I arrived near the thicket of bushes and after I had made sure that
there was no-one in the vicinity, I called quietly to Prince Amin. After
a moment he emerged from the foliage. I tied the two horses to a branch
and held out the clothes to him. While he removed the sumptuous court
attire, I told him what I had seen and heard in the city. As he changed
I observed him carefully: it was the first time I could watch the Prince
so closely while he was changing. His expression was vexed, perhaps a
little tense, but definitely not frightened. His body was still
adolescent: without the rich dress he had a hint of frailty and
sweetness that instilled in my heart a sense of tenderness.
While I continued to talk, he dressed in the plain cloths I had stolen
from the bazaar: now he could look like an ordinary boy of the people,
even if the features of his face were particularly refined and his gait
elegant. I thought about how much the clothes are important in creating
the image of a person. What difference is there between a shah and a
slave if you see both of them naked? Perhaps the gait, the look, but not
always: there are slaves with a royal bearing and powerful people with a
mean attitude, as life had several times taught me. All the sons of
Allah are equal: what makes the difference is just the role that His
will established for each of them. That's why a shah is a shah and a
slave remains just a slave. Now dressed, the Prince and I had an almost
identical aspect, and yet He for me remained always my Lord and me His
Putting our clothes and weapons in a haversack that was hanging from the
saddle of one of the horses, I helped the Prince to climb on the rump of
one of them and we headed at a slow trot towards the ruins of the old
khan. Since the new road to Damascus had been built, almost no-one used
the old one, narrower and with steeper gradients, so that the khan that
was on it had been abandoned by at least one generation and gradually
became a ruin. We reached it on the first afternoon. I told the Prince
to wait, gave Him my horse and went into the ruins of the ancient
construction to explore them and to be sure that no-one and no danger
It was a wide, slightly irregular quadrangle, with only one gate - now
just a frame, on the side towards the road. On the ground floor there
were spacious stable-warehouses with wide barrel vaults; on the gate
side there were also some small rooms. On the first floor there were
many rooms of different dimensions, but all of them without roofs and
often with one or two walls fallen in. At the center, high on a small
porch that covered a well, there was a really small masjid, almost
intact. It was the only room still with a door. Some of the
stable-warehouses of the ground floor had parts of the external wall
collapsed, so that now there were several accesses to the khan. This, in
case of danger, could have increased our possibilities of flight.
I called the Prince. Taking the two horses, I proposed to put them in
two different rooms on the ground floor so we could have greater
possibilities of taking one of them if fleeing in a hurry, then we
climbed to the first floor where I pointed out one of the few rooms
still with a roof and the only one with the floor free from mortar
pieces. Prince Amin wanted enter the small masjid to pray.
I objected: "Prince, from the masjid it is practically impossible to
flee in case of danger. It can easily become a deadly trap. Why do you
not pray in here?"
But He insisted so I could do nothing but stand watch, so that I could
warn Him in case of danger. As for me, I recited my prayers in my heart:
soldiers in war time are exempted from the observance of ritual, and I
considered myself at war. Then I thought of my comrades, certainly all
dead in the attempt to block the enemy long enough to allow the Prince
to get out of danger. Certainly Allah had brought them to paradise, they
dying in a holy and righteous war.
The Prince Amin came out of the masjid: "Hey you, is there any water in
"I do not know, my Prince. I will check."
There was neither rope nor bucket. I let a stone fall inside and
listened carefully: after some time I heard the splash.
"Yes, there is water. But we have nothing to extract it. I can try to go
down, but then I do not know how to bring up the water, without any
The Prince nodded pensively: "For a while we can do without it, but soon
or later we have to find a solution. We also have nothing to eat..."
"It they do not come to look for us tonight, we have to take refuge on
the mountains. Tomorrow, then, we will certainly find food and drink..."
"Yes, for a couple of days we can resist without problems," the Prince
assented. Then, after a while he asked me: "What is your name? I can not
continue to call you "hey you", considering that we will have to spend
not a little time together..."
"I am Nadim, my Lord."
"I like your name. Tell me something about you, about your life before
you entered my service..."
I obeyed. The Prince was listening with interest and asked questions. I
recounted also small details of my life, not so much because they were
particularly interesting, but because I felt that time would elapse
faster for both of us. Sometimes, hearing my mischievous actions or my
thoughts about things, the Prince laughed heartily.
At the end he said: "I almost envy you, Nadim. Your life had been fine,
even if simple... not like mine."
"But how, my Prince? You have grown up in comfort and in luxury, what
could you have missed?"
"Yes, that is right. But I always lived as a bird in a cage: before in
the harem, without real friends, spoiled and coddled... Then, after the
circumcision, suddenly they have charged me with all the duties of an
Heir, always surrounded by too many people and yet always lonely. You
know that I could never quarrel with a contemporary or struggle for the
possession of a toy, or of a fruit, or perhaps just of a coloured stone?
You may find that strange, but you are the first person with whom I have
spoken for a long time, with no etiquette or control..."
I felt in Prince Amin's voice a kind of heartbreaking sadness that moved
"Now also... My duty imposes on me things I would like not to have to
do: I would have preferred to fight, to die perhaps... instead I have to
flee, to hide to save the lineage of the family and to claim a throne
that I never asked for, but that is mine, which duty imposes me not to
renounce... You could even say that it is me that belongs to the throne
and not it to me. Is it not funny?"
He fell silent. I held off the strong impulse to embrace him, to hold
him tight to me, to console him... but I was just a guard, he a Prince,
my Lord. I too, after all, was not free, I could not act as my heart
suggested. We were there, a fourteen year old and a nineteen year old -
we could have been two brothers, two friends and instead we were a
subject and a Prince: an abyss separated us.
The sun set and the vault of the sky was darkening, the evening star
showed vivdly against the black, bright and beautiful. The moon yet was
low and was near to setting, so soon the thickest darkness would
surround us. All day long, nobody came from the Palace: probably they
were all dead... The Prince and I we were perhaps the only two to
survive, alone, surrounded by enemies. If by tomorrow morning nobody
showed up searching for us, we had to leave and hide in the mountains. I
knew it well, I was born there. But the Prince, would he be able to
adapt? And how long had we to hide and for what, if they were all dead?
Perhaps Prince Amin had some ideas on that... but he was still just a
little boy... I heard his light and regular breath: he was deeply
asleep. Instead I kept watching, waiting... for what?
The air was cool and all the nature around us silent, besides some
occasional nocturnal animal calls or the snorts of our horses and the
stamping of their hooves. I barely could see the nearest walls: even the
little masjid at the center of the khan was invisible, swallowed by the
night darkness. During my watch I heard our horses move several times,
but at last they too seemed to become quiet. The distant horizon started
to slowly discolour and the stars were gradually fading in the sky. I
felt really tired: it was the second night I had gone without sleep.
The dawn started to show from behind the mountains that now stood out
clear cut against the sky, their edges more and more bright until they
seemed like the profile of an incandescent blade in a blacksmith's
forge. I looked towards the interior of the room: the Prince was still
sleeping. His face was relaxed and serene and to look at him caused in
me an intense pleasure and emotion. I never noticed before how beautiful
he was. That is to say, yes, I always thought he was a beautiful boy,
but now, in the abandonment of sleep, he seemed to me more beautiful
than ever, a special, moving beauty. Perhaps it was the rough and
simple clothing that emphasized His beauty: the wealth of the ornaments
of His princely attires, just distracted the attention and the eyes that
now, to the contrary, could completely and only concentrate on that
face, so sweet. Finally the Prince Amin opened his eyes. He looked
around, for an instant almost dismayed, then rose up sitting and saw me.
Then he smiled and greeted me: "Good morning, Nadim. Nothing new,
"No, my Lord, nothing."
"Your face is tired. It would be better for you to sleep a while. Then
we will go to the city to check the situation."
"Yes, Prince Amin, I really need a short rest. But you cannot go to the
city, you will be recognized. It is much too dangerous. I will go alone,
if you wish. If Mussa has won, as I fear, not having found you in your
quarters he will have ordered a search for you."
"But so disguised..."
"Your face is unmistakable, my Prince. And also your gait, your speech,
your voice... Forgive me, my Lord, but I could never allow you to follow
me, for your own good."
"But it is an order. I am your Prince. You have to obey me."
At that point, I knelt in front of him, held out my sword to him and
"I feel forced not to obey you. Kill me, if you want me not to prevent
you from going back to the city. But while I am alive, I will prevent
you risking your life, using force if I have to."
Amin pushed back my sword, took me by one arm and made me stand up:
"Also princes, at times, have to be able to obey. Now rest, I will
watch. Then I will wake you up and you will go, you alone, to see what
happens in the city."
"You promise, Prince Amin ibn Hassam? You will not leave while I am
Amin laughed shaking his head: "You fear a lie? No, I give you my word,
I will not move from here. You trust my word, I hope."
"Of course, my Prince, your word is sacred to me."
The Prince woke me up when the sun was yet high. Then, when I had given
my last recommendations to him, I got on my horse and left for the town.
I was back to the khan some hours later. The Prince recognized me from
afar and ran towards me. When near, I dismounted and knelt in front of
"My Lord and Sovereign..." I just said.
He stared into my eyes, for a long while, then nodded: "My father is
"Yes, Highness, and Mussa has declared you dead too, and put his nephew
on the throne..."
"What more news?" asked my Lord, his voice flat but still.
I told him all I had learned. All the men faithful to the Shaikh had
been slaughtered: the Visir, the Councillors, the Imam, the Chief of the
Guards and all the guards, many servants, many of the city people. The
capital was a bloodbath. It was patrolled by Mussa's men. The Palace had
burned in great part, also several houses in the city and more the half
the bazaar. Young Amin listened all that in silence, then said:
"Let's go back to the khan, pick up our belongings and go to the
mountain. I will reconquer my forefathers throne and I will extinguish
in blood Mussa's family, I swear it on the Prophet! You are my only man
and I am still a boy. But the day of revenge will come. Let us go!"
Taking up the horse by the reins, we went back to the khan. I went
upstairs to fetch the haversack with our clothes, weapons and the rugs,
then went down to saddle my Lord's horse. But in the stable there was no
sign of the horse: only a piece of broken rein hung down at the point
where I had tied the animal the day before. We looked at each other in
surprise. I examined carefully the piece of rein:
"It broke. Probably he fled last night... When did you see your horse
the last time, my Lord?"
"Yesterday. I wanted to go to see it today while waiting for you, but
was afraid, going near him, that I would not be able to resist the
temptation and not to be able to keep the word I gave you, therefore..."
"Not harm, my Lord. You will use this horse; I will follow on foot."
"No, we will lose too much time. I am not so heavy. We will both ride
this horse. And better still, let's leave the saddles and mount him
bareback, so we will seem really two fallahin."
"As you wish, my Lord."
"One more thing I have to say, Nadim: if you continue to call me by my
title, how can I be taken for a commoner? From now on you have to call
me simply by my name, or rather, I think it will be better for me to
change my name."
"My Lord, how can I dare to call you just by your name?"
"You must, it is an order. You have, from now on, to treat me as a
servant, or a friend, certainly not as your Shaikh, if you really want
to help me."
"Yes, I understand, but... it will not be easy, my Lord..."
He smiled: "You will learn, as I have to learn to speak in the way of a
commoner. You have a little brother, is that not right?"
"Yes, his name is Khaled... he is your age and he is a donkey breeder."
"Perfect: now I will be Khaled! I am your little brother. You will have
to teach me lots of things about donkeys and donkey breeders..."
"At your wish, my Lord..."
"Ha, no, Nadim! I really do not believe that you would call Khaled, your
little brother, a snot, with those titles. Let's start again!"
"All right... Khaled. Get up onto the horse, here in front of me, hurry
up: it is time we left!"
I jumped on the the back of the horse, fixed the haversack, held out to
him a hand and hoisted him in front of me. Seizing the reins I shouted
"Yalla, yalla!" to the horse and we were away. I could feel his body
between my arms and legs, straight, tense, but so slim! His life was
indeed in my hands: it was a big responsibility... but also gave me a
sense of pleasure. He sometimes turned towards me and looked at me,
asked me questions or told me his thoughts. We rode for several hours,
stopping only when I recognized an edible plant, some wild fruit or a
stream for water. We talked a lot. I told him many things and,
encouraged by him, corrected his speech, teaching him my people's
idioms, our dialectal inflexions, the terms of the donkey breeders
slang. He repeated and repeated everything and seemed almost amused,
nevertheless he applied himself with incredible seriousness and care.
By evening we had turned into a valley and we were climbing up towards
the mountains. So, before dark, I looked for a place to spend the night.
Tying the horse to a tree, I laid out the rug, protected it with some
branches and invited him to lay down.
He looked at me and said: "You have to lay there, you are my elder
brother. I will make do here nearby..."
"I never could..."
"I am just your little brother, remember!"
"I would never leave my little brother in the cold."
"Having just one rug, what would you do?"
"I would make him sleep with me."
"So be it. Then we will both sleep in the same rug, so we can warm each
other," Amin said with child-like simplicity.
We lay down. I carefully wrapped the rug around our bodies but we had to
squeeze together because it was not wide enough.
After a while Amin said: "This is good. It is my first time to sleep
with somebody, so close. I like it... I feel protected. It is nice to
have an elder brother."
He curled against me. We talked for a while then we fell asleep. During
the night I woke up several times. Amin moaned occasionally. Probably he
was giving vent, in the unconsciousness of sleep, to the sorrow that for
such a long time he had controlled, hidden. I caressed him lightly,
until my Lord calmed down, leaning against me even more firmly.