Dabir and I shrouded the Syrian in his saddle blanket and spent a few hours digging a hole for him in that lonely land. He had been the last of our companions. Bandits and desertion and, finally, illness, had whittled our numbers down from the score of warriors and porters with whom we had begun our journey so that only we two were left.
We finished the burial and our prayers and stood to contemplate the high scrubby brown hills that stretched before and behind us. Dabir’s gaze was fixated upon the route forward, and I glumly remembered the Syrian’s last words. Even through his fever he’d remained obsessed with the palace, repeating that it lay but three nights further. The most stupid of parrots prattled about more varied matters than that man, may peace be his.
“You mean to go on,” I said to Dabir.
His expression shifted back and forth between bemused and apologetic, and he lifted an empty hand, struggled to say something, then sighed. His hand dropped.
At that time he was in his early middle-age, and gray had crept into his spade-shaped beard. Usually, it was in better trim. In this time of hardship, you might think his eyes would be dulled, but their blue burned bright.
“Nothing lies before us but more empty hills,” I said. “In six days’ time, barring further misfortune, we’ll be back here with nothing to show but the passage of a further week away from our wives and children.”
“That’s likely,” he agreed. “But won’t you always wonder if we don’t go see?”
I snorted. “Next you’ll tell me we have a duty to the caliph.”
“You would have said as much, in younger days.”
I nodded, for he was right.
He spoke on, like the voice of my conscience. “The caliph and Jaffar will ask us if we looked upon the place by the light of the full moon. And you value the truth as much as I.”
He had the right of this, though I wasn’t pleased to admit it. I had no heart to travel on. But then I’d held little love for this venture from the start.
I’d seen more amusement than interest on the caliph’s handsome face when the Syrian had spoken at the banquet long weeks before. It was the vizier, Jaffar, who’d insisted the proposed expedition be funded, and he’d suggested we accompany the Syrian, ostensibly to ensure the venture’s success. Dabir and I were favored by the caliph, you see, precisely because we had delivered the impossible time and again. Though the vizier behaved as though he too valued us, for reasons too complex to relate here, he continually sent us forth in hope that we would one day fail to return.
That no kingdom could prosper in this place was readily apparent. A palace so grand as the Syrian had described required fields and villages to sustain it. There were none of these things nearby, nor did I expect to see them in the coming days. It might be that the Queen of Sheba had once spoken with Solomon, may peace be upon him, but his temple was long since dust and likely nothing was left of her palace but a few cracked columns where scorpions laired.
Yet I held off grumbling further and packed our gear. Dabir finished watering the animals, and then we climbed into our saddles and rode south.
I cannot emphasize enough how much I expected nothing but more disappointment. So imagine my surprise when after the third evening passed we beheld a citadel of towering spires glittering frostily under the stars. Just as the Syrian had claimed, for he had stressed again and again that we must reach the place during the full moon.
He had been wrong in one particular, for he’d promised the citadel stood upon a mountain height, and it rested instead in a valley, amid foothills of a distant range. Behind white cyclopean walls rose a vast dome and a half dozen needle topped spires.
Dabir arched an eyebrow at me and gave me one of his half smiles.
I answered his wordless question. “A wondrous sight,” I admitted.
A gleaming road, long and straight and silver as moonlight stretched out in front of the palace, and as we sat watching on the slope, we beheld a band of horsemen in shining raiment guiding a motley band of men afoot, some of whom drove goats and cows before them. Even if I had never before seen prisoners of war, I might easily have identified those in the saddle as captors and those they accompanied as their charges, so different was their manner.
“A nation at war,” I said to my friend.
“All nations have their enemies,” he said. “But I mark your words. We must be wary.”
I glanced at our three pack animals, laden yet with gifts. Once, there had been five beasts, but two of our soldiers had sneaked off with one, and the arrows of bandits had sent one plunging into a gorge too deep to attempt a recovery. Still, what remained was fine enough.
We waited for the armed host to enter the walls, then adjusted our appearance as best we might. Dabir’s finest robe had been lost, but I still had mine, and by the light of that full moon we brushed out our garments and wound clean turban cloths. Also I looked to my sword, a curved blade gifted to me by the caliph. Then we mounted up and advanced.
If there were sentinels looking down from those great white walls, rising higher than ship’s masts, we did not see them, nor did I hear horn calls raised in alarm. Faintly the wind brought us sounds of strange music—muted horns and some wind instrument, backed by cymbals and a drum. I could not place the tune, but its speed was swift and its winding sound faintly festive. It grew louder as we drew nearer to the citadel’s immense and open doors.
You may be sure that I watched the heights of the place, alert for the heads of archers. I saw only the curved merlons, each embedded with a sparkling, precious stone. Patterns in the white brick grew more clear as we neared, so that to the right and left of the gate we saw mosaics of crowned, bearded men bearing chests abrim with jewelry and treasures, and mighty horses and oxen and stranger creatures from myth. Each towered above the plain, yet each bowed their head in the direction of the open gate.
I looked to Dabir, riding at my side, to gauge his thoughts.
“We have been seen,” Dabir remarked.
That went without saying, for otherwise they would have sealed the entrance. “I mislike this place. Who watches from above? Djinn? Demons? Surely they are not so foolish to leave themselves unguarded.”
“Likely they watch from hidden places,” Dabir said.
“Likely it’s magic,” I said. “The Syrian promised the place was rich with sorcery.”
“Just because we found it by night doesn’t mean his talk of magics was true.”
I frowned, thinking it likely my friend was wrong, but saying nothing.
We passed through that gate, wide enough to welcome four elephants riding side to side with room to spare. Eight lantern bearing servants waited beyond, wearing golden robes. They looked something like Franks, for they were blue-eyed and fair-skinned with yellow hair. They spoke to us but we could not understand them, nor they us. Eventually, by signs they made clear that they would care for our horses and wished us to follow them. While one led off our mounts, one guided us across a luxuriant greensward for the domed, towered palace within the wall. The others trailed, laden with our surviving gifts.
“This will be a greater challenge if we share no language,” I said.
“We can hope there are scholars and translators within.” Dabir’s answer was distracted, for there was much to see.
The palace seemed carved from a single opal, for it was of brilliant white, as though someone had called down the moon’s light, frozen it, then worked it into shape. The building itself rose to only three stories, although its many towers soared to varied heights. One stood in every corner, and two rose in the back, and here and there an extra one thrust up off center. None looked to be the tower of the muezzin, so if the Queen of Sheba had converted, as is told, then she had not been demonstrative about it.
Though the portal into the palace was half the size of the gate to the fortress, it remained impressive enough, I assure you, especially with its arched entryway sparkled with diamond dust, redly reflecting the flickering torchlight from nearby sconces in a thousand different ways.
The music we had heard from without grew gradually louder, and more sprightly, and from its sound we knew we closed upon its source.
The lead servant guided us into a lofty hall. Its domed ceiling was painted with a great green dragon ribboned about a crimson sun. Slim pillars of stark white marble stretched down from on high, like the fingertips of a huge djinn who dared but briefly touch the surface of the earth.
Beneath that dome and between the pillars stretched a long banquet table heavy with food. The scent of so much well-cooked meat after weeks of road fare set my stomach growling on the moment. Duck I saw, and antelope, and fish, laid on beds of rice and vegetables. Breads there were, some still smoking, so freshly had they been pulled from the oven. There were fruits as well, many of them sliced beforehand and lying in clever rows. Also, there were cheeses and dozens of flasks of what was surely wine, to judge from the manner of most of those seated there.
That long table must have stretched forty feet, and there were men from at least twenty lands upon its benches. Many raised bejeweled goblets and laughed with the loud gaiety of the inebriated. Others lolled, and two were passed out beside their plates.
I saw pale men and dark men, black men and yellow, and they were arrayed in robes, or peculiar armored shirts, or little but feathers. Some were mustachioed or bearded, and two had heads utterly bare but for spiraling blue tattoos. No matter their many differences, they were alike in that all except the most drunken fell silent and watched sourly as we made our way under the hanging lanterns.
Had they wished it, the diners might have looked out upon a circular courtyard hung with bright paper lanterns. Fountains and statues that place had in abundance, but the eye was naturally drawn to a central feature, a wide-limbed apple tree from which depended yellow fruit mirroring light so ably that they looked lacquered. The bark possessed a peculiar luster, as though painted with sparkling motes.
I finally spied the six musicians, men in brown bent over their instruments and half hidden upon a curved balcony looking over the banquet.
It was beneath that balcony where we were met by a quartet of sturdy men in gold accented armor. Each bore a spear and a shield and a suspicious expression. At their head was a handsome woman with exceptionally clear light brown eyes. Her clothing was simple but well made, and she was ornamented only with a necklace on which a lovely blue circlet of lapis lazuli hung. Though in late middle-age, her beauty had not yet left her and it was easy to see she had been a rare flower in her time.
She addressed us in formal Arabic, her manner cool and direct. “Who are you, what is the purpose of your visit, and from whence do you come?”
Dabir bowed his head to her. “May peace be upon you. I am Dabir ibn Khalil, and this is Asim el Abbas. We travel at the behest of the Caliph of Baghdad, who sent us forth with gifts to present to her majesty, the Queen of Sheba.”
The woman’s interest was lit. “You have come far, then. Is there something your master seeks?”
“He wishes to forge bonds of friendship with the queen and her peoples,” Dabir said.
She regarded us in silence for a moment before answering. “My queen is always curious of novelty. But if you would speak with her, you must leave your weapons behind.”
I frowned at this news, though I had well expected it. One does not meet his own ruler with a blade at his side, much less the leader of a foreign land. Reluctantly, then, I undid the belt that held both my sword and knife. Dabir unfastened his own. The servant who had until now been leading us turned to accept them, bowed formally, and retreated.
I felt the eyes of the largest guard upon me. Though graying of hair he was no aged man, and he looked to give as good as he got should any blows be traded. I saw that he thought the same of me and knew that he would watch me close.
“I shall take you to the queen,” the woman said. She took over as our guide, and the soldiers fell in beside us.
We walked only a little further. The queen sat upon a little dais overlooking the banquet, eating from a platter upon a side table. Her chair’s narrow back barely encompassed both shoulders but towered half again above her, and was carved from the same exquisite ivory that supported the roof.
Brown of skin, she had that same aloof quality of beauty as her building. Garbed in pearly white dress with gold accents, her slender limbs were heavy with ruby-studded gold bracelets. Curling black hair piled artfully above her head, falling in well-brushed strands to either side of her ears, which were hung with delicate bangles. Her nose was slim, one wide nostril pierced with a small ruby.
As she turned her face to take us in, I found myself under the regard of black eyes empty as those in the time-washed statues standing in Greek ruins. She took a dainty bite from a shining yellow apple, watching us the while.
Our guide addressed the queen in a language that sounded harsh and rolling, then gestured to us.
The queen raised one hand and the musicians ceased their play. At a signal from the head guard, we took a knee and bowed our heads.
The queen addressed us in a cool, clear voice and we looked up in time to see her set the fruit aside. Two well-manicured hands motioned us to rise even as our guide instructed us to do so.
Our translator brushed her necklace. “I have introduced you as ambassadors, although it occurs to me now that neither of you quite have the look, and you have no retinue.”
“Fairly observed,” Dabir said. “What is your name, and your duty here?”
She smiled sadly. “I am Abla. And I am a sworn servant to the Queen of Sheba.”
“Lady Abla, I am a scholar, and my friend is a warrior. We departed Baghdad with a great retinue and many gifts, and we are all that has survived, with a diminished supply of the treasures the caliph had intended for her.”
The queen’s impatience at not understanding this exchange was easily marked. Abla turned to speak to her at length, gesturing to us from time to time. The queen asked other questions and I felt her keen eyes upon me.
“She would like to see the gifts you have brought her.”
Dabir stepped forward and with another bow directed the waiting servants forward.
Under the watchful eyes of the guards, he one by one withdrew the objects left us. From a small and sturdy chest he produced jewelry in abundance, enough fine necklaces and earrings and bracelets to have sent a thief gibbering in disbelief. There was a robe of gold, and a finely wrought silver circlet, as well as a Qur’an with most splendid calligraphy, carefully preserved in waterproof wraps.
None of these seemed to hold the queen’s interest, and I thought we had utterly failed to amuse her until Dabir lifted the small metal birdcage. Its top had become dented during our journey, and I knew that this embarrassed him, but when he turned the crank and the little mechanical avian behind the bars fluttered its wings and twittered out a song, the queen’s face brightened in child-like pleasure.
At her command Dabir brought the cage forward, working the crank so that the bird continued to mimic a living animal. She clapped like a little girl, saying something to Abla.
“The queen asks why you did not identify yourself as a magician.”
Dabir shook his head wryly. “I am no mage, Lady Abla, and this is not magic, but mechanics.”
“What year is it, Dabir?” Abla asked suddenly. I did not think this question had come from the queen. Surely it was a strange one.
Dabir answered swiftly enough “801.”1
Abla’s eyes widened.
“Is something wrong?” Dabir asked.
She shook her head, then turned to the queen to speak with her, pointing at the bird as she did so.
“The queen wishes to know of the caliph who sent you, and his city. Does he have many marvels like this?”
Dabir looked to me. Aye, he was a fine speaker, but he’d remarked long before that I was the better teller of tales. And so I spoke, and conjured forth the marvels of Baghdad: wide boulevards and dazzling goods that hung from stalls arrived from every corner of the world, spices and cloths, fine carvings of jade, and exquisitely wrought jewelry shining with gemstones of every color. I spoke of the great mosques and the schools of learning. I told of the splendor of the caliph’s palaces and the wisdom of his rule, and it may be that Baghdad shined all the more because we had been so long absent from her, and in my longing that I omitted some few of its shortcomings. In any wise, the queen looked well pleased with my delivery, as translated by Abla. She adjusted herself upon her seat and, through Abla, asked another question.
“Tell me more of yourselves.”
This I did. I sensed the ruler had grown more and more curious about us, and thinking that we were yet on uncertain ground, I practiced no false modesty. I told her how clever and skilled my friend was, and how together we had bested dozens of threats and dangers, describing a handful of them in brief, and one at length. After, she considered me through her long lashes in a way that any seasoned man recognizes. It did not hurt that in those days I was a fine, powerful figure of a man, though my appearance had not stirred her until I spoke with eloquence, something to which younger men should pay heed.
“So,” the queen said through her translator, “you are a great warrior and storyteller, and your friend is a scholar and a wizard.”
Dabir bowed to her. “I am no wizard; I am a breaker of evil magics.”
I noticed that Abla seemed to wince at that before she translated.
The queen’s gaze shifted from me to my friend’s. “And what magics would you declare as evil?”
“Magic,” Dabir said, “is contrary to the laws of God, the creator—”
The queen, through Abla, interrupted him.
“Magic is but another tool, and if God did not wish us to use tools he should not give us the minds to fashion them, and the hands to wield them.”
Dabir politely offered open palms. “God does not wish us to slay other men, and yet we fashion swords, and spears. But I did not come to debate you, Majesty, but to bring you the regards of the Caliph, who would be your friend.”
The queen shook her head. “I have no need of his friendship, for he shall be dead in a matter of weeks.”
So matter-of-fact was this pronouncement that the hairs upon my arms stirred and stood upright. It was as though the angel of death had brushed the back of my neck.
Even if you did not understand his language, there was no missing the demand in Dabir’s response. “What do you mean?”
The queen looked almost bored by her own answer. “All will become clear in time. Worry not for him, for there is nothing you can do. Stay, and be my guests. I would hear tell of your adventures, and it would please me to speak with men of intelligence. So few of them come to me.”
I exchanged a worried look with Dabir, who quickly bowed. “Majesty, we would bring warning to our caliph.”
The queen gave a negligent flip of her hand. “We will speak of this later. For now, you may leave my presence. You have traveled far, and have earned this rest.”
She directed the guard captain to take the cage which contained the bird. He glared at Dabir as he did so, then set it upon the table before her. She turned the cage this way and that, looking in at the bird from different angles.
Abla faced us. “Come. I will convey you to your quarters. You do not, perhaps, understand the honor you have been accorded. Only a rare few are treated so well.” She bowed to the queen, retreated, and then headed away and to the left. We performed our own bows to the now indifferent monarch and followed our guide.
Again I took in the men at the table, most of whom had returned to their sullen drinking. “Is there some special occasion tonight?” I asked.
“It is a night in celebration of the planting of . . . a special tree. It’s a long tale,” she said, with the air of one who has no interest in explaining further.
“Who are these who sup with the queen?” Dabir asked.
“Travelers.” Abla took up a lantern hung upon a pillar at the banquet’s edge, then headed into a side corridor over floors of polished black granite.
We caught up to her. “An answer that says little,” Dabir said. “Tell me, Abla, from whence have you come?”
“I have been to many places, Dabir.” Then to me she said: “Tell me, is Baghdad truly as fair as you describe it?”
We passed through a fretted arch and onto a set of stone stairs that spiraled upward.
“It is a city of wonders,” I answered. “But it is Mosul that holds my heart. Do you know it? There dwells my love, and our children. It sits upon the banks of the Tigris, and so fair is it in autumn some call it the land of two springs.”
She asked then after the ages of my daughters, and I spoke of them, and my wife, on one hand a dignified woman of high status and upon the other a bright-eyed mischief-maker who liked still to ride the countryside upon the swiftest of horses. So it was that though we climbed a dark, winding staircase, I half looked upon the eyes of my beloved, and heard the laugher of my children, and the splash of water in our courtyard fountain.
She asked about Dabir’s family.
“I too love my wife and children. And I love my caliph. How does your queen know his fate? And what is to happen to him?”
Abla sighed. “He will die at his appointed time, as will we all.” She looked him in the eyes. “There is nothing that you can do.”
If our guide and her ruler spoke the truth, and Harun al-Rashid had but weeks, there was no way that we might warn him of any impending threat, for we were separated from our homeland by months. Still, I did not care for these words, and neither did my friend.
“How does the queen know this?”
Abla shook her head. “All will soon be clear.”
“I should rather it were clear now,” Dabir insisted.
We reached a fifth level, and though the stairs wound further yet, Abla glided into a little entryway and opened a door for us. Before us stretched a spacious room furnished with plush cushions and carpets. All of white stone, it was hung with thick tapestries of gardens and colorful birds and running horses. As she showed us a water pump and through the contents of three small bedrooms, servants arrived bearing lanterns, platters of food, towels, and piles of garments, as well as additional pillows, though there was little need for them, so abundant were they in those chambers already.
Dabir’s expression had remained troubled through much of this. As for me, it had been not just a long day, but a very long trip, and I thought that whatever we would do next it would be better accomplished upon a full stomach after a comfortable night of sleep. Also, it struck me as a rare pleasure to be fully clean once more, even if the waters would be cold.
“We are grateful to you for all these comforts,” Dabir said to Abla as she retreated toward the door. “As well as your company, although you have said much while explaining little.”
“That was not my intent,” she said, thumbing her necklace once more. “I would be your friend, Dabir.”
Bidding us good night, she then retreated and shut the door behind her. Dabir walked to the door. It might be that I would not have heard the soft thud outside if I had not been watching him.
Sooner than I, he deduced what this meant, and immediately tried the latch. It did not open, for it had been secured from without.
Dabir took his fist to the door. “Abla!”
I stepped to his side.
“What do you mean by this?” Dabir demanded of the woman beyond the door.
Her voice came to us dully through the wood. “I am sorry. You should not have come. Or you should have made yourselves less interesting.”
“What does your queen intend with us?”
“She intends for you to be her honored guests. But she will keep you here in this chamber for several weeks, until you are resolved as to your fate. Do not fear—” she added quickly. “You will be well fed.”
“What fate do you mean?” Dabir asked.
“Time, as you are accustomed, does not pass in the palace. By sunrise we will journey into other realms. When next we appear in this spot, half a year will be gone. In a year’s time within the palace, all whom you love will be dead or ancient.”
Seldom did I see fear upon Dabir’s face, but I saw it that night, and likely he saw it upon mine.
“You mean to separate us from our families, then,” Dabir said tensely. “You might as well slay us.”
“I am sorry,” Abla said sincerely. “I swore myself in service to the queen. And my oath means that I must obey her commandments.”
Dabir’s answer was swift. “Are there not higher commandments?”
“I am sorry. I hope that . . . in coming days . . . we may move past this. For we will have long years together. There are benefits to living here. Those who consume the fruit of the queen’s sacred tree have their years reversed.”
“Is that what happened to you? Did you come here with Antar?”
At this, I started. Antar? The famed warrior poet? True, the love of his life was the beautiful Abla, but he and she had lived more than a century ago. Could this talk of a sacred tree and magic years be true? I looked to Dabir, saw the determined set to his features, and ceased doubting.
There came a sad sigh from the other side of the door. “Antar had passed by the time I traveled here,” our captor said softly. “I was very old, and perhaps I was foolish, for I believed the stories I heard of the queen’s powers over life and death.” Her voice fell and I struggled to hear. “I came to beg her to return Antar to me. This she could not do. But she promised that if I served her, my own youth would be restored. Slowly I regain it, and with it strength, and beauty.”
“And what of wisdom?” Dabir asked. “The Abla of the stories is wise, and just.”
A long silence followed this question. Dabir pressed himself against the door. In the end, her voice came clearly to us both. “You seek to shame me. But I am sworn to the queen’s service, and you ask me to betray her.”
Dabir spoke quickly. “Are all the people at the banquet like you? Travelers sworn to serve?”
“They’ve found their way here. Some seek for favor yet with the queen, who has lost interest in them.”
“Why don’t they leave?”
I heard wry amusement in her answer. “Then they would no longer have access to the golden apples.”
“And what of the prisoners of war? What happens to them?”
“The palace needs slaves and servants.”
“As well as goods. Yet the palace brings no more benefit to its lands than would a band of raiders, for it appears but a few times a year.”
Abla’s reply sounded agitated. “The queen takes a tithe from her lands, as would any ruler.”
“But other rulers protect their lands and solve disputes of their subjects, and mete out justice. Does she do those things?”
Abla did not answer this.
“Your queen asks you to betray the rules of hospitality. How can you, who grieve for your Antar, separate us from our own loves, and our children?”
Her answer was slow in coming. “I am sorry,” she said, her voice heavy with regret. “We will bring more food in the morning.” Her feet scuffed the stairs as she retreated.
Dabir pounded the door once, called out to Abla, then stepped back. “We should not have come,” he said darkly.
“Weren’t you the one who said he would always wonder if we didn’t go further south?”
Dabir threw up his hands in disgust. “You might have tried harder to talk me out of it!”
“I can count on one hand the times I’ve talked you out of anything.”
Dabir muttered something I shall not repeat and then turned from the door to take in the room. I knew that his agile mind was already working out some sort of escape plan.
I longingly considered the platters of food, then Dabir and I set to work. We saw the only egress was through a narrow window looking upon the courtyard with the apple tree. There might have been sufficient handholds in the brick to climb down, if one were a monkey.
Dabir contemplated the bed sheets and declared that they could be of use in climbing, though he doubted they could get us all the way down.
I had been leaning out the window and observed that while there were no windows beneath us, there was one above, just below the battlement. “We could go up.”
His eyes shifted to me. “Suppose that window, too, leads to a locked room.”
“Then it is only a little higher up to the tower height.”
“Your bravery has ever impressed me,” Dabir said. “But we are seventy or eighty feet up. With a fall such as that there is no room for mistakes.”
I nodded. “It’s true. If I fall, I die. But then, if we fail in this, we’re separated forever from our families, which is near enough to death.”
He nodded shortly. “Truly said. Very well. We’ll find a way to make this plan less likely to kill us.”
Dabir marched straight away for a low table seated along a wall, and put his foot through it. At first, I was stunned my friend engaged in such an uncharacteristic bout of temper, but he explained we needed to fashion a kind of hook by which it would be possible to throw something through the window above and have it catch safely there.
First, there was the tedious matter of cutting and tying ever so many strands of cloth from the curtains and garments. They had taken my fighting weapons, but not Dabir’s small knife, which we put to swift use. I began to look over my shoulder at the window, wondering how much time was left before the dawn. By my estimation, it was past three bells of the night.
We tied two sturdy planks of wood in a cross to fashion a sort of hook, then crafted two long ropes. One Dabir knotted about my waist, securing it to a pillar, to better protect me when I leaned far out the window as I worked at heaving that hook through the aperture above.
I will spare you the tedium of my multiple tosses, or the gut-dropping fear when I twice lost my balance, only to be kept safe by the waist rope. Eventually, God be praised, the hook sailed through the aperture above, and when I tugged it did not come loose.
Dabir saw my mouth set with satisfaction. “It’s safe, Asim?” He asked.
I laughed. “Only a fool would declare that. But hopefully it will hold.”
He had lengthened the rope at my waist and now tugged it to check the security of a final knot. “Should the climbing rope fail, this one will keep you from falling all the way.”
If the anchor rope failed, likely the one about my waist would set me swinging into the side of the tower to smash my head on stone, but a small chance at survival was better than certain death.
Dabir clasped my hand and clapped my shoulders and bade me go with God, but not to go to him, yet, which was a little jest he sometimes made, and then I clambered through that narrow window and climbed hand over hand up our rope.
A few feet shy of the window coping a faint cracking, as of wood breaking, reached my ears. I had thought myself tense before that moment; my heart then set to gallop as if in reminder I was alive and it preferred me to stay that way. I climbed with greater speed, and heard a second crack. Our hook was failing. I pushed off the stone with my foot, leaping at the ledge with my left hand extended, and it was a good thing, for the climbing rope went slack and even as my fingers closed on the ledge our splintered hook tumbled past and struck my shoulder. I let go that rope.
Hanging above an eighty-foot drop supported by three fingers brought me little joy, and I scrambled to snare the ledge with my other hand. Grunting, I pulled myself up and over and dropped to the floor, panting in the darkness and pleased to once more have solid wood beneath me. Earlier I had spoken blithely of climbing higher if there was no exit from this room. This was now impossible, for I had no rope but that about my waist, and no hook to cast even should I wish to chance fate again.
Dabir called softly to me, and I leaned out to tell him I was safe for the nonce, then untied the waist rope and set out to explore the darkened chamber.
From feel, it was much like the one we occupied below, and the moonlight revealed couches and cushions. I could not see the door owing to the angle of moonlight, but I determined where it must be, and found it in its housing, closed shut.
I quietly breathed a soft prayer, put hand to the latch, and tugged.
And praise be to God, the door opened. Likely there was no reason to keep these tower rooms barred lest prisoners were within.
I slipped out onto the stairs, listened intently as I eyed the darkness above, and saw a light upon the landing below. Quietly I crept down, and espied Abla sitting dejectedly on the stair, head bowed in her hands.
Though I approached stealthily she must have felt my focus upon her, for she looked up when I was only a few feet away. She then goggled in amazement. “Did you climb the outside of the tower?”
“Aye.” I drew to a stop before her.
“You are braver than I realized.”
I didn’t point out that it was a bravery entirely unnecessary if she had merely opened the door to us. “I would dare anything to return to my wife and children. And to see that my friend can return to his. Why are you sitting here?”
“I wrestle with my conscience,” she said gravely. “I gave my word of honor. And yet—”
I shook my head. “Your honor is being twisted against you. It is the way of tyrants. In your heart, you know what is right, or you would have departed.”
She licked her lips and did not rise as I moved past to slide the bar from the door. It vanished into the wall, all but its very tip lost within the decorative frame.
I opened the door and Dabir stepped out to join us, halting at the sight of Abla.
The woman rubbed her pendant and sighed. “Now I have no home.”
“In point of fact,” Dabir said, “you’ve been no aid to us, and you can say as much to your queen.”
She looked down in shame, then spoke quietly. “But I should have been, and I will help you from here on.”
Dabir considered her. “Why?”
“Because all that you’ve both said is right. Once I strove to be just, and I hope that I was wise as well. I didn’t mind as much, growing old, when I did so with Antar. But once he was gone . . . it might be that I lost sight of myself. Or discovered I was more vain and foolish than I knew.” Her eyes were wide as they met mine. “It is not an easy thing to be praised all your life for beauty, and then to lose it, and I think I dwelled on rekindling that and looked past the loss of other things.”
“You must not truly have lost them,” I said, “Or you wouldn’t sit here upon these stairs.”
“Come with us, then,” Dabir said. “In Baghdad Abla will be given great honors.”
“We shall see. First we must get you out. And then I shall see to that tree.”
“What do you mean to do to the tree?” Dabir asked.
“I think this place is a snare, and so long as it remains it will continue to lure the unwary.”
Dabir nodded. “True enough. What will happen if the tree dies?”
“The magic of her palace will fail. No longer will it skip through the future and the world of dreams. It will stay here, where it was first intended. And no longer will there be fruit that sustains one beyond their allotted time.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” I said to Dabir. “But perhaps we should leave this to others. There’s not long before sunrise.”
“What others?” Dabir asked. “For uncounted years this place has flickered in and out of our world like a brilliant flame, enticing those who glimpse it and burning those who near it. No one before has stopped it. Or do you mean to suggest we traipse back to the caliphate and return with an armed host when the moon is in the proper place?”
Quietly I sighed.
He clapped my shoulder. “Come, we’ve been in more dire predicaments. All we need do is chop a tree and ride away.”
It proved less simple than he proposed. As is probably obvious after the briefest moment of reflection, it would surely prove challenging to chop down a trunk without attracting attention, for the tree was no sapling. A long period of time would likely be required, during which discovery was inevitable. Also, we lacked an ax. We therefore devised another method and quickly descended the stairs.
By this time of night, the banquet hall was mostly empty. All but one guest had departed, and the whole of the table had been cleared. A single, ruddy dark-haired man snored as he rested his head in his arms.
The paper lanterns still hung about the courtyard, and by their light we advanced down the little garden trail past a bubbling brook and little painted statues of frogs and birds and rabbits. Abla had left us to go secure our horses and weapons so that it was only Dabir and myself who stopped at the base of the apple tree, too wide around to encompass with an embrace. Intermittently dots upon the bark glowed, as if the tree were graced by tiny fireflies.
Dabir and I both carried lantern oil and he hesitated before advancing. I thought I knew why. “It is beautiful,” I remarked.
“And is it evil in itself?”
“Was the tree of knowledge evil in and of itself? The problem is that I see no way to separate it from the hands of those who’d misuse it. If we somehow managed to slay all of those who occupy this fortress, others would take possession of the tree, and use it for their own ends.”
He frowned sadly. “You are ever wise,” he said, which may surprise you, for it is usually Dabir who is rightly credited with any wisdom between us. But he valued my viewpoint, as you see.
And so we dumped our oil all about the base of the tree and along its limbs and then, not without regret, we put a torch to it. We lingered only a moment to ensure that the fire caught. We need not have worried, for its scarlet tongues licked up along the oil and quickly ate through to enwrap the tree, lighting the place as the leaves curled. Already the glow within the bark dimmed.
We raced from that courtyard and had barely set but two feet into the banquet hall when a horn of alarm was raised. I think the queen herself shouted, from some nearby place, for it was the voice of a woman which rang out. We might not have known the language, but the sound of rage and urgency proved universal.
We dashed past a group of half-dressed servants pushing in through a side door and ran out the central gate. There we found Abla with three saddled horses.
More horn calls sounded even as we led the animals through a postern gate and out into the countryside. We mounted in the shadow of the walls.
Abla had done well by us in all ways but one. Along with our weapons, she had returned to us the horses we had ridden in upon, and the animals were weary as ourselves. We got them moving and even into a gallop down that silvery road but clearly, they had very little energy left. I wondered why she had not simply found us fresh mounts, though later I was to understand.
As another trumpet rent the night, I glanced over my shoulder to discover the gate swinging wide to permit the exit of a dozen cavalrymen. That was not a great number, but it might as well have been a hundred against us few. Soon they were trotting into a gallop and gaining upon us.
A rose glow lit the eastern horizon, outlining a hill less than a quarter mile to our right. “Seek high ground!” I cried, and spurred my tired animal toward the slope. Abla, on the fresher animal, outsped us both.
Two of the warriors were a hundred feet or more ahead of the rest of their pack, and had pushed their horses to close upon us. I thought I recognized their captain as the second man. The first was a large fellow with a great beard, and he leaned back to hurl a spear. I shifted to the left so that the cast went wide. A moment later the captain himself rode up through my dust and swung at me with a long, straight blade. This I caught upon my shield, and leaned out to slash at him over its edge. He danced his mount away.
He had learned some Arabic, which I shall not bother relating, for his shouted words described insulting and improbable actions in which I had never partaken.
His companion warrior galloped up to my right side and then I was sorely beset, countering blows on my shield and catching strikes with my blade. That might have been all for me, but Dabir was ever a splendid horseman, and interposed himself, holding his own against the warrior.
I then traded blows with the fellow riding beside me. I knew that the greater force of guards could not be far behind. We drew close to the hill but there was no point in taking it. The coming dawn showed me a gully that lay to our left and I would have steered my opponent toward it, save that he was struck by a palsy. He spasmed in his seat and his horse stumbled and suddenly both were down with a groan and a clatter of arms and armor.
I glanced to my left to find that the same thing had happened to Dabir’s opponent. The two of us slowed and swung around, and then beheld a sight I never shall forget. The bodies of horse and men shriveled in upon themselves as if they were suddenly struck by the weight of centuries. Flesh withered, eyes sunk into skulls, and their arms and armor rusted. In but six heartbeats the living men and beasts looked as though they had been sun-bleached corpses for a thousand years. In looking back, we saw that the same fate had overtaken the rest of our pursuers.
“Look!” Dabir pointed to the walls and the palace, revealed now in the dying light to have crumbled to ruin, for only portions of the walls remained upright. As we watched, one by one the towers tumbled away.
“What’s happened?” I asked.
“Without the tree’s magics, time has caught up to the palace and its people.” Dabir’s head suddenly snapped around and he urged his mount into a canter up the slope. I was but a moment after him, having suddenly realized the same thing.
Alas, this fate had befallen Abla and her horse as well. It was hard to look down upon her, thus. Only the beauty of her necklace remained.
“She knew this would happen,” Dabir said as we looked down upon her body. “I wondered at the way she answered when I said she would be accorded honors in Baghdad.”
“Why did she ride out with us, then?”
“Perhaps it was easier than explaining. Or perhaps she might still have hoped.”
After prayers, we buried her there, in sight of the ruins. While we worked, a few living men and women wandered out from the dead palace, and by signing and a little broken Arabic spoken by one, we learned they were those captured over the last two nights of raiding.
They looted the riches of the palace, for there were many, and once they learned that it was us who had destroyed the queen’s power, they would have showered us with gifts. We demurred, though, for we were both ashamed that we’d not spared any thought for them. We accepted only a handful of treasures we had delivered to the queen, and a single golden bracelet she herself had worn.
These we presented to the caliph many months later, upon our return to Baghdad. When I told him our tale he rewarded us with many fine presents, though none compared with the company of our loved ones. Later, when the caliph’s second son came to power, he returned the bracelet to us, saying that he well remembered how his father had told the tale of our adventure. It remained upon our curio shelf for many years. I cannot say now where it has gone.
1. Modern western dating used for reader convenience.