Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1986 (3 page)

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1986
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“I’ll care for mine,” Wulf assured Bhakrann. “I
wouldn’t want to be afoot in this country,” and he looked across coarse
tussocks and scattered boulders.

“You’ve come far across the world,” Bhakrann
observed. “You escaped being killed by Moslems, then by us. Call yourself
lucky.”

“Call
yourselves
lucky,
too,” said Wulf at once, and Cham snorted, but again Bhakrann laughed.

“I say again, you’re ready of tongue. You act like
a fighter. If that’s your trade, you couldn’t have come among better fellow
tradesmen. So this Hassan wants to hunt for us,
eh? Well, let him
find us. We’ve beaten his sort before this.”

“Okba, then Zoheir.”
Wulf nodded. “Okba marched all the way west to the outer
sea. Then he came back and got killed, with all his men.”

“How do the Moslems think of Okba?” asked Cham.

“I gave him his martyrdom personally.” Bhakrann
grinned.
“Killed him with my own hand.
That’s his
sword on my saddle.”

Wulf looked. It was a handsomely curved Arabian
sword, in a scabbard of leather. Its hilt sparkled with jewels.

“Okba captured Koseila, one of our chiefs,”
Bhakrann elaborated. “Treated him like a slave. Koseila escaped to where we
were watching Okba’s march — the Cahena directed us. We knew everything Okba
did, every step and instant. A few days later we rushed him and martyred him,
as you put it. But you can hear about that later. About you, how did you happen
to be in
Carthage
?”

Walking with them, Wulf told how he had fought as
a boy in the country of the Franks, as a young man at
Constantinople
against both Christians and Moslems, and again at
Carthage
when the Moslems attacked there. Bhakrann asked questions,
and Wulf said he had been an officer to train diffident Greeks and Byzantines
for battle, then to lead them in the slovenly defense. He described the sack of
the cities, men butchered, women screaming in hysterical terror, children
herded away like sheep.

“They’re shipping those children to
Damascus
,” said Wulf. “Abd al-Melik likes lots of slaves.”


Who’s
Abd al-Melik?”
asked the long-faced Djerwa.

“Their caliph,” replied Wulf. “Master of all
Moslems and, he likes to say, of
all the
world.”

“Not this part of the world,” growled Cham. “We’ve
showed the Moslems a short way out of here before, and we can do it again.”

They led the horses among warty hummocks, tufted
with coarse grass and thorny bush. Up ahead, the palms grew big and grateful in
their sight. In the shade crouched a small, square hut of rocks and dried mud,
from the door of which peered a grizzled old man. Bhakrann called out to
reassure him, and asked for water.

The gray-tussocked face ventured out, then the
scrawny body, leaning on a forked staff like a crutch.

“Trouble’s coming this way,” Bhakrann told him,
“and you’d better let us tell you about it.”

The old fellow limped toward him.
“Trouble, master?”

“I am Bhakrann.”

The name meant something to the old man, for he
bowed respectfully. “What’s happening?” he quavered.

“The Moslems have chewed up
Carthage
,” said Bhakrann. “When they finish robbing and burning,
they’ll come here to take the land. But let us water our horses.”

The oldster led them among palms and acacias to
his well, stone-ringed and shaded. They dipped with a wooden bucket to fill a
clay trough, and while the horses gulped gratefully the men passed the bucket
from hand to hand. Wulf drank and doused his hot head. Three goats watched
intently from a pen of poles. Wulf and the others dragged on the bridles to
keep the horses from drinking too fast and too much.

“Could we have some food?” Bhakrann asked the
farmer.

“But I don’t have anything fit for great men to
eat.”

“We’ll eat anything. If it’s offered by a friend,
we’ll pay for it like friends.”

They sat under the trees, holding their horses.
Wulf studied the little homestead. There was a patchlike field of barley, a few
date palms and almond trees. Grape vines straggled on rails. In the midst of
the barley field a grinning donkey skull rode on an upright pole, its eyeholes
staring darkly, to ward off devils. The old man limped out with a traylike
basket. It held a stack of limp flaps of
bread,
some
bunches of raisins, a patterned clay jug.

“Thank you, uncle,” said Bhakrann. “One of you
pay
him.”

“Let me,” said Wulf.

He found a silver Byzantine coin in his belt-pouch
and put it into the skinny hand. Eyes above gray whiskers widened. The old man
put the coin to his mouth. Maybe he kissed
it,
maybe
he bit it to make sure of its metal.

“You’re too kind, master,” he mumbled.

They took food and talked. Wulf broke a piece of
bread. It was of coarse barley meal, probably stirred up with water and toasted
on a clay tile. He ate hungrily, for he had had very little food in captured
Carthage
. His companions talked to him with casual goodwill, as
though there had never been a thought of fighting him. Cham passed him raisins.
The long-faced one said his name was Tifan. The fourth Djerwa was Zeoui, a
short, thick-shouldered man with a brown beard. Wulf drank from the jug. It was
goat’s milk, nutty and fresh.

Bhakrann had flung off his cloak, showing a
coarse-woven tunic faced on chest and arms with slips of iron. To his left
wrist was strapped a knife, around his neck hung a copper collar set with uncut
jewels. As he munched, he spoke to their hovering old host.

“When the Moslems come, hold up one finger like
this.” Bhakrann pointed skyward with a forefinger like a truncheon. “Hold it up
and say,
‘Y’allah il Allah.’”

“What does that mean?”

“It means
,
there’s no god
but Allah. Say that and nothing else.”

“They’ll think I’m crazy,” protested the old man.

“Better to be thought crazy than to be knocked on
the head,” put in Tifan. “I hear that the Moslems more or less respect crazy
people.”

“Yes.” Wulf nodded. “Some of their chief saints
seem to have been mad.
Including Mohammed himself, as I
judge.”

“He’s had able followers,” said Bhakrann, red
glints in his beard.

The farmer clucked at his goats. Wulf and the four
Djerwa ate every crumb of the food and drained the milk jug. Then they filled
their water bottles. At last Bhakrann pronounced the horses sufficiently
rested, and they rode back toward the trail. The farmer leaned on his stick and
gazed after them.

Bhakrann rode beside Wulf and asked knowledgeable
questions about the Moslems. How many were at
Carthage
? Perhaps twenty-five thousand, Wulf guessed, with more
coming from both land and sea. What were their arms? Wulf described scimitars,
metal-faced shields, spiked helmets, lances and bows. What about their cavalry?
It was splendid, a large part of the total force, much of it mounted on fine
horses from
Arabia
. The Moslems conquered their nations on horseback. Wulf’s
captured bay was a fair example of their riding stock.

“And I still think that an Arabian horse is big
enough to knock down one of yours at close quarters,” he said.

“We have javelins to keep them from getting to
close quarters,” said Bhakrann. “They’ve come galloping after us before this, I
told you, and some were lucky enough to gallop away again.”

Wulf looked westward to the mountains. “When will
we see your people?”

“Oh, some days yet.
We started a march this way as soon as we heard of the
siege of
Carthage
. We four were ordered ahead to have a close-hand look.”

“How many can you muster against the Moslems?”
asked Wulf.

“About what you say they have, twenty-five
thousand or so. Of course, a big army means a whole nation of camp followers
who can’t fight. What we’re bringing along now isn’t like that — no women and
children. They stayed behind to look after the cattle and sheep and goats, back
beyond on the Arwa. But if we draft the men from all the tribes, lots of their
families will come, too. No stopping them, worse luck.”

Wulf gazed at the heights again. They seemed a
trifle closer, but only a trifle, dun touched with green and shadows of blue.

“Is that
your
Arwa?” he
asked.

“No, the Arwa’s much
bigger,
and about two hundred miles on from where we are. Say two hundred and fifty
from where
Carthage
is getting to be a thing of the past.”

“Delenda
est
Carthago,”
quoted Wulf, more or less to
himself.

“Huh?”

“Cato the Censor said that, nearly nine hundred
years ago,” said Wulf. “
Carthage
must be destroyed, he kept saying, and finally it
happened.”

“Did this Cato do anything but talk?”

“He was good at war and he was good at the law,
and a good farmer,” Wulf said. “He taught people how to make a good loaf of
bread, better than what we had just now. And he wanted
Carthage
destroyed, and it happened, and now it’s happening again.
Meanwhile, that Arabian general Hassan wants to find the Cahena.”

“I said she wouldn’t be hard to find,” said Cham
from behind Wulf. “But she’ll be damnably hard to beat.”

They ambled along for some moments, thinking about
that.

“The Cahena,” said Wulf at last. “We talked about
how that means priestess in Hebrew. And the name of your tribe, the Djerwa,
sounds Jewish. Are you of the Jewish faith?”

“We have some of that,” replied Bhakrann. “We
respect a lot of various gods and keep their feasts and thank them when there’s
something to be thankful for.”

“Like the Cahena?” suggested
Wulf.

“Like her,” said Bhakrann.

“She calls us her sons,” put in Zeoui, “if we do
something to make us worth calling that. About gods, I’ve heard the Moslems
yell out
Allahu akhbar,
God is great. But there’s also the Cahena.”

“We’ve yelled that back to them,” said Bhakrann.
“There’s also the Cahena.”

“She must be a great queen,” said Wulf.

“Judge for yourself when we show you to her,”
Bhakrann bade him. “She’ll want to talk to you about the Moslems, hear the
things you know about them.”

“She’s the Cahena,” said Tifan. “That’s enough for
us.”

“It will be more than enough for General Hassan,”
said Zeoui.

“Meanwhile,” said Wulf to Bhakrann, “what’s your
Cahena going to think of me when we meet?”

“Probably she knows about you already, and is
deciding what to think about you.”

Wulf stared across at him.
“You
mean, she has second sight?
Knows things in advance?”

“She knows everything, more or less, when she puts
her mind to it,” said Bhakrann weightily. “Spirits speak to her.”

Perhaps that should not have put an end to the
conversation, but it did. They rode on and kept riding on for some time,
without any talk.

III

They passed other shabby little farmsteads with
clumps of date and olive and almond trees and one settlement, a clump of mud
huts; but they did not stop anywhere, and were alone on the road.

“We’ve not spoken to anyone since that old
farmer,” said Zeoui.

“Nobody’s so witless as to ride toward
Carthage
,” said Bhakrann. “The word must have spread about how the
town fell, and everybody who wasn’t caught is going the other direction, like
us.”

“Except that old farmer,” reminded Zeoui.

“He doesn’t think of anything except his barley
field and his goats,” said Wulf. “Poor old fellow, I hope he doesn’t get hurt.”
He tipped up his water bottle to take a mouthful.

“Save what water you can,” cautioned Bhakrann. “We
may make a dry camp tonight. And the sun must be hot on your head, after you
threw away that turban to show us you weren’t a Moslem. Take this.”

He sidled his horse over, holding out a big linen
kerchief patterned brown and black. Wulf draped it shawl-fashion on his head.

“That makes you look more like a Djerwa,”
commented Tifan. “Let your beard grow, to be like us.”

Far ahead, a gap was visible in the knobby
westward range.

“When do we meet your friends?” Wulf asked.

“Another day, perhaps, beyond
that pass.”
Bhakrann drew rein. “Let’s
lead our horses awhile. It’ll rest them and stretch our legs.”

They walked awhile in the evening light, holding
the bridles. Bhakrann asked questions. Wulf told of being in the Frankish wars,
then in border skirmishes around
Constantinople
, of the more recent fighting with Moslems outside and
inside
Carthage
. He described the Frankish and Byzantine schools of arms
and tactics. Bhakrann responded with talk of Imazighen methods, throwing or stabbing
with javelins and using big knives at close quarters.

“Yet Okba got through you, rode all the way to the
eastern sea,” Wulf reminded him. “I’ve heard how he rode his horse into the
ocean and mourned because he couldn’t conquer lands beyond — he seemed to think
there were lands beyond. You didn’t stop him there.”

“We stopped him when he came back,” said Bhakrann.
“I put my javelin right where his neck and shoulder came together.”

“You told me that, but they said it was done by
someone called the son of the Cahena. Are you her son, Bhakrann?”

“She calls me her son. How do the horses seem,
friends? Let’s ride awhile now.”

A warm breeze had come up. Haggard rocks and
knolls rose to either side of the way. The far-off range darkened under the
sinking sun, with tints of sea green and russet and purple, with seamy streaks
of gilt where the light touched ridges.

They reached a dry, jagged fold in the ground,
with a fringe of scrubby trees. Bhakrann lifted his hand.

“We’ll stop here,” he announced. “See if there’s
water, Zeoui.”

They dismounted. Zeoui slunk along the gully where
a stream had run, his long beard thrusting down. He knelt, pawed at one place
and then another, moved a few steps onward. He dug with his broad dagger. Cham
tethered his horse and came to help.

“You thought there’d be water?” Wulf asked
Bhakrann.

“We’ve found it here before this, even in dry
times like now,” Bhakrann raised his voice. “How does it look, Zeoui?”

Zeoui lifted a handful of dark earth. Bhakrann
nodded.

“That looks damp,” he said. “The horses already
smell water. Tie them up until we make sure.”

Wulf unsaddled his mount and patted the
lather-streaked flank. Bhakrann attended to the horses of Zeoui and Cham as
well as their own.

“Here it is,” called Zeoui triumphantly, from
where he had dug to almost the length of his arm into the stream bed.

Wulf tied his bridle to a thorn bush and walked
over to see. Cham and Zeoui straightened from the wide hole they had scooped. A
flow of milky mud churned there. Cham bailed it out with a brass basin and let
more trickle in. Again he bailed. “We can drink it pretty soon,” he said.

Saddles and wallets and blankets were carried to
the shade of the thicketed bank. “Let’s have a fire,” said Bhakrann, picking up
dry branches. Wulf, too, moved here and there, gathering an armful. Bhakrann
struck flint and steel to ignite a scrap of tinder,
laid
on dry twigs, and fed larger pieces as the flame rose.

Cham and Zeoui brought the basin full of water to
the fireside. Bhakrann
drank,
then Wulf, then Tifan. The
water was only slightly clouded with silt. Back went Zeoui to refill the basin,
while Cham and Tifan enlarged the makeshift well. It overflowed into a low
place in the stream bed. Cham and Tifan skillfully built a dam of earth and
stones to contain the water. Bhakrann leaned above them to inspect.

“Soon there’ll be enough for the horses to drink,”
he decided. “You should see it here after the spring rains, Wulf; it runs deep
enough to drown a man.”

“Can you always get water by scratching for it?”
asked Wulf.

“Almost always,” Cham said.

“Then wells could be dug all around and the land
could be farmed,” said Wulf. “All this earth needs is water.”

“Farm here?”
Cham sniffed. “Not me.”

Tifan brought the half-filled water basin to the
fire, where big pieces of wood were burning down to coals. Zeoui took a slice
of dried meat from a pouch, wiped the blade of his knife, and chopped the meat
into the water. He set the basin on stones at the edge of the fire to heat “Do
you have any food?” he asked Wulf.

Wulf found a big wad of dried dates in the wallet
of his captured saddle. His companions grunted their applause and broke off
bits of the mass to eat. Zeoui watched the meat in the basin, and when it began
to seethe he rummaged from somewhere an onion, which he minced up and added.
Tifan brought a package of pale-grained couscous. He measured handfuls into the
basin and stirred the whole with a peeled twig.

“What I’d like is an ostrich egg,” he commented.

“That’s for women and children,” said Cham. “I’ll
be satisfied with what we have here.”

“A cucumber would help it along,” said Zeoui.

“You never had a cucumber in your life,” Cham
sneered. “You’ve always lived on the mountaintop eating couscous, and if you
could get clabbered milk you’d think you were at a wedding.”

The others laughed, and Wulf wondered why it was
funny.

The sun had set behind the mountains to westward
and the moon had risen, almost full. The air grew chill. Zeoui dragged the
basin of stew away from the fire to cool. Bhakrann stooped above the tank where
the water had collected and called for the horses to be brought to drink. After
that, each rider noosed a line around his mount’s neck and tied it where it
could crop the scanty grass. Then the party squatted and ate from the basin,
using fingers to pick out bits of meat and pinches of couscous. The mealy
pellets had swelled and softened. They tasted good.

Bhakrann, sitting with Wulf, wiped his mouth.
“That sword you wear,” he said. “I haven’t seen it yet.”

Wulf rasped the blade from its sheath and handed
it across. It was a straight, heavy weapon, longer than Wulf’s arm, a good
three fingers broad at the cross hilt and tapering to a keen point. Both edges
were honed razor sharp. Bhakrann handled it respectfully.

“Is this better than a curved sword?” he asked.

“In some ways, yes.
I’m used to it. It can stab to a heart or split a skull.”

“These marks on it — writing, are they? I can’t
read writing.”

“My name, in Greek.
It was made for me in
Constantinople
.”

Bhakrann passed it back. “I’ll be interested to see
you use it.” He gazed at the moon. “That’s light enough to travel by, but I
don’t expect any Moslems right away. And we can use some sleep.”

“I’ll watch first,” volunteered Tifan.

“And I’ll watch last, and wake us up at the first
ray of the sun,” said Bhakrann. “Our fire’s pretty much down to coals. Keep it
going, but not bright enough to make some stranger curious.” He looked at Wulf.
“If you’ve learned any prayers in all those places you’ve been, say them and
sleep well.”

Wulf hollowed out the earth with his hands, into a
depression to fit his body, and wrapped himself in the captured cloak, with his
head on his saddle and his feet to the fire. Looking up, he studied the
patterns of the stars. Did they mean anything? He had heard astrologers talk
about them, but he could not remember what the talk had been, or if it had
sounded convincing. He drifted away into slumber.

He woke to a touch on his shoulder and sat up
quickly, his hand on his sword.

“It’s Zeoui,” said a quick voice. “This is next to
last watch, for you to stand. When the moon’s moved far enough, wake Bhakrann.”

Wulf rose. Zeoui moved away to his own bed. Wulf
drew his cloak against the chill and mounted the brushy bank above the camp.

He peered here and there across the softly lighted
plain. No movement. After a while he sought the well and slapped water on his
stubbly cheeks. Then he returned to the bank and again he looked in all
directions. Among the stones at his feet he found one that he liked and drew
his great sword to whet it. He sharpened the whole front of the blade,
then
edged the back.

Swaddled in his cloak, he meditated on his present
situation and wondered if it was good or bad. Bhakrann had called him lucky
that he hadn’t had to fight with all four of these Djerwa. But fighting would
come with Moslems, and now that he was with the Djerwa he would be on their
side. He respected Moslem warriors, but did not fear them. He’d killed too many
for that, in
Asia
and here in
Africa
. As to that Imazighen chieftainess, the Cahena, Bhakrann
and the others seemed to worship the very mention of her name. How would it be,
fighting at a woman’s orders? Probably he’d find out, and soon. The Moslems
never let the road grow up in grass before they followed it.

He strolled over to see where his horse drowsed,
its feet planted and head lowered. It had kept up all of a long day with the
hardy animals of his companions. He and the horse had more or less learned each
other, did well together. That horse would second him well against an enemy. He
went to put wood on the fire.

The soaring moon flooded the plain and the heights
with pallor. When he judged it had moved westward for two hours, he sought
Bhakrann’s sleeping place. “Bhakrann,” he called, and at once Bhakrann woke,
grinning up.

“Go back to sleep,” he said, and came to his feet
in a single swift motion. Wulf lay down again and slept as soon as his head
found the saddle. He felt safe with Bhakrann on guard.

He woke to hear Bhakrann shouting. They all rose,
strapping on weapons and shaking out cloaks. Bhakrann dived into a leather bag
and brought out fistfuls of flat, dull-colored biscuits. “I saved these for
breakfast,” he said.

Wulf’s biscuit was the size and shape of a clay
saucer and almost as hard to chew, but he managed with swallows of water. They
filled their bottles and rode away toward the mountains that did not seem so
far away in the dawn.

They had ambled for something more than an hour
when Cham, riding at the rear, raised his voice:

“Look back there!”

Over a rise half a mile behind them
came
horsemen.

“Are they some of us?” asked Tifan.

“Hardly,” said Bhakrann grimly. “We’re the only
scouts sent here to study things. Look, they’re moving faster, want to catch
up.”

Wulf reined half around, but Bhakrann caught his
bridle.

“You said you don’t know any friends in a strange
place,” he reminded, “and we don’t know those riders. Six, it looks like — no,
seven. Head for the pass.
Less room for them to surround us
there.”

They kicked the flanks of their horses and went
swiftly onward. Behind them, the strangers also quickened their pace.

“You have good eyes, Tifan,” called Bhakrann. “Can
you make them out?”

Tifan set his bearded chin on his shoulder. “They
wear turbans,” he shouted back “And green and yellow and blue cloaks.
Moslems!”

“Make it to the pass!” thundered Bhakrann.

They galloped for it, but Wulf did not urge his
horse to its utmost. He looked at the hurrying pursuers. One of them, perhaps
the lightest rider on the fastest charger, drew ahead of his mates. He waved
something like a purple banner on a stick Wulf checked his horse, to fall back
from his own companions.

“Faster!” Bhakrann bawled at him, but Wulf paid no
attention.

That Moslem rider scuffled toward him at top
speed. His fine chestnut horse ran like a gazelle. He had left his party behind
by many lengths and gained on Wulf, waving that stick that now was recognizable
as a lance, with a streamer of cloth upon it. Again Wulf slowed his retreat.

BOOK: Manly Wade Wellman - Novel 1986
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