Caravanserai

The merchant Gilbert d’Baalbeck, with five camels and four servants and a chest full of money, left the Il-Khan’s summer camp and went south and west, toward the Euphrates. The road was poor, but Gilbert saw no need to ride in company; the Mongols took their tolls but they kept the place free of bandits.

He had come into the country by another road, from the north, from Armenia, and so what he saw on the road west surprised him. The Mongol army had come that way, in the winter, to attack Baghdad, and they had left nothing behind them. It was midsummer, and the fields  on either side of the road should have been sprouting green, busy with the rise and fall of the shadufs and people stooping to pick weeds, but he rode through fallow lands. Empty. The houses he saw were burned out. He met a caravan coming the other way along the road, and once an arrow messenger galloped by, but nobody lived here anymore.

For a while the road ran alongside a canal, dry as bone. The date palms that grew in clusters along the bank were already drooping, the fruits withered like the testicles of old men.

That canal bed led to another, wider and deeper, in which, also, no water ran; but looking across he saw that the land on the far side was a lake,  reflecting the blue sky, a watery sheet studded with brush and low trees. His little caravan crossed the canal, and came up the western bank onto a marsh. Water covered everything, only a few inches deep.

It was still and flat, and a smell of rot rose from it. The faint buzzing of insects sounded around it.  It was like a desert, only of water. The road was invisible. The cursing drovers slid down from the camels , which grunted and backed up and flattened their ears. They hated getting their feet wet.  Gilbert stopped his horse. He knew what had happened, the Mongols had broken the levee to the north, and the waters of the canal had come through the breach and flooded all this land. He let the drovers argue a few moments  while he peered around. Far ahead across the watery land he saw a thick dark stub poking out of the water. He called over the head drover and pointed this out to him—the next milestone on the road. The drover grunted, went back to his camel, and they all walked off sloshing through the muck. As they left the canal behind them, the water turned ever more shallow, until it was only a surface sheen, but the road was buried under silt.

Silt also covered the milestones, the stalks of the abandoned gardens. They passed through a village, where the  houses were falling apart, their roofs gone, the marks of the flood knee high on their walls.

The  waterland fell behind. They crossed bare thorny scrub. Now, at last, he came to the main road, running east and west. This was the Diocletianus, an old road of the Romans,  and he could see another caravan almost at once, far ahead of them; the drovers saw that also and called to each other, as if just seeing someone else meant they were less alone.  The road took them quickly on to Raqqa where they crossed the Euphrates.

On the north bank he paid the Mongol in charge of the ferry depot, and he paid the ferryman, and on the south bank he paid the Sultan’s agent in charge there. This left his money chest considerably lighter.

Now he looked for a larger group to travel with, but saw nothing.  Hurrying along the Roman  road,  he came at noon to the caravanserai at Resafa. He could have gone on another half day’s travel but he decided to stop. He would not reach Palmyra for days, and the desert ahead was a dangerous place. If he were patient he could pick up some traveling companions here.

Resafa had been a bigger city once. Now little of it was left but the caravanserai, which had taken over an ancient building inside the walls. This was a square stone fort, with no roof. Cloth awnings and wooden stalls lined all the inside walls; there was a well in the middle. Carved along the tops of the walls were scrolls of Roman work. The kitchen, he knew from long usage, was excellent.

The master of the place took his money and gave him a good corner. Gilbert’s men tethered the camels, and the master sent a boy over to haul water and hay and shovel away the dung. Gilbert walked up and down in the afternoon sun, stretching his legs.  He meant to reach Acre by midsummer day, when the Venetian fleet would arrive, and unless something happened bad in the next week or so he would do that easily. He fell to thinking of the silver in the chest, the little pouches of gold coins; even when he had paid off his men he would have a weight of money in his hands.

He thought of going back to Italy. Maybe it was time to go back to Italy.

The master of the caravanserai fell in beside him as he walked. He said, “You came from east of the River?”

“Several months now I have been in the bazaars of the Il-Khan,” Gilbert said, proudly. Most merchants he knew had refused to go east after the fall of Baghdad.

“Ah! And how did you find that?”

“I made a lot of money,” Gilbert said.

“They didn’t rob you?”

“They took their fees and taxes. They have other things to do.” He talked about the caravans he had seen, bringing the wealth of Baghdad and its treasurehouses and bazaars into the camp of the Il-Khan.

“What do you think? Will they stay on that side of the river?”

Gilbert wanted to think so. He wanted to believe that in spite of everything nothing had really changed. The Mongols were only taking the place of the Caliph. Everything would be as it had always been. He thought uneasily of the ruined fields he had seen.  Without the canals working, it would be hard to bring that land back alive. He said, “I don’t know.”

“What they did to Baghdad—” They were strolling around the courtyard, and they passed the boy hauling a load of dung out toward the gate. The master’s voice fell to a murmur; with a jut of his chin he indicated the boy. “He survived it. Somebody found him on the road, half-dead.”

Gilbert gave the boy a quick glance. A scrawny Arab boy, eight or ten years old, bent against the weight of the hod he was dragging along. He got to the gate and stood a moment, breathing.

“What does he say about it?”

“Nothing. He won’t talk. Not a word. Whatever they did to him stopped his tongue.”

Gilbert said, “I saw them. They are not so bad. If you give them what they want, they let you alone.”

The boy suddenly snapped up straight, looking out, and turned toward the master. His face was bright. He shot the master a fierce look and threw out one arm, pointing.

The master said, “Someone is coming. We’ll talk later.” He got up and went to the gate.

✽✽✽

The new arrival was Bohemund, the Prince of Antioch, one of the Crusader lords. Gilbert had marked him in the ordu of the Il-Khan, but Bohemund had never summoned him and Gilbert had seen no reason to invite himself. That was different now. He watched as Bohemund’s retinue, nearly forty men, horses, packs and squires, spilled into the caravanserai, taking the best places, noisy and demanding. The Arab boy ran among them, carrying water and hay. After a while Gilbert strolled up to the Prince of Antioch, who sat  on a camp chair in the center of his space, with all the bustle around him. The master of the caravanserai himself was pouring the Prince a cup of wine.

Gilbert hovered, shuffling his feet, and Bohemund saw him and motioned to him. “Come up. Who are you—yes, Guillaume, is it not? You were in the bazaar at the Il-Khan’s camp.”

“Gilbert d’Baalbek,” Gilbert said, pleased. “I am, my lord, I am most elevated that my lord remembers me.”

Bohemund drank deep of the wine. “There weren’t that many white faces. You’re an agent of the Venetians.”

Gilbert bowed. “I am a free merchant, my lord. I have a seat in the guild hall in Acre.”

Bohemund said, “Which belongs to Venice.” The cookservant brought in a platter of flat bread, the Arab boy on his heels carrying fruit in a wooden bowl. They set these down and rushed off again. Bohemund’s knights gathered around the table and the jug passed among them. Gilbert waited patiently for Bohemund to notice him again. He saw no purpose in expounding to Bohemund about the complexities of governance in Acre. The Prince sprawled in his chair, and Gilbert saw his chance and went around the table, took the ewer from the back table and filled Bohemund’s cup.

The Prince drank it down. “What is it, then? Gilbert, right?”

“Gilbert, my lord. I am traveling west, and I wondered if I could keep company with you and your men, the roads being full of bandits here.”

Bohemund looked him over. The Prince was a young man, handsome in the ruddy golden way of the Franks, with bright blue eyes. His beard, redder than his hair, was a mass of oiled curls. He said, after a while, “How much can you pay me?” He lifted his cup.

Gilbert pressed his lips together; he struggled with his face. He said, “My lord, I am a subject of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Surely—”

Bohemund flapped a hand at him. “Yes, yes. Come along. Keep up.” He was drunk. “I’ll take a tithe. Where are you going?”

“Acre, ultimately, my lord. I only need an escort as far as Palmyra, probably.”

“Come with me, then.” Bohemund swung around to talk to the other men around him. “But everybody has to pay the tolls.” He laughed. “Sit,” he said to Gilbert. “Eat.”

Gilbert dropped onto the bench, delighted. He reached for bread, for fig jam and soft white cheese. The Arab boy was hovering nearby. Clearly the knights awed him. The master of the caravanserai went around directing his servants—only the two men servants, Gilbert saw; he kept the women hidden away inside.

They were talking about the Mongols; how small they were. How many.

“Hand to hand, we can beat them. Carve them up like pigs.”

“They don’t fight that way.”

“Like with the sand-monkeys. Pin them where they can’t run.”

Bohemund overheard this, and said, “They are Christian men, like us.” He lolled in his seat; the drink softened his face. “We won’t have to fight them.”

“Not like us,” said another man, stubbornly. Clearly they had had this argument before. “They’re Nestors, they’re not like us. You heard Rikart.”

The Arab boy jerked his head up; probably he did not speak French, but he had heard something in that. Gilbert poured himself more wine.

“They are Christian. They’re friends.” Bohemund leaned forward. “We have the same enemies. Once we convince them of that, everything will go well.”

The other man said, “I hope you are right, my lord,” in a voice that suggested he thought otherwise.

Bohemund gave him a fierce, drunken look. He lurched up onto his feet and lifted his cup. “Friends! To the  Mongols! To Hulegu! May he save us from the Mamelukes and give us back Jerusalem! Hulegu!”

His men roared, drinking with him, but from their midst suddenly the Arab boy erupted toward Bohemund, shouting.

“No! No!” He rushed at the Prince, his arms milling.

The master reached him in one stride, wrapped an arm around him, and held him down. The cookservant came over and between them they wrestled the boy still.  Bohemund jerked back, his head up,.

“What does this? Who is this?”

The master shouted, “My lord, pay no heed–he is silly, he is weak-minded, who knows what he meant.” He slapped the boy hard on the side of the head and dragged him off.

The boy struggled in his arms. His voice croaked out. “He was cheering—them. “He lashed out with his fists and feet. “He was—cheering—” Gilbert got up and went to help. By the time he reached them the boy was sobbing, limp, and mute again. They took him into the back of the caravanserai, to the master’s quarters, and locked him in a storeroom.

✽✽✽

Daud curled up in a corner of the room, on a heap of empty sacks. His insides were boiling, and he burst into tears again, burying his face in his hands. A kind of raw terror filled him. He leapt up, and went around and around the room, swinging his arms and breathing hard. He had to run but he was pent here, the walls around him like a shell.

In another corner was a sack of dates and he fell on these and ate until his stomach was full. Then he wept again. After a while, sitting with his back to the wall and licking the date sweetness from his fingers, he realized that he had to get out of here.

The memory of Bohemund oppressed him. He had thought—they were knights. He had heard Rikart’s name. He had thought—

He was tired but he was afraid to sleep, because of the dreams. He found himself up on his feet again, walking around and around. He could not stay here anymore. He had been here too long.  He swung his arms back and forth. He was thirsty now and he went to the door, which was locked, and tapped on it until Mina came. She opened the door and looked in, and shut the door again, but in a moment was back with some bread and water in a jug. She put her finger to her lips and closed the door again.

He drank the water. He had been here too long.

He remembered—they had said Rikart’s name.

He had seen the Caliph’s army drowned in the tide of the Mongols, Rikart among them, but he remembered also that people called Rikart the Ghost because he escaped from everything. Maybe he had escaped even from the Mongols. Daud decided he would go to find Rikart. Thinking that made the whole whirling mess settle down around him. He sat down, his back to the wall, and ate the bread.

✽✽✽

In the morning Bohemund’s steward came to Gilbert, demanding money. Gilbert was packing his camels. The night before he had divided his money up, so that he did not have to expose it all at once, and now he made a show of unhooking his purse from his belt  and counting out twenty pieces of silver to the steward.

This was a stocky, short man named Simone, a Genoese. He took the coins, but his eyes were on the pouch; Gilbert knew he was guessing at the amount left.

He said, “I don’t like these. Don’t you have isaacs?”

Gilbert shrugged. “I have some Egyptian dinars.”

“Gold?”

“Absolutely.” Some of it probably was gold. He said, “I have dirhams.”

“From where?”

“Armenian.”

“Let me see the dinars.”

Gilbert produced the three battered coins. The steward wrinkled his nose, but he took them, and slid them along with the other money into his own belt pouch. He shrugged.

“Ride at the back, so we don’t have to put up with the stink of your camels.”

Gilbert bowed, very deeply, so it was more an insult than a grace. “As the Prince desires.” Simone sneered at him and left.

They went off along the Diocletian road. Bohemund and his knights chattered and made their horses cavort around the road, and they kicked up more dust than the camels. By midmorning, Gilbert saw that the Arab boy from the caravanserai had come after them.

The boy stayed well behind them, perhaps thinking he was unseen, but he kept pace. Later, when Bohemund decided to stop for the night, Gilbert sent one of the drovers back to fetch the boy into their camp. There was no caravanserai here, only a spring, with some little ruined stone buildings around it. Many people had fled this part of the country, since the Mongols moved in. Nobody knew who was lord here, and the place was full of Bedouin thieves. The boy silently went around hauling water for the camels. Gilbert saw he avoided even looking at Bohemund.

In the morning they went on again. The road was straight and true, as the Romans had always built.  The first heat of the summer baked the hills around them. The road ran between two low grassy rises, and from all sides suddenly horsemen rushed in around them.

Gilbert jerked his mount to a stop. He saw at once these were not Bedouin;  they rode blooded mares and he recognized their blue coats. He looked quickly around at his caravan. The drovers were bunching the camels together. The boy sat on top of one, his hands on the hump, looking startled. Gilbert heard Bohemund call out, and turned forward again.

On the road, the Prince was wheeling his horse around, face to face with a tall rider with a badge on his turban. Gilbert stiffened, his stomach tight. He glanced right and left. The Franks were outnumbered more than two to one and the Mamelukes surrounding them carried their bows ready across their saddles.

Bohemund shouted, “How dare you block my way? Do you know who I am?”

The Mameluke amir said, “You can pass, but you will pay me.  As to the rest, I think you are the Prince of Antioch. For that, you will pay me double.”

The Mamelukes, bunched all around, gave a low general laugh. Bohemund braced up. His men were watching him, intent. He sat silent a while, staring into the Mameluke’s eyes; Gilbert grew fearful they would fight. He saw no way the Prince could win, and clearly Bohemund thought so as well, because after a moment he tipped backward slightly in his saddle, his chin up, and said, “This time, Baibers, you get your way.  But my time will come.”

Gilbert gave a little shake of his head. Up there, the Mameluke amir’s white teeth flashed. “I look forward to that.” He waved a hand. “One dinar a head. Two for you.” His eyes swiveled around, toward the rest of them, counting, and he saw Gilbert. “A dinar for every kaffir.”

Almost in unison, the drovers all called out the declaration of faith. Gilbert said, “The boy is sahih.”

Baibers had gone back to his staring match with Bohemund, but he heard this, and he turned back toward Gilbert. He was younger than Gilbert. A train of horrible stories followed him. His face was hard as a blade. “Let him say so.”

Gilbert said, “He has no speech.” Except, he suddenly remembered, that outburst against Bohemund. “He was in Baghdad when the Mongols came. He survived. Whatever happened there took his voice.”

Baibers nudged his big bay mare around and jogged a few steps toward them. His gaze fixed on the boy. The child stared back. Gilbert wished he had said nothing.

“I will take him, then,” Baibers said. “For your passage.”

Gilbert blurted out, “He is a child—”

“Or all your money.”

Gilbert clamped his mouth shut. Baibers waved a hand, and a Mameluke from the swarm around them came up, reaching for the boy on the camel. The boy shrank back, casting a pleading look at Gilbert,  but the Mameluke got him by the arm and swung him down. Another of the turbaned riders lifted him onto the back of the first man’s horse, behind the high-cantled saddle.  The boy gave Gilbert one last, frightened glance, and they all rode off.

✽✽✽

Daud gripped the cantle of the saddle with both hands, to stay on; they rode at a quick trot back through the hills. The long grass was dry and yellow on the slopes. He glanced around him at the other men, riding all around him. They were still looking back over their shoulders, but one by one they were sitting down deep in their saddles and sheathing their bows.

The beaten path they followed wound through the cleft between two hills, steep and grassy, rounded like breasts. Daud’s rider was near the last of the pack, and the boy  watched the side of the road. He thought he might be able to slide down off the horse and run, if he found some cover. There was no cover. He caught the eye of the nearest of the riders, staring at him. Daud turned quickly forward. His mouth was dry. He wondered what they would do to him.

Around the shoulder of his rider, through the dust of the horses, he could see a fortress on the high ground. That was where they were going. He glanced around him again; the land fell off sharply at the edge of the road, down into a ravine. He could run—The rider near him pushed his horse up alongside him and glowered at him.

Daud hunched his shoulders, facing forward again. He watched the rider from the corner of his eye. He had grey streaks in his beard. His face was sun-darkened brown but his eyes were pale. Daud’s insides felt like hot iron. He kept his eyes on the rider ahead of him.

They rode up to the gate of the fortress and half the men stayed outside, but Daud’s rider and the grey-bearded rider followed the rest into a courtyard. At a nudge from the grey-bearded man Daud slid down from the horse. The men pushed him ahead of them, on across the courtyard toward the stone tower, and inside.

They came into a wide, dim space. Overhead were the beams of a ceiling. Around the walls were rolls of carpet, saddles, pots. The floor grated under his feet, unswept. He had a moment to think he had kept the caravanserai better than this, and then one of them pushed him and yelled at him.

He jumped back, all his hair on end. They were gathering around him. He thought he saw knives in their fists. He spun around, looking for a way to run, but they were all around him. One grabbed him, and Daud kicked out, yelling.

They closed on him. He could hear them laughing. He flailed out with his arms, striking blows, and their hands were all over him. They pawed at his body, his face, his arms. He was falling. He screamed again.

“Stop!”

Abruptly, they let go of him. He lay still, panting. He was lying on the dirty floor of the tower. The men around him had backed away, were staring at him, round-eyed.  He sat up. One man remained beside him, the grey-bearded man, who squatted down on his heels.

He said, in slow Arabic, “Are you mad? Are you raving?”

Daud sat there, panting; he thought of the hands gripping him, of the laughing. Maybe, he thought, maybe that didn’t happen. Not that way anyway. He shut his eyes. His whole body throbbed.

“He doesn’t talk,” someone said, from the crowd watching him. “That’s what the merchant said. Where is Baibers? This was his idea.”

The bearded man put out a hand to Daud. “Here. Come. Sit and eat something.”

Tamely Daud let him lead him to the wall; he sat against the wall; he felt drained empty, slack as an empty skin. He began to cry, not aloud, just tears trickling down his face. The grey-bearded man put a cup into his hands; there were bits of lemons in the water.

“Drink.”

He drank. The water trickled down his throat and into his stomach and made it all alive again.

The grey-bearded man said, “Rasul.” He tapped his chest. “My name.”

Daud wiped his mouth. Then across the dim hall the tall man was striding toward him.

Daud stood up, dropping the cup, his back to the wall. This was the man who had taken him from Gilbert, his eyes like pale chips in his face. Dark, weathered face. One eye had a white dot in it. His forehead was bruised. Daud’s stomach churned. Now they would kill him. But he could not move; the tall man’s stare pinned him like a lance against the wall.

Rasul said something in another language. The tall man grunted. He reached out and wiped a hand over Daud’s cheek, wet with tears.

In harsh Arabic, he said, “You are my slave now. If any asks you, say that you belong to Baibers. Rasul is your brother. Listen to him. Obey me.”

Daud could not move; he licked his lips.

“They said you were in Baghdad. Is that so?”

Daud nodded.

“Yet you lived.”

Daud shut his eyes, tears leaked down his cheeks again. He gasped for breath.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. The tall man said, “You will tell me, someday. But now you are with us, so you will bear yourself as one of us. Remember. We follow the will of God. My will.  Obey me. Come. The time for prayer is on us.”

Daud shivered. Around the hall some of the other men were spreading out their carpets in rows, facing the far wall. He stood. He did not know what to do now. His mother had taught him some prayers but he had not been to madrassah, and living in the Reb’s house he had seen nothing of Islam. Rasul stood beside him. Rasul led him out of the hall, back to the courtyard, to the fountain there. He washed his hands and face. He knew to do that. He thought of another mosque, somewhere else, and his mind whirled up a blur of rage and fear. He followed Rasul back into the hall. Rasul had spread a carpet down, but there was none for Daud. He stood there, trembling. Rasul took his hands and put them together, palm against palm. Rasul began the words, and Daud remembered them, the oldest words,  spoken even in Eden.

“There is no God but God–”

He was still weeping, but he remembered what the tall man had said.  These were magic words. If he said this and did this, they would take care of him. He was safe. For now.  He was never really safe. He bowed and knelt and put his forehead to the floor, grateful.  But even bent to the ground like that, he told himself, nobody owned him.

✽✽✽

They all slept on the floor of the hall; the men had blankets and carpets but Daud lay down on the stone floor. He was afraid to sleep, as always, but sleep came over him, and he saw the eyes again, floating in the dark. He sobbed, in his sleep.

Then someone touched him; he startled, but he only came partway out of the dream; he thought his mother had come to console him. She murmured to him, she wrapped him in her shawl. He fell into a deep sleep and dreamed no more.

In the morning when he woke, Rasul was beside him, and Rasul’s blue coat was wrapped around him. He leapt up, and went away; he had to piss anyway.

They prayed again. Rasul brought him a handful of dates and some bread. The other men stretched and laughed; they put on the mesh shirts they wore, and over that their blue coats, lapped right to left. They spoke together in that other language. They stood close together, bumped each other, gripped each other’s arms as they talked. One turned to Daud and held out a handful of dates, and when he hesitated, banged their fists together, nodding and smiling.

He ate many of the dates. He loved dates.

The other men went into the courtyard and Daud followed. They all had bows in their hands,  and they lined up at one end of the courtyard, jostling each other into rows. Then by fives they stepped forward, still in a neat line, and each five lifted their bows and shot, in unison, like a dance.

At the far end of the courtyard, three sacks stuffed with straw hung from the wall. These were the targets. Swiftly, in rows of five, the men stepped forward, raised their bows in a single motion, and shot. The  straw bags filled up with arrows. Daud stood there, intent, watching. He saw Rasul, among the last five, go up, lift his bow, and shoot, and Daud ran toward him, not thinking, his hands out.

The grey-bearded man laughed at him. “Yes, yes! Here. Take the bow.” He held out the bow and an arrow.

Daud did not know how to do this; he gripped the middle of the bow with his right hand, and Rasul laughed again. “No. Here.” The other men were watching.  One called out something in that other language. Rasul stood behind Daud and put the bow properly into his hands.

“Draw with your thumb, like this.” Rasul held up his right hand, the three lower fingers curled tightly to his palm, and his thumb and forefinger crooked.  Standing so close he brushed against Daud’s body and the boy stiffened, but the bow fascinated him. He lifted it, the arrow in the string, and tried to draw it. His arm shook with the effort but he could only move the string back an inch.

“Draw toward your mouth,” Rasul said. “Not your shoulder. Elbow straight back. Hold your left arm tight as you can. Try again.”

He struggled, barely moving the string. Rasul laughed again. His hand clapped roughly on Daud’s back and the boy jumped and the arrow flopped off to one side.

Everybody laughed. Daud gave Rasul a hard look and went off to get the arrow. Over and over he tried to draw the bow but he could not.

Back in the hall, Rasul brought him to a chest, and opened it, and took out clothes. These smelled like dust and mold. Rasul shook out some loose leggings; when Daud put them on the bottoms puddled on the floor. Rasul rolled them up, and they tucked the waist around Daud’s waist and cinched it with a sash. Next was a shirt, like the others, too big, so Rasul folded it to make it fit.

He said, “We fix.” He took a leather pouch out of his coat, held it up, and with a tweak of his fingers pulled on a thread coming out of it; a needle followed after the thread.  Quickly he stitched up the folded bottoms of the leggings. Daud stood, shivering, the touch abhorrent. When Rasul stopped to get more thread he ran away. He stayed far away from Rasul.

In a little while they saddled up and rode out of the fortress. They gave Daud a horse to ride, a little mare, the color of dark sandalwood. They rode fast and he had to struggle to keep up. That night, when he finally slid down from the horse, he could barely walk.

They were camped by a well, in the open, and the men sat close together around a little fire. Daud was fighting off sleep. He listened to the voices around him that he could not understand. One of the men put a coat around him. One by one, the others fell to sleep, or went off to walk guard, but Daud  kept himself awake until Rasul had lain down, and he could tell the older man was asleep.

Then he went over behind Rasul, and lay down with his back to the other man’s back, and curled up. And then he slept.

✽✽✽

Rasul showed him how to pick up the little mare’s feet, clean her neat round hoofs , and trim off the rough edge. When he tried to do this Daud’s knife slipped and he cut  himself. Rasul swatted him. “Pay heed!”

Daud gave him a dark look, and Rasul hooted. “Oh, what a look, little man!” and knocked him flat.  “For that, go haul water for all of us!”

Daud brought water for a dozen horses, all the while hot as a blister. His hand hurt where he had cut himself. They went to prayers; he went through the whole up and down, up and down, the bowing, but his mind boiled against Rasul.

He thought he would run away. But there was nowhere to go.

He named his horse Friend, although he never said that aloud. Rasul gave him a bow of his own, with its own case, and some arrows. He slept against Rasul’s back but during the day he would not let him near him, and Rasul stopped trying. At night when the eyes came he bit his sleeve to keep from screaming.

Another man, big heavy bearded Boglu, brought him bread and honey. “Come here, I will help you sew your clothes. You look like a harem doll in that.”

Daud trembled. Sitting down cross-legged beside him, Boglu smiled at him, and made a gesture.

“I am helping you. Don’t be a fool.”

Daud swallowed. Boglu’s eyes met his, steady and mild. Daud made himself stand; Boglu had a needle,  and he gathered up the waist of the leggings and made many small looping stitches. “Turn,” he said, twice, and Daud turned. Now the leggings hung better, not flopping around his ankles.

His needle moving, Boglu said, “I was a boy, I was sold. Perhaps older than you. Sold as a slave. I was nothing. But then God found me and made me a Mameluke. “ He gave Daud a deep look. “So, you see. You have your fortune.” He paused, looking around, his brows lowering. “This is not where we belong, this scrubland. You should see Cairo. Trees everywhere, the river, the gardens. And so full of life. Bazaars. Good things to eat, and women.” He turned back to the waist of Daud’s leggings and made a knot. “The panther will get us back there. “ He bit the thread. The panther was Baibers.

Daud pulled off the shirt, which draped him like a tent, took the needle, and fumbled with the cloth. Boglu took the side, and folded it over. “Here, see.  Just run a seam along here, and we’ll cut off the extra. You can make that into a belt.”

Daud pushed the needle in and out of the thin, slippery fabric. Boglu said, “We can’t go back to Cairo now because Qutuz hates us. Qutuz is the sultan. He wouldn’t be sultan save for us, but he’s forgotten that. “ He sighed. “I dream about Bahri. Here, kuҫuk, you have to do better than that.” He took the shirt and pulled out Daud’s raggedy stitching.

✽✽✽

In the morning there was the same thing, they prayed, they ate, they shot their bows. He tried to draw the bow again, and this time, he got the string to his chin. The arrow sailed off toward the target, dipped, and skidded on the ground.  All the men gave up jeers and jibes, but Rasul  smiled wide in his beard. “Better. You are doing better.” Daud swelled, light with pleasure.

✽✽✽

Since he could not understand the Mamelukes’ language, the way they acted spoke to him like talking. Their hands made their own words, asking for things, telling jokes. Stopped for midday, he watched two men bristling, standing closer together, their noses almost touching, so near when they shouted they sprayed each other.

Then suddenly they were standing back, stripping off their coats, their shirts. The others gathered up. Their voices rose. The two in the middle rushed at each other, wrapped their arms around each other, grunting and thrusting with their legs. The watching men whooped and screamed names and cheers, thumped each other on the back, clapped hands.

The smaller man sidestepped, and the bigger man crashed down hard onto the ground. The tall skinny man next to Daud turned to him, caught his arm, said in Arabic, “See how Moro is using Yaqi’s own weight against him, there, see that”—and hugged him.  Daud pushed him away. On the ground, the big man reached down to his belt for his knife.

“Ayyiaaah!”

Yaqi lunged to his feet, the knife in his hand, and from the crowd the bay mare burst in between them. Baibers in the saddle was roaring at them. He spun the horse, driving the two men farther apart, and bounded down to the ground. The bigger man, Yaqi, stood with his head thrown back, but the knife was in the dust at his feet. Baibers got him by the hand. He was still shouting at them both—at them all. and He leaned the other way and held out his hand, and Moro, the other man, slowly came up and took it, and Baibers dragged them together. He forced their hands together. He stopped shouting, and the crowd around fell breathlessly still.

The two men stared at each other, and then abruptly they  lunged together again, but this time to embrace one another. Baibers stepped back. They stood apart, and clasped hands, and smiled, and then everybody went off to something else.

They reached a wide stone road, running east to west, and almost at once came on another caravan. Baibers went among those people and got money. He led the Mamelukes away into the west; he rode around them all, making sure they stayed close together.

Rasul, riding beside Daud, said, “Where we are going, now, The Sultan of Damascus rules. He is nothing. We have served him before and fought him before and he’s always nothing. But now we have to get across the river and go to the coast, and who knows? He might make some trouble for us.”

Daud thought, Another sultan. There were too many sultans.

✽✽✽

When they stopped in the afternoon he took his bow and an arrow and went off beyond the edge of the camp and shot at bushes. The land here was flat and dry, running east toward the mountains like strips of blue cloth along the edge of the sky. He lost the arrow and stood, tired, looking east.

Back there, over the edge of the world, was Baghdad. What Baghdad had been, once. He thought there was something he should tell these men about Baghdad, but he didn’t know how.

He could not remember much. He remembered people screaming.  The smoke. “No, please—no—” His throat clogged and his eyes burned with tears and he stood, dumb and miserable, locked fast. That way was Baghdad. He could not think of Baghdad. He could think of nothing.

After a moment he drew in a deep breath, as if he had not breathed for hours. He thought again that he could run away, he could go back to Baghdad, somehow. There was no Baghdad. Finally he went back into the camp, where the other men were making ready for the evening prayers.

✽✽✽

They went on, more westerly now, into the sunset. Around them the hills loomed brown as lions.  They came out through a gap in the hills into a flat wide valley, and after the desert this seemed beautiful as a garden, all green with fields and orchards. They passed through a village where the people cowered in their huts. Where goats grazed in the thatches.

Rasul said, “We are under the sultan’s eyes now.”

He spoke to Yaqi, who was riding on his far side. That man said, “No army outrides us. Nothing can catch us.” He said this in Arabic, so Daud would understand.

“We’re coming to the river. We’ll find out.”

Daud stood in his stirrups to look around. In the fields beside the road, people in white thobes, under broad brimmed straw hats, stooped among rows of low bushes. Up ahead he saw against the sky a brown ridge. Something on it strange, like a thumb sticking up; as he rode along he made this out to be a tower with a broken top.

The Mamelukes were drawing rein around him. He looked quickly over at Rasul, who was scowling ahead of them. Out there a voice called out sharply. Rasul settled back in his saddle, unhooked the waterskin on his saddle, and drank. He handed the skin to Daud.

“Somebody ahead of us.” He swung toward Yaqi on his far side. “I told you so.”

Daud drank the musty, lemon-flavored water and gave the skin back. His nose itched from the dust. It was almost noon when they would stop for prayer and maybe they would just start praying now. He looked around again, uneasy.  Beside him Yaqi opened his bow case and drew out his bow.

Swinging toward Daud, Rasul said, “Stay close by me. Stay under my arm.” He reached down to his saddlebows, and unslung the circle of his shield.

Daud  gripped his reins. He wondered what was going on. The men were drawing in closer together, moving forward stirrup to stirrup. At a walk, first. Then at a jog. Then, suddenly, at a full gallop, and around him, the Mamelukes were drawing out their bows.

Somebody was shouting—a lot of shouting, and Rasul turned to him and bellowed, “Watch! Watch out!” Like a wing sweeping over him the shield swung above Daud’s head. Rasul’s horse jostled against Friend and the mare staggered. Daud almost went off. He sank his fingers in the mare’s mane.

A rain of arrows pelted down around them, pinging off the shield. His blood leapt. A white panic flooded him and he crouched low over the mare’s neck. That made it harder to stay on and he pushed himself upright again. Then the ground in front of them disappeared, the horse was skidding down an embankment, and they were splashing into the slow-moving water.

Ahead, past a dozen other riders, he saw the dark river running over rocks. Shallow there. He tried to steer the mare that way. Rasul wasn’t beside him anymore. More arrows flew toward him; beside him a horse let out a shriek, staggered and fell into the water.  Then the horses around him were slamming to a stop, knee deep in the river. A wail went up. Past the rocky shallows he saw, ahead of them, on the far bank, a dark swarming mass of other horsemen. Above them a long green banner floated, curling like a snake’s tongue on the wind.

An arrow clipped his arm. He flinched. There was nowhere to go. He looked around for Rasul but did not see him. Around him the horses stamped and shied in the shallow water, the men turning, their eyes wild.

Then Baibers galloped up past them all, into the gap between Daud and the enemy on the far bank.

After Baibers the rearguard of the Mamelukes followed in a stream, shooting their bows as they charged. The men around Daud all roared and followed headlong. Daud wrenched the horse’s head around and kicked her in the ribs. She pinned her ears back and stuck her nose out and hurtled forward, packed among the other horses. Daud’s stirrup banged into the stirrup of the horse beside him.  The tail of the horse in front of him lashed Friend’s shoulder.  One of a hundred, Daud flew across the shallow riverbed, toward the screaming dark mass on the far bank.

He had forgotten his bow. He got it off his back, while Friend plunged and galloped with the others, and tried to string it. Around him the Mamelukes were screaming the name of God. Just ahead of Daud an arrow struck a rider and threw him backward out of his saddle, and Friend jumped over the falling body and bolted on. Daud gave up with the bow and clung to his horse with both hands.

The horses before him bounded suddenly upward, and then Friend was scrambling upward, onto the far bank of the river. For an instant they all slowed, jammed together. The horse before him reared, its saddle empty. Abruptly they were charging forward again, and now, through the thin rank of riders in front of him, Daud saw men out there in front of them, turning and running away.

Then there was a howl of voices, and a horn blasted again. They were stopping. Friend slowed to a trot and then a walk and stood, among the other horses, blowing hard. Daud leaned both hands on his mare’s withers. He was in the middle of the road, among a crowd of Mamelukes. Almost at Friend’s feet, a body sprawled on the stone pavement, and beyond, another.  All around him the men were whooping, clapping each other on the back.

He looked ahead; he could see only the dust of many people riding fast away.  Above the dust was a streak of green. He realized those were the men who had attacked them. They had won a battle. Dazed, he wondered if he had done anything good. Baibers rode up before them on his bay horse.

“Praise be to God, who has given us victory!”

They all shouted. Daud opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He looked around again for Rasul. He was thirsty; he licked his lips, looking around for water.

Boglu was riding up toward him, leading another horse. At the grim look on his face, his brows down and his mouth tight, Daud stiffened all over, warned. He looked past him, to the horse Boglu was leading.

Rasul lay there, across the saddle. Rasul hung there, facedown, dead.

Daud gave a violent shudder. His throat closed. He slid down from the saddle and went to the body, and put his hands on Rasul’s back. The other men gathered around him, weeping, all hugging him. He remembered the shield covering him. How Rasul had protected him, and he lowered his head and sobbed.

The horn blew again. They had to ride again. Numbly he went to Friend and mounted, and steered her back to ride beside Rasul’s body. The fields where they had just fought were covered with green vines, trampled into the dust, and pieces of flowers.  His eyes kept turning toward Rasul. He wanted to tell Rasul something, but it was too late. He didn’t know what it was anyway. The sun was sinking. Soon it would be night.

✽✽✽

Just across the river, below the hill where the ruined tower stood, was a meadow, and here Baibers brought his men to camp. They were battered, many hurt, and several dead, and in the meadow they first went together and faced Mecca and prayed to God who had chosen them to bring him victory.

Boglu and some others laid Rasul down on the ground, and straightened his clothes. Daud brought water and they washed the dead man’s body. Baibers came among them, looking each one in the eyes, and spoke to them all.

Baibers said, “Rasul is with God now. God has taken him. Don’t grieve, but rejoice for him, that he has won paradise.” His hand lay heavy as a blow on Daud’s shoulder.

Daud stood among them, empty. Everything that came to him went away. They dug Rasul down into the earth, and everybody laid stones over him.

He took care of his horse, brushing her and picking up her feet and combing her mane. This soothed him. Darkness fell. When Boglu put food before him, he ate, sitting with the others, but separate. Sleep was coming. What came with sleeping frightened him. Then Boglu draped an arm around him, as Daud had often seen him do with Rasul, and held him against his side.  Daud let out his breath, relieved, and shut his eyes.

 

In the morning they shot their bows. When his turn came Daud drew the string back, as always the power in the bow resisting him, defying him.  He saw the sack of straw down the way and he thought it could be the man who killed Rasul. He shot, and the arrow sailed wide past the sack.

He saw how it curved in the air, and when Boglu gave him another arrow he kept that curve in his mind, and drew the string back.

Then the bow came alive. It arched in his hands, part of him. He foresaw the flight of the arrow through the air, and he let go the string and the arrow pierced the sack through.

All the men around him cheered him, and they thumped his shoulders and pulled his hair. He stood, letting this happen, staring down at the arrow, and he ached that Rasul had not seen him do it.

✽✽✽

After midday prayers, a file of men rode up toward their camp, and above them floated the green banner.

Daud saw them, and leapt to his feet;  but he could see they weren’t here to fight. Baibers was going out to meet them on his bay mare, all alone.  Daud frowned, struggling to make sense of this. His hand, unwilled, was on the knife in his belt.

Behind him, Boglu chuckled. He said, “I think we’re changing sides again.”

Daud startled all over, shocked. Boglu was sitting on the ground, eating an apple, and Daud looked around the camp and saw them all sitting, or standing idly, or talking, none of them caring at all what was happening. He swung forward again. He could see it was true, by the way Baibers held himself, the way the other men spoke to him.

They were asking something of him. And he was agreeing to it. The men who had killed Rasul.

Boglu said, “Well, it doesn’t matter to me. It’s all one war, anyway.”

Daud sat down, to hide the shaking of his body; a black rage took him. He raked at the hard ground with his fingers, thinking of Rasul. He wondered how Baibers did not hate these men with their green banner. Why he did not strike them down.

He thought Baibers talked a lot about God. But he meant himself.

The next day they rode out across the valley, following an old road. Daud was still angry; he thought of riding up to Baibers and sticking his knife in him. On either side the fields stretched away across the plain. Here and there an orchard made a pond of shadow.  They passed by a broken wall, where beggars sat and women called out. In the fields beyond people rose and dipped, picking something into baskets. Here was flat ground but to the north two low long hills rose, covered with trees.

Boglu said, “This place is full of stories. Ibrahim and Isa walked here. See that hill? That is where the Giant lived. Goliath, which the shepherd boy slew.”

Daud lifted his head, the story familiar to him; he remembered the shepherd boy’s name. He almost spoke, but did not.

The Bahriyya stopped at a caravanserai and drove out most of the people to make room. Daud went around drawing water for the horses, and finding good hay in the heaps of old stuff behind the building. Boglu came to him and said, “I am going to the city here, to bring out the merchants. Come with me. I would like to see you laugh again.”

Daud followed after him, his whole mind dark. They followed the road a few miles and came to a town. A stone wall ringed it, and they went up to the gate.

There, by the gate, stood two men wearing white surcoats with red crosses on them.

A sharp shock passed through Daud, like a slap. The two men were watching them, and as Boglu led him into the archway of the gate, one knight held out his hand to stop them.

Boglu said, “I am Bahriyya, on business of the Sultan, let me pass.”

The big knight said, “Just you and this one? Where are the rest of you?”

Boglu waved vaguely behind them. The two knights looked at each other; the one who had not spoken only shrugged. The big knight said, “How long are you staying?”

“We’ll be gone by sundown. We’re just going to the bazaar.”

The knights exchanged another look, and the big one stepped back.

“Go on, then. Don’t give me any trouble.”

Daud’s heart was thumping. He rode after Boglu through the gate, and the Mameluke held back so that Friend came up even with him. Boglu leaned toward him.

“Templars. They have a quarter here. Demons of the Franks. Someday we’ll drive them into the sea.” He grunted.

They were riding down a narrow cobbled street between high buildings but ahead beyond the roofs was an expanse of sky, over a wider space. Daud swallowed hard. They came out into a great square, all lined with stalls and awnings, crowded with people. A fountain gurgled in the middle. Daud thought Boglu surely would hear the thundering of his heart. Would see the purpose in his mind. Boglu was headed toward the far side of the bazaar. Daud looked quickly around.

In front of a stall selling bread, Boglu swung down from his saddle, looped his reins over his arm, went forward to talk to the merchant. Daud slipped down from Friend and ran.

He went through the thick of the crowd, dodging and darting among people, a woman carrying a basket on her arm, two men talking with many gestures,  a boy leading a donkey. Behind him, he heard a yell.

“Kuҫuk!”

He dashed around past the fountain, headed back toward the gate where they had come in.  Somebody grabbed for him but he ducked. Then to one side, he saw a white surcoat with a red cross.

He swerved that way. The square ended here in a row of buildings. Where a narrow way opened between them stood two more of the red cross knights. He heard again, behind him, Boglu’s shout.

The knights saw him coming. One stepped forward; Daud slowed.  The knight held out one arm, but he was looking past Daud, toward the square, and suddenly he was waving Daud on.

The boy flew into the narrow way, into the dark little street.  He turned into an alley, panting, and stopped there.  Peering around the corner, he saw the two knights standing side by side in the opening, facing Boglu. He could not hear what they said but he knew by their looks the knights were turning Boglu off. Daud went off down the alley, all his skin humming, wondering what he should do next.