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The Sword

Chapter 9 - Prince Ali Greets His Young, Unexpected "Guests"

It took three full days for the soldiers and their captives to finally reach the huge Almoravid encampment outside the town of Ubeda.

The journey there had been strangely quiet. Diego and Martin were both surprised at the commander’s calm manner, which stood in stark contrast to that of their lord, Rodrigo.

The soldiers were all well disciplined and followed their leader’s orders without question. They said little to their captives, and were especially respectful in their treatment of Zaina.

The commander, Ahmad, wore Tizona securely fastened through the sash around his waist. Diego had spent much of the journey staring at the sword, trying to think of a way to get it back and escape. But by the time they arrived outside Ubeda, he was still without a plan and their situation was beginning to look hopeless.

They were being led into the middle of an entire Almoravid army. Row upon row of low rectangular tents covered the southern slope of the wide valley leading to the hilltop walls of Ubeda. They were greeted by many curious stares as Ahmad led them toward the center of the busy encampment.

Finally the commander ordered a halt in a wide clear area surrounded by a group of large tents. Everyone dismounted and waited as Ahmad spoke with an older man who emerged from one of the tents to greet him.

Although he could not hear what was said, Martin guessed from gestures and expressions that the commander’s unusual set of prisoners was the topic of their lively discussion. The conversation ended and Ahmad approached them.

“You will meet with Prince Ali tomorrow, and I will present him with your gift. In the meantime, you will accept our hospitality.” To one of his soldiers he ordered, “Take the boys to Hasan ibn Tariq. Explain to him the situation. See that they are kept under close guard.”

Turning to Zaina, he said, “You, young lady, will come with me.”

Joseph started to object. “Where are you taking her?” he shouted. “What are you …”

“Do not worry about her,” Ahmad interrupted. “She is going to be with the women, as she should be.” To Zaina he added, “Your choice of friends is very strange. But their loyalty is certainly beyond question.” He laughed. “I must take good care of you, or they will have my head!”

Soldiers took each of the boys by the arm and led them across the open space toward one of the large tents. Martin looked back in time to see Zaina looking at them, a frightened expression on her face, as Ahmad led her away in the opposite direction.

The boys soon found themselves sharing a large carpet in the tent of Hasan ibn Tariq, a tall imposing man with massive features. They could hear the voices of several soldiers who stood guard outside.

Hasan ordered three young servants to bring food. They quickly reappeared with bread, fruit, and a plate of soft sweet wafers. Martin had not realized how hungry he had become. Apparently, the same was true of the other boys, as the food was quickly consumed.

Like Ahmad, Hasan proved to be a man of few words. When they were finished eating, he gestured to the cushions and blankets stacked in one corner of the tent.

“Sleep. Tomorrow you meet Prince Ali. He will decide your fate. You will need your rest.” With that he reached up and untied cords that held heavy tapestries that unrolled to form a partition dividing the tent in half, leaving the boys alone in near darkness.

For a while they could hear Hasan on the other side of the partition speaking with someone, but then the voices moved away outside the tent.

“What are we going to do?” whispered Joseph.

“Escape, of course,” answered Diego.

Martin grabbed Diego’s sleeve. “Now, Diego, I know you’re keen to prove yourself a hero like lord Rodrigo, but we’re in the middle of an entire Almoravid army!”

“Lord Rodrigo ordered us to find the sword and return it to him. We are honor bound to at least try. We’ll wait until it is fully dark and …”

“Shhhh! Listen!” interrupted Malik.

Martin didn’t hear anything at first. But then the distant sound of singing reached his ears. High and clear, the voice was unmistakable. “Zaina!” breathed Joseph. Malik shushed him again and they sat silently listening for a while.

“They’ve given her an oud,” Malik whispered.

“You’re right,” agreed Joseph. “I’m sure that’s her playing.”

Malik turned to Diego. “We should follow her voice -- find her, rescue her.”

“We’re not after the girl, Malik. We have to get the sword,” Diego answered coldly.

Martin elbowed Diego. “And where did you last see the sword, Diego?”

“Ahmad still had it.”

“And who was with Ahmad last time you saw him?”

Diego thought about this for a moment. “There’s no guarantee that he’s still with her. He said she was to be put with the women. But since we don’t have any better place to start, I guess we might as well begin there.”

“But still, how are we going to get out of here past the guards, not to mention the rest of the army?” Malik asked.

“I know!” volunteered Joseph. The others looked at him doubtfully. Reaching into a pocket of his vest, he fished out a worn piece of leather. He unfolded it and lifted a long shiny needle from its center.

Diego rolled his eyes. “I don’t think that qualifies as a weapon, Joseph.”

Joseph was unfazed. “I’ve grown up in the cloth trade. I know how to work with fabric. I know how things are put together.”

“So how does that …?” Diego wondered.

“Tents are made of cloth. Anything that’s been sewn together with a needle can be taken apart with one.”

Soon Joseph was hard at work with his needle unraveling a seam at the back of the tent. It was not long before he had created an opening just wide enough for the boys to squeeze through. Joseph cautiously peeked through the hole. “I don’t see anybody. It’s dark now,” he reported.

“Then let us hurry,” urged Malik. “Before she stops singing.”

Quietly, the four boys crawled through the opening. They crouched for a moment outside the tent listening. Zaina’s voice could still be heard in the distance. It seemed to be coming from somewhere farther up the slope in the direction of the town.

Stealthily, the boys made their way among the tents toward the music. Several times they had to stop and hide for long minutes to avoid being detected by small groups of soldiers patrolling the camp. All of the boys shared the same unspoken hope -- that Zaina would continue singing long enough for them to locate her.

Finally, they found themselves at the edge of another wide, clear area surrounded by especially large tents. From one of them came the sound of Zaina’s angelic voice, accompanied by her oud. Diego led them, as they cautiously crawled to the back of the tent.

Finding a seam, he gestured to Joseph, who moved silently to lie beside him. Taking out his needle, Joseph set to work on the stitching. Shortly, he had a small hole through which he could look.

What he saw surprised him. Although the back of someone sitting nearby blocked much of his view of the interior, he could easily make out Zaina and at least eight or nine other young women. They seemed to be having a good time!

“Can you see Ahmad?” Diego hissed in his ear.

“No. No sign of any men. They’re all girls. And I think it’s a party!”

Discouraged, Diego sat considering what to do next. Malik carefully made his way up to Joseph’s side and peered through the opening. “At least we can rescue Zaina,” he whispered to Diego.

“It hardly looks like she needs rescuing! She’s holding a concert!” Diego hissed back.

Malik and Joseph both gave Diego a look that, even in the feeble moonlight, was unmistakable. They were going in with or without him.

With a sigh, Diego nodded at Joseph whose nimble fingers immediately went back to work on the seam. Soon the gap was wide enough for someone to get through.

“It must be me,” Malik said quietly as Zaina began another song. Diego gave him a nod in reply. Without further hesitation, Malik plunged through the opening. Zaina’s song was interrupted by shrieks of surprise. But Malik quickly said, “Sing, Zaina!”

Immediately, she smiled broadly at Malik and picked up where she left off singing even louder and more joyfully than before. While Zaina sang, the other women looked curiously at Malik and began whispering and giggling among themselves. Some began modestly covering their heads with scarves. When Zaina finished a verse of her song, one of the older among the ladies said quietly, “This is him?”

“Yes!” she replied softly. “This is Malik.”

The younger girls dissolved into laughter and more whispered comments.

Feeling a little embarrassed, Malik bowed his head politely to the ladies. “We’ve come to get you. We’re trying to escape. The others are just outside,” he said quickly to Zaina.

Zaina opened her mouth to reply, but was suddenly interrupted by the sound of men’s voices outside the tent, followed immediately by the entrance of several men including Ahmad.

“Well!” he said, brows raised in surprise. “It seems we’re not the only ones drawn like moths to the flame of this girl’s voice!” Turning to one of the soldiers behind him, he ordered, “Find the others. They’re nearby somewhere.”

Malik stood frozen, not sure what to do. Zaina nervously bit her lip. The other ladies were doing their best to look serious and proper. Ahmad scanned the tent and shook his head.

Gesturing to the young man standing beside him, he said, “Malik, Zaina, this is Prince Ali ibn Yusuf, the commander of the army whose guests you are.”

Malik and Zaina bowed their heads respectfully. Both were surprised at the prince’s appearance. With the possible exception of the ornate dagger he wore in the sash at his waist, there was little to distinguish him from Ahmad or any of the other men with him.

“I was expecting to meet you tomorrow, Malik,” said the prince simply. “But I see you couldn’t stay away from your young lady. Now that I see her, and having heard her music, I can’t say I blame you.”

A half dozen soldiers entered the tent dragging Diego and the other boys in with them. Ahmad turned to the Prince. “These are her other companions. Two Castilians and a Jew from Cuenca.”

“I will meet with them tomorrow as planned,” the prince replied. “I came to hear music.”

Ahmad commanded the soldiers, “Take them back to Hasan ibn Tariq. Tell him for me that he must be getting old, letting boys slip through his fingers like that. Tell him it must not happen again.”

Malik and the other boys were quickly hustled out of the tent and back down the hill. They soon found themselves back on the carpet in Hasan’s tent. Hasan was not happy. “Which of you damaged my tent?” he growled.

“I did,” answered Joseph bravely. Hasan tossed him a roll of coarse thread. “Fix it!” he ordered. “Then sleep!”

Joseph went to work repairing the tent, which proved to be a lot more work than taking it apart had been. The other boys just sat glumly watching him. In the distance they could hear Zaina’s voice, clear and strong singing traditional songs of Al-Andalus.

The next morning shortly after dawn, Hasan woke the boys. “Get up!” he roared. “You have an appointment with the Prince. You cannot be late.” The servant boys quickly set some bread and fruit in front of them. They had barely begun to eat when Ahmad, accompanied by two of his soldiers, arrived at the tent.

A few words were exchanged between Hasan and Ahmad. Martin guessed by their tone that they were old friends. Then Ahmad stepped into the tent. “Bring a piece of fruit and eat it on the way if you like. We have to go now. The prince is a busy man.”

The boys were led back up the slope toward the same group of large tents they had visited the night before. They crossed the open central space to a tent located on the opposite end from the women’s tent. Ahmad gestured for the boys to enter ahead of him.

Martin blinked as his eyes adjusted to the relatively dim lighting inside the tent. In front of him was the prince sitting by himself on a carpet with Tizona on display before him.

To his left, sitting a little apart were three young women, their heads modestly covered with scarves, and Zaina. On his right sat several older men who Martin took to be advisors of some sort. Ahmad bowed to the prince. The other boys took the cue and did the same. Then, Ahmad gestured for the boys to sit on the carpets in the center.

“I have heard your remarkable story,” began the prince. “Your songbird explained it in great detail to my wife,” he said, gesturing toward one of the young women.

Martin glanced over at Zaina and noticed that the back of her right hand and wrist was beautifully decorated with henna. Zaina’s evening with the women had indeed been something of a party!

The prince looked down at the sword in front of him. “So tell me of your lord, Rodrigo Diaz. What sort of a man is he, beyond what legend says of him?”

“The legends are true,” began Diego proudly. “He is a great warrior who has never lost a battle. He has defeated many powerful enemies including …”

“Yes, I know, I know.” answered the prince waving his hand dismissively. “But what about the man?”

Diego seemed taken aback. “He is very courageous …”

“He is also a very proud man,” Martin interrupted. “He is very generous to his friends, but at the same time he can be very cruel to those he sees as enemies. He is quick to anger, and he does not like to be told what to do by others -- even his king.” Diego looked offended, but didn’t say anything.

The prince laughed. “Yes, I’ve heard he and Alfonso do not get along. It has been difficult for us to keep track of whether the two of them are reconciled or not. We prefer it when they are at odds with one another.”

“We were on our way to Toledo when we lost the sword,” Martin offered. “Lord Rodrigo was going there to meet with the king. Of course, we know nothing of the outcome.”

“A dangerous man, El Cid,” the prince said to no one in particular. “Independent, cunning, unpredictable -- a worthy adversary in the struggle to come.”

Turning to Malik he said, “And you took this magnificent weapon intending to present it to me -- or perhaps, my father?” Malik, looking miserable, just nodded.

Turning to one of the older men nearby, the Prince said, “What do you make of this, Salim?”

The old man stroked at his graying beard thoughtfully. “It is a splendid sword, my lord -- the finest of workmanship. It would be a fitting weapon for you to take into battle.”

Then, looking over at Malik he added, “But you did not win this sword in battle or take it as ransom for a captured enemy. It was taken -- stolen -- by a young man hoping to win favor with you. There is no honor in this.”

Prince Ali looked over at his wife and smiled. “I agree,” he announced. Turning to Malik, he said, “As much as I would like to have it, I cannot accept such a gift from a thief. Possession of it would make me no better than one. Allah would not be pleased.”

Diego straightened, a hopeful look on his face. Prince Ali looked at him. “You must return this weapon with my compliments to El Cid. Tell him that I very much look forward to taking it from him on the field of battle.”

For a long moment, no one said anything. The boys were too stunned to speak. Ahmad finally broke the silence. “My lord, you would release these Castilians without even a ransom of some kind? It might make you appear weak to their lord.”

Prince Ali considered this a moment. “Ahmad, you said that a couple of the horses they rode were exceptional.”

“Yes, my lord. Especially the grey ridden by the young lady. It is a magnificent animal.”

Malik spoke up. “That horse belongs to my family. On behalf of my family, I freely give her to you as ransom for the two Castilians.”

“Done!” said the prince.

The prince then rose, and everyone else immediately stood up as well. Martin guessed that this signaled the end of their meeting.

Prince Ali then walked out of the tent into the open area outside. The others followed.

To the boys' surprise, they found a soldier standing just outside holding the reins of their horses. The prince went over to the grey and patted her on the nose.

“Yes, Ahmad, a beautiful animal. I believe I did well with this ransom. You Castilians should be proud that your freedom commanded such a price.” He then walked over to Zaina who was standing with the women and looked into her eyes.

“There is much to love about Spain,” he said. “It is a beautiful country full of wondrous things -- beautiful music, fine horses, amazing buildings, wonderful poetry. It is a green, productive land that should be the jewel of a Muslim empire -- as it once was.”

Turning to the rest of them he continued, “But sadly it has been corrupted. Greedy princes fight among themselves over riches and even ally themselves with Christian kings to get what they want. They have forgotten who they are. If we are not careful, Spain could be lost to the Christians. Allah would not be pleased. And it is all because for too long there have been too many voices in Al-Andalus.”

In answer to the boys' questioning looks, he explained, “You know how in a crowded room with many people talking it is difficult to hear and understand the words of someone with whom you are conversing? Such a situation is distracting. It is difficult to concentrate on what is being said to you. That is what Al-Andalus has become. Muslims here are hearing too many differing voices to be able to hear and understand the true voice of Allah and Muhammad his prophet. To be united, the people must be of one mind, one faith.”

Zaina walked over to stand with the boys. With her right hand, she took Martin’s hand and with her left, she held Joseph’s. “Sometimes,” she said, “the best music is made with a chorus of different voices. That is Al-Andalus.”

The prince smiled at her. “Go, get out of here before you corrupt us all! Ahmad and his men will escort you part of the way home.”

Turning to Diego he said, “Do not forget my message to your lord. And make no mistake, if we meet in battle, I would not hesitate to kill you.”

He then gestured to Salim, who was standing nearby with Tizona. Salim handed the sword to Diego. “Now go,” the prince commanded.

Zaina said her goodbyes to each of the women, who all seemed genuinely sorry to see her go. Then, they all mounted their horses, Zaina riding behind Malik on his big bay.

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