By the growth on my face, I know it has been almost 2 days since the battle at Jebel el Habash, and I had all but given up hope that anyone would come to my rescue. My captors continue to poke their sharpened spears into my cage, laughing as I dodge and delay my untimely demise for another few hours. Their language is foreign to my tongue and their actions barbaric. From what I have noticed, they are a well-assembled and disciplined group of marauders that have made it to our shores and have established the protected valleys of the green mountains as their own, looting all caravans and villages crossing their usurped lands. The Caliph from his throne in Damascus dispatched an army of a thousand strong men led by my father to suppress these savages. I have no recollection of the battle, and as far as I can see, I, Mukhtar ibn Saif ibn Waleed Al Fares, am the only living prisoner within their camp.
I have been stripped of all weapons and jewelry. All that remains is the ring bearing my family’s crest, hidden in my boot; a gift from a Christian goldsmith in Venice. Even if I could mastermind an escape from my prison, I will not go undetected for long. These savages appear to be expert trackers and quite familiar with this terrain. The cloak of night will be my only opportunity to escape.
They are a fierce warrior race, and by the looks of their stolen armor and organization, seem to have fought many adversaries: Christians, Muslims and their own. My memory of the battle does not exist, but it is impossible that they could have defeated our army; my count verifies that we outnumbered them tenfold. A master of the dark arts must be among them. My head still carries a pain as though Allah has sent a thunderstorm into it. I must rest.
My eyes have totally adjusted to the dark, a trick my uncle taught me while hunting the desert at night. The merciless heat of the sun forces all animals to take shelter underground, forcing a waiting game between the predator and its prey. Guards continue to patrol the campsite anxiously waiting for something or someone to attack, their weapons ready. These barbarians are anxious about something and I fear it’s not my Arab brethren.
A guard walks towards my cage with his weapon in hand ready to spear my soon to be dead carcass. Instead, he throws a piece of bread and a skin of water; I cannot remember the last time I nourished my body with food or drink. The savage mutters. I do not speak his language but the meanings of his words are clear. Soon enough, my short life will come to an end. As the guard pulls away, I pull my fingertips at the crust of this old bread, but my hunger has left my body weak.
“Be careful what you eat Arab, these savages poison everything. That is how they killed your army, they poisoned your water.” Turning back, I notice something in a neighboring cage move, there is another captor with me. “Who said that? Who are you?”
“I am a prisoner like yourself. These barbarians saw your armies advancing days ago and poisoned the wells on route. The poison left your troops in a trance, unable to defend themselves while these monsters slaughtered them all.”
“Who are you? And what are you doing here?”
“My name is Diego, I was a member of a Portuguese trading ship that captured these animals as slaves. Two days into our voyage back, members of the crew started dying from an unknown disease. Bruises and strange marks began to appear on the crew, and once you were infected, it would not take long before death came. The marks covered your body and then it attacked your spirit, killing off any human part of you. Some of the infected began killing each other like animals, while others threw themselves off board in fits of madness. I immediately went into hiding when the savages took control of the ship and they only discovered me when we crashed into the rocks off this coast. Be careful what you do stranger because these monsters eat the living, I have seen it with my own eyes, slicing off limbs like roasted meat – they are more demon than human.”
The guards reply to our conversation by jabbing their swords and spears into our cages. I begin my dance again to avoid the razor sharp blades, exhausted and clinging onto my last life. I cannot keep this up much longer, I must escape. They finally give up after a barked order from another savage. As they walk away from our prisons, towards the fire, a fragrant smell begins to find its way to my nostrils. It is soft and floral yet pungent, almost spiced. The scent is heavy, filling my head quickly, yet it is slowing down my movements, I cannot retain any proper thoughts. I turn to Diego, but he has already drifted into a deep satisfying slumber. My eyelids cannot hold their own weight as I drift off to my drug induced sleep.
“Kama” the fat one calls me. “Hurry with the drinks you ingrate! Your whore of a mother was quicker on her feet than you. Or would you like me to recreate the sounds of her passion as she engulfed my manhood like the whore that she was?” My mother will have her day of revenge, this I swear to you, you pot bellied bastard, you and every last one of you.
Kama served the drinks and took his place outside of the circle. He was a slave to them and was exempt from their rituals. Kama came from a farming land far away in the plains across the sea. His family had been enslaved by a warring tribe that was eventually captured and placed on a ship that crashed off this coast. His mind tried to erase the pains he had felt over the past three years, the scars and screams, the blood and tears. His spirit had been numbed to nothing but a lost feeling of freedom. He often kept himself busy with plans to escape, which were quickly followed by intense fear. He was no warrior, they would capture him and bring on another three years of torture and pain.
The tribunal gathered around the fire where the Shaman approached with his basket of flowers, plants and weeds ready for the intoxication ceremony. Mugo, the Shaman’s apprentice spent the entire day collecting petals growing on the side of a cliff – the shaman, insisted on having it, he claimed that the mana derived from the flowers would provide the warriors with true strength. As he crushed the ingredients together, making a paste, he added the drink to the mixture until it frothed. Taking the lead, the shaman took a sip from the bowl and handed it to the chief, who in turn followed and passed the bowl along.
Once the bowl made its way around the circle, Mugo approached the quiet fire in the middle with a basket of flowers and weeds. A group of slaves pulled a huge cloth over the heads of the circle and over Mugo as he began throwing the contents of his basket into the fire; smoke began to billow but was trapped under the cloth. The Circle members pulled themselves closer to the fire as they let the smoke fill their heads and enter their spirit. The drumming picked up and chanting could be heard from under the cloth. Kama hated the smoke, it burned his nostrils as he pulled the cloth tight over their heads.
On cue, the Shaman let out a piercing scream as the slaves pulled the cloth away, releasing the chamber of smoke into the camp. The tribunal lay there with their bodies convulsing following the shamans lips and providing the chorus to a rhythmic chanting. The smoke lingered throughout the camp as though weighed down by magic. Kama stepped back while he watched everyone run into the smoke to fill their souls with the Shaman’s magic. Bodies began to sway from side to side, eyes rolled to the back of their heads; hands shook as the drumming continued.
“Arab. Arab wakeup. If you want to escape, now is our chance. They have drugged themselves and are unable to fight.” I awake but cannot recollect my dreams. Diego, hunches in his cage with an arrow tip in his hand. The rhythmic drumming keeps my head from stringing any thoughts together – “Where am I? What has happened? Why do I feel like this?” Diego, not intent on pausing to explain the events to me, is busy jamming the arrow tip into his lock until it eventually gives in and opens up to him. “Never leave a sharp object within the reach of Manuel Diego Lopez, their error will set our fortune in motion”. He sneaks out of his cage with the ease of a seasoned thief and begins to pick at my prison cell.
As my lock clicks open, my exit is less nimble then my comrade, drawing the attention of a guard, who raises his weapon and charges. Grabbing hold of his sword hand as he lunges towards me, I spin myself into his body and feel a crack as my elbow meets his ribs. The sword falls to my hand and is quickly reunited with its previous owner, blade to chest. Blood sprays us both, and his screams alert the rest who awaken from their trance. Their mismatched collection of weaponry is an indicator of the armies they’ve fought, my sabre bears the resemblance of Spanish steel. Diego, brandishing two blades he found on the dead body, tumbles towards one guard slicing his chest open, while the other receives a stab straight to his neck. Able fighters we are, but vastly outnumbered and looking to die another day, we both break off into the darkness.
The drumming begins to follow us as we run. “Arab, they are not too far off, we must hasten our escape.” I could not agree more with my new friend, but the aftereffects of the drugging have left me unable to make out the brush in front of us. I lose my footing and crash to the ground, followed by another crash from Diego. As we pick ourselves up to start moving again, lit arrows glide over our heads as the screams and shouts become louder. “I cannot see where I’m going, I could be leading us off a cliff for all I know.”
“Anything is better than here Arab, anything. These people will kill us slowly, then marinate our flesh and feast on us. I would like to spend some time in the bosom of a woman before my time is up, what say you?”
“Very well, but stay close, the terrain is changing and I feel we’re going to be traveling downhill, so we must tread carefully.”
Three torches followed and picked up pace until we could hear their footsteps crunching on branches. I turn and swing the blade straight to the first torch I saw. Using the torch to block my attack, he pushes me away as he comes with his weapon. My opponent swings his sword, which I quickly parry and meet with a slice to his left arm. He screams as I dig my weapon into his torso. The blood feels warm as it trickles down my blade and onto my wrist. Drugged or not, these are warriors and I need to field my best tactics for engagement. A flash of silver flies by me and lodges itself in the head of the person carrying the second torch, his body drops to the ground. The third comes running, still chanting and swinging his sword in my direction. Our swords clangs as I block his attack, his strength is far beyond what I had expected from a drugged person. I strike my knee into his midsection; as he feels the strike and lowers his body, the hilt of my sword comes down on his head like a war hammer, knocking him to the ground.
Our little skirmish allows more savages to catch up with us, their screams frustrating me as I try to distance the fear from my heart. We switch our careful treading to frantic running through the darkness. Our breathing picks up weight: hunger, fear, and exhaustion are beginning to show; our impending doom can be felt in the darkness. Our doom comes in the form of an ambush with four savages and their chief. They must have followed a path we missed and caught up with us. Not willing to die at their hands, I ready my sword, while Diego says a prayer as he draws what he believes to be his last breath.
As the Chief approaches us with his sword, he breaks into a defiant speech. His words are foreign but his tone familiar, he is flaunting his capture to his troops, praising and laughing as he waves his blade past my face. Just then, his eyes freeze upon mine, his smile falls off his face replaced with a surprised painful look. A spearhead bursts out of his torso covered in blood. His innards, properly packed in his body just seconds ago are now spilling onto the floor in front of me. Behind him stands one of the other soldiers holding the spear, but this one is not dressed in armor like the others. The other savages stand there in shock as they watch their chief bleed to death at their feet. This is our chance; I swing my sword at one of the beasts while Diego lunges for the other. Their demise is quick and follows their leader on the floor. The final combatant drops his sword and flees in fear of being outnumbered. Once again we are safe, for the time being. Our savoir stands there smiling but convulsing at what he has just done, his actions have just bought him the same fate as us, if we were captured.
Without thinking I grab our new companion and run down the path. The drumming still follows us, and we can hear screams as the search party discovers our latest victory. “This is pointless!” Diego tells me. “They will catch us, we need a faster escape.” I am with him, but there is nothing we can do but continue to run in the darkness.
Kama, flushed with intense joy runs alongside his new companions. He is now a free man again, his family’s honor has been avenged and from the looks of the way those two have fought, he is safe. He understands their attitude in their speaking that an escape is needed. He checks his surroundings and amidst the darkness recognizes where they are. Days ago, he accompanied the Shaman and his apprentice when they sent their magic to poison the armies through the water supply. There is an underground river not far from here that leads water to the wells in this valley, if they could get to it, they might have a chance to escape. But they are traveling in the wrong direction; they need to cross back past the path of the oncoming army and drift into the darkness to the caves.
Kama tried to get the attention of his companions to stop, but they are not interested in slowing down. He shouts and they turn around to face him. The two try to communicate with him, but he cannot understand them. He beckons them to follow him, he tries to use his hands to signal a river under a mountain, he does everything he can, but they do not understand him. So he does what he can only do, he places his hands on their shoulders looks them straight in the eye, hoping to create a sense of trust, and begins running in the other direction. The two others look at each other, and begin following him; they are satisfied with having someone else lead them through this unfamiliar territory.
As they run, across the brush, the drumming continues to follow them and then moves away. The two foreigners breathe a sigh of relief to Kama as they make it to the caves. As he leads them into the caves, the sound of rushing water begins to bounce off the inside walls of this huge cavern. This underground network was the tribe’s definitive advantage in overcoming the Arab army, the water supply was poisoned and it traveled all the way down the valley to the beginning of the mountain range. The dark haired foreigner seems to understand what is happening and his face flushes with anger. The river appears to flow through a number of caverns into the rocks and out leading to a hole in the ground. Either way, the escape does not look too promising.
As Kama tries to explain what is to happen to them next, the Shaman and a troop of soldiers emerge from the entrance to the cave. A war cry drowns the rushing water as a barrage of arrows fill the air. Analyzing their options, the dark haired foreigner says a prayer, tucks in his arms and jumps into the flow of water, followed by the other one. Kama tucks his arms into his sides, blessed the four winds and believes he is one with the river as he jumps in.