FAR and wide the impatient soldiers asked, "Why is the army inactive?"
"Is not the motto of Kahled 'Waiting does not win?'"
"Has he not taught us that action is the soul and secret of success?"
"Does he not realize that the hosts of Heraclius are bearing down upon us, that he leaves us sitting idly in our tents?"
"Is Kahled the Invincible afraid?"
Such were the questions which they put to their officers, but no one dared carry them to the general, who sat in his tent without speaking, from sunrise to sunset, the first day after the girdle disappeared.
"Is it the loss of his girdle?"
"Did he not conquer Babylonia without it?"
"Does he not fight in the name of Allah and the Prophet? Could a bright-colored girdle give him strength?"
Thus the second day went by.
Kahled the Invincible was silent and sullen, and the impression grew and grew that in some way the safety and success of the whole army depended upon the recovery of that girdle.
So intense was this sentiment, that when at midnight, after the third day, it was reported that a fragment of the girdle had been captured by some scouts, and was then being taken to the general's tent, the whole army roused itself and prepared for action.
Not an order had been issued, yet every soldier felt instinctively that the coming morning would find him on the march.
It was midnight. For a day Kahled had not even tasted food. He sat alone in his tent upon a Persian ottoman. A bronze vessel from Babylonia, filled with oil, stood near the center of the tent. Fragments of burning wick, floating in the oil, filled the tent with a mellow, amber light.
There was excitement without, but Kahled did not heed it till a soldier unceremoniously entered, bearing in his hand a part of the curtain from the palace of Babylon.
With a sudden ejaculation Kahled caught it from the soldier's hand, but ashamed of having betrayed an emotion, he threw it carelessly upon the rug at his feet, handing the soldier a bag of gold, and bidding him see how many pieces, lying flat, could touch it.
The soldier worked slowly, carefully planning the position as he laid the pieces down, and Kahled watched him as indifferently as though he were only moving men upon the Arab's favorite checker-board.
When every piece that could was touching the camel skin, the soldier returned the bag, half-emptied, and began to gather up his share.
Kahled deliberately emptied the bag, bidding him take the whole and go.
He was leaving the tent when the general called him back. He had picked up the skin, and was carelessly turning it over in his hand. It was neatly cut from the girdle, in the shape of a shield, a little over a foot in width.
"How did you come by it?" Kahled asked indifferently.
"We were searching the plain, a day's journey to the north," the soldier answered. "We were looking for travelers who might bring tidings of the enemy. We saw four strangers, Syrians, riding slowly, and a shepherd who seemed to be their guide. Upon his horse's front, hung like a breastplate, where every eye could see, was yonder piece of the sacred girdle. We dashed upon them, and the cowards ran. The shepherd was the last to turn. I was ahead, but not near enough to reach him, so I threw my lance. He fell from his horse and—"
"You killed him?" shrieked the general, springing to his feet and dropping the camel skin.
"No! No!" gasped the frightened soldier. "I only tried to. He wore a coat of sheep-skin. It was too thick for my lance. He sprang to his feet, tore the lance from his coat, and ran after the rest, faster even than they could ride, leaving his horse behind."
"'Tis well," muttered the general, and he devoutly added, "Allah be praised for that sheepskin coat!"
The soldier left the tent, and going nearer to the light, Kahled examined the fragment of the sacred girdle. It was double. Two pieces had been cut and the edges joined together.
He carefully separated them, and upon the inner side found what he evidently expected.
These words had been scratched upon the leather, and traced with blood: "Sixty thousand, from Antioch and Aleppo, under Jababal the traitor, encamp two days from Yermonk, north, waiting for Manuel with eighty thousand Greeks and Syrians, now six days away. Still another army is yet behind. Thy servant goes in search of Manuel when this is sent."
"Allah be praised for that sheepskin coat!" Kahled repeated, placing the fragment in his belt, and walking slowly up and down the tent.
"Jababal is two days to the north," he added presently. "A day ago Manuel was six days behind him. He will be still three days behind when I reach Jababal, and while he is yet two days away, the sixty thousand in advance will be destroyed."
An order was given for ten thousand horsemen and fifteen thousand camel riders to start for the north at once. The soldiers expected it, and were ready even before the general.
Four days and a night went by, and they were again encamped at Yermonk; but Jababal's army of sixty thousand men, was a thing of the past.
Again a strip of the girdle was discovered. This time it hung upon the neck of a camel leading into the camp a long caravan laden with grain and fruit.
The camel-driver reported that one had met them while they were upon the way to supply the army of Manuel. He had warned them that Manuel would simply confiscate the whole and make them prisoners, and had promised that if they turned southward instead, to the camp of Kahled, with the talisman which he hung about the camel's neck, they should be well received and fairly treated.
From this talisman Kahled learned that the army of Manuel was almost destitute of provisions, and that a detachment with supplies was another five or six days behind.
The general smiled as he thought how the Bedouin boy had shrewdly deprived the hungry enemy of a hundred and fifty camel-loads of food, while he secured for himself an excellent messenger to his friends.
During the night Manuel's magnificent army arrived, and encamped just north of the Mohammedans. Manuel chose for his citadel a high cliff that rose abruptly out of the plain between the two armies, and ended in a precipitous ledge toward Arabia.
Standing upon the brow of this cliff, a little distance from the tent of Manuel, one could look far down the valley, over the entire Mohammedan encampment.
When morning dawned, the prince sent for the leading Mohammedan generals to confer with him concerning terms of peace. He offered to allow the entire army to retire unmolested, if hostages were given that the Arabs should never again enter Syria.
The Mohammedan generals, who had been thoroughly dismayed at the sight of the Grecian phalanx, thanked Allah for such a merciful deliverance, and instantly voted to accept. The real authority, however, rested with Kahled, who replied, "Remember Jababal!"
With so many in favor of peace, Manuel hoped for an acceptance of his terms, and proposed that they consider the matter for a day.
Kahled, with his hand upon the camel-skin in his belt, replied again: "Remember Jababal!"
He realized that his only hope of victory lay in striking a tired and hungry enemy, and that each hour's delay was dangerous. Less than half an hour later he was riding along the line of battle shouting the battle cry:
"Paradise is before you! Fight for it!"
The soldiers were ready, and there began the most desperate struggle that was ever waged upon the plains of Syria.
All day long the furious conflict raged. Three times the Bedouins were driven back. Three times the cries and entreaties of their women and children in the rear urged them to renew the fight, and again they plunged furiously upon the solid Grecian phalanx.
Night came, and neither army had gained or lost, but among the Bedouin captives taken by the Greeks were several who recognized Kanana. They saw him moving freely about the enemy's camp. They learned that he was supposed to be a servant who had fled, with other camp-followers, at the time of the slaughter of Jababal's army. They could see in it nothing but cowardly desertion. They said:
"He was afraid that we should be conquered, and instead of standing by us to fight for Arabia, he ran to the enemy to hide himself:" and in their anger they betrayed him. They reported to the Greeks that he was a Bedouin, of the army of Kahled, not a Syrian servant of Jababal.
Kanana was quickly seized, bound and dragged into the presence of the prince. Manuel had suspected that some one had betrayed both Jababel and himself to Kahled, and chagrined at the result of the first day's battle, he fiercely accused Kanana.
Calmly the Bedouin boy admitted that it was he who had given the information, and he waited without flinching as Manuel drew his sword.
"Boy, dost thou not fear to die?" he exclaimed, as he brandished his sword before Kanana.
"I fear nothing!" replied Kanana proudly.
"Take him, away and guard him carefully," muttered the prince. "Dying is too easy for such as he. He must be tortured first."
The second day and the third were like the first. The army of the Prophet fought with a desperation that never has been equaled. The Ishmaelite counted his life as nothing so that he saw a Greek fall with him. It was the fate of Allah and Arabia for which they fought, and they stood as though rooted to the ground, knowing of no retreat but death.
Again and again their general's voice rang loud above the clashing arms:
"Paradise is before you if you fight! Hell waits for him who runs!" And they fought and fought and fought, and not a man dared turn his back.
Again and again the Grecian phalanx advanced, but they found a wall before them as solid as the cliff behind them.
When a Bedouin lay dead he ceased to fight, but not before; and the moment he fell, another sprang forward from behind to take his place.