“There’s a cave near the top of that hill, sir. Do you want us to search it?”
Seated upon a black stallion, the officer glanced up at the hill. His chain mail glistened in the hot afternoon sun and his sword hilt shone like an evening star. He, like so many of the European knights, found the heat of Palestine almost unbearable. Clearly irritated by the humidity, he wiped the sweat from his brow with a grubby white cloth.
“They’re long gone by now and I fear the Saracens may discover our presence here. Our treaty with the Emir in Jerusalem forbids us to venture this far inland.” He paused, throwing the rag to the ground. “But the traitors must be caught, for by God they could do far more than merely wreck a treaty.... Search the cave! They may have stored something there!”
Just then, the two men heard a sound from the hillside. With the sun in their eyes, it was difficult to make out anything clearly, and they failed at first to see the three young children playing near the cave. Ahmed and Abbas often played near what they called ‘the secret cave of Sulayman’, just outside Jerusalem. It lay halfway up the small hillside, away from the belligerent adults, their own brothers, fathers, uncles and cousins among them. The children had never entered the cave itself. They believed its dark, foreboding entrance hid all kinds of imagined things that they preferred not to encounter. They had heard stories of jinnies and ghouls since their infancy and they could never be sure whether they were true or not.
With them was Hassan. He was almost eighteen years old, the only son of a Turkish officer in the service of the Emir in Jerusalem. His father was Abbas’ tutor, or Atabeg, and in that role, he held considerable influence. Although originally slaves and servants, the Mamluk Atabegs came to be key players in Middle Eastern politics in the Middle Ages. Their descendants would make great strides in the power struggles that would ensue over following centuries. Hassan had taken the youngsters to the cave and he felt responsible for them, particularly for Abbas, the Emir’s son who only months earlier had been made Hassan’s ward.
On this day, Hassan was dressed in a loose Turkish tunic that comprised of baggy blue trousers, tucked into soft leather boots, and a thin but warm, light blue cotton shirt. The colours seemed to clash with his bronzed skin and deep brown eyes, but could never detract from his handsome good looks. Everyone who knew him teased him about them. “You’ll have the women begging to make them your wives”, they would say. His hair was long, shoulder length, straight and a subtle blend of dark brown and red that shone whenever the sunlight struck it.
Abbas was darker than Hassan and, although some seven years younger, stood chest height to the older boy. His hair was short and, unlike Hassan’s, was tucked neatly beneath a loosely worn black turban. Like his father, Abbas often dressed in black, the colour of the family of the Prophet Muhammad and today was no different. A black cotton shirt and trousers, the latter held up with a grey leather belt, securely fastened with a gold buckle.
Ahmed, the smallest of the three at only six years of age, saw the two soldiers beneath them; soldiers he immediately recognised as being from the enemy army - two Crusaders from Europe. His heart was pounding, his head felt as if it were about to explode and he had to keep out of their line of sight, but he knew he also had to rush back to the other boys. He started to make his way across the gravelly earth towards them, but as he struggled to warn his two comrades at the face of the cave, his tiny legs began sliding on loose rocks. Two of the pebbles dislodged and struck one of the soldiers’ horses, causing it to veer sharply to one side. He looked up again and saw the three boys in silhouette against the sun. At first, he was unable to make out whether the figures were those of men, the men they had been chasing. He squinted, in an attempt to get a more focused picture but the sunlight was too strong, too blinding. He raised his roughened right hand and placed it, visor-like above his eyes just as a soft cloud passed in front of the sun, clarifying their forms at the top of the hill. It was then that he realised that they were only children.
In broken Arabic, he called to them to stop and come down, but the boys were too frightened to obey him; their only thought was escape. Hassan and Abbas, both sweating and shaking, the blood rushing to their heads, instinct taking over from conscious decision making, reached for their little friend and caught hold of his arm, lifting him effortlessly to where they were standing. As he dangled from his friends’ hands, his tiny legs like two pendulums swinging in the light desert breeze, one of the soldiers dismounted his hefty, grey horse, and called out to his colleague.
“We must get them! We must get them! They have seen us sir, and if we let them get away, the Emir’s army will think our forces are on their way to attack Jerusalem!”
He still had hold of his horse’s rein, even though the animal was exceptionally well trained and stood stock still, apart from the odd shake of its head and occasional snort. The soldier finally released the rein and ripped his sword from its sheath. The sun caught it fleetingly and the light bounced, intricately, across his buckles and braids.
The boys could hear the men talking, but the sound of medieval European languages was just babble to their ears. Nevertheless, it increased their levels of apprehension. Nothing is more fearsome, particularly to a child, than something that is not understood.
The second soldier, the officer, or at least a man of far greater status than his partner, climbed slowly from his horse, thought for a moment, and then gently nodded in agreement with his companion. Both men began to make their way up the hill, but their progress was slow and cumbersome, with their suits of chain mail and heavy European swords weighing them down.
The boys were panic-stricken and, in their confusion, Abbas lost his footing at the entrance of the cave. He fell into the dark, cold, emptiness and, although the other children called after him, there was no reply. He rolled down a small incline, just inside the cave entrance, losing his precious turban and ending his cascade with the strike of his head upon a large boulder.
Hassan acted quickly. He often told himself that in the eyes of the Muslim world he was a man and he realised that now he must act like one. He looked hard at Ahmed. He knew that to send such a young child for help would be taking an almighty risk, but he had to stay to help Abbas.