Slowly, the insistent knocking roused Sir Michael from his deep, dreamless sleep. He shrugged into his tunic and opened the door. Breathless from his run up the stairs, Alakka stumbled into the room.
“Sahib! Come quick, there is a messenger from Qatni with an urgent message for you!” he pantingly implored Sir Michael.
As Sir Michael dressed to meet the messenger he glanced out of the window. From the position of the moon it must be only a couple of hours before dawn.
The courtyard shadows danced as the torches showed him two of his men-at-arms standing to either side of a young Bedouin and his mount. His message must have been urgent indeed to use up such the once beautiful stallion as a mixture of froth and blood puddled on the flagstones. It would likely have to be put down judging by the visible swelling around a sprained, possibly broken ankle.
‘Alakka, have the beast tended to at once.” he commanded. Grieved as the animal limped away, refusing to put much weight on the one foot.
The young Bedouin was doing a good impersonation of standing on hot coals as he pranced from foot to foot. Seeing the deference the men-at-arms gave Sir Michael, he rushed forward.
“Effendi, Sahib Petain is in our village and has been badly hurt. He sent for you, please, it is most urgent he speak to you!” explained the boy.
Sir Michael grabbed the boy by the shoulders, demanding to know the whole story. A long time friend and brother in arms, Sir Petain had disappeared repelling a raid almost a fortnight ago, only to surface now in a village a hard ride away. Yet, all they could get from the boy was that Petain had stumbled out of the desert a few days ago, badly hurt and near death. The village healers had done what they could for his wounds but he lay hovering between worlds for days.
He gave orders for his horse and four others to prepare to ride. If they started soon they could make considerable distance before the desert sun took its toll. With luck they would arrive in the boy’s village the next day. Before leaving he left instructions for more to follow armed and with supplies while the garrison prepared for their return.
The grueling ride left them exhausted but they made the village by dawn of the following day. Sir Michael was led to the Sheik’s tent, Sir Petain was in the section for those who are sick are cared for and treated.
Sir Michael gasped to see how quickly the virile and robust Sir Petain had been reduced to a shadow. He was gaunt, with skin two sizes too small drawn over his large frame. Asleep, he had been propped into a position where the angrily glaring welts of a whip did not contact anything.
Whatever heroic trek he made out of the desert had not been kind. The bitter-sweet aroma of dead flesh hung cloyingly and from he stood Sir Michael could see the greenish ooze of pus from some of the wounds.
Michael knelt at his friend’s side to offer prayers for him. Petain opened his eyes and rejoiced at the sight of his friend.
“Thank you for your prayers, but you could wait until I am dead,” in a voice firmer than his appearance would have suggested.
Michael laughed as tears welled up in his eyes, “You can’t blame me. You looking like you have joined Fionn and his heroes already. What happened to you old friend?”
“During the last battle I was knocked unconscious. I awoke trussed and packed like a sack of barley over the back of a camel. When they realized I was awake, they tied my hands to a tether and pulled me along behind the camel. I am not sure how long we traveled, but we came to some cliffs. Here the leader of the group shouted in a tongue unknown to me and a gate opened in the side of the cliff.
Inside, I was paraded around their streets to the jeers and prods of his men. All the time they pelting me with garbage while some struck me with clubs or daggers. When they tired of this sport, I was tied to a post and whipped until I passed out.
I awoke behind bars in a rough hewn hole in the cliff side. Each day I was given just enough water but no food. Daily I hung from that wretched post and was either whipped or used as a target for the men would ride past and slap me with the flat of their blades. When they locked me away each night it was with words, “Sleep well, for tomorrow we will kill you.”
The day came when I saw all the good horses were gone and hardly anyone in sight. I was able to surprise the guard who was dragging me to the post and took his sword. With surprise on my side I won my way through the eye of the needle and began my trek here.
These are the bandits who have been hounding this region. Look for the cliff to the south and west of here. Swear to me you rid this land of the scum and avenge me.”
“Brother I swear to you on my sword and by Our Lord old friend, vengeance shall be reaped for what they have done to you and the blood of the innocents they have spilled. Sleep now, try to regain to your strength.”
The remainder of the day Sir Michael spent speaking to the tribal elders working out the most likely place the fortress of the raiders would be located. The remainder of the time he spent sitting by his friend’s bedside.
Three days after he arrived, so did the rest of the men he had instructed to follow him. He explained their mission to his master sergeant and ordered the men to rest before they would all start out again. Sir Michael kept vigil that night at Petain’s bed. Early in the morning Petain awoke, coughing heavily. Sir Michael offered him a glass of watered down wine.
“It seems fate has brought us full circle my friend.” Petain choked out as he sipped from the goblet. “ Not that long ago I was helping leech you after you were run through, your body though was allowed to heal. Michael, I have a favor to ask.”
“ I know what you are thinking and please, do not ask this of me. God would not take you from us when there is much left to do in his name. Our prayers will be answered.”
“No Michael, I appreciate your faith and how you feel but my body is not lying to me. We have never had false words between us and now is not the time begin them. I am already dead or soon will be. I beg you, as your brother, do not let me die weak and helpless from the degradation evil has caused. Let me die as I lived, a warrior. Put steel in my hand that I die as I lived, by the sword.”
Slowly, reluctantly, Sir Michael stepped outside, asking the first of his men he spotted for his sword. When he returned Petain was sitting on the stool which he himself had been sitting at earlier.
He drew his own blade and offered it to Petain. Tears blurred his vision as he had to assist his friend to uncurl his fingers that he could grasp the hilt. Then, hefting the borrowed blade he saluted his friend.
A prayer on his lips for his friends soul, he thrust at his heart. And nearly burst out laughing when Petain parried.
“I told you I wanted to die fighting” he smiled weakly.
Sir Michael nodded, as he did not trust himself to speak, and began to fight. Slowly at first, testing for a speed his friend could manage. Petain held nothing back, indeed, if any of his blows had landed, Michael may have been waiting to greet him as he ascended.
Men of both the Sheiks household and Michaels troops crowded the entryway, attracted by the noise of battle.
Soon, Petain’s strength waned, and with a final prayer Sir Michael delivered the coup de gras to his brother and long time friend.
Kneeling beside Petain’s body he began a long, low wail that rose gradually in both volume and pitch. His heavy heart began to swell with pride as he realized each man present, Scot and nonScot alike had taken up the keening.