The Epic of Sakina
By Shari Paul
[Note: This is part 2 of a two-part novelette. Visit our previous post to read Part 1.]
The ride back to her father’s house had never felt so long, doubly so under Naima’s interrogation. Sometime during the wait for Sakina’s return at the barracks, Naima had spoken to a few of the guards and decided that Leif was a djinn. It was a welcome distraction, as she teased her friend and gave her only the vaguest answers. This was not something she could share, and once Naima realised this, she changed tack anyway, instead telling Sakina about the business at her store.
Sakina went straight to the library when she was back at the house, ancestors whispering in her ear. It was time she started a record of this. As she sank into her chair though, someone knocked at the door.
She looked up and a shiver coursed her spine like lightning. It was the alim.
“Greetings. So, this is the famous library of Cunapo? It is larger than I thought,” said Asif in the doorway, looking around.
“Get him out! Get him out!” the ancestors shrieked in unison at her ear. The library was deserted at midday, for most of the usual patrons were out to lunch. While she had a fairly good idea of what Leif was now, she had no idea of Asif. There was also no one for her to call for help, not even soldiers lingering about on her uncle’s orders.
Sakina stood up awkwardly, one hand on the blank pages she had taken out for the record. Her voice broke a little as she replied, “My father wanted to outdo the glory of Timbuktu. I imagine that he has many books on the way here from his travels.”
“I can imagine,” said Asif, walking towards the shelves. “I have acquired many things in my travels as well, though I pack lightly now.”
Sakina offered a small smile and said, “It must make travel easier. By the time he returns, my father should have bankrupted us.”
“And your husband should cover it. A djeli and a trader?” asked Asif.
“He is more a trader and traveller, than djeli,” Sakina replied.
Asif nodded at that and asked, “How long have they been gone?”
“Less than a year,” said Sakina, and felt an ache in her heart. She missed Farouk and her father. At least the students kept her busy.
Asif averted his gaze to the floor, “How terrible for you.”
“I have responsibilities,” said Sakina with a dismissive wave. “Is there…anything that I can help you with?”
Asif’s eyes were dark gold when he lifted them to her. Sakina felt her hair stand on end, suddenly cold. She did not know how fast Asif could move but she had spent much of her childhood outrunning maids, teachers, soldiers, and Farouk. She would get to that door before he got to her, she knew she would. He smiled and said, “I have met djeli before, in the ‘Niani across the Sea’ as you call it. Is it true that your source of knowledge is your ancestors speaking to you?”
Sakina offered him a small smile and said, “You know I cannot tell you that. There are some things that we do not share with others.”
“I am your brother in Islam,” said Asif.
“And this is not a tradition of Islam,” said Sakina.
“Ah yes, I have heard that you are quite the scholar on traditions and native beliefs…especially monsters,” said Asif, lifting his gaze to Sakina’s.
The gold had not faded away, but instead seemed to grow brighter. Sakina dug her heels into the floor and said, “These things are very real to the people who believe in them, that should be respected.”
“The Niani Empire is so tolerant. Jews and Christians live here as comfortably as they once did in Al-Andalus, or so I’m told.”
“I do not know, I am not a Jew or a Christian, and there are few in this town,” said Sakina. “I could tell you some of the native stories sometime.”
Asif gave a little smile and said, “That is actually why I am here. Well, I did want a tour of your library, but your uncle wished to invite you to dinner on al-ahad.”
Just over his shoulder, Sakina noticed Asma hurrying over from the main house. She must have just discovered where the alim had gone. Sakina allowed herself to relax a little. To Asif she replied, “I will be there.”
“There you are, sir. I’m sorry, mistress,” said Asma politely, bustling into the room, breathing heavily.
Sakina smiled at her and said, “It’s all right. The alim is free to visit the library, as are all visitors.”
Asif’s eyes darkened to dull brown in a few blinks, and he smiled at Asma and said, “Do not trouble yourself on my account, I must be on my way anyway. Sakina the djeli, I look forward to seeing you at al-ahad.”
“I shall bring my best stories,” said Sakina, smiling at him.
As soon as he had disappeared across the courtyard again, Asma turned to her and said, “Now you know what I mean when I told you about such men being evil?”
Sakina thought about Leif in his cell. The ancestors were wary of him, even if she was not. She said, “Is that what they’re like?”
“Not exactly,” said Asma. “He is more one of your ghouls than a kanaima. Avoid him while you can.”
If she closed her eyes, Sakina was sure that she would see those glowing eyes. She nodded.
Sakina had never seen her uncle more upset. For several minutes, they simply sat in his office. Sakina had no idea what had happened, so she could not offer comfort. She had been preparing for bed when the summons came. And then Suleiman lifted his head, revealing eyes wet with unshed tears and said, “An entire squad of men, gone. A village burned to ash, though most of the inhabitants escaped. We are under attack.”
“Just the Caribs?” Sakina asked, because she had to.
“No, something else. These wolf men…do they eat human flesh?” her uncle asked, forcing the words through gritted teeth.
“I do not think so, but there are stories of some among them…” she said. “I would need to speak with him further.”
Suleiman nodded and took a few deep breaths before saying, “They have been working their way north through the forest instead of by sea, which makes sense because if they had gone by sea they would have been spotted by now. We will also need reinforcements and whatever our prisoner can tell us about his uncle and his men.”
Sakina realised what he was saying and said, “If what I’ve been reading is correct, we may need his help as well.”
Suleiman closed his eyes and exhaled. Then, “Yes. But we must not alarm our dougou-tigui’s guest, not until the last minute. By now he may have heard of the man we found on the beach.”
Sakina looked out the window of the office at the moon, nearly full in a dark blue sky, took a deep breath and said, “The prisoner has confessed to a plot against the Niani. He must be executed.”
She met her uncle’s gaze and held it for a beat before he asked, “Is this the recommendation of the djeli of Cunapo?”
“The ancestors advise that he is a demon or has consorted with them. That he is descended of a line that has attacked our people in the past. He is also a Christian and will not live in peace among us like others in his community. For the safety of the Niani Empire in the West, this man must die,” said Sakina solemnly.
Her uncle studied her expression for a moment, and then said softly, “Then he will.”
“They executed that man they found on the beach,” said Asma, when Sakina sat down for breakfast.
“Oh no,” said Naima, once again having her share of Sakina’s breakfast. “And I heard that he was quite handsome too. What a waste.”
“He was a pirate,” said Sakina. “The waste is that you are married to a man willing to spoil you and all you can talk about when we are together is your shop and other men.”
“I’ll have the store long after he’s dead,” said Naima with a dismissive shrug. Then, “Oh, what are you going to wear to that dinner party for the alim? Your in-laws will be in attendance and will need proof that you are miserable without your husband.”
“I will not insult my father’s household. I need something that shows me as I am, a young woman in the prime of health,” said Sakina.
Naima laughed and said, “I told you that you need to live a little.”
The howl sounded just as Sakina was finishing her second song. Gasps filled the room. Everything came to a halt. Sakina looked over at Asif, who had gone still.
When Sakina and Suleiman walked back to Leif’s cell to inform him of their decision two days earlier, he read it on their faces first and said, “I would have liked to be the one to kill him.”
Sakina had translated this, and her uncle scoffed and said, “Don’t get ahead of yourself. You just might get the chance. Tell us how we can help you.”
Leif had just stared at them, confused, until Suleiman gave Sakina the keys to unlock the shackles. Leif watched her do it, then looked up at her uncle and said, “If you want to stop this attack, you need more men than you have here.”
“That is already being taken care of,” said Suleiman.
Leif dropped his gaze back to Sakina and said, “You need more men than that. You’re not going into battle against ordinary men, but you know that, don’t you?”
Sakina glanced at her uncle and replied, “Tell him.”
Leif sat up straighter in his seat on the floor and said, “My father’s ancestors followed a one-eyed god who thrived on war and bloodshed. They called him Odin, but he has many names. They prayed to him for success, and carried his symbols into battle on their shields. In turn, he rewarded some of the warriors with the traits of the fiercest animals they knew, the bear, the warthog, and the wolf. My father showed me our family’s shield once. It was an ancient, grey thing, even the bloodstains, but strong. I could still see the wolf eating the moon carved into the boss and the bitemarks my ancestors had left along the edges. I remember asking him why it looked like some of our ancestors were dogs.”
There was a second howl from somewhere outside, closer now, and this time, a tray slipped from a servant’s hands, dropping with a clatter. Asif lifted his head to look at the servant, his eyes glowing. Sakina took a breath, and Hussain said, “Someone get that silly girl out of here, and clean up that mess.”
His voice was shaking.
In that musty, dank cell that night, Leif had smiled softly, gaze distant as he continued, “I thought my father would give me a good one about the back of my head for that, or just laugh, but he replied, ‘This is the most valuable piece of your inheritance. Among our people it identifies you as one of the wolves, not dogs. We are ulfhednar, Odin’s special warriors, who run into battle at his side. One day, like your uncle and I, you’re going to turn with the moon.’.”
Sakina translated this for her uncle and the farin put his hand on the sword at his hip and asked, “What does that mean?”
The pleasant mood of the dinner party had evaporated in an instant. All of Hussain’s guests had heard of the attacks on the other villages in the previous days, and were now exchanging worried, wide-eyed glances and panicked chatter. The ancestors were whispering fervently at Sakina’s ear, “Everyone in this room is a hostage and a target. The most vulnerable must be sheltered.”
“Outside it is easier for him to slip away. The wolf does not know these woods, but he knows how to hide himself in them.”
“Demon! Demon! Demon!”
At the third howl, this time so near that Sakina could tell that the creature that made it was big, she stood and said, “We are under attack.”
“What?” Hussain sputtered, standing as well. “What are you talking about? No. Sit down, woman.”
The cell had been lit only by the lantern Sulieman carried. Leif had reached for the collar of his caftan. Then he glanced at Sakina and said, “I’m sorry. Do you still have my wolf skin?”
Sakina asked her uncle who sent one of the soldiers at the door for it. While they waited, Leif said, “Perhaps you should wait outside while I show your uncle what I mean.”
Sakina scoffed and said, “I am the djeli of Cunapo, whatever you tell him, you can tell me. Your life might just depend on it.”
The guard returned after that, and Sakina handed Leif the pelt herself. He hesitated again with his hands on his collar, but she stared until he pulled the caftan over his head, and replaced it with the pelt. Almost as soon as he pulled the hollowed-out wolf’s head atop his own, his eyes glowed grey-white and he dropped to all fours.
“What is he doing?” her uncle cried, alarmed, backing into the door.
“Wait,” said Sakina.
Leif turned to them when her uncle spoke and walked forward. Suleiman stood his ground, lifting his chin though he was gripping his sword hilt so tightly, his fingers paled. The pelt melted over Leif’s form, spreading thick black fur over his arms and legs. Between one step and the next, the man became a massive black wolf. Suleiman’s mouth fell open, his eyes wide. The ancestors at Sakina’s ear were almost speaking over each other.
“See how his body redistributed his weight to accommodate the difference in size between the man and the animal?”
“Keep calm, it has all the senses of the animal and the intelligence of the man. If it senses that you are afraid it will rip out your throat.”
“There are few things that can harm this creature, but you wear a silver chain. Keep it close.”
Sakina remembered Asma’s stories and asked, “How many of you did your uncle bring?”
The wolf turned its piercing stare to her, but backed away from her uncle and Changed back to a man to reply, “Not very many, though there were not a lot of us to begin with. We can pass this gift to our children, but not all of them, or we can make someone like us with a bite. But outside of the battlefield, it’s not a very useful gift. Our people were traders by nature, and adventurers. They met others who lived differently and moved away from the old gods. The oldest Clans, made of families who passed it through their bloodline, did not and were forced underground or scattered. Others, like the family my father came from, were made up of people who had been bitten and Changed. The Clans hated them, called them Packs and the name stuck. I was born this way, but we are no Clan, no matter what my uncle wants.”
“The alim is like him,” said Sakina to her uncle. “I’m sure of it.”
Asif stood up from his cushions when Sakina spoke, apparently unconcerned by the chaos developing around them, and said, “You sang beautifully of the creature…the kanaima. I’ve always found it fascinating how, no matter where you are in the world, little girls love monsters.”
He met Sakina’s gaze directly and as she looked at him, his eyes grew bigger, his mouth widened, and jaw elongated. Her heart started racing. Hussain, who still had not noticed anything, was ordering the servants around. The guests, not at all reassured, were trying to make their way out, but guards directed them further into the house. Then came the fourth howl and Asif, almost as if he could not help himself, threw his head back and answered.
Someone screamed. Hussain jolted away from Asif, stumbled over his own feet, and fell. Sakina squeezed her hands into fists and said, “What have you done to yourself, Asif al-Idrisi?”
He dropped his gaze to her and said, “I like monsters too. Tell me, djeli, did your ancestors warn you what I was when you met me? I do know some things about your kind, you see. I told you before, I have been to Timbuktu.”
Sakina did not reply, watching for the others now scurrying out the door. Asif followed her gaze and said, “It does not matter whether they leave or not. They will not survive tonight anyway.”
Leif had glanced between Sakina and her uncle before saying, “With enough of your soldiers you could probably take care of the others. I have done nothing for the past few days but sit in this cell eating and resting, but they have been marching and raiding. They will be tired, which is good for you, but the moon and the Change will have a stronger hold on their minds, which is not. Your men must not hesitate to attack, and it is best to cut off their heads because short of that or impaling their hearts, they will heal and come again,” said Leif.
“The attacks have been following a path that leads here and at that rate, we only have a few days until they’re at the door. I will go get the reinforcements myself,” said Suleiman.
“In the meantime, it is best that your alim not suspect trouble,” said Leif.
“Of course not,” said Sakina. “That is why you must die first, tonight.”
Leif reared back, then dropped his gaze. Clearly, he had been hoping to save himself with his story. Sakina said, “It is best that it happens here, quietly, to avoid a spectacle. The body will be buried with the other prisoners behind the barracks, where there also happens to be a large, thick forest that the Caribs insist are full of monsters.”
Leif lifted his gaze back to her, brow furrowed in confusion, even as hope formed a smile on his face.
“A huge black dog should hardly be out of the ordinary for them,” said Sakina.
“We will need a body,” said Suleiman.
“And a stray dog for the pelt,” Sakina added.
Most of the guests were gone now, but Sakina stood tall before Asif, glaring at him. “Those ancestors did warn me, and I’ve been reading since you arrived. The Christians you betrayed us to have written many books. What could you possibly gain by aligning yourself with these people?” asked Sakina.
“So now I am your brother in Islam,” Asif snorted. Then, “Their victory is inevitable. I have seen their armies, I have met their leaders. While ours squabble and waste, they have been building their strength.”
“On the backs of our people, whether in Al-Andalus or fields to the north and south. But we have met every one of their attempts and we’re still here. The only thing that seems inevitable is their failure,” said Sakina.
“Our people?” asked Asif, with a laugh. “Granada and Baghdad are no different. Your mansa may have outlawed slavery in these lands, a political ploy to weaken our enemies, but our cousins have always enriched themselves on the trade. My dear girl, you know the words, but you do not know the song. Even in your supposed paradise, I have seen that your natives and foreigners alike must pay jizya to the Mansa. I have seen plenty when I am not in your in-law’s sight. Did you really execute that prisoner?”
“I gave my opinion to the farin, and he did what he thought was best,” said Sakina.
Asif nodded and said, “I liked Leif. His uncle is an animal though—you heard those howls. A shame the boy was the one that died.”
Suddenly, the front gate of the compound burst open and soldiers rushed in. Beyond, they heard a battle: the clash of steel and the thunk as it cut into flesh, the aborted cries of men and animals, and more howling. Her uncle had not been able to stop the attack from getting into the town then. Sakina tried not to move, but Asif advanced on her and then he had her by the throat. She grasped his hands to stop him from choking her, but he laughed and said, “Did he tell you a few secrets before he…died? That was not very kind of him. Where is he?”
Something slammed into them, sending Sakina sprawling. She screamed, startled, but then a soldier was pulling her to her feet. When she looked back at the courtyard, a great black wolf was snarling at a tall, thin man with deformed legs and black-clawed fingers. It stood almost as tall as the man, its eyes a ring of greyish-white light round fathomless black, and its blood-stained jaw the length of Sakina’s forearm. There was blood on the wolf’s paws too, leaving prints all over the patterned tile. Asif noticed it and said, “Did you kill your uncle? Of course, you did. And you told the djeli and her people of my plan too. You are all fools together.”
He lunged at the wolf. It leaped out of the way then launched itself at his back, snapping at his throat. The soldiers kept their weapons up, and pushed Sakina backwards. Asif shook the wolf off, slashing at its sides. The wolf snapped at his fingers, then pounced at his throat again, sinking its dagger-like teeth into Asif’s shoulder as it forced him to the ground. Asif yelled, then laughed and shoved the wolf away. The wound on his shoulder was black, the blood oozing. More than one of the soldiers around her was shaking so loud, their weapons rattled.
“It fears fire,” whispered an ancestor.
Sakina looked around for a lamp, and spotted a large, colourful one that Hussain had boasted of importing from Morocco. She pushed her way through the soldiers at once.
“I am so much more than anything you have ever faced. Do you know the monsters that live in the shadows of this world?” asked Asif. “Did you think that you all were the only ones? You should ask the djeli about them if you manage to kill me.”
The wolf was circling him, and Asif turning with it. Sakina grabbed the lamp and nearly fell over at the weight. Thankfully the soldier next to her noticed, and helped her lift it. Then he realised what he was doing and said, “I cannot let you do this.”
“You better help me do it,” Sakina snapped. She pushed forward, and he went with her.
The wolf had just aborted another lunge for Asif. His back was to them. Sakina and the soldier swung their hands back and forth for a count of three, then threw the lamp forward on the fourth. It shattered just inches from Asif’s feet, and he leaped away with a yell, but not before the flames rushed up his oil-spattered leg. The soldier grabbed Sakina by the arm and dragged her away from the flames.
The wolf took advantage of Asif’s distraction too. It pounced, and grasping him by the face and neck, slammed him to the ground. Asif screamed and scratched at the wolf’s jaw, but it tightened its grip and shook him until they heard a sharp crack and the alim went limp. The solider tried to turn Sakina’s face away from the carnage, but she pushed him off. The wolf ripped the scholar’s head clear off, tossed it into the flame, then lifted his head and howled at the moon.
Sakina woke late the next morning, the ancestors silent for once. Naima was waiting for her.
“I heard that the scholar was killed last night in the attack. This is going to create all sorts of trouble, and business from the curious coming into town,” she said.
“Good to see that your priorities are in order,” said Sakina, sipping her coffee.
“Yes, yes, it was tragic, but none of our people died, and your uncle is going to get a promotion. I have even heard that the mansa might want to meet the djeli who helped him figure it out,” said Naima, smiling at her. “It’s a shame that we could not have spared the man who brought the news to us.”
“He was part of it, remember?” said Sakina, shaking her head at her friend.
Naima was unapologetic, “All the same, I could have done with a hand in the store.”
Sakina scoffed and said, “Tell you what, if I find another man washed up on the beach, I will tell you first, so you can make your appeals to my uncle.”
Later that day, when Sakina went to visit her uncle at the barracks, she found a large, black dog resting comfortably near his feet.
“This will not do,” Sakina scolded as she entered the room and took a seat. “You’re scaring your soldiers.”
“They will have to get used to it. This may not be the last time we are attacked like this and my new friend here has knowledge that we can use,” he replied without looking up from his papers.
“What are you telling your superiors?” she asked.
“The truth: we were set upon by mercenaries, and saved by the quick thinking of the djeli of the Great Library of Al-Tanan. It would be just our luck that you get your own epic out of this,” Suleiman said, grimacing lightly before returning to his papers.
“It already sounds like a classic,” said Sakina, smiling at him. “Father and Farouk are going to be jealous.”
“They’re going to scold me for allowing you to get yourself in trouble,” said Suleiman.
“They’ll be too busy getting to know your new pet,” said Sakina, looking down at the wolf.
It growled at her and she said, “Watch who you’re growling at. You need us as much as we need you.” Leif went silent. Sakina continued, “Besides, I’ve been thinking of how we can make you less conspicuous and my friend gave me an idea at breakfast. If your mother can make her way to the port, we can arrange to have a ship bring her here. It’s much easier than getting you out and we have new settlers arriving with almost every ship. How does that sound?”
Leif met her gaze for a few beats and then shifted closer to rest his head near her feet. Suleiman watched him go, and said to Sakina, “You’re a djeli, not the dyamani-tigui. You cannot just decide such a thing.”
Sakina looked back up at the farin and said, “He saved us. The very least we can do is reward him by saving his mother. It did not sound as if her position was secure there and the mansa already declared that any who could make it to our shores are free. Besides, if his mother is safe here, what reason would he have to leave? I can hardly imagine that you or your men could stop him in that state.”
They both looked again at the wolf. Leif kept his head down. Suleiman exhaled heavily and asked, “Is this the decision of the djeli of Cunapo?”
Sakina smiled at him and replied, “Don’t worry uncle, I’m sure there shall be songs about you too.”
About the Author
Shari Paul is a speculative fiction writer from Trinidad and Tobago. A clerk by day, Shari writes adventures in strange new worlds by night. Shari is published in FIYAH and The Dark, and is soon to have her first translated work in a forthcoming issue of Italian speculative magazine Il Buio. Shari has a BA in Literatures in English, and is currently writing for a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of the West Indies.
About the Narrator
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband and three children. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times she juggles, none too successfully, writing, reading, gaming, and gardening. She has written one novel entitled An Unproductive Woman available on Amazon. She has also been published in or has stories upcoming in Escape Pod, Diabolical Plots, and FIYAH. Khaalidah also co-edits podcastle.org where she is on a mission to encourage more women to submit fantasy stories. Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to long youth. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com and on Twitter at @khaalidah.