This is an excerpt from a work in progress: an alternative history novel, set in the Arabian peninsula around the time Islam was being founded.
The rear guard had suddenly started urging their camels on with panicked yells. Hussein couldn’t tell what the problem seemed to be; no other human was in view. There was nothing for miles; the sun’s light and heat hammered down on naught but endless crests of drifting sand, and a few puffs of dust… on the horizon… Wait a minute, he thought. There’s no wind…
He realized the import of those ominous whiffs of sand to the east just as his slave screamed, “Raiders!” He joined the rest of the caravan in flight, whipping at his camel’s sides, knowing that their destination, an oasis caravanserai, was just far away enough that escape would be improbable at best.
They came out of nowhere, bursting over a large dune like a frothing wave, with savage yells and whoops of glee at spotting the overloaded camels, already congratulating each other on acquisition of such easy booty. Hussein ceased striking his mount’s flanks with the knotted ends of the reins, cursing his father’s miserliness in hiring so few guards. The raiders outnumbered them two to one.
He pulled out his saber and, turning his camel, led two of his guards in a desperate charge at one of the raiders. Hussein could see only the tribesman’s eyes, outlined in kohl and fixed in a hard squint against the merciless desert sun, framed by a dun turban and a loop of cloth tucked over mouth and nose against the dust. The raider seemed to be laughing, delighted by the bravery of a worthy opponent; he pulled out his own sword and called to a companion before wheeling to meet the charge.
For the next ten minutes all was confusion; the camels grunted and complained as they were prodded in all directions, and kicked sand flew everywhere to obscure individual battles between the caravan and their attackers. Blood arced from the stump where Anwar, the guide, raised and lost his hand trying to ward off a blow aimed at his face. Grit decorated teeth bared in angry snarls, and got into Hussein’s eyes. He lost one of his guards, spitted by a crude but sharp blade through the stomach.
An earsplitting ululation rose from one of the raiders, which seemed to renew the vigor of the rest. Hussein rode toward the battle-cry and faced a slight figure swathed in a striped tunic and high boots, riding an unmatched grey stallion. When they crossed blades, Hussein found himself fighting the wind. His opponent dodged every blow, the grey seeming to read its master’s mind and sidestepping every swipe with delicacy. Hussein was swearing and cursing as he swung his saber, his shoulder aching from tension, his spine rigid with fear. How could it have come to this? He, the son of Adeeb al-Yasir, respected throughout
The grey’s rider called again, and Hussein had just enough time to realize that the vibrating yell was female before she smacked him upside the temple with the flat of her sword. He felt a brief sting before he lost consciousness, sliding off his camel onto the sand, a trickle of blood tracing a path through his beard.
Hussein woke groggily from a biting pain in his wrists and back, and stared up at the ceiling of an unfamiliar tent. His hands were tied behind him, knuckles digging into the small of his spine. He tried to turn over or stand, and found that both hands and ankles were bound and tethered to short stakes driven into the ground nearby, severely restricting his movement. Three other figures were similarly trussed up in the dark; he recognized the outlines of the guards Askari and Hariz, and of his slave Ayaz.
“Water,” he said, dismayed at the cracked sound that emerged. No-one answered.
“Guard?” he called. “Guard! I demand to be set free at once! I can negotiate… for the love of fire and shadow, water!”
He called out several more times, and each time only uncaring silence met his pleas. The heat was stifling; sunshine spiked through cracks in the tent, and sand piled up in its corners. The mounting pain in his wrists was intensified with every movement; nevertheless, he wriggled and writhed, attempting without success to free himself. He pulled at the ropes, but the stakes were driven deep and would not budge. Someone had wet all the ropes after tying them, so that the knots would swell until they would be all but impossible to untie.
“Master?” a thin, weak voice asked next to him.
“Can you reach my bindings?” he asked Ayaz. The boy only groaned and shook his head. He mentally cursed his slave’s weakness, choosing to disregard the similarity in their situations.
Abruptly, the tent flap was thrown open, and blazing sunlight blinded them. Hussein squinted and cursed. One of his captors, a large, stocky man in characteristic Berber garb, looked in.
“Some of them are awake,” he said over his shoulder to a figure Hussein couldn’t make out.
“I’ll tell Imran,” the shadow replied, and disappeared.
“Please,” Hussein said, shamed by his own wheedling tone, “please, water – I need water soon. So does my slave,” he added as an afterthought.
“We don’t waste water on those we intend to kill,” the guard answered indifferently, and left.
Hussein felt a jolt of panic at these words. But I haven’t even been to
Trained by poets and tutors in rhetoric from childhood, he prided himself on his ability to persuade people. Somehow, however, he didn’t really think the flowery phrases, allegories, and intellectual back-and-forth on theological and philosophical points in which he specialized would particularly impress these tribesmen. They were little better than wild animals, after all. No culture, no real history, no proper religion, no decent clothing. They were sandy and dirty all the time, as were all their livestock and possessions.
How he longed for the fountain in his father’s courtyard! He could almost feel the deliciously cool water, tasting slightly of the dank darkness of the underground cistern, run over his face and into his mouth. How long had it been since he had drunk anything? It had been several hours before the attack – the caravan had been conserving water until the oasis it had never reached, so as not to run out.
Hussein was left in the tent for some time after that brief check from the guard; he didn’t know if it was one hour or six. The shadows on the tent wall were muted and diffuse, and he couldn’t tell how far they had moved by the time two silent guards entered the tent.
He was dragged out; he didn’t get a chance to discover whether or not his legs, cramped from immobility, would have worked. His throat felt as though he had been gargling with gravel. The sun was lower. It was early evening.
Half-blind, feeling half-dead, terrified, hands still bound behind him, he was thrown unceremoniously through the entrance of a large tent. He landed on his side and one shoulder, but managed to raise himself to his knees with only a minimal struggle. He kept his face as impassive as he knew how as he raised his eyes to face his captor for the first time.
The figure confronting him was enormous – the yards of cloth in his garb might have been adequate to make a small tent. His tunic-style mantle was striped in green and white, and looked nearly clean, save for some grease stains near the cuffs. He wore a belt of silver chains, intricately woven together and ornamented with gemstones; a single massive gold necklace rested on his barrel chest, and Hussein thought that its weight would have bowed the back of most men. His skin was dark and slightly cracked from the sun; his hair was mostly hidden beneath his ‘imama turban, which was a dusty cream color, restrained by a cord of twisted green silk; his beard was luxuriously long, and carefully oiled; his eyes were black, shadowed by a large and overhanging brow which gave him a stupid, brutish appearance at first glance. Hussein knew enough, however, to look beyond that simian brow and catch the intense and calculating intelligence in the headman’s gaze.
Headman or chief he undoubtedly was: his status was made obvious by the automatic respect in the attitudes of the raiders arrayed about him. They moved about, ate, drank, talked in low voices, left and re-entered as they pleased – but always with a sliver of awareness dedicated to monitoring him for any sign of instructions or disapproval, and none of them ever turned their backs or the soles of their feet in his direction.
When he addressed his captives, his tones were measured and even; his voice was deep; his language, neither crude nor refined.
“I am known as Abu Ghaffar to the likes of you. You and what were your possessions and chattel now belong to us, the Mahashir. Who led you?”
Hussein could not help but look around at Ayaz and his guards, all of whom looked as taken aback as he did. It should have been clear as the sun in the sky. He was the only one of the four dressed in more than a slave’s rough-spun robe, or a hired blade’s boiled leather and ringmail. His clothing was newer, richer; he wore jewelry; he sported soft leather boots that had obviously been custom-made. Then he realized that this was merely an insult; a tactic intended to make him feel less than he knew himself to be. Many might have bristled at this seeming doubt as to who was superior, and done or said something stupid; Hussein ignored it.
“I,” was all he said. His voice was raspy and barely audible, but he made no attempt to repeat himself more loudly. If they wanted him to talk, they would have to give him water.
Abu Ghaffar apparently came to the same conclusion, and a jerk of his chin brought forward a slave bearing a goat-hide waterskin. Hussein was forced to drink in the most undignified position of his life – on his knees before a hostile audience, bound, head thrown back, gulping when he could so as not to waste the water that the slave poured in a steady trickle into his mouth. He spilled none.
* * * * * * * * * *
She watched the soft, aristocratic noble from behind her screen.
The screen had been a matter of some contention between her father and her. If it were up to him, she would never have had a part in any of his ceremonial or official tribal duties. Were it up to her, she would be openly seated at his right hand, listening to and advising his decisions as his heir. The arrangement they had finally reached after many stormy arguments, whereby she could hear and observe behind a carved wooden screen pierced in geometric patterns, but not participate, was a true compromise, in that it satisfied neither of them.