This is the story of Mariana's early years. It is also the story of Ferchard, Sir Farquhar de Dyngvale, her father's old friend, and the story of the little "lost princess", the "derelicta", whom Mariana was entrusted with the task of restoring to her home and family ...
One girl's journey through the splendour and the squalor of medieval Europe begins here ...
Battles and bloodshed between Moors and Christians have racked Andalucía for as long as anyone can remember; armies of butchers sweeping back and forth, north and south, east and west.
All they ever brought the ordinary people was misery.
But al Cazar, the village where I was born, is tucked away beside the Mar Menor, the Little Sea. There are boats. There are donkeys (more donkeys than people) but donkeys, being neither Christians nor Moors, persecute no one. And the people? Well, people who live by the sea are more charitable than those who live in anonymity in great cities, and more tolerant than those who grow up in inland villages enclosed by hills.
We were happy still. And open-minded.
My mama, who died when I was a toddler, was Doña María de la Manga, the daughter of Don Joaquín de la Manga and of Sebah of Cordoba. Sebah herself, my grandmama, was the daughter of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother, Rebekkah of Salé in Morocco, so I have both Spanish and Moorish blood; but also, in a sense, I am Jewish, for among Jews descent is always reckoned through the mother.
And that's just on my mother's side.
My papa was Sir Andrew MacElpin of the Black Isle, a Scot in exile.
Papa was a tall, handsome man, far taller than any other man in the village, and kind and tender, too, in his way.
I worshipped him; but he was not cut out to be mama to a little girl.
A slave, Khadija, who had looked after my mama when she was a child, now cared for me. But it was from my grandmama, Sebah, that I learnt how to be a dancer: how to be a woman.
'When you dance,' she said, 'you become one with all women, one with all life.'
I understood later, dancing for strangers in another world, that the movements of belly-dancing are more even than that: they are one with the movements of the universe, the dance of the stars.
Rabbi Yacoub ben Amar (Uncle Yacoub) would not have agreed. He considered belly-dancing "erotic" – which of course it is, when performed before a man. To him, the Song of the Stars is what is heard by the pure in heart as they sit or kneel in silent contemplation. And by heart he meant soul and body.
Yacoub was a cousin of Sebah's (the Jewish strand) and had a place in Don Joaquín's commodious, but now mostly empty, home. I am not quite sure what that place was, but I do know that when my papa came to Los Alcazares and found time heavy on his hands, he took full advantage of Yacoub's presence. They had conversations that went on for months, years even, on philosophy and theology, history and alchemy, and they both revelled in the chance to speak other tongues – other than Spanish, that is – for both spoke French, and my papa taught Yacoub English (he would not teach him the Gaelic; that was just for Papa and me) while Yacoub taught him literary Arabic.
I sat at their feet and lapped it all up.
On our own, Papa and I read stories from the Bible. I was interested because he and Grandpapa used to take me to the local church at Easter and sometimes on Saints' Days, and I liked it, the darkness, the mysteriousness, the silence, the chanting in Latin. At home, Papa would read the stories aloud (he was proud of his Latin), then, together, we would put them into Gaelic, interpreting, embroidering, sometimes amusing ourselves, as when we decided that Jesus was being sarcastic when he said "Not one jot or tittle of the Law shall pass away" (jot and tittle meaning such things as accents and commas), for was not this same Jesus the one who broke the Sabbath by plucking grains of corn and healing people of their infirmities, and who forgave the adulteress when the Law said she should be stoned? 'Ah, my little thinker!' Papa murmured, cupping my chin in his hand, turning my face up to his, pushing my long hair back out of my eyes and gazing at me as though he wanted this moment never to end.
'My little lady', Papa had always called me – he would never let me forget I was the daughter of "a landed knight" – and occasionally 'my little dancer'. Now he stroked my head as I knelt there by his left leg – always his left leg, for he drank with his right hand – and smiled and murmured, 'My little thinker', and I loved that.
I must have been eight, maybe nine.
Or (back to the Bible) we would get upset, as when David usurps the throne of Saul – for that, of course, was how Papa saw it. After all, hadn't he had to flee Scotland with his friend Ferchard, badly injured, when David Bruce usurped the throne of Edward Balliol, rightful King of Scotland and actual King from 1332 to 1338?
He would tell me old tales from his homeland in the far north, tales of the hill and the forest, of hunting the wild deer – usually with his friend Ferchard – and fishing the streams. 'A fish from the pool and a deer from the mountain are thefts no man need be ashamed of,' he would say. And he was there.
Other times, it would be tales of the sea and the islands. It was he who first told me of mermaids. Of their good deeds and their bad deeds. One called Lin –
'Lin?' I cried. 'Like Linda?' For Linda in Spanish means pretty.
'Like Linda, yes. Lin, who died trying to get back the skin of a seal from the fishermen who had stripped it off the poor creature.' Or the one – he didn't remember her name – who loaded a fisherboy from Durness with gold and jewels. But when she discovered that he gave them away to human girls, she enticed him down to her cave beneath the sea with promises of untold wealth, and there she lulled him to sleep and while he slept she bound him with golden chains, and there he lies, her captive, until this day.
'Was that so bad?' I asked.
He gazed at me.
He was on the side of the fisherboy.
Me, I identified with the mermaid, for in the mornings, early, when everyone was busy with other things, I too went down to the sea and swam.
I had discovered swimming all by myself.
The Mar Menor is sheltered and calm compared to the open sea, and the back of our house was almost on the beach. It was inevitable that I should play at the water's edge, and that one day (a very hot day? I don't remember) I should get right into the sea and start swimming.
All I remember is that I swam. I no longer played on the beach at all, I simply took off my clothes, ran straight in, and swam away from the land, under water.
No one knew. Not that I thought about it, then. I didn't realise I was doing anything wrong.
Except the old fisherman. He knew, of course. How could he not know? He caught me one day.