The Emir's Captive

Clark Ashton Smith

The sun was setting in the Syrian Desert. Already the fiery ball was concealed behind mass of glowing, red clouds, which mantled the distant horizon with crimson. The sand of the desert shone bright yellow in the fleeting light.

For a moment the clouds parted, and a long, fiery beam of light pierced through the gap and was reflected upon the untarnished shield of a desert horseman. His mount, a steed of the Kochlani blood, the horses which are said to be descended from the steeds of King Solomon, stood silent and impassive, sharply [limned] against the horizon. His master seemed for the moment a part of him, and the two a statue carved from solid stone. The Arab was watching the sunset, but his eyes roved constantly on the distant horizon as tho he were expecting something.

He was a tall impressive man, long-bearded, and clothed in a flowing caftan. A curved sabre of Damascus steel was at his side. In his right hand was a long spear, and on his left arm a small buckler of rhinoceros hide, with a sharp spike in the centre. His face was grave, yet handsome. He was a man in the prime of life, and his cheeks were dark with the fierce heat of the Eastern sun.

Some distance to his right rose a group of date palms, from amongst which burbled a crystal spring which stream ran some distance, and was lost in the sand. Amongst these palms stood a number of black tents, and near them were camels and horses. White-robed figures hastened about, and a low hum of voices was audible. At a distance from the encampment, several silent figures, bearing long spears, sat on horse-back. They were the outposts.

The Emir, Yusuf ben Omar, to whom we have just been introduced, gave a sudden start. His sharp eye had detected something—a black speck moving slowly, far out on the sea of molten sand. The setting sun drew gradually nearer, and soon it revealed itself as a horseman. On, on he came, the camp of the Arabs seeming to be his destination.

The sun was poised a moment above the red horizon and was gone. The darkness fell like a blanket over the desert, and the stars shone out. The moon was peeping from the East.

As its first rays shone over the desert, making all things white and silvery, the horseman galloped up to the Emir, and flung himself from the back of his panting steed.

He reeled a moment, as a drunken man, then stood up and faced the Emir. He was young, tall and handsome, and dressed in much the same manner as Yusuf ben Omar.

"Father, I have escaped," he gasped. "For seven days they held me prisoner in the Camp of the Infidels—I, who went to them as an envoy. It was treachery, for I came to them with a flag of truce, and their Chief guaranteed my safety.

"Today they would have sent me to the Camp of King Richard, but I escaped, and on my own horse. For [forty?] miles they pursued me, but their steeds were not as fleet as mine. And now I am with thee—safe!" As he spoke the last word he staggered and fell, almost at his father's feet.

"I am wounded—in the breast," he gasped. "Their bows are strong, and their arrows reach far. The curse of Allah be upon them—the infidels!" Here the speaker relapsed into unconsciousness.

The Emir, with a dark look upon his face, stepped forward and lifted the limp body in his arms. The caftan at the breast was stiff with blood, and there was a gaping wound in the lad's right side, where the arrow had been wrenched forth. It was not necessarily fatal, but would require skill and time to heal.

Yusuf bore his son to the camp, and called a dark faced, wizened little man before him.

"See that he be well ere long," said the Emir, addressing this person, "else thy head, Jew, shall pay the price." He withdrew, leaving Molochi, the Jewish physician, in sole possession of the apartment.

"Now for revenge," muttered Yusuf as he passed out of the great tent. Many of his warriors, who had seen him bring in the body of his son, had gathered in a group. They knew at once that Ali, the Emir's son, who had been sent as an envoy to the camp of Robert, one of King Richard's knights, had met with treachery.

Here a few words of explanation may be necessary. Robert de Montrevel, with a band of men-at-arms, had detached himself from the English King's army, and had set out to find Yusuf ben Omar, who was an old enemy of his against whom he had fought in the Second Crusade. He had been badly beaten, and now was longing for revenge. So, with Richard's permission, he had set off to find his old foe.

Yusuf, hearing of his coming, had sent to his camp his son Ali, as an envoy, it being the Emir's purpose to arrange a place of combat, in which he and his enemy could settle their quarrel once and forever. It was to be a single combat, the side whose Chief was beaten to leave the field in possession of the victor. And they were to fight to the death.

Robert, in spite of his given word that no harm should befall Ali, had immediately imprisoned him. Ali, as he was taken out to be sent to the camp of King Richard, had espied his horse. He called to it, and the obedient steed came galloping up. Before the soldiers could recover from their momentary confusion, the young Arab, who was unbound, leaped onto his horse and was off like a flash.

A portion of the band, returning from a foray, attempted to intercept him. One sent an arrow into his breast ere he was out of bowshot. They pursued him for many a mile, but at last he outdistanced them, and arrived as before related, at his father's camp.

The Emir called his chiefs before him, and gave them a brief account of what had happened. "Now for revenge," he said. "Tonight, by moon light, we will swoop down upon the infidels, and take their chief captive. We will kill his men without mercy, so they may not escape with tales to Richard. Here in the desert will I deal with my prisoner. If my son dies, his head shall pay the penalty. If not, we will hold him for a ransom. Now to your horses, for though the night is yet young, the way is long. We will attack in the hours before dawn, when men sleep the heaviest, and sentinels are drowsy from their long night."

In half an hour all was ready. A few men, perhaps a score in all, were left to guard the camp. Three hundred horsemen with long spears and flowing caftans, with the Emir at their head, at a given word swept away into the desert, and like white spectres soon faded from sight. The stillness of the night fell upon the encampment, as the beating hoofs grew fainter and fainter, and naught was heard save the weird and melancholy cry of the jackal in the distance.


In the tent of the Emir lay Ali, still unconscious and breathing heavily. He was laid on a silken couch. Several dim lamps, suspended from the roof of the tent, burned dimly, and threw a golden radiance on the rich rugs with which the ground was covered. The Jewish physician, Molochi, stood over him, feeling his pulse. It beat rapidly, for Ali was consumed with fever. A couple of negro slaves darted about the apartment at the doctor's orders, and every now and them a swarthy face peered through the curtains, and a low voice asked for the health of Ali, the son of Yusuf bin Omar.

The young man stirred uneasily in his sleep. He muttered for a moment, and seemed to speak. The Jew bent down to catch his words. But they were inaudible, and Molochi again rose to his feet.

Again Ali stirred, his eyes opened, and he awoke. He stared about for several moments before realizing where he was. His lips moved again, and the physician heard the muttered words, "Water, water, for the love of Allah!"

Cooling drinks were brought and administered to Ali. Into one of the cups, unobserved, Molochi dropped a lozenge of bhang.

Ali lay back on the cushions. His eyes closed slowly as the influence of the narcotic made itself felt. In a little while he had fallen into a deep and peaceful sleep. The worst of the fever was over.


It was night in the camp of Robert de Montrevel. The knight, a burly man of about forty, and renowned for his love of wine, as well as his prowess, lay in a drunken stupor. Without, in the long watches of the night, the sentinels stood guard. In the tents his men lay, snoring heavily. The sentinels were drowsy, for they had not been relieved at Midnight, as was the custom, for their comrades, having indulged freely in liquor, had forgotten all about them.

One by one they nodded at their posts and fell asleep upon the sand. The night wore on till morning was but a few hours distant. Suddenly the desert resounded to the Moslem battle-cry, and the clatter of galloping horses. The drowsy sentinels, as they arose to their feet, rubbing the sleep from their eyes, were cut down, and the Arabs swept on towards the tents.

"Allahu-akbar!" went up the cry from three hundred throats. Spearheads waved in the moonlight, and where a few moments before all had been silence, all was now tumult. Tents were overturned upon their inmates. The drunken soldiers, entangled in the folds, were unable to rise. Before they had time to become fully aware of the situation, they were pinned to the ground by long spears.

A few gathered in a group and contested the advance of the Emir's followers. The Moslems, being at close quarters, drew their swords, and the little band was quickly cut to pieces. The ground was slippery with blood, and the camp resounded with the clash of steel, the yells of the living, and the groans of the wounded and dying.

In the short space of ten minutes, some two hundred men lay dead or wounded upon the sand. Those who were maimed, were shown no quarter, but speedily dispatched by the swords of their assailants.

The Emir had lost very few men. Half a score of his warriors lay dead, and a few had been wounded. But in opposition to this most or all of Robert de Montrevel's soldiers had been slain, and he himself, still asleep, was a prisoner.

Ere noon of the following day the Emir and his men were back in camp. The spoil taken from the Crusaders was divided amongst them.


When Robert de Montrevel awoke he found himself amongst strange and unfamiliar surroundings. He was in a large and spacious apartment, part, in fact, of the Emir's tent.

He was lying on a couch of silk, at which he marvelled greatly. Rugs from the looms of Smyrna and Ispahan covered the floor. The rough black cloth of the walls was concealed by silken draperions, and golden lamps hung from the ceiling.

A tabouret with a tray of fruit and cups of sherbet stood at his side. In the door stood the figure of a follower of the Prophet, leaning upon his long spear and surveying the captive with some measure of curiosity. Without there was a hum of voices, and the stamping of horses and cries of camels.

De Montrevel stared about stupidly, taking in the surroundings with great wonder.

"Where am I?" he muttered. "Surely I am dreaming." His eye fell upon the sentinel in the doorway. "Who art thou?" he asked in the Lingua Franca, the common medium of intercourse between Europeans and Saracens.

"A warrior of the Emir Yusuf ben Omar," was the reply of the turbanned Moslem.

Robert started violently. "I am, then, his prisoner?" he asked.

"So it seems," answered the guard, with a grin.

De Montrevel's hand went to his sword. It was gone. He stared gloomily at the wall, and then, feeling hungry, stretched out his hand to the tabouret. He ate ravenously of the fruit, and drank the sherbet. He had scarcely finished when the Emir himself entered. He told his prisoner what had occurred, and then explained his situation to him.

"If my son dies, you die," he said. "His condition is very critical. The physician is doing his best, even though he is a Jew, but the wound is worse than we expected. The arrowhead must have been rusty, for gangrene has set in, and a terrible fever has seized him. Curse you!" he cried, stepping closer, and shaking his fist in Robert's face. "If he dies, your fate is certain." Robert paled, but said nothing. Yusuf ben Omar withdrew soon afterwards, leaving him to his own gloomy thoughts.

Ali's condition, as the Emir had said, was indeed critical. Molochi, who had come to love the lad, wrung his hands. Blood poisoning had set in, and blood had collected around the lungs. The bleeding, indeed, had been mostly internal. Hemorrhages were frequent, and the young man was on fire with a terrible fever. His pulse beat like a hammer, and his face was drawn with pain.

As night approached, matters grew worse. Ali breathed fitfully, and was entirely unconscious. Molochi, in despair, announced that nothing more could be done. Yusuf, with a stern set face, strode about the room, muttering. There was a constant hum of voices and patter of feet.

About midnight the end came. Molochi had done everything he could, and the Emir realized that it would not be the doctor's fault if his son died. He spoke to the Jew. "You can do nothing more," he said, "so you had best retire." But Molochi would not go.

Soon the word went through the camp that Ali was dying. The chiefs clustered in the tent, behind the Emir, who stood close beside his son.

It was midnight. Suddenly Ali's eyes opened, and he gazed about the room. Then he looked up, stretched out his arms, with a wild cry to Allah, and fell back dead.

The chiefs filed out of the tent. Molochi wept and wrung his hands, and the Emir, with a stern and set face strode up and down. The lamps burned low as the night advanced, and ere they knew it, morning was upon them, and sorrow reigned.


Three days later Yusuf ben Omar stood before his captive. "I have altered your fate," he said. "I shall fight you with my own hand, and slay you, if such be the will of Allah."

So he and Robert de Montrevel went out into the sunshine. The Arabs clustered about them, and formed a ring. Three swords were laid before him, and he was given his choice. He selected the largest. The Emir picked up another, and they attacked fiercely.

But the Knight of King Richard, strong though he was, was not as lithe and skilfull as his adversary. He fought clumsily, and at every stroke he was driven back. His enemy's blade seemed everywhere. The flash blinded his eyes, and he could scarce defend himself.

The Emir had scarcely begun to fight. He was merely playing with his clumsy foe. Soon the knight was out of breath, and his strokes went wild. The Arab, darting at him from nearly every side at once, was too much. He could not turn in time to ward off the blows.

Still Yusuf continued to play with him. There was a fiendish smile on his face. A dozen times he could have driven his blade home through armor and all, but he refrained.

De Montrevel's head drooped forward, and he staggered for a moment. The Emir stopped and watched him. When he had regained his balance he was at him again.

The knight's breath came in pants. The hot sun and his adversary's agility began to tell upon him. The Emir was cool and crafty, and breathing as easily as if he were at ease in his harem. Round and round they went, stabbing, striking, and guarding, the one cool, the other furious. De Montrevel grew weaker and weaker. At last the Emir was ready. As his foe dropped his guard for a moment, his keen blade drove home, and Robert de Montrevel fell dead on the sand.

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