The Rose of Sokna
Written in 1879
Excerpt from: Inn-Nu-Woh To Merhameh, Lulu.com
We rode into a narrow wadi, the bottom of which was covered with dry, razor-sharp halfa grass. There had to be water nearby, and there was; when we followed the bend of the valley, the much sought-after element glistened its greeting at us. It was a birket, a rare, small desert lake. They held water only for a short time, and then remained empty and dry for the rest of the year.
But I also noticed something else: we had arrived at el kasr. The wadi had a side arm, only a few metres wide but its cliffs rose almost vertically up to the castle walls. We couldn’t be spotted from above especially because of the steep angle and rode into the gorge. We hadn’t gone far when Ali pointed into the air and whispered:
“Can you see el budj the great bearded vulture with his wife and children, effendi?”
An entire flock of vulture had taken to the sky above us and a few steps farther along we found the ground of the gorge covered in gnawed and bleached bones. They were human bones—I shuddered at the thought—and, undoubtedly, the remains of the hapless camel drivers who had been captured in the desert, led to el kasr, and then sent plummeting to their deaths into the chasm. That’s why folklore told of el budj, the mighty bearded vulture, which circled above the ghost fortress!
The birds could reveal our presence; we had to wait until they settled back down again. I led my animal to a cleft I had noticed in the cliff wall, dismounted and was just about to inspect the opening when a man walked out who held two kirba in his hands. He was obviously on his way to fetch some water from the birket. I grabbed him by the throat immediately and squeezed it so that he couldn’t call out and a minute later he lay tightly bound on the ground. Then I held the tip of my dagger onto his chest.
“Listen, ja radjal, to what I tell you: if you try to resist, or utter even one single word of a lie, this steel will send you down into tjehenna! The Kofla Aga lives on el kasr?”
“Yes, sihdi,” he moaned full of fear.
“He has Rahel, Manasse ben Arahab’s daughter with him?”
“This cleft leads to the castle?”
“How many men are up there?”
He hesitated with his answer, but a tickle with the blade helped him along. “Twenty-four.”
“Where is the aga at present?”
“In his divan, his best room.”
“And the others.”
“With the loot.”
“All of them?”
“Not far from here.”
“Swear by the head of the prophet that you told me the truth!”
“Get up and show me the way. If you obey, nothing will happen to you; but if you make the slightest attempt at betraying us, you’re lost! Where are the prisoners?”
“Good. Climb ahead of us!” I grabbed the rope, the other end of which held his hands tied behind his back. After Ali had tethered the camels, we stepped into the cleft. The Arab was unarmed. Ali and I carried a dagger, a double-barreled gun and two double pistols each. In addition, I carried two six-shooter revolvers, all loaded. The cleft led straight into the rock initially, and then gradually upwards. The inhabitants of the castle had helped it along and turned it into a passable corridor.
By my reckoning, we had arrived at the top of the cliff. I heard voices. We reached a door, cautiously stepped closer and took a peek into the room behind it. I immediately recognized it as the storage area of the robbed goods. It was filled almost to the ceiling with bales of merchandise and articles of the most diverse nature, such as a caravan would haul. In the dim flickering light of camel dung torches, I counted over twenty men, some of whom were busy and some were idle. I threw the heavy ancient door shut and placed the surely unbreakable, wall-anchored bolts across it. Luck was on my side: the gang of the Kofla Aga was captured.
“Show me the men who arrived a short time ago!” I ordered the Arab.
He climbed a few more steps and then stopped in front of another door. I handed the rope to Ali, and then oriented myself in the dark. There were also heavy bolts in place. I opened them.
“As-salaamu alaikum, you people! Step outside, you’re free!”
“Hamdulillah! Is it really you, sihdi?” the old shech el djemali exclaimed with joy.
“It sure is. I wanted to see for myself whether or not the five-thousand-year-old marabut had told you the truth, and then I caught the bad djinns.”
I led him and half of his people to the door of the store-room and handed the responsibility of guarding it to him: I continued to follow our Arab leader together with the other half.
We finally stepped out into daylight.
“Lubecka Allah hameeh!” I heard a familiar song and voice straight above us. It was Rahel.
“Where is the aga’s divan?” I asked the Arab.
“Walk up these steps and through two rooms; you will find him in the third!”
“Follow me and wait in front of the door!” I directed Ali.
The short dusk of the south had already fallen when I stepped into the divan, but I was still able to recognize the splendour with which the room in the old ruin had been fitted out. The Kofla Aga sat on a precious Beni-Snassen carpet, woven by the women of Berbers in East Morocco, which must have weighed at least two hundred kilograms, was engrossed in smoking his narghile, and hadn’t noticed my approach.
“As-salaamu alaikum!” I greeted. “Has the caravan robber gone deaf that he didn’t hear my footsteps?”
He jumped up at the sound of the unexpected voice and rushed up to me. He obviously recognized me and reached for the yatagan, a Turkish curved sword.
“Allah akbar. Who has led you from Murzuk to el kasr, stranger, and how did you get here unnoticed?”
“I’ve come to fetch Rahel, Manasse ben Arahab’s daughter.”
“She isn’t here. Have you got the ten pouches?”
“She is here, you father of murder and robbery, the pouches are in Murzuk.”
“Then go and get them!”
“Bah! You will not let me leave here because the den of the Kofla Aga would then be revealed, but, instead, you will have me thrown off the cliff just like all the others!”
“By the beard of the prophet, giaur, you’re correct! Give me your weapons!”
“You shall have a look at them!” I pulled the revolver. He had, in all likelihood, not seen one of those small instruments before.
“Are you trying to make fun of me? I swear to you by Muhammad and all holy caliphs that you will die if you don’t put down your weapons immediately!”
“And I swear to you by Isa ben Marryam, the one we call Jesus, the son of Mary, that I will smash your hand if you don’t immediately throw your blade on the ground!”
“Then die, kelb, you dog!”
He lunged at me; I pulled the trigger—he dropped his hand and the sword rattled to the ground. Immediately, he picked it up with his left and kept coming at me with a furious yell. I pulled the trigger a second time; his left hand was hit as well and he collapsed.
“Amahl, amahl, Ali, come her!” I shouted. The loyal servant rushed into the room and threw himself onto the injured man who writhed under his clinch like a wounded panther. It didn’t help him. The freed camel drivers rushed up as well. The Kofla Aga was overpowered and bound.
More: Inn-Nu-WohTo Merhameh