Chapter XV

I spent that night in the house of Abd al-Wahid, sleeping in the same room with all the men of his household, and though they all belonged to the Bani Jibrin, not one offered me any insult or offence. I truly believe that this night was the beginning of a better relationship between the Bani Jibrin and the Bani Ibrim, for from that day on there were many comings and goings between us, friendships formed and even - though this was years in the future - marriages arranged.

In the morning I left early, carrying on the saddle in front of me a large packet of dates, plump and juicy, the gift from Abd al-Wahid to es-Sid Guy. I also carried many greetings and good wishes together with a secret commission to count the number of Franks in al-Quds, if that was possible, and to send word to Jericho that the Sultan might hear.

Once again I spent the heat of the day in my father's tents, but I left in plenty of time for the journey, remembering what Guy had told me about sparing my horse. The sun was still high when I set out but the shadows were already long when I came into the village of Bethany and rode past the tomb of the Nasrani holy man, Lazarus. Just as I passed the narrow lane a small white horse paced out into the road, the reins held firmly by a well-clad servant. On the back of the horse was a woman in Frankish clothes. She was veiled and I stared in surprise, wondering if in truth she was a Frank or one of our people.

"What are you staring at, son of an ape?"

My jaw dropped, for the voice was that of es-Sitt Ermintrude, the daughter of Guy.

"Ya Sitt," I exclaimed after a moment of astonishment, "I did not know that it was you."

"Indeed," she sounded prim. "And is it your custom to stare at every woman you see?"

I was abashed. "No, Sitt," I protested. "I have not seen a Frankish woman veiled before and I looked to see if you were indeed a Frank."

"Well," she said, "Seeing as you are here, you may as well accompany me. This fellow is on foot and will only slow us down."

"But lady! You would not let me take my horse," the servant protested, but Sitt Ermintrude hushed him with a gesture.

"Enough. Make your own way back to the house. Here, take this for your trouble."

She bent down and dropped a coin into his hand. I could not see how much she gave, but it was enough to to stop his grumbling and set him trotting after us with a smile on his face.

For myself, I did not know what to think, for the women of our tents do not normally ride on horseback and certainly not in company with strange men. I rode ahead at first, but Sitt Ermintrude quickly guided her horse up beside me and began to talk to me, laughing and joking as freely as if she were a man. I felt my face burning every time we passed someone on the road and I feared for what Sid Guy would say to me. In fact, I even began to feel angry with Sitt Ermintrude for bringing such shame on me, but I dared not say anything to her lest I provoke her to anger and make things worse.

We rode in through the city gate just before sunset and Sitt Ermintrude joked with the guards as shamelessly as she did with me. As we rode down the street away from the gate she was still laughing.

"They said that I had found a new groom," she told me, "but I said to them that you were my squire and would fight them if they offended me."

I turned my head and glared at her, so angry that I dared not speak in case my voice betrayed me. Such jesting, which could only blacken the faces of Sitt Ermintrude and her father, would surely bring retribution down on my head. Fortunately the street was so narrow that she had to ride behind me, so she could not see the anger in my face. To make matters worse, I took a wrong turning and Sitt Ermintrude had to call out and correct me. There was no room to turn the horses, so we rode out of the way a little and at the crossroads she got ahead of me and I had to follow her back to the house like a child following its mother.

We rode into the courtyard and I swung down from my horse, then grasped its reins to lead it into the stable.

"What about me?" Sitt Ermintrude called.

"Sitt?" I stopped and looked up at her.

"Aren't you going to help me down?"

I wasn't sure what she wanted but I let go my horse and went back to her.

"Hold out your arms," Sitt Ermintrude ordered.

Obediently I did so and she slid down off her horse - she rode sitting sideways in the manner of Frankish women - and fell into my arms. She was very light and smelled cool and fresh, but I let go of her as if she burned me, with the result that she staggered and nearly fell. She recovered herself, however, and leaned forward to kiss my cheek lightly.

"Thank you, Fuad. You make a good squire."

Just then I heard footsteps and I leaped backwards away from her, only to bump against some man behind me. I looked back and up into the face of Sid Guy, Ermintrude's father.

"Careful, Fuad. Did you have a good trip?"

Horror held me dumb as I wondered whether he had seen me holding his daughter or seen her kiss me. I expected nothing better than instant dismissal but thought that anger, imprisonment or even death was more likely.

"Fuad accompanied me from Bethany," Sitt Ermintrude said. "My groom was on foot and if I had waited for him we would have been benighted."

"My thanks to you, Fuad," Guy smiled at me. "That was a fortunate meeting. I value Ermintrude, so thanks for looking after her."

"Father, I want to visit Bethlehem tomorrow or the next day. I have a vow to pay. May I have Fuad to escort me?"

Guy looked from his daughter to me and back again. "We'll see," he said. "Let's hear his report of how he fared in Jericho first. See to the horses, Fuad, and then come and tell me about your journey."

I took the two horses into the stable and cared for them with the help of one of the grooms. I still could not understand these Franks; instead of being angry with me for indecency with his daughter, Guy had thanked me! And why did es-Sitt want me to accompany her to Bethlehem? I did not know the way, I would not be much good in a fight, I did not speak her language. It was all very puzzling.

Up in Guy's room the puzzle continued. After I gave him the parcel of dates and the greetings from Abd al-Wahid, Guy offered me wine but did not press me to drink, then sat with a glass of the forbidden liquor in his hand while I told him all about my journey. By now I was so confused that I did not know what would be pleasing to him and what might be displeasing, so I invoked the Name of Allah and told him everything.

He listened in silence as I told how I stayed with my family, then how I travelled down to Jericho and found the house of the merchant Abd al-wahid. I described the man's hospitality and how I had stayed the night with him, then travelled back to al-Quds after visiting with my family again. I thought that there was no need to mention es-Sitt, but then thought again that he already knew and perhaps I should speak of it.

"Then, ya Guy, as I came through Bethany, past the tomb of the holy man you showed me, es-Sitt came out of the lane and called to me. She dismissed her servant and ordered me to accompany her. There were many travellers on the road," I added, exaggerating the truth a little, "so we were never alone together. The guards at the gate spoke with her, but I do not know what they said."

Guy looked up at me sharply. "Indeed?" Then he grinned. "Fuad, the customs of the Franks are different from those of the Arabs. With us it is no great matter for a man and a woman to be alone together on the open road. The only shame is in bad behaviour - and believe me, if you had behaved badly towards my daughter, I would know about it."

"How, Sid?"

He threw back his head and laughed. "Because we should have had to carry you home, for a start. My daughter has a strong right hand and knows how to use it. Enough. Tell me about these men whom you met in the house of Abd al-Wahid."

For quite some time I spoke about the men; I described their appearances and their clothing, I guessed at their positions and their work, I repeated all that I could remember of the conversation. When I had finished Guy drained his glass and put it down on the table.

"So, you told them about everything you had seen in al-Quds?"

"Yes, Sid. You told me that I could speak about anything except what I saw in this house. I have kept my word."

"And done very well. I am very pleased with you, Fuad. Very pleased indeed."

I offered to return the rest of the money he had given me, but he refused to receive it.

"Keep it. Every young man needs some spending money. Buy something in Bethlehem for your family."