Sunday, April 17, 2011

#SampleSunday: Sultana's Legacy, Chapter 1

Chapter 1

Father and Sons

Prince Faraj

Tarif, al-Andalus: Dhu al-Qa`da 693 AH (Tarifa, Andalusia: October AD 1294)

Faraj stood on the white, sandy shores of Tarif, his legs spread apart with his feet encased in dark red leather boots. Dawn’s pale pink glow illuminated the sandblasted, stone battlements of Tarif’s citadel, which towered before him. The tides surged and brought an autumnal breeze ashore from the White Sea. The tangy scent of salt spray wafted through the cool air. He inhaled deeply of the smell as it mingled with lingering smoke from last night’s cooking fires. Atop the weathered ramparts of the citadel, Castillan banners unfurled, caught in the whip-like motion of the wind.

Slowly, the camp at the beachhead on Tarif’s eastern coast stirred to life. Men readied themselves for war and death after the observance of the first prayer, Salat al-Fajr. Migrating birds squawked as the din rose in the camp. The flock weaved and raced across the Straits of Jabal Tarik. Faraj looked out to sea, imagining the majestic Arif Mountains of al-Maghrib el-Aska that dominated the opposite shore. Yet he could not see the landscape, obscured by a thick morning mist that rose to the height of the billowing, white clouds. Hundreds of black, hulking shapes, barely visible in the haze, now bobbed on the water. The Marinid ships hugged the coastal waters of the White Sea, their captains undaunted by Castillan bowmen aligned along the ramparts.

Faraj reached down and grasped a rough stone. He rolled it between his palms. It remained cool to the touch. The rising sun had not warmed the stone yet.

He scratched his wiry beard, dyed a dark red with henna. “Why do we wait? When does the Marinid Sultan order the attack?”

He spoke to no one in particular, not even among his personal guardsmen standing at his back, but an answer soon followed. “Are you so eager to die, brother?”

Faraj glared across the encampment as his half-brother Muhammad ibn Ismail emerged from a cluster of green silken tents. The wind whipped thinning strands of graying hair back from the glistening pate of Muhammad’s egg-shaped head. Time had not been kind to him.

Both men were in their forty-eighth year, one of few similarities that remained between them. Muhammad’s face mirrored Faraj’s own, though fleshier with jowls of dark olive skin and the same hawkish nose of most males in their family. Streaks of gray lined each remaining strand on Muhammad’s head. Faraj twirled a lock of his own dark, silky hair at the nape before Muhammad scowled at him, and his hand fell away. His half-brother displayed a sizable paunch jutting from the folds of his tunic. His belt hung low around his hips rather than encircling his waist. Faraj straightened at the sight of his bandy-legged gait and patted the trim stomach beneath his chain mail tunic.

He said, “How brave of you to leave the comforts of your fortress at Qumarich to attend our master’s wishes.”

Muhammad chuckled and halted beside him. “You would know more about comfort that I could guess. You still hold the prize of Malaka, a pearl compared to the rocky outcropping of al-Hisn Qumarich. The Sultan’s warriors ravaged the city when he took it from our Ashqilula enemies.”

Faraj raised a quizzical eyebrow. “Yet, fifteen years after we defeated the Ashqilula, you would have me believe Qumarich has not recovered?”

“It is not a rich territory, like Malaka.”

When Muhammad fell silent, Faraj ground his teeth together. “Nothing is like Malaka.”

“True, for you are well-protected at your harbor and inland.”

Faraj rolled his eyes heavenward.

“Does the promontory of al-Hisn Qumarich offer you so little security?” He moved closer and bent toward his half-brother’s ear. “Does it still require a worthy defender?”

Muhammad sneered at him. “I hold what is mine. I need no man’s help.”

He glanced behind him. “The Marinid Sultan has yet to make his appearance. Do you think he is deciding on what terms we should offer the Castillans?”

Faraj shook his head. “Terms? We have besieged King Sancho of Castilla-Leon for more than six months. What do you think the defenders intend to do? They shall fight to the death to hold this citadel. Terms, indeed.”

“Do you doubt the resolve of our Marinids friends to retake Tarif?”

“I would doubt any ally whose resolve wavers as easily as the Marinids have shown us. I remain aware and cautious of their double-dealings. Even worse, they fight with support from the rebel Prince Juan, whose only cause is to reclaim the throne of Castilla-Leon from King Sancho. The greatest danger for us lies in the unpredictability of Prince Juan. He can be foolhardy and rash, as when he first ordered our initial attacks months ago without the benefit of siege weapons. I have also heard his tactics are brutal. Many years ago, he ensured the capitulation of the fortress of Zamora in Castilla’s northern territory by promising death to the young son of the woman who held the castle in her husband’s stead. He gains advantage by means of subterfuge and secrecy. It is the coward’s way.”

Muhammad nodded, but his face took on a haunted, gray pallor. Faraj wondered why his half-brother suddenly seemed so pensive and silent, his eyes fixed on the tableau before them. Faraj’s hands tightened into fists before he sighed.

“You disagree with my view? Speak what is in your heart, Muhammad.”

“I do not disagree with you, but your answer surprises me. It would seem the rumors are true. You have changed. You did not always disclaim ruthless and mercenary means in the achievement of any goal.”

Though he hated the reminders of the past, Faraj nodded. “In my past, I was a selfish man. I have learned there are values as dear to me. The blessing of my beautiful daughters and my strong, proud sons. The heart of my beloved Fatima.”

Faraj grinned at the mention of his wife’s name. Her beautiful visage stirred into clear view within his mind. To think, he had once feared life with her would bring no joy or contentment. The image of her dark waves of hair beckoned him, the silky feel of strands slipping through his fingers as vivid as the last day he had beheld her. He recalled her smooth and pale olive brow, which had remained unwrinkled even as they parted. Yet, he knew her well, as he knew himself. She had hidden her concerns from him and their children.

In the long months of his absence from home, she and the children were never far from his thoughts. His hand closed tighter around the pebble. He closed his eyes for a moment and sighed with contentment and longing for the prospect of holding each of them to his breast. He would kiss the dark brown and red curls on his children’s heads and inhale the jasmine scent in his wife’s dark hair soon enough, if Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful willed it.

He met Muhammad’s gaze again and found him aghast, his lower jaw drooping. Muhammad blinked rapidly before looking away. “Then your family prospers? The Sultana Fatima is happy?”

“My wife and children prosper. They are happy and safe at Malaka.”

Muhammad smiled and relaxed visibly, the tension dissipating from his sloping shoulders. “I am pleased to hear it. You are fortunate to have wed the Sultan’s daughter.”

“I am blessed to call her my bride and the mother of my children.”

“I have never met her.”

“Likewise, I have never met your wife or children.” Faraj sighed. “We can agree that the past is the past between us? It cannot be altered.”

Muhammad nodded and he continued. “The future, however, it is possible for us to change that. My wife is a very wise woman. She is also deeply devoted to her family in all respects. She has oft chided me that I have not…eased relations between you and me since my departure to Malaka. We have not spoken for over fifteen years, Muhammad. It would please her greatly, and me, if you would consent to visit us at our home, you and your family.”

Muhammad drew back, but Faraj’s hand closed on his burly forearm. “Malaka was your home too, when we were children. I would like you to see it again, brother.”

Muhammad did not answer for a long time. He only offered him a stark gaze.

Then he said, “I shall consider it. First, we must both survive this.”

He jerked his head towards Tarif’s battlements, where Castillan warriors glared down at their company. Faraj followed his gaze. The rock he still held in his hand clattered among the other stones.

From the time of the Muslim conquest of the peninsula over five hundred years ago, Tarif had been the gateway to al-Andalus. Every invading army of the Muslims had landed at this strategic site. Tarif had also been the negotiating point of every monarch who vied for control of the coast of this land. Today would be no different.

The Sultan of Gharnatah, Faraj’s father in-law Muhammad II had bargained Tarif to the Marinids early in his reign. The city had reverted twice to his command, but for the most part, revised treaties with the Marinids always surrendered control to them. Then nearly two years ago, the Castillan King Sancho IV the Brave bombarded the region with his powerful navy and took the city after seven months of siege. Tarif was now under the authority of Doñ Alonso Pérez de Guzmán, a Leonese knight who held it for King Sancho. The Marinids had returned to claim Tarif with the support of Sultan Muhammad II.

Five thousand Marinid, Gharnati and Castillan warriors stood amassed alongside Faraj on the white sands. That he was shoulder to shoulder with supporters of a rebel Castillan prince did not surprise him. He had never underestimated the taciturn nature of Gharnatah’s politics. He suspected his master, the Sultan, would one day be on the opposite side again and in favor of King Sancho of Castilla-Leon.

For now, Muslim imams and Christian priests strolled through the ranks, blessing the faithful. Faraj did not doubt priests behind the enemy walls performed the same actions. He only wondered whose prayers God would listen to today.

His eyes intent on the battlements, he said, “Doñ Alonso Perez de Guzman is expecting our siege weapons again this morning. He must wonder why we are late. This citadel has no barbican, or even outer walls, yet it has held by the stout faith of its defenders. If we do not find a way to force a surrender, I fear our cause shall be lost.”

Muhammad replied, “I have never heard of this Doñ Alonso Perez de Guzman before now. Prince Juan said his brother proclaimed him the greatest strategist in Castillan history.”

“He is wrong. I have met their greatest strategist and killed him at the battle of Istija. Whoever this Doñ Alonso Perez de Guzman may be, he is not Doñ Nuño Gonzalez de Lara. He was a worthy opponent. It was a great honor that God chose my sword to cleave his head from his body. In that battle, I had the privilege of fighting alongside our Maghribi brethren of the Faith. There is no warrior more daring and cunning than a Marinid soldier. They use traditional Arab tactics of attack and withdrawal. When you think you have them on the run, their cavalry and mounted bowmen surround you. At the battle of Istija, the Marinid infantry adopted a defensive formation, which the Castillans thought to be a sign of weakness. They soon learned better, when the Marinids used their spears as pikes to impale horses and men. This Doñ Alonso Perez de Guzman will learn what Marinid resolve can do against this citadel soon enough.”

“You speak thusly of the Marinids in one breath, yet earlier you accused them of wavering and changing sides too often.”

“That is the past. I can only hope for better on this battlefield. In warfare, the enemy is the enemy and an ally is an ally, until fate alters all circumstances and exchanges friend for a foe. I do not allow the past or sentiment to hold sway in battle, especially when facing an adversary. In the history of Castilla-Leon and Gharnatah, the boundaries between adversaries and allies have changed often. Today we meet them on opposing sides. In the future, we may form an alliance with their King again. That possibility does not alter my resolve here.”

“Indeed. It would seem you have no difficulty recognizing your allies among former adversaries today.”

When Muhammad offered him a lazy smile, Faraj inclined his head and returned the gesture.

He was about to speak again, when a lone rider emerged in the midst of the encampment. He wore the blackened iron mail and heraldry of a Christian knight over most of his body. His brilliant yellow and sable silk garments bore the red lion of Castilla-Leon on the tunic and mantle at the center in four squares. His helmet, flat at the top, concealed most of his face except for the dark brown eyes, which stared resolutely ahead. He bore a heavy mace in one hand and a spear held aloft in the other. His steed, carpisoned in the same colors that he wore, snorted as Prince Juan’s silver spurs dug into his sides. The horse clopped across the white sand and bore him steadily toward the citadel. Faraj shook his head at the Castillan prince’s vain ornamentation of the animal. Surely, such rich finery would only encumber a horse in the coming battle.

Muhammad sputtered in confusion, “I don’t understand how this is possible…. It is Prince Juan but why is he carrying the white flag of peace tied to his spear? He….”

His voice trailed off as Faraj cuffed his arm and pointed. “Look behind him. Look to the boy.”

“Bah! A boy, likely his page…” before his voice faltered.

Faraj’s gaze narrowed, trained on the figure walking behind the prince’s mount.

A small child stumbled across the sand. The warhorse’s momentum dragged him forward. Someone had tied the boy’s hands with rope and attached the length of it around the horse’s neck. With his long arms stretched before him, sandy brown hair hanging low over his eyes, the child kept pace. Even the distance could not obscure the wetness clinging to his cheeks, or the ugly slice across his cheek encrusted with congealed blood.

Faraj clutched his throat at the sight of him. The boy could hardly be older than his second son was, a child of only eight years who bore his grandfather the Sultan’s proud name.

Faraj turned to Muhammad. “What man do you know ties his own page to his horse?”

Prince Juan halted at the midpoint between the encampment and the citadel. He thrust his spear forward, piercing the air. The white flag fluttered on a crisp breeze.

Movement and shouts echoed from the battlements. Soon, a dark-haired figure appeared on the wall in a cuirass of leather scales. His leathery, sunburned complexion drained of all emotion and color. The veins underneath his skin stood out in livid ridges. Bands of perspiration glistened on his forehead. Deep wrinkles gouged lines across his brow beneath a fringe of black hair, which almost covered his eyes. Then a woman appeared beside him. Wind whipped the folds of her sky blue mantle, ripping thick tresses like molten gold from the confines of her hood. She clutched at her throat before she fainted. The man beside her caught her up in his arms and stared over the wall, before he disappeared.

A prickling sensation crept up Faraj’s spine. The couple had recognized the little boy. Who was the child to them?

The man reappeared on the rampart. In a voice that Faraj could not overhear at such lengths, he issued instructions. Footmen dispersed along the wall, standing shoulder to shoulder.

The dark-haired man shouted across the distance, “Treacherous dog. What cruelty is this that you should bring my own son before me in such a state?”

Faraj sagged as his worst suspicions became reality. He looked at the pitiable boy, his head drooping, and his shadow a dark blot across the shimmering sand.

Prince Juan answered, “Indeed, Doñ Alonso, I am pleased you recognize your firstborn son Fernan Alonso. If you wish to see him leave this battlefield alive, surrender Tarif to the forces before you. Otherwise, I shall kill Fernan. I give you until midday to send word that you mean to withdraw and abandon this place. If you give up the citadel, I shall return your son unharmed.”

Faraj’s gaze remained on the child and he shook his head at the cruelty of the Castillan prince. Prince Juan relied on the same brutal tactic he had employed against Zamora.

“My son was a page at King Sancho’s court where he nobly served your brother, the rightful King of Castilla-Leon. By what treacherous means have you brought him here?” Doñ Alonso’s voice held no warmth or spark of life, as cold as death.

Yet when he looked over the wall to his young son, his darkened face betrayed the agony within him. Faraj’s heart wrung with pity, his mind casting aside all he had said earlier to Muhammad regarding the defeat of an enemy. This was no longer a contest between equals, not when the Castillan prince intended to force the capitulation of his adversary by foul means. Faraj thought of his own two sons whom he would do anything in the world to protect. He knew and understood the love of a father for his children. Had he been in the Castillan commander’s position, his choice would have been clear. No fortress, not even his beloved home at Malaka would be worth the life of either of his sons. But he was not Doñ Alonso.

The little boy raised his hands as if in supplication. Doñ Alonso shook his head and the boy sank on his knees, his face buried in his hands.

Prince Juan ignored the earlier question. “Until midday, Doñ Alonso. Do not delay or the consequences shall prove deadly, to your son especially.”

As he jerked the reins and the momentum of his horse forced the boy through the campsite, a din of conversation buzzed among various pockets of the Marinid soldiers. Each man offered his opinion on what had just happened. Some felt the Marinids forces should withdraw, to deny Prince Juan this attempt to end the conflict by unfair and dishonorable means. Others believed Doñ Alonso should surrender and reclaim his son, though they were in the minority .

Faraj watched the walls of the citadel. The woman reappeared at Doñ Alonso’s side, her eyes red-rimmed. Her gaze held the same stark fear and indecision as that of the man at her side. Yet, Faraj also recognized strengthening resolution in the firm line of her mouth.

Although they could not have been more different, her bravery reminded him of Fatima’s strength. He did not doubt what she would have done if one of their sons faced such danger. She was a lioness where their children were concerned. He knew she would do anything to protect them. Their children had nothing to fear safe behind the stout walls of Malaka, not like the son of Doñ Alonso.

The woman cupped Doñ Alonso’s cheek. He turned and met her gaze. He bent slightly and pressed his forehead against her pale brow. Then she kissed his lips tenderly and withdrew.

“We cannot allow this, my prince.”

Faraj turned at the sound of his most trusted supporter, al-Shaykh Khassa Khalid of al-Hakam, and witnessed his grim expression.

Five years after Faraj had claimed the governorship of Malaka, a band of bedraggled refugees appeared on the outskirts of the shore. They had fled the siege and bombardment of Mayurqa by Christian forces. Among them were Fatima’s younger sister Alimah with her family, which included her brother by marriage, Khalid. A younger and much more solemn man than his elder brother, who had been prince of the pirates at Mayurqa, Khalid stood tall and thin, a scar bisecting his face. It cut from his forehead, across his nose and into his pale cheek, a reminder of his narrow escape from the long sword of a Castillan mercenary. Now, he served as commander of the garrison at Malaka’s citadel. He had proved himself a trustworthy companion and warrior.

Faraj inhaled deeply, drawing the smell of saltwater into his nostrils. “What would you have me do?”

Khalid thrust his scimitar in the direction of the citadel. Sunlight caught and traipsed the sharpened edge of the blade. “You are a father. Can you countenance this act of treachery? Would you stand by and allow your own sons to be used in such ways by a coward?”

Faraj glanced at Muhammad, who shook his head. “If you abandon this campaign, brother, you risk our master’s anger. You may be the husband of his daughter, but the Sultan would never spare your life if you disgraced him on this battlefield. He is determined to occupy Tarif again. He knows he cannot do it while it is under Castillan control, but perhaps, the Marinids might cede the city again. It is a vain hope, but he holds it dear. Do not stir his wrath.”

Faraj clapped a hand on Khalid’s lean-muscled shoulder. “You should have married, my friend. Then you would have had a wife and children to return to in the end, someone who longed for your return home. You have had many opportunities. I have seen how the women of Malaka look at you, poor and noble alike. Even my children’s governess, Amoda, favored you.”

Khalid said, “Amoda favors me still.” His stone-faced visage relaxed in the semblance of a smile that showed his even white teeth. Then he sobered and his brow furrowed deeply, the edges of the puckered skin around his scar slightly raised. “If I had married, my wife would have wanted children. What right do I have to such happiness? I have slaughtered too many of the sons of others to deserve my own.”

Faraj shared his grim expression. “I may call upon your sword soon, my captain.”

Khalid bowed his head. “You shall always have it, my lord.”

Muhammad cautioned, “Faraj, let us wait until noon. The Castillan commander may still make the right decision. What else can he do, when faced with such a burden?”

Faraj forced a chuckle. “Castilla-Leon has had the good fortune to produce worthy and admirable men, who also make excellent opponents. I suspect he shall do what he must.”

Khalid said, “Gharnatah has no shortage of men of the same ability. I am grateful to serve a lord such as you.”

Faraj nodded in silent thanks.

His gaze strayed to the south again where the migrating birds flying across the Straits of Jabal Tarik were a only speck on the horizon. “If only our escape could happen so easily.”

At midday, Prince Juan and his beleaguered captain returned to just below the ramparts of the citadel. Although the call to prayer sounded across the shoreline, no one observed it. Faraj stood again with Muhammad and Khalid at either side of him. The sun blazed across the sky, beating down upon their heads mercilessly. He longed for the evening, when the sky in its myriad colors ranged above. However, today he felt hollow and suspected the view would not provide the same enjoyment as it had in the past.

An abrupt silence descended. Even the winds had calmed, leaving the air brittle and heavy. Doñ Alonso returned to the battlements. He strode toward the wall, with his men at-arms following him. Faraj’s gaze swayed to the tower window on the right where the woman stood. Her sharp nails gripped the ledge. She stared down at the child and waited to hear the fate of her eldest son, along with everyone else.

Suddenly, a fierce coastal breeze reared up again, whipping about Doñ Alonso’s short red cloak. His gaze resolute on the boy below him, he withdrew a dagger from his belt, its handle covered with spinel and bloodstone. Faraj knew Christians believed gemstones carried certain properties offering aid to the bearer. Spinel was for improving character and, bloodstone, a form of jasper, for strengthening the will. The edge of the dagger caught the glow of the setting sun. Prisms of light danced across the blade.

Doñ Alonso began, “Fernan Alonso de Guzman y Coronel is my firstborn son. No father ever felt so much pride in his offspring as I did, when first I beheld him on the day of his birth. No father has ever felt the satisfaction in a son as I feel today. Now, Prince Juan would have me choose between the pride of my heart and the honor of my family. I did not father a son to be a pawn against the country I love and the land I call my own. I fathered a son who, in my stead, might have one day fought against the enemies of Castilla-Leon, be they Moorish or Christian.

“Prince Juan has by his actions, by his treason, made himself an enemy of Castilla-Leon. I shall never yield Tarif or betray the mantle of trust that King Sancho has placed upon me, not even to save my own son. If this rebel prince, who is little more than a dog, should put my son to death, he shall affirm my honor as the loyal defender of his sovereign lord, King Sancho. He shall ensure my son’s place in heaven as a martyr of the Christian faith, who died doing his duty before a faithless lord. He calls down eternal shame on himself in this world and the everlasting wrath of Christ Jesus after death. If Prince Juan wants to test my resolve, if he needs a weapon with which to murder my son, he may have my blade for his cruel purpose!”

Doñ Alonso flung his dagger down over the wall. The weapon spiraled before it landed with a heavy thud, a short distance from where the Prince sat mounted. Doñ Alonso nodded to his weeping son, bowed his head and turned away.

His shoulders were stiff as he strode across the battlements. His steps never faltered. As one, those who ringed the ramparts bowed their heads as he passed them.

Faraj did the same to honor the noble but tragic sacrifice their adversary had chosen. His heart tore inside his breast for his enemy’s sake.

Prince Juan leapt down from his horse and now brandished Doñ Alonso’s dagger. He dragged the kicking and squealing child against him and forced his head back, exposing his tender neck. With a snarl directed toward the battlements, he pressed the glittering blade against the pale flesh. Tears flooded the boy’s face. In a swift motion, Prince Juan sliced a deep cut from ear to ear. Shouts of dismay and horror flowed from those assembled on the citadel walls.

Blood welled and trickled down the dying child’s throat. He gurgled loudly and sagged in his captor’s arm. Prince Juan pushed him forward into the sand. The mutilated child fell at the feet of the horse. The stallion nickered and sidestepped the body. A viscid line of red ran from the dead boy’s throat and pooled on the sand beneath his nearly severed neck. The Castillan Prince tucked Doñ Alonso’s dagger in his belt, still stained with blood and wheeled his horse around, dragging the lifeless body behind him. A swathe of blood trailed the horse, painting the sand as red as glittering rubies.

No one within the Marinid encampment spoke. Some turned their faces away from Prince Juan, who stared straight ahead. Even the wind stilled completely.

Faraj’s eyes sought out Doñ Alonso again. He had halted at a doorway though he did not turn around. Someone gripped his arm and spoke with him. Doñ Alonso’s shoulders slumped for a moment and he bowed his head. Then he nodded and re-entered the citadel. He never looked upon the grisly trail departing across the white sand.

Faraj whispered, “As a father of two sons whom I love dearly, I shall honor this sacrifice. I cannot taint this battlefield with the blood of our enemy now that his child’s life has been stolen in such a way.”

Beside him, Muhammad shook his head. “Then you are a fool.”

His eyes met Faraj’s own. His weighty hand grasped Faraj’s lean arm. “If you return to Malaka, I pray you shall hold your sons close. Tell them how much you love them and what you have sacrificed for them.”

“I shall. If I am ever to return home, I need your help. I have heard a rumor that there is a Marinid commander here, who holds great sway among their warriors. He would not trust me to negotiate a peaceable solution with him.”

“Your old reputation still bedevils you?”

“It does. However, you have always possessed the repute of a fair man, less given to…underhanded means to achieve your ends. He might trust you instead of me.”

“Who is this man who would trust me instead of you?”

“He is Abdallah of Ashqilula, Fatima’s uncle. He was an enemy of the Sultanate, he may still be, but he is also my greatest hope for the future of Tarif.”

Sultana's Legacy will be available Fall 2011. It is the sequel to Sultana, and takes readers into a much darker period of my protagonists Faraj and Fatima's lives. Chapter two will follow next Sunday. 

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