Manuel and The Two Hearts

10. The confession                                                                      

In the last part of this tale will disclose to you what happened only a few weeks after Manuel’s return.

It was during at a great banquet given to honour some foreign ambassadors.

In a resplendent hall thronged with guests echoing with the clattering of cutleries and with people’s songs and laughter, the tables were loaded with the best food and wine one could have ever imagined. Yet, amid the festivities, Manuel stood up and, asking for a moment of silence, he spoke:

“Hear me out, everyone! By now all of you know of all my recent troubles and deem me to be a worthy man. I have done everything in my power to restore my honour and to mitigate my beautiful wife’s mistrust towards me. But none of you knows that what had happened was caused by a untamed heart, one that unless made to confess, will never admit any of the wrongdoings it has brought upon me and my dear Isabella.”

The commotion that followed brought the celebration to an end. Then, at a sign from the king, all the guests suddenly became silent. Bohemond asked Manuel:

“What do you mean? Wasn’t it by your own free will that you endeavoured to go an fulfil the tasks you accomplished?”

“It was, my king. Hadn’t she sworn an oath not to confess it, my wife should be able to tell us who made her ask of me all those chores she did,. But even so, she doesn’t know the whole truth either,” said Manuel.

“I don’t understand! What is he talking about, Isabella?” the king inquired.

The princess stuttered:

“Father… I… I mean… I got that letter, you saw it. It had Manuel’s writing on it. Had I

known how much trouble it would cause; I would have burned it. Father…”

“Please, my king, don’t blame her for anything. Both I and Isabella had to learn that some things are not what they seem to be, that some people, we tend to trust, can deceive us for their own good,” intervened Manuel.

“Then what in God’s name is going on? Be quick and bring light upon the matter!” spoke Bohemond gripped by anger.

“I shall, but only if you swear not the harm that person in any way,” said Manuel.

“Why would you ask for such a thing?” asked Bohemond.

“I must. Do I have your word, my king?” asked Manuel

The king confirmed.

“Then know that before all this started, the queen herself wanted to see me, for she desired my body and my love. After I refused her, she swore herself to get read of me and remove the threat I represented. And so, she persuaded Isabella to try my loyalty in ways no one had done it before. In the end I lost my life. But you see, it wasn’t the will of the heavens that her majesty’s plot would go undiscovered. I saw it myself, but it was too late for me to divulge it.”

“This is pure nonsense? The boy is out of his mind,” the queen uttered.

“This might be true, but it was you, my queen, the one who forged the letter with the help of the powerful sorceress Amala, one who everyone in this room has heard about. You don’t to admit it, but let me assure you, you will,” said Manuel.

“Ridiculous! My king, his insults have poured on me, long enough. Ban your so-called hero from the court. He is and adulterer and most probably a wizard. Don’t let yourself be deceived by him. I tried to warn you about this for so many times, but you were blinded by his pretence kindness and bravery. There was nothing I could do to undo the spell he cast on you. And now look at him, he is trying to undermine you, by taking me out of the way. My king, I am the only one who now stands between you and a certain death. Who will you believe: this cunning upstart or your ever-faithful wife? Show this court and your guests what you are made of,” said the queen with a decisive look on her face.

“Bring forth the sultan’s rose,” said Manuel. “We will both kiss its petals and you shall find out who is right and who is wrong.”

“Clearly you will not allow such a sham of a trial, my king. Who can confirm to any of us that the story about the rose is fact or mere superstition?” said Constance.

“It will be one of you two, my queen,” said Bohemond, talking with as much resoluteness as Constance. “If you will both hold onto your stories after you have touched the rose, there is nothing neither of us can do but to agree with one side or the other, but if one of you will admit his guilt then we can only hold the rose’s power as responsible for it. Bring forth the sultan’s flower.”

And so, they did. And after each of the two touched the rose’s petals with his lips, they were again asked to confess. While Manuel’s version stayed unchanged, the queen admitted her intrigue in front of all those people. The uproar that followed shook the whole palace. The king, immediately ordered for the queen to be banished from the court, but Isabella stood up and spoke:

“Father, husband and all you that are present, listen to what I have to say. If this is the punishment you assign for my mother, then I should join her wherever she goes. For if she was foolish enough to fall in love with a younger man, I was even more of a fool to have listened to her. My guilt surpasses her in every way. I know you will look at her and judge. What she had done was both wicked and human in the same time. But, if my husband agrees with me, I would like that the two of us leave this house never to return. People of Antioch don’t banish your queen. Let her live in the shadow of her sins. Manuel, this world is not ours, I beg you, let’s build ourselves a new home and forget about the old one.”

“I agree, my sweetheart,” said Manuel and then he turned towards the royal couple, “My queen, I forgive you, my king, I pray that you forgive her too. Isabella, we shall ride far away this very night and we shall forge us that kingdom you spoke of.”

And so, the two youths took the golden peacock, the star and the rose and, together with just a few followers, they travelled far, far away where no one could find them, and there they raised a new citadel one that slowly grew to become a home for many wanderers and exiles, growing into a place of great knowledge and art.

As for those they left in Antioch, I do not know what happened to them. They grew old and died and were slowly forgotten as it’s always happens with those who so briefly pass through this world.

The End

The Cherry Tree

That Thursday was sweaty,

Its air, warm and sweet,

A wine made us chatty,

We savoured fresh meat.

The red summer berries

Were bleeding on plates

Ensnaring the flies,

Thus, ending their fates.

Nearby, like a king,

A proud cherry tree

Was shaking its fruits

Enchanting a bee.

Its cherries were heavy,

As dark as the night,

The wasps bit their pulp

And swarmed with delight.

But then I saw more,

For perched on the branches

Were two lazy pigeons

Both taking their chances.

That moment is gone,

But if I’ll display

This painting of words

That moment might stay.

That summer in London

The weather was hot,

A tree bore its cherries

And left them to rot.

(To all the wonderful people I met in London throughout the years)

Manuel and The Two Hearts

8. The third trial

Manuel had just found out that was to set off once again, this time to the court of the great sultan of Rum. What he had to bring from there was a holy rose whose petals once touched always compelled people to tell the truth. But this flower was heavily guarded and there were not many who would dare to venture and take it from the place where it lay?

Yet, again, Manuel put aside all fears and rode across the mountains until one day he arrived at the gates of the sultan’s city, which he entered pretending to be a Persian a merchant.

When night fell Manuel struggled to find a way inside the palace, but everywhere he looked heavily armed guards were watching it from high up on the stone walls. A silver crescent moon then rose up a brightened the darkness, making Manuel’s quest even harder.

But then, out of nowhere, the blows of a thousand horns shook the midnight air. A great host of soldiers coming with their emperor from Constantinople surrounded the city and started wreaking panic among its people. How was it that such a great army had passed unobserved by their scouts, no one understood? But now it was too late. The city had to defend itself. In the confusion that followed, many of the sultan’s guards left the palace to go fight on the walls. It was then that the mysterious sight Manuel had acquired when he sacrificed his eye led him to a small door behind the palace. It their frenzy, some of the guards who rushed out through it had left it open. Manuel entered that door and walked around a palace he had never seen, knowing its every corner, its every hallway, and its every room. This is how, unseen by anyone, Manuel found the holy rose hidden in a lavish inner court with its pillars, and arches, and four whispering marble fountains. Under the light of the moon the turmoil of the fight subsided in the distance. All Manuel could hear now were a few crickets and the lazy trickling of those fountains. The rose stood in the middle, surrounded by its thorny wreathing bush. It had only one majestic, glowing bloom right in the heart of all those entwined branches. To get to it, Manuel had to pass through its sharp thorns who scratched and stung him without mercy. Ah Manuel, why was it that right here your second sight had to fail you?

The boy picked the flower and hid it in his shirt. He then got out of the palace the same way he got in and, eluding both armies, he climbed down the city walls, stole a horse and rode way back to Antioch.

Once he crossed his city’s gates he went to Isabella and gave her the rose. It was a beautiful summer morning. The girl gazed at her charming Manuel and, ignoring everyone around, she embraced the boy. But only a few seconds after a terrible shiver took over Manuel, throwing him to the ground. A thick, white foam started to pour from his mouth and the youth coiled in pain. With a desperate grimace, he looked  for one last time at Isabella and screamed her name, then, after some excruciating five minutes he died killed by the holy rose’s poisoned thorns. That had been the real secret behind the great sultan’s rose safety.

Manuel și Cele Două Inimi

4. Cea de-a doua inimă

Odată căsătoriți, dragostea celor doi tineri a devenit și mai puternică. Bucurându-se de confortul curții regale, viețile lor erau senine și pașnice precum o nesfârșită zi de vară. Din zori până în seară, prin strălucitoarele săli de marmoră și prin grădinile ascunse ale palatului răsunau cântece, râsete și strigăte de veselie. Dar fericirea durează la fel de puțin ca aripile unei furnici, iar cât timp cei doi își celebrau iubirea spre încântarea regelui și-a întregii curți, ascunsă în întuneric era o pereche de ochi reci și frumoși, care pătrunsă de gelozie și poftă trupească îi pândea necontenit.

Apoi, într-o zi, prințesa se duse împreună cu suita ei în piața orașului, dorind să-și cumpere cele mai frumoase rânduri de haine, lăsându-l pe Manuel de unul singur la palat. Neliniștit, tânărul așteptă reîntoarcerea iubitei. Când, după nenumărate ceasuri, nu primi nici o veste din partea ei, fu cât pe ce să fugă din palat și să o caute.

Apoi, dintr-o dată, în față-i apăru un servitor și-i porunci să-l urmeze în încăperile reginei. Odată ajuns, Manuel se trezi într-un loc de o rară frumusețe și bogăție.

 Înconjurate de o lumină roșie, din tavan atârnau perdele de mătase transparentă și lămpi strălucitoare de argint. Peste tot în obscuritatea acelor cămări se întrezăreau siluetele aproape ireale ale statuilor, stâlpilor de porfir și neprețuitelor mobile ce le împodobeau. Uimit, Manuel privi în jur și observă că servitorul dispăruse. O tăcere neplăcută îl cuprinse și auzi o voce blândă ce-i spuse:

”Suntem doar noi doi aici. M-am îngrijit ca Isabela să nu se întoarcă la palat până la căderea soarelui. Fii fără teamă, dragul meu. Avem tot timpul din lume.”

„Ce se petrece?” întrebă Manuel în timp ce inima începu să-i bată cu putere.

Apoi, de pe o canapea din spatele vaporoaselor perdele de mătase văzu cum se ridică, apropiindu-se de el, o femeie complet dezbrăcată. Era însăși regina. Trupul îi era alb ca laptele și ochii ei, foarte asemănători cu cei ai Isabelei, îl străpunseră pe Manuel ca niște spini, făcându-l să tremure.

Constanța era o femei demnă de renumele ei. Frumusețea ei, mereu ascunsă sub veșmintele pe care le purta la curte, era acum dezvăluită în toată splendoarea. Dumnezeu o înzestrase cu cele mai frumoase daruri ale feminității. În ochii sărmanului băiat se părea că aceste farmece le întreceau până și pe cele ale Isabelei.

”Regina mea, ceea ce îmi arătați aici este deopotrivă necugetat și păcătos. Iubirea mea pentru Isabela este la fel de puternică precum a fost dintotdeauna și nu am loc pentru o altă femeie în inima mea,” șopti tânărul bărbat.

Dar Constanța îl sărută nepăsătoare, atingându-l cu priceperea unei femei ce stăpânea toate secretele amorului, spunându-i:

”Nu mai vorbi despre iubire până nu vei gusta și din fructul meu.”

Și de îndată ce se încredință cu tărie că tânărul fusese biruit de farmecele ei, încercă să facă dragoste cu el. Dar Manuel o refuză cu hotărâre împingând-o și fugind din preajma ei. De atunci încolo el nu i-a mai vorbit reginei și nu i-a mai aruncat nici măcar o privire..

Umilită, regina acum se gândea la împrejurarea în care se afla. Dacă Manuel ar fi destăinuit ceva despre cele întâmplate ar fi fost nimicită. Numaidecât, își trimisese iscoadele pe urma lui pentru a-l face să vadă cine avea cu adevărat puterea la curte. Dar Manuel nu a pomenit nimănui nimic din cele petrecute în iatacul reginei. Te temea că poate și el fusese oarecum vinovat și nu voia să o mâhnească pe Isabela, făcând-o să-l bănuiască de vreo infidelitate.

Chiar și așa, mândria reginei fusese rănită. Cuprinsă de mânie, aceasta voia răzbunare. Soarta lui Manuel era pecetluită.

Manuel and The Two Hearts

4. The second heart

Once married, Manuel and Isabela’s love grew even stronger. Enjoying all the comfort of the royal court their lives were as calm and blissful as an endless summer day. From dawn till dusk   the shiny marble halls and the hidden gardens of the palace echoed with music, cheers and laughter. But happiness is as short lived as an ant’s wings, and while the lovers praised their beautiful life to the delight of the king and all his subjects, a pair of cold, beautiful eyes, teeming with jealousy and yearning, was constantly spying them from the shadows.

Then, one day, it so happened that the princess wanted to go with her maids at the city’s market and buy new garments for herself, leaving Manuel alone in the palace. The restless youth waited for his lover’s return, but after many hours there was still no news from her. Fearing for her safety Manuel prepared to run and join her at the market when a servant came and asked the boy to follow him to the queen’s apartment. Once arrived, Manuel found himself in a place of unparalleled wealth and beauty. Drapes of transparent silk and shiny silver lamps came down from the ceiling surrounded by a dim red light. All over those obscure rooms were pale silhouettes of statues, of slim porphyry pillars and of priceless pieces of furniture. Dumbfounded, Manuel looked around. The servant was gone. An uneasy stillness engulfed the lonely youth. Suddenly, he heard a soft voice:

“There is no one here but you and me. I made sure that Isabella won’t be back till late in the evening. Don’t be afraid my beloved; we have all the time in the world.”

“What is going on?” asked Manuel while his heart was throbbing.

Then, from a sofa, behind the soft drapes of silk he saw a naked woman approaching. It was none other than the queen herself. Her body was as white as milk and her eyes, much like those of her daughter’s, pierced Manuel’s chest, making him shiver. Constance was a woman worthy of her reputation. Her beauty, always incarcerated by the many layers of clothing, was now completely exposed. There was no charm that God had spared her body of. In poor Manuel’s eyes she seemed to outshine even his beloved Isabella.

“My queen, what you are showing me is both reckless and sinful. My love for Isabella is as strong as ever and there is no room left for another woman in my heart,” the young man whispered.

But Constance kissed Manuel and touched him with the skills of a woman well accustomed with the art of earthly pleasures and said:

“There will be no talk of love until you try the fruit I have to offer.”

And once she got the youth’s solid confirmation that her charms had vanquished him, she tried to make love to him.

But Manuel downright refused and pushed her away. He then left her apartment never to return, never to talk to her, never to look her in the eyes.

The insulted queen shook with rage and gazed at her situation. If, by any chance Manuel divulged her desire for him she would be lost. From then on, she sent her spies to watch the boy relentlessly, reminding him of the ever-looming threat that now hanged above his head. But Manuel kept quiet. He feared too much he had somehow been responsible for all that happened, and he didn’t want to raise any doubts about his fidelity to Isabella.

But it was too late, the queen’s pride had been tattered; her fury had been unleashed. She wanted revenge. Manuel’s fate was sealed.

What’s our purpose?

D’où Venons Nous / Que Sommes Nous / Où Allons Nous
Paul Gaugin
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Source: Wikipedia

  “What is the highest good in all matters of action? To the name, there is almost complete agreement; for uneducated and educated alike call it happiness, and make happiness identical with the good life and successful living. They disagree, however, about the meaning of happiness.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

Although one couldn’t blame our language and our knowledge for lack of depth, our efforts to define life are still far from satisfying. An even tougher question arises when we try to understand life’s meaning.

What is this force that sets us in motion giving us a purpose, governing us throughout our entire existence? Is it just rationalized instinct? Is it a collection of arbitrary values that tend to vary throughout time, from one age to another, from one individual to another? Is it yet another form of filling the void of our mortal condition? Yes, yes, and yes…

Whether as a cause or as an effect, the meaning of life is quintessential to all our actions, thoughts and creative impulses. It is the alpha and the omega of all our stories and of all our songs, of everything we struggle to achieve in just a few decades we have on Earth.

A simpler form of existence doesn’t need purpose it relies on its organic drive to feed itself, to grow and to procreate. But once neurons jump into the equation, they start wandering and wondering. And this adventure leads these otherwise astounding cells (so well equipped for problem-solving) to the uncharted territories where they either get lost or hit unsurpassable walls. Life’s purpose is just one of those nebulas (as it is God, the life beyond and so on).

Now, is it worth to think about our life’s meaning or should we just push forward focusing on our daily objectives? I guess it’s up to each of us but knowing that we are alive doesn’t make much sense without knowing why we are alive for. And I am sure that everyone has had at least one moment when this question popped up into his or her mind.

Today’s society highlights success. Many great minds talked about creativity. Both happiness and death were always on the table. I wouldn’t know what the right answer is, but I consider life to be an ever-expanding phaenomenon that circumscribes us all, an ever-growing personal and collective lesson, one that we are bound to go through and one that we should try to share to those around us and to those that will follow.

So, let’s start talking!

Manuel și Cele Două Inimi

3. Prima inimă

După ce Isabela își recăpătă puterile, regele îl chemă pe Manuel la curte dorind să îl încoroneze și să cârmuiască regatul împreună. Dar Manuel refuză coroana, spunându-le tuturor celor prezenți că singurul motiv pentru care se aventurase să o salveze pe prințesă era pentru că nu putuse îndura să o știe prinsă în ghearele acelor ticăloși și că tot ce își dorea acum era veșnica ei prietenie. Recunoscătoare, Isabella sări de pe tronul său și cu ochii în lacrimi îl îmbrățișă pe frumosul grec. Însă parfumul băiatului și trupul lui zvelt și fierbinte o zăpăciră și o fermecară. Fata îți opri plânsetul și, uimită, se uită cu îndrăzneală în ochii celui pe care îl strângea în brațe. Abia acum observă că salvatorul ei era un tânăr de o rară frumusețe. Isabela roși. Recunoștința ei se preschimbă în dorință, iar după ce-și reveni, îl imploră numaidecât pe tatăl ei să-i îngăduie lui Manuel să stea cu ei la curte. Înțeleptul regele încuviință cererea fiicei sale. La fel făcu și Manuel, care în taină o iubea pe Isabela.  Încă de mult timp o urmărise peste tot pe unde se ducea alături de suita ei, visându-i părul cel lung și auriu, buzele ei dulci și ochii ei albaștri. Dar în acea zi cumplită când fata fusese răpită el fusese plecat în Damasc, grijindu-se de negoțul familiei sale. Niciodată nu-și putut ierta acea nefericită întâmplare. Zi și noapte se chinui, plânse și se zbătu cum să facă și să dea de ea. Nimeni nu i-a înțeles zbuciumul, iar el nu-l împărtăși nimănui.  Dar a fost  tocmai acea iubire care fremătă atât de puternic în inima lui a fost cea care-i dădu curajul să o salveze.

Și odată ce înțelegerea a fost făcută, Manuel se mută la palat fiind de nedespărțit de frumoasa lui fecioară. Niciodată nu fusese mai fericit. Până într-o zi când un fermecător cavaler se apropie de prințesă, copleșind-o cu vorbele lui dulci. Și-n timp ce aceștia se conversau toți cei aflați în preajmă văzură cum Manuel începu să tremure, chipul i se învineți și ochii îi ardeau de mânie. În noaptea ce a urmat, tânărul zdruncinat intră în iatacul Isabelei trezind-o și mărturisindu-și iubirea pe care o avea pentru ea. Răbdătoare, prințesa îl lăsă să-și verse suferința, iar după ce băiatul se opri îl sărută pe grumaz, apoi obraz și apoi pe gură. Ce a urmat cuvintele mele nu vă pot destăinui, dar o lună mai târziu cei doi s-au căsătorit, aducând nădejde și bucuria peste întreaga cetate.

Manuel and The Two Hearts

3. The first heart

After the princess regained her strength, the king summoned Manuel at the court to crown the youth and have him rule by his side. But Manuel declined the offer and told everyone that the only reason he had ventured to save Isabella was because he couldn’t bear knowing that she was in the grasp of those evil men and that the only thing he asked for was her everlasting friendship. The grateful Isabella jumped from her throne and embraced the handsome Greek, her tears rolling from her eyes like waterfalls. Then, a strange thing happened. The boy’s perfume and his slender, warm body mystified the princess. She stopped weeping and, amazed, boldly looked him in the eyes. Just now she had realised that her saviour’s beauty was like nothing she had ever seen before. Isabella blushed. Her gratitude turned into desire and once she recovered, she asked Bohemond to invite Manuel to join them at the court. The insightful king agreed and so did Manuel, who was secretly in love with the girl. He had been watching her for many months from a distance, following her wherever she was going, dreaming of her wonderful long, golden hair, her sweet lips, and her deep blue eyes. But on that dreadful day when she was captured, he was in Damascus to take care of his family business. He never forgave himself that mischance. Day and night, he fretted, he cried, and he struggled to find her. No one understood his commotions and he never shared his sorrow. Yet, it was this love he carried in his heart, that gave him all the courage he needed to finally venture out and rescue her.

And so, Manuel moved into the palace and never left Isabella from his sight. He was the happiest man alive until one day when a young, bashful knight approached the princess and overwhelmed her with gallantries. While the two of them were talking everyone noticed how Manuel started to shiver, his face turned purple, and his eyes were burning with rage. The coming night the tormented Manuel entered Isabella’s chamber, woke her up, and confessed his unwavering love for her.

Isabella let him pour all his feelings out and when the boy finished with his ingenuous drivel, the princess smiled and kissed him on the neck, then on the cheeks, then on the mouth… What happened next my words will not reveal, but one month after Manuel and Isabella married, bringing hope and joy to the entire city.

Manuel și Cele Două Inimi

2. Tânărul curajos

Bohemond le-a vorbit oamenilor, cerându-le tuturor bărbaților cetății să pornească în căutarea fiicei sale, iar cel care avea să o aducă înapoi nevătămată va conduce regatul alături de el, împărțind toată puterea și privilegiile unui rege.

Astfel ademeniți, mulți dintre bărbați și-au pus șeile pe cai și s-au împrăștiat prin tot regatul, căutând în lung și-n lat. Timp de zece zile ei s-au urcat pe vârfurile munților, au coborât în cele mai adânci ponoare, dar nu au găsit-o pe Isabela. Iar când s-au înturnat cu mâinile goale, regele a știut că venise timpul să ia o hotărâre. La porunca lui toate clopotele bisericilor au bătut o noapte întreagă și multe rugăciuni au fost înălțate la cer în speranța unei minuni.

Minunea însă nu a avut loc, dar în următoarea zi, în timp ce regele stătea întins pe un pat într-una din grădinile interioare ale minunatului său palat alături de regina lui care-i mângâia fruntea și barba, un fecior cu părul negru și sprâncene groase veni să-l vadă. Ochii lui mari și verzi străluceau ca cele mai rafinate smaralde, buzele lui cărnoase rosteau cele mai blânde cuvinte. Îl chema Manuel și era fiul unei grecoaice foarte bogate, ai cărei strămoși își legaseră numele de însăși fondarea Antiohiei. Manuel îngenunche în fața perechii regești jurându-le că o va returna pe preaiubita lor fată. Apoi, fără să aștepte vreun răspuns din partea regelui băiatul a țâșnit afară din palat, fugind la casa mamei lui și implorând-o să-i împrumute cele mai de preț bijuterii pe care le avea. Femeia și ceilalți fii ai ei, aflând ce voia să facă, au încercat să-l facă pe băiat să renunțe la planul lui necugetat, dar Manuel nu-i ascultă. Într-un sfârșit, copleșită de rugămințile lui, văduva a cedat și i-a dat fiului ei un sac plic cu mărgăritare, rubine, safire și multe brățări și cercei de aur. Sfidând privirile nemulțumite de pe fețele fraților lui, tânărul a pornit în căutarea Isabelei, dar nu înainte de a afla de la iscoada ce-l urmărise pe acel mesager jerpelit de veni la curte, unde anume îi pierduse urma. Călări astfel înspre acel loc și odată ajuns a început să vorbească în gura mare, vorbindu-i roibului și lăudându-se pentru furtul unei comori pe care tocmai o șterpeli din casa unei bătrâne văduve din Damasc. Astfel a pătruns mai adânc prin acele chei, făcând larmă și râzând pe seama faptei sale când dintr-o dată fu înconjurat de o ceată de tâlhari ce-l cercetau bănuitori. Viața băiatului ar fi trebuit să se termine atunci și acolo, dar Manuel le vorbi tâlharilor, dându-le în dar toată prada lui și cerându-le să-l ducă la căpetenia lor deoarece dorea să se alăture bandei lui. Văzu un bătrân ponosit ce veni șchiopătând înspre el. Acesta îl prinse pe Manuel mână și-l privi lung, parcă uimit de frumusețea băiatului. Apoi i-a vorbit lui Manuel, dându-se drept regele hoților, cel care în curând avea să fie și rege al întregii Antiohii, deoarece în numai câteva zile avea să se înfățișeze din nou regelui Bohemond, pretinzând a fi unul dintre slujitorii lui și cerând tronul regatului pentru el însuși, temutul tâlhar Două-Cuțite.

Iată cât sunt de miraculoase sunt puterile frumuseții! Datorită chipului său încântător Manuel aflase că cel care îl căută pe Bohemond în cetate, amăgindu-l pe rege, era tocmai Două-Cuțite. Băiatul mai înțelesese că bătrânul avea o slăbiciune pentru bărbații tineri și astfel a căutat să se folosească cât putea de mult de neașteptata împrejurare ivită știind că în acest fel calea sa spre Isabela nu mai avea nici un fel de opreliști. Arătându-se încântat de avansurile ticălosului, Manuel a trecut prin labirintul de stânci și poteci înguste al muntelui Aman, încercând să țină minte orice amănunt care l-ar fi putut ajuta la întoarcere. Când în sfârșit au ajuns la peștera tâlharilor, băiatul o zări pe frumoasa Isabela prinsă în lanțuri și împrejmuită de zece tâlhari puternici, de haita lor de câini sălbatici, și de nenumărate comori. Inima tânărului pătimea pentru suferințele Isabelei, dar și-a ascuns durerea sub un zâmbet rece, străduindu-se să afle o cale să o scape de acolo.

 Izbăvirea veni tocmai din partea regelui tâlharilor. Sângele bătrânului fierbea de dorință pentru Manuel. Străduindu-se în fel și chip să-i facă pe plac noului său acolit tâlharul îi istorisea băiatului despre faptele sale de vitejie și cumplita vărsare de sânge pe care mereu a lăsat-o în urma sa.  Apoi, văzându-l că se apropia tot mai mult de el, șiretul tânăr îi ceru lui Două-Cuțite să sărbătorească buna lor înțelegere stropind-o cu niște vin. Ațâțat de frumusețea feciorului și peste măsură de bucuros, așa-zisul rege al tâlharilor a poruncit să fie adus cel mai întunecat, mai vechi și mai puternic vin armenesc pe care îl ținea în fundul peșterii sale, la răcoare. După un ospăț strașnic și multe cupe de vin, toți tâlharii și căpetenia lor se îmbătară strașnic adormind unul câte unul, până când nici unul nu mai rămăsese în picioare. Dar tânărul Manuel, aținându-se ce la acea destrăbălare și plin de obidă față de acei ticăloși s-a ridicat cu curaj și, luând o sabie, i-a tăiat în bucăți pe toți bețivanii aceia neputincioși. Trezit de o durere pătrunzătoare, Două-cuțite îl zări pe frumosul băiat cu fața toată mânjită de sânge cum sta aplecat peste el înfigându-i sabia adânc în inima lui bătrână și blestemată. Și acela a fost sfârșitul regelui tâlharilor.

Apoi Manuel a omorât toți câinii aceia sălbatici care o păzeau pe Isabela și eliberând-o din lanțuri, o luă pe sărmana fată înspăimântată și ,gonind pe roibul său în lumina lunii, a dus-o pe fată în siguranța palatul părintesc.

Va urma

Manuel and The Two Hearts

2. The courageous, young man

Bohemond spoke to his subjects, asking the men in his city to go and find his daughter and the one who would bring her back unharmed would rule by his side sharing all the power and the privileges of a king.

Lured by such a prospect, many men saddled their horsed and scattered all over the land, searching far and wide. And for ten days or so they climbed on the top of the mountains and they went down the deepest ravines, but no one could find Isabella. Thus, when they all returned empty handed the king knew that the time was near for him to take a decision. At his request all the churches bells rang through the night, and many prayers were sent to heaven in hope of a last wonder.

The wonder never came, but on the next day day as the king lay on a bed inside one of his palace’s beautiful inner gardens in the company of the queen, who caressed his forehead and his beard, a boy with dark hair and thick eyebrows came to see him. His big green eyes shone like the most exquisite emeralds; his full lips uttered the kindest words. The youth’s name was Manuel and he was the son of a very rich Greek woman, whose ancestors could be traced back to the origins of Antioch itself. Manuel kneeled in front of the royal couple and swore to return their beloved daughter. Then, without even waiting for an answer from his king he dashed out of the palace and rushed to his mother’s house begging her to lend him her most precious jewels. After they found out what he was up to the woman and her other sons tried to dissuade him from going further with his reckless plan, but Manuel wouldn’t listen. Finally, overcome by his pleadings the widow surrendered and gave her son her a bag full of pearls, rubies, sapphires, and many golden bracelets and earrings. Defying the displeased look on his brothers’ faces Manuel left to look for Isabella but not before he had enquired the scout who followed the coarse messenger to tell him where exactly he had lost that man. After that, he rode to that place and once he arrived, he started to shout out loud, as if talking to his horse, boasting about the incredible treasure he had just stolen from an old widow’s house in Damascus. And so, he went deeper inside the gorges shouting and laughing about his deed, when suddenly, a bunch of brigands surrounded Manuel looking at him with distrust. The boy’s life should have ended on that spot, but Manuel addressed the thieves, offering them his entire loot and asking them to take him to their leader for he wanted to join their gang. Then, a rugged old fellow came galumphing towards him, he grabbed Manuel by the hand and looked at him as if amazed by the boy’s beauty. The old man spoke to Manuel, presenting himself as the king of the thieves who will soon be king of whole Antioch, for in just a few days he would again meet Bohemond, pretending to be one of his own servants and claim the throne for himself, the one and only Two-Blades.

Who would have guessed what the wonders of beauty can achieve? It was through mere physical charm that Manuel found out that the messenger that came to visit Bohemond in the city, deceiving the king and the court, was none other than Two-Blades himself. He also became aware that the old man had a weakness for young men and he quickly sought to take advantage of this unexpected development knowing that his passage towards Isabella was now unhindered. By showing interest in the old thief’s advances, Manuel made his way through the labyrinth of rocks and narrow paths of Mount Amanus, trying to remember every detail that could help him on his way back. When finally, they reached the brigand’s cave, the boy saw the beautiful Isabella held in chains and surrounded by ten strong thieves, by a pack of wild dogs, and by countless stolen treasures. The young’s man heart ached for Isabella’s misery, but ne concealed his pain with a cold smile, trying to find a way to get her out of there.

 The relief came from the king of the thieves himself. The old man’s blood boiled with infatuation for Manuel and he looked for ways to please his new follower, telling him stories about his incredible feats and the terrible tail of bloodshed he had always left behind. Then, as he drew nearer and nearer to Manuel, the cunning youth asked Two-Blades to celebrate their partnership and drink some wine. Aroused and delighted the so-called king of thieves asked for the darkest, oldest, fullest Armenian wine he kept deep inside the cave. After a great feast and many rounds of wine all those infamous brigands and their leader got drunk falling asleep one by one, until none of them was left standing.

 As soon as that happened, young Manuel who abstained himself from all that debauchery, immediately took a sword, cut the powerless drunkards into pieces. As for Two-Blades, awoken by a sharp pain he saw the handsome boy’s face all smeared with blood as Manuel leaned over him thrusting the sword deep inside his chest. That was the end of the king of thieves.

Manuel then slew all the brigand’s wild dogs that were guarding Isabela, freed her from her chains and took the horror-stricken girl on his horseback, riding under the clear moon light until they reached the safety of Bohemond’s palace.

To be continued