As the crowd were moving away, a woman rushed to Muhammad and said:
“Muhammad, we are hungry! The children are hungry. We women can wait, but the children can’t!”
Muhammad turned to Ismaïl and said:
“Ismaïl, please go to those men and see what they can do about this!”
Not only Ismaïl, but all the other four students and Sêed hurried after the crowd. Muhammad glanced at Itto. She had sat with the women. He shuffled up to her. She met his eye as he said in a quivering voice:
“Itto, I expect you to look after the women and their children!”
“Alright!” Itto smiled. “Bring my mother over and I’ll wait on them hand and foot!”
Her words drew a laugh from the women around her. Muhammad looked at her tenderly, then glanced at the other women and moved away.
As he stood on the reed edge and ran his eye over the south bank, his heart throbbed again. He saw more people coming from other places than Azlu, and wondered what to do with them. His gaze shifted to the boats coming in his direction: they were carrying more women and children.
By sunset the next day all Azlu women and children were on the north side of the wadi, while women and children from the neighbouring villages were still being evacuated.
Three days later, all that could be moved from Azlu was on the north bank. The women, the children and the elderly were taken to a safe place far from the bank. The village men and boys and the students helped the people from other villages.
Then, Muhammad ordered all boats but one pulled out.
And then he signed to Hassan to set fire to the reed on the south bank. The fire was raging through the reed when Muhammad yelled out:
“Hey! Hassan! They’re coming! Aït Mimoon are coming! Get out of there! Make haste!”
Hassan picked his way through the flaming reed and limped over to the only remaining boat and jumped into it and rowed towards Muhammad, who was cheering him on and on till he set foot on the solid rock, and then both slipped along the empty path.
“What are we going to do with the other people who’re still there?” said Hassan, panting.
“Nothing. God help them!”
Ismaïl saw Muhammad and Hassan and rushed to them. He looked at Hassan’s face, blackened with smoke, and at his jellaba, which was in holes. Muhammad smiled, then said rather gravely:
“Look here, brothers! I wish we could help everybody. But given where we are now we must act sensibly. We must burn up all the reed on the other bank. We must pull out all floating boats and take them to pieces immediately. I expect you to persuade the people out there. Tell them that we won’t let their loved ones down. We’ll fight for them!”
As Ismaïl and Hassan moved off each in a different direction, Muhammad ran towards the people who had come to protest about what was happening to their lands.
“See now?” he said as they crowded round him. “Those are Aït Mimoon settling in our village! If we don’t drive them away, they’ll wait until the wadi has subsided or dried up and then they’ll thrust forward and invade you as well! Now we’re all in the same boat! You have to join us in fighting them. Tell all the people around to prepare for war. If you don’t want to fight, then just help us and we’ll fight in your place! Just provide us with weapons and horses and feed our women and children!”
At that moment, Azlu men too rushed to him and one of them jostled through the crowd and said:
“Are we safe now?”
"That's what I've been explaining to these men!" said Muhammad, looking right and left. "We are not safe yet. We have to fight. Otherwise, Aït Mimoon won't go. And even if they did go this time around, they could all too well come again and wretch us from our lands. So we have to fight them. We have to teach them a lesson! So now move your women and children out of here. Then try to mobilize all the hamlets and villages you can speak to. We are all in the same boat. Aït Mimoon are a threat to us all! So we must all unite and drive them away!"
"But how can we–" began one man's voice.
Muhammad did not wait to answer him. He elbowed through the crowd and ran towards the women. He stood close to Itto and said:
"Aït Mimoon have come. We won't let them cross over to us. So keep calm and don't be afraid!"
He glanced at Itto, who was sitting between her mother and his own mother, and ran back towards the reed-edge. Then he pulled himself up short. Through the smoky flames he could see Azlu being infested with Aït Mimoon troops. It looked as if an army of famished locusts had suddenly landed on Azlu. "Poor Azlu!" Muhammad sighed.
As evening fell, Muhammad stood in the middle of a sea of worried faces, about a mile from the north bank of Igri.
"Now, look!" he said. "You are all men. The women, the children and the elderly are safe from danger. They are safe as long as we are safe ourselves. And we are safe only as long as Aït Mimoon can't cross over to us. We burnt up the reed on their side so that they can't make boats to cross over to us before we get ready for them. We kept most of the reed on our side so that our sentries can hide and watch the enemy. And also so that we can prepare a surprise for them. Here, on this very spot, we'll dig a ditch. We'll dig it by night so that we can drill and rest by day.
"Aït Mimoon must know nothing about this ditch. So we'll put up a reed screen all along this hedgerow, by which we'll be digging the ditch, which is not going to be very long, anyway. The reed screen will hide the men while working on the ditch. As I said, the ditch will be here in the middle, so that we could move freely around it. Ismaïl knows all the details and he'll supervise everything.
"I see you are a large crowd. That's a good thing. But Aït Mimoon have come in their thousands! We need more men; we need more horses; we need more swords and shields and spears; we need more money.
"But above all, we need God's help. So please pray to God night and day! Trust God and He will lead you unto victory!"
Shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" were followed by chants of "Khalaqany, razaqany…"
A week later, volunteers from all over the north bank and beyond began pouring in. Each day Muhammad saw more faces and more horses and more swords. Each day he saw the ditch going deeper and longer. Each day he heard more of "Khalaqany, razaqany…"
But his heart was there, behind his fustat– there, where Itto stayed with the women.
His fustat, a large orange tent, had been pitched halfway between the ditch and the women's camp. But now that he had got a horse –just like the six students he had made his lieutenants– he could go near the women's camp as often as he wished.
And so one day he rode over to the women's camp and called Itto out. Itto came up to him with a smile, and said:
"What's the matter, Muhammad?"
"Itto, I think the war is about to break out. You know, the wadi has subsided , and so, anytime now, Aït Mimoon can move their horses over. I am going to lead our troops. I may die in battle. So I just came to bid you farewell in case we don't meet again. Now you can go back to your place!"
Itto uncovered her face. She opened her lips as if to say something, but then closed her eyes and buried her face in her hands. At that moment tears started to Muhammad's eyes, and so he turned round and rode back to his fustat.
His six lieutenants joined him shortly afterwards. They sat in a half circle in front of him and looked on as he spread out a map.
"Now, listen, please!" he said. "Look here! These two companies will stand one behind the other here, to the right. The one in front will be led by Hassan, the other by Mussa. And these two companies will stand to the left. The one in front will be led by H'mad, the other by M'hamed. And this company will stand here between the fustat and the ditch, and it will be led by Ismaïl. And this last one, the biggest, will stand behind us: between the fustat and the women's camp, and it will be led by Âbbad.
"Now, this is what we're going to do–”
At that point Sêed erupted into the fustat, and said:
"Sir, Itto is out! She demands to see you."
Muhammad sprang up and dashed out.
"What's the matter?" he said, hurrying forward.
"The women –all the women– have pleaded with me to come to you. They say please don't fight! We can't afford to lose you." She glanced at the lieutenants, who had rushed out and lined up behind Muhammad, then went on, "Please let somebody else lead the troops and stay as close to us as possible! I beseech you!"
Muhammad turned to his lieutenants, who remained silent, then looked back at Itto, and said:
"Now go back to your camp! We'll settle this amongst ourselves, and I'll let you know our decision. And please don't come over here again! Now mount!"
And he rushed forward to help her onto the horse. As she rode away, he turned to his lieutenants and said:
"Now I'm in a real predicament!"
That night Muhammad reconnoitred all the land that would soon turn into a battlefield. He went as far as, and along, the reed-edge; he inspected the ditch; he went round to the women's camp; then he went back to his fustat and called for the lieutenants. When they came, he made them stand in the cold wind at the entrance to the fustat and asked them the latest news. Then, he said:
"Now go to your respective companies! You, Âbbad, just stay calm and don't do anything until further notice. As to you all five, it's time for you to move. Now start simulating attacks, but don't fire a shot in their direction! Do get on their nerves! Keep them on tenterhooks! Provoke them into crossing to our side! And if they do start crossing to our side, then fall back behind the ditch line and let the enemy advance, then fly at them! Outflank them from right and left! Burn the remaining reed behind them! And drive them into the ditch!
"Let me remind you once more that the sixth company must not move until further notice. Mind what I say! Don't let anyone go beyond the reed edge without my permission! Now go in God's name!"
The lieutenants moved off. Muhammad went into the fustat and lay on his side and tried to sleep. But Itto’s voice came to disturb him, no! to entertain him… He kept dreaming of her until far into the night.
Dawn was just breaking when Muhammad was torn from his deep sleep.
"Aït Mimoon are crossing over to us!" said Sêed in a horrified voice.
"Keep calm!" replied Muhammad, springing to his feet. "Go to the women's camp and tell your sister to stay where she is and keep calm!"
Sêed flew away. Muhammad left the fustat and untied his horse and leapt into the saddle and rode to where he could hail Ismaïl. He ordered him to fall back in order to lure the enemy into the ditch. Then he flew over to Hassan and briefed him, and went to brief H'mad, and rode away from the front-line.