Those of you who have read Reawakening will have met this family before. By the start of that book, young Raif is a fully fledged freedom fighter, but I wanted to show how he reached that point and how his family ended up living in exile. So here is a very young Raif, learning about courage.
Midwinter, Taila, 1012 (eleven years before Tarnamell’s rising)
Raif missed his mother.
He knew there was nothing he could do to get her back. He was eight, not a baby like Zeki, and he understood that she was dead. He wasn’t going to lie there and cry because she wasn’t coming back, not least because his father had told him that the Bright Lord smiled on brave boys.
But he still missed her. It hurt, right under his heart, and lying here in the dark, he could feel his eyes growing hot, despite his best efforts. He wanted her to walk into his room from the dimly lit hall, to lean over him with her uncovered hair falling to brush his pillows, and to tell him she was still there. He wanted her to know that he was being brave. It wasn’t enough to prove his courage to his father, who couldn’t say anything more than that tears could not help and Raif must stop talking about her. His father couldn’t even talk about her at all, not without his voice cracking, and Raif didn’t think that was fair to anyone, especially not him.
Raif clenched his fists into his pillow and closed his eyes, but it was no use. His face was wet, and he couldn’t sleep.
Quietly, moving carefully so he didn’t wake Zeki in his cot, he climbed out of bed and tiptoed across the room, past his parents’ bed—his father’s bed now—to the big wardrobe. He eased the door open, hoping his father would not come upstairs to catch him (because he had, just last week, and he had looked like someone had struck him and then he had clutched Raif tightly, his breathing rough and hoarse).
Inside the wardrobe, his mother’s clothes still hung quietly, rustling silk dresses and trousers, tunics gleaming with embroidery, thin veils and head scarves made from gleaming strips of colour.
His mother had been the most beautiful woman in the world. Even the shah had said so, and all the poets of the court, but it had been Raif’s father who wrote the loveliest words about her and so won her heart. She had told Raif the story of it once, cradling him in her arms and laughing about the foolishness of poets, who had competed for her favour with elaborate verses.
“And Father’s were best?” Raif had asked, a little skeptical. He knew his father wrote, but he had rarely heard the words. In his home, his father was a quiet man, one who bowed contentedly to his wife’s will.
“He did,” Mother had confirmed, before she smiled softly. “But that wasn’t why I loved him best.”
She had been wearing pink that day, and Raif could just see a glimmer of the same colour now in the dim light. He reached up carefully, unhooking the long folds of the scarf and brought it close to his face.
The silk still smelled of roses, the perfume his mother had always worn. Raif buried his face in it, clutching it closely.
Then, above him, the roof creaked heavily.
Raif froze. Someone was up there.
The Savattin didn’t come over the roofs, he thought, his heart beating faster. They came by road, openly. When Ganime and Tamay had not come to school, Raif had walked past their house on the way home and seen how the gates were wrenched from their hinges. His teacher had been taken from the front of the classroom by men in red head scarves (and then the girls had been sent home and there had been a new teacher. When Raif had told his father what the new man taught, his father had refused to let him go back to school, and now Raif didn’t know who else had vanished from his classroom).
Another creak, and Raif knew he had to act. He must be brave. The Dual God never sent anyone a test they couldn’t meet, so Raif would have to be strong enough for this one, whatever was happening.
He stole carefully downstairs to his father’s study, and only realised halfway down that he was still clutching his mother’s scarf. He tucked it inside his kameez and hurried to the study door. His father was bowed over the desk, not writing but merely staring at his page, his hands over his eyes.
“There’s someone on the roof,” Raif said.
His father jumped and then leapt to his feet. “Are you sure?”
“I heard them.”
His father went a little grey, but his hand was steady on Raif’s shoulder as he propelled him upstairs. Raif had to scramble to keep up and was surprised when his father went into the bedroom rather than straight to the roof door. Father leaned over the cot and picked Zeki up, tucking the blankets around him before he handed him to Raif. “Can you carry him?”
“Yes,” Raif said, with more certainty than he felt. Zeki was two now, and heavy, but Raif thought he could manage.
“Go downstairs. Wait by the door. If you hear me call out, take your brother and run.”
Raif looked up at his father, startled. Then, feeling worse than he had when he had just been longing for his mother, he did as he was told.
He stood by the door, clutching Zeki tight. His brother was fast asleep, snuffling into his blanket, and Raif willed him to stay that way. When he was awake, Zeki liked to kick and throw tantrums, and Raif needed to listen.
He heard the roof door open, his father’s low exclamation of surprise, and then a soft murmur of conversation.
His father did not shout anything, though. Raif stared at the stairs, so tense his toes hurt, and waited.
Then his father came back downstairs, escorting a strange man. He looked like one of the homeless and hungry that filled the streets of Taila these days, but he walked tall.
“My sons,” his father said, squeezing Raif’s shoulder in reassurance. “Raif, this is Iskandir. He’s a friend, of sorts.”
Iskandir laughed, though that had sounded rude to Raif, and reached down to take Zeki. His father didn’t say anything, so Raif allowed that, though he was still suspicious. What kind of man came creeping over the roof in the night?
His father turned back to Iskandir. “Whatever you want, I can’t help you. I admire what you’re doing, but my children have already lost their mother. I can’t risk writing anything that might—”
“I’m not here to ask for anything,” Iskandir said. “Namik, I’m sorry. They’re coming for you. Tonight.”
Father’s hand tightened on Raif’s shoulder, enough that it hurt, and he reached for the wall with his other hand. “You’re sure?”
“Certain. I had firm confirmation half an hour ago. They usually wait until a couple of hours after curfew—they don’t care for witnesses—but they may be here sooner. We need to go.”
“Where?” Father whispered. Raif looked up at him, worried. “This is my home. This is Suheyla’s home.”
Iskandir’s voice was gentle. “Is it worth dying for? Risking your sons? You may stay if you wish, Namik, but we can get you over the border, even in this season. Taila has already lost her nightingale. Do not let her poet die too.”
“I…” Father looked around, but then stood up, swallowing hard. “They say God never sends us a test we cannot meet. Will it be hard, crossing the border?”
“Yes,” Iskandir said, his tone still soft, “but I will be with you.”
“Then it must be done,” Father said and looked around him again. “I don’t know what to take, what to…I should put the fire out.”
“Leave it. Take as little as you can. If it isn’t obvious you’ve run, it may buy us an hour or two.”
“They’ll destroy everything, won’t they? My books. Her books, her surgery, her tools…”
“Books and tools can be replaced,” Iskandir said. “Your sons cannot.”
“Yes,” Father said. “Yes, of course. Have we time to pack some clothes for them? Food?”
“As long as we’re quick.” Iskandir looked down at Raif. “You can help, can’t you?”
Raif swallowed hard. He was still scared, and he didn’t want to run away, but he didn’t want to vanish in the night either, like Ganime and Tamay. “Tell me what to do, sir. I can be brave.”
“Ah,” Iskandir said and his smile was surprisingly cheerful. “The Bright Lord loves this one. Show me where you and your brother keep your clothes, young Raif, and we’ll leave your father to fill his bag. Just one, Namik. We’ll have to travel light.”
It wasn’t until much later, after they’d left not just his house but his city, that Raif realised he still had hid mother’s scarf tucked inside his kameez. He buried his face in it, breathing in the scent of home, and promised himself that one day, when he was old and strong enough to fight the Savattin, he would return.
And he would show them what it meant to be brave.