This chapter of three scenes from The Red Hill originally lay after Thomas Berrington returned from the baths where he discussed the murders with the Sultan. In this place it didn’t move the plot along fast enough for so early in the book, and so came out. However, it does show more of the relationship between Thomas and Helena, and how he feels about her.
If you are familiar with the book you might notice that some small parts of this text did make it’s way into a later scene that stayed in.
Thomas woke to the sound of rain, confused, unsure where he was. Heavy, persistent, the storm beyond the mountains had finally arrived. He sat on the edge of the narrow cot as thunder rumbled, memory slowly surfacing as he stared out through the open doorway to the courtyard. Rain fell straight down, heavy drops bouncing from the paving stones, casting a shimmering mist above the raised pool. He had come to his workshop instead of climbing the narrow stairs to his bedroom, pretending he did not wish to wake Helena, but in truth more afraid he might.
Thomas was hungry but for the moment remained content to sit and watch the rain. A narrow balcony ran from workshop to house along the back wall, so he could make his way any time he wanted, except, for now, he didn’t want. He was juggling priorities in his head. There would still be wounded soldiers to attend, if he chose, although by now most of them would have been cared for or died. Over the next few days he had to climb to the palace, and he considered the best time of day to do so to avoid the Sultan. And then there were his normal surgeries. When he opened the narrow door on the workshop that gave onto the street people knew he was available and would come in ones and twos, the numbers building during the day as word spread. There were always sick people. It was one of the best, and worst, aspects of his chosen profession. A surgeon would never be short of customers. Even if few of them could pay. Thomas didn’t do the work for money, although he knew many of his colleagues did and would not entertain treating the citizens of the Albayzin. Thomas was the only member of his profession in the city to live on the hillside. But he had a few rich patrons beside the Sultan, who paid well, knowing perhaps they subsidised his other work, although Thomas believed most were ignorant of where their money and gifts went.
The sound of a door pushing against stone made Thomas shift his gaze from the mesmerising rain. Helena stood under the balcony still dressed in her long, white night attire.
“There you are,” she said, her accent coloured like his, but the colour different. “I thought you were still out. I didn’t hear you come in.”
“I tried not to wake you.”
“You could have.” She dipped her head, long pale hair falling across one side of her face. Thomas noticed Helena performed the motion often in an attempt to disguise the scar that ran from the side of her mouth, up past her right eye and into the hairline. The scar didn’t bother him. He thought she was beautiful anyway. “Are you hungry?”
Thomas pushed to his feet and stepped briefly into torrential rain and then he was beneath the balcony. “Starving.” He wiped water from his face and followed Helena into the house. He studied the way her body moved beneath the white cotton night attire and knew it was her only garment, nothing but her lean body, her silken skin beneath.
Two places were laid at the kitchen table, rough hewn, lacking the elegance Helena had been used to, but Thomas had never bothered with finery of any kind. His house was populated sparsely with solid, workmanlike pieces. A bowl set centre of the table held pomegranates, oranges, apricots, dates. Yesterday’s flatbreads lay on a plate. A small cluster of almonds sat on another alongside. There was a little honey, a little meat. Thomas was inordinately pleased. He knew Helena found domesticity difficult. Her life as a palace concubine was one of indulgence and culture, one of conversation between women in the harem, or reading, poetry and music. And, of course, sensuality. A sensuality she had brought into his house.
Thomas drank cold water from a fine porcelain tumbler and reached for some dates.
“I waited up for you,” Helena said.
“I was late. The Sultan decided everyone should visit the baths.”
Helena smiled, the movement misshapen where the scar prevented her mouth lifting on the right hand side, and once more she brushed her hair to cover her face.
Thomas started to speak, stopped. He took a handful of almonds and ate them one at a time.
Helena looked up. “What did you say?”
She continued to stare at him, her white hair falling aside, too fine to remain as a barrier long.
“Say it, Thomas.” She sat upright, as if defying both him and herself, and tossed her head back, revealing the full beauty and terror of her face.
“You have no need to hide yourself here. You know I think you beautiful. I always have.”
“Even this?” She lifted a hand and traced the line of puckered skin with a finger.
“Even that. It is nothing to me.”
“No. But to me… it is everything. I am grateful to you, Thomas, but do not pretend this is nothing.”
Thomas sighed, let the remaining almonds trickle through his fingers back onto the plate.
“I am sorry this life is a disappointment to you.”
Helena stared at him a while, then shook her head. “This life is our life now. This life is the life I lead, and I am happy to be here. You know it is true, Thomas. Happy you let me share your bed. Happy to be there with you. But I know what I have lost.”
Thomas wanted to tell her she had lived a false life, feted, protected, sheltered, but knew his words would fall on deaf ears. Helena”s entire life had been one of unashamed luxury and indulgence. Now, in his house, she tried, but he knew how hard it was for her.
“The scar is young. It will heal.”
“But not completely. Never completely.”
“No, not completely.” Thomas could never lie. He sometimes considered it a weakness, particularly in his chosen profession. There were occasions telling a man he was going to die might be handled in a better way, but he left that kind of dissembling to others. “But one day, not too far from now, you will barely notice it.” That was the truth as well.
“I will always notice.”
“We will see. I’ll remind you of that in a year.”
“A year? As long as a year?”
Thomas smiled, almost laughed. “Perhaps less.”
“Perhaps summer, yes. I have found a new formula for a salve in the book al-Baitir gave me. I will make some up for you. It claims to have great power for healing.”
“Your books,” Helena said, but a smile once more caught on the mouth Thomas never tired of watching.
“Yes, my books. They have given me this life.”
Her smile faded. “But not the life you could have.”
Thomas reached again for the almonds. It was a topic he was growing tired of. Helena had shared his house less than half a year and already she was trying to change him.
“I need to visit the infirmary.” He glanced at the window, glazed with mottled glass. Rain continued to fall as heavily as ever. It would not last. In this land the rain never lasted long.
“How soon?” Helena pushed her chair back and rose, almost as tall as Thomas, came around the table and rested a hand on his shoulder and he felt himself respond.
“Soon,” he said again. She smelled enticing, scented and clean, and he knew her body would be smooth and welcoming, as it had been trained to be. She took a step closer, the heat of her enveloping him, her hair brushing against his clean-shaven cheek. “But not now.”
Helena leaned over him, her arms around his shoulders, heavy breasts pressing against his back, and said, “I have a favour to ask you.”
“You can always ask anything of me.” He reached back, finding her hip. “What is it you want?”
“Tomorrow is time enough. I will ask you tomorrow.”
Thomas nodded and, when she moved away, rose and followed her.
There were several infirmaries in the city, with others outside the walls, and it was to one of these Thomas made his way late in the morning. Rain continued to fall and he had no way of knowing how close to noon it was. The call to prayer would announce the time soon enough, and he would have to stop work to allow for prayer, even though he made none himself.
Walking down the wide roadway with squares and markets to either side Thomas was taken with how many people were out and about in the storm. Stall holders continued to set up, their awnings out in an attempt to protect their produce. Gharnatah was the royal residence, as such attracting the hangers on, the civil servants, the guards, the salesmen and charlatans. The markets were always busy. The streets always clean. It has been this way seven hundred years, but no-one expected it to last another seven hundred. Perhaps not even another seven. The barbarian Spanish harried and skirmished on their borders, and year by year those borders encroached closer to the centre of power. In this torrential downpour Thomas could believe the end was almost here. He wondered how long the rain would last.
Beyond the gates he walked north around the city walls until he came once again to the tangle of tents he had left the day before. The snaking line of troops had finally worn itself thin and now only those unable to follow remained.
Thomas waited at the entrance to the largest tent, allowing his eyes to adjust, although it did not take long for the day outside was almost as dim as beneath the canvas. His clothes dripped onto the ground. He was soaked through, his skin wet and cold. Other surgeons moved inside the dim space. Benches held those too injured to sit upright, chairs those too weak to stand. Most of the helpers looked tired, but Thomas picked out several who had come down today as he had, although they had not been distracted and arrived sooner.
A man in a blood-stained robe approached.
“I came to help,” Thomas said.
“You did your work yesterday. There is no need for you to come again today.”
“You are still here. Have you slept at all?”
Da’ud al-Baitar was not a young man anymore, but he seemed to have more stamina than anyone else Thomas knew. They had been friends for all the years he had lived in Gharnatah, almost from the very first day he arrived freshly trained from Malaka, a man of twenty-two years. Ten years before that Thomas had lived in a land far to the north, where the ground was green and rain a constant presence, where plague and dissolute monarchs had bankrupt the nation.
“I will sleep when I need to. But I find as I age I need less. Perhaps it is the fear of that long sleep to come, no?”
“I’ll stay awhile,” Thomas said, “if you’ll have me.”
“We always need help, you know that. Did I see you walking with the Sultan last night?”
“He believes I am his friend.” Thomas began stripping out of his soaking clothes, reached for a robe that was only slightly stained.
“Then you had better be his friend. There is a boy over there with a broken leg needs splinting. He’ll need something for the pain. And when you’ve finished there we have enough wounds to keep you occupied until-“ Da’ud stopped speaking, looking up at the tent roof. The rain had stopped. They had both been speaking with raised voices above the noise. Now there was only a steady drip-drip-drip as water ran down from the sides. “This will turn into a steam room once the sun appears.”
“Then I’ll get to work.”
Thomas turned away, moving to the side and choosing the implements he would need, checking on the youth and then returning to find just the right piece of cane to use as splints. He gave the boy a draught of poppy and waited until the drug made his eyes glaze, then he used strong hands to manipulate the bone. The boy cried out, his pain huge even through the sedative. Thomas ignored the cry, used to them, concentrating only on his work. By the time he was finished the boy was asleep, his head lolling to one side. Thomas checked the leg a final time and was satisfied. The skin was bruised but not split. Looked like a horse might have kicked the leg and snapped the tibia. There would be crutches for a time, but the bone would soon heal in one so young. Within two months this boy would be on the battlefield again, trying to get himself killed once more.
Night had fallen by the time Thomas sat at a table outside an inn on al-Hattabin square, the great arched bridge crossing the Hadarro outlined with burning lamps. All sign of the heavy rain was gone other than the rushing of water from the river which was louder than usual. The square was filled with people going about their business, soldiers relaxing after battle, men and women selling their bodies, traders selling their wares, merchants cutting deals, innkeepers making money.
Without asking a tall glass of tea was placed beside Thomas. He had become a regular customer. The sweet smell of hashish drifted across from the establishment next door where bubbling hookahs were drawn on by groups of men. The sound of conversation, laughter and music rose above the rushing water.
“Mancala?” The man sitting beside him said, and Thomas nodded. The stone board was already on the table, the pieces arranged. Thomas sipped his tea, a trace of mint, spiced, heavily sweetened, and sighed, content with the world. Even if this was not his world. Thomas knew his true destiny had lain elsewhere, and there were times, although they came less often than once they did, when he wondered what would have become of him if the Earl of Shrewsbury had not gone to war, if Thomas”s father had not decided his duty lay at the side of his master, and if Thomas”s mother had not died, leaving him nowhere else to go but France and into battle.
“How is trade?” Thomas could not recall the name of his adversary, even though they had played scores of games at this table over the years. People came and went and Thomas, knowing he would not remember tomorrow, made no effort. People would remind him of who they were if they needed. This man was a well off merchant trading in silks, fine line and cotton. Thomas himself had bought several lengths of cloth from him and had them made into fine robes.
“As always it is a hard life for a poor man trying to make a meagre living.”
Thomas watched the man’s third move, reached across to the board and made his own. The man frowned.
“So I have heard. Like all men”s careers, times can be hard.”
“Not for you, Thomas. Not for those with friends in high places.”
Does everyone know my business? He made an effort to remember the man”s name, as he knew his, but nothing came. He did however recall treating the man”s wife for a broken wrist. Only one wife. The merchant was a Spaniard, perhaps even a Christian, but unlike beyond the borders of Al-Andalus even now all religions were tolerated. Even Thomas”s lack of religion. Thomas made another move, finished his tea and looked around the well lit square.
People of all races, colours and size moved around. Nubians with skin as dark as pitch; northern mercenaries, like Helena”s father, with pale skin and blonde hair; Moroccans and Berbers and Spaniards and Jews; and every shade and mix and melange between.
Thomas saw he had won the game six moves before his opponent did but played them out, letting the man slowly come to a realisation.
While Thomas re-arranged the board for a new game the merchant snapped his fingers and fresh drinks were brought.
“Thomas beat you again, Juan?”
Juan. Of course, his name was Juan Rodriguez, originally from Qurtuba. He lived in a large house in the new quarter, away from the river, away from the barracks housing the Sultan”s troops.
“Thomas always beats me.”
“So why play him? There are worse players than Thomas, you could beat them.”
“Where would be the challenge in that?”
The innkeeper laid his tray on the table, careful not to disturb the pieces, and sat on a chair, leaning forward to watch Juan”s first move.
“Do you play, Khadar?”
The innkeeper shook his head. “I watch. Always I watch, but never play.”
“I could teach you.” Thomas made a move. Only three moves in and already he had won. He waited for Juan to once more recognise the fact while he sipped at the sweet tea.
Khadar al-Abidah laughed. “And then I would have to play with my customers, and if I won I would annoy them, and if I lost they would annoy me. No, watching is better, my friend. But I thank you. You are the best player I have ever seen.
Thomas smiled. “So you understand the game. You must. But there must be better players than me.”
“Not in Gharnatah.”
Thomas lifted a shoulder. “Perhaps not in Gharnatah. But somewhere there are better players.”
Four more moves and Khadar sat back. He had recognised the coming defeat before Juan.
Two more moves and he stood. “I will fetch more tea. Would you like something else, Thomas?”
“Just the tea.”
“Where”s he going?” Juan said, “We”re still playing.”
“So we are. Your move, I believe. How is your wife”s wrist now?”
“Her wrist? Oh, yes, her wrist. As good as ever, thank you.”
Perhaps I should lose a game on purpose, Thomas thought. Juan was a good man. There were many of his countrymen living in Al-Andalus who had followed their master”s example and taken several wives. Juan seemed genuinely content with the one he had.
As am I? Thomas could not make up his mind. He was used to a solitary existence, a life of study and books, a life of service, and when none of that was enough of taking relief in the privacy of the bathhouse. The constant presence of Helena was both a joy and a strain.
“And your… uh, how is your…”
Thomas waited, enjoying the other man”s discomfort, then took pity on him.
“Helena? She is well, thank you. Although she wants her sister to move in with us.”
“Two women in the same house?” Juan smiled. “You are turning Moor, I am sure you are.”
“Her sister,” Thomas said. “And I told her no.”
“Wise, perhaps. Yes, very wise.”