Bakr opened his eyes to total blackness, not the darkness of a starless night but that of a pitch-black hole, with no chink of light to alleviate it. Where the hell was he? His head was pounding and when he tried to sit up he realised that he was bound hand and foot, face down in the slimy hold of a ship. Gradually, as his senses returned to him, he became aware of the gentle roll of the sea; they were anchored in sheltered water.
A low groan came from somewhere on his right. He wasn’t alone.
‘Who’s there?’ he whispered.
‘Bakr? Is that you. Thanks be to Allah. I thought you were dead and I was alone in this infernal place.’‘Asim? What happened? Where are we?’ Asim was the yard’s foreman.
‘Don’t you remember anything? The pirate ship? Nothing?’
‘No, my mind is a blank and my head is pounding as if all the devils in hell were hammering in it.’
‘Not surprised. Gave you a pretty heavy blow, they did. Wonder they didn’t kill you. I thought they had by the way you went down. Like a poleaxed bull.’
‘So it was pirates?’
‘Looked like that to me. To be honest it was all over so fast I didn’t take much in. Too busy fighting them off. Then the next thing I knew there was a sack over my head and some big bugger had me over his shoulder.’
Despite the situation Bakr had to smile; Asim was as round as he was tall. It would have had to have been a strong man to lift him.
‘How many did they take?’ he asked.
‘As far as I know, just you, me and Kamil; he’s in here somewhere. Probably still unconscious. Or dead.’
Bakr needed a moment to process all this news. Pirate raids were nothing new along the coast; in fact they were a regular and costly occurrence. Thieves and cutthroats by another name, that’s all they were. No-one was safe from them and the khalifa’s navy were useless at controlling them.
But why them? Pirates usually attacked merchant ships, or kidnapped women and children to sell as slaves in North Africa. Sometimes the less successful ones raided the coastal villages for food and anything else worth taking, but to attack a shipbuilding yard; this seemed odd. And during the day, too. At night the yard was securely locked and Bakr paid a couple of ex-soldiers to patrol the area in case anyone tried to break in. He had never expected an attack first thing in the morning.
He pulled at his bonds but only succeeded in making them bite deeper into his flesh. A stream of oaths flew off his lips as he struggled to get free.
‘There’s no point trying to get loose, sayyad. I’ve been trying for the last hour and almost cut my hands off in the attempt. It’s impossible.’
‘So you’ve been awake the whole time?’ asked Bakr.
‘Yes, more’s the pity. I’ve envied you and Kamil, lying there snoring away in peaceful oblivion.’
‘Well man, what have you learnt about where we are?’
‘I have a good idea. If you remember the wind was coming from the west this morning. When they set sail they had the wind behind them, so I reckon they’re heading east.’
‘And then where?’
‘Well, they will want to keep close to the shore so they will either turn south and head for North Africa or go north.’
‘The Balearic Islands?’
‘That would be my guess. If they were headed for North Africa they would have sailed south when they left Malaqah.’
‘But where are we now? How long have we been sailing?’ asked Bakr.
‘Well, it’s hard to tell when you’re shut in this filthy hold, with no glimpse of the sky, but the fact that my stomach is empty and my body thinks it’s time to go to sleep, I’d guess that we’ve been sailing all day and it’s now night-time.’
‘And how far is it to the Balearic Islands, with a fair wind behind us?’ Bakr paused, calculating the maximum speed of a boat such as this. He had a fair idea of what kind of vessel it was and its top speed would be five or six Arab miles an hour; he hadn’t spent all his life building ships not to be able to identify those favoured by the pirates. For them speed and manoeuvrability were important for survival. Without a doubt this would have a shallow draught so it could make its way inland, rowing up river to attack local villages. It would need to be fast and light, with one or maybe two sails and a couple of defensive towers on the deck. There would be little accommodation for the pirates, all the space was required for the oars. In fact they were probably being held in the only storage space available on board ship.
‘Four hundred Arab miles? Maybe a bit more. Can’t tell how long it will take to get there. Depends if we’re making any more stops. This is the first one so far and I guess we’re here for the night.’
‘So according to you we were captured early morning?’ Bakr tried to remember what he’d been doing when they struck. The last image he could bring to mind was that of his wife as he kissed her goodbye after breakfast. It was all a blank after that.
‘Yes. You were checking the hull of the new ship we’re building for the khalifa. Kamil and I were finishing the caulking. We wanted to get it done early so it had plenty of time to dry.’
‘And that’s when they attacked?’
‘Yes. There was a thick mist rolling in from the sea; that’s why we never saw them. The next thing I knew you were lying on your back and Kamil was screeching like a wounded parrot.’
‘So that must have been about six o’clock. And your stomach estimates that it’s twelve hours or more since it’s had any food?’
‘And how long have we been anchored here?’
‘Maybe an hour. It’s hard to say. Time has little meaning when you’re in the dark like this.’
‘Very well. So we’ve travelled about sixty nautical miles?’
‘And all the time with the wind in our favour.’
‘So maybe a bit further, but still heading for the Balearic Islands.’
The sound of sniffling and grunting came from the darkness; Kamil was waking up. ‘Is that you, Asim? Are you all right?’ he asked, his voice shaking a little.
‘He’s fine, but like the rest of us he’s tied hand and foot,’ said Bakr. ‘What about you, lad? Can you loosen your ropes at all?’
‘Sayyad. You’re not dead.’ It sounded as though the young apprentice was going to break into sobs of relief.
‘I certainly hope not. I’m planning on going to paradise when I die, not a smelly hell hole like this.’
‘Someone’s coming,’ said Asim.
They heard the creak of bolts as the heavy door was lifted. Bakr blinked, momentarily blinded as someone thrust a lighted torch in and peered down at them.
‘So you’re awake,’ the pirate said and slid down a short ladder into the hold. He stuck the torch into a rickety holder on the side of the ship and looked at them. ‘Which of you is the boss?’ he barked. He was an enormous man, wearing only loose pantaloons fastened with a scarlet sash and an embroidered waistcoat which revealed a body built for strength. His muscular arms gleamed in the torchlight; this must have been the man who carried Asim onto the ship.
‘That’s me,’ said Bakr, wondering what was coming next.
The pirate pulled a curved blade out of his belt and leant over him. Bakr could feel his stomach churning. Was this it? Was he going to die lying there with his face in bilge water? Was this to be his ignominious end? Never to see his beautiful Aisha again? He felt the man grab his hands and pull them backwards. Next thing he knew he’d been cut loose. He rolled over and pulled himself into a sitting position, unable to believe that he was still alive. The pirate was doing the same to the other two. Asim sat staring at him and rubbing his wrists. None of them spoke.
‘Eat,’ said the pirate and threw them a loaf of flat bread and some dried fish. Then he passed a flagon of water to Bakr and said, ‘Drink.’
The water was slightly salty but it tasted as good as any he’d ever drunk before. He passed it to Asim. ‘What’s wrong?’ he whispered, concerned because his foreman continued to stare at him.
‘It’s your face,’ he said. ‘It’s covered in blood.’
Bakr put his hand to his face and felt the dried blood. Then he touched his head; the sharp pain made him cry out. There was a wound as long as a hand’s span stretching from his forehead and back through his hair. Blood continued to seep out of it and stain his turban.
The pirate took no more notice of them; he picked up the torch and within seconds they were once again in the dark.‘What are we going to do?’ asked Kamil.
‘Not much we can do, lad. Not at the moment,’ said Asim
‘The question is, why did they take us? What do they want us for? They might get something for you two in a slave market, but me? I’m too old to fetch a good price. So why us?’ said Bakr.
‘Can’t we try to escape?’ asked Kamil, his voice decidedly shaky.
‘Where would we go, that’s if we could get out of this locked hold and past thirty armed pirates? No, lad, there’s no chance of escape until we reach our destination,’ said Asim.
‘If we’re right and we’re heading for the Balearic Islands, it’s going to take the best part of a week to get there. Maybe longer if we stop every night,’ said Bakr. The thought of a week sitting in the cold and the dark was not good. The next time the pirate came down with their food he’d demand to see the captain. There was a reason that they were here and still alive. Pirates were infamous for taking no prisoners for the very simple reason that space on board was limited. So why were they using up valuable storage space with three men of no obvious value to them?