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Aicha's Tasks on Earth - Fairy Tales From Algeria: Part One.

Retold by Jan Knappert

There was once an honest merchant in the place that used to be called Avriga. The man had three daughters. Aicha was the youngest and cleverest of the girls. She had studied ilmerramli, the art of reading the future in the sands of the earth (geomancy). Aicha also became adept in the art of fencing with the Arabian scimitar. Indeed, she developed many other martial and magical skills. She possessed astonishing beauty and eloquence, as well as knowledge of the old poetry.

Aicha's father had great confidence in her. He left all his money in her care whenever he had to go on a journey for business. No thief could steal from her. Once a thief came at night and tried to force open the door of the house. Aicha awoke and cast a spell on him. He could no longer move and had to stand immobile until police came to chain and arrest him.

Another night, two armed thieves penetrated the house. They were confronted by Aicha, swinging her scimitar before her. The two burglars drew their long swords and attacked the girl, but she was too quick for them. In a few moments the two criminals had slumped to the floor where they lay, bleeding to death.

The fame of Aicha's beauty spread far and wide. Even the king heard of it. He sent a message to the merchant. The king announced that it was his wish that the merchant's daughter become the consort of his son, Prince Aslan. A date for the engagement party had already been fixed. Aicha wanted to refuse the arrangement, but her father prevailed upon her to accept. Being the prince's father-in-law would be a boon to his business, he believed.

Finally Aicha agreed, but only on condition that the prince wear a golden ring that she would send him. Explaining that the woods surrounding the king's estate were swarming with ogres and other evil spirits, she asked the prince to ride out and destroy them.

The prince agreed to wear the ring and go into the forest. Though he never said so openly he was truly frightened of the evil creatures that lived there. In the forest he encountered a veiled soldier, who seemed young and rather short. The frightened prince attacked and battled the warrior (not knowing that it was, in fact, his fiancee in disguise). Aslan was soon vanquished.

The mysterious soldier let the prince live. In exchange he took Aicha's ring from the prince's finger. When Aslan returned home, Aicha had just arrived at the court. Aslan's father noticed at once that the ring was missing. "How did you lose it?" the monarch demanded.

"I don't know how. I just lost it," the tearful prince lied.

Then Aicha produced the ring. She told the king all that had happened: "Prince Aslan is a liar and a coward," she concluded.

Of course, the prince did not want to marry a girl who called him such names. So he broke off the engagement. Aicha did not deplore his decision.

Aicha confronts the man-eater

Aicha's father had a cat that ate only sweets from the sweetshop. Whenever he was away, he ordered the shop to deliver fresh sweets to his house. One day, as soon as their father had left, Aicha's two sisters ate all the sweets. The poor cat had nothing to eat that day, so it took its revenge by peeing on the ashes in the fireplace at night. As a result, there were no embers left in the morning.

Of course, Aicha had to find live coals. Who else? Her sisters cried because no food could be cooked. Aicha decided to go to their nearest neighbor's house. The man who lived there was a person of ill repute, so people said, but Aicha was not afraid of anyone, ever. So she went to see the mysterious neighbor.

When she entered his house, Aicha noticed all sorts of objects that were used by sorcerers. Then she met the owner of the house. She immediately saw that he was a man-eating demon, because he showed jackal's teeth when he smiled his false smile at her. He was sitting on a donkey's head and was stirring stew in his pan with the bones from the leg of a goat.

The girl watched him carefully, and he watched her. In their clairvoyance, each could assess the other's capacity for sorcery. Aicha saw that he was a ghoul or ogre, a man-eating, man-shaped demon.

"What do you want?" he asked her.

"A live coal," she answered.

"Take it," he said, showing his jackal's teeth.

While Aicha bent over the fire, the ogre-man touched her foot ever so lightly. It was the only part of her that was exposed, and the touch was no more than a gentle pinprick. When she walked home, a thin trickle of blood, no more than a thread, issued from the tiny wound. OSo,O she thought, Othe demon wants to know where I live.O

Aicha decided to take precautions and exact her revenge. Across the path to her house she dug a trench seven feet in depth. She filled the trench with leaves and branches and covered the opening with a cowhide. Later, when the ogre-man followed the trail of her blood, he walked over the hide and fell into the pit. Immediately, Aicha came out of hiding and set fire to the leaves and branches. The ogre was trapped and burned to ashes. But as the fire died, a sepulchral voice was heard from the pit: "One of my bones will take revenge on you!"

So Aicha climbed into the pit. She searched among the smoldering branches for the one bone that had not burned to ash. When she found it, it suddenly exploded in her hand and a tiny splinter lodged in her flesh. The fragment remained deep under her skin, invisible and impalpable. Yet this minute chip of bone changed Aicha's life. It created in her heart an irresistible longing for adventure, a desire to ride horses, fight battles, and hunt lions. So she said good-bye to her father, put on men's clothes, mounted the fine horse that her father had given her, and rode out into the wide world.

Aicha battles the monster Horath

After riding many miles, Aicha came to the seacoast. There she met workmen who were building a port city. The builders seemed to carry an air of sadness, however. It was as if they despaired of ever completing their job. When she asked about their dejection, they told her that every night huge monsters--looking like enormous gray lions--came out of the sea. These monstrous beings would destroy all the buildings and demolish the walls that they had just erected. Aicha told the unhappy builders that she knew of a remedy against the horde of lions. So they took her to meet their king.

The king was surprised when the young warrior with a girl's voice told him that she could chase away the monsters. Nevertheless, he told his workmen to do exactly as Aicha said. She ordered them to form large creatures out of clay that looked exactly like the lions from the sea: gray, fit, and very strong. These statues were placed on the walls in great numbers.

That night the gray lions emerged from the sea. But when they saw the enormous clay lions standing threateningly on the walls, they turned tail and disappeared into the ocean. They never returned.

The king invited Aicha to his inner chambers. There he spoke to her as follows: "I know that you are a woman because I can see what few other men can see. Please stay with us and become my queen. I will share my kingdom with you, and you will rule together with me. Half my kingdom shall be yours!"

But Aicha needed to obey the inner flame of her desire for adventure. She promised the king that she would come back after she had rid the world of certain monsters and incarnate devils. Then she departed.

She soon arrived in a country where the people walked about with sad faces. They told her that a werewolf lived in the mountains above their valley. The creature's name was Horath, and his appearance was terrifying: a giant with the head of a wolf. This monster came down to the valley every night to devour any people he could capture. He would then withdraw and fall asleep in his cave.

Aicha rode out to battle Horath the very next morning. She managed to wound him with her scimitar, slashing and striking before his swinging mace could hit her. She turned her horse and hit Horath again and again, hard and fast, swinging her blade with deadly effect.

"How can you hit me? I am invincible!" roared the giant.

"I am the one who has been appointed by God to destroy you," she replied, hitting him again before he could strike her. Suddenly the monster staggered and fell. It died at Aicha's feet. The people of the region were so grateful that they offered Aicha the crown of their country. However, she had not yet completed her tasks on earth.

Aicha destroys the shaytans

She traveled on to an ill-omened country. It was home to a tribe of shaytans (evil spirits), which regarded human beings as a tasty meal. The shaytans were monsters with horns like bulls and teeth like lions. Aicha persuaded the people to form an army, and its soldiers made her their general. She trained them until they could all shoot with bows and arrows without ever missing.

Finally the night came when the shaytans attacked. Aicha lined up her soldiers and ordered them to shoot, while she herself confronted the king of the shaytans. After a long, fierce battle she struck off his ugly head and his spirit had to fly away. The remaining shaytans had all been hit by arrows fired by Aicha's soldiers. The evil beings lay scattered on the ground, dead or dying. The people of the region were so grateful that they offered her the crown of their kingdom. So, by her valor and swift sword, Aicha had become the queen of two kingdoms.

Aicha now decided it was time to return to the seaside kingdom of the gray lions. Unfortunately, while she was on her way through a forest, something like a monitor lizard fell on her shoulder. It clung on tightly with its sharp claws. The creature was one of a race of little parasite men. Aicha could not shake him off, so she spurred her horse and made it gallop through the thickest branches while she leaned forward along his neck. The branches scraped along her back, until the little monster had to let go. She was finally rid of her demon.

Aicha rode on, though her shoulders bled. At last she arrived in the city of the gray lions. The city was now beautiful. All the people cheered when they saw her, and the king again asked her to marry him. Aicha could have been queen of three kingdoms, but finally, this time, she agreed to take her place on the throne beside the king.n

Jan Knappert is professor of Asian and African languages at Leuven University in Belgium.
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Title Annotation:Fiction
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Fictional Work
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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