Zakee and Mustafa circled each other, their focus unwavering. Sweat covered their bodies, running from their bare chests to soak the rim of their cotton pants. Both had removed their turbans long ago, Zakee’s youthful black mane in contrast to Mustafa’s grey speckled crown. The Old Moor, as he was known in Yemen, was a man whose vitality belied his age and whose skill with the scimitar was legendary. Zakee’s father paid the man handsomely to leave his comfortable home in Granada and train his sons. Sultan Basheer ibn Raheem had grand plans for them and was determined they would receive the best in everything.
Mustafa lunged at Zakee, his scimitar flashing toward the young amir’s leg. Amir slid his lead foot back then immediately countered with a lunge of his own. Mustafa knocked his blade aside then slashed at Zakee’s throat. Zakee pivoted on his rear foot, taking him out of range of Mustafa’s attack. Before he could bring his right leg down Mustafa swept his left leg. Zakee crashed onto his back then tried to roll away. Mustafa’s blade was at his throat before he could move.
“Never weaken your foundation!” Mustafa said.
“But I have seen you do it, mudarris,” Zakee said.
“You are not me,” Mustafa replied.
Mustafa sheathed his sword then gave Zakee a hand.
“Again,” he said.
Zakee’s shoulders slumped. “Mudarris, we have trained most of the day. I have other studies and I am tired.”
“Do you think your enemy will care if you are tired?” Mustafa said. “Do you think he will let your rest and sip water from his well?”
Zakee sighed. “We will continue then.”
“No,” Mustafa said. “You do have duties. Go. We will continue tomorrow.”
Zakee bowed to hide his grin.
“Thank you,” he said.
Mustafa grunted then waved him away.
Zakee was still full of energy as he hurried from the training room to the baths. He bathed quickly then hurried to the meeting room. There his father sat on his cushions flanked by his viser and his personal bodyguard. His brothers sat before him; they turned their heads and shared their disappointment with his lateness through the frowns on their faces. His father’s reaction was different. His smile was generous and welcoming.
“Zakee is here. Good!” he said. “Now we can begin.”
A servant placed Zakee’s cushion beside his brothers and he sat.
“I am sorry, father,” he said. “This morning’s practice was intense.”
His father nodded. “Mustafa is a master swordsman.”
“And expensive,” his viser added.
“A small price to pay to make sure Zakee is well trained.”
“Why did you not hire him to train us, father?”
Wazeer, his oldest brother, asked the question. His father frowned at him.
“Had I known of Mustafa during your training I would have hired him,” his father said. “I did not. Do you have any more questions before I continue, Wazeer?”
Wazeer lowered his head. “No father, I don’t.”
His father looked to Khalid, his second oldest brother, Khalid. His nervous natured brother wrung his hands.
“I... I have no questions, father,” he said.
“Good. Your grandfather has summoned us north. A minor chieftain has obtained a blasphemous object that has given him the power to rally the Scattered Clans. He has claimed the title of Sultan and vowed to march on Sana’a. We are to bring warriors to support him.”
“What is this object that gives such power,” Zakee asked.
“It is a jade obelisk,” his father said. “It is said it possesses the power of the old gods.”
Khalid’s eyes widened. “There is no god before Allah!”
“That is true,” his father said. “Which is why we march north tomorrow.”
Wazeer cleared his throat. “How is it that grandfather can command you to march with him against this charlatan? He is not the sultan. This sounds like a local disturbance. It should be handled as such.”
His father answered Wazeer with a glare.
“Take care of your business. As I said, we depart tomorrow.”
The sons bowed then stood to leave the room.
“Zakee, stay a moment,” his father said.
The glances Zakee received from his brothers were not pleasant. He wanted to be closer to them but the potential of becoming sultan after their father’s death created a distance between them that widened by his father’s preference for him. It was not attention he asked for nor was he comfortable with it. His brothers were older and more capable in his opinion. His father’s attention was due to his mother being his favored wife.
Zakee approached his father then bowed.
“What is it, father?”
“This will be your first time in battle,” he said. “Your mother would be vexed with me if you died.”
Zakee’s chest tightened as he looked up at his father.
“I am ready,” he said.
“You’re as ready as you can be,” his father said. “Mustafa said you are a fast learner and a skilled swordsman. That does not guarantee your safety in war.”
“What do you wish to tell me, father?”
“Tomorrow I will assign Wazeer and Khalid command of two units of the army. You will march with me.”
Zakee’s shook his head with disappointment.
“How will I learn to command men by your side?”
“By watching,” his father replied. “I have another assignment for you as well.”
Zakee’s mood perked. “What is it, father?”
“Your grandfather was once a great warrior, but no man wins against time. He is older and feebler than he will admit. He will ride with us as well, but he needs a strong sword beside him in case the war reaches him.”
“He has his bodyguards,” Zakee said.
“They are as old as him,” his father said. “I wish for you to stay with him during the heat of battle. It will bring me much pleasure if you agree to do so.”
“I will do as you ask, father. But I am not happy about it.”
He looked into his father’s smiling face.
“It is all I can ask,” his father said.
* * *
The army set out from Sana’a at sunrise immediately after morning prayers. Zakee rode with his father and brothers, barely able to contain his excitement. This was his first excursion beyond the city, every mile a revelation. They traveled for three days north, deeper into the desert. On the fifth day they arrived at his grandfather’s city, a modest collection of stone buildings nestled in the center of an oasis. His grandfather’s palace towered over the surrounding homes, its only rival the nearby mosque with its single minaret. Servants met them as they neared, supplying them with fresh food and water while they relieved them of their gear. One servant approached them, a tall man with piercing eyes and dark skin.
“Welcome,” the man said, his voice rich and melodious. I am Jamal ibn Sayeed. My master awaits your presence.”
“Lead the way,” Zakee’s father said.
The quartet followed Jamal into his grandfather’s palace. Although the building was small compared to his father’s abode, the innards bulged with a wide variety of riches; Persian rugs, carved ivory artifacts and displays of jewels from nearby and across the seas. Zakee moved closer to his father then tugged at his shirt.
“Grandfather is very rich,” he whispered.
His father grunted. “My father’s weakness is his desire for wealth. When he was a young man he traveled the ends of the earth gathering such things. As he aged he sent me and my brothers on such quests. Once we were men with our own families he sent his servants.”
“I think I will go on my own quests as well,” Zakee said.
“One challenge as a time, young lion,” he father said. “Besides, such behavior is unbecoming for a good Muslim. But we all have our sins to bear.”
Jamal led them into his grandfather’s sitting chamber. The old patriarch sat on a pile of silk cushions combing his beard as a musician played a relaxing tune on a stringed instrument Zakee did not recognize.
“Master,” Jamal announced. “Your family has arrived.”
His grandfather head jerked up and a wide grin came to his face. He looked far younger than his age, a trait strong among their family. He jumped up from his pillows then strode to them with his arms wide.
“Basheer!” his grandfather exclaimed.
The men hugged then kissed each other’s cheeks.
“It is so good that you came,” grandfather said. “Your brothers are cowards.”
His father grinned. “They are not cowards, father. They are busy.”
“Too busy to help their father defend the Faith? No one is that busy.”
“I am here, father,” Basheer said. “It will have to do.”
His grandfather shrugged his shoulders.
“I see you have brought the cubs,” he said.
He embraced each of Zakee’s brothers. He stopped before Zakee, a shocked look on his face.
“Is this Zakee who stands before me?”
Zakee embraced then kissed his grandfather.
“It is I, grandfather,” he said.
His grandfather held him at arm’s length.
“The last time I saw you your mother held you wrapped in blankets. Now you stand before me as a man. Basheer, what kind of man is your youngest son?”
“He is man of faith and intelligence,” his father answered. “I am proud to call him my son.”
Zakee glanced at his father and smiled.
“And is he an effective defender of the Faith?”
“That remains to be seen,” his father answered truthfully.
“Ah!” his grandfather said. “You will ride beside me, Zakee. Together we will march into the Devil’s lair and end his blasphemy!”
“As you wish, grandfather,” Zakee replied.
“Excellent!” his grandfather said. “I offer you all my hospitality. Rest and relax while I gather my forces. We will march in seven days!”
While his father and brothers took grandfather’s words to heart, Zakee spent every moment ranging the borders of the oasis kingdom. Every inch was effectively managed, producing an abundance of goods for the inhabitants. He spent time with his grandmother, listening to stories about his uncles, aunts and most of all, his father. It seems he was mischievous boy and the bane of his siblings. It was a happy day for them when he finally departed to seek his own fortune since he was not the oldest.
As the sun rose on the day of departure Zakee awoke filled with anxious energy. He dressed quickly, gathered his weapons and armor then emerged from his room into the narrow hallway.
“Well, well, well!” his grandfather said. “I see one cub is eager for the hunt.”
Zakee turned to see his grandfather dressed and armored, flanked by two elderly bodyguards.
“I am, grandfather,” he said.
One of the bodyguards frowned.
“Do not be so joyful,” he said. “War is an ugly thing.”
His grandfather waved his hand.
“Don’t listen to Abdul,” he said. “He is an old man who would rather sit in his room and study the stars than fight for the glory of his sultan.”
“I am wise enough to know my best days are done,” he said.
“Be quiet, Abdul,” grandfather said. “Zakee need not hear you whining.”
“I am glad to be off to battle,” the other bodyguard said.
“See?” His grandfather put his arm around the bodyguard’s shoulders.
“Selim is a warrior!”
Selim nodded his gray head. “I’d rather die with a sword in my hand than a weak old man in my bed.”
“Enough talk,” grandfather said. “We’ll rouse the others and be on our way.”
The expeditionary forces gathered outside the palace gates after morning prayers. Zakee met with his brother and fathers, their mood much more subdued. His father placed his hands heavy on Zakee’s shoulders.
“This is no game, son,” he said. “You are skilled but you have never fought to the death. There must be no hesitation in your actions. Do you understand?”
“I do, father,” Zakee replied.
“Stay close to your grandfather,” he said. “Let no harm come to him.”
“I will, father,” Zakee said.
The expedition waited until dusk before beginning their journey. Zakee rode beside his grandfather surrounded by aging and inexperienced warriors. Their appearance shook his confidence. He looked to his father and brothers then felt somewhat better. The best of Sana’a had come to his father’s call. It was his father’s plan that they would act as vanguard and bear the brunt of the fighting. His grandfather’s warriors were along mostly for ceremony. Zakee’s feelings were mixed; he was honored to be asked to protect his grandfather but disappointed that he was not part of the vanguard. It was possible he would see no fighting at all.
They marched north for five days. On the night of the fifth day scouts were deployed for details of their objective. The news they delivered was sobering.
“Their army is much larger than ours,” Akil said. “They surround their temple continuously.”
“Are they all warriors?” his father asked.
Akil took a sip of water from his bag. “No. Most seemed to be farmers. Their weapons are their farm tools. The true warriors are positioned closest to the temple.”
His father nodded as he pulled at his beard.
“We must strike quick and hard,” he said. “The cavalry will charge through them to the temple. The footmen will follow, disrupting pursuit. Once the farmers are scattered they will join us attacking the temple.”
“Our objective is the obelisk,” grandfather said. “We will have wasted our time if we don’t obtain it.”
Everyone nodded in agreement.
“May Allah be with us,” his father said.
The warriors moved into position during the night. The black horizon was pierced by a pulsing green light emanating from the temple.
“It is the obelisk,” Akil said. “It beats like the heart. Some say it is alive.”
“Nonsense,” Zakee’s grandfather said. “Tricks that fool the mind and eye. Tomorrow we will put an end to them.”
Zakee looked away from his grandfather then to the light. It seemed to grow closer the longer he gazed at it. A hand touched his shoulder, breaking his concentration.
“Do not look at it too long, master,” Akil said. “It will steal your soul!”
Zakee scrambled to his feet then dusted off his clothes.
“Impossible,” he said. “Like my grandfather said, tricks to fool the mind and eye.”
He stomped away, doubting his own words.
The next day began with a silent muster. The men had been briefed the day before so there was no need for words. The cavalry took the vanguard, followed by the foot soldiers carrying shields and spears. Zakee rode in the rear with his grandfather and his warriors, his grandfather’s displeasure visibly apparent as he jerked about in his saddle.
“This is an insult!” he finally said. “I should be leading this attack!”
Zakee searched for the right words to sooth him and was relieved when Abdul spoke.
“We are old men,” he said. “Allow us a few more moments of life.”
His grandfather spat. “You disgust me, Abdul!”
Abdul grinned. “Not for much longer.”
His words made his grandfather smile. He turned to Zakee.
“Remember this day, Zakee,” he said. “It will be glorious.”
A ragged chorus of horns echoed from the distance.
“They’ve seen us,” Selim said. “The game begins.”
The cavalry charged. The foot soldiers trotted behind them, shields raised and spears lowered. Zakee stood up in his saddle to peer over those before him. A line men and women ran toward the cavalry, waving their weapons of their heads.
“Protect the Light!” they shouted.
The cavalry crashed into the worshipers. A few riders tumbled from their mounts and were hacked to death by the throng. The mass of riders cut through the disorganized defenders, riding unhindered to the temple. The foot soldiers arrived to support the cavalry just as the defenders turned to pursue. Zakee saw his father and brothers riding toward the temple and wished he was with them.
“Come!” his grandfather shouted. “Glory awaits us!”
“Grandfather, no!” Zakee shouted.
Grandfather galloped away, pursued by his retinue. Zakee recovered from his shock then followed. The foot soldiers made way as they rode through then plunged into the ragged protectors of the temple. Zakee drew his scimitar, his hand tight on his. His horse sped through the hostile throng too fast for any to attack him, although a few attempted to throw spears or shoot arrows at him. Soon they could see his father and the cavalry, their progress stalled by the temple’s trained warriors. Zakee hoped his grandfather would stop, but his hopes were unheeded. He worked his way through the melee, striking down two defenders then urging his mount up the steep steps to the entrance of the temple. Zakee was so focused on his grandfather he almost lost his life.
“Zakee!” his father shouted.
Zakee looked in the direction of his father’s voice to see a temple defender galloping toward him, his scimitar raised.
“Defend the temple!” he shouted. “Defend the Obelisk!”
Zakee managed to raise his scimitar as their horses crashed together. He blocked the powerful down stroke, the shock coursing down his arm into his shoulder. Zakee knocked the second blow aside then slashed at the man’s face. The defender jerked his head back, the tip of Zakee’s blade nipping the man’s chin and drawing blood. Zakee hesitated; never had he cut a person with his blade. The defender stabbed at Zakee’s throat; Zakee leaned to his left then slashed the man under his arm. The defender pulled his horse away, clinching arm against his body then falling from his horse.
“Zakee! Get to your grandfather now!” his father shouted again.
Zakee spurred his horse toward the temple, his body shaking. The horse carried him up the stairs with ease, reaching the entrance as Selim and Abdul struck down the guards defending the doors. They dismounted then pulled the doors open. As soon as they remounted the trio rode into the temple.
Zakee followed. He was swallowed by intense green light then struck hard by an invisible force. He fell from his horse then lost his breath as he struck the marble floor. It took a moment for him to regain his breath; when he did he fought to regain his feet, scimitar in hand.
Grandfather, Selim and Abdul lay on the floor. Selim laid still, a pool of blood spreading from under his head. Abdul moaned as he clutched his right arm. Grandfather cursed as he struggled to stand. A figure loomed over him, a man covered in a hooded robe, his pale face grooved with scarification. The man gripped the jade obelisk like a sword as he raised it over his head, a grim smile on his face.
“You want the Obelisk, Sala? Then you shall have it!”
Zakee lunged at the priest. He winced as the obelisk grazed his back just before he crashed into the startled man. They rolled across the marble floor, finally ending a tangled heap. Zakee was the first to free himself and regain his feet; the priest turned onto his back, the jade obelisk still in his hand.
He stabbed the object at Zakee. It flared and a ray of green energy streaked at the young warrior. Zakee dodged to his right then struck at the priest’s face. The priest swung the obelisk, blocking his blade. The nefarious light brushed his shoulder, burning his shirt. Zakee yelped then jumped away, using his free hand to rip off his shirt.
The priest was on his feet. He slashed at Zakee again; Zakee threw his shirt at the priest for a desperate diversion. His shirt met the green light then burst into flames. The sudden explosion was the distraction he needed. He spun to his left then sliced down. His blade struck the priest’s obelisk bearing arm, cutting off his hand just above the wrist.
Zakee expected the priest to fall to the floor clutching his arm. Instead the crazed man lunged at him, waving his bloody stump.
“You will never have the Obelisk!” he screamed.
Zakee gripped his scimitar with both hand then chopped at the priest’s neck. The priest’s head fell backwards, a grimace frozen on his face. The headless body fell forward into Zakee, blood splashing his jerkin and pants. He stumbled away as he shoved the body aside. He took another step back then tripped over his grandfather, landing on his backside.
Zakee turned to see his father and brothers running to them, followed by the other warriors. Zakee stood then swayed, his energy depleted. He looked down at his torso then realized that the blood was his, not the priest.
“Father,” he managed to say before passing out into his father’s outstretched arms.
Zakee awoke in his bed. He attempted to sit up then winced. He was bare chested and tucked snug under silk sheets. He lifted the sheets to see a wide bandage across his midsection. The details of the temple attack slowly came back to him, but he still could not remember how he was wounded.
“It was a dagger.”
Mustafa swaggered into the room, a slight grin on his face.
“Always watch both of your opponent’s hands, even if you’ve cut the other one off,” he said.
Zakee smiled as he sat up in the bed.
“I’m sorry, master,” he said. “I should have been more attentive.”
Mustafa sat on Zakee’s bed then pulled back the sheets, examining his bandage.
“This is lesson enough,” he said. “There is no better teacher than experience. So, you are a great man now. You beheaded the evil priest and saved your grandfather’s life.”
Zakee’s cheeks warmed and the looked away.
“It was Allah’s will,” he said.
“But your skills,” Mustafa answered.
Mustafa stood then folded his arms across his chest.
“My time with you is complete. There is no more I can teach you. Once a man goes to battle and lives he is trained enough. But don’t forget to practice.”
“Where are you going?” Zakee asked.
“Back to Al Andulus, or at least to what is left of it. Your father has grand plans for you. Don’t let him down. Goodbye, Zakee. May Allah protect you.”
Mustafa strode for the door.
“Wait!” Zakee called out. “What plans?”
* * *
Zakee sat at his desk, reading over the daily report as his ministers waited patiently for his approval. He glanced up, looking beyond them to the view of the harbor through his window. It had been two years since his father made him governor of Aden, his reward for Zakee’s valor. His brothers were not happy about his selection for they were older and by right should have been given a governorship before him. But his father made his decision and no one would defy him.
Zakee turned his attention back to the parchments before him. He was about to stamp them with his seal when he was interrupted.
Sahib! Sahib! There is a ship in the harbor!
Zakee looked up at the servant. The man’s face dripped sweat, his chest heaving for breath.
“There are always ships in the harbor,” he said.
“Not like this one!”
The servant ran to the window, the others following. Zakee leaned back on his stool. The others let out a collective gasp.
"Amir Zakee, you should see this!”
Zakee went to the window and was startled by what he saw. A black ship rested just beyond the docks. Its white sails bulged with the western monsoon winds. He turned about then strode from the room, his mind racing with questions. The others followed, their chatter about the mysterious ship stirring more questions.
His horse and personal guard were waiting as he entered the courtyard. Jamal, the commander of his forces approached him as he mounted his horse.
“Zakee, this isn’t safe,” he said. “This may be an attacking force.”
“Then why did you have my horse ready?” he asked.
“Because I knew you would want to go see for yourself,” Jamal answered.
Zakee looked at Jamal then smiled. “Then let’s go see.”
They galloped through the city, gathering onlookers and they neared the docks. By the time they reached the docks half the city trailed them. Zakee dismounted and his guards pushed away the beggars and others wishing to approach him. The guards along the docks had anticipated his arrival and cleared the docks of everyone except those essential. A slim boat rowed by eight bare armed men eased to the dock. As the boat reached the mooring figure stood, its body covered completely in an emerald robed, the jeweled hood covering its features. The helmsman on the boat jumped the distance between the boat and the docks, securing the vessel with a thick braided leather rope. The figure waited as the others climbed onto the deck. They wore swords at their waists with circular pommels.
“Zakee, please stand behind us,” Jamal asked.
Zakee moved behind his guards. The others came forward, the robed figure sauntering behind them. The guards met, Jamal glaring at his counterpart.
“You have entered the city of Aden,” Jamal said. “Who are you and what is your purpose here?”
The mysterious guards parted. The figure came forward then removed its hood.
Zakee gasped, as did the others. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen. Her hair formed a black halo about her head, her ebony skin flawless. She looked past Jamal with intense hazel eyes, setting her gaze on him and summoning him forward. Zakee pushed his guards aside. He almost knelt when he finally stood before her, his breath short like one stricken by love.
“Who are you?” he managed to ask.
“I am Bahati, queen of the Zanj,” she said. Her voice chimed like a thousand beautiful bells.
Zakee swallowed. “Why are you here?”
Bahati smiled. “I seek an artifact of grave importance for my people.”
Zakee looked puzzled. “What is it that you seek?”
Bahati’s smile faded. “An obelisk,” she said. “A jade obelisk.”
The Devil's Lair by Milton Davis. From Before The Safari.