We are still on night forty five but are beginning a new segment, the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man and his family. They are a warlike lot, conquering a huge swathe of territories across the Middle East and Asia. I don’t have sufficient historical knowledge of the area to know if this has the tiniest basis in fact; it doesn’t seem at all probable but of course sounds terribly impressive as a kingly accomplishment.
‘Umar’s only son Sharkan takes after him, a terror on the battlefield, and has been named his successor. But the king has four wives and a staggering three hundred and sixty concubines – I suppose if you’ve conquered half a continent, you expect your household to be similarly disproportionate in size – and when one girl falls unexpectedly pregnant, Sharkan’s prospects are placed in doubt.
He’s a notoriously violent twenty-year-old warrior prince. This will not end well.
The king doesn’t care. He quite likes the idea of having another son – assuming, of course, that he’s so extremely manly that another son is guaranteed. The pregnant girl is a Byzantine slave named Sophia, very beautiful and very intelligent. She assures the king that when she gives birth to his son, she’ll train him to be the very epitome of culture. When she goes into labour, everyone is on edge, waiting for news.
She gives birth to a girl. Messengers go to inform the king and Sharkan, but Sophia keeps the midwives close – her labour is not done yet. She was carrying twins. The second child is a boy, as healthy and beautiful as his sister. The king is pleased, though he only wants to see his son. The boy is named Dau’ al-Makan and the girl is Nuzhat al-Zaman. Each is issued an extensive entourage of carers. All the king’s officials go to congratulate him and celebrations spread outward through the capital. Sophia is, thankfully, not sidelined; the king places his young children’s education in her care.
Sharkan, meanwhile, has been away for years conquering places and has no idea yet that there was another child. This family is pretty messed up.
One day an envoy from the Byzantium emperor arrives to ask for the king’s help against the lord of Caesarea. The conflict began, we’re told, when an Arab king discovered a treasure trove dating back to Alexander the Great, including three huge white jewels inscribed with secret words. A child who wears one such stone will never suffer pain or sickness, adding enormously to their value. The Arab king showed extraordinary self-restraint by sending all three jewels to the Byzantine emperor, along with two loaded ships of other treasures. They never reached their intended owner; pirates in the pay of the lord of Caesarea stole the lot and killed the entire crew. The emperor has twice tried to revenge himself and failed. He’s now taking to the battlefield personally and has vowed to destroy his foe or die trying. He wants King ‘Umar to help. Got to say, he’s not really selling this plan.
Night forty six rectifies that. The envoys have brought presents. Fifty slave girls and fifty soldiers, to be precise, all expensively attired. When King ‘Umar consults his viziers, the elderly Dandan suggests he send out an army under the command of Sharkan, on the basis that a) ‘Umar has already accepted the presents and it’s just rude not to reciprocate, plus b) it will be excellent PR if ‘Umar wins this war, rulers from all over will send him more presents in the hope he’ll do the same for them. The king agrees with this logic. Dandan is now his favourite vizier and his reward is to be sent out with Sharkan’s troops. As for Sharkan himself, ‘Umar tells him to prepare for a new campaign and to obey Dandan’s directions. They ride out with ten thousand soldiers, trumpets blaring and flags flapping, a vision of royal power.
They travel for twenty days. On the twenty first, they come to a large valley suitable for a long camp and Sharkan orders that his army remain here for a few days while he checks out the lay of the land. By this I mean, rides off completely alone and keeps going for so long he falls asleep on horseback. When he comes to, he finds himself on the edge of a beautiful moonlit meadow and hears laughter. Curious, Sharkan goes to investigate. He hears a woman say, “By the truth of the Messiah, this is not good on your part. If anyone says anything at all, I shall throw her down and tie her up with her own girdle.”
A fortified convent stands in the meadow. A stream passes through its grounds and by the water stands an older lady, accompanied by ten heavily bejewelled girls. One in particular catches Sharkan’s eye, with her wide eyes and curly hair. “Come here,” he overhears her say to the other girls, “so that I can wrestle with you before the moon goes down and the day breaks.” And they do. And she slams each girl to the ground, tying them up with their own girdles.
The older lady refuses to be impressed. She says she could beat all these girls herself if she wanted so she’ll fight the champion herself. The girl smiles to conceal her growing anger. “Do you really mean to wrestle with me, Dhat al-Dawahi,” she asks, “or are you joking?” Dhat al-Dawahi does not joke.
This is BRILLIANT. Join me next week for the showdown.