Chapter 9 – Azgar

Sheik Ibn Hazm, a tall, white-bearded and perpetually angry-looking man, turned out to be just as pious as Adbuhl Rahman, but quite a bit less kindly. Nevertheless, he welcomed Henry, made him comfortable within his tent, and conferred with his first wife on what might be the most palatable for their visitor to eat, since quite obviously the traditional hospitality feast of olives, hummus, bread, pickles, figs and eggs was out of the question. They offered him a gruel of mutton and couscous which Henry managed to gulp down without spilling too much in the process. Food was followed by tea.

Henry was confident his disguise would fool Ibn Hazm. Men see what they expect to see. El Habibka, as Ibn Hazm knows me, appears on a magnificent pure-bred Arabian steed, dressed in an elegant white burnoose. He is used to seeing me as a tall man, a warrior, with deep fire in my eyes. A pathetic beggar is, well, just a pathetic beggar. Still, he kept his face lowered.

Normally polite conversation would have followed the meal. Since that was impossible for his guest, Ibn Hazm led him outside, and motioned towards a small tent where he might rest. By grunts and signs, Henry gratefully declined the offer, pointing towards the dappled shade of the palm trees next to the edge of the oasis. There he was led, and given a skin of water, softened dates, and a thick woolen burnoose to ward off the cold of the night. Happily, his refuge was just thirty paces from the rear of Ibn Hazm’s tent. He settled himself comfortably, nodding his head like an imbecile, and uttering loud, garbled thanks, at which the servants caring for him recoiled in disgust.

His rest was interrupted almost immediately by the boys of the encampment, more interested in tormenting the strange new arrival than offering him the customary welcome. They amused themselves by calling out insults and pelting him with rotted dates and pieces of camel dung while keeping a close eye out for any elder who might stop them. After sitting passively for a few minutes and enduring their barrage of gibes and missiles, Henry looked directly at the nearest of his assailants and motioned him forward. Spurred on by the laughs of his companions, the boy came forward. When Henry gestured, he sat down right in front of him. Henry proceeded to pull a dried-out date from the boy’s left ear and clump of camel dung from his right ear. The boy jumped up in terror and ran back to his friends. Henry then pointed to the obvious ringleader to come forward. The urchin’s fear of his friend’s mockery was just barely greater than his fear of this stranger, so with an air of bravado he didn’t feel, he marched up to Henry and sat down in front of him, an arrogant grin on his face. His grin melted as Henry extracted a long sliver of palm frond from the rascal’s right eye, then another clump of dung from his now open mouth, and finally a large, squirming black beetle from his nose. The crowd of boys ran away screaming and Henry was left in peace for the rest of the afternoon.

Henry joined the men of the encampment for the ritual Salat prayers, kneeling to one side, but as he began, “Allahu Akbar…” what came out of his mouth was garbled, ugly noise. Most men instinctively shied away from him, and by afternoon prayers, he was kneeling well to the side of the rest. What a pity, thought Abdul Rahman, observing Henry’s prayers. His affliction prevents him from pronouncing the name of God. Well, so long as the voice in his heart is clear, God will hear him.

Henry’s comfortable sleep was interrupted, shortly after the Maghrib sunset prayers, by an excited clamor within the encampment. Riders were approaching from the north. He heard the word alfransi – a Frenchman. Henry suspected that could only mean one thing, and pulled deeper into the lengthening shadows around the palm tree, drawing the folds of his burnoose hood around his face. His concern grew when, in a whirl of dust, the riders clattered into the open area in front of Ibn Hazm’s tent, and a tired, angry Chameau dismounted from his camel. Henry made his body as small as he could and his thoughts empty. He fooled Ibn Hazm; his disguise would not fool Chameau. Ibn Hazm strode from his tent to welcome Chameau, and ushered him into his tent, as custom demanded. They will feast first, thought Henry, then talk – and it will take some time before Ibn Hazm decides their conversation should turn from pleasantries to business, as much as that will plague Chameau. By then, darkness will have fallen.

An hour later, Henry was ready to move. He arranged his burnoose in a careful clump, so that anyone looking from even a few feet away would think he was still sleeping, and in his rags, started inching towards the back of Ibn Hazm’s tent. By now, the flickering light of a crescent moon shone fitfully through the surrounding palm trees. Henry crawled from shadow to shadow, the mottled black and grey of his rags making him to all purposes invisible. Finally he gathered himself in a small ball at the back of the tent where he could clearly hear what was said inside – just another blur in the darkness.

“So it is settled,” Chameau summarized. Chameau knew no Arabic, but Ibn Hazm could manage sufficient French, painfully ugly to Chameau’s ears, for them to communicate. “The gold, enough to keep the army of the faithful in the field for two months, will be transported by armed caravan here,” he pointed on a map to a small, secure inlet twenty miles to the east of Algiers, “where a fast xebec, captained by the corsair Murad Reis, will transport it to Durazzo.”

“I can assure the safety of the gold until it reaches the coast,” said Ibn Hazm, “but what of its safety then? Murad Reis is little more than a pirate.”

“Yes, but he’s a well-paid pirate. And your most trusted guards will accompany the treasure on its voyage to Durazzo,” answered Chameau. “Once it arrives, the boat will be greeted by Shihab al-Din and his supporters. You know him, I trust, to be a Shiite Imam of the greatest faithfulness. You have an understandable concern that this treasure reaches its destination and is used for the holy purpose intended for it. Trust me in saying that for us, its arrival in the hands of those who will use it against the heretics is no less great a desire.

“And what of Omar Pashah, Dey of Algiers? He is an apostate, a Sunni – and a Turk. He and his ilk defile the name of the Prophet, peace be upon Him, with their drunkenness, in flagrant disobedience of the Law. He is a janissary, and as such is sworn to celibacy; women are forbidden to them. So like beasts, they couple with young boys for their sinful pleasure!” he exclaimed. “Surely he is no friend in this affair.”

“He will not interfere. This I promise on my life, although I may not, in all confidence, tell you how that is to be accomplished.”

Henry had heard enough. He made his way back to the palm tree as stealthily and patiently as he had come, and wrapped himself again in his burnoose. Someone passing by and glancing in his direction would never know he had not always been there. After midnight, with the entire camp asleep, he quietly stole out of camp to begin the long walk back to Kaf Ajnoun, grateful now for the warm burnoose that covered him. Might as well have taken it, he thought. Had I left it behind, they would have burned it for fear of the fleas and disease I carried. The night guards around the camp never saw him leave, just another silent, flickering shadow. By morning, he would be miles away, mounted again on Tinitran, headed for Algiers.

Henry settled into the easy, mile-eating lope he had learned growing up with the Mohawks. Old Grandfather Tiyanoga had taught him that when a warrior or hunter walks, he sees with his feet, listens with his eyes, and looks with his ears. The Mohawk way of moving silently, effortlessly through the woods, feet feeling and adjusting to avoid the snapping twig or rustling leaf, senses open and mind empty, became as natural as breathing. As a boy in his teens in the years before the Revolution erupted, already with a man’s body and a warrior’s heart, he had served Joseph Brant as a scout — and a spy. Thirty miles in a day was nothing to him. He could pass through the forest with less noise than the slightest of breezes. To the Oneidas he was “Fox who moves without a shadow.” The Cherokees said he was a Nunnehi, one of the invisible spirits that travelled on the wind but could appear when they wished in human form.

The forests of his youth had been magically full of life. For the Real People, the Haudenosaunee who had raised him, Sky Woman’s spirit was in everything, not just the animals, plants, trees, and rivers, but in the earth itself. The world was alive, and spoke to him. Was an enemy following him out of sight, perhaps a mile away? As the enemy crossed a stream, the frogs would become quiet. Further away, birds, squirrels and chipmunks would sound a warning echoing forward until it reached his ears. The closer the enemy came, the more the sound and feel of the woods around Henry would change in slight, furtive, but unmistakable ways.

Those forests were gone now with his people, and he was here, in a desolate land of stony soil, wind-gouged cliffs, and black mountains rising like rotted teeth, stripped of almost all life. There were no trees within a hundred miles. Henry slowed his run into a walk. His breath was ragged now and his calves burned with pain. It will take me longer to get back to Kaf Ajnoun, he thought. But I’ll still have a head start.

*      *      *      *      *

The next morning, Chameau met Ibn Hazm outside the Sheik’s tent for coffee. Gazing around, Ibn Hazm noted with surprise that the beggar they were caring for had disappeared.

“That’s strange,” he said, almost to himself. “He’s gone.”

“Who’s gone?” asked Chameau, a strange premonition instantly troubling his mind.

“The beggar we took in yesterday, as custom and faith require us to do.”

Chameau’s mind opened to a frightening possibility. “This beggar. Tell me how he was dressed and what he looked like?” he snapped.

“He was dressed in black and grey rags with one eye poked out, and his tongue was also removed, making speech impossible” Chameau knew the disguise…and the beggar.

Chameau was about to start, “You fool,” but remembered his host’s quick-tempered pride. “That ‘beggar’ was El Habibka!” He paused to let the enormity of this revelation sink in. “Our secret plans are now an open book to the English for whom he is working.”

Ibn metnakah!” exclaimed Ibn Hazm in fury. “Treacherous son of a dog that he is! But this is terrible.”

“Terrible, I promise you, but for him, not us. He will go to Algiers to confer with Omar Pasha. I will see to them both and send you back word when it is safe for the caravan to depart. Now saddle me a camel, one less vicious than the brute I rode in on, and arrange guards and a guide to take me to Algiers. In fact,” Chameau added, “send some of your best fighters with me. We know where El Habibka is going, and he will not think he is being pursued. We may get fortunate and catch up to him.”

“Let Allah the All-Merciful will it so,” Ibn Hazm replied.

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