The story so far: Francisco’s faith and prayers are put to the test when the Imam’s daughter falls deathly ill, and he is called to pray over her. Miraculously, the little girl is raised to full health, and the Imam, beginning to look more kindly on Francisco, invites him, Abdul, and Abdul’s family for a celebration in his house. It is there that Francisco’s interest in Abdul’s beautiful daughter, Fatima, increases.

Abdul must leave for Meknés to rally troops for the impending attack of the Spanish army. Meanwhile, Francisco remains in Jerada praying for Abdul, when an urge in his heart tells him to leave Jerada and head for Meknés.

– – –

Chapter Five

For days Abdul Aziz had been watching the long column of Spanish soldiers moving up the valley towards Meknés. His vantage point was a range of hills that ran southeast to northwest. He and a small group of fighters had been moving stealthily through the trees and bushes on the rills observing the unsuspecting Spaniards as they approached the city. Upon his arrival in Meknès three days earlier, a hastily called council of war had decided to implement Abdul Aziz’s plan. A small force would be deployed in front of the city to bear the brunt of the initial attack, and then fall back. At the moment when the Spanish victory would appear imminent, Abdul Aziz and his men would sweep down from the hills and attack their left flank while another party led by the sheik of Meknés would come at them from the hills on the other side.

That morning Abdul Aziz had met up with his deputy, who had informed him that all his forces were at the ready, concealed from the Spanish by a hill. The Spanish battalion was in sight of the city and closing in, and the attack was expected to begin within hours. From a grove of trees at the top of the hill, Abdul Aziz was intently observing the movement of the Spanish with the aid of one of his prized possessions, a telescope captured from a Spanish officer in a battle near Casablanca. His observations were momentarily interrupted by the arrival of the Imam, who had followed him from Jerada in order to aid in councils of war and pray for the resistance forces. One of his deputies had brought him up into the hills from the city.

Customary greetings were waived in deference to the danger of attracting attention. In a few words Abdul Aziz informed the Imam of the situation. A little reluctantly, he passed the elder man his telescope to allow him a closer look at the infidel forces. The Imam trained the telescope back and forth along the road that led to the city as Abdul Aziz continued to watch the enemy massing for battle, estimating their numbers and sizing up any weaknesses that could be exploited.

Suddenly, the Imam pulled Abdul Aziz’s sleeve and pointed to a spot across the valley close to Spanish front lines.

“What is going on down there?” he muttered, passing Abdul Aziz the telescope.

A figure had emerged from the orchards which lined the foothills opposite them and was crossing a field towards the road along which the spearhead of the column of Spanish troops was advancing, the remaining forces fanned out behind them. Quickly Abdul Aziz focused his telescope on the figure. It was the unmistakable brown robe.

“By Allah,” he said, “it is the Spaniard, Francisco.”

“The infidel!” snapped the Imam. “This proves my suspicions. He knows of our battle plans and is going to inform the army of them.”

Abdul Aziz shook his head in disbelief. “Surely it could not be so.”

“We were fools to ever trust him and let him into our company,” retorted the Imam in an angry whisper. “To think that I entertained a spy and a traitor in my own house!”

“Wait,” breathed Abdul Aziz. “Watch what is happening.”

By now Francisco had reached the road and turned to face the army. The colonel who was leading the oncoming column of troops reined in his horse and raised his hand to call a halt as he took in the strange sight before him. Francisco stood barefoot on the road, the hood of his long brown habit flung back, and his arms folded defiantly across his chest. His unflinching gaze was fixed on the colonel, who returned it with steely malevolence.

The colonel nodded to the aide at his right who raised his rifle and pointed it at Francisco’s chest.

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“Get out of the way,” snapped the colonel, “or we shall be forced to get you out of the way.”

Francisco stood silent, impassive. The aide cocked his rifle ready to shoot. Some invisible force seemed to check the colonel.

“Hold your fire!” he barked at the aide. For a few moments he glowered at Francisco. “Who are you and what do you want?” he snarled.

“My name is Francisco,” came the quiet but unperturbed reply. “I am but a humble monk whom our dear Lord has called to serve in these parts. I come to you in the name of God and in the name of my humble master, Saint Francis. I beg you to have mercy on this city and spare it. There are only a few hundred fighting men between you and its capture. Why should you cause more anguish, create more widows and fatherless children, and cause untold death and destruction as you have done in other cities? These people have done nothing to you.”

“These are cursed heathen!” snapped the colonel. “You as a man of God ought to know that. They deserve to be subjugated. My commission is to carry out the orders of the king and not to listen to fanatical dreamers like you. Nevertheless, since you are a monk of the holy Franciscan order, I will not shoot you. I will have you sent back to Spain and tried as a heretic and a traitor.” Turning to his men he snapped, “Seize him!”

Two soldiers quickly spurred their horses forward, dismounted and grabbed Francisco on either arm. He did not resist but boldly shouted at the commander: “You ought to obey God rather than men. You should obey the commandments of love from your God, rather than the orders of hate and war from the king. Let these poor people live in peace. If you don’t listen to my words, what you have meted to others will come back upon your own head. This very day you shall know it…”

“Silence!” roared the colonel. “Take him and chain him!” he shouted to the soldiers. “We will deal with him after we have taken the city.”

The two soldiers quickly removed Francisco from the road and began escorting him to the back of the column.

“Such insolence,” said the colonel roughly to his aide. “To delay the advance of my entire battalion with such treacherous fallacies. Prepare to take the city!”

“We shall take up an observation position on that hill,” said the colonel to his aide, pointing towards a knoll on the right of the road ahead. “Command the men to await my signal to attack.”

Abdul Aziz had been watching the entire exchange through his telescope. He passed it to the Imam who took a long critical look at the scene before exclaiming triumphantly.

“See how the infidel goes over to the enemy! His loyalty is only to his own people. We were foolish to ever trust him.”

Abdul Aziz did not reply but slowly shook his head. “Now we must prepare, for I see the army begin to take up its positions,” he said quietly.

“We must change our plans,” urged the Imam, “for surely the infidel has informed against us.”

Abdul Aziz wrinkled his brow as he pondered the Imam’s statement.

“There is not time to change our strategy. Victory or defeat is in the hands of Allah. Let us prepare for battle.”

Abdul Aziz had assembled his men at a place where a long gully ran down into the valley. They thus would be sheltered by trees for as long as possible, before emerging into the flank of the army. The knoll on which the commander had taken up his position was just to the right of the emerging gully, between it and the city.

Abdul Aziz watched as the cavalry fanned out in the fields on either side of the road ready for the attack. He could already see lines of the fighting men of the city preparing to meet the onslaught. A palpable air of fear and tension hung over the valley as those on both sides prepared themselves for the imminent clash. The Spanish had six cannons, transported on horse-drawn carts, which were now arrayed facing the city.

The commander raised his right arm and fired a pistol into the air twice. At the signal the cannons immediately roared into life, and cannon balls began smashing into the city wall and the front line of the Moroccan cavalry, while other cannons fell harmlessly into the fields.

Some of the defending army’s horses reeled in confusion, prancing and snorting. A few of the soldiers already lay dead or injured beside their slain horses. Before a second round of cannon balls could be fired, however, the Moroccans advanced, rifles raised, swords glinting in the morning sunlight. Abdul Aziz watched in awe as the two- or three-hundred-strong band plunged headlong towards the oncoming force of several thousand.

The commander raised his pistol again and fired three times and the Spanish cavalry charged toward the oncoming Moroccans. The crack of rifle fire rang out across the valley as the two lines approached each other, then clashed in full fury. The Moroccans fought like whirling dervishes*, but the superiority and sheer force of numbers of the Spanish and their more advanced weaponry began to wear down the Arabs. Although the Spanish sustained heavier losses than the Moroccans in the initial clash, they soon began to advance toward the city while the surviving Moroccans turned to retreat before them.

Abdul Aziz had been waiting for this moment. With a silent signal to his men they began to move almost noiselessly down the gully towards the unsuspecting army. As they reached the last line of trees, Abdul Aziz spurred his horse forward with his sword raised high. Suddenly the several hundred strong band of horsemen charged out into the valley and towards the flank of the advancing army. Abdul Aziz and the party of other horsemen’s first objective was the knoll to their right where the commander was watching his army’s advance through binoculars. The Spanish commander’s elation at victory turned to horror as the crack of rifle fire and sound of approaching horses behind him alerted him to danger.

For a second he gazed, transfixed in horror at the swiftly approaching hordes of horse-borne, white-clad executors of the vengeance of God, before a bullet entered his heart and the binoculars fell from his lifeless hand onto the turf beside him. Within minutes the command post was overrun by Abdul Aziz’s men. Meanwhile, the other Moroccans were sweeping into the flank of the Spanish from the other side. The invaders were suddenly plunged into disarray. Some of Abdul Aziz’s men managed to reach the cannons and turned them around to face the bulk of the army that still lay behind. While this was happening, more fighters emerged from the city into the confused front ranks of the Spanish. Caught thus in a three-way crossfire, the enemy vanguard was powerless to withstand, whilst the bulk of the army behind them, like a beheaded behemoth*, began to torturously inch its way back up the valley with the Moroccans in pursuit.

Finally the Spanish were able to regroup enough to withstand the onslaught of the Arabian horsemen and maintain their position, but the rout* was complete. At the knoll that had served as the Spanish command post, Abdul Aziz picked up the binoculars that had fallen from the commander’s hand. Placing them to his eyes, he looked long and searchingly at the retreating column of the Spanish battalions. He saw what he had been looking for, an unmistakable brown-clad figure, bound with chains, being dragged along between two horsemen.

“See that the prisoners are treated mercifully,” he muttered to his deputy.

“Come with me,” he said to four other fighters as he mounted his horse and rode off back towards the hills.

Chapter Six

After his capture, Francisco had been taken to the rear of the oncoming army and chained. When it had become apparent that the Spanish had suffered a dramatic and unexpected setback, the army had retreated up the valley, fortified its position against further attack, and set up camp for the night. The atmosphere was tense. The commander and his deputy had been killed in the battle, and the command now fell into the hands of a young major.

Francisco had been dragged for several miles between two soldiers on horseback, and had waited all day in the sun without food or water. At evening, after the camp was set up, the major came and stood imperiously* before Francisco, who was still bound hand and foot and now confined in a tent with two armed soldiers inside and an armed guard outside.

“What is this curse you have brought upon us this day?” he growled. “You are no monk of the church, but a heretic and a witch. It has been reported that you cursed the commander and the army before the battle. Now look what evil you have brought upon us.”

Francisco stared silently at the dirt-strewn floor beneath him.

“I would kill you now, heretic,” the commander went on, “but that is too good a fate for you. First you must be taken to Casablanca and excommunicated from the church and then you must die, that your soul may burn in Hell.”

Francisco raised his eyes and looked him squarely in the face. “I have done nothing today but speak the words I was instructed to speak by God.”

“Strike the heretic,” ordered the commander, and a soldier at his left struck a fearsome blow with his rifle butt against Francisco’s cheek. “Tomorrow at dawn we shall dispatch you to Casablanca and be rid of your presence as we continue to destroy these heathen, under whose evil powers you have fallen.” With that he turned and after prosaic* commands to the guards to watch Francisco well, he departed from the tent.

Despite the miserably uncomfortable night, Francisco’s spirit remained buoyant. He was filled with a strange peace that he had discharged his responsibilities well and that somehow deliverance would come. The fact that the battle had gone against the Spanish was undoubtedly some type of a miracle, and he prayed that somehow Abdul Aziz would recognize the Divine intervention. As the commander had ordered, the next day at dawn a four-man company of soldiers set out with Francisco on the long road back to Casablanca. To make better time, Francisco was given a horse, but had his hands chained together and his legs chained under the belly of the horse to prevent his escape. Two soldiers rode on either side of him, one took the lead and the other the rear. The soldiers were tense and expectant, as they knew that even though the army had conquered the territory thus far, there was still ample opportunity for attack from bands of local rebels.

Even Francisco questioned the wisdom of the major’s decision, feeling that a more seasoned commander would never have exposed his men to such danger in this small a company. Nevertheless, he suspected that the hand of God was present even in the young officer’s over-zealousness. Despite the painful manacles on his hands and ankles, Francisco could not resist admiring the beauty of the majestic mountain range that towered over them on their left, and he worshipped the immortal power Who had created it.

The long day wore on uneventfully, and at nightfall the company of soldiers pitched camp by a stream that ran into the valley from the mountains on their left. The atmosphere became more jovial and relaxed as the soldiers partook of some meager rations and one produced a flagon of wine. Francisco sat meditatively quiet, praying for the souls of these uncouth soldiers who cursed and swore incessantly. They entertained themselves with tales and boasts of ruthless conquest and plunder, which made Francisco boil inwardly. At length their conversation turned to a torrent of ugly slurs and verbal abuse directed at him. Francisco bore their taunts in silence, only interceding more fervently in silent prayer for their salvation. Branded a heretic and traitor as he was, aside from praying for them, Francisco was uncertain that he could affect much in the conversion of their souls that evening.

Finally the men put out their campfire. Francisco’s chains were fixed to a stake in the ground inside the tent. One soldier slept on either side of him, whilst the two remaining stood guard outside. The first two guards were soon snoring loudly, while Francisco remained awake, alternating between prayer and wondering what would become of him.

At what could have been one or two o’clock in the morning, there was a muffled cry outside the tent and a loud thud. The flap of the tent was flung open. Francisco rose to his elbows with a start. Four swift, wraithlike* presences entered the tent and immediately set upon the guards on either side, who awoke to find themselves with daggers against their throats.

“Undo the chains of the infidel,” came Abdul Aziz’s unmistakable voice. “We will deal with him after the fashion of our own justice, for he has betrayed our trust.”

A shiver of fear ran down Francisco’s spine. The Inquisition, excommunication, even execution were fates that he knew, however unpleasant. But what would he be subjected to at the hands of vengeful Moroccans?

Speedily the men disarmed the Spaniards and collected all their weapons. With trembling hands one of the soldiers fished the keys out of his pocket and clumsily undid the shackles on Francisco’s hands and wrists by the few beams of moonlight that managed to filter their way into the tent. Francisco was roughly pushed out of the tent and the Spanish soldiers followed. They looked down in consternation at the dark forms of their two comrades lying motionless on the moonlit ground.

Abdul Aziz pointed his dagger menacingly at the two soldiers.

“Have mercy on them,” said Francisco quietly. “They are only obeying their orders, and they do not know what they are doing.”

Reluctantly Abdul Aziz sheathed his dagger.

“Chain them to the tree,” he said, pointing to a nearby willow whose branches dipped into a rippling brook.

Quickly Abdul Aziz’s men seized the hapless Spaniards and using Francisco’s chains bound them with their hands behind their back and the chains around the trunk of the tree.

“It is by the mercies of Allah that you do not die tonight,” hissed Abdul Aziz through bared teeth. “And now, infidel,” he said menacingly to Francisco, “we will give you a taste of Allah’s justice.”

So saying, he signaled to the men who had been collecting all the Spaniards’ weapons and corralling their horses. Two of them seized Francisco and with their rifles pointed at his head, ordered him to mount one of the horses. The other dark figures all followed suit, some pulling the remaining horses by their bridles. As a parting gesture, Abdul Aziz threw the keys to the manacles into the stream and the company of horsemen rode off into the night.

The ghostly figures of the horsemen rode for what Francisco judged to be well over two hours through the moonlit and scrub-brush-studded landscape. They ascended into hilly country. Looking behind him Francisco could vaguely make out the valley that they had traversed spreading like a dark quilt into the distance. Eventually Abdul Aziz raised his hand to signal a halt near a grove of pine trees. He spoke some words in Arabic to his men, which Francisco understood as instructions to set up camp for the night.

Gruffly he ordered Francisco to dismount from his horse. As he did so Abdul Aziz himself dismounted and unsheathed his sword, which glinted threateningly in the moonlight. Francisco’s heart beat furiously, but he stood firm with his hands by his sides staring at the dark figure before him.

After a long silence, Abdul Aziz spoke in low tones. “So, infidel, do you not fall on your knees and beg me for mercy? After all I did for you, you betrayed my trust, and now you refuse to humble yourself before the wrath of Allah and plead for your life?”

Francisco could not speak. Something seemed utterly wrong with this scenario. He had known that he was risking his life to fulfill this mission and had fully prepared his heart for peril at the hands his own countrymen. But something about the circumstances seemed oddly strange. For a reason he could not fathom he was not prepared to die at the hands of those he had been sent to love.

Suddenly Abdul Aziz leaned back, let out a hearty laugh and plunged his sword deep into the ground beside him. Manfully he walked up to Francisco, placed his hands on his shoulders and planted a hearty kiss on each cheek.

“You are a true brother,” he said with undisguised admiration. “You bow before none but God and trust in His mercy alone.”

Francisco, more confused than ever, was still unable to speak, but let out a little gasp. Abdul Aziz placed a hearty arm around his shoulder and led him towards some of his men who were starting to light a fire.

“Come,” he said to them in Arabic, “let us celebrate. For our brother is safe, and rescued from the clutches of the infidel.”

“So how does it feel, my brother,” he said, after they had seated themselves by the infant fire, “to have looked death in the eye twice in one day, once condemned as a heretic by the Spaniards and once as a spy by the Moroccans?”

“It feels good,” managed Francisco, “to be alive.”

Abdul Aziz let out another loud guffaw, obviously delighted with his Spanish friend’s mixture of boldness and humility. Soon the fire was blazing, the coffee was boiling, and thick slices of flat round bread had been produced.

“Fear not for your comrades,” said Abdul Aziz, as he chewed on a slice of bread. “They are not dead, only unconscious. I knew you would not approve of us killing even your captors. They will awake in the morning, pull the key out of the stream, unlock each other and wander disconsolately back to their army, with the report that the heretic Francisco has met the wrath of Allah at the hands of the vicious sword of Islam and will be heard of no more.”

Francisco started, “But how did you know that I would be tried as a heretic?”

“Ah,” said Abdul Aziz, “the bushes of scrub are my eyes and the blades of grass are my ears.”

“And you followed us all the way?”

“Yes, along the ridges, amongst the trees, where your captors could not see us.”

Francisco let out a long sigh. “Forgive me,” he said. “I have caused you to risk your life to come and save me. All through the lust of my desire to feel as if I was accomplishing something for my God.”

Abdul Aziz’s mood suddenly changed to one of solemn gravity.

“My brother, you must not speak thus. I know”–he gestured at the men around him–“and all my men know that the victory we won today was not achieved through our own power. It was through the unmistakable hand of God. I don’t know how or why your prayers prevailed, but what was wrought today was not through human power. Tell us how you did this thing. What possessed you to walk out alone in front of an entire army?”

Francisco drew his breath as if contemplating a deep secret.

“When I was on my knees in Jerada, in your home, I felt the fire burning in my soul again. It was the same fire that brought me to these lands. Again and again I chastised myself and tried to submit myself to prayer and only prayer, but the fire could not be extinguished. With the fire there came a voice, a voice that told me that I must go up and stand before the armies of Spain, and that I must give them a message. The message was that they should turn back, they should not draw their swords against the innocent, and they should not persecute those who had no power, or unleash their bullets into the hearts of those who fought only to protect their lands and their loved ones. The Lord spoke through the fire and the voice in my heart, that if I would do this thing, He would deliver me.–I knew not how. He also told me that if they would not listen, then defeat and shame would come to them. It was done as God told me. That is why,” Francisco began laughing, “I could not understand when you stood before me and drew out your sword as if to cut off my head, for this was not the deliverance that I was expecting, although a martyr’s death is in its own way a glorious release.”

“You must teach us more,” said Abdul Aziz. “You must come and teach us how to hear the voice of God like this and how to avail ourselves of this power, for surely, although today’s battle was won, the Spaniards will come against us with more force than ever, and we shall be unable to withstand. But now that the Spaniards think you are dead at my hand, you are safe. You shall come and live amongst us and dwell with me as one of my sons.”

Anticipation fluttered through Francisco’s heart. One of his sons? A vision of Fatima’s dark, seductive eyes flashed before him in an instant. Was it too much to hope for?

“But now let us sleep.” Abdul Aziz stifled a yawn. “Tomorrow we must travel far. One battle has been won, but the war is not over.”

The fire was extinguished. A rough assortment of blankets was produced from saddlebags, and the men settled themselves as comfortably as possible on the ground for the night.

Chapter Seven

The blue-gray wash of dawn that began to paint the sky revealed that the grove of pine trees was situated not far from the summit of a hill. Francisco awoke, rubbed his eyes and rose, quietly, setting off towards the hilltop. After ten minutes of vigorous climbing he reached the top. A breath of wonderment escaped from him as he eyed the scene before him. To the northeast, majestic snowcapped mountains faded into the haze of dawn. To the southwest stretched the vast interminable plain, which eventually dissolved into the expanse of the Sahara Desert. To the east a faint swirl of orange in the sky heralded the coming sun.

Francisco sat himself down on a rock, lost in a silent symphony of praise to the Artist of the haunting masterpiece before him. After a period of time during which fleeting minutes seemed to dissolve into eternity–in fact, all measures of time seemed to disappear into irrelevancy–Francisco was startled by a whisper behind him.

“As-salamu Aleykum.”

He turned to see Abdul Aziz standing quietly about fifteen feet behind him.

“Wa Aleykum is-salam,” he replied.

“I do not wish to disturb you,” said Abdul Aziz with an uncustomary reverence in his voice, “but I thought I might ask if I could join you in your prayers.”

“You are more welcome than you could possibly know,” said Francisco.

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Quietly Abdul Aziz came forward and seated himself on a rock next to Francisco.

“Let us each pray a prayer to our God,” said Abdul Aziz quietly.

Francisco nodded.

“You begin, my brother,” continued Abdul Aziz once again with a gentility that Francisco had not previously noted.

Reverently Francisco prayed the “Our Father.”

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory, forever.
Amen!”
– (Mathew 6:9-13

After a short silence Abdul Aziz began to intone a prayer. Immediately Francisco recognized it as the shahada, the Muslim witness of faith.

“God is great, God is great. I witness that there is no God but God and that Mohammed is the prophet of God.”

After he was finished there was another long silence.

“Quote me something from your Holy Book,” said Abdul Aziz at length.

“There is one God,” began Francisco, “and there is none other but He.”

“But this is from the Koran,” stated Abdul Aziz.

“No,” said Francisco, “from the Bible. Mark chapter twelve, verse thirty-two. There is one God and there is none other but He, and to love him with all the heart, with all the understanding, with all the soul, with all the strength, and to love his neighbor as himself, is worth more than all offerings and sacrifices.”

“Spoken like a true Muslim,” said Abdul Aziz, without even a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

A slim crescent of sun on the horizon began to pierce the morning haze. Myriad rays of red and orange scattered across the landscape, illuminating the shadowy trees, boulders, and clumps of scrub, bringing into focus distant mountain peaks.

“With such majesty and glory before us,” said Francisco, “it suddenly seems to me that the differences in our philosophy and theology are like tiny shadows driven away by the rising sun. Abdul Aziz”–he turned to his friend and spoke with gravity and sincerity–“if I accept Mohammed as a true prophet of God, which I truly believe he was, will you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior and Redeemer, and embrace His Holy Spirit as your comforter and guide?”

A shadow seemed to fall across Abdul Aziz’s face, as he struggled to comprehend the gravity of the question. “My friend,” he said, “I will think about it. I will think about it.”

By now the full orb of the sun had risen into the sky, and the men could hear faint stirrings from the camp below them.

“Come,” said Abdul Aziz. “We must prepare to travel before the heat of the day is upon us. Today we shall return to Jerada. The Spanish have fallen back and will most likely need time to regroup before attacking Meknés again. We must be sure that our own city is safe. But I must warn you,” he continued as they wended their way down the hillside towards the stirring camp, “the Imam is still not convinced of your sincerity. He thought that you were betraying us and revealing our secrets when you stood before the army. There is still much to be done to win his favor. If it is the will of God, this shall be accomplished in time, but you must be careful. But now you are my guest and no longer my prisoner, nay you are no longer my guest but my brother, my son. Speaking of which,” he paused, giving Francisco a quizzical sideways look, “how on earth did you come so quickly to Meknés? Surely you couldn’t have made it there on that aged donkey of yours.”

Francisco went a little red and coughed.

Undeterred, Abdul Aziz continued. “Of course! The horse! One of my men found one of my horses wandering in the forest after the battle. So did one of my sons help you with this? Was it Sami? Abdul Khader?”

“One of your children,” said Francisco a little uncertainly.

Abdul Aziz eyed him narrowly. “Fatima? Fatima provided you with a horse?”

“Yes,” said Francisco.

“That girl,” he said shaking his head. “I suspected you had an eye for her.”

Francisco remained silent, uncertain of how to respond.

By this time the two men had reached the camp. Once more Abdul Aziz eyed Francisco. “We shall talk more of this,” he said.

Francisco heaved a silent sigh of relief mixed with trepidation as he mounted his horse. The protective wrath of Arab fathers was well known, perhaps equaled only by their Spanish counterparts. Within minutes the party was on the move, ascending paths that led over the top of the hills and clung to the range on the southern side so as to avoid the watchful gaze of any Spanish soldiers in the valley.

After several hours, Abdul Aziz, who had been leading the party, slowed his horse down level with Francisco’s.

“And so, are you interested in my daughter?” he asked bluntly.

“I … I … uh…”

“Well, I can think of worse things,” said Abdul Aziz.

“I … but my vows.”

“Vows?” said Abdul Aziz. “Have you not been excommunicated already as a heretic? What vows?”

“My vows are a thing of the heart,” said Francisco.

“Well then become a Protestant,” said Abdul Aziz. “Their priests are allowed to marry.”

“Protestant!” Francisco replied with his eyes raised. “Even if I were to do so, I have no camels to offer you as a dowry–nothing but an aging and stubborn donkey.”

At this Abdul Aziz let out a hearty laugh. “I have more camels than I know what to do with,” he said. “And as for your donkey, you can keep it, my brother. Think over my proposal,” he said, and again breaking into a hearty laugh he spurred his horse back to the front of the party.

Abdul Aziz’s words plunged Francisco into unsettling ponderings, which consumed him for the remainder of the journey.

That evening as the men talked and laughed around their fire underneath the unbroken expanse of stars, Francisco was silent and withdrawn, as if fighting an internal battle even more fierce than the defense of Meknés.

Abdul Aziz looked at him sympathetically, chuckling to himself at the strange mentality of this foreigner who seemed to struggle so hard to accept the simple joys of marriage and fatherhood as a gift from Allah.

– – –

(To be continued.)

Definitions:

*whirling dervish: someone working very quickly; frenzied

*behemoth: something huge

*rout: humiliating and crushing defeat

*imperiously: arrogantly

*prosaic: straightforward

*wraithlike: ghostlike

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