Return

Return I

In the year 1181, six years before Salah al-Din captured Jerusalem from the Crusaders, the lands of the Levant and Egypt were in a constant state of political flux. The Islamic forces, lead by Salah al-Din were not only moving out across the area and beyond in hopes of expanding the empire, but to quell uprisings within it. At the same time the Crusaders were moving in from the West and threatening the expansion and the very existence of the empire. Throughout the deserts and mountain ares of Bilad el Sham (now Syria), as well as along the coast, many fortresses and palaces were erected as strongholds for the army and places of refuge for the Sultan and his soldiers during their long marches to and from the outland territories. It is in January of this year that Salah al-Din travels to Cairo, leaving the Syrian division of his army in Damascus under the leadership General Farrouhk Shah. And at the same time, it is 40 Farsakh North-East of Damascus, near the ruins of Palmyra, at Kasr al-Heyr al Sharki (The Eastern Palace) that this story begins.

The stone wall was cold to the touch. It hadn’t felt like this for months. I pulled my hand away, not wishing for the chill to pass through more of me than the tips of my fingers. I couldn’t bare for it to linger within my body for certainly it would be a long time before I could rid myself of the cold that settles in the bones. Winter was truly approaching and I drew my shawl tightly around me as I thought about how the desert had become more inhospitable than usual; sands swirled and covered everything with a thick carpet. Only within these thick and sturdy walls could one find respite from the marauding winds. Only here at Kasr al-Heyr al Sharki could I find some comfort while I waited, seemingly endlessly, for the return of the man who would be my husband.

I was brought here, to this outpost, by my father, a commander in the Sultan’s army. As his only daughter, he deemed it appropriate that I should marry a military man and did not consider it a difficult life for me to be plucked from the arms of my mother at such a young age and deposited here. Here, in a man’s garrison of stone. Here, in the desert where one wholly feels the scorching heat of summer and the barren cold of winter. Two Jawari¹ were assigned to me and became my only friends and confidants, although our closeness was always restricted by our stations in life. Still, in the loneliness of this exile from my home, an understanding smile or a shoulder to lean on from anyone familiar was most welcome.

I had no knowledge of the man to whom I was betrothed, simply that he was an excellent leader and a superior strategist. Not the sort of thing a young girl cares to know about her future husband, not really anyway. But how does he look? Does he enjoy reading? How old is he? I had begged my father to tell me. These things are immaterial, was his usual response, your well-being and your children’s will always be in good hands. How often I had lain in bed before sleeping imagining a strong and handsome warrior who would rescue me from this horrid place, a man with whom I would fall instantly in love, and he with me. And then, how often I awoke the following morning from a dreadful nightmare of a life trapped with a grisly, cruel, old man. That was the image that haunted my days.

I pulled even tighter on my shawl as the narrow corridors of the castle interior became uncommonly busy. People from all posts of the palace hurried toward the central courtyard. Nothing had been told to me of the events of the day so I had no idea whether they were gathering to fight an enemy or to welcome an important guest. Frightened, I made my way as quickly as I could against the flow of people and toward the towers that overlook the western entrance. I had almost reached the tower, when I heard my name being called. “Sett² Wajiha! Wajiha! Wait!” It was Laila, my servant and closest friend. I could barely see her small body winding its way through the crowd except for her hands waving wildly. I stopped and leaned against the inner wall of the corridor to wait for her, my heart beating wildly. As she reached me, I saw the positive excitement on her face and I felt my body relax.

“What is it, Laila? What’s happening?” I asked anxiously.

She paused to catch her breath and looked up at me with her intelligent brown eyes. “It is the General Farrouhk Shah with the forces of Bilad el Sham³. They are staying several weeks, and maybe longer!”

I knew little of the growing Islamic empire but I knew that the Muslim forces were very powerful. The Syrian troops made up a large part of the well-trained army of Sultan Salah al-Din. The General would be well-regarded by the people here and his soldiers would be treated very well. Ironically, years ago, the Caliph of Damascus had originally commissioned this place to get away from the “easy life”, but to these soldiers who normally spend their time on battle fields and in desert camps, the fortress would truly be a palace of comfort.

“Can we see them from the towers? Are they that close?”

“Yes! Let’s go!” Laila’s eyes flickered with delight as she pulled at my arm. Then she remembered her place and stopped. “That is, if you wish, Sett Wajiha.”

“Yes! Come on!” This time I took her hand and we ran for the towers. I had seen approaching troops only once before and it had only been a small division of foot soldiers. It was exciting enough to watch them, but I imagined the arrival of the General and his soldiers would likely be much more impressive.

The tower closest to the entrance was guarded so Laila and I entered the southern-most tower. After climbing a winding staircase we found only a small slit in the facade. It was just big enough for us to share the view. My heart beat wildly as I strained my eyes to see something. Before I got a glimpse of anything, I could hear, clearly, the sound of hundreds of thundering hooves moving across the desert. I had just begun to feel their rhythm beating in the pit of my stomach when something glimmered in the distance. Suddenly, seemingly right out of the sand, grew a black line that shimmered and pulsed as it grew closer. We watched even more intently now, awe and excitement gripping us. The line seemed so far away and then to abruptly appear right before us.

Silk banners, as far as the eye could see, moved through the wind like the soft undulation of water in a stream. Below them, was a sea of soldiers wrapped in black robes on magnificent stallions. Out in front was the General awaiting entry to the fortress. He sat upright in his saddle, a slight man with a chiseled face and eyes like fire, completely like one with his horse. He was so intimidating that I hoped, intensely, that my father would never introduce me to him. And it was my father, who was the man to meet the General first and to escort him to the entrance.

I leaned away from the window. “Oh Laila! That was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in my life!”

She still had her small face in the opening and sighed. “Me too.” Then she turned and looked at me with alarm in every feature.

“Laila?”

“He is here, Sett Wajiha.”

“Who is?”

“The man you are to marry.”

—–

¹Jawari pl (Jariyah singular) – Higher class slaves. Women who would eventually become concubines.

²Sett – Lady

³Bilad el Sham – Name of the lands which are now called Syria.

—-

Return II – Pain and Fear

The arrowhead had badly bruised my ribs and created a painful gash between them. The offending weapon had been removed immediately after the skirmish at Tripoli but the “surgeon’s” stitching was raw. The rough overland ride shook much of his work free. I vaguely remember the long journey back to Damascus. An infection in the wound had given me a fever and the delirium rendered me incapable of riding my own horse most of the time. Even the strongest of warriors are easily brought down by the demons that eat at the flesh and blur the mind. It was a difficult situation for me to swallow, riding without command of the reigns and slumped weakly on the powerful neck of my trusted horse.

“Well, at least it didn’t kill you, Adnan. Be glad for that, my friend.” Laughed Imad, my long time friend and fellow soldier, as we wandered in the open souk one afternoon after my recovery. I had never complained about my situation, but he saw the frustration in my eyes, the winces when the pain was too much. Imad and I had joined the Sultan’s army as very young men. In fact, we were incarcerated first and then, after much cajoling, were allowed to join. Our initial contact with the army had been through a dare. Imad had challenged me to enter the training grounds where the archers were practicing. Then we dared each other to pick up a bow and to see who could hit the target first. Mine struck the target, his grazed the leg of the commander. We were summarily escorted to a holding cell for several days.

Our friendship had grown in strength from that of boys to the unyielding allegiance of men sworn to always have each other’s backs. We had a mutual respect for each other’s strengths and a keen knowledge of each other’s weaknesses. Imad was a strong, intelligent leader. Many of his battle strategies had been noticed and adopted by the General. He was amiable and, at the same time, a fierce fighter – albeit a terrible archer. We joined the cavalry because we were both strong riders and physically robust – able to easily swing a battle-axe or a mace. I still spent time in archery and grew to be quite skilled at it. I adopted the kaws Ferengi¹ as my weapon of choice on a horse and, between the two of us, Imad and I, the enemy had little chance of passing through alive. That was…until Tripoli.

“We should see the dancers tonight.” Imad was fond of being entertained by the female form. As much as I enjoyed seeing beautiful women, I didn’t feel up to sitting, uncomfortably, in a crowd. Even the walk in the souk was becoming a strain.

“You go ahead without me. I’d best lie down.”

“You know we’re leaving tomorrow for Kasr al-Heyr. You’ll not get another chance to see this caliber of women for a long time…especially out there.”

“Precisely why I need to rest. The long ride.”

“Ah, a man of true strength of will. Impressive but idiotic.”

“Are you calling me an idiot?”

“And what are you going to do about it, maimed one?”

“My patience knows no bounds. Some day, my friend…some day…”

Imad slapped me hard in the back as we both chuckled. The pain from the impact of his hand ripped through me like a ball of fire. I clenched my teeth in order to contain a yelp and cursed under my breath. My revenge against Imad would definitely have to wait, now all I wanted to do was to sleep a while and to, hopefully, forget about the pain.

—–

I slept restlessly throughout the night and was feeling drained by sunrise when our division was to leave for the palace. I wondered, as the nurse unwrapped and re-wrapped my wound with a fresh dressing, if it would ever heal, if I would ever feel right again. But then I thought that it really didn’t matter. Even when not at my best, my fighting skills were still adequate enough to keep me alive, especially with Imad fighting at my side. I could still serve the General in a strong enough capacity physically. I needed, and soon, to throw away this emotional crutch.

I opted not to ride wearing my armour, the mail² in particular. Holding up the weight of it would have exhausted me before we reached the outlying areas of Damascus. I mounted my horse awkwardly and watched, with a hint of jealousy, as Imad climbed gracefully onto the back of his steed. He was dressed exactly as I was, in a black tunic and black kouffieh³ wrapped tightly around his head and face. Even without weapons, his large frame was dark and imposing like bank of black clouds looming before the storm. I felt far from impressive, unable to completely straighten my back comfortably. But as we began to ride, I held myself as well as I could and became simply grateful that I was able to ride with the cavalry again.

Although winter was approaching, the desert was still miserably hot and dry. It was a place that, no matter how many times I crossed it, I never got used to it. The journey would take us the good part of the day. There was always a chance that we might be called into battle, and the General did not wish to tire the horses. I was thankful for the slow and gentle gait but Imad seemed restless.

“What is it about this palace that makes you want to reach it with such haste?” I asked him as casually as I could.

“I’m in no hurry. Exactly the opposite. In fact, I’m enjoying the landscape.”

I laughed, “You never cared for landscape before.”

Imad became quiet, unusually quiet. We rode quite a distance until I couldn’t stand the silence any longer.”You have never been quiet for this long in your entire life, my friend. Something is bothering you.”

“Every day we wake up with a certainty that that day we will look death in the eye, either at the end of our swords as we slaughter the enemy, or as the enemy’s sword slices our flesh. And of this, I have no real fear.” He paused and seemed hesitant to continue.

“Yes, of course.” I urged him to continue.

“But arriving at this palace has struck more fear in this heart than has ever been there.”

“What in Allah’s name could be at Kasr al Heyr to cause you to be so afraid?”

“A fiancée.”

—–

¹ Kaws Ferengi – Frankish Bow – the name given to the crossbow, first noticed by the Arab armies after it was used against them by the Franks.

² Mail – Known now as chainmail. A woven, metal, armour to be worn over clothing during battle.

³ Kouffieh – Traditional Arab headscarf.

—–

Return III – Knowing

“My fiancé?!” When I saw the look of panic on the face of my Lady, I knew that I should not have spoken. Her eyes always spoke so clearly of her thoughts and emotions. She could never hide them from anyone, particularly me. As she gazed at me, in a stunned silence, I saw her thoughts transform from fear to betrayal. “Laila? How do you know he is here? How do you know how he looks?”

In all the years I had served her, Sett Wajiha had always included me in all parts of her life even when she spoke privately with her father. I usually remained by the door or even in the shadows, but I was always there with her. She was uncomfortable in his presence and needed me for support. Not that I could have ever spoken in her defense without threat of death or, at the very least, a severe beating. But she appreciated my perspective on the conversations as we went over them afterward. I usually heard them far differently than she. It wasn’t that the Commander was a cruel man, or even uncaring, it was more that he seemed unable to comprehend Sett Wajiha’s unhappiness. To him, life was simply a series of negotiations and transactions and every person had a duty to play their role within.

During their conversations that involved the topic of her fiancé, my Lady became emotionally wrought and frustrated. It was clear that she heard very little of what her father said because he did not answer her questions directly. I noticed, however, although he was tight with his information, he did allow details to slip. I tried, to the best of my ability, to retain any of these vital details that pertained to her future husband’s looks, personality, position; any tidbit that might be useful for her to form an image of him in her mind. Then later, as I bathed her or brushed her hair, I spoke soothingly of what I had learned. At times I embellished, particularly on the days when she was very unsettled. Although I knew that the brave soldier she held in her heart was partly a fabrication, I couldn’t let her, as her father did, despair for years with a vision of an old and hardened soldier taking her as his wife.

One day, during the blazing heat of summer last, a small contingent of approximately twenty soldiers had passed by the palace. Perhaps they had word for the Commander from Damascus and then were moving northward to meet the troops in Al-Jazira¹ or some other place of unrest. Whatever the reason, upon arrival, the soldiers were escorted directly to the Commander without delay. I watched quietly from my hiding place, below the stairwell in the courtyard, as two soldiers approached the Commander. Both men were tall and strong; very capable warriors. As they spoke, the Commander appeared to favour the conversation of one of the soldiers in particular and when it was clear that the official business was over, he placed his hand on that soldier’s shoulder and they walked away to speak privately.

At the time, I hadn’t thought much about this exchange. Since I was first brought to Kasr al Heyr as a child, I had always been curious about the business at the palace. I had easily learned to be stealthy and had found the best hiding places from which I could observe official dealings. I had witnessed numerous conversations between the Commander and high-ranking officers. Most of the time, like today, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could usually tell from their expressions and gestures, whether the situation was critical or just a general exchange. There had been nothing extraordinary about the conversation with the two soldiers, and yet it had stayed in my mind all this time but until today, I couldn’t pinpoint why. I knew that Sett Wajiha had no living relatives in the Sultan’s army so I could not figure out the Commander’s partiality to this particular soldier.

After the Commander had met with General Shah, upon the troops’ arrival at the palace today, the same tall and fierce soldier had approached the commander. They shook hands and then the Commander embraced him; an action I have never seen the Commander make…to anyone. That is when I made the connection that this man could possibly be Sett Wajiha’s fiancé. But how could I tell her that I had had this information all along but had never shared it with her?

“Sett Wajiha, forgive me. Perhaps I have spoken too soon.”

“You never speak unless you are certain of what you have to say.”

“This time it is not a certainty, only an observation which I may have misconstrued.” I was suddenly very uneasy and, when I looked at my Lady’s face, startled. I had never seen her looked so stormy.

“Laila, I have never taken advantage of my position over you. I have never commanded you to do anything. But today…you will tell me what you know about my fiancé!”

I reached for my Lady’s hand and, when she took it, I ushered her down the now empty hallways toward the courtyard. As we descended the stairs, the cacophony of a thousand voices and rattling armor assailed us. I could feel my heart beating wildly in my chest and I imagined that my Lady was feeling the same sensation, perhaps more so. Half way down the stairs, I scanned the crowd for the formidable pair of soldiers but quickly realized that the troops were formed by a large number of formidable men.

“He’s out there, Sett Wajiha, I just don’t know where.”

“That poor man.”

That was not the response I had expected and when I turned to look at my Lady and to follow her gaze, I saw that her full attention was on a wounded soldier. She had always had a soft heart for the wounded and a natural inclination for healing.

“Look. He is trying to walk proudly but the pain is too much. Oh Laila, I must help him!”

Before I could say anything, Sett Wajiha had descended the stairs and had approached the soldier. As she spoke to him, he smiled kindly but appeared to refuse her assistance. She looked up at me with pleading eyes. She needed to help him. She needed to feel useful.

I ran down to meet them, eyes lowered. “My Lady?”

“Laila, this soldier needs new bandages.”

“Really, I’m fine. I just need a place to sit.”

“I know a comfortable place, sir…” I looked up at him and realized, immediately, who he was.

—–
¹Al-Jazira – Upper Mesopotamia

—–

Return IV – Introductions

I always marveled at how Adnan could easily capture the attention of women without trying. Not that I ever had a problem but it never felt effortless. Women seemed drawn to his quiet charm more easily than the boisterousness of me and my other comrades. And yet, after years of observing his behaviour and knowing mine, I couldn’t change my approach. Women seemed to bring out my mischievous side and as a result, the types I preferred – namely the quiet, pretty girls – wanted nothing to do with me. For the last hour I had been trying, but failing, to calm my nerves by chatting it up with the men around me, quite oblivious to Adnan’s whereabouts. It was just now that I looked over, toward the courtyard’s surrounding walls, and saw him, already, with a sweet looking girl at his side. I couldn’t help but smile to myself even though I knew that the reason he was over there was because he was angry with me.

I should have told Adnan about being engaged long before now. I hadn’t because I didn’t want to talk about it at all. I wanted to forget about it, to pretend it wasn’t a part of my life. If I had told Adnan it would have become very real. Too real. It wasn’t that I had anything against marriage, and, at twenty-five, I was the right age to take a wife, but the thing that bothered me was the uncertainty. I had no idea to whom I was engaged. I had made an arrangement with the Commander. He had always treated me so well, almost like a son, and when he asked me to wed his only daughter, it was impossible for me to say no. In fact, given that the Commander was particular about everything, I should have been honoured. At that time, we were leaving for Egypt and it looked like our troops might remain there for a long stretch. It was much easier to say yes when I knew I could avoid the wedding for several years.

Over time, I had started to wonder why the Commander had never introduced me to his daughter. Granted, when he first asked me to marry her, she wasn’t at Kasr al Heyr. But I had been here on one brief occasion, after he had brought her here, but he did not make an attempt to bring us together. Could it be that she was terribly ugly, or annoyingly stupid, or possibly a spoiled brat who wanted everything her way? The negative possibilities were endless and these thoughts haunted me constantly. Everyone always dreams about marrying for love, even though it is a rare occurrence. The next best thing is to hope that the person with whom you enter wedlock, will be someone with whom you can eventually fall in love. But I worried that this daughter may be someone I could only tolerate, at best, and that I would have to spend as much time as I could away from home and with the army.

Now, I was trying to avoid the Commander as well as I could without appearing to do so. Soon, however, it would be my duty to greet him and if I did not, he would question me as to why. He had disappeared from the courtyard with General Shah, presumably to his office. I wondered whether I should approach him there or to wait until he re-emerged into the courtyard. Without much thought, I opted for the second choice. I decided, while I had time, to go to Adnan to make amends, or at least, to see what he was up to. The young lady and her jariyah had escorted him to a sitting area at the far end of the courtyard. As I wended my way through the crowd of soldiers and got closer to Adnan, I could see that he was engaged in jovial conversation with her. I immediately felt envious. I envied her for having his attention, and I envied him such delightful company. I stopped for a moment and felt my body tense and my mouth drawn tight so, before I approached them, I put a smile on my face.

“Adnan, my friend! I’ve been looking for you all over!” I slapped my hand hard on his shoulder. “Ah, I see you’ve found the company of some lovely young ladies, you sly devil.”

Adnan scowled at me, “Hello, Imad.”

“I’m afraid he’s angry with me, ladies, but hopefully he’ll be kind enough to introduce us.” I looked at the two girls. The jariyah was no more than twelve with the most angelic face I had ever seen. Her eyes were lowered dutifully but the slightest of smiles indicated that she was quite aware of what was going on. The lady was plain to look at but her eyes betrayed a keen spirit. She looked to be about fifteen or sixteen and may blossom soon into womanhood. I found myself mesmerized by the glow of her olive skin, that which I could see, and I began thinking about how much I wanted to touch her. Just her hand or her cheek but the impulse was overwhelming me.

I was jolted back from these thoughts by Adnan’s dry voice. “This is Sett Wajiha and her servant, Laila.”

“A pleasure.” I smiled and nodded at Wajiha. Laila looked up at me, then, with large, wide-set eyes. For someone so young, she was stunningly sensual. In a few years, she would be easily chosen as a concubine. I wondered, then, where she was from, and at what age she was torn from her mother to be a servant. From her features, I guessed she was from a Bedouin tribe but in these times of war and conquering, it was uncertain. I pushed these thoughts aside and concentrated on Wajiha. She seemed too refined to be living in such a remote place as Kasr al Heyr and I was instantly curious about her. “Apparently you have provided good company for this wayward man.”

Adnan shook his head in dismay, but Wajiha smiled so brightly that she lit up the entire world around her. “I saw that he was injured. I hoped that I could provide him with some comfort.”

Adnan smiled and nodded at her. “Your help is very much appreciated, Wajiha. Thank you.”

“I should get injured more often, if this is the reward!” I smiled at Wajiha and she giggled. A sweet, feminine giggle was a sound I could never tire of. Maybe, I thought, that’s why I was incessantly mischievous around women.

“Perhaps you will be injured and sooner than you expect.” Adnan hissed quietly.

Just as I was about to retort, the Commander appeared before us. Adnan struggled to his feet. “Hello, Commander.”

My heart beat wildly in my chest as I looked at him. I tried to find one word to form on my tongue but nothing came.

“Hello, Adnan. Hello, Imad. I see you’ve met my daughter.”

—–

Return V – The Walls Around Me

I remember sitting by a stream as a little girl and watching the world through it’s reflection. I could see the clouds there as they drifted by overhead, and smiled as the ripples in the water interrupted their perfect tufted fullness. The earth and the reeds along the banks, melded with one another through the water into hues and shapes of what, in my mind, could only be found in another world. A world of beautiful imperfection. When I looked closer into the fluid mirror, an elfin girl stared back at me. The water distorted her face. At times she looked lovely, lustrous and mild, while at others, mischievous, even frightening. I would dip my toe in to reach hers, hoping we might connect and that she would take me with her to her world. But she would always disappear into the depth of the stream seemingly afraid of my touch. A great disappointment overwhelmed me every time even though, logically, I knew that she was simply a reflection. I still longed for some kind of magic, some kind of spell to sweep me away.

My world was steeped in perfection. I spent hours a day being cultivated into the most refined lady. My father’s position required a certain standard that he, and my mother and I, had to live by. When my father was away, which was often, my mother, although stern, acknowledged my yearning for play, exploration, and freedom. As long as I learned my lessons for the morning, I was free to do as I wished in the afternoons. However, when my father was home, he constantly required me to be present and on my best behaviour. There had always been something about being with my father that crushed my spirit. With a wave of his hand he could dismiss my happiness like a breath in the wind. I think the reason lies directly in our conflicting outlooks on life. He wanted to control it. I wanted to experience it. He wanted to strategize. I wanted to dream.

Baba exploded like a battering ram into these most energizing moments I had with Adnan and his friend, Imad. After his first words I could feel the heat rising in me, the anger entangling my heart. I wanted something, anything, that was my own experience, something that he was not part of. I wanted to be free to be me, a person in her own right and not always his. I had tried on so many occasions, since arriving at the palace,to find a private place for myself. I had befriended the gardeners and worked happily for weeks in the plentiful gardens. I felt useful, engaged, and energized. When father discovered that I had been working there he banned me from the gardens and severely punished the gardeners for having allowed me to assist them. Another time, it became known to him that I was making weekly visits to the small library and choosing my own books. Again, he banned me from entering on my own and chose the books he thought suitable for me to read.

The harder he tried to force me into his mold, the more my spirit pressed to escape it. But it was difficult within these walls of the palace as there were so many who knew me and who knew my father’s will. It was even trickier within the invisible walls of my position. In response, Laila and I had created a disguise to get me into the gardens undetected, and a means by which I could read whatever books I wished. Although it was risky, more for Laila than for me, we both agreed that I would surely die of sheer boredom or suffocation if we did not do something. And now, my father presented me with a new challenge. I knew that he would direct these soldiers away from me and I had already decided that I would care for the wounded soldier, Adnan, and bring him back to health. My father would never allow me to do that, to work amongst the sick and injured in the hospital. And father would definitely never allow me to wait upon one particular soldier, unless he were my betrothed.

Adnan regarded me briefly after my father’s introduction. He smiled softly at my father. “She’s been very comforting, sir.”

“Ah, yes, Adnan. I’d heard you were injured in Tripoli. You seem to be coping with it well.”

“Thank you, sir.” Adnan looked sharply at Imad who stood peculiarly stiff and quiet. “Imad was instrumental in ensuring I survived.”

My father suddenly looked genuinely proud, as though he was this man’s father. It was a look I had always hoped would cross his face when he thought of me, but that I had never seen. “Imad you are a true hero, in every respect.”

Imad swallowed hard and as the words came from his mouth, sounded as though he was choking each one out. “Duty, sir. Just duty.”

My father slapped him on the back and laughed joyfully. “You are far too modest, my young man. Come, let’s go to my office. I need to speak with you privately.”

“Now?” Imad looked alarmed. “I mean, sir, yes, of course.”

“Everything ok, Imad?”

“Fine, sir. Of course.” Imad followed my father through the crowd to the other side of the courtyard like a child who was being dragged to his punishment. I looked to Adnan for an answer as to why Imad seemed to be behaving so strangely, but Adnan looked as perplexed as I felt.

“Maybe you’re hungry, Adnan?” I asked after a brief moment.

“Yes, Wajiha, I think I am.” Adnan responded halfheartedly while still looking after Imad.

“May I ask you something?”

“Of course.” Adnan’s beautiful eyes had fully settled so softly on me now, making me feel slightly weak-kneed.

“Why was Imad acting so oddly? He seemed so confident before he saw my father.”

“I’m not sure. Truthfully, he’s been acting strange all day.”

“Is that why you were angry with him?”

“Ah, Wijiha, you don’t miss much do you?” Adnan smiled sadly. “I wasn’t angry. Just hurt.”

“May I ask why?”

Adnan hesitated slightly. I knew that I was prying where I had no business but curiosity was ablaze in my mind. His answer came slowly and carefully. “He neglected to tell me that he was engaged.”

—–

Return VI – Disappointment

As we ate, Wajiha and I, the sun crept lower in the desert sky. A soft glow blanketed the palace. Every surface radiated a warmth that I had not witnessed in a long time. It was a quality that I had only ever seen in the desert. Although I held no affinity to the desert, the heat, and the uncertainty, I had grown accustomed to its habits and subconsciously learned to appreciate its subtle beauty. I found myself taking a deep breath, taking in that warmth to the cold recesses of my soul. I became lost in the comfort of the moment. I faded away from conversation and began admiring something as simple as how the sun’s rays perfected the blush of red grapes in a wooden bowl, or the sparkling reflection of the amber light in a water-glass. And I watched, intently, the illumination of the fine highlights in a loose strand of Wijaha’s hair. It fell just above her left eye and caught itself in her lashes.

Wajiha brushed away the strand with her finger and brought me back to the conversation at hand. She had become curious about Imad and I had tried, somewhat indifferently, to answer her questions. It was very difficult to answer objectively when I felt such hurt and disappointment in my heart. Normally, Imad’s endless chatter and shenanigans kept my spirits lifted and filled the void left after battle. But today was very different. He had done the opposite. He had made the void even larger by making it known to me that he had kept something very important about his life from me. Surely news of a fiancée was something that best friends, ones who entrust each other with their lives, tell each other immediately. Part of me understood his reasons for not talking about it – he didn’t want to think about it himself, and it was so removed from his day-to-day life that it must have seemed almost unreal to him. But part of me just couldn’t accept that he didn’t confide in me. It was almost as if my existence was moot without his full confidence. My disappointment was a hurt that came from somewhere very deep inside and one I knew I would have difficulty letting go.

Imad had always told me that I was far too sensitive, particularly for a soldier. He accused me of taking everything personally. Perhaps it was true but I suggested that without this intensity I could not fight battles the way they needed to be fought. I would not have the anger in me to execute countless enemy soldiers or to have the drive to continue day after day through the hell the deserts and battlegrounds threw at us. He could not see this approach although he could not argue that I was an effective warrior. “Someday, Adnan, your emotions will be your undoing.” His approach was far more cold and calculating. Battle to him was like a mathematical equation; something to be worked through logically, and methodically to produce an accurate outcome. I could never fully understand this, although I knew that it was not indifference but rather a self-imposed detachment from all of one’s emotions. Maybe that detachment is what lead us to where we were with each other on this very day.

Whatever it was, reality, seemed inexplicably bizarre when one was brought crashing down to it. For years, I had lived comfortably in a soldier’s existence – in my own case, sloughing off everything else in life I didn’t want to face for the sake of being a fighter, a hero, and where little else was expected of me. I spent day-to-day consumed with strategy and order, every moment in battle flexing seconds to triumph over death – to distribute pain and suffering to our opponents. To justify every death as destiny to those who would challenge us. Unchecked, it was easy to feel godlike – invincible and omnipotent. I had reached this level of delusion on the battlefield many times and, previous to my own injury, it was only the Sultan’s insistence on mass burial of all fallen fellow soldiers after each battle that brought me back to the reality of war, to the cruelty and repulsiveness that humans can inflict upon one another. After receiving a blow to my own body, not a death-blow, but one that, through its stages of infection and healing had pecked apart and left raw the part of my mind that can ignore pain and suffering. Upon arrival at Kasr al Heyr, I was struck by a silence that left me to face myself – the most difficult opponent I have ever experienced.

I was glad that Wajiha found me and kept me company. Her simplicity struck a chord within me. Her own internal struggle compelled my attention. She warded off my own reality and pulled me into her own. She had a passion and emotion brimming on the surface that was refreshing to me. At first I had not understood her intense desire to help me, but after finding out that she was the Commander’s daughter her actions became more understandable. She had a sensitivity to war, soldiers, injury, and death that few others had time to develop. I imagined that since the day of her birth, she had been surrounded by all aspects of a military life. I had also watched her face cloud over when her father interrupted our conversation. She became quiet, almost sullen, in his brief presence. She looked like a child who had been silenced too many times but with a brimming spirit that could not be completely quelled by anyone or anything. After I had witnessed this, I decided that I would make it easier for her to assist me and went along with her wishes.

“Does the injury make you sad, Adnan?” Wijaha asked suddenly after we had been silent for a while. “I mean, you seem almost listless compared to the other soldiers.”

“Listless…” I repeated dismally. “I didn’t realize it was that obvious.”

“Oh, please don’t get me wrong. Perhaps listless was the wrong word. You still look strong physically. It’s just that your spirits seem low.”

“Hmm. And despite your situation, yours seem so high.” I smiled at Wajiha hoping she wouldn’t take offense.

She, too, smiled but said nothing immediately. She was obviously well-trained in diplomacy. I could have sworn, though, that I saw a flicker of appreciation pass over her for my observation. Finally, with an unmistakable brightness in her eyes she remarked, “I guess it’s the hardships and disappointments in life that make us stronger. Something good is bound to come of all this, don’t you think?”

“Something will come of it, I’m sure. Good or bad, it’s hard to say.” I muttered but then regretted my negativity. I looked at her and said earnestly. “Someone as pretty as you, however, is bound for good, I’m sure.”

“Thank you for that, Adnan.” She seemed to absorb everything about that moment and it brought more peace to her already benevolent features. “I hope you’re right.”

—–

Return VII – Resolve

I still see the fires burning in my mind. Scorching, brilliant flames twisting and reaching with gnarled and blistering fingers toward the black skies. I can hear the screams of fear and shouts of anger that filled the hollow silence of the desert night. People dashed chaotically in all directions, black figures against the orange light of the blaze. Nobody seemed to know what they were doing or where they were going but they just wanted to get away. I wanted to get away too but I was gripped by fear, frozen in the midst of the fray and lost without my mother. I suddenly couldn’t recognize anyone. All the people who I had known from birth appeared like strangers wearing ugly masks of desperation and vengeance. All of my family, the sweet gentle herders, gatherers, the people of the desert were, themselves, herded toward a most cruel and vile humiliation and lives of low servitude.

The soldiers had surrounded us under the blanket of darkness. We had not been prepared for their arrival. We weren’t aware of it at all until they were right on top of us. Our warriors had joined forces with a neighboring tribe and had moved eastward to fight off another threat. This had left us vulnerable but, they had thought, worth the risk since they hadn’t been aware of this other group of marauders. The soldiers moved in swiftly once they knew that we, their victims, were utterly overwrought, and took what they wanted. Their large black horses danced like demons through the camp, the beasts’ large black eyes glowing like hot embers as they reflected our home’s destruction. I sobbed quietly but desperately from the depth of my being as I was driven on foot across the desert to my new life in chains.

Before Sett Wajiha there had been Abu Nasr, a kindly and scholarly gentleman – a scribe for the caliphate. For this, I will always be grateful. Under him I learned to be a proper slave without enduring harm when I made a mistake. He had shown endless patience but also saw that I needed to stimulate my young mind. He allowed me to help him with his work. We interpreted the meaning of court conversations through long discussions before he wrote his final documents. I accompanied him on his long walks through the endless streets of Damascus and he told me so many things about politics, philosophy, and, most importantly, people’s nature. But Abu Nasr had been old and sickly when I was placed with him. His eventual death left me feeling the horrid emptiness I had felt on that long night in the desert several years earlier.

And now, as I sat with Sett Wajiha and watched her with the wounded soldier, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I would be moved elsewhere. She would leave for her life away from the palace as a married woman and I would eventually be taken as a concubine. She had always promised to bring me with her. We dreamed of the possibilities, that I, like a sister, would be with her always up to her dying day. But even after such a daydream, we sat in silence as the other unspoken possibilities gnawed at us. I confided that the thought of being a concubine was one of the most frightening I could imagine but Wajiha soothed me with stories of beautiful concubines living in luxury and the company of other women. Outwardly I agreed that this would be a wonderful life, but inside, my only desire was to hold her hand as we walked into the desert and she released me back to my people.

My people, the Bedouin tribe Dhayaghem, had been settled in the northern lands of the Levant for some time. Although to say we were settled is a misnomer. We never really stayed in one place for too long. The land there was good grazing for our animals but it was by no means stable. The rulers in Damascus did not like our tribal laws and our strong warriors were perceived as a possible threat to the stability of the Sultan’s ever-expanding territories. While it was true that we had no interest in being forced to conform to the rules and authority of a people with whom we had nothing in common, we simply wanted to just live as we always had, free to practice our traditions away from all others in the harsh lands where no one else wanted to be. That was where I, too, belonged in my heart and in my dreams and no matter what, no one could take that from me.

I resented Adnan. Although he was one of the Sultan’s soldiers he made it so difficult to dislike him. There had been many soldiers before him who I had easily dismissed as despicable, but he…he made Wajiha happy so how could I not appreciate him a little. I had, however, bristled at the arrival of Adnan’s friend and now I wondered about his significance. Imad had been spending an extraordinary amount of time with the Commander. If the Commander had chosen him as his daughter’s fiance I knew, already, that this would be a mistake. But what could I do? How does a slave-girl tell a Commander that he is wrong? Perhaps, if the right circumstances were to evolve, I wouldn’t have to.

“It is nice to see you smile, my lady.”

“Thank you, Laila.” Wajiha smiled even more warmly and took my hand after Adnan had left us. “He’s a most valiant soldier but with such sensitivity I have never seen in a man. It’s too bad he’s so sad.”

“I think you make him happy.”

“You really think so?”

“Yes. Perhaps he’s the one.”

“That would be a lucky coincidence.” Sett Wajiha’s smile faded as a wave of anxiety darkened her features.

That, alone, strengthened my resolve. “Yes, my lady. But maybe luck will be on our side.”

—–

Return VIII – Resentment and Expectations

I remember when Abu Majd was run through by a Crusader sword at the Battle of Montgisard. It had been my first real battle and my first encounter with death in this way. He had been a friend of my family. A kind and proud man,he was someone I had always looked up to. I froze as I watched his body writhe and become contorted with pain. In the final icy stillness of death, emotions and adrenalin pumped through my body with such force that my mind was confused and not sure what to do next. I didn’t know whether I should stay with the dying man, or continue to fight – to kill the bastard who had killed him. But I didn’t know who had killed him, which one in particular. Suddenly I wanted to kill them all and I lashed out with such vigor that I caught the attention of the Commander. He grabbed my arm, and said “Never fight with emotion. It will be the end of you. What ever it is, forget about it. Whoever died cannot be brought back. Take the enemy one at a time, methodically and with a clear mind. In this way, you will be victorious and he will not have died in vain.”

After that day, after a brutal defeat, I made up my mind never to allow my emotions to enter a battle again. The Commander’s words rang through my mind a thousand times and shaped who I was as a soldier and eventually who I was as a man. When the Commander noticed how his words had affected me, his appreciation was overwhelming. After that, he took me under his wing and we formed a bond similar to that of father and son. He had never had a son, and my father was less than interested in me so we each filled an unfulfilled need in each others lives. We didn’t see each other very often after he was stationed at Kasr al-Heyr, but when I was able to travel there, I made a point of spending time with him and he, in turn, made me very comfortable in this place in the middle of nowhere. To the Commander it was only a natural next step to ask me to marry his daughter. To me, it was an obligation I would fill someday.

“Wajiha is very curious about you, Imad.” The commander had his back to me after we arrived in his office, but I could tell that he was beaming from every pore. “She asks a hundred questions any chance she can get.”

What could I say? I had just acted like a buffoon in front of her – she, this lovely, intelligent young lady. She, whose smile was more divine than a ray of sunshine. “She’s lovely, sir.”

The Commander turned to face me. He looked at me intently – no doubt to gauge whether I truly thought what I was saying. He had a keen eye for reading people’s expressions. “I realize she’s no great beauty, but I promise you, she will make a good wife.”

“She is fair, sir, a perfect lady, if I may.”

“Indeed?” The commander smiled but it revealed something other than happiness. It was more of a knowing smile – believing that he knew that I was simply trying to please him. He turned toward the window with his back to me again. “We should make arrangements for the wedding.”

“Yes, sir.” I suddenly felt as though my entire life had been taken from my hands. Resentment filled my heart, not toward Wajiha in the least but toward her father. Had he coerced me into this or was I feeling this way because I hadn’t allowed myself to think about the marriage and now the reality of it was hitting me like a desert storm? Whatever it was, I needed to quickly dissolve these feelings as he would surely notice them if he were to turn around now.

But he continued to look out of the window. “Imad, when I was young and preparing to wed, I was angry. I had been in love with another woman. Deeply in love.” He leaned against the window frame as if his own frame could not take the weight of this old pain. “She was sweet, my wife-to-be, but she wasn’t the one I had dreamed of, the one who filled my heart completely.”

He paused and the silence seemed to require some sort of acknowledgment from me. But I couldn’t think of a word. What could I say? So I remained silent too.

“You see, Imad, we all have to choose between our hearts and family loyalty. In your case, loyalty to your superior. I’m sorry if you resent me for putting you in this position, but as far as I am concerned, you are the most suitable man for my daughter to marry. I can’t let it pass.”

How does he always see without looking? I wondered to myself. “Sir, I don’t resent you.” I lied.

“You’re a terrible liar, Imad. Don’t lie to my daughter. She will see right through you.” His kind smile surprised me. “Now, I would like to have the wedding ceremony performed here and preferably before you leave again. God only knows when you’ll return.”

I swallowed hard. “Sir, please, you must give me some time. I’ve only just met your daughter. I’d like to get to know her before we wed. She doesn’t even know that I am her fiance, does she?”

“No, she does not. You will have plenty of time to get to know her once you are married, will you not?”

“Sir, I haven’t asked for much from you on this matter. I’m just asking you for a little time. Let me be the one to tell her who I am.”

“Who are you then?” Wajiha’s soft voice startled me as if she had shouted the words. When I turned to look at her, I saw that her wide, expectant eyes required an immediate answer.

—–

Battle of Montgisard: Part of the Ayyubid-Crusader War (1177-1187) which was fought between the Second and Third Crusades. (About.com)

—–

Return IX – Irreversible Turns

I always seemed to be the last to know everything. As I stood in the doorway and listened in disbelief to my father’s conversation with Imad, I could feel the direction of my life take a sudden and irreversible turn. The cloud of mystery that I had lived in for all of these years, the one that caused equal parts worry and equal parts blissful fantasy, evaporated in a split second. Now I was numb. I wanted these two scheming men to tell me something that contradicted what my ears had just heard, to tell me that I had heard wrong. But Imad just stared, open-mouthed, and my father hung his head like he always did when he was overcome with disappointment. It was alarmingly clear that I had not misheard the conversation at all.

“Father? Please.” I insisted.

My father was deft at the art of avoidance. He had managed to spend fifteen of the twenty years he was married to my mother, away from home. Luckily for him, she was a loyal women where many women may not have been. Then again, punishment by death is a strong motivator against infidelity. I always knew, even from a young age, that he did not love her and I often doubted that he loved me. While other families were producing at least a half-dozen to a dozen children, I was an only child – save several miscarriages before me but none after. My father took my mother away from her family and left her alone. I don’t think she ever wept, but she grew detached as the years passed. I remember how joyful she was when I was a small child to play with me or to simply hold me. As I grew she passed more and more responsibility for me to others, and finally he took me away from her.

And now, he was giving me to Imad.

“I demand…” I started, my voice full of frustration.

“You will demand nothing!” my father hissed. “Know your place! This is a private meeting. Leave this room.”

I could feel the tears welling in my eyes. I knew that I had just pushed well beyond the boundaries of what was allowable for any woman, but I needed something from them. Anything.

“But Father…”

“Now, Wajiha!”

“Sir.” Imad broke in forcibly and then turned to me. “Sett Wajiha, please give us a few more minutes alone. I will look for you after ward, with your father’s permission of course, and you and I will talk.”

I was startled by Imad’s gentle approach but soothed by his respect for my feelings. “Alright. Father?”

“Fine.” The Commander motioned for me to leave and I did so.

As I entered the hallway I sighed heavily. My only true desire was to find Adnan and return to the comfort of our conversation over dinner. But that would not be possible now.

“Sett Wajiha?” Laila’s voice came from a small nook in the hallway. She had, most likely, heard what had happened.

“Yes, Laila?” I replied softly.

“It is Imad? Your fiance?”

“It is Imad.”

Laila’s eyes turned stormy in an instant and her mouth curled in a most unattractive way, which was difficult given her beauty.

“I don’t like him.”

“Laila…”

“I’m sorry, my lady, I know its not my place.” She said it so quickly I knew she didn’t really mean it but felt it necessary to mention.

“Laila, I always value your opinion. You know that. But you must be careful where you say these things. If my father were to hear you…”

“I know, my lady.” She lowered her eyes and this time I knew she meant what she was saying. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine. Let’s find a place where we can talk before Imad comes looking for me.”

The courtyard garden always provided a perfect place for private conversations. Most people walked around it, but not through it, and if you spoke in low tones, the sound of the fountain could drown out your words to passers-by. As we entered, the crisp evening air gave me a chill and I pulled my shawl tightly around me. Laila and I sat on the edge of the fountain and I stared into it’s waters. I took no pleasure in any reflection I saw there and my nerves couldn’t be settled by its flowing sounds. Laila wrung her hands nervously in her lap as she looked down at the ground. We sat in silence a while, each with our own thoughts. I figured that Laila was probably trying to sort through everything that was running through her head, just as I was.

I was surprised to find that my thoughts were still focused on Adnan. Rather than to worry about what the Commander had in store for me, I worried about how my father’s plans would hinder my ability to nurse Adnan back to health. I worried about how he had taken me away from Adnan. Worst of all, Imad and Adnan were best of friends – although from what I had seen of each of their personalities I wasn’t sure how their friendship was at all possible. Imad would never accept that his new wife should care for another man, especially Adnan

…or would he?

“Laila, why don’t you like Imad?”

“He is like the soldiers who destroyed my family.”

“You don’t trust him?”

“No.” Laila looked at me almost pleadingly.

“What is it, Laila? Please tell me.”

“He is the wrong man for you, Sett Wajiha. He doesn’t have any sensitivity. He will leave you emotionally alone. For you, this is very wrong.”

“What is right, Laila?”

“A man who holds another dimension within his heart and soul.”

“Like who?” I already knew the answer but I wanted to…needed to…hear it from Laila.

“Adnan.”

—–

Return X – What is Written in the Stars

My skin tingled with the crispness of night as it hung over Kasr al-Heyr al Sharki. It had crept in like an invader, as if it had no place here in the palace, obscuring the delicate architecture and growing ghastly shadows in every corner. I had returned to my quarters after I left Wajiha but grew restless. Although my body ached for respite, my mind would not stay idle so I went back out into the grand courtyard. As I walked I felt uneasy, for even the palace’s grandness seemed diminished in the desert night. I always imagined it would have been the opposite, that the castle would glisten impressively in the pale moonlight. But then, perhaps it was my own outlook that skewed my perspective. Maybe it was only I who was diminished.

Tired of walking and barely able to ignore the growing pain in my side, I found a seat on a nearby bench. The roses in the garden before me were bent forward under the weight of their normally magnificent flowers. But the darkness had sapped their beauty too, and each petal looked like stone, gray and lifeless. I covered my face with my hands and rubbed my eyes. I thought maybe when I opened them again, some sort of life would return to my surroundings. But, of course, everything was the same as before. In desperation I looked to the skies. The celestial network immediately captured my attention. I learned at an early age to appreciate its utility as a guide but rarely had I thought about its beauty. Tonight that beauty became so clear and just when I needed it most.

I quickly became lost in a daydream, focused on the formations and trying to remember their names. I was back many years ago with my father as we lay under the stars and he named so many constellations to me: That al-Korsi, al-Mara’ah al-Musalsalah, ad-Dubb al-A’kbar, and al-Jabbar¹. Sadness gripped me as I realized how I would dearly love to go back to those years but how impatient I was then to grow up. That was a time when my father and I were the closest but I was in too much of a hurry to leave to realize it. My restlessness was not due to any desire to get away from anything but rather to go somewhere. The military provided me handsomely with travel, years away from home, and now I tire of it. So, as I look at the stars tonight, my eyes avoid looking at ad-Dubb al-A’sghar², the constellation marked by the guiding North Star and the only constellation I am intimately familiar with.

My heart skipped a beat when I finally found That al-Korsi directly above me. Her lines are so simple I couldn’t believe it took me so long to recognize her. I reclined on the bench in order to look at her better and watched her dance and shimmer upon her stage of a million lights. I suddenly felt very small under this heavenly dome – a dome that stretched the expanse of my earth but far beyond my reach and comprehension; a sacred place that only Allah himself could touch. And yet the smallness I felt was not the same diminished feeling I felt earlier. In fact it made me revel more in the mysteries of the earth and skies. All this time that I had spent traveling within my world, I had done so to track, corral, and kill the so-called enemy. Certainly some, such as the seemingly tireless Crusaders from the West or the Mongols from the North-East were a true threat that I felt justified in thwarting. But many were people of our lands whose lives should have held more value with me – people like Laila. Had I spent enough time destroying? Could I now spend time exploring,discovering,understanding and cherishing? This time, perhaps the answer truly was in the stars.

I felt my eyelids heavy but could not tear myself away from the stars, from the thoughts of my new-found purpose. I could not, however, sleep out here on this slab of stone in the bitter cold. I would surely never rise again. So I reluctantly sat up and immediately felt the stinging pain of having allowed myself any sort of indulgence. I winced and moaned almost inaudibly for fear of disturbing the silence of the stone-like garden. But as I tried to take in the last bit of silence before returning to my quarters, I became aware that there was not complete silence after all. Not far away, hushed voices whispered almost desperately. I slowly and painfully raised to my feet and moved closer to the place from where the voices were coming.

Two figures sat huddled together by the fountain. I approached them from behind. The trickle of the fountain water obscured many of their words, but as I stood watching from an unobtrusive distance, I had clearly heard my name.

“Adnan.”

So I moved closer again.

“Oh, Laila.” I already knew Wajiha’s lyrical voice, which now seemed heavy with sadness. “What will I do?”

“We will find a way that you don’t have to marry him.”

“It’s too late, Laila, my father has already made up his mind.”

“We have to show him that Adnan is a better choice.”

“Poor, injured, Adnan, how would he stand a chance in my father’s eyes.”

“He is smarter than Imad, smarter and stronger.”

“I know, Laila, but you know how my father adores a good fighter.”

“We have to change his mind.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll think of something. Inshallah³.”

“Inshallah.”

I stood frozen. What else could I do? It would be a long, cold, hard night after all.

—–

¹That al-Korsi – Casseopeia, al-Mara’ah al-Musalsalah – Andromeda, ad-Dubb al-A’kbar – Ursa Major, al-Jabbar – Orion

²ad-Dubb al-A’sghar – Ursa Minor

³Inshallah – If Allah wills

—–

Return XI – The Deepest Cut

I awoke within the soft covers of Sett Wajiha’s bed. The low, autumn sunlight was just beginning to creep through the windows of her room and across the stone floor. The same cold, stone floor upon which I was supposed to sleep, with merely a thin mat and a coverlet. My Lady could never abide by such a cruel existence for me, and always allowed me in her bed. I think this arrangement benefited us both. My presence made her feel less alone during the long, bitter nights. When I first came to serve Sett Wajiha, although I was happy for it, sleeping with her also made me uncomfortable. I stayed to the edge, never allowing myself to interfere with her sleep, thus, at first, never sleeping much myself. It took me a long time to sleep well but I suspect that, even when I didn’t sleep at all, I have always slept better than almost any other slave.

Last night, however, I barely allowed sleep to possess me. I had too much on my mind; too many things that needed to be planned carefully. As the morning light presented itself my body wrestled with fatigue, but my mind became more and more alert. I was so eager to share my ideas with Sett Wajiha and couldn’t wait for her to wake. She rarely slept longer than I did and when I looked over at her, I could see that she was showing signs of coming to. When she was deep in sleep, my Lady’s face had a heavenly peacefulness about it that I have never seen in anyone before. I knew that her dreams were often not peaceful but no discontent ever appeared in her fine features. It wasn’t until she opened her eyes that I could see the sadness wrought by nightmares of the unknown. But now the unknown was no longer so and I already knew what her eyes would portray this morning.

Sett Wajiha stirred sleepily next me. Her eyelids fluttered and finally opened. There was a brief moment, almost like suspended time, as her mind emerged from her dream world and into the world I shared with her. It was the moment when all of her thoughts of recent events and worries came rushing back to her. She closed her eyes again and groaned heavily as the full realization hit her.

“Oh, Laila. I don’t want to get up today.” Her voice was so strained I thought she might cry.

“My lady, you must get up today.” I whispered urgently. “Today we will change your destiny with our own hands.”

Sett Wajiha propped herself up on her elbow and looked at me intently, no trace of sleep left on her face. “Do you really believe that you can change destiny…that we can? We are two simple, young girls. Destiny is beyond us, I think.”

“Are you so sure that your destiny is how it appears now? Perhaps your destiny was in your hands all along.”

A small smile came to Wajiha’s lips. Something that I had not expected but the spark of joy that came with making her smile, lightened the heavy load my mind and heart were carrying. “Laila, you speak like someone far beyond your years. But remember, you, yourself, said that the current situation was my destiny.”

Now it was my turn to smile. “You’re right I did but I should not have. I should have said, my lady, that we will bring an end to this unfortunate turn of events today.”

“And how do you propose we do that?”

“I’ll steal your father’s prized sabre.”

My heart beat wildly as silence closed around us like metal trap. I knew that she had immediately understood all of the risks and connotations of this act but could not figure out why I would do such a thing.

“Laila! Why in the world would you do such a thing and how would that help me? If you were caught they would kill you! What would I do without you?”

I held up my hand, something that I should never do to my Lady, but I had to quiet her before her mind took her places that she didn’t need to go. “Sett Wajiha, first of all, I don’t plan on getting caught…”

“But…”

“Just a minute. Second of all, I would not be keeping the sabre. I would place it in Imad’s possessions.”

“That’s insane!”

“Maybe, but you have to admit that it would work.”

“I will not admit any such thing. Laila! I say again, this act would get you killed!”

“Only if they catch me. You, yourself, know that I can be like an almost invisible shadow when I need to be.”

“No. Absolutely not. I will not allow you to put yourself in such jeopardy. I would rather marry Imad and have you still alive.”

“If you marry Imad I will be dead to you anyway. You know that.”

“I don’t know that.”

“I cannot stay with you if you marry him. He is one of those men…the ones who killed my family.”

“Laila, so is Adnan.”

“No, he is not. He is not like them. It was difficult for me to accept but I know in my heart that he is not one of them.”

Sett Wajiha leaped from the bed in great agitation. Tears welled heavily in her eyes. “You will not do this Laila. NEVER! Do you understand me or so help me, I’ll whip you myself before they split you with a sword!”

I knew that my Lady would never ever physically hurt me but her words cut me deeper than any sword could have. She was, however, angry and scared and I knew all along that she would have an adverse reaction to my plan. It did not matter, though, I had already decided to go ahead and steal the sabre even without her consent.

“Yes, my Lady. As you wish.”

—–

Return XII – Ghostly Angel

Imad, my mother once said to me, never trust the words of women. At the age of eight, I thought this rather strange information for her to be imparting and gave her a quizzical look. Except the words of your mother, of course. I have no reason to lead you astrayWhy would other women want to trick me? I asked to which she replied with a cynical grin,You have a lot to learn about the ways of the world, my dear boy. To this day, I have never forgotten these words and they still cause me a certain amount of consternation. I have never noticed any woman be anything but forthright, particularly when they wanted nothing to do with me. But perhaps my dear mother was referring only to the one woman we fall madly in love with, when we are blinded by a love that makes us vulnerable and stupid. I couldn’t be sure, however, as I had never fallen in love.

Until now. I’m not really sure how it happened. I had seen and been with women between Damascus and all of our outlying borders, but none took my heart. I had never become so absorbed in any one in such a short time as I had with Wajiha. Her father thought she was plain but to me she was anything but. Now my only concern was to convince her that I loved her and that she was not simply a commodity being shuffled from one man to another as her father was making her feel. The problem was that I had neither the words nor the expertise to approach her and persuade her that my feelings for her were real. It was obvious, when she burst into her father’s office, that she, too, felt resentment toward the Commander. But perhaps she resented me too. I couldn’t blame her if she did.

I looked for Wajiha after the meeting in her father’s office but I could not find her anywhere. I thought she would have waited in plain view considering how eager she had been to express her views and to find out the truth about the direction her life was taking. I couldn’t find Adnan either. I was sure he would have been aware of her whereabouts. Whether he would have helped me or not was uncertain. Our entire friendship seemed uncertain. After searching the halls and coming up empty-handed I had an insatiable urge for something to eat and found my way to the busy hall where I stayed for hours, drowning my fears and unhappiness in the conversation of soldiers.

The morning light found me fatigued and feeling ill. I couldn’t muster enough strength to rise from the bed. I would miss breakfast and training but all I could think about was my failure to find Wajiha and how I needed to find her today. I struggled to sit up and was immediately stricken with pain in my head. I closed my burning eyes and lay down again. It quickly became obvious that I would not be able to leave my bed for a while. My heart sunk at the thought. Wajiha would think that I was avoiding her and I couldn’t have that. I had to find someone to send for her, to bring her here to me so I could tell her everything on my mind.

“Hello?” I called out blindly. I had no idea if anyone still remained in the sleeping quarters.

“I’m here.” A familiar voice replied half-heartedly.

“Adnan?”

“Yes.” The abrupt pause was thick and ugly between us. I felt almost hostile toward him and yet desperately wanted his friendship. I suspected he had similar feelings.

“Where’s Wajiha?” I felt too horrible to make small talk.

“Why do you assume I would know?” The response came bitterly.

“Adnan, I could be dying or at least I feel that way. Please just tell me where she is.”

“Tell me something first.”

I sighed heavily. I knew what was coming.

“Did you know all along that you were engaged to Wajiha?”

“No.” My irritation was evident in my answer. “But I love her.”

“She’s not the woman for you, Imad. You won’t marry her.”

I could hear Adnan’s footsteps moving away from the bed. I lashed out desperately, “I love her and she’s mine!” But my voice merely echoed in the empty room. “Adnan!”

Now my head pounded from the sickness and from anxiety. What did he mean I won’t marry her? What did that mean?! “Adnan!” I shouted again at the top of my lungs but still there was no answer. He was gone. I drew the covers tightly and curled up in a fetal position in some desperate attempt to bring myself comfort. Eventually, I entered a level of consciousness, or perhaps unconsciousness that somehow dulled the pain. In a strange, surreal and yet alarmingly lifelike dream I saw Wajiha holding a lantern and walking toward me down an endless hallway. I heard her feet shuffle against the stone. She was like some ghostly angel. She called to me but I could not discern what she was saying. I tried to call to her too, to reach out to her but my lips were sealed, my body frozen. I felt so desperate. I awoke with a start to the same sound of shuffling feet in my room.

I tried to open my eyes, but the burning light forced me to close them again. “Hello? Who’s there?”

Silence.

“Tell me who you are.”

But there was no one. Perhaps I had still been dreaming.

—–

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