The Lady and the Saracen
Djaq could quite happily bring herself to do many things as men did.
She could talk like a man; walk like a man; eat like a man; sleep like a man; dress like a man; and swear like a particularly vitriolic Arab djini who had just had his foot cut off.
But she could not, no matter how hard she tried, bring herself to smell like one when it could possibly be avoided.
And, Djaq had found, there were many ways and incidences in which it could be avoided, if one was prepared to get creative about it.
Today, however, Djaq did not need to get creative about it. Today, the outlaws’ camp was near a stream which, if followed for a few meters, spilled into a deep, clear pool of icy but perfectly adequate water. So ideal a setting was it, that there was even a fairly dense growth of thick, prickly shrubs around most of one side, which would afford her privacy from her fellow outlaws.
Even so, when she went to wash, she brought Much with her as a guard. His job was to sit a few meters away with his back to her, and shout if anyone came near so that she could grab her clothes.
Much was the only member of the gang whom she trusted to carry out this vital duty without trying to get a look at her naked. Robin would look because he was Robin; and Allan would look for similar reasons. Will would try very hard not to look but then peak anyway because his fascination with her was unfortunately greater than his sense of decency about such things. Little John would not look, but he would fall sleep if he sat still in the sun for too long. Also, his stolid silence was off-putting. She both liked and respected the big, swarthy outlaw, but she liked to be able to talk to people when she wanted to. Generally, if anyone was going to be silent, it was her, while the people trying to talk to her were unnerved. That was the way she liked it – being the unnerved one did not suit her in the slightest.
So she brought Much.
The water was freezing, but she didn’t waste time trying to become accustomed to it. If she just sat on the edge dangling her legs trying to work up the nerve to plunge in, they’d be there all day. And sitting naked on the edge of a pool of icy water, whatever certain misguided story tellers liked to say, was not an ideal position for a young woman to be in.
For one thing, for all it was almost summer, it was also England, and England, she had learned, tended to be very cold when one wasn’t wearing any clothes.
So she threw herself in, swallowing a yelp as the freezing liquid closed over her head, and then came up, gasping. She could swim alright – not particularly elegantly or uniformly, but competently enough that deep water was not something of which she had cause to be wary. The pool was not particularly wide – she could go from one end to the other in no more than a few quick, powerful kicks. There were rocks and mud and sand on the bottom, and little weeds here and there. She could see tiny silver fish darting about in the shallows and those curious little insects skating across the water’s surface.
Still, she had no time to be admiring. The water was freezing and she had a job to do.
Wading in until she was up to her chest (and she did not have to go far – the pool got very deep very quickly), she set about scrubbing in a quick, efficient, business-like manner. She had only a rag of flannel to work with, but made good use of it. The mud came out from under her fingernails and between her toes; the dried sweat was rubbed away from beneath her arms and the back of her neck. She raked her fingers through her quills of cropped hair, backwards and forwards, rubbing in icy water until she felt it close and cold on her scalp. Her hair was getting longer again, she realised – it was tickling the nape of her neck, and there were little tips of it in front of her ears that were almost long enough to be tucked back. She had recently found herself actually having to push her fringe out of her eyes.
Back home, she had kept her hair deliberately as close cropped as possible. It was sort of like a shield, in reverse. She could convince herself that if her hair stayed short enough, no one would notice her breasts.
But here… well, she had nothing to cut her hair with, for a start – unless she wanted to use the razor edge that Will used to shave with (somehow managing to avoid slitting his own throat while he was about it). In a pinch, she supposed, she could use a knife to saw off the really long bits. She would have to do that to her fringe soon, at the rate things were going. But somehow… it had ceased to matter quite so much. They all had fringes in their eyes and moss in their hair. The length felt good – loose, free.
It was a little nod back to the old days – she’d had long hair back then. Really long, soft, dark hair past her shoulders. Not sleek and straight like was maybe ideal, but thick, and going every which way. Heavy and warm on her back with the heat of the sun. She had liked to brush it, quick and careful, getting all the tangles out, then combing it through with water until it was neat and soft again. Her one pride, Djaq used to say, laughing at her, with his eyes the colour of wet sand on a summer’s day. She didn’t care. There was nothing else about her that was particularly remarkable – she was small, quiet, studious, and people said that she had kind eyes, but that was all. She was not pretty or funny or particularly smart, except from books and scriptures and what her father had taught her. But her hair was odd and funny and pretty if she was good with it, even when no one else but Djaq would see it. It made her feel good, knowing that it was there, under her khimār.
Djaq could laugh all he liked.
Djaq had laughed all he liked.
Sweet Allah above, so many years and – and – sometimes she still forgot… as if, any moment now, he would appear out of the bushes and grin at her, then hurl himself in fully clothed, trying to make her scream. Except that she would know that he was coming. She could always tell.
It was not that she missed him anymore, so much as the great, ragged hole that he had left in her soul remained gaping and empty. It was something she was now so accustomed to that she barely registered it any more, until she tried to imagine a life where her brother was still alive, and where she did not ache.
A sudden, terrible loneliness welled up in her soul and she turned around hastily to call out to Much – make him distract her, remind her of her friends. But the reply she got was not Much’s.
“Oh, sorry – ” Marian was standing a few meters away from the water’s edge, her horse by her side, one hand deliberately shielding her eyes, “I didn’t see you.”
Djaq hastily ducked beneath the water, crossing her arms protectively. “I didn’t see you, either.”
“Sorry,” Marian’s cheeks had coloured and she was keeping her eyes on her feet.
Djaq slid back into the edges of the pool, and looked to where Much was supposedly guarding her. All that could be seen of the manservant were his boots, sticking out from beneath he shrub he had crawled beneath to find some shade. And, if she listen closely, she could hear him snoring.
“Typical!” She groaned.
“What?” Marian still had the decency not to look.
“Over there,” Djaq waved a hand in Much’s direction, “honestly – if I can’t trust Much to keep an eye out, who can I trust?”
Marian, spotting Much’s boots, began to giggle and hid her face in her hands, “I am sorry, Djaq.”
“It’s alright…” Djaq sighed heavily, “I am nearly clean now, anyway. My clothes are on the bank somewhere – could you pass me my shirt?”
Marian peered out from under her hands, and quickly located the clothes. Forgetting to be embarrassed, she slid inelegantly down the bank to the pool’s edge, picked up the shirt and leaned over the water to pass it to her.
Djaq, still hiding herself as best she could, accepted the garment graciously and turned her back to dry herself with it, still up to her waist in water.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” She asked, by way of conversation, for Marian was not a woman who was known to randomly seek out naked Saracens.
“I have news for Robin,” Marian told her, “it’s important.”
“Ah,” Djaq smiled to herself – why else would Marian be making such an excursion? The woman always had news for Robin, whether or not said news was actually new.
“You don’t want to know what it is?” Marian asked her, from the bank.
“You will tell Robin soon enough,” Djaq replied, peacable. She pulled her shirt on, being careful to hold the edges of it up over the surace of the water. She waded back to the shallows, and Marian politely took herself back to her waiting horse and turned away, pretending to straighten the animal’s bridle.
Djaq climbed out of the pool, scrambling clumsily onto the bank. She shook loose water from her legs and hopped into her breaches, then, checking swiftly for any other observers, yanked off her damp shirt and put her waist coat on instead, buttoning it up to her neck. She would dry the shirt and put it back on later.
“Are you decent?” Marian asked, cautiously.
“As I will ever be,” Djaq ran a hand through her dark hair and shrugged. ‘Decent’ was a relative question. She was wearing breaches and her arms and head were bare. If she’d been seen by people who knew she was female in her own land, she would probably have caused the nearest cleric to go running into his home in search of a sheet to throw over her in order to preserve her modesty.
Marian turned around, still holding her horse’s bridle. She smiled a little sheepishly. “I’m sorry I cut your bath short.”
“Don’t be,” Djaq waved her off, “I would have been done soon anyway. It does not do to linger in… such a state… when you are female.”
“No,” Marian agreed.
There was a long, awkward pause. Djaq looked down, feeling oddly nervous. She wanted to be able to say something – they were both women, weren’t they? Or had she been so long in the company of men that she had forgotten how to make conversation with her own sex? Allah above – surely a woman was supposed to be able to talk to another with ease?
Truth be told, however, she never felt less female than when Marian was around.
Marian was a woman – a real, girl-type woman who wore dresses and had obvious breasts and possessed long, glossy hair. Marian was the kind of woman who charcoaled her eyes and smelled sweet and charmed everything with testicles within a hundred meter radius with little more than a smile and a glance. Marian was the kind of woman who Djaq had found intimidating when she was still Safiyah. She had even less idea of how to deal with such an appirition now.
Men, Djaq could deal with. Men were easy. Men were just people with penis’s. Women… women like Marian, in particularly, might as well have been born on another plain of existence entirely. Beside her, Djaq felt… small. Clumsy. Inelegant. And about as far from feminine as it was possible to be without actually sprouting man-parts.
“Um…” Marian broke the silence, clearly feeling as awkward as Djaq did, “is Robin about?”
“He…” Djaq’s heart sank as she realised, “went hunting a while ago – he is not back yet.”
Marian nodded, “I see.” She looked down, “do you think he’ll be back soon?”
“I don’t know,” Djaq glanced up at the sky, checking the sun. It was nearly directly over head – midday. Yes – Robin had said he would be back at midday, for lunch. “Oh, yes – he will be. Soon. He said he would be back for midday.”
Marian looked visibly relieved, “oh, right, good. I’ll wait. Father isn’t expecting me home for a few hours.”
Djaq nodded. They were still standing several meters apart, with Djaq a little further down the bank than Marian was. It was making the Saracen feel very short.
This was, of course, a feeling she was used too. Allan liked to come and rest his elbow on her head and call her his arm rest, just to tease her – and even Little John had been known to call her ‘titch’. Still, somehow having Marian that much taller than her was more than Djaq could bear, and she scrambled up the bank, carrying her boots, making a show of hopping from foot to foot and then finally sitting down in order to get them on.
Unexpectedly, Marian sat down too, still a few meters away (though level with her now, at least) and hugged her knees to her chest.
Djaq glanced at her sideways. That long dark hair was spilling down Marian’s back, and she was gazing distractedly at the middle distance. In this light, Djaq realised, her hair did not look that same, deep, glossy black it usually seemed. It was actually very dark brown – the colour of the plumage on female blackbirds – and the summer sun had stained it, bleaching certain strands the colour of mud, others the colour of honey.
Djaq frowned, wondering why that disturbed her.
It made Marian look much younger, she supposed, and much more human. The summer had also caught her nose, making the freckles on her cheeks more pronounced. She must have been spending a lot of time outdoors for that to happen. Will and Allan and Robin – in fact, all of the gang, now she thought of it – had freckles on their faces at this time of year, too. It was a peculiarity of this pale-fleshed people. The sun did odd things to their skin. Reddened it and spattered it with specks of dark pigment.
It was not unpleasant, she supposed – quite endearing, actually – but strange. She was used to the pleasant, smooth, dark brown of her own people’s skin, ever unchanging beneath the sun.
“Djaq,” Marian spoke quiet, jerking Djaq out of her thoughts as she concentrated on lacing her boots, “how do you do it?”
“What?” Djaq blinked, sitting up, one boot on, the other still by her side.
“Live – like you do – with men, in the forest, like this,” Marian raised her eyebrows, her head quirked, curiously.
Djaq shrugged. “I just do.”
“Oh,” Marian looked down.
Djaq bit her lip. She supposed it must seem odd to Marian, that she could live without a home amongst people of the opposite sex – but what Marian didn’t understand, of course, was that Djaq would have felt far less at home in a dress with a roof over her head. She had spent over a third of her life as a man, amongst men. Some of the most unpleasant moments of her life had taken place in enclosed spaces – the boat pitching and turning beneath her as she was sick again, having to stand in it, packed so close against her fellow prisoners that she feared she would be crushed. (Had that been when she had begun to doubt the existence of Allah, or had that come before?) She had no want for walls and ceilings anymore, certainly.
“But is it difficult?” Marian asked again, “living out here?”
Djaq shrugged, “it… is not always pleasant… but I – where else can I go?”
Marian looked down, “you could – could you not go home, if you wanted?”
Djaq snorted, “you mean back to my country, Marian? It is a big country. And my home there is long gone – my village is dust; my family are dead.”
“I’m sorry,” Marian murmured.
Djaq glanced at her, then looked to the sky, “you are no more responsible for those things than Will is.”
Marian sat up, her intereste piqued, “you really don’t blame us, do you? I mean, you live with us, fight for the common people with Robin… this country is trying to slaughter yours. How can you – forgive that?”
“Our countries,” Djaq told her, after a moment of consideration, “are not so different. We are both stupid – petty. We are both killing for the sake of a strip of unfeeling earth. I suppose… it makes little difference anymore. I am of neither country – or both. I want not to kill anymore. I want to do some good. Does it make a difference if the people I do good for were born this much closer to where I was born or not? That there skin is that colour and mine this? That they speak with these words and I those? We are all people. We are all hungry, and tired, and guilty.”
Marian looked impressed, “that is a noble sentiment.”
“It is true,” Djaq shrugged, and began to try to put on her other boot. “Besides, did Robin murder my brother? Did Little John set light to my home? Did Allan try to rape me? Did I fight Will in the desert sands? Are the starving people of Nettlestone responsible for having put me in the hold of a ship and brought here as a slave? What can I hold against these men who are my friends? Much must have killed dozens of my countrymen, and now he cooks my dinner and stands guard while I bathe. I have killed hundreds of your people, Marian – and here you are, talking to me. Your Sheriff is a bad man – your Prince John is irresponsible. But they wrong your people as much as they wrong mine. And my King… Allah knows, he is no better.”
Marian chewed her lip, seemingly processing Djaq’s words. It made her look much younger, Djaq realised, and suddenly remembered that of course, Marian probably was younger than her. By what? Four, five years? Not a huge amount, but still…
“Why are you asking, anyway?” She asked, knotting the laces in her boot. “Not thinking of joining us, are you?”
She glanced at Marian, and saw the younger woman’s cheeks colour as she examined her fingernails. Another curious side-effect of having such pale skin – the way in which blood rushed to the cheeks when one had been caught out was suddenly made very obvious. Djaq was used to this. Will blushed easily, and she could make him do so every time she reminded him of the time when he had caught her with her shirt off. Sometimes even Allan blushed – she’d seen it once, when she’d caught him looking at her.
Much could also be made to go bright red if you brought up his former housekeeper. Unsurprisingly, it also happened on the occasions when Djaq found it necessary to wonder aloud why he didn’t just get it over with and marry Robin himself. Once or twice, he’d coloured when Marian’s name was mentioned – as if he felt guilty for thinking of her at all, which puzzled Djaq.
“It would be – impossible. For now,” Marian said, not looking up.
“Your father,” Djaq realised.
Marian nodded, mutely biting her lip, “but – ” she began again, abruptly, “later, maybe. I could… later. One day.”
Djaq looked at her boots, waiting. Marian was tugging at a strand of her dark hair, preoccupied. She glanced at Djaq and smiled a little ruefully.
“I envy you, sometimes,” she remarked, “out here. I mean – I know I couldn’t – I know I can’t but I… I want…”
“To be free,” Djaq finished for her. It was a desire she knew all too well. An old one; a desperate, primeval one that she could remember blooming inside of her heart from the very earliest days of her childhood.
“Might be nice, for a while,” Marian wrenched up a few strands of grass, her hands restless.
“I envy you too, sometimes,” Djaq told her, after a moment.
Marian raised her eyebrows, “what – that I get to go home in the evenings, you mean?”
“No,” Djaq shook her head, “though that… might be nice. Sometimes. No – I… I envy you your hair – just sometimes.”
“I…” Marian raised her eyebrows, “why?”
“Spoken like someone who has never had to cut it off,” Djaq told her, and something about that made Marian smile, suddenly, the expression bitter. She laughed, shortly, and shook her head.
“What?” Djaq raised her eyebrows, but Marian wouldn’t answer her.
“It’s just funny,” was all she said, pushing her hair back behind her ears.
“My hair was long once,” Djaq told her, “longer than yours – down here. I liked it. It kept my ears warm.”
“Grow it back,” Marian suggested, practically, but Djaq shook her head.
“It’s not practical – I’d look…”
“Like a girl?” Marian raised her eyebrows.
“Not always an advantage,” Djaq pointed out.
“No,” Marian agreed, looking down. She did, after all (Djaq thought) spend most of her nights running about the countryside dressed as the Nightwatchman. “The gang wouldn’t mind though, would they? If it only got a bit longer? I mean – Much said, you’re one of the lads.”
“I am... more comfortable like this,” Djaq answered.
“You’d rather they didn’t see you as female?” Marian quirked her head in curiosity.
“I would rather keep my hair short,” Djaq corrected, looking away.
To her surprise, Marian got to her knees and shuffled closer, depositing herself back down only a few inches from Djaq on the bank. Her smile was impish – mischievous. It was… exactly the look that Robin got on his face when he was feeling particularly pleased with himself.
“I should like to know you better, Djaq,” Marian announced.
“That… might be difficult,” Djaq pointed out, honestly.
“Yes, that is one thing about the entire outlaw situation that is entirely too bothersome,” Marian sighed, “hardly much room to make friends, is there?”
“No,” Djaq agreed.
She was not sure how she felt about Marian’s apparent decision to befriend her. She was not sure how she felt about Marian in the first place. The woman was an oddity whom she did not spend a great deal of her time pondering, aside from occasional jibes at Robin for his high-born lover. Her first awareness of her had been as ‘Gisborne’s Woman’, and after that she had had to glean what little else there might be to know from the others. These days, Marian existed within the group as Robin’s eternal heart break – their spy and their ally, and someone who could be trusted to turn up on particularly cold, wet days to deliver them warm food. But she knew precious little else about her.
“How old are you, Marian?” Djaq asked, suddenly.
Marian blinked, then, leaning back on her hands, considering, “um… twenty. I’ll be twenty one this August. Why?”
“Just wondering,” Djaq shrugged.
“How old are you then?” Marian questioned, tipping her head back and making that fall of dark hair shiver.
Djaq frowned, “I have no idea.”
Marian sat up, “really?”
“None,” Djaq confirmed, blinking in surprise, “I… the last time I celebrated a birthday was when my brother was alive – we were… sixteen and I… I have not counted one since.”
Marian’s eyebrows disappeared into her fringe, “I… you and your brother were twins?”
Djaq nodded, mutely contemplating the stark fact of her ignorance in the cold light of day. Of course, she was aware of many years having passed since her last birthday celebration – but she had never really paused to consider the fact that she had no idea how old she really was anymore.
“You don’t have any idea what age you are?” Marian asked, after a moment.
Djaq considered, frowning, “I… I… it’s complicated – my people don’t keep time the way you keep time. And… I cannot even remember… I was born in the spring, I know that. But the exact date… I…” she shook her head, baffled, “I don’t know.”
“Well,” Marian at once became practical, “I would say that you are older than me – and you are definitely younger than Little John. You are younger than Much, and Allan too – how old is Allan?”
“He doesn’t know either,” Djaq told her, “if you ask him, he will only tell you that he is not quite dead yet.”
Marian smiled, ruefully, “alright – Robin is twenty five, I know that much. You look about his age – maybe a little younger. You must be about twenty three, twenty four?”
“I… suppose…” Djaq agreed, hesitantly. The idea was entirely alien to her. Her age had ceased to be an integral part of her identity around the same time her gender had. The last time she had cared about either thing, she had been a little over sixteen. It felt a very long time ago.
“I suppose it doesn’t really matter,” Marian remarked, “if you don’t mind.”
“I don’t,” Djaq sighed – her age was just one more thing she had lost, after all, “not really. I was a fourteen year old boy for… at least seven years. After a while, you forget to care.”
Marian nodded, her eyes downcast.
“When this ends – if it ever ends,” she began again, breaking yet another silence, “then would you go back? If the war in the holy lands was over?”
Djaq considered. She was not entirely sure that she wanted to voice these things to Marian. But then – she was not entirely sure that she wanted to voice them to anyone. “I… don’t know. I suppose – it depends. I have made… good friends here. It’s like having five different versions of my brother back – there is the charm, and there is the idiocy and there is the one who will try, in his own inadequate way, to protect me and there is the one who must be made to scrub behind his ears …” Marian was beginning to giggle at the images Djaq was conjuring for her, “And I have already left so much behind me… I don’t know if I could leave them too.”
Marian sighed, the sound oddly empathetic on the noon-tide air, “you are a little bit stuck, Djaq. No less than I am.”
“I suppose that is true,” Djaq agreed, smiling ruefully.
“That is why it is important for me to know you better,” Marian told her, matter-of-factly, “two people who are stuck might be good at assisting each other in becoming… less stuck.”
Djaq smiled – Marian was waving a hand in an illustrative fashion, not quite knowing how to voice the unspoken need for comradery. But she understood. Because Marian was lonely, just as Djaq was. Perhaps for different reasons and by different means; but neither of them had anyone on enough of an equal footing, and with enough imagination or understanding, to truly comprehend their position.
And just perhaps, there might be some relief to be found in a companion, however impossible contact was likely to become in the coming months.
“Come,” Djaq stood up, “Robin will be back in the camp by now. You can give him your news.”
She held out her hand, and helped pull Marian to her feet.