*Continued from The Burning of Messina
"Robin? What do we do?" Gilbert the White Hand is terrified, and for good reason. Of the stories that made their way to England of Muslim prisoners, none were very encouraging.
"Keep your mouth shut. I'll do the talking." Robin is terrified himself, but is far more adept at maintaining a calm exterior than his companion. Robin is quite glad that one of the Merry Makers is with him and he's especially glad that it's Gilbert. Not only is Gilbert the second-best archer in the group - and, in fact, the group's cook - but he's also the man Robin has known the longest. Serendipity has found its way to the battlefield and Robin takes care not to take it for granted.
"What if none of these heathens speak English?"
It's a valid concern, but some are bound to speak French, and Robin's French should be good enough to communicate.
"Remember, Gilbert," Robin utters, "we're the heathens here."
Eyeing the well-dressed Moor approaching them, Robin briefly reflects on the stupid and greed-influenced decision of the Christian Army to break into plunder while in the middle of the battle for Acre. A side effect, no doubt, of many of their great leaders being sent back to England. Though Robin will not even silently admit it to himself, his thoughts refer to John Bower. The breakdown of discipline in the line would simply never have happened had Bower been there. But the coward had willingly accompanied Eleanor of Acquitaine back to their homeland, and Robin and his men - those still alive - had been left to rot. Even the Templars were forced into retreat.
The Moor reaches Robin, grins widely and, much to Robin's surprise, converses in English. "I am Tariq al-Din. I am in need of slaves. You and your companion seem fit enough."
Robin, still attempting to gauge this man, responds, "I wasn't aware Saladin allowed Christians to be purchased as slaves."
Tariq al-Din laughs. "Then you, my friend, are not very educated." Continuing his laughter, al-Din turns to the guards. "I'll take these two."
John Bower hates that he's in England. Hates it so much he's often thought of abandoning his duties and finding his own passage to Jerusalem to join his men. But he knows such an action would be beyond foolish and would likely prevent him from ever returning home. He was under the initial impression that after escorting Eleanor back to London, he would be dispatched back to the Crusade, but Eleanor found Bower charming and professional and convinced her son, Prince John, to award him an official military position. Bower, not wanting to appear discourteous or ungrateful, accepted the position.
Over the course of his assignment, Bower came to despise the Prince. Though Bower's loyalty to Richard did not play a large role in Bower's souring towards the Prince, it certainly remained on his mind. But the Prince has a horrible and insulting sense of humor and has taken to calling Bower "Little John" behind closed doors, the Prince implying himself as "Big John." This created an even larger circle of revolting - to Bower - humor, as Bower clearly is the larger in stature of the two.
In his spare time - which is a dishearteningly ample amount - Bower theorizes methods to get himself honorably removed from his current role.
"So, what are your names?" Tariq al-Din asks his two new slaves as he takes a bite of roasted lamb.
Initially, Robin and Gilbert fear that the Moor is going to maliciously enjoy his meal in front of them, but al-Din cuts three portions from the meat, then releases Robin and Gilbert from their bonds. Robin glares up at al-Din.
"You're a brave man."
Tariq laughs. "Not really. I just know that you've no idea where you are. And two wandering Englishmen wouldn't last long out here even if you did. Would you like to eat? I'm more than satisfied saving this meat for later enjoyment."
Gilbert can hold his appetite no longer and grabs his offering, wolfing it down. It's not how he would have prepared it, but it's the best meal he's had since before Acre. Al-Din's smile doesn't fade as he hands Gilbert a bladder of water.
Robin takes his meal and sits near the fire. Al-Din is right. Without the Moor, he and Gilbert have no hope of survival, never mind getting home. "So what's your story, then? What are you to do with us?"
Al-Din sits across from the two and resumes his meal. "You are very rude, English. I asked you a question."
Sensing opportunity, Robin quickly formulates a plan in his mind. "Robin, Earl of Huntington."
Gilbert's expression almost gives the jig up before it even has a chance to find its rhythm.
"You are a noble?" Al-Din is no fool and Robin can tell the Moor doesn't immediately believe him. Robin nods in response. "You are not a simple archer?"
To this, Robin himself almost winces. "No. This man is my attendant, Gilbert of the White Hand."
His attention mostly on his piece of lamb, al-Din inquires, "The White Hand?"
"I'm a cook," Gilbert interjects, too eagerly for Robin's liking.
Al-Din laughs again. He is, apparently, a jovial man.
"Well, my friends. I have a desire to see where you come from. I've heard tales of England since I was but a boy and nothing would please me more than accompanying a noble to his homeland." This is the last thing Robin and Gilbert expect al-Din to say. "As a guest, of course."
"I don't understand. We are not slaves?"
"Here, you are. But, no, I do not keep slaves. It took much persuasion to convince Saladin to sell you to me."
Robin laughs. Perhaps fortune is with him, after all. "When do we leave?"
"My friend, we are already on our way."
Robin is no fool, either. He is quite aware that they have been traveling south, then west, for several days. "England is north and west of the Holy Land. We went south."
"As you would not fare well through these lands, I am quite aware that I would fare even more poorly traveling overland through yours. We will obtain passage to the Kingdom of Portugal on a vessel out of Morocco. Despite being pushed out of Iberia, my family's merchant interests remain strong, so this will be no issue. Does this satisfy you?"
Knowing his response doesn't really matter - and completely distrustful of al-Din's true motives, whatever they may be - Robin simply nods politely and continues to eat.
*To be continued...
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