In Sultana: Two Sisters, Efrain Peralta must rescue those under his protection including his only daughter Esperanza from a deadly Moorish raid. The leader of the raiders is Ahmed al-Qurtubi, a man of illustrious origins who finds himself reduced to the role of slaver in the ever-shrinking kingdom of Granada. Ahmed is a practical, determined man ruled by his desire to recapture the lost glory of his family. He will do anything to achieve his goal, including resorting to the capture of innocents along the Christian border with Muslim Granada. Despite his coarse actions, his men revere him, which Esperanza quickly learns.
“La!” A gravelly tone echoed in the night. Thick leather boots emerged from the shadows. Esperanza’s gaze traipsed up the length of them. They reminded her of similar expensive pairs she had seen on the feet of the Cerda men. The boots rose to the wearer’s knees, stopping at the hem of a voluminous white cloak. Dark eyes in a weather-beaten craggy face with a thin beard peered at her. Other men followed the stranger until at least twenty of them stood over her.
She drew her knees up to her chest and averted her gaze. The stranger dismissed the man with the knife and took his place. Thin olive-brown fingers went for her chin. She slapped his hand away, seething at his presumption. Those around him stepped back or focused murderous glares on her.
A chuckle rumbled through the stranger’s barrel chest before his stare darkened. His palm swung wide and connected with her cheek. Her shocked tears fell without warning.
He stood. “I have no wish to hurt you. Never do that again, mi querida.”
When I was imagining Esperanza’s initial encounter with Ahmed, the face of Palestinian actor Ashraf Barhom kept coming to mind. He hasn’t had any breakout roles, but if you’ve watched The Kingdom (with Jaime Fox and Jennifer Garner), Agora (with Rachel Weiss) or Clash of the Titans (with Sam Worthington), you’ve seen Ashraf Barhom appear in pivotal scenes. In each movie, his characters project confidence in their abilities, whether he is portraying as a Saudi Arabian officer, a warrior monk or a bounty hunter, and an easy adaptability to changing circumstances, which perfectly mirrors the forceful personality of Ahmed al-Qurtubi.
The first meeting of Esperanza and Ahmed reveals more of his dangerous nature:
The Mohammedan leader stroked his beard as he stood. “There might be more coin for me elsewhere, but I’m uncertain it lies within the old kingdom of Valencia.” He reached beneath a fold in his cloak and withdrew a long curved blade with weaving lines along its surface. He pointed the sword at Esperanza, who shriveled against the rock.
“You see this, little hope? The finest steel from Damascus. I took this from the first man I slaughtered more than twenty years ago. It has never left my hands since then. I remember each person it has killed. I have never beheld another blade of the same quality and craftsmanship, until today.”
He pulled another weapon from within the cloak. The jewel-encrusted handle glittered in the darkness. Esperanza shuddered as he held up the dagger she had last seen in her father’s hands.
Next time, learn more about Fadil al-Qurtubi, Ahmed’s young nephew and the chief tormentor of Esperanza and her counterpart Miriam, in Sultana: Two Sisters.