Yusuf came back to the land of the living as a crow settled on his face. His gasping breaths as he shot upright startled the bird away; it scored a line of pain across his cheek, but when he reached up, there was only blood under his fingertips, his skin unmarked.
He remembered his death with a vividness that made his gorge rise, the Frank’s sword finding the gap between his chin and the edge of his mail shirt, the horrible sensation of choking on steel. But his hand on his throat found only dried blood. He was alive and alone - except for the dead, littering the ground outside the walls of al-Quds. Not a safe place to be, for one of its defenders.
Yusuf got to his knees, unsure of everything, including whether any of this was real, and then realised that the closest corpse was the man who had put his sword through Yusuf’s throat. He lay on his back, pale eyes open and staring, his skull still half-bashed in. Yusuf remembered, he thought, grabbing at a rock. He hadn’t hoped to revenge his own impending death; hadn’t had any thought except survival.
The crows hadn’t been startled off for long, with such a feast laid out for them. They were pecking at eyes and tongues and open wounds, careless of his presence. Yusuf felt a tired wave of pity, for all these bodies that had been men, the city’s protectors and its assailants alike. Wars were so wasteful. He put his hand to his throat again. The memory was so vivid, and yet – and yet – who was he to be granted that sort of miracle?
He reached out and closed the dead man’s eyes. It wouldn’t make any difference, in a minute or two, but it seemed somehow kinder. Not that he owed him any kindness. And yet.
The dead man rose, choking, gasping, impossible, the fragile curve of his skull somehow rounding itself. Yusuf stumbled to his feet, grasping for the sword he had dropped. The man looked up at him, frantic, saying something Yusuf couldn’t understand, in some language that tickled at his knowledge of the trading tongue.
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” Yusuf said, and then nearly tripped over one of his own fallen brothers blocking the man’s clumsy swing. The crows around them took off with croaking cries. The sun shone. They were dead, they were alive, nothing made sense. But the Frank was, quite evidently, trying to kill him, and Yusuf did not feel inclined to submit to a second death at his hands, impossible or no.
He feinted, and the battle went on.
Nicolò wondered more and more, these days, whether there was any number of deaths that would free the Muslim and himself from this endless dance they found themselves in, or whether it would go on until – he did not know when. They had killed each other half a dozen times outside the walls of Jerusalem, until a sortie from the city had retrieved the man and left Nicolò dead (again) on the ground, that last time with a dagger through his eye. They had fought again when the city fell – a blood-drenched memory Nicolò still shied away from – and since.
This time had been a pure accident; Nicolò had been escorting pilgrims when he had seen him at a campsite. He would know him anywhere, now. Catching his gaze had been enough. They had walked away from the fires without speaking – what was there to say? Neither had been heavily armored. It was the sort of fight that would end quickly, whoever ended it. They had both been silent, fast, frantic. This was their own personal quarrel.
A longer time later than Nicolò had anticipated – they knew each other too well know, in the way you could know someone when you had fought them to the death again and again - Nicolò’s dagger had caught the soft flesh at the back of the man’s knee, and he had gone down. It was a disabling injury, the sort that would leave any other man lame. They weren’t other men. Nicolò rolled to his feet, out of range, a thrill of success going through him as he came up with his sword, and then realised that the other wasn’t threatening him; had, in fact, dropped his own weapon.
“Enough,” he said, tiredly, in the trade tongue. “Do it and be on your way.”
They had danced this dance often enough now that Nicolò knew it would only be a few heartbeats before his leg healed and he could stand. Any moment now. Now.
He stayed on one knee, and Nicolò held his sword, and did not know quite why he did not do as he had been asked. Well – because he had been asked, perhaps. He was not here for his enemy’s convenience.
“We are not fighting right now,” said the man, gesturing in the direction of the campsite; it took a moment for Nicolò to decide that we meant your people and mine.
“I know that,” Nicolò said, irritated. He wasn’t even – he had offered to ride along with this group of pilgrims, but he hadn’t been sworn as a fighting man since he had…since…the point was, he knew the state of politics in the Holy Land, you could not live here and not know it. “You can stand, by now. Pick up your sword. Get up.”
The other shrugged. “Why? You kill me, I kill you, nothing changes. I don’t feel like killing today, not now.”
“You don’t know that. If I removed your head, would it change?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I don’t know. Is that what you want to do?”
“I don’t know what I want,” Nicolò said, and then felt his hand tighten on his swordhilt; he had not meant to sat that. “I don’t know why God is testing me like this. With you.”
“I like to think if God has any purpose for me, it revolves around something greater than one confused Frank.”
“We are all His instruments one way or another.” Nicolò still believed that; he had to believe it; he didn’t know why that meant he could no longer die, and why Jerusalem had fallen as it had, but if there was not some divine working behind it, greater and more terrible than he could know, then…
“Get up,” Nicolò said again. “I’m not going to kill you on your knees.”
He waited for the man to spit something back about Jerusalem, as he once had, even though he had been there. He had seen Nicolò running, frantic, as he had realised what was unfolding, what he was part of. They had killed each other three times that day.
“Alright, then,” the man said, almost cheerfully. “I will wait.” He frowned thoughtfully up at Nicolò and said “What’s your name?”
“Your name.” He wrinkled his nose. “It did not seem to matter, but since we will be here all night…”
It did seem ridiculous, suddenly, that he had killed this man a dozen times and had no better term for him than “the man”, or to name him by his creed. And the same in return. But this felt more like a test than the question of whether to kill him kneeling did.
“Why don’t you tell me yours,” he said, which avoided the question but not the test.
“Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Kaysani,” he said, without hesitation, and raised his eyebrows at Nicolò as if to say your turn.
Nicolò placed the tip of his sword under the man’s – under Yusuf’s chin, bringing it up. He had driven his sword into that neck before. It wouldn’t be hard; it wouldn’t even be new. He knew exactly what it would look like, and exactly how the light would leave his eyes, and he had spent so long trying to make that happen that somehow he had lost the reason for it along the way.
He’d lost all the reasons along the way, at Antioch and at Jerusalem and chasing down a man who wouldn’t die, and it would be this, again and again, and without even the dignity of a fight –
“Nicolò,” he said, and sheathed his sword. “Nicolò di Genova, if you need more.”
“You really should clean that dagger,” the man – Yusuf – said, half earnestly, half as if it was – not a mockery. A jest? “It’s a terrible blade, but you won’t make it better by putting it away bloody.”
Nicolò was going to regret this. He was regretting it already. He held out his hand.
Yusuf took it, and Nicolò pulled him to his feet. He didn’t wince; the wound had healed already.
“Now what? We agree to leave each other in peace? Is that what you want?”
Yusuf sighed. “I do not think, somehow, that peace is meant for us.” He rubbed at his leg. “But I…tire of being alone. With this.”
He caught Nicolò’s eyes again, and Nicolò could not pretend ignorance of what he meant. That first gasp of air, every time; that terrible knowledge that God did not want him out of this world, and had not seen fit to let him know what he was meant to do in it. The fear of what would happen, if others realised.
He couldn’t kill Yusuf, no more than Yusuf could kill him, not finally. There had to be something else they were meant to do. Had to.
“Yes,” he said. “Yes. I understand.”
The first sensation Yusuf was aware of after he died – as was so often and so unfortunately the case – was the feeling of the wound that had killed him closing over. A blade through the armpit, catching a weak spot in his mail; unlucky, but the sort of unlucky that only happened when you were surrounded three on one, as had been the case. As deaths go, it hadn’t been all that bad.
Very occasionally, Yusuf regretted that he had cause to make that comparison. But only occasionally. Having been assured through demonstration that God wanted him where he was, he thought he might as well make the most of it.
There wasn’t any weight on top of him, and he was facing the sky and not face-down in the dirt – the last thing he remembered – so he presumed Nicolò had survived the encounter, and laid him out to await his recovery. They had learned to do that for each other, over the last year or two. It was much more pleasant.
He opened his eyes and sat up to find that his Christian companion was praying over – he counted – the bodies of all five of their assailants. One of them was very nearly decapitated. Yusuf touched his face gingerly. It was clean, or as clean as it usually was when they undertook this sort of travel between towns. Nicolò, on the other hand, was absolutely drenched in drying blood. It was a ghastly sight.
Nicolò glanced sideways at him, his face smoothing with something that could almost be relief, but did not cease his prayer; Yusuf waited until the final line of Latin was done. He could never follow Nicolò’s prayers, any more than he thought Nicolò followed his own. They communicated in something that was mostly the trading tongue, and a little Greek, and a smattering of Arabic as they spoke it under the Fatimids, since they had travelled together through those lands. They knew what each other meant. Most of the time.
“Were they Christians, do you think?” he inquired.
“It could be so.” Nicolò stood, and helped Yusuf to his feet, careless of the blood that covered him. Yusuf elected to ignore it. “If they were, then it is the least I can do; if they were not – well, I do not suppose it matters.” He looked at the ground, and muttered “And I was not certain…”
Yusuf knew what he meant, and didn’t question him further. Just because you knew from personal experience that your fellow traveller had the tendency to rise from the dead, and had tested it yourself a time or two or twenty – it turned out, once that impulse ceased, that the waiting to see if they would rise again was not all that pleasant. If they did not, after all, you would be alone.
“Are you done?” he inquired, politely.
“I – not quite,” Nicolò said. “If you do not mind…”
Yusuf had decided personally that one set of prayers was quite enough for bandits who had tried to murder them for, presumably, their horses and their goods; they certainly did not look like anybody’s troops. He coaxed back the fire that had nearly been snuffed out by someone dying in it, and borrowed a very battered helmet – Frankish-style, so maybe Nicolò was doing the right thing – to fetch some more water from the nearby spring. By the time he was done, Nicolò was rifling through the corpses. He was a pious man, not an impractical one.
Yusuf assisted him, but they didn’t come up with anything better than a couple of heels of bread and some very poor knives.
“Desperate men,” Nicolò surmised. “Why did you wait?”
“I didn’t like to do this while you were praying over them,” Yusuf said. “Now sit, and hold still.”
He knelt down in front of Nicolò and began to wash the blood off his face, with the water and a rag from one man’s tunic. The blood was thick, and it had dried, and the pale sharp planes of Nicolò’s face emerged slowly, pink with scrubbing. Yusuf was struck by the urge to capture the sight, render it down into lines that might be more tractable than the reality of Nicolò’s green eyes watching him, than the stubbornness of blood dried into his pale hair.
They were travelling eastward in fits and starts, towards the sunrise and perhaps towards the women who haunted both their dreams. If the dreams had any meaning. It was as good a destination as any other, since both of them had died one time too many to return to their homes.
Sometimes Yusuf woke up with the sound of the fountain in his family’s garden in his ears, and the wish to see it again was overwhelming. Sometimes. For the moment, he could concentrate on this, on wringing out the cloth in the increasingly bloody water, on cleaning the pink shell of Nicolò’s ear and urging him, with his fingertips, to bend his head so Yusuf could wipe at the curve of his neck. His skin was warm, and when Yusuf laid a hand at the side of his neck, his pulse was beating fast.
Eventually Nicolò’s head was as clean as it was going to get, absent a stream or pool to bathe in – best not to dream of a bathhouse. “That’s better.”
Nicolò was still watching him warily – no. Unsure. Yusuf couldn’t remember, now, the last time Nicolò had been wary of him. Of the terrain, of others, of their journey, certainly.
“You did not have to do that,” he said at length.
“You looked like some sort of ghoul,” Yusuf said frankly, trying not to think of Nicolò’s pulse fluttering under his fingertips, “and by morning you would smell like one. We still have to do something about your armour.”
“I only meant…” Yusuf had been kneeling up, to check his hair, and Nicolò had to look up at him; he sank back on his heels, and then crossed his legs, so they were of a height. “Are we friends?”
The question came out of nowhere; Yusuf didn’t know how to begin to answer it. “Are we not?”
Nicolò frowned at him, mouth half-open, doubtless sorting through sentences such as I have killed you too many times for that and you have never used my name even though you know it and I am thinking on that delightful time when you broke my neck with your bare hands.
“I think,” Yusuf said, carefully, when Nicolò didn’t say anything else, “you just took a man’s head not quite cleanly off because he killed me. And you know, nobody better, that I do not die like other men do.”
It had taken him a few minutes to recognise the bandit who had killed him; the heat of battle played tricks on your mind, and very nearly being short of a head made a man harder to recognise than losing it entirely. The mind kept catching on the gap.
Nicolò stared at him a long pause more. “If this is our destiny, then it is better with you than without.” Then he busied himself with the fire.
“And you, brother,” Yusuf said, if only because he hated to leave a gift unreturned.
Nicolò was good at many things; he was not very practiced, Yusuf discovered – a pleasant surprise – at pretending not to smile.
They had seen the storm coming in time to take shelter – an overhang of rock that couldn’t truthfully be called a cave, could barely be called a refuge – but the wind was still howling in Nicolò’s ears, and stray fragments of snow pelted his face. Even that was not enough to cover the sound of Yusuf’s teeth chattering.
They had wrapped themselves in cloaks and bedrolls, but it still wasn’t enough. Nicolò turned to face Yusuf.
“I am not looking forward,” Yusuf said, “to freezing to death again. Wait – what are you doing?”
Nicolò didn’t pause in his task; he snatched the woolen cloak away from Yusuf more firmly. “Making it less likely that we freeze. Or lose anything to frostbite.” He’d heard about this from a monk who had spent time in a Swiss abbey, long ago – bodies together, and face to face, was the surest way to share warmth. He crowded in as close as he could, wrapping them both together like swaddled babes, and took Yusuf’s hands in his. He could feel all his fingers, and all of Yusuf’s, which was promising, but they were cold as ice.
“It is warmer,” Yusuf allowed, grudgingly, “but you have smelt a great deal better.”
“The same to you,” said Nicolò; they both smelt like men who had been on the road for half a month, and there was nothing to be done about it right now.
He leant further in, so they were touching forehead to nose, hands in hands, all the way down to their feet. It could not be called comfortable, but it was strangely peaceful. They had slept beside each other for more nights than Nicolò could count now, but not like this.
“It is a good thing,” Yusuf said, so close Nicolò could feel his breath on his lips, “that I have taught you to be unafraid of bathhouses, since we met, or this would be much worse.”
“Another word and I will leave you to freeze to death.”
Yusuf squeezed his hands. “You won’t.”
“I won’t.” Nicolò gave him a brotherly kiss, overcome with something that was either a strange affection or delirium from the storm. “Now we might as well try and sleep.”
Maybe they died of cold overnight and maybe they didn’t. One thing Nicolò had learned, among many he never expected to, was that the last stages of freezing to death felt warm. All he knew was that he woke up, that next morning, with frost riming the blanket wrapped around them. Somehow he had shifted in the night, and Yusuf was now plastered to his back, an arm wrapped around him. He could feel the scratch of Yusuf’s beard on the back of his neck. Yusuf’s hand was resting over his heart. He slipped his own hand under it, and wound their fingers together. Still cold, but still whole. That would do.
He knew, like he knew about the sun rising and God in Heaven, that he was safe with Yusuf at his back. It was a similar feeling to that first breath again, after every death; the memory of pain washed temporarily away by the certainty of another chance.
Yusuf muttered something into his neck, in his mother-tongue that only came out when he was very sleepy or recently dead. Then he coughed, and tried again. “What is so amusing?”
Nicolò had laughed, he realised, in wonder.
“It’s a very good morning. That’s all.”
“Well,” Yusuf said, sounding bemused, tightening his hand around Nicolò’s. “All right.”
“What are you drawing?” Nicolò asked him. It was hot, the inescapable heat of early afternoon in summer in Baghdad; Yusuf had thought he was asleep.
“The street,” he said, which was mostly true. He’d been amusing himself with a stick of charcoal; the low outlines of buildings, the quality of the light. They had arrived two days ago, and Yusuf had forgotten how long it was since he’d been in a proper city. The warrior women in their dreams had never come near cities. They had ridden eastwards, taking jobs where they found them, and come to Baghdad mostly because Yusuf reckoned it was their best chance of finding traders going much further east. Much better to travel with others who knew the journey, if they could.
Nicolò had been quiet since they’d entered the city. He was not verbose by nature, but he was rarely silent for long. He had commented to Yusuf that it was larger than any three cities he’d visited together, and apart from that said not much. Yusuf wondered again what Nicolò’s Genova must be like. Yusuf had never travelled there himself, only to Venice. Baghdad wasn’t even as big as Cairo.
“Do you really think we’ll find traders here going the way we want?” Nicolò asked.
“That won’t be the problem,” Yusuf said. “It will be finding ones who want to hire on two strange men, one who doesn’t even speak any civilized tongue -”
Nicolò swore at him in Arabic, but he did it with a smile. “At least one of us knows something about it.”
“I read a lot of travellers’ tales, when I was younger. God willing, we won’t have to go all the way to Zabaj.”
“Past China. Twice, three times as far as we are from your Genova.”
“Ah,” said Nicolò. “The lands where peppercorns and nutmeg come from.”
“And, we can hope, two women who cannot die.”
“If they exist.”
“We’re getting closer,” Yusuf said, leaving off his drawing of the street. “I heard them speaking Farsi, the last time I dreamed of them. And…we have time.”
Nicolò bent his head in acknowledgement of that, ruefully. Another thing they didn’t really speak about. It had been more than ten years since Yusuf had sunk his sword into Nicolò’s chest, and neither of them had any more lines on their faces. They had not been truly young men when they’d met, either. Just another unaccountable miracle.
“If you don’t have anything better to do…” Yusuf walked over and turned Nicolò so he was leaning against the wall, one knee up, facing where Yusuf was sitting. Years now, traveling together; touch had stopped being a tentative thing, but something still caught in his chest when he laid his thumb against Nicolò’s cheek. “There. Just for a few minutes.”
“Are you going to draw me?”
“You’re the most interesting thing in this room – not that there is much else in here.”
“Glad to be of some use,” Nicolò said, tilting his head back further. His green eyes glittered, but there was a smile playing on his lips. Yusuf wanted to pin him to the page, capture him still and perfect. He couldn't, yet.
“The city,” he continued, as Yusuf sat back down and picked up his charcoal. “I never dreamed there were such places.”
“In the wild savage lands beyond your Christendom?”
“It seems to me that it is…somewhat the other way around.” Nicolò didn’t seem to require an answer to this; he just sat there, head back against the wall, watching Yusuf sketch through his lashes.
“Well,” said Yusuf. “Now you do not have to dream.”
“Can I see?” Nicolò asked, after a little while.
“Soon.” Yusuf frowned at a line, darkened the shadow of Nicolò’s cheekbone on the page. “It’s not right.”
“You never think these drawings are right.”
“I blame you,” Yusuf said, gesturing Nicolò over. “I can spend all day trying to draw you and I can’t get it right; the beauty is in how you move.”
“Oh-ho,” Nicolò said, amused. “My beauty, is that right?”
“Yes,” Yusuf said, unaccountably determined to make his point. “You move with grace, almost no matter what you’re doing; with a sword, it is like it is an extension of you. I can’t get that on paper yet, any more than a bird in flight. Give it fifty years, maybe. But I think I almost have your eyes.”
“If you were any other man in this city,” Nicolò said, on an indrawn breath, “I would think I was being mocked.”
“Never.” Yusuf put down his art, moved close enough to rub a thumb along Nicolò’s cheek, careless of the smear of charcoal it left. “We are too bound together for that.” Not that there was never mockery between them; they both had a sense of humor, thanks be to God; but on a subject such as this, no. Never.
“I know. I know you,” Nicolò said, in the same way he said his prayers, and he kissed Yusuf on the mouth.
They had kissed each other before, in the way of sworn brothers, of men closer to each other than anybody else in Yusuf’s world or Nicolò’s, who shared a bed and a hearth when they had one and trusted their backs to each other. This was different. This was Nicolò kissing him with desire.
Five years ago Yusuf might have written it off as finding that particular sort of comfort in each other, for lack of better options. Ten years ago he might have called it another kind of battle. Here and now he didn’t call it anything, he just felt it; the rasp of Nicolò’s beard, the wiry muscle of his arm, the slick heat of his mouth as he kissed him back.
Part of him wanted to write poetry. A much more insistent part just wanted very badly to have this pleasure with Nicolò who, for his own part, had run his hands up under Yusuf’s clothing and climbed between his legs. Yusuf let Nicolò press him back and down, running his own hands along Nicolò’s spine. They were both already moving insistently; this was not going, Yusuf thought, to be terribly poetic. Then again, they had nowhere else to be today.
“What are you smiling about?” Nicolò asked, pulling back the bare amount necessary to speak.
“I know you,” Yusuf said, smiling, unable to stop it, and wrapped his hand around the back of Nicolò’s skull to draw him back to their new and glorious work.