They got hitched sometime in autumn, somewhere between Antioch and Baghdad.
That was about as well as they would ever pin it down. Nicolo of Genoa—nobody’s Nicky yet, not then—had discovered not long after leaving his homeland that there was no such thing as an exact date once you were past earshot of church bells. Feasts and fasting came unmoored from the sun and the moon, dictated instead by supplies and supplication. He would learn too, from a man who had killed him seven times, that a mile was a changeable thing in the desert. It sprawled and shrank, shifting in an eyeblink based on the mercy of the winds and the weight of your waterskins.
The days weren’t as hot as they had been, and the nights weren’t as cold as they would be. The river guiding their journey was too steadfast and generous to be anything but the Euphrates. This was enough to be going on with.
It was long past sunset, and Nicolo built up the fire again as Yusuf finished his prayers. The river-scrub was poor for cooking over, but it burned brightly enough to keep the wild beasts away from the lingering scent of roast pheasant and seemed to reassure the horses. Just beyond the firelight’s reach, a darker shadow on the earth marked the graves of the bandits who had ambushed them. The ground hadn’t stirred, but he kept watch over it nonetheless while the warm, strange melody of Yusuf’s recitation came to its end behind him.
Instinct tried to make him glance over his shoulder as Yusuf rose from his prostration, but he wrestled it down and pinned it. He kept his hand well away from his sword. He breathed deeply to relax his shoulders as Yusuf’s footsteps approached his unguarded back. Peace, he was learning, was not something you agreed to once. You had to make it every day.
The footsteps stopped. Only a handful of nights ago, their packs would have lain between them like a border wall. A handful before that, and they would have been keeping a wary eye on each other from opposite sides of the campfire. Tonight, however, Yusuf sat down next to him.
Insects droned and chirped out in the darkness. One of them skittered over Nicolo’s boot, heading at speed to where the blood had been spilt upriver. Nothing went to waste in a land as lean as this. All things being equal, Nicolo would have preferred to ride on from the ambush site before making camp, but the fact that there had been an ambush at all spoke to the bandits’ choice of a covert. There was high ground and good cover here, and one of the unfortunate men had already cut kindling and fuel for the night, unaware that he wouldn’t be needing it.
The two caches they’d turned up had yielded little but dried meat and some silver, but Nicolo was carrying his own treasure. He caught Yusuf’s eye in forewarning, having learned his lesson about sudden movements, before reaching for the pouch laced to his belt. He untied it and held it out, offering Yusuf first pick of the dried figs inside.
Yusuf’s serious expression lightened as he took one with murmured thanks. He bit into the fruit with his fine white teeth and cast his gaze back out at the shadowy graves that Nicolo had been watching.
“They are dead,” he said, having saddled Genoese while Nicolo was still trying to throw a halter over Arabic’s head. “They will be dead...tomorrow.”
“The men will still be dead tomorrow,” Nicolo provided, biting into a fig of his own and savouring its sweetness. “They will stay dead.”
Yusuf repeated this diligently, and Nicolo found himself agreeing with him.
God had raised no one else who had fallen on their path. No man, no woman, no child. In his dreams there were others, strangers with their faces in shadow and their voices speaking languages he had never heard, but whether they were past or prophesy he couldn’t say. In the waking world, there was only him and Yusuf. Two enemies who had died at each other’s hands more than once and now sat like comrades at a fire overlooking the burial place of men who had tried to kill them both.
“You fought well,” Nicolo said, or at least that was what he meant to say. He was corrected patiently, one of the words in the wrong place, one mispronounced, and another apparently wrong altogether. He tried again. “You fought well.”
They were both lettered, but that meant nothing. He and Yusuf didn’t have a quill-stroke in common, and making themselves understood through violence had proved pointless. Now there was only this: to watch each other’s hands and faces as they gestured, to speak haltingly in each other’s tongue, and to choose each word with the utmost care lest a misstep bring them back to violence.
“You fought well…” Yusuf began, indicating the word he sought with an elegant motion toward him.
He was an artisan, Nicolo had gathered. He painted things that could be held, and sold these things, sometimes at a market and other times travelling with a cart. What these things were, Nicolo hadn’t been able to glean, but he was willing to believe from the deftness of Yusuf’s hands that they were beautiful.
“Also,” he supplied, bowing his head at the compliment.
He could hear the smile in Yusuf’s voice. “You fought well also.”
The fight had been swift and decisive despite their attackers having both numbers and surprise on their side. A sudden jerk of Yusuf’s head halfway down a hilly track and Nicolo had already been drawing his sword. You could learn something about the way a man fought from sparring with him or charging alongside him, but nothing compared to what you learned when you had thrice run each other through on the battlefield. There had been no pause for conscious thought, no moment of confusion, no tangle of this way or that. They had simply flown forth, loosed like a pair of hounds that had coursed together before.
The bandits might have been wise enough to retreat if two of their archer’s arrows hadn’t found their marks and emboldened them. It was close fighting from there, but a pierced arm on Nicolo’s part and a punctured calf on Yusuf’s—wounds that might have healed by God’s will alone and not His intervention—was all they suffered.
His satisfaction at this pressed behind his breastbone so urgently that he had no choice but to embarrass himself by trying to voice it.
“It is...well. Yes? To fight, you and I…?” Still unclear as to how you knew which way the words pointed in Arabic and not wishing to be misinterpreted, he held two fingers up next to each other and mimed them both striking sharply at an outside force.
“Together,” Yusuf said.
This was, at least, the meaning that Nicolo received in faith. He tasted the word for himself, trying to carve the gentle rise and fall of it into his memory.
So said the twin tracks that stretched out behind them, side by side, all the way back to the rotten ground where they had first come awake blood-soaked and gasping. Nicolo still didn’t know for what purpose God had spared him. He didn’t even know if he had been spared at all rather than denied a martyr’s death for his sins. But even in the depths of his ignorance one thing was clear: he shared the purpose with Yusuf.
As if this new word were a key made to unlock the question, he found himself asking, “Do your people—”
The phrase was one of the first he and Yusuf had taught each other after the wary basics of food, and water, and stop. Did their people hunt that animal, or raise this crop? Did they celebrate this festival? Did they have a name for that star? Nicolo had known everything about Araby and its people up until he’d set foot on its lands and actually spoken to one of them.
He clasped his hands together tightly to try to demonstrate what he meant, knowing the word for priest but not any for rite or blessing. “Two warriors. They…God makes…”
Now it was kinship he faltered upon. This wasn’t the first time he’d been reduced to dumb gesture to signify one kind of person or another, miming a bent back or a babe in arms, but here he was stymied. What was the meaning of brotherhood if not alike, and how could pointing to two men who looked so different attest to a sameness that Nicolo could barely put into words in Genoese or Latin?
“God makes what?” Yusuf prompted.
There was something in Yusuf’s expression that was equally hard to name. He wasn’t laughing at Nicolo’s gabbling, and neither did he seem poised on the edge of offence. The set of his features lay somewhere in between, attentive and interested but somehow cautious. Nicolo’s gaze lingered on Yusuf’s mouth as if some further hint to his question’s reception might lie there. All he found was too great an urge to stare, and he turned his eyes up to the stars instead.
Like all woven things, the curtain of the night sky was made finer here. The lights of Heaven shone through more brightly than at home and spilled out through the great breach that rent it down the middle. He briefly wondered what had caused that tear. He wondered if Yusuf knew. This world was so much larger than he had ever thought, and there was so much beyond his understanding.
“Do you… hear David the King?” he finally asked. “And Jonathan?”
“David, yes.” What Yusuf uttered next must have been quotation, half-sung and too fast for Nicolo to catch a word of. He then paused with a frown, his lips still moving for a time after he fell silent, and finally shook his head. “Jonathan, no.”
Maybe it was better to let this lie until morning, he thought. He sometimes had strange ideas after a fight, the result of too much blood and choler—
“You will tell me?”
Yusuf had leaned in closer, his eyebrows raised. If this were a hall and not a barren bandit camp, he might have been a lord demanding entertainment. And what did that make Nicolo? A fool, yes, and a half-mute one at that. Yet he found himself nodding despite his uncertainty. Better to be a fool than a coward.
“David and Jonathan.” He raised one hand and then the other. “They are—"
Of course they hadn’t taught each other the word for enemies, any more than they’d taught each other the word for air or sand. Rivals might have been more apt if he’d had the skill to explain that David and Jonathan were both Israelites fighting the Philistines, and strangers if he could have started the story from the beginning. The distinction seemed less certain, however, given that he spoke to a man he’d first met at swordspoint fighting to the death over the rule of a kingdom.
He folded each hand and knocked his fists together. It would have to do.
“David…” He mimed grasping for something out of reach.
“Takes?” Yusuf asked.
No, he knew that one. He mimed reaching again and then brought his hand to his breast, splayed over his heart
Yusuf’s frown cleared, and his lips shaped a word whose very sound conveyed the meaning Nicolo sought.
“Yes. David wants the…king-city. Jonathan wants the king-city.”
He brought his fists together again, hoping to convey what ought to have stood between the two men.
“Jonathan.” He motioned from his eyes. “David.”
“Jonathan sees David,” Yusuf said.
“Jonathan sees David,” Nicolo repeated. “The battlefield, Jonathan sees David. David fights Goliath.”
He indicated a height over his head and aimed an imaginary sling at this giant of an opponent. He fired invisible stones with a creditable whistle for effect as Yusuf huffed a soft laugh at his performance.
His heart was beating faster, for all that he was only pretending to fight. He thought of Jonathan gazing in admiration at someone he should have hated, someone who would win and hold the land that Jonathan had believed his birthright. He thought of Yusuf drawing his sword, the flash of it quick as lightning. Yusuf wading in the river, his hair wet, washing the blood from his hands.
“Night. Jonathan walks.” He mimed pulling open a door. “He sees David.”
No one had ever said that the covenant between David and Jonathan had been made at night in a private, candlelit chamber, but Nicolo had always pictured it so. He had told the story to himself often as a youth, lying on his pallet trying to fall asleep, surrounded by brothers and feeling very alone. As his hand withdrew from the imaginary door, it somehow came to rest upon his chest again.
“He wants…” He shook his head and corrected himself. “Jonathan, ah, to David, he…his sword. His bow.”
This was easier to convey, making the motions of drawing a sword from his hip and a bow from his back, holding them out before him.
“His armour. His…”
The word for robe was beyond him, and though he thought he’d known it only a few days ago, he couldn’t recall the one for clothing. He pinched his tunic instead, tugging at it to demonstrate and hoping Yusuf would supply the word.
Yusuf, staring fixedly at Nicolo’s hands, blinked and seemed to come back to himself. He said nothing, only nodding hurriedly as if to urge him to continue.
“David takes. Ah, good sword, yes? Good bow, good armour. David and Jonathan…”
He set each name in one hand again and this time mimed uneven scales coming to a balance.
“They make a…” Here Nicolo returned to what had first stymied him. “They speak…they speak to God? They speak and…”
Their souls were knit together.
He gestured to his heart and then to Yusuf’s, his face going hot as he tried to paint with a turning, grasping hand the idea of something merging in the middle. Yusuf sat very still, that same look of careful attention on his face. Nicolo surrendered the specifics of scripture and abandoned any pretence that this was only a question. He reached for the words they both knew, to meaning that had been made through unknowable miles, through fruit and meat, through blood on steel.
“They walk together, yes? They eat together. They fight together. They pray together.”
He doubted he and Yusuf would ever share a confessor. He wasn’t even certain they shared a God. Yet it seemed to him that Yusuf’s prayers fell at five of the seven hours, and if they didn’t quite accord, how was a man to know that when there weren’t any church bells to correct him? If God had never cared before which direction Nicolo faced when he knelt, why should it matter now if he knelt with Yusuf?
The sound of the fire and the insects’ song returned to his ears as he fell silent. He was holding his breath. It seemed to him that Yusuf was too. Then Yusuf raised his hand, palm out at first in the sign of peace, and reached down for his dagger. He pulled it from the sheath in his boot and with a graceful flourish of the blade carved something into the ground between them.
Nicolo peered down at the dark shape: two circles, a curve, and what looked like the point of an arrow. The meaning eluded him. It didn’t look like the Arabic writing he had seen before, more like some sort of sigil. He shook his head in apology.
But Yusuf had already taken hold of his wrist and was guiding his fingertip over the carved lines in the order they had been drawn. Understanding spread through him with the warmth of Yusuf’s hand. They were shields. Two shields. One round and bossed in the Arab style and the other Nicolo’s own kite, overlapping.
“Yes?” Yusuf asked quietly.
Nicolo nodded quickly, fervently. “Yes.”
He didn’t know the ceremony, but he knew the oath. Its words were meant to be My brother in God, but this seemed at once too complicated for the divide in language that lay between them and too trivial considering how inarguably God had marked them. He forewent the speech and instead simply turned his hand where it lay under Yusuf’s, clasping their palms together.
Yusuf’s hand fit his own like the hilt of his sword. It was a strange thought, but it was the only clear one in his head as he got to his knees. Yusuf was quick to follow, plunging his dagger into the ground and kneeling to face him. His dark eyes were full of firelight, and no one had ever looked at Nicolo so intently in all his life.
Nicolo leaned forward slowly. He kissed Yusuf’s cheeks, first one and then the other. Then he closed his eyes and pressed their lips together.
There had been other vows. None quite like this, but there had been other vows in his life. But this was the first time God’s blessing shook him. Here was the feeling of waking up from death, the feeling of a body coming alive. His breath swelled suddenly in his chest, and his blood raced hot to every part of him. He pulled back, shaken, but Yusuf caught him. The hand in his own tightened its grip and another curled around the back of his neck, holding him fast until Yusuf’s brow met his.
He knew the strength in those hands, which had once fixed themselves around his throat so soundly that he’d broken two fingers prying them loose. He squeezed Yusuf’s hand just as tightly and cupped his jaw, feeling the quick beat of his pulse through the tender place beneath. A thrill shot through his breast as Yusuf kissed each cheek, and then the barb of it lodged with an ecstatic pang as their mouths met again.
Warm. Slow. A communion of mingled breathing.
There was no feeling left in his fingers when he and Yusuf drew apart, but their hands stayed clasped as they stared at each other. Yusuf exhaled sharply, sounding as if he had been struck. Nicolo swallowed hard, his lips tingling with the silent, formless words that had been sealed to them. Neither of them surrendered the other’s hand as they unsteadily sat back down. Neither let go for a very long time, until the fire had finally burned away to nothing and the chill of the night settled upon them.
That was all that needed to be said.
They would move on in the morning, not long after dawn prayers. They would pack up their belongings, swords at their hip, and continue on downriver for another day. They would leave behind them four undisturbed graves, soon mere smudges on the horizon, and a good place to camp that was no different from a hundred others along the wide, merciful banks of the Euphrates. The sign of two shields etched in the dirt wouldn’t survive a day’s winds or any enterprising animal nosing at the smothered campfire for buried pheasant bones. Then again, it hadn’t been meant to.
There was no risk of losing anything about that night, even over the course of what would prove to be many years ahead. A place that had never been marked or mapped could never be worn away by the weather or lost to shifting borders. A date could never be forgotten or fall through the cracks of a changing calendar if it had never been known in the first place.
Whatever was worth keeping, they took away with them when they left.