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

Manuel and The Two Hearts

9. The star and the peacock

The death of Manuel brought munch sorrow on Bohemond’s house. The people were whispering in discontent. Suspicion of foul play and court intrigues hanged above every member of his family. To assuage the growing clamour the king ordered the building of a massive mausoleum for the young man. Once this was finished, on his tomb stone the king laid the small, shining star that Manuel had snatched from the bosom of the cold sea, an eternal reminder of the youth’s beauty and virtues.

Isabella would visit the imposing mausoleum every day, floating like a pale ghost among the marble statues and praying in a frenzy to chase away the pain and the guilt that tormented her day and night. She blamed herself for what had happened and never recovered from the loss of her love.

As for the queen, she never had it better. Young Manuel had been punished for his impertinence and all her misdemeanour lay buried with him under a heavy stone slab.

A year passed and, apart from a few bards and drunkards, the city almost forgot all about Manuel and his troubles. And, as people had to go on with their lives, the dashing Isabella was soon to marry a new suitor, a prince from Edessa, a neighbouring kingdom, thus forging a new alliance of the crusaders against the many enemies that surrounded them.

*

It was a night and a thick fog surrounded the monument where Manuel body rested, when the iron door opened with a rumble and two light steps barely touching the hard pavement of the mausoleum rushed towards the stone coffin. A tearful Isabella kneeled right next to the tomb and uttered:

“I am sorry, my love, for all the torments I caused you and for the sad ending I brought upon you. You deserved better and I will have my punishment in this life and the next. It is always the innocent and the good that pay the price for all our sins while the rest of the world gloats in its vanity like it is the best thing there can be. I… I came to bid you farewell for in just a few day I am about to be betrothed to another man. The will of my father and the needs of my country compel me, and I must accept. But know this, my dearest Manuel, you will forever be my one true love. Rest well, and don’t return to this world of sadness before the end of days, when I am sure you will come flying down as one of God’s angels.”

Isabella trembled and choked in tears, but then, the lonely star that was flickering on Manuel’s tomb flared up and spoke to the startled girl:

“I hope those tears of yours are tears of joy. Life gives has many wonders but there is nothing like the one of resurrection. Daughter of Antioch look around you! In all the darkness there is hope and there is light. I would have spoken earlier to you, but I had to know the depth of your devotion. Nothing Manuel has done was in vain and he received the greatest gift of all in the shape of a peacock. For you see, that peacock is the bird of God one who has power over life as well as over death. So, go now, waste no time and ask the bird to bring you Manuel’s soul back from the great beyond. ”

The star’s light suddenly faded away and Isabella stood there in awe for what she had just witnessed. The girl then ran like the wind out of the mausoleum and into the palace, seeking for the wonderful golden bird and when she found it the bird puffed its tail and sang.

Isabella asked the peacock to do what the star had just told her. The dazzling bird looked at her with indifference, just like any other bird would have done, but after just a few moments it spread its wings and flu away, high in the sky until it disappeared from Isabella’s sight. The peacock passed beyond the clouds, beyond the stars, and beyond the fire that surrounds the world and arrived in a place where there was nothing and from that nothing it picked with its beak an invisible seed it then took back on the Earth and left in on Manuel’s tomb. The seed bore its way to Manuel’s body and planted itself in his heart. Then, the tomb shook and its heavy slab cracked like a nutshell. 

The next day, carrying the wonderful peacock on his shoulder Manuel appeared at the court. Horror and amazement gripped the whole city. The church bells tolled once again, for their hero had now defeated even death itself. The time for retribution had come.

Manuel and The Two Hearts

7. The second trial

A few days later Manuel received a letter which appeared to have been written by Isabella. The letter contained the following:

“My love, I wish nothing more than to have you by my side, but the wounds that were left by your infidelity are still bleeding. Please do not forsake our love and prove me for a second time that there can be no one else in your heart but me. Beloved Manuel, bring me a star from the sky and I shall forget the past.”

Dumbfounded, Manuel could barely recognise his wife voice in those words and he was right to do so, for the letter had been written at the queen’s urging, who, after seeing the incredible golden peacock hated him even more. But this request she now made would keep Manuel away from both her and Isabella forever, punishing his defiance and avenging her pride.

For many nights to come Manuel contemplated the beautiful sky, with its endless dark plains and its travelling constellations. Sometimes, when he closed   his eyes, he thought he could hear a music coming from above. Yet the brightest star of all was his fair Isabella and the purest sound he longed for was the one of her voice. He then wondered how to do it, how on earth could he bring her the star she wanted.

The answer came to him on the brightest night of all. Manuel was again gazing at the sky when he saw one tiny star falling somewhere in the West, sinking in the great sea.

The boy didn’t hesitate for one moment. He left Antioch that very moment reaching the shores of the Mediterranean on the coming morning. Heading towards the sunset on a boat he bought from a fisherman, Manuel was carried far away offshore by the light sea breeze.

This time he wasn’t led by a distant shadow but by the star’s blue light plunging out from below the waters like the beam of a sunken far, and, when finally reached the place where the star fell into the sea, he stared into the depths and saw a lonely white dot resting on the sea bed. He had found what he was looking for. Manuel then took a deep breath; he dived into the abyss and swam right into the stream of light that came towards him. It was a long way to the sea floor and back, nevertheless Manuel went on until he ran out of air. Hanging half-way below the surface, he started to choke and to squirm, gripped by terror. The was no way he could go on, no way to turn back. The boy would have drowned for sure if it hadn’t been for a sudden, cold kiss which filled him with the breath of life. Manuel came back to his senses to see himself in the embrace of a lovely sea nymph who jumped to his aid. It was because of her that he finally reached the depts of the sea where the star was being slowly extinguished by the salty water. The heavenly body was just a small orb he could hold in the palm of his hand, but the stream of light it diffused, spread for hundreds of miles around. The boy grabbed it and pulled by the enchanting sea woman he escaped a horrible death.

Once they reached the surface, he thanked the nymph and jumped inside the boat, rowing towards the Eastern shores. But the sea creature sopped him. She had saved him only because of his unearthly beauty and now he had to stay with her forever. When Manuel refused, the furious nymph shook the boat and threatened the shred Manuel into pieces. Knowing how bloodthirsty sea creatures could be, Manuel asked for her forgiveness and told her his whole story, begging her to let him sail away. The nymph looked him in the eyes and said:

“My gentle human, what you ask of me is   almost impossible. But you seem have an honest heart, one that will never fall for me. That is why, I will let you leave if you to give me one of your eyes to remind me of you and to be an undoubtable proof of your valour.”

And so, poor Manuel gorged his right eye out and offered it to the sea nymph.

Once free, the half-blind youth went back to Antioch.  But while still on his way, something dark crept in Manuel’s soul as if the loss of that eye had given him a second sight and for the first time, he came to recognise the source of all his hardships.

When he reached the city, he bowed in front of the court and placed the glowing white star at the feet of none other but the queen.

Apart from Constance, everyone failed to understand the gesture. The queen sensed that somehow Manuel wasn’t the same anymore.  

The star was then sealed away in an ivory box and taken to Isabella’s chamber while Manuel re-joined his family. From there he wrote a short note to his wife. The reply arrived three days later, and it wasn’t at all what he had expected…

https://poemefarastapan.com/2019/06/25/manuel-si-cele-doua-inimi-7/

Manuel and The Two Hearts

6. The first trial

After preparing a swift departure, early on the next day Manuel left Antioch and went Eastwards. It took him many days, but once he reached the banks of the mighty Euphrates, he built a raft and floated down the cold, rapid waters, struggling not to crush into the massive rocks that stood in his way. As the river widened, the flow of water slowed down, slowly carrying him towards the endless, deep sea. And when he reached it, he kept on floating on the calm waters for weeks, but he didn’t find the beautiful island and its fantastic dwellers. Maybe it all had been just a lie meant to send him to his doom.

Then, one cold night, somewhere on the high seas, Manuel spotted a small outcrop. But by morning the distant promontory had vanished, and so did the boy’s hopes. What made things worse, his food and water were nearly gone. Yet, the next night he again saw that strange mound, looming in the distance. Feeling how his strength was flowing out of his body, he sailed for it. That was his last chance of getting anywhere. With the new daylight came another disappointment. Whatever that thing was, it was nowhere in sight. However, Manuel stayed on course, oaring towards the inexistent destination. And with every passing night the once small shadow reappeared growing larger and larger only to disappear in the morning. He had done well not to give up to desolation and stop from reaching it. It became clear that some sort of magic impeded Manuel from seeing the outcrop in clear daylight. And so, on the seventh night he finally arrived on the shores of an island, all covered with forests the like he had never seen before. Manuel crept inside those woods to see them populated with all sorts creatures having many odd shapes and ravishing, bright colours. There were fruits and flowers of incredible sizes, swarms of flying fish, giant reptiles and frogs, buffalos with magnificent, spiralling horns, two headed elephants, white deer, covered with gemstones, airy butterflies who dissolved into thin air like smoke, and all sorts of other unknown creatures.

The island was crossed by a network of small rivers, and all seemed to flow from one single place in its centre. Fade, eerie sounds came down the water streams, but as Manuel advanced deeper inside the forest, they became louder. He then found an open plain, and in the middle of that plain there was a pond, the source of all those streams. What was even more bizarre, on the pond there was a small island thronged by hundreds of peacocks. Their plumage came in all colours ant they were singing in a frenzy around a tall tree and perched on one its branches there was a radiant golden peacock. The bird spanned its metallic wings and chased away all the other peacocks, who rose in a dazzling swirl, spreading across the island. After that, the king of peacocks fell asleep.

*

Manuel sought the chance and swam across to that small patch of land, and crawling towards the three, he climbed on it getting as close as he could to the sleeping bird. But just before he could grab it, the peacock awoke and flu away on another branch, where Manuel couldn’t reach it.

The boy went down, trying how to find a way to catch the sly peacock, always thinking of his beloved Isabella who was waiting for him, far away in Antioch.

Not long after, all the noises of the forest halted. Alone in that wilderness, Manuel started to be harassed by his body’s needs. Beleaguered by thirst, hunger and fatigue he first went to drink some water from the pond, but went he tried to take some in his palm, the waters withdrew under the ground. Hungry, he saw that the three was full of fruits, but when he grabbed one of them, the fruit withered away and turned into ash. Too tired to think about the bird, Manuel laid on the ground and thought of dozing off for a few minutes, but a voice came from under the grass and spoke to him:

“Young man, if you fall asleep, you’ll be swallowed by this island. All that beauty you see thrives on the bodies of those who hoped to catch the golden bird. Go back and never return to this cursed place! I was a man like you once. I came here thinking this golden bird would make me rich, that it would help me fulfil all my desires. But now, look at me, look what I’ve become. I am just a pile of soil and roots; defenceless food for the ants that crawl inside me. I feel their stinging bites, but I cannot defend myself. Don’t share my torment. Run away from here, for if you sleep, you’ll be always trapped in here, half dead and half alive, just like the me.” The voice stopped.

Manuel understood this was a task he could never accomplish. Weakened by the many nights on the sea, he closed his heavy eye lids for a moment and saw Isabella. It was just for her he had come so far. He sought no fortune, no fame. He lived only for his love. Alas, without even knowing he slipped into the sleep of death. When he realised that he had fallen into that never-ending dream, it was already too late. He felt the thin roots of the three piercing his skin and dragging him under the earth. He tried to fight them but had no more power. Hopeless, Manuel whispered his young wife’s name. The last thing he heard were some wings flapping above his head…

*

“Manuel, I only let myself caught in dreams, for dreams always reveal a man’s true nature, his deepest thoughts. Most of those who came here have tried to have me for their own vain desires. What they got instead was eternal damnation. But you seek to save your love and that I cannot vanquish. So far, I’ve met only a few mortals to be worthy of me. You’re among them. I free you from my course. Wake up!”

The boy opened his eyes and found the golden peacock sitting right next to him. His kind soul had saved him and brought the bird down to the ground.

 And so, the youth had managed to complete the task. But now he started to contemplate at his long way back. He had no more food and water, neither could he get them from that island. Then, like somehow it had read Manuel’s mind, the peacock shook its feathers and grew tenfold in size. Spreading its long, golden wings it shrieked and waited for Manuel to climb on its back. Once that happened, the two flew back to Antioch.

*

Imagine the amazement of all those living in the city when they saw the boy circling on the back of a giant golden peacock high above the lofty, slender towers.

Once the landed, the peacock returned to its previous size and was taken in one of the palace gardens, where he spent much of the days grooming itself and displaying its glittering plumage to the astounded people at the court.

 As for Manuel, he returned to his mother house and from where he sent a message to Isabella, waiting for her response. Tee poor youth hoped their troubles were finally over.

Relieved, Isabella, wanted to see him right away, but her jealous mother reminded her of the letter and persuaded her not to give up with such an ease. Manuel must have caught the bird out of sheer luck. There were better ways to prove his devotion to his wife and she will find them.

Manuel and The Two Hearts

5. The plot

The queen had adored Manuel since the first day she laid her eyes on him. In the beginning, her shrewdness had stopped her to make any advances to the youth, but after a while her love became stronger than her reason and she acted upon her whim. But once she realised Manuel would never bow to her and knowing that the consequences of her foolishness threatened her position at the court, she wanted to get rid of Manuel.

Ans so, one night, wrapped in a long, dark coat, she left Antioch and after a few hours ride she reached a small cottage found at the edge of a dark forest. She knocked at the door and from inside answered the coarse voice of an old woman who, once she recognised her guest, rushed to let Constance in. The queen had come to see her most trusted advisor, the most powerful witch in the Levant and told the old woman that all the charms and potions she got from her to seduce Manuel had failed. The only course of action left was to destroy the boy. Knowing her mistress as she did the witch agreed. She went to a desk, sat down, lit a candle, took a sheet of paper, a quill and some ink, then, by looking at the paper through a magic lens, she started to write a letter. Once finished, she handed the letter over to Constance telling her that the handwriting on the letter was Manuel’s himself and that the forgery was a love confession to a certain noble girl, who was well known in the entire kingdom for her striking beauty. The only thing the queen had to do was to show that letter to Isabella. The jealous princess would lose faith in her husband and the king would banish Manuel from the court for all eternity.

Contented, Constance went back to the palace and the next day she approached Isabella in private. With tearful eyes, the queen showed the letter to the girl pretending it was a secret only the two of them and the guilty lovers knew. The ever-faithful Isabella was shattered. Her young mind was flooded with sorrow. Manuel had been her whole world and now that world came tumbling down. Convinced by her mother never to reveal where she got the letter from Isabella confronted her lover, asking him for a piece of his own handwriting. She then accused him of betrayal and showed him the forged letter. While Manuel was reading that unbelievable account of infidelity, that seemed to have been written by his own hand, his young face expressed both hatred and pain. The boy fell on his knees and swore on everything he held more holy that all that was a plot against his life and against their love. But everything he said fell on empty ears. The princess was treating him like he was a stranger. Manuel stood up and decided to fight for that love once more. He returned the letter to his wife and spoke:

“I can’t pull the seeds of doubt out of your heart. I don’t have the guile of those who framed me. If I was a different man, I would give up on you right now, but I am the one you have always known and cherished. I will undo this insult you received the only way I can.  Please, let me replant love we lost. Whatever you want from me, ask and I will give it to you. Until then I will leave this room and this palace, waiting for your decision. You will find me at my mother’s house.”

The boy walked out, leaving a confused and scared Isabella. Minutes later she dashed into the queen’s chambers begging her to help her save her love. The queen promised her to come with an answer, but that she needed some time to think about it. The next day Constance again appealed to the witch and when she returned to the palace, she looked for her daughter. She embraced Isabella and said:

“My sweet girl, a man’s desire comes and goes as quick as a summer rain. The one you love does no longer want you. His hot blood earns for another. But if you really want him back and if he is ready to prove his worth, find out that at the mouths of the Euphrates river lies a forsaken island. On that island there is a garden filled with flowers and beasts, the likes of which you’ll never find anywhere on Earth or even in the seven skies above. Now, in the middle of the garden stands a magic tree, and on its branches lives a wonderful golden bird. If your husband really loves you, ask him to catch that bird and bring it to you. What greater feat of devotion could someone ask for? The journey towards that garden is a perilous one, but it is up to him to venture there and regain you trust.”

The queen kissed her daughter and smiled. She knew from the old witch that such a task was impossible to achieve. That same evening, the princess went to see Manuel and asked him to venture into the unknown and bring her the golden bird. He agreed without a sign of hesitation.

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. 

https://poemefarastapan.com/2019/06/04/manuel-si-cele-doua-inimi-4/

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 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

Manuel and The Two Hearts

  1. Every story has a beginning

King Bohemond of Antioch ruled over a city of a rare beauty and wealth whose high towers and thick walls surrounded some of the most grandiose and luxurious palaces and houses in the Levant. Countless merchants laden with spices, silk, gemstones, and incenses poured through this this city’s gates coming from all over the world, filling the dusty markets and using all their skills to increase their fortunes. Along its promenades walked beautiful young ladies and their admirers, while in its lavish gardens among the many palm trees, the white statues of ancient gods, and the spluttering fountains, scholars and their students debated in the cool shade about everything there was in heaven and on earth. And then there were the churches. Rising in the Eastern sky, these were shinning from the myriads of golden mosaics and icons set with precious stones that covered their inner walls. In the middle of all these wonders lay the great palace of the king, a maze of marbles of all colours and textures, standing on lofty columns and wide arches. Had there been a place on Earth where angels would have descended, a place fitting for their glory, this place was Antioch.

As for Bohemond, he was a wise, generous, and just ruler who long forgot the sins of his youth and the many struggles that put him on the throne. Now, in his later days he shared his power with his younger wife, a graceful and proud woman who he once he met in Jerusalem when she came from France sailing across the wide sea to see the holy places the crusaders had conquered. Her name was Constance and she bore the king only one child, a daughter who grew up to become the most beautiful maiden in the kingdom. Named Isabella, tales of her charm spread everywhere, inspiring poets, kindling hearts and stirring envy.

Alas, not long after Isabella had turned sixteen, one day when she was strolling with her suite along the riverbanks just outside the city walls, a gang of thieves came out of nowhere slaying her servants and taking the lovely king’s daughter in some God forsaken hideout. When Bohemond found out that he lost his most precious treasure, he sent many scouts and many envoys to bring her back, but none could find her.

Then, one evening, a strange and ugly fellow with rotten teeth came to the king’s court with a message. He told Bohemond and his wife that for the time being their daughter was safe and sound and that she was being held prisoner by a cruel brigand and his pack of followers, who would gladly return her to her parents if  Bohemond would agree to hand over his city and all his treasures to them by the next full moon, in three weeks’ time. If he refused, a terrible death would await poor Isabella. The scoundrel’s nickname was Two-Blades, and everyone knew him as a man of his word. And to prove he was telling the truth the messenger gave the king one of Isabella’s rings and a lock from her blonde hair. The messenger also promised the king to return in due time hear his decision and settle the bargain.

The king was burning with fury, but he nevertheless let the messenger go and immediately after he sent a scout on that haggard man’s tail. However, as cunning as the scout was, he lost the thief somewhere deep inside the writhing gorges of Mount Amanus, which stretched North of Antioch.

A proud warrior, the king refused to surrender to those wretched people either his crown or his daughter and abandoned himself to days and nights of thought and prayer. After a while, when he re-emerged all pale and weakened by sorrow, he spoke to his subjects…

To be continued