“I’ve cheated death a hundred times,” Henry Doyle laughed to himself, “and gotten away with it. So many battles. So many killings. I know I don’t deserve this happiness – but I love it.”
He was enjoying the last of his morning coffee sitting on a knoll overlooking the sprawling oasis of the Tuareg’s winter camp. It was a time of day he treasured − watching the golden glow of pre-dawn spread over the landscape, casting long, eerie shadows behind men and animals, then deepening into blood red until the sun exploded over the mountains to the east and painted the clouds pink and purple. Now. in the dawn’s coolness, the morning sun had not yet burned the color out of the sky. Below him, the vast plain was dotted with the wealth of Dihya’s Tuareg people – thousands of sheep and the camel and horse herds of Henry’s cavalry – the military force that protected the Tuareg’s wealth.
Dihya’s long, gracefully feline body was curled next to him, perhaps asleep, perhaps just dozing. He liked just looking at her. Tuareg women, unlike other Muslims, wore no veils. Years of exposure to the desert sun – generations, actually − had turned her skin a deep rich olive color. Her features, however, jet black hair framing a finely-chiseled face and gray eyes, were European. No one knew where her people, the ruling Imazighen class of the Tuaregs, had come from. They were already a feared power in North Africa when the Phoenicians and Carthaginians first arrived. She is aptly named Dihya, the lioness, he thought. I wonder if she’s awake. He ran his hand gently down her shoulder and then more slowly over her left breast, feeling her nipple harden as she breathed in the pleasure. She turned towards him, rolling over and sliding her hand under and up his loose shirt, and then moved her hand downward. He shifted his position to free the cloth from around his hips. The smile on her face was wickedly eager.
Suddenly, she turned away from him, and cat-like, lifted herself to a sitting position. Fifty yards away, on the level ground below them, a high-pitched young boy’s excited cries rose up to them, echoed by the deep-throated laughter of a man and the clash of sword blades. Their son Agizul was sparring on horseback with Joba, Henry’s sword master, parrying thrusts while trying to maneuver to the other’s unprotected left side.
“He was born to sit a horse,” said Henry, as he rose with Dihya to watch Agizul and Joba, pride lighting up his face. “He is certainly your son.”
“Pah!” Dihya answered. “He rides like a Franzwazi, not an Imazighen. See how he hauls his reins against his pony’s mouth. He has no concern for his mount.”
“He’s ten years old, Dihya.”
“No matter. There must be no difference between the horse, the rider, and the riding. Joba spoils him – as do you and all your men. Praise be to Allah that he has a mother to teach him discipline.” Her voice carried strongly through the desert air. “Heels down, Agizul! Heels down! Must I always tell you the same thing?”
Their son’s response was to sharply pivot his pony, grasp its mane with his left hand, and disappear over its side. His face peeked out under the pony’s neck as he passed them at the gallop, an irresistibly mischievous grin spread across his face.
“When he acts like that, he is no son of mine,” Dihya said.
“We named him Agizul, ‘the brave.’ What would you expect?” laughed Henry.
“There is a difference between brave and foolish,” she answered, echoing his laughter, “although I suspect that difference would be lost on you. I fell in love with your courage; the foolishness I discovered only after we married.”
“Well, a man has to excel at something. But the boy will be fine in Joba’s care.” They watched as Joba caught up to Agizul, and began leading him back to the horse herd at a walk.
“We’ll see. Agizul’s safety may depend on his mount. He needs to learn to care for his horse as if he were protecting his own life.”
Fearing the moment was wrong, Henry cautiously returned to their conversation the previous evening. “We were talking about his future last night, Dihya.”
“No, you were talking and I was disagreeing. You want Agizul to leave our people before he has learned how to be a man − to grow up with strangers – infidels, in fact.”
Henry knew trying to convince Dihya to change her mind was like telling the sirocco not to blow. He went on anyway. “You know the threat we must prepare for comes from enemies far more powerful than desert tribes. Now that Napoleon is safely imprisoned in Elba, peace has finally come to Europe – which means their attention will turn to easier conquests. The Ottoman rule over North Africa is an empty shell. My brother Peter and the Americans proved that in their war against Tripoli ten years ago. North Africa sits like a prize waiting to be plucked. The French, Spanish and English will, in their lust for power, look here for their next conquests.”
Dihya’s eyes were far away. When I ty to talk her into changing her mind, Henry thought, my words are like wind-blown sand whispering against ancient stone. I keep trying to use logical arguments to change the mind of a woman who makes decisions based on the truth of her heart. He lapsed into silence.
After a time, she turned to look at him at him again. “You know, Tizemt”– it was his pet name for her – it meant ‘lioness’− “what happened to the Mohawk people who raised me in the American War of Rebellion. The Americans drove them in exile from their ancestral home. I want Agizul to learn the ways of the enemy he will need to defend us against after I’m gone. With my contacts, I can gain him admission to Eton in England, and then to the military academy at Sandhurst. When he turns eleven, I believe for our people’s safety, he must take his Christian name, William Doyle, and live among the English.”
“And become one of them,” Dihya answered. “A stranger to his people.”
“I know that is your fear. No mother wants to lose a son.” He lifted her right hand, and let his fingers trace the strong veins that rose above her well-muscled sword arm, tracing along the scar of an old wound. “This is the blood that runs through him. His heart is your heart. He can never lose that.” She placed her other hand gently on top of his but said nothing.
The crack of a rifle shot in the hills rising above their encampment broke Dihya’s silence. They both turned towards the sound. Henry watched the bright signaling mirror flashes from his sentry. “Good,” he said as he read the message. “Maysar-who-goes-without-water. I have been expecting a letter from Peter. Let us return to our tent and wait for Maysar’s news. We will talk more about Agizul’s future.”
“You most certainly will talk,” Dihya answered, then with a toss of her head as she rose, “whether I listen or not remains to be seen.”
An hour later, they were sitting in Dihya’s tent to hear Maysar’s report. It had taken Henry some time to get used to the idea that among the Tuareg, and especially among the Imazighen ruling class, the dwelling tent is owned by the women; husbands are, in fact, just guests. If a woman divorces her husband, he loses not just his wife but their home, and has to move in with his relatives. In their first, tempestuous year of courtship, Dihya had threatened to exile Henry from her tent and her life every few weeks. Now, it was a joke they both shared in.
Maysar was an old, old man, his skin looked like a corpse’s baked in the blistering desert sun. But the eyes that peered out from under his hooded lids were bright with wisdom. The most trusted of the network of spies Henry had placed throughout the kingdoms of North Africa, his endurance was legendary, even among the Tuareg.
“So, Maysar-who-goes-without-water,” Henry began. “Your news?”
“The Franzwazi chief, Napoleon, has escaped captivity and returned in triumph to his country. Worse, the news is that the people have risen to support him; the Franzwazi king has fled. Napoleon now proclaims himself emperor again, at the head of an army of more than three hundred thousand men poised to crush his enemies.”
“The devil, you say!” cried Henry. He rose quickly from the cushions he was sitting on, walked to the far edge of the tent, and stood there, caught in the turmoil of his thoughts. He was standing next to his Mameluke sword. He lifted it, absent-mindedly pulling the glistening, engraved blade out of the scabbard a few inches, then thrusting it back, and repeating the movement. Maysar waited patiently for Henry to resume the briefing; Dihya watched him with growing concern.
“And who opposes him?” asked Henry, finally, turning back to them. His face had hardened.
“The Inglitere with their general Wellington have mustered little more than ninety thousand men. If one can trust what I was told, they are raw troops, conscripts. The Prusyali promise another two hundred thousand men; the Ruslar pledge one hundred and fifty thousand. But I have more evil news. The Franzwazi emperor has allied himself with Shiite heretics in Turkey and Albania, even declaring himself, false infidel that he is, a convert to the true faith of the Prophet, blessings be upon Him. The most radical have fallen for Napoleon’s lies and are ready to proclaim him the Hidden Imam – the Mahdi. They are gathering an army to split the allies forces, leaving the Inglitere to fight the Franzwazi by themselves.”
Henry returned to the cushions to sit next to Dihya. “This is evil news indeed,” he said. “So the Shiite fanatics have proclaimed Jihad against the Prussians and Russians. Turkey and Albania swarm with their followers, the most deadly, fanatical bashi-bazouks.” He paused a few moments. “I know their hearts may be inflamed with pious rage, but I cannot believe they will stir so long as their pockets are not full of gold. Religious zeal goes only so far amongst them.”
“That is the last piece of my bad news,” said Maysar. “I have learned that Ibn Hazm has pledged the gold needed to keep an army in the field for two months. I believe there are already plans to ship the treasure overland to Algiers from where the Franzwazi will take it by ship to the Adriatic.” Henry remained quiet for several minutes, deep in his own troubled thoughts.
“You might as well tell me what you’re planning,” Dihya said finally. “I know that look.”
“He must be stopped,” said Henry almost to himself. “Napoleon has mastered the art of separating allies and defeating one enemy at a time. The English can’t defeat the Grand Armée. With England isolated, the rest of Europe hammered into servitude, and Napoleon now wearing the mantle of the Mahdi with the support of Shiite fanatics, he will surely look to North Africa for his next conquest. Sooner than we might wish, we will be staring into the mouths of his cannon.”
“And who will stop him, Tamimt?” she said, using her word of endearment. “Surely not you, now.”
“I think I’m the only one who can, Tizemt.”
Knowing where this encounter would lead, Maysar politely excused himself and left the tent.
“You are a fifty-five-year-old man, Tamimt, ” Dihya said when they were alone. “You have not raised a sword in battle in ten years. This is a younger man’s work. You belong here, protecting our people and raising your son!”
“This work calls for a spy, not a soldier, Dihya. When Maysar-who-goes-without-water is rested, I will talk further with him. I will go to Azgar or Algiers – wherever he thinks we may have the greatest chance for success in stopping the passage of gold to the Shiites.”
“The Sheik of Azgar may have agreed to leave us in peace, but he is no friend,” said Dihya, “and you know you have enemies in Algiers who would revel in your capture and slow death.”
“And one friend, the Dey, Omar Pasha. We served together at Acre years ago when he knew me as El Habibka.”
“The way Turks change rulers, he is likely to have been strangled by his own Janissaries before you reach Algiers. This is too dangerous, Idiger. For love of me and care for your son, you should not do this.”
“For love of our people, I must do it, Tizemt.”
“Then you are a silly old man,” she exclaimed in an angry explosion. “Your enemies will surely kill you this time – and then who will raise our son and protect our people?” She leaped to her feet and stormed out of the tent with a parting shot hurled back at Henry, “So go! Go! Be the fool you were born to be! But if you survive, do not expect to be welcome in my bed when you return!”