A Rivalry of Kings
In the stories of the days of old, there was once not a king, but a thief.
But perhaps we are getting behind of ourselves. We must start a little after that.
We must start in the tent.
* * *
Yusuf watched the man across from him. The man watched him back.
It was a long, tense silence.
Then the man abruptly turned his attention to the translator. The translator began to speak, taking what Yusuf had said and speaking the words as they might be understood in the other man’s tongue. Yusuf watched the interaction attentively.
Here, before Yusuf, was his enemy.
He smiled. He was an old man now. He had campaigned for many long years and he knew, the way he knew many things, that his body would fail him soon.
Yusuf was dying.
But the man across from him did not need to know this.
He waited as the translator conveyed what he had just said, watched as the king across from him listened.
His enemy was young and, though weakened with illness, still full of life. He was tall, with long limbs and canny, pale eyes. He had hair the color of sand, hair that took on the redness of the sun in the firelight.
Yusuf was very unlike this man. He told himself this, and yet he still saw himself in his opponent. He was his enemy, and his enemy was him.
They were two men of God. Two men fighting for the same slice of holy land. Two men trying to outwit each other. Two warriors at cross purposes. Perhaps it had been ordained, was always meant to be so—Yusuf staring across the table as his enemy sat on one side of the carpet and he on the other.
Earlier, before this meeting, his enemy had offered a sister—with the Kingdom of Jerusalem as his bride price. It was a trick, Yusuf knew. To get him, the sultan, to refuse. But Yusuf was clever, too. He understood his enemy’s ruthlessness. For he was his enemy, and his enemy was him. So Yusuf accepted the bride and the bride price. Jerusalem for the Faranji king’s sister. His enemy, the Faranji king, had retreated then.
The pale king claimed that his sister had been sent back home without his knowledge.
There would be no marriage.
Yusuf had smiled when the messenger returned.
Two foxes trying to outwit each other. Two warriors, both trying to outwait the other.
His enemy nodded when the translator was finished. He turned his gaze on Yusuf. Pale eyes met black ones. Yusuf knew there was little in his own eyes, little in his own expression.
There was little there in the King of Faranj’s looks as well.
They were two men who played this game well. But the Faranji did not belong here. They took land and they refused culture. They were ruthless and ill-disciplined, though cunning warriors. At least, when they weren’t sending their peasants into cities, to club and eat the remains of the local populace.
Ah, it was something—for a little while at least—to have a worthy enemy.
Yusuf could not tell if he had the Faranji king cornered yet. He knew from the reports that the patience of Faranji’s vassals and knights was wearing thin with this waiting. That the king himself grew sicker. Some of his men were headed back to their homeland. Others, frustrated that their king would not attack the holy city and take her by force again, were making their own plans. Brewing their own rebellions.
But this king was stubborn, as Yusuf himself was stubborn. Perhaps this pale king would wager it all, just to continue his own fight in the name of God. That was not outside of the realm of possibility.
So, Yusuf waited. And he smiled. The Faranji king smiled back.
His enemy said nothing back to the translator. It was another long moment of silence.
It really had been good, for a little while, to have a worthy enemy.
The translator held her breath. For she—she was our thief.
And her story is just as startling as that of the kings.
The walls of the city of Akko are not high, but they’re high enough.
I can see that now.
I’ve still got one handhold on the wall and I watch as my legs swing freely, high in the air. Dizzying, to say the least.
Terrifying, to say the most.
I suppose I should tell you why I’m dangling from the walls of the fallen city, but I haven’t much time. Zeena is already halfway down. She likes to remind me that though we’ve both been climbing date palms since we could walk, she is older and she, therefore, has more experience. Personally, I refuse to admit to her that she’s any better than I am.
But the truth is, she’s the better climber. I’m better with a bow.
That won’t help me here, though.
These city walls were not built for scaling. A statement of the perfectly obvious, I know. But they really, really weren’t. The stones were placed precisely in such a way to keep anyone from doing exactly what we are. My arms are sore and my legs are stretched to their limits. Getting from one brick to the next would be difficult even in the daylight, much less with three quarters of a moon as the only source of light. There are campfires not too far in the distance, but those provide little comfort to me—they belong to the very people I don’t want to notice me or my sister.
So, when my boot slipped earlier on one of the stones … well, now you know why I’m hanging by one arm, scrambling for purchase against the walls.
The scrape of boots against rock, of course, causes Zeena to look up and hiss. I already bit back a curse when I missed the brick, and there’s no other way to find my foothold again without a little bit of noise.
But it doesn’t matter; Zeena is not reasonable. She cannot possibly resist the urge to silence me, as though I might have missed the stakes in this dangerous game. As though I think we are currently racing down the spine of a palm tree to see who could bring Baba back a fresh date first.
As though her hissing were any less noisy than my one—extremely small—slip-up.
I can hear her warning in my mind: Silence and invisibility are our one advantage. Thank you for that sage advice, Zeena. Truly thoughtful and supportive and exactly what I needed this very moment. Could not do this without you, my shining and guiding light. Please, hush me again so that we might draw further notice to our climbing out of a city during a siege in the middle of the night.
My foot, mercifully, finds the next stone. I ignore the burning ache in my limbs as they beg for relief, pleading with me to relax for just one tiny moment. That feeling is a lie. Giving in to it would get us caught or killed. Akko fell—is falling—and its walls are not ones that I would dare scale in any other situation.
The Faranji came by the sea; we had to get out the hard way. To be a captive soldier is always a risk, but we did not have the safety of being men. If we were discovered, we would be too far from home for our name or our tribe to mean anything to these strange invaders. The men we fought alongside with for months had told us in no uncertain terms: The Faranji were barbarians. We would not be afforded the honor of being soldiers by them.
Zeena had balked at the thought of deserting our comrades, but Omar had ordered us: Leave now, and do not turn back. A direct command from our captain. I think he told Zeena to go on and defend Jerusalem, but we knew that part of the order didn’t matter as much.
We had to run.
The only thing left in our way is the city’s famous walls.
And a Faranji siege.
And, also, the siege of al-Nasir that surrounds that.
And, of course, the invaders who would be reaching the city’s port by now, attacking the other side of Akko and potentially breaching the inside and spurring any troops on this side of the wall to approach.
And, not to mention, still surviving this climb.
A laugh bubbles up in the back of my throat, and I bite my tongue in order to keep it from escaping. Mostly to avoid Zeena’s glare again.
One handhold and one foothold at a time. Finding the rhythm is always the tricky bit. Doesn’t matter if you’re scaling trees or walls, you’ve got to set a pace. Hand to foot to hand to foot. The movement must stay smooth. The movement must be balanced. The movement doesn’t have to be fast, just consistent.
I keep moving.
A small thud sounds below me. Zeena’s made it down, mashallah.
The rest of my climb is mercifully uneventful. I make it down without thinking further of Zeena’s frustration or the expression in Omar’s eyes as he ordered us to abandon our company. He was the only one who would look at us; the rest averted their gaze, knowing that this would never have been asked of them. I try not to think of the cast of rage on Zeena’s face as I pulled her away from our fellow soldiers.
I try not to think much of anything at all anymore.
As my own feet touch the soft earth, I say a short prayer, in the smallest of whispers. “Allahu Akbar.”
“Save it,” says Zeena. “We’ve only just done the easy bit.”
I hate her for saying it. Mostly, I hate that she’s right. Again.
A Tale of Two Sieges
“Why did you have to insist on that green cloak?” asks Zeena.
It’s her constant complaint. She’s crouching behind a rock and I know she’s cursing that I don’t wear black to match the cover of the night and the color of her soul. That the green of my mantle, though dark, is still just enough color to be spotted by the invaders in the firelight of their camp.
She’s not wrong, but I only have one reply at this point: “Green is my color.”
“You are vain,” says Zeena.
She’s not wrong about that, either, but that’s not why I bought this cloak, dyed extravagantly and deeply green. It reminded me of home, though I’ve never told her that. It’s the color of the rushes that grow on the banks of the Tigris and the groves of date palms, their lush tops swaying in the breeze. I wanted a piece of our home—verdant and alive.
But I let her think I bought it because the color favors my olive skin and dark hair. She’s the reason we left our land, and I try not to remind her of how much I long for home. For rice fields and date orchards and the smell of orange blossoms.
A cool night breeze washes over my face and brings me back to the present.
Zeena’s watching the rhythm of the Faranji campsite, looking for the edges of darkness that we can use to skirt around. It’s not a bad plan, as far as plans go.
But I’ve just spotted a soldier sleeping on his own, and I’ve one idea better than hers.
“We cannot sneak,” I say.
“We must,” she replies.
“No,” I say. “It’s too far. We’ll never make it. Not without a single soul spotting us. They have ten thousand men, at least.”
Zeena looks at me, catching the glint in my eye, and shakes her head. “No.”
“You haven’t even heard my idea,” I say.
“I don’t need to. I know your ideas, Rahma. They’re ridiculous. Each one is worse than the last.” Zeena raises a single eyebrow like she’s taken a piece from me in a game of backgammon.
But I know I’m right. I know I’ve given up that small piece to win the game at large, so I say, “Look at that knight over there. He’s already sleeping.”
“Let the lion at rest stay at rest, sister.”
“But we could just knock him out, steal his armor.”
Zeena is unimpressed, and she crosses her arms to show me so. “And then what? There’s one of him and two of us.”
“And then,” I say, adding a little dramatic pause because though I know she hates it, I also know that it works on her, “we walk through camp, with you as my prisoner.”
Copyright © 2022 by Aminah Mae Safi