Chapter 2 –  Tamaransett, Algeria

Henry crumpled up the letter he was writing to Dihya, and threw it into the glowing brazier where his two previous failed attempts had gone. He watched as the paper turned brown, then black, and then flared into flame before becoming ash. An hour ago, without a word to him, Dihya had saddled a horse and rode off into the desert in fury. Henry had thought of waiting for her return and decided it was better just to leave. It’s useless for me to try to justify what I’m doing, he thought. She’ll never agree. But I was right in what I told her. Napoleon must be stopped.

His thoughts turned back to Dihya, and in an instant he had his answer. He darted out of their tent up the knoll where they had spent the morning. At the top, he looked to the east, hoping to see her returning. The far reach of desert was empty. He went among the rocks on the hillside and plucked a stem of myrtle, tefeltest to the Imazighen, sacred for its healing powers and precious to Dihya because of the beauty of its small, star-shaped white flowers. He returned to their tent, took a clean sheet of paper and wrote:

No matter where I travel, or what dangers I face, I carry you with me in my heart. When I think of leaning into your space and kissing you I remember the joy of how you whisper ‘more.’

Henry put the note on their sleeping mat and placed the flower on top. I wonder if she’s right about me, he thought. This could indeed be a fool’s errand.

The peace that Henry had forged for his Tuareg people years ago had changed him as well. Rival tribes like the Chaaba and Kaybeles had been subdued and their raids on Tuareg camel herds and caravans ended. His treaty with Ibn Hazm had secured the west and a similar treaty with Hassan Pasha had normalized relations with Algiers, to their mutual profit. Henry had not fought a battle in close to a decade. Joba now saw to the regular training of the Tuareg troopers. Compared to other men, he was still quite fit, but Henry knew his body was no longer the finely-honed piece of steel it had been a decade before. Ah well, he reflected, I haven’t really chosen this journey. And so I can’t know the way back. Whoever set me on this path will have to bring me home. With a shrug, he went outside where Joba had been waiting patiently with his horse.

Tinitran, “the star,” was a pure descendant of the prized Kehilan mare Henry had brought with him from Arabia. She stood fifteen hands high, with the Jibbah, the bulging forehead that held the blessings of Allah characteristic of her bloodlines. Her great, arching, high-crested neck, the Mitbah, and gaily-carried tail signaled her courage and pride. Joba had provided Henry with three days of food and water. Henry would re-provision when he got to Kaf Ajnoun. Henry’s throwing daggers and disguise kit were in his saddlebags, his pistols, fine percussion cap weapons by Loron and Company in Marseilles, were in his saddle holsters, and his double-barreled rifle in a scabbard under his left leg. He wore his favorite sword, the Mameluke blade Jezzar Pasha had given him, so many years before at Acre.

Joba held Tinitran’s surging head as a trooper gave Henry a leg up. As Henry settled his feet in the stirrups, Joba looked up at him. “Be careful,” he said. He wasn’t talking about Ibn Hazm. Henry was headed for his secret hiding place in the mountain fastness of Idinen, Kaf Ajnoun, the djinn-haunted Cave of the Devils. It was an evil place. Few men foolish enough to have climbed the mountain to the cave ever came back alive, and those who did, returned as raving madmen.

Joba was well aware that somehow, Henry was untouched by the magic of djinns. Henry once had tried to tell him of his spirit bird aswe’gaí and the beliefs of the Mohawk people in America who raised him. Joba had stopped him. The less Joba knew about magic, Joba thought, the better. He had sometimes wondered if Henry wasn’t a djinn, himself, sent to help the Imazighen.

“Take care of Dihya and Agizul, my old friend,” Henry said, and then with the slightest relaxation of pressure on the reins, Tinitran sprang forward. Joba climbed the knoll to watch as Henry’s dust trail finally vanished in the haze of the desert.

Two hours later, Dihya returned, at the gallop. When she dismounted her exhausted, foam-streaked horse, she ran into her and Henry’s tent. Joba watched her, knowing what would come next. He spoke rapidly to one of his troopers: “A camel, four days of provisions, and my weapons. Now!” So she’s had second thoughts, Joba reflected. First thoughts are usually better.

Dihya came out of her tent, the misery etched into her face. “Go after him, Joba.”

“I will find him, my Lady.” Joba paused for a moment, cautious about deepening her misery or awakening her anger. “You know I can’t bring him back.”

“I know. But take him this message. Tell him he may still be a fool, but he is the fool that I love with all my heart. And my anger and fear for his safety have made me a greater fool. I will be only half alive until he comes home to me. And give him this.” She handed Joba Henry’s note to her, at the bottom of which she had written lines from Rumi, the Persian poet Henry loved:

I want your sun to reach my raindrops
So your heat can lift my soul upward like a cloud.

Joba nodded, placed the note inside his burnoose for safety, mounted the camel his men had brought him, and kicked it into a run. He didn’t look back.

Dihya returned to their tent and sat forlornly on their empty sleeping mat. For almost twenty years, the last thing I remember is his arm around me as I fall asleep. I have rarely woken up in the morning without his smile being the first thing that greets me. In the first ten years of warfare, I was always his shield.

Her mind flashed back to the dusty, chaotic swirl of their last battle, against Hassan Bey’s Turks outside the city of Derna in Tripoli, ten years before. When Henry had asked Joba to meet him at the battlefield with three hundred of Henry’s best troopers, Dihya had invited herself along. She always stayed to Henry’s unprotected left side in a fight, unconsciously feeling his reaction to the enemies around him before he pivoted his mount to encounter a new enemy. Ahead, a Turk Henry had been chasing suddenly spun his horse to the left, right in front of him. As Henry swerved to avoid contact, the man nimbly ducked his horse behind Henry’s, taking a slashing swing at Henry’s unprotected back as he passed, opening a small wound. Now he was on Henry’s unprotected left side, closing quickly. Ahead, another of Hassan Bey’s men was charging straight at Henry, pinning him momentarily between two enemies. He turned in his saddle to meet the attack from the nearer of the two men, parrying the Turk’s sword slash, then pivoted to meet the danger from the rear. Dihya had timed her move perfectly. The pursuing Turk’s head simply flew off his body and the headless rider and horse galloped past Henry. In response to his quickly blurted “thanks,”

Dihya had just smiled, and lifted her bloody sword in salute. After the battle, Henry had thanked her again and asked “But why are you here? This is the Americans’ fight, not yours.” “Why to protect you, of course.” she said.

Her mind came back to the present. The bright sun on their red tent gave the inside into a glowing rose light. But there was no warmth in it now. Our quarrels have been passionate, she thought; so has our love making. And I love him for the caring, patient father he is for our son. We are balanced, together, like the blazing sun and cool, flowing water. Now I must suffer hot grief and drown in sorrow alone. She collapsed on their sleeping mat in tears.

*      *      *      *      *

Joba’s méhari camel was bred for speed, and Joba pushed it hard. He had no desire to catch up to Henry within the haunted mountains. An hour later, with the long jagged crest of the mountains of Idinen rising ominously in front of him, he approached the escarpment of the Wadi Tanezuft, his camel still at its mile-eating dead run. At the edge of the cliff, as the loose soil crumbled beneath his camel’s hooves, he had a moment to realize, in fear, that he was going too fast, then he and his camel hurtled over the edge. When he came to, with the sun now starting to set, his camel lay next to him, its neck broken. Joba tried to stand, and his left leg collapsed under him. He gathered his food and water, and using his rifle for a crutch, worked his slow, painful way back up the escarpment to where a rescue party might see him.


Share This