I give you Princess Ibdela.
* * * * *
The first thing she noticed when she came to was a soft place near the front of her mouth where there should have been teeth. For a moment her mind flashed to a memory from childhood, golden sunshine and arms reaching for her as she proudly presented the tiny white miracle to her mother. Princess Ibdela tried to remember where she was and how she had gotten there. She laid flat on her back. A faint, chill breeze told her she was outside. Her head throbbed, and her mind offered no helpful thoughts or memories. One by one, she felt her senses return, like children that had scattered from a storm. She found she was able to open one eye, and she panicked for a moment in the darkness until she registered the faint glow of a smoldering fire off to her side. She heard the snores of men and something else: a man groaning nearby.
As the fog in her mind lifted, the pieces of her shattered memory surfaced and began to fit themselves together. But these images that formed in her mind could not be hers. She was a bride travelling with her new husband. After a twelve-day passage by ship and three weeks on land, their caravan was within days of his home in the Poitevin. They had been attacked—ambushed. Her husband was cut and lay dying nearby. The attackers had then beaten her senseless and made use of her. When they tired of that, they had kicked her broken body to the side and helped themselves to her husband’s stores of food and wine. She had finally lost consciousness. The men now lay soundly sleeping around the fire.
Starting with her fingers, she silently began a methodical inventory of what parts of her body were still useful. Left hand: broken. She flexed her right hand and found the grip sound and strong. The corner of her mouth lifted with gratitude for small miracles. She flexed her ankles. Her knees and calves were uninjured; she might be able to stand. She tried to turn her hips to roll onto her side and clenched her jaw to stop herself from crying out when a stab of pain dug in below her navel. She reached her right hand down and found the folds of her ruined gown plastered to the ground in a sticky pile beneath her. She could not remember if they had stabbed her or not. For a moment she was afraid she would slip into blackness again, and she bit the inside of her cheek hard to keep herself alert.
She was prepared the second time she tried to move, knew to expect the pain. Making no sound, she scooted over the ground on her back like one of the machines used to besiege fortresses—digging in her heels, shifting slowly, pulling with her good arm. She ground her teeth and pushed herself onto her side. Her hips were not broken or dislocated. All of the damage was to the softer tissues inside, important for the arts of love and bearing children. Like her left hand, their loss was now inconsequential.
She proceeded on all fours, making no more sound than a cat. She could see the outline of her bridal trunk where all of her silks and linens were stowed, standing open on the ground beside her husband’s cart. The men had seen the fine textiles and not thought to dig deeper, and who could blame them, she thought. Who would suspect that a dagger lay buried in the middle of a bridal chest?
As she made her way to the elaborately carved coffer, she recalled the evening that her husband had presented it to her, how his eyes had sparkled as he spread bolt after bolt of dazzling fabric across the bed before her. She, a princess of Abyssinia, had been rendered speechless by the display. Her husband had been well-compensated by his king for his service in the Christian crusade; he had enjoyed disregarding his usual reserve to stun his new bride with the careless display of wealth. As an afterthought, she had packed her dagger among the folds of textiles when they prepared to leave. The abundant fabrics her husband had chosen would now save her life, if not his.
She paused for a moment, struck by a realization. The man at the inn that morning with the greasy smile, that had encouraged her husband to leave their attendants behind for a day and take this less-traveled lane, had been a party to the attackers’ plan. Take your bride near the lake to see the geese, he had urged him; newlyweds should have a little solitude.
He would die too.
She noiselessly slipped her right hand into the trunk and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of her blade. She breathed a sigh. Ibdela turned her head to study the arrangement of the sleeping forms around the fire. Once she began there would be no time to think or decide. Every movement had to be planned in advance and executed perfectly. None of the men had stayed awake as a night watch; none wore their tunics of mail armor.
Her swollen lips formed a faint, dark smile. She rose slowly on wobbling legs. The first would be the easiest. After that, she would have to move quickly to finish the job. She took one last, deep breath, commanded the muscles of her legs to find their strength, and took a step forward.
She first approached the man who had slit her husband’s belly like a pig’s. This one lay on his back with his chin pointing to the stars, and he snored loudly. She crouched low, leveled her blade, and drew its razor edge firmly across his throat. The deep cut halfway severed his head from his body. She allowed herself a moment to watch calmly as he immediately awoke, unable to scream, and his hands flew to his neck. It was over in seconds.
The man’s movements caused the others to stir, and she turned and thrust the point of her blade into the chest of the man behind her as he began to sit up. She fell against the hilt of her dagger with her full weight and felt the tip punch through the man’s chest and against his spine. She twisted the knife forcefully to the side, pulled the blade out, and stood up.
She could hear the other three rising to their feet behind her. They shouted commands to each other in the graceless tongue that she recognized as English.
They had the reflexes of soldiers, and they had picked up their swords as they rose. Idiots, she thought again. These pale men of the North carried such huge weapons, meant to intimidate, but only useful on a battlefield. She was built small and light. What good were their big swords when she was pressed against them, her dagger between their ribs?
She muttered an Abyssinian slur about men compensating for their anatomical deficiencies, took aim, and threw her dagger. The blade tumbled gracefully though the air and sunk its point deep into the left eye socket of the nearest man. He dropped his sword, screaming, and pulled the blade out as blood poured forth from the wound. Princess Ibdela strode past him, lightly retrieving her dagger from his blindly flailing hand as she approached the next man. Without pausing she reached the man in three strides, easily ducked his blade, and plunged her knife into his chest. The man stumbled and dropped to his knees, and she sidestepped him, her stride unbroken, on her way to the last man. This last had some sense, she realized, because he had turned and run for his horse, his arms pumping as he sped away from her. She watched closely, gauged the distance, and raised her arm to throw her blade. Just as she snapped her arm back to let the dagger fly, the dying man behind her grabbed hold of her ankle. It was enough to send her dagger careening off into the night, far away from her target. She screamed at the injustice and kicked her foot free.
The man on horseback was charging toward her now, and she stooped to the breathless figure lying behind her, the fingers of her right hand making a quick search of his belt and waist for a weapon, even an eating knife—anything with a sharp edge. But as she stood up with a short hunting knife in her raised grip, the pounding hooves swept past her. The horseman paused only long enough to pull the half-blinded man up behind him, and then he spurred his horse away from her into the darkness. She considered for a moment chasing after them on one of their horses, but she needed two good hands for that.
She turned and walked to the tree where the attackers had propped up her husband, fatally wounded, to die with a full view of their repeated insults to his wife. She dropped to her knees beside him, but found herself unable to cry.
She had traveled north to Jerusalem at her father’s bidding, with a diplomatic mission to ensure safe passage for Abyssinia’s Christian pilgrims to their holy sites. She was the third daughter of the king’s fourth wife, a lesser princess of the great King Lalibela, but a presentable gift to the famous Saladin nonetheless. The Muslim chieftain had accepted her graciously, but he had no stomach for the strife that would have ensued if he had added a Christian wife, worse for her striking dark beauty, to his large family. This man leaning against the tree had offered Saladin more silver for her than could have been fetched for her sale at any bazaar. And then he had treated her as a queen and made her his wife.
Her husband’s face was as pale in the firelight as the marble in her father’s palace. His spilled entrails glistened darkly in his lap. He turned toward her, his eyelids drooping, and she leaned forward and kissed him for the last time on his brow, on the hollow of his cheek, and for a long moment on his lips, still warm. He had lived long enough to watch her take her vengeance on their attackers, and she saw his old soldier’s fierce pride in his last gaze. Wordlessly, he turned his head away and made a slight nod. She whispered a blessing to him, an Abyssinian funeral rite, in the warm French tongue that he had taught her, and thrust her blade quickly into his chest. His head dropped to the side. He was gone.
Princess Ibdela rose and walked to the fire and set the hunting knife on the ground by her feet. The sight of her breath frosting in the firelight reminded her that winter was near—a season that she had only recently heard of. She was pleased to find herself numb to the chilling cold. With her right hand she pushed the torn sleeve of her dress up her left arm to the shoulder and then she retrieved the blade. She laid its curved edge against her skin, adjusted its position, and made six even cuts in parallel lines across the top of her arm. Blood began to seep in dark droplets from the cuts as she looked upon her work with satisfaction. She raised the blade again and drew a small diagonal line crossing out the bottom three. This was to be the sum of the remainder of her life: six men; three dead, three more to go.