Beirut, Kingdom of Jerusalem
“THE COUPLE WHO BROUGHT HER SAID they found her on the side of the road and knew nothing about her,” Father Elijah explained to Lady Isabella “Bella” d’Ibelin. “I’m not sure if they were telling the truth . . .”
“You think she was their own child?” Bella asked, going down on her heels to be at the same level as the little girl. Bella was only 19 and was dressed in a simple russet linen gown with a surcoat of unbleached cotton that hung loosely over her well-padded figure. She wore no jewelry and her hair was modestly covered by a gauze veil that shielded her throat. Although she had not yet taken holy orders, she had avowed her intention to do so—as soon as her father, the powerful Lord of Beirut, agreed.
The child looked like she was four or five. She had big brown eyes that stared at Bella solemnly, while her hands fussed with her unruly reddish-brown hair.
The Maronite priest reached out with gentle fingers to lift one of the little girl’s curls, revealing an ugly gash on the side of her head.
Bella gasped and looked more closely. Dried blood caked the hair around a swollen, jagged cut. She looked up with horrified eyes at the priest and he nodded. “She’s been abused, I think. The couple that brought her may be relatives or just neighbors that, knowing she was being mistreated, wanted to get her away from whoever was beating her.”
Bella smiled at the little girl and asked in Arabic, “Do you want to come with me? I think you need a bath and a clean dress, don’t you?” The child was in filthy rags and dust caked her bare feet and calves. Now that attention had been drawn to the blow to her head, Bella noticed that her dress was torn at the knees, revealing skin covered with scabs. She had probably fallen down when she was hit or when she had tried to run from her tormentor.
“I doubt she speaks Arabic,” Father Elijah told Bella. “She has not spoken a word to me yet, and many of the mountain villagers still speak Syriac.”
Bella looked at the old priest helplessly. She had mastered Arabic as a child because it was the language of many native Christians in Beirut, but Syriac was a language she’d had no exposure to.
Father Elijah smiled at her. “Kindness is its own language, my lady. All I ask is that you take her to the good sisters at the orphanage of Saint Martha.”
“Of course I will, Father,” Bella answered. “Is she the reason you sent for me?”
He laughed, “No, my lady, I was going to show you the leak in our roof and ask you to appeal to your lord father for a little donation, but, you see, God knew this child had more need than I, and sent her to me when you were already on your way.”
“One good deed does not exclude another,” Bella answered. “I will talk to my father.”
“He has been very kind to us, my lady,” the priest acknowledged. “We would not want to tax his generosity too much, but during the recent rains the water gushed in and—there—you can see the large puddle still.” He pointed to muddy water stretching in front of the screens. The parish church of St. Maro stood almost three miles outside of Beirut and had been almost completely destroyed by Saladin’s troops in 1187. After taking control of the city in 1201, the Lord of Beirut had paid for a new roof and glazing over the broken windows, but there had been no funds left to repair the floor. The Saracen cavalry had destroyed large swaths of the mosaics from the original Byzantine church, and water now filled one of the holes.
Bella looked up toward the roof and could see chinks of daylight. After almost 30 years, it was apparently time for more work. “I won’t promise anything,” she warned. “My father still has debts from this terrible war against the Emperor’s baillies on Cyprus, but I will talk to him about it,” she told the priest.
Then turning again to the little girl, she attempted to build trust with a smile and her tone of voice as she asked, “Will you come with me, little one? I know a nice place with lots of good food and other children to be your friends.” Reassured that the little girl was not afraid, she bent and swept her up into her arms, asking the priest, “Do any of the sisters at Saint Martha speak Syriac?”
“I believe Lady Morphia speaks it. If not, the little girl will just have to learn Arabic. She is young enough to learn rapidly.”
Bella brushed the child’s hair away from the wound on her head and bent to drop a kiss on it. The little girl squirmed and then buried her head in Bella’s soft neck.
In the bright sunshine outside, a groom and a sergeant were lounging in the shade while the horses grazed on the fresh grass beyond the church compound wall. At the sight of Bella, they collected the horses and brought their lady her sturdy bay mare. When Bella was mounted, she reached down and the priest helped the little girl up into her lap with a “God bless you, my lady.”
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