In very little time, my brother surpassed my father at their dark task. He was the best not by chance but by choice. He learned the ways of the assassin from my father and also from a man named Jachim ben Simon, who had become his teacher. Ben Simon was said to know death better than most and was revered for his use of a double-edged knife made of silver. Under his tutelage, Amram was determined to go forward with his skill, to rise above all others. My brother was devoted, practicing with the intensity of a master craftsman. But as he did so, his moods and tempers changed before my eyes. I watched the boy I knew disappear and a cold, fearless assassin take his place. From our father he learned to slip through the night unseen and climb towers using a single strand of rope wound around his waist. He practiced silence, not speaking for days on end, becoming so still that even the mice in our garden failed to notice him. He went barefoot to ensure there was no sound when he approached, only the suddenness of the blade, taught by Ben Simon, taken even further by Amram's own natural grace.
Before long, my brother was called upon for the most dangerous assignments, all of which carried the chill of death. Although he hadn't the cloak that was said to grant invisibility, his great gift was his ability to disguise himself. He dressed as a priest or as a poor man, hiding himself in borrowed garments, gaining access to whomever was considered to be a traitor. He could make himself appear ancient, his face transformed by etched lines of charcoal, or seem a mere boy, eyes shining. People whispered that he was invincible, and it was soon rumored that the amulet of Solomon around his neck protected him from evil. His friends adored him and called him Hol, the name of the phoenix. They vowed that he resembled this mystical bird that arose from fire and ash; he escaped from every attempt the officials made to catch and murder him.
Because of my father and brother, other men were afraid to speak to me. The Sicariis' deeds were mysterious, but there were some secrets everyone knew, especially in Jerusalem. The men of my family were pointed to in the street, whispered about, both revered and despised. No wonder no one would have me as his wife, not even the brute who drove donkeys to the market. I was a young woman, but I was treated like a beggar, scorned, my reputation tarnished. It was only when men saw the unusual color of my hair that I noticed their curiosity and, often, their desire. Their gazes were disconcertingly sexual, obvious even to one as inexperienced as I. I knew I would enter their dreams when they couldn't control what they yearned for. But a dream is worthless in the world. What good did their desire do for me? In the light of the day, they walked right by. I wanted to shout out Take me to every man who passed by. Rescue me from what has happened, from the pillar of bitter salt I have become, from the crime I committed before I was born, from themen of my house, who lurk outside the Temple seeking only revenge. Take me to your bed, your house, your city.
I removed my veils in public places. I did not bother to braid my hair but let it shine, seeking salvation from my loneliness.
Still they all turned away, unable to see me, for I was no more than red air swirling past them, invisible to their eyes.
BEFORE LONG there were posters with my brother's likeness set upon the walls. The Romans would pay for information, more if he was captured, even more if he was found guilty of his crimes and crucified. Amram no longer came home and instead was resigned to moving around the city in the dark; he belonged to dreams rather than to the routine of our daily lives. My father and I were the only occupants in our house. Though we didn't speak to each other, we both looked out into the darkness as it began to fall. We knew that was where Amram was. Once again we shared something. We could not hear of a capture without wincing. We showed each other flashes of raw emotion every time the door rattled. But it was never him, only the wind.
Excerpted from The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. Copyright © 2011 by Alice Hoffman. Excerpted by permission of Scribner. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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