Ottomans. Usually in the occurrences when the Ottomans would send an army, the villagers would scatter in the highest mountains and perhaps ambush the Ottomans in a few skirmishes, but they rarely dared to confront their armies while standing their ground in this way, in a fortified city.

And indeed, the Ottomans had not at all expected such a resistance. The number of soldiers they sent outnumbered the number of defenders, but they did not well know the ground that is quite irregular, and as their army progressed toward Smar Jbeil they were ambushed in the narrowest places by groups of horsemen who struck them like lightning and fled, and once they arrived in front of Smar Jbeil’s castle they realized the full difficulty of taking it, as the castle is like the prow of the city, and to touch the city they must pass the castle that is nestled on a steep hill, with a deep valley on one side and a depression defended by walls on the other side. And what the Ottomans expected even less was to be welcomed by the firing of some cannons that were placed on the towers of the castle. Cannons were usually absent from warfare in these parts of the world and only the Ottomans had some, but they were needless in the mountains of Lebanon as there nearly were no roads, and the pain of carrying cannons would not be worth, as people immediately scattered to hide in valleys and on the highest peaks. Still the Ottomans tried to take Smar Jbeil, but all the people who had gathered there prevented them from breaching the walls, and at dusk the soldiers who had hidden in the valleys came out and attacked the Ottomans from behind, creating panic among their ranks as they had to confront invisible enemies who knew much better than they did the irregular grounds where they fought. Staying there for the night soon became unthinkable for the Ottomans as they started to be attacked from all sides, and panic struck among their troops and they started to flee toward the coast and the sea in complete disarray. Isabella did not let them flee and she sent all her men and women after them with the firm order to be merciless and throw their corpses in the sea, and that this must be a lesson for Ottomans never to set foot again in the fief of her family. The battle seemed to have been bewitched, as Ottomans fell one after another, barely defending themselves, perhaps shocked and horrified at being chased by as many women as men. Common people who hated them because of centuries and centuries of abuses. The Ottoman troops which had been sent to Mount Lebanon were of course not the elite soldiers of the Sultan, as the most trained troops would be used in warfare in Europe, and only troops of third category could be spared to bring to heel the regions that were under Ottoman control, in theory at least. Most of the time, with cunning politics they could turn local chieftains one against another, to keep everybody weak and control them without spending much effort. And whenever danger grew, they sent an army. But now their army had been routed.

Marun had barely fought as he was not on the front lines, and he didn’t follow the Ottomans to kill them, preferring to quietly remain in Smar Jbeil that had been almost emptied of its troops now. Having been beaten to death twice, he could understand the fear, the panic of these men, and even if they were of another nation, another cult, he felt compassion for them. They had been sent to Mount Lebanon by an arrogant tyrant, to fight against another tyrant. But they had families, they had dreams, and now their blood was flowing and irrigating the land and they would never see their homeland again. Even if some of these soldiers were cruel, Marun felt pity for them. He also could not blame the defenders, his brothers in arms, for defending themselves in such a firm way, as the other option was to become slaves. And so Marun simply wept for all this misery and strife, wondering about what could be done to right the world and make it a place of fairness where people respected one another. He understood his idea of overthrowing the tyranny of the lordlings had been stupid and vain, because he would have transformed himself in another tyrant, another butcher who sent his men to die. He understood that night as corpses burnt in fires all over the lands and the sickly sent of meat filled the air that tyranny could not be overthrown by force.

The next morning the war against the Ottomans had ended, as all their army had been massacred, and people cleared the rubbles, healed the wounded, and returned to their villages and fields singing songs of victory and pride and praising their lords. Isabella’s strategy had been brilliant, and she had known how to make of all her improvised soldiers, women and men, warriors. Soldiers are rarely warriors. And warriors aren’t always soldiers. The Ottomans had sent soldiers, but the people of Mount Lebanon had blocked them with their courage, their sense of sacrifice, their desire to remain free. They had fought for ideals, and they had won. Marun could appreciate the beauty of that all and he felt proud of his nation, and yet it broke his heart to see the harsh mask on Isabella’s face as she gave orders. This was not the person she truly was. But how to recall her to her true nature? Perhaps it was a lost cause entirely, perhaps they had been born at times when sweetness and love could not exist. And yet the yearning in Marun’s heart did not give him truce and pushed him to take action, to find something to do. But what?

Now he always carried his scimitar in his belt, and he walked straighter and he knew his body had broadened, especially at the level of his shoulders. Somehow it felt wrong to always be weak, and to accept the blows of others without saying anything. It felt equally wrong to attack others and make use of force. But self-defence was something important, and submitting to others was as bad as attacking others, Marun thought. And so when he met again Isabella and Francis on their horses, he did not look down, and stared straight in Isabella’s eyes. “Lower your gaze bastard,” Francis shouted, “are you in appetite for another beating?” Marun did not reply but did not lower his gaze, and he placed his hand on his scimitar, while continuing to look at Isabella who had stopped. For a very long moment they stared in one another’s eyes without speaking. And suddenly Marun read fear on her face. A fear that became panic. And she kicked her horse and started trotting, galloping, far away, calling Francis after her. It was very, very strange to see Isabella so afraid of him. And yet, it was somehow logical. Marun had been submissive all along, giving her his other cheek when she beated him, and now for the first time he didn’t look submissive at all, and very resolved. And Isabella knew Marun knew her deepest weaknesses. Already in the past, she had ill-treated and beaten Marun because he was a danger to her, but since Marun was physically weak, she could have the best of him. But now Marun was strong, and he was in his right, he fought for ideals and love, whereas Isabella fought him out of fear, to silence him, to silence her inner voice. And she had immediately felt Marun would have the best on her, because fate and life would be with him.

A few days later the marriage of Isabella and Francis was announced, and that threw a deep shadow on Marun’s heart. If they married, he would lose Isabella forever. He knew why the marriage had been announced. He had scared Isabella so much, scared her to bring back to her all the emotions, all the turmoil, she had smothered, and to melt her harshness with his compassion. And so now she was taking action to protect herself, to build up her walls again. It didn’t work anymore to beat and threaten Marun, but she could surround herself with Francis and barricade herself in the vain lordlings’ world.

What could Marun do? How to prevent the unavoidable from happening? He tried to see Isabella again, to prowl where she usually went, but he didn’t see her again. He thought of attacking Francis, but that would make of him a villain too. He thought of setting fire to the castle. He thought of many things, but could not find the answer to his torment. And Isabella ended up marrying Francis to his great pain, and soon they announced they would have their first child together. Why, why marry a man who didn’t love her truly, who wouldn’t ever make her happy, who didn’t cherish her. Why not choose true love. Why impose to herself so much unhappiness. These thoughts grinded at Marun’s heart, as suffering filled him.

Time passed. Isabella had a child, but that didn’t mollify her. She continued to be her harsh self who mounted her horse all the time and gave orders around. She didn’t give much berth to her husband, and everybody knew she was the one who took all the decisions. Francis was more like a puppet in her hands. Once or twice, Marun crossed Isabella, and she had the same reaction of deep fear when their eyes met and she avoided him galloping away without saying one word. Only God knew what were the demons that were eating at Isabella from the inside.

The Ottomans had not forgotten their defeat, and even if they didn’t give sign of reaction at first as they were too busy on other fronts, they sent another army several years later, and this time, the soldiers had been much better trained and they had artillery too, and they had the order to clear everything from their path before reaching Smar Jbeil. And instead of landing in Beirut, they had disembarked in surprise close to Batrun, in the very fief of Sheikh Khalil who had become more of a ghost than a real figure. This time the defenders were surprised, and the Ottomans sowed panic and havoc first in Batrun, than in all the other villages surrounding Smar Jbeil that were undefended. Their strategy was to surround Smar Jbeil instead of attacking it from the castle’s side, and take the defences where they were the less fortified, where the land is flat, planted with orchards and olive and almond groves. In the last years Marun had returned to Smar Jbeil and he made a living by working as a scribe, and he had resumed seeing his old instructor, and together they discussed of many topics and conducted some research and scholarship. Through his old instructor Marun knew that Isabella too still had some interest in knowledge and science and she often came to take books from him or discuss some ideas. Marun longed very deeply to discuss again with her, but that never happened. And so Marun was trapped in Smar Jbeil too when the Ottoman army surrounded it, and laid their encampment to attack the town the next morning. They were taking their time this time, and following clear and systematic strategies. They set their cannons and started firing bullets at the town. Smar Jbeil was not equipped or prepared to resist for such an assault. People started taking fright and being panicked, and soon they started fleeing toward the valley from the subterranean passages of the castle. Isabella tried to call them, shout at them, supplicate them, but no one listened to her. The Ottomans had thousands and thousands of troops this time. They had bayonets and cannons. They had killed all the people they had met along their paths and only ruins remained in the other villages they had attacked. And so the common people fled. But they were not the only ones to be afraid, and Sheikh Francis too started begging Isabella to flee in the valley while they still were in time and reach the highest mountains where they would go in hiding. Marun assisted at all these scenes as the little garrison that had remained in Smar Jbeil was gathered in the courtyard of the castle. It’s folly to remain, was saying Francis. Let’s flee with our army, and we’ll hide in the region of Tannurin, there the Ottomans won’t be able to reach us, and we’ll come back once they leave. But Isabella was very headstrong, and she harshly refused his suggestions. “This is my town, my castle, and if we abandon it the Ottomans will place is a garrison here and it will be the end of all the fiefdom and all its people. We’re going to lose, true, but at least let’s force them to destroy Smar Jbeil and perish together with it.” “Are you crazy, what about our daughter?” “I cannot abandon my men and my nation.” “But your men have fled.” “What about them?” And Isabella pointed at the regular troops who had remained. “They can remain to defend the town and flee when it gets too bad.” “No, I must bear the responsibility of my acts. I will remain. Go away if you want, take our daughter, take the men with you, take my father. I will remain. Tomorrow morning I will be dead, and this will be the end.” “You’re mad Isabella, it’s the panic that makes you speak in this reckless way. Men, we shall all flee and abandon Smar Jbeil, and our Sheikha too is going to come, don’t give too much weight to her words, it is the despair to see her hometown fall that make her speak in this way.” And Francis took Isabella by the arm. “Let’s pack some things and be ready to go. My mother and your father are already in the subterranean, they are only waiting for us.” But suddenly Isabella made a jump away and unsheathed her sword. “Do not touch me and dare to tell me what to do and not to do. I told you to go away, to save your lives. But I will remain, and this is my last words. I order you all to go away.” Francis tried to protest, to pull her, but she took out her sword and fell in a defensive stance, until he decided to let go of the matter, probably thinking she would end up following them once everyone else had left. And so he gave some orders and the castle started emptying itself, as provisions and light armaments were taken away. Butros too had to go, as he had made the vow to always stand by Sheikh Khalil and protect his life with his. And so after a long moment only two persons remained in the courtyard of the abandoned castle. Isabella. And Marun. The Ottoman cannons had stopped firing, probably the Ottomans wanted to wait till the next morning to start serious warfare by daylight.

“And so goes our tale my dear. What was true remained, and what was false left.”

Marun looks into Isabella’s eyes and he comes closer to her. She smiles to him gently. Her smile is worth a universe in Marun’s heart as he feels warmth flowing through his entire body. He doesn’t care about war, about anything, anymore. He just wants to be in Isabella’s arms. He makes one step forward, and he opens his arms, expecting a strong reaction, expecting her to push him away harshly. But she doesn’t, and when he hugs her, she lets herself do entirely. “I was so, so tired. So tired of this lie.” Marun hugs her tighter even. He feels her body perfectly assembling with his. There is no harshness left in her, no desire to push him away or resist. “Thank you for having stayed. Thank you.” Marun kisses her, and Isabella kisses him back. For a very long moment they remain embraced. “Let’s go on the tower,” Marun says. And hand in hand they climb the tower and from there they watch the sea and the mountains that are lit by a sliver of moon, and for a short moment they can pretend they are still kids, that time hasn’t passed, that everything is fine. As long as they do not look at the plain and orchards at the east of Smar Jbeil that are filled with tents and fires. “Why did it all go this way, why so much cruelty and pain?” Marun asks without any resentment, and only the deepest love. “It had to go this way,” Isabella says. “Will tomorrow morning bring our end?” Marun whispers. “Perhaps, who knows what life might reserve us.” “Why did you fight me so much all these years?” “Because I loved you way too much my dear. I longed to be with you and forget the world, like tonight, and it scared me a lot.” “And now you are no longer scared?” “No I’m not, fear has been eaten away by lassitude. I knew I could not continue to live this lie, pretend to be the person I am not. Continue to prevent my tears from flowing. Continue to hurt you and hurt myself and hurt others around.” And as Isabella speaks tears start flowing down her cheeks and Marun feels them on his cheeks, in his mouth, and their taste is sweet, so sweet. And he feels the warmth radiating from Isabella’s body into his. “Why can’t we go away, take a ship, and start anew?” “Because this is our fate my dear, to love one another one night and perish.” “Why?” “Because once I am dead, the Ottomans will be content and will leave the people alone. They wanted my head, and I will give it to them. They will probably bring it back to Istanbul to throw it at the feet of their Sultan.” Marun starts shaking and weeping. “They will probably take your head too, thinking you are my husband. And they will be right. You are my husband tonight, aren’t you? We were parted in life, but at least we won’t be parted in death. But now let’s forget about all that. We are together, and that is the most important.”

And now it is Isabella who kisses Marun, and they take off their clothes on the tower where the wind of the sea blows. The air is cool, but their body is so warm they don’t feel it. They look into one another’s eyes and kiss and slowly melt into one another’s bodies in a divine embrace. Everything is forgotten, forgiven, and the scars of Marun are not painful anymore. They are together, and on Isabella’s face he reads only the deepest tenderness and love for him. The next morning doesn’t exist. They are together.

They fall asleep into one another’s arms. Early morning they wake up and they start watching dawn as when they were kids. But there is an anguished cloud in the sky. And just as the Ottomans start entering the defenceless town, a very loud noise resonates. The first split second they think it is a huge bombard that is firing, but the next moment is land is shaking, the tower is moving, solid ground is escaping their feet. The land quakes and quakes and they hear soldiers screaming and they see everything crumbling around them until the floor where they are crumbles too and they fall one floor, than another, without much harm except scratches. But the town around them is a mess. All the tallest towers of the castle have fallen, everything looks damaged, almost in ruin, as the earth stops shaking. A cloud of dust surrounds everything. And just when the earth has settled again, it starts shaking anew and they hear horrible screeches and buildings that crumble. Marun and Isabella are still in one another’s arms and suddenly Isabella starts laughing. She laughs and laughs and laughs almost hysterically, and without speaking Marun understands why she is laughing. She could have cried too. But it is so absurd, so absurd that her father and her have spent so many years building and fortifying a town, a castle, and now in the matter of a few minutes it’s all brought down by a quake, as a castle of sand that is eaten away by a wave. “It was all so vain, so vain, so ridiculous. Being parted from love to build a nation. But nations crumble and fall. It is the fate of every nation. And when everything crumbles the only thing that remains is love.” And Marun and Isabella hug one another even more tightly. The Ottomans troop have entirely forgotten about them, as half of them have fallen under the rubbles, and soldiers all look with terror at this accursed town that always finds ways to surprise and kill the men of their nation. And soon afterwards, Marun and Isabella assist from their half-destroyed tower to the retreat of the soldiers who have remained. “They will go invade other villages out of retaliation,” Isabella says with urgency, “but all the people are in hiding fortunately, and so there won’t be too many deaths among them. But perhaps I should call them to ambush the Ottomans now as they’re quite disorganized…” She starts shaking in Marun’s arms, and Marun place his hands on her temples, stroking her, caressing her. “Quiet down my dear, you are not anymore a queen or a lord.” He kisses her. “Your majesty has perished today together with Smar Jbeil. Only the woman, the girl, is still alive. You have done a lot for your nation, and you now see fate is not in your hands. When you govern, you are an instrument in fate’s hands. Leave that position to others. Everyone thinks you are dead now, we are both dead. And it is true. We are both dead. We can now start our life again and do what we truly love.” Isabella’s body entirely relaxes in between Marun’s arms, and her face starts shining and beaming. “Yes, yes, it is true. Today we are delivered from the past. Today life starts.” And they kiss again, uncaring of the Ottomans, the cloud of dust above the ruined town, the rubbles under their feet, and everything else. They are together and love flows from their hearts, and this is what matters the most in the world.

And here ends the chronicle of Marun and Isabella. Their embrace is echoed centuries later by that of Enzo and Lucy, and later still by that of Arno and Syrtanyelle. And soon, one day, another embrace between two characters come alive will outshadow all these embraces of the past, and make this story even more real and vibrant.