Homs Excerpt I

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Orchard Gate was quiet. Five travelers stood ahead of Omar with their papers ready for the Royal Guard. The guardsmen numbered more than twenty and Omar heard many above, walking the wall with crossbows in hand. No merchants or farmers clustered around the city gate as he remembered from old times. When the five travelers ahead passed through, he told the Royal Guard a portion of his tale—that he was a trapper on his way to the city and was waylaid by bandits. He showed them the one fur left at the bottom of his pack, and they asked only if he was headed north to Homs. When he stared bewildered like an old man, they waved him through.

There were many more guards patrolling the streets. He avoided their eyes and shuffled along as quietly as he could, hoping the common market was open, but ten blocks into the city he saw no one but for the Royal Guard—them clad in platemail or chainmail, or the blue coats of the inspectors, and all of them carrying swords and daggers, no batons. Eventually two armored guardsmen took interest in him and followed, keeping a few yards back. Omar felt a knot grow in his stomach. He considered shouting for help, then gave a short, anxious laugh.

When he walked more quickly they matched his step, and soon, he was jogging and their chainmail jingled behind him. He headed to the common market, hoping someone was awake. The sun had climbed above the city wall and the buildings casted long shadows. The idea came to him to dash into an alley and hide, but the guards ordered him to stop. Omar broke into a full run.

The market stalls were all boarded. No one was in sight. The police huffed behind him and they shouted something, then one went into a coughing fit. But the other was laughing, telling his friend not to worry—the path ahead was a dead end. The buildings pressed tightly together, two stories high, and Omar had to decide quickly—run back now, dodge as the guards tried to grasp him, or continue on and look for something to climb. One of the buildings at the end had a balcony, and he spied two figures on it watching him. He ran faster, praying one of them had a rope.

~

“Grandmother, who is that?” said the handsome, young man. Grandmother rapped her cane against the balcony railing.

“My brother.”

The young man smiled. “He’s visiting?”

“Yes,” said the old woman, waving Omar over. “Quickly!” she shouted.

Omar was in a full sprint. He dashed past stalls and tables, and leaped over carts. A part of him was frightened beyond hope, the other part was proud of his performance. He thought about the day Soha found him—climbing, then falling from the cedar tree. His arms hadn’t even bruised. He wanted to turn back and laugh in the faces of the police. When the short woman on the balcony pulled a sack out of her tunic he smiled, curious, then gasped. He recognized her hard eyes and the oafish smile of the one beside her. All of a sudden, the thundering of his heart drowned all other sound and sweat stung his eyes. The leg of a cart caught his foot and he crashed.

“Get up!” she yelled, forcing the drawstring of the small, blue bag. Omar scrambled to his feet, just as a guardsman kicked him, driving his steel toe into the old man’s thigh. Omar screamed. He tried to leap away, but his leg buckled beneath him. “Close your eyes!” ordered Grandmother. He did, covering them with his hands, as the two guardsmen grabbed him.

They pulled him to his feet and his bruised leg burned. Then, he heard his sister curse as something tickled his scalp. The two guards let him go and they screamed horribly, like children. “Don’t open your eyes!” his sister yelled. He kept them covered and kept his mouth shut and knelt back down until the screaming stopped.

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