Tarif, al-Andalus: Dhu al-Qa`da 693 AH (Tarifa, Andalusia: October AD 1294)
Faraj shrugged at Muhammad’s open gape. “Don’t look so shocked. We have played this part with the Ashqilula before.”
Muhammad scratched his balding pate. “Yes we have, but do you grasp the full meaning of what you’re about to do? You would have an Ashqilula chieftain, the avowed enemy of our clan, abandon the Marinid cause and break with those who gave him a home when he had none.”
Faraj raised an eyebrow. “You are well-informed about his circumstances.”
Muhammad sputtered, “I am not as ignorant of political circumstances as you would believe, brother! Abdallah of Ashqilula is no sentimental fool. His kinship with your wife aside, why do you think he would undertake the risk?”
“He has done it before. He abandoned the unjust cause of his kinsmen before they surrendered to the Sultan of Gharnatah.”
“Yet, he is cautious, not a simpleton blinded by loyalty to his kin. Abdallah only revealed himself until after all the Ashqilula chieftains were dead, either in the two wars between Gharnatah and Castilla-Leon, or in other mysterious circumstances.” Muhammad paused and drew closer. “They say Ibrahim of Ashqilula promised to hunt down and kill Abdallah for his betrayal, except the old man died suddenly. He did not survive a month in al-Maghrib el-Aska. A silent assassin took his life in the night. A clever man to have snuck past Ibrahim’s cadre of guards and poisoned his morning nakhwa.”
“Do the Marinids still offer a reward for the capture of that assassin?”
“I would not know. Ibrahim has been dead for fifteen years. No one shall ever discover his murderer now.”
“Of that I am certain.” When Muhammad eyed him with an unwavering gaze, he continued, “The man is of no concern, whoever he may be. What troubles me is at hand. How can I get to Abdallah without him killing me?”
“Even if you did, how would you convince him to withdraw his men?”
Faraj scowled at him. “Humph. You’re supposed to be helping me, remember?” When Muhammad shrugged, he continued, “Fatima has described her uncle. He is a man much like you, honorable and deserving of the devotion of his men. Send word to him, Muhammad, he would believe my intentions if you spoke on my behalf.”
“And, if he does not believe me?”
“He must.” Faraj gripped the hilt of the sword at his side. “He must, for the sake of us all.”
He risked his life in this gamble. The Ashqilula would surely remember him. One year after he had taken control of Malaka, the combined forces of King Alfonso X of Castilla-Leon, father of the current king and the Marinid Sultan united against Gharnatah. They came with the Ashqilula, an enemy Faraj had never thought to see again. Swift, two-pronged attacks occurred at the port cities of Tarif and al-Jazirah al-Khadra. Afterward, the Marinid galleys sailed for Malaka.
They had tried an incursion on the beach that first night. Having received the warning, Faraj had readied for them. Surprised in their turn by the defenders, none among the Ashqilula lived. Faraj took no prisoners, offered no terms for ransom. Everyone died by his order. He held his city until the Sultan’s reinforcements arrived from the capital. By then, Marinid naval forces had surrounded the port.
A second wave of Ashqilula landed with them on the same beach and found the bodies of their dead clan members rotting on the sand. As before, Faraj’s men ensured that the air filled with the screams of men dying and painted the sand as copper with the blood of his enemies. Later, a victorious Khalid and the warriors of Malaka gathered the severed heads into sacks and flung them into the White Sea. Faraj left the rest of their mutilated and bloated carcasses in a fine feast for the sea birds.
Now, he stroked the length of his beard. Yes, the Ashqilula would remember him well.
Faraj rowed a small boat with Khalid, Muhammad and one of his half-brother’s guardsmen across the White Sea. A star-filled late evening sky illuminated their path. Crackling sparks from cooking fires in the Marinid encampment glittered in the darkness. The aroma of fried fish lingered on the air.
The craft bumped against the black-caulked side of a sleek, low-lying Marinid galley. Dark eyes peered through the holes that held the oars. Faraj averted his gaze, yet he could not help but wonder about the cruelty of life in service on a galley.
He nodded to Muhammad, who groaned and muttered, “I remain uncertain about the wisdom of this plan. So, Abdallah agreed to meet with me. He does not know you are coming, too. He is still the enemy. He might try to kill us both.”
Faraj rolled his eyes heavenward. “Either you intend to help me persuade him or not. Why else would I have asked you to come? You don’t have to talk to him. Keep your tongue between your teeth if you have only foolish words to offer.”
Despite the darkness offered in shadows, Muhammad’s dark brown gaze narrowed visibly, before he grumbled, “I’m nervous. I can’t help it. This is dangerous….”
A deep baritone rumbled over their heads. “Yes, very dangerous, especially with you two talking so much.”
Faraj looked up the side of the ship, making out the image of a tall man who leaned over the railing. Another stood beside him holding a brass lantern. The taller one who watched them shook the length of a ladder rope and lowered it down. When Faraj tugged it toward his chest, it offered little resistance. He hoped they had tied it to something sturdy. It would do no good to land on his back or in the water.
With Khalid’s aid, Faraj climbed and leapt over the side and on to the deck. Behind him, it seemed Muhammad had a little more difficulty, even with Khalid straining and groaning below. Again rolling his eyes, Faraj leaned over and heaved Muhammad into the galley. His half-brother drew deep gulps of air into his lungs with harsh exertion. Faraj shook his head and aided Khalid. Muhammad’s man remained in the boat bobbing on the shallow waves.
A wizened Abdallah of Ashqilula looked them over with large, nearly opaque eyes, while he scratched a thin, graying beard. Pockmarks gouged holes in his olive-brown cheeks. Thin hanks of graying hair covered his rounded head. Faraj eyed him steadily, wondering when the man would note his resemblance to the Sultans of Gharnatah. He supposed it would not take long. He mused that the placid expression on Abdallah’s face was hardly one of welcome, only curiosity.
Abdallah set his large fists, dotted with browning age spots, on his hips. He stood with narrow, sandaled feet spread apart. His muscular calves and the rest of his form disappeared under a black jubba and a voluminous Maghribi cloak, the burnus.
He asked, “Which one of you is Prince Muhammad ibn Ismail of the Nasrids?”
Muhammad swallowed loudly and trembled beside Faraj, who cuffed him lightly between the shoulder blades. With Muhammad glaring at him, Faraj pointed and answered. “He is.”
Abdallah nodded. “Then you must be his equally foolish brother, Prince Faraj ibn Ismail, yes?”
Faraj’s jaw tightened. “If you know who we both are, why did you even inquire?”
“Perhaps I wondered which man might prove greater cause for concern. Or, I wanted to determine which of you fools my niece Fatima finds herself yoked with. I judged correctly that it was not the fat one.”
Faraj gasped unwittingly and Muhammad flushed the color of a pomegranate. Abdallah’s thinned lips relaxed in the semblance of a smile.
“You knew I would remember the child of my sister. You must have known I would speak with you for her. When I received your missive, Prince Faraj…ah, yes, I know it was your request and not that of your brother, I suspected you were the most imprudent man I would ever meet. Or, the most bold. Such a man would have to be to hold the heart of a princess of the Nasrids. Understand that Fatima is the only reason you shall leave this ship alive. The enmity between our families has cut too deeply. For her sake, I dare not open that old wound, or carve new ones into your conniving hide.”
His owlish gaze swiveled to Muhammad. “Wait below in the boat. You have no part in the conversation to follow.”
Muhammad’s deep sigh betrayed his turbulent emotions. “I would stay, if only to ensure Faraj’s safety.”
Faraj cocked his head at this and looked askance at Muhammad, who shrugged.
Abdallah said, “I do not invite you to remain with us. I have given my word. You and your brother shall leave this ship alive. Do not test my honor. Disembark.”
Faraj placed a hand on Muhammad’s shoulder. “I thank you for your loyalty. I have done little in life to deserve it.”
Muhammad nodded. “No, you have not deserved it.”
With a grunt and some effort, he heaved himself over the side of the ship. A yelp and an ominous splash followed. Faraj rushed toward the railing but Abdallah’s hand on his chest stayed him. Abdallah leaned over the side, his man behind him holding the lantern aloft. Muhammad’s groans and sputters filled the air.
“I have you, my lord, come. The water is cold tonight.”
Muhammad cursed his guardsman. “I know, you wretched son of a wild ass! I’m the one who fell in it!”
Abdallah straightened and leaned against the railing. He looked beyond Faraj to where Khalid stood.
Faraj nodded to his captain. “Go help my brother into the boat. Await me below.”
Khalid saluted him and lowered himself over the side of the galley.
Abdallah crossed his arms over his barrel chest. His eyes on Faraj, he said, “You guessed rightly that I would not harm you for your wife’s sake. Why did you risk stirring the embers of hatred between our two clans?”
“Neither of us can change the past. What concerns me is the present. Why are you still here, Abdallah, serving alongside a Castillan prince who would lower himself to murder a child to win this conflict?”
Abdallah grunted and raised one eyebrow in a questioning slant. “I would say the same of you. Are we not on the same side in this campaign? Yet, you have not abandoned it. Is that why you have come, to sway me in your stead? Why should I care for the dead child of a Moor who has betrayed his people and their blood?”
Faraj shook his head. “You cannot mean Doñ Alonso? Prince Juan told us that he was born in Leon. He and his father before him have served the Castillans all their lives.”
“He is a Moor. His grandfather was born in al-Andalus. Yet he holds to the beliefs of the Christians. Why should I care for his suffering?”
“Because you understand the nature of war and fair dealing equally. What happened here was not just. It was not a test of one army’s mettle against another. Betrayal, murder and deceit flowed upon the sands of Tarif today.”
Abdallah’s gaze shifted to the encampment on the shore. “What do you want from me? Speak your terms.”
Faraj followed his stare. “Leave, retire from the field of this dishonorable battle. I saw the banners of your men unfurled among the mounted archer and cavalry divisions. How many warriors do you command?”
“Two thousand,” Abdallah muttered, still looking at the beachhead.
Faraj nodded. Two thousand archers and riders amounted to less than half of the Marinid warriors. That left another two thousand, in addition to fifteen hundred Gharnati warriors and less than three hundred and fifty mercenaries whom Prince Juan had bribed into his service. Perhaps less than a thousand held the citadel at Tarif. If the defenses held, if King Sancho sent reinforcements south across the White Sea and the land, Sancho might lift the siege.
Though his head warred with his heart, warning him against such treasonous thoughts, Faraj continued, “Take your men and go.”
Abdallah pinned him with a ferocious glare. “Where should I go? Al-Maghrib el-Aska has been my refuge these last seven years. You do not know what it is to be hunted, to be without a home.”
“I shall soon learn, after I have left this battlefield.”
Faraj’s belly soured. Bile rose up in his throat but he tamped down the fear, buried it beneath his resignation. Even before he spoke the words, he knew this action could only lead to his death. But before he surrendered to his fate, he would return to Malaka one last time, to his beloved and their children.
Abdallah offered him his back, his shoulders rigid.
Faraj approached, heart hammering in his chest, his footfalls light and cautious as the galley swayed beneath his feet. “The Castillan commander cannot surrender now. He has risked his son’s life. His honor is at stake. Prince Juan’s action has sullied whatever you and your men do here from this day forth. Leave this place with your honor intact. A man such as you would be welcomed in any other land.”
Abdallah’s stark stare returned, his mouth tightening in a stubborn line. “Except the land of my birth, al-Andalus. You cannot offer me protection here, not when your Sultan has vowed to take the heads of any among the Ashqilula who ever dared return. Where shall I go, my two thousand warriors and I? Would you have me and my men abandon the Marinids so they can call us cowards?”
Faraj shook his head. “I would wish that you and they might call yourselves men of honor, who did not gain from the grief of another. There is no honor in defeating a commander already broken by the death of his son.”
Abdallah’s lips pursed in barely suppressed fury.
Faraj added, “You have the power to change the course of these events. Men have always flocked to your banners and aided you, because they know you believe in justice and truth. If you are rightly guided, then you know what you must do. The Marinids cannot win without you. Could they strike against you in al-Maghrib el-Aska?”
Abdallah shook his head. “My wives and children remain safely ensconced at Jumhuriyat Misr. It is the land where my wives were born, where our children were born. They have never desired to leave it and I have never forced them.”
“Then, it has been seven years since you last saw them?”
“Seven long years.”
“Do you have sons, Abdallah?”
“Yes, I have sons, five strong sons.”
“Fatima and I also have sons, two beloved boys whom I treasure. A father’s love for his children knows no limits. To lose a son, to lose any child…we can only imagine the pain Doñ Alonso must be feeling. Prince Juan has not buried his son. He has left the body to rot like carrion at the edge of camp. Would you let someone murder and defile your sons without seeking vengeance? If you would not, think of what you can do here.”
Abdallah made no reply.
Faraj groaned and rubbed the back of his neck.
At length, Abdallah turned to him. “You speak with deep love for your children.”
“It is second only to the devotion I bear their mother.”
“Do you love my sister’s child so much?”
“She is my heart, my life, my very breath.”
Abdallah chuckled. “You could have simply said ‘yes’ and I would have understood.”
“No, for you could not know the measure of my feelings for her. They are as unfathomable as the depths of the White Sea.”
Abdallah grunted and looked across the blue-black water. The crescent moon’s reflection glittered in its depths.
“If you disobey your Sultan, you condemn Fatima to an unfortunate widowhood.”
“She shall know I met my death with conviction in my mind and everlasting love for her in my heart.”
“Don’t you think she has suffered enough losses?” Abdallah relaxed against the railing. “I mourn for her mother still. I shall mourn Aisha until my end.”
Faraj heaved a sigh. The conversation had turned dangerous, but he could not stop now, not when he sensed Abdallah’s amenability.
“Although Fatima had told me that relations with her mother were strained in her childhood, each day I see her devotion to our children, her unending love for them and I am reminded of a promise Fatima said she made to her mother before she died. She has become the woman she is today because of your sister.”
“I have said before, Fatima is a child of my sister’s spirit. I am glad to know Aisha lives on in her daughter.”
“There is something else you must know, about the day your sister died. Fatima has long desired that you should know. If she were here, she would have wanted me to tell you. I know you must believe that the old Sultan had the princess Aisha killed….”
“I do not. I know it was Ibrahim of Ashqilula.” Abdallah’s gaze found the coast again. “I have known for fifteen years, just before I left al-Andalus.”
Faraj edged closer to him. “How?”
“My former slave Ulayyah finally told me. I had found her after Ibrahim…dallied with her, as was his custom. She cursed me for giving her to a murderer, the man who had taken my sister’s life. For so long, Ulayyah had kept the secret from me. Her betrayal was more than I could bear, as was Ibrahim’s. He surrounded himself with loyal men. I could not harm him personally. So, I took my vengeance in the only way that I could, in the manner that would hurt him the most. I abandoned the Ashqilula cause and took my fifteen hundred warriors into Jumhuriyat Misr, where I found a new life far from such treachery.”
Faraj nodded, comprehending at last why Abdallah had fled al-Andalus so unexpectedly. His sudden departure had paved the way for the eventual defeat of the Ashqilula.
“You should have taken the slave Ulayyah with you. She met her death at Ibrahim’s hands. He strangled her.”
When Abdallah whirled towards him, open-mouthed, he rushed on, “Her children are safe. The boy Faisal serves as a eunuch in the Sultan’s harem. His two elder sisters are the servants of the Sultana Shams ed-Duna, my master’s queen. The younger twins, Basma and Haniya, serve my Fatima at Malaka.”
Abdallah gripped the railing and bowed his head. The wood groaned beneath the pressure of his hands. “I could not forgive Ulayyah. Perhaps she could not forgive herself.”
Faraj remained silent for a time and then cleared his throat. “Fifteen years ago, you did what was right. Without your aid, the Ashqilula fell. Now, you have a chance to do the same again, here.”
With a stiff bow, he gripped the sinewy rope, vaulted over the side of the galley and clambered back into the waiting boat below. The stars framed Abdallah’s head. Even in the gloom and with the torchlight behind him, tears glistened on his cheeks. Faraj took a last look at him and then rowed with his counterparts back to shore.
When they reached the coast, he stepped on the shifting sand with Muhammad, while their men pulled the boat inland. From the center of the encampment, loud shouts echoed warning of some vicious argument. Faraj dismissed Khalid, waved Muhammad off and sank down. He clasped his hands together and rested his chin on them. His gaze contemplated the black hulks crowding the midnight-blue waters of the White Sea.
At dawn the next morning, horns resounded throughout the encampment. In silence, Faraj and Khalid rolled up their prayer rugs. Neither man had slept. Both donned hooded chain mail tunics and brass helmets. Faraj slid his sword into its scabbard, his khanjar in its sheath and fastened the sword belt around his waist. Khalid handed him a round, tasseled shield, bearing the crescent moon of the Faith at its center.
Marinid catapults hit the citadel’s defenses as they usually did each morning. They concentrated on the battered length of the wall near the eastern gate, which Doñ Alonso’s men had valiantly attempted to reinforce each night. Now it gave way, in a deep roar of crumbling rock. The screams of men vied with falling debris. The impact reverberated through the surrounding rock face. Shards of dust sprayed in the air. When the thick clouds cleared, the jagged edges of what remained on either side of the breach looked as though the Hand of God had ripped away the masonry.
Heavy boulders whizzed overhead, pummeling the shattered remnants of the wall. Castillan common knights, distinguishable from their noble counterparts by their round tasseled shields of Moorish design, poured out of the rift. Marinid light horse cavalry, with camel units in support surged to meet them. The more powerful Castillan knights with kite-shaped shields and long swords fought for Prince Juan. He hung back in their midst.
The Ashqilula banners billowed in the midst of the other forces. Faraj spat in the sand and turned to Khalid, who stared stone-faced at the fighting near the wall. The edges of his scar were nearly white.
“Nervous?” Faraj asked.
“No,” his captain said, his voice barely rising above a whisper. “If you tell me to fight, I shall fight. I value my life more than that of the enemy. I have no scruples about killing any man who raises his sword against me.”
The Ashqilula under Abdallah’s command drew up in a solid, unbreakable formation, bowmen hemmed in on either side by cavalry. They seemed prepared to ride out in support of the Marinid cavalry. Faraj shook his head.
Suddenly the Ashqilula changed direction. They veered to the left and down to the coastline, toward the galleys bobbing along the shore. They cut a clear path between the Marinids at Tarif’s wall and the rest of the invasion forces.
Faraj’s heart thudded so loudly that it vied with the shouts of confusion and cheers from some in the Marinid encampment. Khalid grinned and clapped him on the back. “We make our move, yes?”
Chaos descended now. The Marinid cavalry fell back from the breach in the wall, while those at the rear engaged the Ashqilula warriors fleeing the battle. Prince Juan cursed and whipped his horse, urging his men to join the fray. Archers on the walls fired into the melee. The Marinid forces were in disarray. Half their formations pursued the Ashqilula, vainglory or suicide their possible motives. Many of them died as Abdallah’s crossbowmen protected the riders. The other Marinid troops ran headlong towards the breach near Tarif’s gate. They risked death under the heavy mounts of more Castillan knights emerging from behind the walls. Doñ Alonso’s archers found easy targets. Volley after volley flew from Tarif’s ramparts, piercing armor and flesh, man and beast. Gharnatah’s troops, caught up in the uncertainty, looked their commanders for clear direction and found none.
Faraj said, “Those who believe and submit to the Will of God accept their destiny. Qadar, as Allah, the Compassionate, the Merciful, has written for every soul, speaks of all that has happened and all that shall happen.” He turned and looked at Khalid. “But today, we make our own destiny. Come, we return to Malaka. Then, on to Gharnatah.”
Thanks for checking out Chapter 2 of Sultana's Legacy, coming Fall 2011. If you missed the previous chapter, you can read it here.