Night ninety six opens with a recap: the chamberlain is leading an army towards Constantinople while Dau’ al-Makan, Sharkan and their vizier Dandan take a hundred riders and secretly slip off to plunder a monastery. Little do they know that their guide is Dhat al-Dawahi, self-declared ‘mistress of mischief’, and that her plan is to destroy them. The hundred Syrian Christians she disguised as merchants have been granted permission to leave and go to take their next part in her scheme.
Once the royals arrive at the mountain where the monastery is situated, Dhat al-Dawahi sends a note to Emperor Afridun by messenger pigeon, asking for ten thousand horsemen to sneak up to the mountain. There are two big problems with this request – a) most of the emperor’s army got slaughtered recently, and b) how do TEN THOUSAND men and horses sneak anywhere? But Afridun knows she’s the best strategist he’s got and duly sends out the troops. Reaching the monastery, they hide and wait. When the royals and the vizier reach the same place, the only person they see is a monk called Matruhina, whom Dhat al-Dawahi commands they kill. They cut him down on the spot.
The narrative really hates Dhat al-Dawahi, it keeps calling her ‘damned’, it just makes me determined to appreciate her more. I mean, she’s not a nice person, but she’s a hell of a lot more interesting than anyone else left alive in this story.
Her account of the monastery’s treasure was accurate; prince and king load up the lot and wait for the promised beauty Tamathil to appear, but word of the recent battle has spread and she is not stupid. When she has not shown up after three days, Sharkan gets antsy about his army and Dau’ al-Makan agrees it is time to leave. As they descend the mountain, however, they are ambushed by Afridun’s troops. Trapped as they are in a ravine, they cannot fight their way out. Dandan has been here before, on a long ago campaign with King ‘Umar – he tells them to keep moving lest the soldiers toss rocks down on them. Dhat al-Dawahi makes her derision known. “Why are you afraid? You have sold your lives for the sake of God Almighty on His path. By God, I stayed as a prisoner underground for fifteen years and never protested to God about what He had done to me.” And so on.
Dau’ al-Makan and Sharkan take her words to heart. They hold their ground as the soldiers close in and Sharkan, in particular, is so formidable a warrior that nothing they try can stop him. Not everyone is so lucky – by the end of the day the royals have lost almost half the men who came with them, and are looking around in concern for their ‘ascetic’ when Dhat al-Dawahi returns bearing the head of their enemies’ commander. He was actually killed by an arrow before she got to him, but they don’t know that. As night ninety seven begins, Dhat al-Dawahi waxes lyrical about her battle frenzy. She tells them to wait while she checks out the way ahead, then Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan will follow her out of the ravine and bring back reinforcements from the main army.
Of course, what she actually does is alert her allies to the forthcoming opportunity and lead Dau’ al-Makan and Dandan straight into the enemy camp. What’s more, the imperial troops pretend they cannot see Dhat al-Dawahi, leading her two companions to believe they are being punished by God.
In night ninety eight, the prisoners are bound and set under guard. The next day, when Sharkan arises in preparation for another day’s fighting, the imperial forces warn him of their hostages and tell him to surrender – which, after tears and internal wrestling, he decides not to do. He leads his men into battle with his usual fervour, but the numbers are badly against them. Their only hope now lies in defending from the mouth of a cave while awaiting those reinforcements. Who are never coming.
Come night ninety nine, Sharkan has only twenty five men left and is still refusing to surrender. His enemies respond by blocking up the cave entrance with wood and setting it on fire. At that, Sharkan finally gives in. There is some debate over whether or not they should be killed, but the leader of the imperial forces thinks that decision should be left to Afridun, so the prisoners are bound while the soldiers celebrate. The narrative, however, ADORES Sharkan. He’s tied up? Pfft. He goes all Incredible Hulk, bursts free of the bonds and steals the keys so he can free everyone else. His next idea is that they kill a few guards and take their clothes as a disguise, but Dau’ al-Makan is afraid the noise would draw attention and so they just steal a pile of weapons and twenty five horses on their way out. That wouldn’t be noisy at all!
Climbing up the mountain, Sharkan orders the remaining royal forces to scream out war cries as if they are the army come as reinforcements. Dau’ al-Makan doesn’t like this idea either. It will give the imperial troops a chance to come after them. But Sharkan gets his way and as the hundredth night begins it all works out as Sharkan planned, with the bewildered soldiers below fighting amongst themselves. But Dau’ al-Makan is also right, because when dawn comes and they sort themselves out, the imperial soldiers are soon hot on the royal heels. Just as they turn for a last-ditch battle, the real royal reinforcements appear in the distance. With the tables turned, the imperial forces are slaughtered, the royals are reunited with part of their army, and they hear the source of their good luck – facing a siege at Constantinople, the chamberlain wanted his best fighters back before battle commenced and sent a large search party to the monastery.
In the meantime, however, Dhat al-Dawahi has ridden hard for the nearest part of the army to deliver news of a defeat that did not actually happen. The army rides away only to come face to face with their not so dead king and prince. Well, to quote: ‘the sweet scent of Dau’ al-Makan and his brother Sharkan spread over them and both groups recognised each other’. So apparently they even smell really royal. Revitalised, they march afresh on Constantinople. Where Dhat al-Dawahi is already spreading misinformation, as we find out in night 101. They send off a large part of their forces as reinforcements for a battle that’s now long over. When he sees the approaching horses, Sharkan assures Dau’ al-Makan he’ll be protected from whatever danger lies ahead, but of course that’s not necessary. The royals hear of the ascetic’s ‘miraculously’ swift travel and press on.
When they reach the besieged city of Constantinople, it is to find the camp of their army on fire. The ‘ascetic’ appears through the smoke, urging the new forces to avenge their dead companions. Dandan disapproves. “By God,” he remarks, “my hear recoils from this ascetic for I have never known anything but evil to come from an excess of religious zealotry.” LISTEN TO YOURSELF, MAN. YOU ARE FIGHTING A HOLY WAR. WHERE IS THERE NOT ZEALOTRY IN THIS. Sharkan defends her and insists she come with them the rest of the way. Outside Constantinople, the chamberlain lives but is about to flee.
In night 102, we find out just how busy Dhat al-Dawahi has been – separating the Muslim army, sending battle plans to her son and ally. King Hardub is immensely proud of his mother’s cunning; Afridun is her biggest fan. They immediately send out their soldiers. Prayers fill the air from both sides; the narrative reminds us it is 100% Team Muslim. Just as the chamberlain’s forces look routed, Sharkan arrives at full charge. The imperial forces panic and have to be reined in by their united monarchs. As Sharkan prepares for battle, a rider comes out from the opposite ranks to propose single combat. Sharkan will represent the Muslims – Afridun will represent the Christians. By this point, I could not be less interested. It’s just carnage, totally pointless.
Warned by Dhat al-Dawahi, Afridun knows he’s up against a great warrior, but he’s a strong man and an experienced soldier so looks forward to the duel with confidence. The two men deck themselves out in fancy armour, exchange pompous remarks and go at it. Afridun, who has learned a few tricks from Dhat al-Dawahi, causes Sharkan to glance behind him and injures him with a well-aimed javelin; Dau’ al-Makan has his brother brought back to safety and, because single combat was meaningless anyway, the armies go back to hacking at each other.
In night 103, Afridun plans his next move while Dau’ al-Makan and the ‘ascetic’ pray over the injured Sharkan. He wakes in the morning and the brothers are entirely happy to lay that recovery at Dhat al-Dawahi’s feet. Dau’ al-Makan rides out in Sharkan’s place to fight and King Hardub takes on the mantle of his challenger. The latter’s horse gets admiring poetry. Hardub isn’t so lucky – Dau’ al-Makan beheads him and battle recommences. The imperial army is eventually forced to retreat behind the city walls while Dau’ al-Makan goes to check on his brother and share an account of their victories. In night 104, Dhat al-Dawahi sits by and hears of her son’s death from the man who killed him. She cannot hold back her tears, but pretends to be weeping in joy as she plots vengeance.
Sharkan recovers his strength quickly. The brothers part in good spirits that night, each to his own pavilion – upon which Dhat al-Dawahi takes out a poisoned dagger, cuts Sharkan’s throat while he sleeps and kills all his servants for good measure. She then goes to Dau’ al-Makan’s tent, but his guards are still awake so she turns to Dandan. He’s also awake, and suspicious. He decides to follow her when she leaves, only to be immediately noticed and shamed into returning to his tent. Unable to sleep, he goes to see Sharkan – and of course finds a pavilion of corpses.
Dau’ al-Makan is wild with grief when he hears the news and realises very quickly who the murderer must have been. “From the beginning my heart recoiled from [the ascetic],” Dandan declares, “as I know that all religious fanatics are evil, scheming men.” He does know that this is a religious war, right? Because that fact has been jammed down my throat for weeks now, what with all the shouting of ‘infidel’. Sharkan is buried; his loyal soldiers weep for him.
Some time ago, back around Week 33, I was so depressed by the way the female characters of these stories had been treated that I was thinking about ending this project. Nothing I’ve read since has changed my mind; once this story has been concluded, the whole project will be at an end. It makes me sad to give up on it, and I’m sorry if anyone who has been reading along is disappointed. If there was not so consistent a pattern of misogyny, I wouldn’t be taking this step, but every time a female character is introduced I have to brace myself and it doesn’t feel worth it any more. Now that the story has been bogged down with a relentless campaign of bigotry and violence, I am less enthusiastic than ever. As I intend to wrap up this cycle by the end of the year, be warned: some upcoming posts may be pretty lengthy!