Ten or more years ago, I began to write a serial story for my nephew and god-son. My husband and I have a home in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, a place full of history and my nephew was about to visit there for the first time. I wanted to engage him in the history and romance of the place, so I wrote an adventure story for him, delivering ‘episodes’ on a gradual basis. He’s almost twenty two now and the story, changed out of all recognition, has become ‘Reconquista’.
It begins on 9th October 1264 as King Alfonso X of Castile & Leon is about to take the city of Jerez after a five month siege. Within the city, fourteen year old Nathan, his older cousin, Rebecca and their friend, Atta, don’t know what will become of them and their families. Everything they have always known is challenged and each of them will have to grow up and learn some lessons about themselves before they can find safety.
The book has become increasingly relevant to our times. This 13th century war was, ostensibly, a religious war, just as wars and terrorism are now and, while there are people of genuine faith on all sides, it is power and the desire for it and the riches which accompany it, which is often the driving force – base motives, not fine ones. There are lots of parallels – though I didn’t set out for there to be when I started writing it ten years ago.
Right now, Europe is facing the largest migration of people since the Second World War, with refugees risking their lives to get here and putting strain on services and the social fabric when they do. People are fleeing from war and terrorism. The US also has a constant influx of people entering illegally from Latin America. I hope that readers of my book might look with greater understanding on the pictures of weeping and frightened people waiting at Europe’s borders once they have read ‘Reconquista’.
And, I hope, they will have a thrilling and enjoyable read. Enough to buy the next book.
Nathan spun round to try and see who had shouted, but it was impossible to tell.
In the narrow city street people were running, darting into shops and houses, hurrying down alleyways. Doors and windows thudded shut. An ironmonger hastened to lift his wares from their hooks and retreated inside his building.
Nathan was buffeted aside as a large man ran passed, tripping over a frightened, yowling cat. Nathan fell forwards, knees hitting the cobblestones.
Ignore the pain. Get to safety.
Soon the burning firebombs would rain down. His home was streets away. He’d never get there in time.
Shutters were closing.
He scrambled to his feet, looking for a place to shelter. There was a recessed doorway in a house at the side of the street. That would be better than nothing. He hurried over to it and pounded on the wooden door.
‘Let me in! Please! Is anyone there?’
The door remained closed.
Leaning back to look up and down the lane, Nathan saw it was empty, even the cat had disappeared. All it’s doors and windows were closed and shuttered tight. There was nowhere else for him to go.
Small for his fourteen years and slightly built, he pressed himself against the stone upright of the doorway underneath its wide, stone lintel, his shoulder against the door. He looked up at the sliver of blue sky between the tall buildings, watching out for the smoke-trailing bombs.
Then the earth shook.
The stone reverberated with the shock and Nathan staggered. Dust rose from the cobbles and fell from roof tiles and sills.
‘What….? What was that?’ A voice came from somewhere down the street.
‘The big gun.’ An answer came from the shuttered window above Nathan’s head.
The massive metal machine had arrived outside the city several days before, dragged into place by long teams of horses. The people of Jerez had watched its arrival from the walls, anxious and afraid of the havoc it could wreak.
This was the latest attempt by the King, Alfonso X of Castile and Leon, to end the siege. The King led the Christian army from the north, come to regain the rich southlands of Al Andalus from the Moors.
Only yesterday Nathan and his friends, Juan and Atta, had climbed onto the battlements to view the cannon. From their high vantage point they looked down between the stone crenellations at the army camp, set out less than half a mile away. There were lines of tents, stacks of pikes and lots of bustling leather-clad figures moving about the camp. The smell from the many cook-fires made Nathan’s mouth water.
‘There seems to be even more of them,’ Atta said.
Over the months of the siege the army had grown. This war seemed to have been going on for as long as Nathan could remember.
‘My father says the King’s summoning all his lords and barons,’ said Juan. ’Though maybe that’s to stop them plotting behind his back.’
Banners fluttered in the breeze and the rearing claret lion of Leon and the golden towers of Castile were prominent amid the pennants and flags of his vassal lords and cities. Large, caparisoned horses carried armoured knights practising their skills. They could hear the clash of their swords and shields ringing out across the plain.
The giant wooden skeletons of catapults, giant trebuchets and mangonels lay still. Hung about with ropes and pulleys, they waited for the next attack. The huge stone counter-weights poised atop their frames towered over the men around them. Yet even these machines were dwarfed by the cannon. Nathan had heard tales of such mighty guns, but had never seen one.
‘What’s it made of?’ Juan asked.
‘Metal,’ Atta replied.
‘Yeah,’ Juan gave him a sarcastic look. ‘Bronze or iron?
‘Bronze, I think,’ Nathan answered. He knew about metals. ‘Less friction than with iron.’
‘It’s aimed at the Alcazar,’ Atta said.
Three pairs of eyes followed the trajectory from the cannon’s mouth towards the city.
Yes, the Alcazar, the ancient fortress at the highest point of the city walls – that would be its first target. The old citadel was by far the strongest point of the defence.
As he sheltered in the doorway, the hairs on Nathan’s skin rose. Hadn’t Juan been headed for the Alcazar? Taking a message for his father, Don Carlos, who commanded the town’s militia there.
Had the cannon shot hit the Alcazar? Had his friend been caught in the explosion?
He had to find out.
There was a whining sound overhead, it was the firebombs, the black spheres with smoking tails veering across the sky. Already the acrid smell of smoke caught in Nathan’s throat.
He left his refuge and ran, zigzagging along the cobbled street, until he reached the corner. He peered around it. Just down the hill and across the street he saw the mosque. Its tall minaret was still standing, but its large dome was fractured and deep fissures ran down its walls. Beyond it he saw an ominous grey cloud hanging in the air. Above the Alcazar.
Nathan snorted and rubbed the dust and grit from his eyes and nose. He shook his head – his short brown hair was thick and heavy with dirt. His clothes too.
To his right, the wide road ran down the hill, snaking between tall buildings until it reached the walls. Men were running down, carrying weapons for the defenders and stretchers for the wounded. The assault had renewed.
He looked left. The road narrowed as it went up the hill to the city forge. He could hear the familiar clang of metal upon metal. It was still working, so it hadn’t been hit. Nathan gave a sigh of relief. His father was there, helping the blacksmiths.
But where was Juan and what had happened to him?
Atta might know? He was working at the hospital, beyond the shattered mosque.
Nathan needed to get across the road. After that he could go by the back-ways. He took a deep breath and, bending low, he dashed across the open space towards a cobbled alleyway opposite. A new barrage of rocks and stones began.
There was a crash behind him and the air was filled with dust. Nathan gained the safety of the alley and looked back. The corner of the wall, where he had been standing only seconds before, had been reduced to stones and rubble. He had moved only just in time.
Nathan turned and sprinted up the steep gradient of the alley.
At the top of the slope he stopped, panting. He couldn’t breathe, his head hurt and his vision swam. He hadn’t eaten well for weeks. No-one had. The livestock was slaughtered early in the siege and the grain ration had reduced as it lengthened. There wasn’t a grapevine or an orange tree in the city which hadn’t been stripped of fruit and foliage. Many were then cut down for fuel for the city forge and bakeries.
Nathan put his head between his knees and breathed deeply.
The dizziness faded and he forced himself on. He raced from building to building, as fire bombs continued to fall, their oil spilling flames across the streets. In front of him a man, his clothes alight, was reeling from side to side, desperately trying to smother the flames with his hands. He fell to the ground and people came out of a house to help him, beating out the flames on his back as they pulled him through a doorway.
The hospital was just ahead and Nathan could see the wide, low entrance to the single storey building, built into the side of the hill itself. Incredibly, its striped awning was still in place. In normal times patients sat in its shade, to take the air. Now it was weighed down with wreckage and bricks.
Between Nathan and the hospital was the open space of the square behind the mosque. Its tiled pavement was pitted and littered with debris. He would have to make a dash across it.
Nathan looked up to the sky. It seemed the bombardment had stopped.
He inhaled, then sprinted away, leaping over up-ended flagstones and broken tiles, dodging the newly made crevasses, which might catch his foot or turn his ankle. As his hands smacked up against the hospital wall, beneath the awning, he felt the stone shake as the aerial attack resumed.
Nathan ducked beneath the low lintel into the hospital. For a moment he saw nothing as his eyes adjusted to the darkness.
The cavernous space reached back into the stone of the hillside with pallet beds lying in untidy rows upon every inch of floor, their occupants lying listless or moaning. Rush lights glimmered from metal stands, the flames of tall, thin tapers struggling to dispel the gloom. One area was lamp-lit and bright.
Nathan headed towards it.
As he approached, hospital workers carried a stretcher out from behind a wooden screen, followed by a tall, gaunt figure. It was Atta’s father, Don Reza. He looked bone weary as he wiped his bloodied hands on a cloth given to him by an aide and mopped his brow. Nathan waved to catch his attention. Don Reza saw him.
‘Nathan,’ he called. ‘I think Atta’s gone to the Alcazar to find Juan.’
So Atta had acted quickly. Nathan hoped that he was safe.
There was a commotion at the hospital entrance and Nathan turned to see what was afoot. Men carrying stretchers bearing wounded, crying people, were arriving. Orderlies hurried towards them.
‘We’re getting the first of the casualties from the blast now,’ Don Reza said. ‘Find Atta and tell him to get back here as quickly as he can, I’ll need his help.’
Nathan stepped back between the pallet beds, letting past a bloodied patient on a stretcher. The man was strapped down, his head thrown back and teeth bared in pain. His left leg was a mangled mass of flesh. Nathan’s stomach heaved. He looked away and hurried back towards the open air.
Outside more wounded were arriving, a straggle of humanity, all coming from the direction of the Alcazar. Nathan skirted past them, making for the street next to the fortress.
Here the buildings were in ruins. The front of the madrasa, the Muslim school, was destroyed, Nathan could see the internal courtyard and fountain, the leaves of its palmettos thick and brown with dirt. Young children wailed in the heat and smoke of the rubble and women cried out to them.
Nathan turned away, his eyes stinging. He had to get to the Alcazar.
Ahead, the high walls of the fortress looked impregnable. The huge blocks of stone seemed to have stood forever, looming over the town. The street was crowded with townsfolk. They had sought shelter from the firestorm in the protective shadow of the citadel.
Nathan gritted his teeth and pressed forwards. He pushed into gaps in the crowd, furiously elbowing his neighbours and being shoved in return. The air grew thick with the smell of burning wood. The beams of some of the ruined buildings had caught alight. The crowd parted to let a group of men through, they carried a scorched and bloody body on door, as a makeshift stretcher, lifted high on their shoulders. His arm was dangling down.
‘Make way,’ they shouted and pushed their way through the mass of people.
As they passed, Nathan glimpsed a signet ring on the hand of the injured man. It carried the Delgado crest.
So the man on the stretcher must be Don Carlos, Juan’s father. Nathan watched as the men continued on, but then he was thrust aside by another phalanx of stretcher bearers.
Nathan was going against the flow now. People weren’t trying to enter the castle, they were trying to get away from it. He fought his way to a small door in the tall and heavy castle gates. There were no guards so he slipped through.
Within, the wide courtyard was filled with rubble and covered in a thick layer of dirt and dust. Nathan could see the blue sky through a gaping hole high up in the inner wall. The outer bastion beyond it had been blown apart by the cannon shot.
Soldiers were jostling into the breach, clambering down the stones of the destroyed castle walls, weapons strapped to their backs. Nathan heard the clash of swords and banging of shields as they met the attackers below. He imagined the tide of men in the army on the plain, surging towards the Alcazar and the King’s soldiers charging over the fallen walls.
The defending sortie wouldn’t be able to hold for long.
Inside, their comrades rushed to pile blocks of stone and massive wooden beams against the remnants of the wall. In a frenzy soldiers clambered up the makeshift barrier, carrying panniers of rubble and brick which they emptied into gaps in the barricade, then leapt back to the ground. But the gap in the walls was still there.
In the open space of the courtyard dust-covered people, mostly old men, women and girls, combed the wreckage, turning over blocks of mortar and brick, each calling out for their missing loved ones.
Where was Atta?
Nathan scanned the searchers.
There he was, his long legs braced between two huge chunks of stone as he scrabbled at the rubble. Caked in grime, his features were blurred, but his gangly form was easy to recognize.
‘Atta!’ Nathan called. ‘Atta.’
His friend looked up and waved.
‘Have you seen Juan?’ Nathan clambered through the debris, the brick and stone moving beneath his feet.
Atta shook his head, wiped his eyes and pushed his long fringe back from his brow. ‘They say he was on the battlements when the cannon shot hit.’
Nathan looked at the high jagged walls. Juan would have been flung backwards at least twenty feet amid the broken stones of the walls. Was he buried beneath them? Was he even alive?
‘I thought I saw Don Carlos, being carried away?’
‘Yes, but…,’ Atta gave a helpless shrug. ‘They’ve taken him to the hospital. If he can be saved, father will save him. Come on, we’ve got to find Juan.’
Both tugged and scraped at the rubble, casting the smaller stones away. Together, they put their shoulders and backs to the larger heavy blocks to lever them aside.
‘Juan!’ Atta yelled and Nathan joined in. ‘Juan!’
Where is he? He had to be here somewhere.
‘We must find him,’ Nathan said. ‘What -?’
There were shouts from the wall. The sortie of soldiers was returning.
‘Quick,’ Atta said. ‘We might not have much time.’
They both scrabbled furiously at the rubble.
Over on the remaining battlements, the defenders were being hauled back up by their comrades, their heavy leather armour stuck with arrows.
‘We can’t hold for much longer,’ Nathan heard one red-faced, battered fighter say. ‘Get everyone out who’s not fighting.’
Nathan redoubled his efforts, tearing at the rocks. Beside him, Atta was doing the same.
‘Juan!’ They called in unison.
‘Out!’ A large man wearing an officer’s blazon was ordering the soldiers. ‘Get them out! All of them.’
A line of soldiers began stepping over the debris, forcing back the townspeople who were searching the wreckage.
‘No…,’ Nathan argued as they drew closer. ‘It’s our friend…’
His pleas fell on deaf ears. He and Atta were pushed back, with the others, to the walls and then through the door in the gates. As the door slammed behind them, Nathan heard the cross-piece drop.
The sounds of battle in the Alcazar heightened. As they walked away Nathan turned to look back at the citadel, its battlements like blackened teeth against a sky filled with smoke and dust.
Where was Juan? How could they help him now?
At the entrance to the hospital injured people lay, moaning, upon the broken flagstones amid the wreckage of the newly fallen awning. Those who could walk clustered around hospital staff, calling for attention. Nathan heard their cries but he felt nothing. He was numb. None of this seemed real.
‘Water,’ he heard a familiar voice croak.
It was old Joseph Levy, a stable hand from the livery near the Sevilla gate, lying on the floor, one arm bent beneath him. As Nathan watched, a young man brought a bowl of water over to him from the well in the mosque. Joe grasped it one handed and drank thirstily, slopping the water over the sides.
‘Atta!’ Don Reza called from the hospital doorway. ‘Set up out there − there’s no room inside.’
Atta disappeared into the hospital, following his father. Shortly afterwards he returned with an orderly, each of them holding the end of a long table. They placed it up against the hospital wall. Another orderly brought bandages, ointments and salves.
Everything seemed to be happening in a dream.
‘I’ll need a butt of water,’ Atta said as he organised the items on the table and the second man headed over to the mosque. ‘Nathan, help me with this,’ he called. ‘Nathan!’
‘What?’ Nathan blinked and shook his head. ‘Yes. I’ll help.’
People began to surround them.
‘My leg! It’s my leg!’ A young man was shouting as he hobbled forward, his leg cut open.
‘Here! Save her! Save her!’
A woman thrust a squealing child at him. Nathan recoiled and almost knocked over the table.
‘Form a line there!’ Atta called. ‘Form a line.’
The townspeople did as he said, clustering into a long, snaking line.
‘You clean the wounds, then I’ll treat them.’ Atta said, placing a wooden stool by the foot of the table. ‘Nathan?’ He patted its seat. ‘Here. Nathan. Sit them here.’
Nathan nodded agreement.
He’d seen Atta at work before. One day he would be a surgeon, like his father. The friends used sometimes to accompany Don Reza on his rounds about the city and Nathan had watched with gruesome fascination as father and son treated broken limbs, sick babies and the old or infirm.
Nathan looked at the line of waiting people.
There were men wearing tattered fabric bandages, wailing women with tiny, big-eyed babies and youths and girls, some older than he was, all needing help. Many were bloody. He saw white bone protruding from flesh and tried not to retch. Watching Don Reza was one thing, treating casualties yourself was different. He’d never be able to do it.
The orderly returned, rolling a large water barrel before him. He unsealed the cask and dipped the bowls into the water, setting them out on the table. He was going to help treat the waiting crowd.
But then the man hurried back into the hospital.
Nathan watched him go, unable to speak.
‘Nathan Calamiel?’ It was Joseph Levy calling. ‘Is that you? Helping your friend? Bless you if you can bind up my arm.’ The old man’s dark eyes fixed upon Nathan’s, full of expectation.
There was nothing for it. He would have to do it himself.
‘Yes, sir, it’s me.’ Nathan gestured for his first patient, the young man with the damaged leg, to sit. ‘I’ll get to you soon, I promise.’
Nathan knelt before the youth. He picked up a wad of cotton and dipped it into the water. Swallowing his disgust, he began swabbing the dirt and grit away from the wound. The young man cried out and pulled back, he couldn’t bear the touch of the fabric.
From further down the line a brawny man came forward. He nodded to Nathan and held the young man still. Ignoring the cries and the blood Nathan cleaned the wound. The young man rose and limped towards Atta, who was waiting at the far end of the table with salve, bandages and a threaded needle.
‘Good!’ Atta called. He nodded and smiled, as the youth sat. ‘Get all the muck out of the wounds. Keep going!’ Atta turned to his patient. The young man fainted away as he plied his needle.
Nathan returned to the task. His next patient was a baby, whose head was covered in blood. He took the child from the woman who carried it. It smelled sour and milky. Nathan wrinkled his nose in distaste. He washed the baby’s head, teasing its congealed curls apart, but his fingers could find no wound, so the blood belonged to someone else.
‘It – she – he – s’all right,’ he said, handing the baby back to the woman.
The waiting line grew as more injured arrived. Above the cries of pain Nathan could still hear the sounds of battle. It had been a while since the last aerial bombardment. This was a sure sign that the attackers were closing in. The besieging army would not risk hitting its own soldiers.
In the shadow of the hospital wall, Nathan wrenched his thoughts away from the battle. He would not let himself think about the Alcazar and what had happened to his friend. He had to focus on his work. He called the next patient forward.
In the late afternoon sun Nathan was still at his station, tending the wounded. He was almost ready to drop with tiredness when the shadow of a man fell across him, his broad shoulders blocking out the sun-light. Nathan looked up. It was his father, Simon.
Nathan smiled, weakly, and noticed the silence for the first time. Beyond the immediate sounds of the hospital there was a quiet unlike anything since before the siege began.
‘What’s happening?’ Nathan asked.
‘The city council has gone to seek terms of surrender,’ Simon replied. ‘I saw them as they passed the forge on their way to the north gate. We can’t hold out now the walls have been breached. ’
They had lost. The King had won.
Nathan’s insides felt heavy with dread. What would happen now? It was too late to leave. What would become of them?
Don Reza emerged from the doorway of the hospital, wiping blood from his hands on a cloth. His face looked drawn and he pressed his lips together in a grim smile.
‘So this was all for nothing,’ he said. He indicated the injured, frightened people lying and waiting on the broken pavement. Those that could were leaving, making their way back to their homes. The news of the surrender was spreading.
‘Perhaps….’ Simon was interrupted by the distant sound of cheering. ‘It sounds like the King’s men may have learned of the surrender. I pray there isn’t a sack.’
‘Why should there be?’ Don Reza looked sharply at Simon. ‘We surrendered.’
Nathan exchanged fearful glances with Atta.
‘Either way,’ Simon said. ‘You and Atta should stay with us, in the Juderia.’
‘If reprisals are what they want, the Jews won’t be exempt,’ Don Reza smiled, grimly. ‘You’ll have enough to worry about without Moors hiding out in your compound.’
‘Reza.’ Simon put his hand upon the surgeon’s arm. Nathan could tell from his father’s tone of voice that more bad news was coming. ‘The market quarter was almost wiped out, obliterated. You probably don’t have a home to return to.’
Nathan gasped and turned to his friend.
Atta rose from his seat, looking up at his father. Don Reza gave his son a bleak smile and put an arm around Atta’s shoulders.
‘We’ll gladly stay with you and your family, Simon. Thank you. But…,’ he hesitated. ‘Has everything gone? What about my birds?’
Don Reza kept an aviary.
‘I don’t know, Reza. Maybe your neighbours managed to free them?’ Simon said. ‘I’m told Don Carlos was brought in. How is he?’
Don Reza shook his head.
Simon sighed, almost imperceptibly. ‘And Juan..?’
Again, Don Reza shook his head.
‘No sign,’ he said.
‘We must go and search…’ Nathan began, but his father cut him short.
‘You’re coming home.’ Simon’s voice was firm. ‘The King’s men will be on the streets soon and by then we must be inside.’
Nathan realised that it would be useless to argue.
Don Reza went back inside, while Atta cleared the table. Orderlies took those wounded who could not walk into the hospital.
‘So what’s going to happen now?’ Nathan asked his father.
Simon hesitated. ‘I don’t know,’ he said, after a pause. ‘We get home and lock the gate. Then we wait.’
Don Reza re-emerged from the hospital carrying his leather instrument case. Atta carried a box. Together they all set off for Plateros, the square of the silversmiths.
The streets were quiet and deserted. All the windows were closed and shuttered. Dusk was drawing on, but the streetlamps had not been lit and they saw no lights in any of the houses.
Nathan and his family lived in a tall house overlooking the square. It had a small smithy, attached to one side of the building, where Simon worked. Across the courtyard from house and smithy, stables stood against the curving street wall. There was a walled garden between the stables and the house.
Quietly, they entered the little compound, bolting the heavy gate to the street behind them. From beyond the wall came the thump of marching feet and the harsh clash of metal armour. Nathan saw his father and Don Reza exchange looks. They had only just got home in time.
Across the courtyard was a gleam of lamplight. The slim figure of his older cousin, Rebecca, emerged from the house to greet them, skirts swinging around her ankles. Her delicately made face, which resembled his own, was framed by long brown hair and her grey eyes were large and anxious. She would have been watching out for their return, and worrying, for many hours.
Simon put his arm around her shoulders and drew her towards the house.
‘Where’s the last of the flour?’ he asked. ‘Tonight we’ll have good flatbread. I’ll fetch some charcoal, there is some left in the smithy, I think. ’ He turned and went towards the small building which housed the forge.
Nathan’s stomach growled at the mention of food.
‘Flatbread,’ said Atta with a half-grin. ‘When was the last time we ate good flatbread?’
They entered the house. Beyond a small unfurnished lobby was a large living area, from which wooden stairs rose up to the landing and the bedrooms. Off to one side was the kitchen, where Rebecca went to make the bread.
‘Sit, please Sir, I’ll get more chairs,’ Nathan said to Don Reza, as he reached under the stairs for stools. The surgeon looked exhausted.
Simon returned, carrying a pan of lighted charcoal with care. He crossed to the hearth, where he crouched to make a fire. Soon it was glowing, casting shadows onto the ceiling. Rebecca reappeared holding a tray laden with pieces of flatbread and whatever they had left in the larder.
Everyone clustered around the hearth. Nathan and Atta sat on the stools by the hearthstone, while Simon, Don Reza and Rebecca set their chairs around the fire, balancing wooden platters on their knees and toasting bread on a long pronged fork. Rebecca had brought out the end of a pot of honey and a hunk of goat’s cheese and there were chopped pimentos and onions from their little plot in the garden. These she fried in a skillet over the fire.
‘This is the last of our oil,’ she said, her face under-lit by the glow. ‘And I don’t think the markets will be opening tomorrow.’
‘There should be more food coming in now,’ said Simon. ‘As long as…’
Their new masters allowed it.
The King had charge now. He would determine how they lived and died.
Nathan shivered, though it wasn’t cold.
Simon stirred the fire with a poker. It flared, spat and spluttered, illuminating his square jaw, with its bristly greying stubble, and his pale grey eyes. Don Reza’s high forehead and cheekbones caught the light. Sitting next to him, Atta had his father’s big, dark, liquid eyes, but they peered from beneath a floppy fringe of black hair. His long limbs were all angles as he sat.
‘That smells good,’ Atta said as Rebecca dished out slightly charred vegetables and handed round hot pieces of flatbread, quickly, so as not to burn her fingers.
‘Eat it while it’s hot.’
For a while there was a companionable silence, as everyone was concentrating on their food. Soon all was eaten and Simon and Don Reza sat back in their chairs, with satisfied sighs.
Will the soldiers search tomorrow?’ Nathan asked, thinking of Juan. ‘For survivors?’
‘Maybe,’ said Simon. ‘I hope so. But we will all stay here.’ He collected their empty platters. ‘There’ll be no running around the city.’
Atta turned to his father, but Don Reza’s head had already fallen upon his breast. He was asleep. Simon put his finger to his lips.
‘Let him sleep,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘Rebecca, make up a bed in Nathan’s room for Atta.’
Simon rose and took the platters out into the kitchen. Rebecca lit a taper in the fire and climbed the open stairs into the darkness above.
Nathan’s eyelids felt heavy, he was tired, too tired to argue. Alone in the room, except for the sleeping Don Reza, Nathan and Atta gazed into the flames.
Atta spoke. ‘People can survive for days, as long as they have water.’
‘Juan’s strong and he’s brave,’ said Nathan. But the battlements of the Alcazar were high. ‘He was always braver than me.’
Nathan blinked and looked across at his friend in surprise.
‘Sometimes,’ Atta added.
‘Do you remember when he ran at the wild boar?’ said Nathan. A horned boar had escaped its pen on market day and rampaged through the winding streets of the souk, pursued by the hue and cry, until Juan had grabbed a hanging rug and charged at it, whirling the carpet around his head. The animal had stopped, confused, and its owners had been able to re-capture it.
‘And his stupid idea for catching rats,’ Atta shook his head. ‘We must have used up a bushel of good grain trying that one…’
‘Though he never liked the sight of blood,’ said Nathan.
‘No. He wouldn’t have been much use today,’ said Atta.
They lapsed into silence. The fire crackled.
Even as they sat there, time might be running out for Juan.
Somehow he would have to persuade his father and Don Reza to search for him tomorrow.
‘Why don’t you go up,’ Rebecca said, as she came down. ‘The beds are ready.’
‘Come on, I’ll show you where to go,’ Nathan said, rising. ‘Unless you need the privy?’
Atta shook his head as he got to his feet.
Nathan took the taper from Rebecca and started up the stairs.
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