Heart of the World
A renegade Knight Templar, an Arab orphan and the teenage daughter of a Jewish scholar are caught in the Mongol capture and sack of Baghdad in the year 1258. Each in their own way, they survive the catastrophe and grapple with the challenges of a new and savage world.
When the Mongols sack Baghdad in the year 1258, the renegade Templar Knight Rikart al-Shah’b—Rikart the Ghost—escapes the city. He tries to save two others as well—the Arab boy Daud and Dinah, the teenage daughter of a Jewish scholar—but they are separated in the chaos. Rikart and Daud make their escape separately, but Dinah is captured by the Mongols.
In the time that follows, as the Mongols continue to overwhelm Heart of the World—what a later age would call the Middle East—Rikart tries to persuade whichever Muslim or Christian leaders he encounters to unite against the invaders from the steppes. Eventually, he and Daud are reunited and together they liberate a captive Egyptian Mameluke leader whom they believe could lead the needed resistance.
Dinah, meanwhile, has been taken into the household of the wife of Hulegu Khan, brother of the Mongol emperor and leader of the Mongol army. Over time, a love affair develops between her and Nikola, one of the great khan’s sons.
All of their lives will come back together at the great battle of Ain Jalut, where the Mamelukes and their allies make a desperate stand against the mighty forces from Central Asia who seek to conquer Heart of the World.
Rikart braced his hands on the rail of the balcony, looking out. The City of Peace spread away before him in its orderly array, green with orchards and gardens. The blue stripe of the Great Canal crossed it like a sash. Among the packed houses a hundred minarets pointed up into the sky. A fringe of palm trees hid the walls of the Round City, on its hilltop at the center of Baghdad, but above the fronds the gold dome of the House of Wisdom shone like a rising sun, and beyond that the green dome of the Palace. The people moving through the streets seemed all one being, slowly flowing along through the markets and alleys, in and out of the buildings, the lifeblood of the city.
Rikart loved Baghdad. His mother had brought him here when he was ten years old, after his father died. He had grown up here, the greatest city in the world. Now a shadow was creeping over it. The sunlight still shone down clear and bright, but out beyond, where the city ended, the air churned with yellow dust. This had begun that morning in the north and the dust cloud was moving swiftly west and south and now stretched almost to the river on the southwest, turning the sun pale.
“You were right,” the old man said, behind him. “They’re here, after all.”
Rikart kept back the anger in his throat. He said, “You’ve got to come with me. Now, before sundown.”
“I can’t.” The Reb shook his head. His hands went to the sash of his robe. “I am too old. But you go. And you must take Dinah.”
“You have to come,” Rikart said. “You’re why I came back here.” He cast another look out over the city toward the dust. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Caliph can’t stop them. Nobody can stop them.”
The old man said, “Swear to me you will save my daughter.” He was untying his belt.
Rikart faced him, thinking he might carry the Reb away in his arms. He would bring Dinah to help him. He looked past the old man, the little room with all its books, the table in the middle piled with scrolls and papers, with maps and pens. This place of peace. “I’ll talk to her. Get ready.” He went in two long strides to the curtained door, and through to the next room.
This room was the highest in the house. On the stairs below the landing, two of the servants huddled, muttering. He went by them, going down, but before he came to the bottom of the stairs, Dinah had come out to meet him.
She was a tall girl, not pretty, with thick dark hair. Younger than Rikart was, maybe 17, she had managed her father’s household since her mother died and she seemed older. She wore a married woman’s headcloth and lately she had taken to holding her hand over her lower face when she talked to him, which he thought was ridiculous. She did it now, veiling herself, and she said, “What is this? Where is my father?”
“It’s what I told you yesterday,” he said. “The Mongols have come. We have to get out, now.”
Behind him, on the stairs, the women wailed. Dinah said, “Look what you’ve done,” and went by him to them.
He followed, ready to argue, but she was sending the two women off on chores. This made them happy and they left. Rikart caught her elbow. “Listen. Reb Moseh is refusing to go. We may have to force him.”
She frowned at him. “How little you know my father.” But then she turned her head, as if she heard something, and her face flattened. She went on up the stairs.
Rikart followed her. On the landing, he looked out the window toward the east, and saw there more of the dust boiling into the sky. He wondered if they had waited too long. Then from the next room Dinah let out a wail like a stab to the heart.
He went into the old man’s room. The table was overturned. Where it had been, Reb Moseh was hanging from the beam, the sash of his robe wrapped around his neck. Dinah was clutching him, trying desperately to lift him up, off the pressure of the sash. She turned to Rikart. “Help me! Help me!” But the old man was dead.
He said, “The river is our best chance. Meet me at the quay on the canal. I have a boat.”
Dinah’s face was slobbered with tears. He put an arm around her, holding her up on her feet. “He wanted you to escape. You have to try. Pack what you need. I’ll be back.” He hugged her against him; she smelled of lilac. Her body was slack against him. What would happen to her if they took her? He went on down the stairs to the door and out onto the little street.
He had not been here for years but this place was baked into his bones. He remembered everything, the warmth of the air, the peeling wall, the paving stones underfoot. The city was oddly quiet. He walked down to the canal. A boat full of watermelons was tied up at the quay. The sweet-seller who usually perched on this corner was gone. Someone called out from a house across the way and a shutter banged closed. He went down along the canal, past the edge of the Caliph’s gardens, toward the Tigris. A dozen speckled peahens were pecking in the grass under the palm trees. He smelled jasmine and oranges.
He was planning this out as he went; they could go south on the river to Maniyyurah where he knew people. There were Jews in Maniyyurah who would take in Dinah. Where the canal came down to the river, he stood a moment, watching the boats as they went back and forth. The water shone in the afternoon light. A flat-bottomed riverboat slid out of the canal, wobbling in the tangled current, and started south. Down there, the bridge crawled with people crossing toward the west.
He went upstream a little way. Days before, when he first came back, he had hidden a riverboat on the bank, pulled it up high out of the water and buried it under palm fronds. He hauled it down to the river, fit the scull into its socket, and climbed in. The current took the boat down toward the canal again. Across the city, first one voice and then another and another took up the midafternoon call to prayer.
“God is greeeaat—” The long syllables quavered out.
Just above where the canal came boiling into the river he steered the boat to the bank, got out, and wading along the edge of the canal towed the boat up against the flow.
The call to prayer still hung in the air but somewhere far off, a thin whistle sounded. His hackles rose. A moment later he heard a distant crash. He did not see where what was struck. He bent to the work of pulling the boat against the river’s flow.
The quay was just ahead. In the western sky, the dust and smoke climbed up over the setting sun; the light was yellow as sulfur. Dark against that, Dinah stood, with a crowd of other people. He had not reckoned for that. He should have known she would try to save them all. He turned to look over the boat. Maybe it could carry four people. He wrestled the long narrow boat into the lee of the quay.
At once Dinah was pushing people into it, two children, an old woman. Rikart held the gunwale to keep the boat from tipping under their weight. “They can’t all go—there isn’t enough room!”
She ignored him. She was handing in another child. Two more women waited—her maids. Rikart pulled his shirt off; it was warm for a winter’s day. He tossed the shirt aside. The people sat in a line down the center of the boat, knees up, the children on laps, and Dinah got in.
Rikart climbed over the stern, took the scull, and pushed them out into the flow of the canal. Other boats rowed past them, pulling hard. Rikart held his boat in near the bank, where the rip would be less, and nudged them out through the mouth of the canal. With the scull he held the boat steady, feeling for the edge of the wave.
The Tigris was running full and the rip current caught them at once. The long narrow boat creaked. One of the women wailed, and they all clutched for the gunwales. Dinah began to sing, a high cheerful note, which calmed them. Rikart eased the boat along, riding the high side of the wave, steering out of the way of a big barge paddling hard for the east bank. All along the river between them and the bridge, boats thrashed along. Most were moving east. He thought that would not help them. He let the current take them on south. The sun had disappeared into the smeared dust of the sky. An early darkness came. The bridge spanned the river on its seven piers. Rikart steered them toward the space in the middle and leaned on the scull, holding the boat at the edge of the standing wave there, and they swooped on through the momentary darkness under the arch.
The old woman at the bow with Dinah let out a scream, but Dinah cheered, and so they all cheered. Rikart moved them back toward the west bank, where the river ran slower. The river curved to his right. Up there he saw the top of the old Al-Shams mosque, gold against the last light.
Now they were coming to the al-Mansur bridge. Beyond the long arched span, he knew, the river ran broader, out past the walls, past the mouth of the New Canal, out across the plain between the fields and gardens. He thought if they passed through this bridge, they would escape.
The bridge crawled with people. He steered the boat down toward the second arch. In the dark he could just make out the women and children huddled in the boat, clutching each other. Downriver a sudden burst of light shone. For an instant the bridge, outlined against the red light, was a creeping black line across the river.
Thin and far away, but coming closer, a thin shriek like a flock of piping birds reached his ears. He clenched his jaw. Too late. They were sweeping down toward the archway through the bridge, and then a roaring torrent of rocks hammered down out of the sky.
Almost overhead, the center span of the bridge collapsed, flinging people down as it went, and the river heaved and churned and the boat swung around. Rikart fell out. People bobbed in the water around him, dead, alive. He swam hard after the boat, which was drifting off sideways toward the bank; against the last pale sky he saw Dinah in the bow, the old woman hunched at her feet. The scull swung idle. The boat rocked in the violent water.
Rising out of the water ahead of him, a long arm seized hold of the boat. The old woman struck wildly at it and the boat tipped and rolled over.
The wash broke over Rikart and he swallowed greasy water. The current was dragging him off. He kicked out and his feet struck something floating behind him, something wooden. Not the boat. He could not see the boat. Heads floated in the water around him. He looked for Dinah. A canal opened in the bank here and in the back eddy above it, the boat was wallowing upside down. He swam to it, searching the water around him for Dinah. People screamed. A corpse floated beside the boat, the shirt full of air like a bubble over the water.
He pushed the boat ahead of him into the shallows. High overhead, the shrill shriek sounded again, high and coming closer. He sank down deeper into the water and a blazing red ball flew out of the dark and plunged into the middle of the Tigris. For an instant he saw nothing but the wash of light. Then the river out there began to burn and the whole sky turned blood red.
He smelled the hot oily smoke, the smell of sea coal. They were firing naftun. He thought, Baghdad is gone. He cast another broad look around him for Dinah, and then heard the whimpering under the boat.
He dove down, and came up beneath the overturned hull, into a pocket of air, dark as pitch. “Dinah,” he said.
Then something leapt on him and clutched him, sobbing, wrapped itself around him. He pulled himself loose enough to grope over this body. Not Dinah, too small. He wrapped the screaming child in one arm and dove again, out and up to the surface of the river.
This was not wholly dark. Red flickering light streaked across the river, glittered on the waves, glowed in the rolling smoke just overhead. His feet struck the riverbed here, and he stood to his shoulders in the water and fought through the churning water his way up to the canal gate. In his arms the child was gagging and coughing. He heaved the body up on the bank beside the canal and pounded on its back to knock out the water. He could smell the fire burning on the scummy water. Another thunderous crash echoed out.
He went along the shore, looking out at the filthy, churning river. Cupping his hands around his mouth he screamed her name. Twenty feet off shore in a red patch of fire a body floated, burning. Not Dinah. Other things bobbed in the glow. The catapults whistled again, and he backed away, and down out of the sky came a rain of stuff that hit the water and burst into flames.
The child had followed him—a scrawny boy. Rikart said, “We have to get out of here.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, pushing him back the way they had come. At the canal gate a stone stair went up the bank. “What’s your name?”
The boy whispered, “Daud.” He was shivering.
“Come with me. I know some people here.” Rikart with a hand on his shoulder steered him into the city.
Daud was nine, small for his age. He had no father. He had worked in Reb Moseh’s house, carrying water, hauling wood, because his mother was the cook. Now his mother was gone. Everything was gone, except Rikart the Frank beside him in the dark.
He ran to keep up. They went on away from the burning river, along the street by the canal. The light from the river flickered around them, ahead of them. Rikart got him by the arm and pulled him back under the palm trees. Three horses galloped by them; the riders carried spears. Daud was wet to the bone, and cold. He thought of his mother. He had been reaching for her when the boat went over. He tore his mind away from that. They moved through the trees. In the square beyond that lots of people crowded around a mosque and the high drone of prayers sounded. Rikart went around the edge of the square, and down a lane. At a door in the stone wall he knocked.
His teeth chattering, Daud went in close against him, to the shelter of the wall. The door opened, letting out a shadowy lantern beam. A deep voice said, “Rik! I thought you had gone. Come in. Quick.”
The Frank pushed Daud on ahead through the door. In the warmth and the light, he stood blinking. The men talked over his head.
“I thought you had escaped.”
“I tried,” Rikart’s voice said. “They’re sealing the city off, even on the river.”
“Then you can join us. The Caliph has ordered me to gather the city guard. Tomorrow, by the will of God, we will save Baghdad.“
“So the old fool has finally realized what this is that’s happening.” Rikart’s voice cut.
“Yes, you were right. But now we have to save Baghdad, somehow.”
That man was tall, stocky. Daud knew that the jewel on his turban meant something important: he was an amir, a soldier.
Rikart said, “There are a hundred thousand of them, Ra’is. They have machines. They have greasebombs. They won’t let anybody live.”
“If you’re with me,” the stocky man said steadily, “I can give you a sword. Otherwise, get out of my house.”
Rikart flung his hands up. Daud saw he was angry. Rikart said, “Very well. Give me the sword.”
The soldier struck him across the shoulder. “I knew you would stand up.” He went across the room, and Rikart followed him, and Daud got up and went after. Through an archway they went into another room, smaller, where on the walls hung swords and shields.
“Nothing matters but the will of God,” the soldier said. “Here, arm yourself.”
Rikart took a sword from the wall, held it a moment, and put it down and took another. He looked around for Daud. The soldier had gone out.
“You can stay here.”
“No,” Daud said.
“They’ll take care of you.” Rikart balanced this sword a moment and laid it aside also, and looked back at the wall full of blades. “Better than I can.”
“No, please,” the boy said. He imagined another ripping away of everything, this time all. “I want to go with you.”
The Frank turned and knelt down and put his hands on Daud’s shoulders. “Boy. Listen to me. This is as far as you can go with me. Tomorrow we will go out to fight. You are too young to do that. You have to stay here.” He gave the boy a little shake, his eyes fixed on Daud’s. “You’re lucky, little brother. Stay that way.”
Another shake, and his tone changed. “You need some dry clothes,” he said. He stood up, turning back to the arms on the wall. His gaze sharpened; he reached down into a chest below the swords, and took out a tunic of fine white cloth. He laid this on top of the chest and smoothed it with his hands; on the breast was a red cross, like a splash of blood. Rikart stroked his hands over it. Without looking up from it, he said, “Go ask for Umm Maryam, she will take care of you.” Daud turned, wooden, and walked back to the next room.
Rikart went into the garden, into the back where no one would see him, and standing with his face toward the wall, his feet apart, he stretched his arms straight out to either side like a cross. He did not pray. He had no one to pray to. His God had failed. The Muslims had won that war, and now in turn the Muslims would lose. He saw no sense in this. His arms began to ache but he held them outstretched. He thought of the old man hanging from the beam, of the bodies floating in the river. The boy, clinging to him, whom he could not save. The thin shriek of the catapults. His muscles were burning, his body shaking with the effort of holding his arms out. Some order in it teased the corner of his mind but he could not grasp it. Maybe he was unworthy of it. He lowered his arms to his sides.
Something pounded in the distance, not coming closer, just a steady far off thud. Daud, leaning on the palm tree, thought he could feel the shudder of it through the tree’s skin. Smoke drifted in the air even here at the heart of the Round City. He began to climb the tree, his hands on the boll, his feet walking up the slender trunk.
As he climbed higher he rose above the level of the wall around the palace, and he could see the hundreds of mounted men lined up on the pavement there. Rikart was one of them, somewhere. He looked for the white coat with its cross, in a sea of white coats. He swallowed a bitter taste in his mouth. Rikart had said he would take care of him and then had abandoned him. He climbed higher.
Now he could see the porch of the Caliph’s Palace. On the balcony there a man in a big white turban was waving his arms and speaking. Now and then the crowd watching gave off spurts of loud noise. They thrust their arms into the air. The horses reared and danced. There were very many of them, he could not pick Rikart out among them.
His eyes stung. Rikart had cast him off.
Now a great shout went up from the army—“God is God! God is great—!”
All around the city, behind Daud and on either side and all over, other voices rose. “God is great!” as if the whole of Baghdad cheered. His heart swelled, part of this great power.
He put his cheek against the palm tree. God would save them. Rikart would come back a hero and Daud would go to him and they would be friends again. Brothers, as Rikart had said.
Now they were turning, the whole army, swiveling in place, still in their lines, and riding toward the gateway. In his plumed turban the amir led the way. “God is great!” all the people shouted, and Daud scurried down from the palm tree and ran around the side of the palace, toward the great street there.
Crowds packed the side of the street; he had to worm his way through them to get to where he could see. He squeezed in between two men shouting God’s name. Down the broad pavement the mounted horsemen rode in their ranks, and the ground trembled under them. Daud let out a cheer. He saw Rikart, there in the first row, and waved, and ran along the edge of the street, keeping up. The roar of the crowd rolled like thunder. The horsemen waved their hands, and their horses capered, dancing, their eyes flashing. A girl darted out of the crowd and cast an armful of flowers in the way of the army. Daud cheered again, exalted. Ahead was the gate; he worked his way off through the crowd again, down to the wall, and up the stair along the wall to the parapet.
A boardwalk ran along the wall just below the top of the parapet and from here he could see, out there on the plain beyond the Canal, the whole long dusty mass of the enemy, an indistinct shifting cloud. People crowded in around him, so close he had trouble keeping his feet. The walk groaned under their weight. Everybody was jumping up and down, shouting and waving their fists. He leaned on the wall to keep his place. Below, the broad brown water of the New Canal flowed by, pent between the city wall and the high earthen dike.
The Southern Gate opened out here, leading over a bridge across the canal. As the army came out the gate they had to slow, narrow their ranks to four abreast, edge their way onto the bridge. The howling crowd urged them on.
And out there, even the enemy quailed at their approach. The dusty cloud was backing away, giving up the broad plain beyond the canal. They were afraid. Daud yelled and could not hear his own voice in the uproar. He beat his fists on the wall. The Caliph’s army was crossing the bridge, was forming up its ranks on the far side. The Amir with his feathered turban held his arm up. In the screaming of the crowd Daud could hear nothing, but then the Amir dropped his arm.
The army charged forward, the front rank stretching out to either side, broad as a blade. Behind that the rest of the horsemen pushed up to fill the gaps. Their cloaks fluttered. The manes of their horses rippled like banners. They swung their lances down to level, and bolted across the level ground at the enemy, which was shrinking back, retreating.
Under Daud’s feet the ground shook, slightly, and a low boom reached his ears.
He leaned across the wall, trying to pick Rikart out of the mass of charging men. Then someone near him wailed, and pointed, and he swung around—they all swung around—and saw, up beyond the bridge, the dike of the New Canal collapsing, and the water gushing through onto the plain.
The charging army wavered. Daud called out, sobbing. It was too late. The tide of water was sweeping down along the plain, flooding the low ground, cutting the horsemen off from the city. And now the cloud of the enemy was wheeling back, closing in. From all sides they pushed in against the Caliph’s army, a dusty horde, a whirlwind, a storm. They filled the air with their arrows. The Caliph’s army broke into bits, running men, running horses, and the enemy swarmed over them, and they were gone.
Around Daud the people sank down, their voices failed. A low moan rose from them. Daud was gasping for breath. A prickle of terror ran down his back. He wheeled around, and ran.
He kept running, his breath a fire in his lungs. He could hear screaming somewhere. Dust and smoke drifted in the air. He slowed, at last, exhausted, by the Caliph’s Garden, and realized he was two streets down from Reb Moseh’s house.
That steadied him, to know where he was. He ran down an alleyway and across a little bridge and came to the street, and there was the house where his mother worked. The high gate was closed, but he knew how to open it—push the bar there, then lean on the little wooden door set in the side of the barrier. He went into the courtyard, panting.
It was quiet. It was as if nothing had ever happened, except he saw no one else. He crossed the empty courtyard to the kitchen house, where his mother would be. She was not there. The kitchen maids were not there. The long room silent, cool, empty. Smelling of bad milk. The oven was cold. He went along the table; beneath that were baskets of fruit, of vegetables, and he took an apple and ate it. He could stay here. There was food here, and his mother would come back. He went out of the kitchen, across the courtyard again, to the main house.
That door was open. He went in. On the threshold he started to call out, but his own voice choked him.
He walked through the front room, the carpets neatly laid, the tables with their embroidered cloths. Nobody was there, but they would come back. The house was all ready for them. The silence was just for now. He would stay here and wait. At the foot of the steps he looked up. He had never been allowed to go there. He trembled to think of it. But he climbed the stair. The air grew warmer as he climbed. He could still smell smoke but only a little. He went up to the landing. The rooms opening off were empty. In one a loom stood, the beater still in the threads. A jug was turned over on the floor.
He went on, up the last flight, to Reb Moseh’s room.
Before he pulled back the curtain a bad smell reached him. He stood on the threshold, and saw there on the floor the old man stretched out on his back, his hands folded on his chest. Flies buzzed around him. Daud’s stomach clenched. He could not move. The old man’s eyes were closed but if Daud moved surely the lids would fly open, Reb Moseh would look at him, would scold him. He whined in his throat. He could not stay. He had to go, he had to get out of here fast.
He went back downstairs, and back to the kitchen. Outside, as he was crossing the courtyard he could hear, again, the pound and crash of the catapults. In the kitchen he found one of his mother’s marketing baskets and went around filling it with food, figs and apples, some flatbread, a cheese. He ate cheese as he went around, looking for anything else. He took a knife from the wall. In a jug he found water and washed down the last of the cheese.
He hauled the heavy basket back to the gate. He had to find somewhere to hide. To keep his stock of food. He would come back for a blanket. As he went out the gate to the street, a dozen boys pounced down on him.
He shouted. Went to his knees. They tore the basket out of his hands and knocked him flat. He dropped the knife. Someone kicked him. He bounded up to his feet, and they swung fists at him and battered him down again. While they were doing that one grabbed the basket and ran off, and the others chased him. He crept off a little on hands and knees. The knife lay before him on the pavement and he snatched it up. Getting to his feet, he raced away down the street.
He walked, going nowhere, through an empty bazaar, the beggars gone, the rugs taken up and the displays, the shop doors shut. Beyond that, the rutted back street led him through orchards, between high walls. In a gateway a man with a sword leaned against the wall. When Daud came by, and slowed, the guard reached down for a stone at his feet, and Daud hurried off.
He saw a band of boys coming around the corner, and went the other way.
His stomach hurt with hunger. He was tired but if he tried to stop his legs soon drove him on again, urgent. The distant bang and crash of the war faded into the back of his mind. He thought of nothing but getting something to eat. He should have eaten more when he had had the chance. He trudged along, dreaming of food.
There were people in the street; as he passed, he looked, but he saw no face he knew.
A wavering voice called out overhead, and he twitched all over. Yearning, he turned that way. Old words came to him, blessing Mohammed who was calling him to God. He forgot most of the prayer, the words were always strange, not ordinary talk. He went in a gate. Other people everywhere, and he hung back. At the water fountain he waited for a chance to wash. Women and children were pushing one way, to the side of the courtyard, to another door into the mosque. He went in a tide of men through the main door.
The call to prayer went on above him. He thought, Mohammed, Prophet of God, blessings to you, give me something to eat.
They were calling the men to line up, inside the mosque. He sidled in along the doorway. There was no room, already hundreds of men filled the wide space, and now they were kneeling, all at once, a wave descending. He knelt down where he was, back in a corner.
Like a thunder, the voices rose, begging for salvation. He huddled against the wall, tired. The men around him bent and banged their foreheads on the floor and rose with their faces dripping blood. His stomach turned. He drew back as far as he could, and shut his eyes, and the giant voices rolled over him.
Then he was waking up, climbing up through sleep, a soft voice calling him.
He opened his eyes. The prayers were a rumble in his ears. Before him, smiling, was the long pale face of his master’s daughter Dinah.
He sat up, making his obeisance, and she touched his face. “No need. How glad I am to see you. Here.” She pressed a wooden cup into his hands. Warm. He lifted it to his lips and drank the hot meaty broth. She was looking into his eyes, still smiling. She said, “Be well, little man. Here.” She leaned forward and kissed his forehead. “Be blessed.” She went away, carrying more cups, a big jug.
He finished the broth before he ended his hunger. But he sat up now. He looked around for Dinah and saw her across the mosque, giving food to people. He took heart; he got up, went out to the courtyard, washed his hands and face in the fountain.
Out in the street, several men stood in a clump, talking in low voices. Their eyes followed him, suspicious. Daud went on down toward the canal and walked along the street there. The day before, it had been running nearly full but now it was only knee deep. At the foot of the next bridge was a man selling from a wagon, strings of onions and fruit and herbs. On either side a big man held a sword across his body. Several people stood before the wagon, ready to buy, and more coming all the time.
Daud hung back. No one seemed to notice him. He had nothing to buy with. Quickly he looked back at the canal. His mother had given him treats for catching fish. If he caught some fish, or turtles even, he might trade them. He went to the edge of the canal and slid down the side.
Made of fitted stones, the bank sloped easily at first but then turned steep, and he slipped and slid most of the way, grabbing for handholds on the rough wall. Halfway down the dry stone vanished under slick wet green weed, crusted with sand and shells. Yesterday that had been under water. He skidded through it, down into the ditch, his feet sinking into the muck and stones of the bottom. He began to work his way up the current, watching the water, looking for anything he could catch.
Ahead of him, something plopped into the water. Maybe he could sell frogs. Nobody ate frogs. The dark water flowed slowly along, bending over the waving floating carpet of the weedy bottom. A patch of scum floated toward him, evil smelling. He drew back, his stomach gripped. Looking up he saw the sky above him, a blue arch between the high walls of the canal, and then far off, up in the air, there came a sound that stood his hair on end, a thin distant shriek coming closer.
He scrambled toward the far wall. A little way down, a round hole opened in it, a culvert through to the next canal, and he made for that, struggling through the thigh-deep water. A crash of rocks shattered the air above him. The sound rocketed eerily around in the canal and another thundering downpour came and another, not into the canal, but striking just beyond, into the street. A few rocks bounced down into the canal and Daud reached the culvert and dove into it.
The sound boomed inside this space, stuffed his ears. He clutched his knees to his chest. A horrible smell reached him. Halfway down the tunnel a body lay on its back. His stomach rolled. He had to get away from that, and inched toward the opening, but then another barrage struck just outside the tunnel. Dust sprayed him. He shrank down. Whatever that was, behind him in the tunnel, it was dead. It wouldn’t hurt him. Another crash and boom of rocks. He buried his face against his knees.
The rolling crash went on and on, long after, he thought, the stones stood falling. He went up to the edge of the tunnel and looked out. A heap of stones lay along the foot of the far wall. He sat there a long while, waiting for more, but no more happened.
He was thirsty. He crept down out of the tunnel and out along the canal. The water was murky, littered with new stones. Where the water ran clear he knelt to drink but before he could even dip his hand into the stream he saw a dead man lying face down a few feet away and he lurched backward, his heart racing.
He staggered on, crossed the canal beneath the bridge, and climbed up on the pier. At the top, he stood still for a moment, unable to move. The main barrage had struck here. The air was filmy with dust. Two men lay on the ground in front of him, battered to bloody rags. The wagon that had sold figs was half buried under rocks. He bolted, running as fast as he could past the bodies, dodging past another in the street. The screaming kept going on. He ran into the courtyard of the mosque, where the fountain had been.
The fountain was gone, lost under a pile of rocks, although the water still bubbled up through the rubble. Other dead people lay around the courtyard. A woman knelt by the gate sobbing a prayer. Dazed, Daud looked for the mosque, and could not find that either. Finally he realized that the wall still stood, but the dome was broken in like an eggshell.
Dinah, he thought, and for a moment could not think at all. He knelt down at the fountain, and drank the water. His hands were shaking and his stomach hurt. He went off again to the street, toward Reb Moseh’s house. Little groups of people stood around the street, muttering ton each other. There was no litter of stones in the street here, so far inside the wall, Daud thought, this was out of range. He wound his way quickly through the thin crowds. Going by the Caliph’s garden he smelled smoke and saw fires, back under the trees.
He found Reb Moseh’s house, but someone else lived there, now. The gate was barred, the windows shuttered tight, even the balcony covered up. He walked back up the canal street. Night was coming. He could not stop shaking. There were people ahead of him at the bridge, already groping through the rubble for the vendor’s goods, rummaging around the dead. They gave him piercing looks as he went by them.
He crossed over the bridge in the dark, going toward the wall. The streets here were battered with rocks but there were no people. He found a place out of the wind and slept. Every few moments, he woke, his body clenched like a fist.
In the morning, going in close under the city wall, he climbed over a locked gate and into an enclosed courtyard. The whole compound had been bombarded and bits of rock strewed the courtyard and the roofs of the buildings were crushed in. He saw no bodies. These people had run away when the barrage started. He looked for a kitchen house, found a hall with ovens and tables, but no food. Somebody had already taken everything. An ewer, empty, on the floor.
Across the way was a bedroom, opening onto the courtyard. The roof had come down inside, burying most of it, but he uncovered cushions, finely stitched, and a blanket. He dragged these into an angle of the courtyard wall—he wanted to be outside, where he could run—and made a bed. His stomach ached with hunger. He took the ewer and went out through the ruins, over the gate again, to the canal, and filled the ewer with water. The canal was only a shallow stream here. Maybe the water was going away all over Baghdad. He had not thought of that. He remembered the dike breaking. Maybe soon even the canals would be empty. Sitting, exhausted, hungry, on his new bed, he faced the far wall, where there were rows of shelves, like Reb Moseh’s book shelves. Some bits of pottery still on the shelves. He lay down, but he did not sleep; he fell to brooding.
After a long while he saw a huge rat crawl along the bottom shelf, pick its way through the debris of pots and stones to a hole in the wall, and go through.
Daud thought about that a while, and then he went over to the shelves. These were boards, held up on the wall with metal braces poked into the seams of the bricks. He felt over the shelf the rat had traveled. Some of the braces were loose and he worried the holes wider with his knife, so that the braces sagged. He loosened the braces on the shelf above that one. Taking out a board higher on the wall, he cut pieces of that and braced up the bottom shelf with them, where the rat had run, so it wouldn’t come down too soon. Then he went around the courtyard and gathered all the stones he could, and piled them on the upper shelf until it groaned.
He went off, morose. It would not work, it was too obvious, the rat would see. He wandered off into the broken rooms. Under the dust the floors were tiled. In a tiny back room he found a lamp full of oil and a striker to light it. He thought these people had been rich, even more than Reb Moseh. In a corner there was a chest, full of clothes. The smallest thobe was too big for him. He fingered the embroidery around the neck, the fine shell buttons. Finally he cut off the bottom and put the garment on over his head, rolling up the sleeves.
Beside an overturned bed he found a little wooden boat. Some boy had lived here, a boy like him. He wondered where that boy was now. His stomach hurt from hunger. Dark was coming. He had found nothing to eat for days. Finally he went back to his space, curled up against the wall, and went to sleep.
The crash brought him up out of his sleep like a shocked bird. It was dark. The moon shone down into the courtyard in a silver flood but the far wall was in a pit of shadow. Something was shrieking, across the way, venting tiny screams. He pulled out his knife and went toward the noise, which got higher, the thing knowing he was coming. In the dark he plunged the knife down toward the noise. The blade skidded on something hard and down into something soft, and he twisted and hauled at it, both hands on the hilt, until the tiny screaming had stopped.
He dug the great furry stinking body up out of the rocks and carried it out to the moonlight. He would make a fire. He had the lamp, with the striker, and there was plenty of wood. He cut the rat open, the warm, smoking coils of its guts spilling silvery as fish into the moonlight. Without thinking he knew what he was going for. He had seen his mother cut up chickens. He knew the heart, the nugget of blood and meat, at the middle of this. He found that, and put it into his mouth, still hot with life, and gnashed it down, delicious, before he skinned the rest of the rat and cooked the flesh over his fire.
The city wall made the back wall of his compound, and climbing up onto the roof he could see all the way to the Basra Gate with its two towers. He sat there a while, watching. The Mongol army was off on the far side of the plain. Between them and the wall the flood from the dike had drained away into glassy puddles. On this mucky groundsat monstrous wooden frames, like horrible birds, with necks that craned back and forth, and spat rocks. The rocks were crashing into the Basra Gate. He could see people swarming all over the top of the gate, but now someone was running toward him along the parapet, wailing.
“Lost! Lost, we’re lost—
Up there, the near gate tower suddenly swayed like a dancer. Daud drew in a hard breath. Dust rose all around the tower, and the stonework collapsed into the dust.
Then from the great churning mass of the Mongol army, on the plain outside the wall, there went up such a howl that Daud himself yelled out. They were charging in toward the new gap in the wall, a raging torrent, as if the whole plain dissolved into horsemen. He wheeled around and jumped down to the courtyard.
Outside, on the street, people streamed by him, running, a woman with children clinging to her, a man pushing a two-wheeled cart. Boys raced past. A tiny child stumbled along, alone, its face twisted with sobs. He went to the edge of the canal. People rushed along the street on the far side, too, but down at the bridge he saw a knot of men.
Pushing against the current of the fleeing crowd, he went on down the street and across the bridge. On the far side some people were throwing up a barricade across it; they had already hauled a boat up to block the bridge’s mouth. Daud jumped over it. “I’ll help—Let me help—“ They were piling on chunks of rock and he hauled stones, and with two other men found a wagon abandoned down the street, all together lifted it, and heaved it on top, to make a wall as high as his head.
The man on the far side of the wagon gave him a quick, hard look and a nod and a wave. Daud followed him across the street, where a big woman in an apron was chopping with an axe at a wooden gate in the wall.
More people ran to join them. The uproar at the Basra Gate was swelling toward them like a rolling wave. They heaved up chunks of wood onto the barricade and the first of the Mongols appeared at the far end of the bridge, small men on little horses.
The woman with the axe let out a scream. She wore no headcloth, no veil. Her great breasts swelled the cloth above her apron. The rest of them surged up beside her, Daud one of them, his hands full of rocks. He scrambled up onto the wagon on top of the wall. The Mongols charged across the narrow bridge, and everybody at the barricade hurled rocks.
One of the horses went down. Daud screamed in triumph, waving his arms in the air, and then the woman was shoving him down into the shelter of the barricade. The air whistled. Something struck the broken gate right before him, and the tip of an arrow like a wicked snake head poked through, still shivering. The woman, panting beside him, said, “Watch out for that.”
She reared up again, the axe canted back over her shoulder, and he rose beside her. Just over the barricade three horses were scrambling up on the boat part of the wall, smashing the thin hull strakes with their hoofs. The little horse closest to Daud, lunging forward, drove one foreleg through the boat, and hung there, stuck. The rider jumped off. Under the round metal cap of his helmet the slits of eyes looked out from a flat inhuman face, dark as leather. The woman struck his knees out from under him with her axe. On Daud’s other side an old man swung a long Mameluke sword and blood sprayed across the barricade. Daud could reach nothing with his club and the horsemen were falling back now. He shrank down away from another wave of arrows. The woman flung an arm around him.
“Noble boy! Noble boy!”
The ground under them shook. He pushed himself up to see a dozen horsemen charge toward the barricade. He reared up to meet them. With the chunk of wood he laid around him as they surged onto the broken wood. Something struck him from behind and he fell.
He struggled awake. He was dead, he thought. He could not move and around him was only darkness. His neck hurt. He turned his head a little, to ease that. He was not dead, he was pinned down under something. Under a body, he thought, still warm, spread above him like a blanket. He could hear screaming, but there was always screaming. He slept again.
He woke when the weight above him suddenly shifted away, and the light shone in, and someone grabbed him. He struck out with his fists. Above him a face goggled, a thin Baghdadi face, not Mongol. “This one’s alive!” he backed away, his hands up. “I didn’t mean—I didn’t—” He went away, quickly, following some others down the street.
Daud sat up, still heavy with sleep. Beside him lay the woman with the axe, her face sliced in half, her apron sodden with blood. He felt the ground shake under him and flung himself down again into the shelter of the body. A stream of horsemen galloped by him. He heard a whoop; they had caught the looters. Daud lifted his head slightly, looking around.
Down the street a tight knot of horsemen was striking down with swords at something in their midst. Closer, three dead people lay on their backs. Across the canal, he heard a crash, and twisted to see; a string of Mongols rode along the row of gated houses there, and at each gate, two men with axes smashed it in.
Another band of horsemen raced across the bridge, carrying torches. They passed within arm’s length of him and galloped off down the street.
Daud crept back down among the bodies and the wreckage of the barricade. He knew where he was; the bridge was just below him, its footing only a few yards away. He had hidden there before. He wormed his way along, sliding past the woman with the axe. She still had the axe clutched in her hand and he thought of taking it. It belonged to her. He crawled under a section of the broken gate to the edge of the bridge, and waited there a long while. He could see most of the two streets here, one on either side of the canal, and they were full of people and horses. Two buildings were on fire. Just across the way from him, a man on the rooftop flung a body over the edge, which twisted and screamed down into the canal. Down the way, smoke began to rise from the roof of a house.
The canal had run dry, but down the middle of it now a little stream began to flow, a dark trickle. He had a momentary idea of the whole city bleeding. The air smelled bitter.
Shimmering red, the sun was sinking down into a haze of smoke and dust. He lowered himself feet first down the side of the bridge platform, got a foothold on the structure underneath, and swung down into the close space between the span and the bank of the canal. The bridge shook overhead, more people passing over it, they stopped in a pounding of hoofs and a sharp exchange of orders, and then suddenly the rest of the barricade was showering down over the side of the bridge into the canal. The bloody woman fell by him, splayed out, the axe still in her hand.
He huddled in the dark, his arms around his knees, all the long night. Up and down the canal, fires bloomed. The coppery light flickered along the canal wall, now and then dimmed in rolling dark smoke. The smoke made him gag, reeking of burnt meat.
In the morning, he went along under the bridge and along the side of the canal. There was no water in the stream bed but there were puddles of blood . He went through another culvert and into the canal that went by Reb Moseh’s street. Even before he came up to the street he saw smoke and the flicker of a fire and heard the flames crackle. The Caliph’s garden was burning. In the street before him a woman’s body lay, stripped naked. A sword stuck up between her legs. He went quickly along the side of the street, keeping close to the wall. The clatter of hoofbeats behind him warned him to duck into a gateway. A stream of horsemen went by him; they rode right over the body in the street. One of them in passing pulled out the sword.
Pressed to the wall of the gateway arch, he turned to look inside. The house was still smoking, inside its brick walls. Its hollow windows gaped, its door only a hole to a black emptiness. His stomach heaved. In the burnt ash and char that lay thick as a blanket on the courtyard he saw the outlines of bodies.
Somewhere a woman screamed, “No—Please, no—”
He went on through the street. The flames from the big trees in the Caliph’s garden were crinkling the air and embers and ash floated by him. He stepped over things in the street that he did not look at. He did not look into the gateways. At the corner he stood and looked across at the wreckage of Reb Moseh’s house and knew it only by the wall, the last thing standing.
In the next street he heard a crash, and a howl of voices, and he walked the other way.
There was no water. The canals dry, the fountains dry. He went toward the Tigris. In a little garden tucked behind a wall, where rocks had smashed the trees, he found water in a basin. He rummaged through the broken trees and found oranges. He heard someone coming and went back over the wall again, and down a long narrow arcade into a bazaar. On the far side of the little courtyard, while he was eating the oranges, he noticed the arcade he had just come through, a stretch of shelf along the wall. The roof beyond was tilted, and all the fallen rocks had rolled down onto the top of the arcade, which groaned on its buckling wooden posts.
He went along this, looking at it. Picking up a chunk of wood he swung it at a post, and the wood cracked and part of the roof sagged abruptly.
He went back out to the canal street again. The smoke was rolling thick along the street, and he had to go a good way along the street to find any Mongols. He heard the howling ahead, and looking in a gateway saw three or four men inside, still on their horses, hammering at a door with poles.
He picked up a rock and threw it at them, threw another when they turned, and took off running back the way he had come. They came whooping after him. In the smoke he slowed a little, to make sure he did not lose them, and they came charging after him, yipping like dogs. He dodged into the arcade and they followed. In the narrow space the horses collided, grunting, only a few yards behind him. He ran along. Not caring if he fell, he shoved at the columns as he passed and smashed into the last one shoulder first, drove it out into the courtyard, and the roof came down with a long rumbling roar.
He got to his feet in the courtyard. The falling roof and the rocks on top were burying the three horsemen. He could heard whimpering, and under the heap of stones something thrashed and more stones fell and then the crying stopped. He went closer. He saw, among the dusty stones, a horse’s tail, a limp hand. He went on down the arcade toward the gate.
The last rider had nearly escaped. At the end of the arcade he sat to his waist in a pile of rocks, his back to the wall, his horse crumpled under him. Dust covered him, his skin and hair grey as a tombstone. Blood leaked from his head, from his ears and his mouth and nose, bright against the grey dust. His eyes glistened. He looked across the narrow distance at Daud, and their eyes met. Daud did nothing, said nothing. He watched the shining eyes dull into stones. After a while, Daud went back out to the street, toward the little garden, to gather more nuts, but the Mongols had been there in the meantime and the place was torched.
He stood on the roof of his compound, a while later, and looked out over Baghdad. The air was grimy. In columns like trees, in long filmy veils, the smoke lay all over the city. There were no real trees. There was nothing green left. The wreckage of the houses stretched out before him like a desert. Above the broken roofs the smoke gathered, and the wind caught it and blew it away.
Where he had walked on the roof his footprints showed black in the pale ash.
The Caliph’s palace still stood, out in the middle of the city, but the domes were broken in. The House of Wisdom was a blackened husk. Nothing moved in Baghdad. It was dead, it was empty.
In the distance, the yellow dust cloud of the Mongols was drifting away. They had been marching out all morning. They hadn’t even wanted Baghdad, only to destroy it, and now they were going somewhere else.
He got down off the wall. Crossing the bridge, he went to the Basra Gate. One of the towers had come down in a tumble of rock and the other leaned like an old woman. As Daud got nearer, birds rose up from the ruin in a cloud. The guards had defended Baghdad until they all died, and they remained, rotting in the new sun, already half-eaten. The stench made his stomach heave. He walked among the dead and out to the road, and crossed over to the plain beyond. One foot after the other, he walked along the road.
He was lying on his face in the road. He could not remember falling. The heat on his back. His eyes were full of dust. His mouth. The ground under him trembled. Something was coming. He could not move out of the way.
Something touched him. He could not open his eyes. He was lifted up. A cool wet rag passed over his face, he gasped, trying to lap at the wetness, and he blinked his eyes open, saw a beard, two dark eyes. Smiling. A flask came to his lips. He gulped at the taste, sweet and mild, of milk. He opened his throat and let it pour down into him and flood him. The man lifted him up again. He sank down into a close space with woven sides. A basket. The warm rank shaggy smell of an animal enveloped him. A moment later the basket was rocking along, carrying him along. He slept.
In The Ordu of the Il-Khan
Dinah ached, her whole body a single burning pain, her bottom half ripped and ruined. Lying on the hard ground in the dark she shivered, thinking she might be pregnant. Some horror growing in her.
No matter. They would kill her soon. They would kill them all soon.
She had always been the one to care for others. She had always had that power. Now she needed care and no one. No one.
She cried, lying on the ground. Around her, the others cried. On the far side of the room a woman called out, “No—No—”
It was not happening now. It had happened before, outside. They would kill them all soon. She had seen them killing all the people, even the children. The babies. Broken like loaves of bread.
She had lost her mind then, gone mad, or partway died, she remembered nothing, only waking, here in the dark among so many others. Her body throbbed. Torn open. No seed could flourish there. Pray to God no seed would take there.
She cried again, hopeless, wanting to die.
Instead they came and made her stand up. Short men, stocky, narrow eyes. Skin like leather. One nudged her. “Hey. Christian? Christian?” He poked her breast, laughing. “Christian?” She plodded on, uncaring now, it was not her body now.
Then hands pushed a cup of water into her hands. She grunted. The inside of her mouth puckered. She had not known how thirsty she was. She lifted the cup and drank.
She was outside, in a street. Smoke drifted by her. The wall before her was broken in. With a dozen other women she stood on the pavement, with horsemen all around her.
The hands took the cup. The man behind them gave her a bowl full of a tasteless gruel.
They were all eating. The other women. She saw their rags and clutched at her own dress, torn from the waist down. Stiff with dried blood against her legs. Their hair wild and frizzy, and she lifted her hand to her hair, matted and crusted with dirt.
A short brown man on a horse rode in among them. “Listen to me! All you women. You are spared because you are Christian. The Khatun Dokaz herself has gone before her lord the Khan and begged for your lives. Thank God for this.”
Dinah shivered. He was looking straight at her as he said this. She said, “I am not Christian.”
The horsemen were moving them all toward the gate, herding them along like sheep. The man before her shifted his horse to block Dinah’s way. “Someone said you were, or you would not be here.” He spoke stilted Arabic. In his broad dark face his teeth suddenly gleamed. “Maybe better you are, so?”
She said, “I am not a Christian.” She was crying again. That was all she had left. She would not lie to save her life. She said, “I am a Jew.”
He said something under his breath in his own language. The horse sidestepped, restless, the other women were filing off, and the countless riders all around them, out the broken gate. She thought, I will not leave Baghdad. Die here. She felt comfort in that.
The Mongol rider said, “I’m tired of killing people. I say you are a Christian. Go with them.” He reined his horse around and rode away.
They trudged on after the army, their little band of women among hundreds moving, masses of people and animals going on across the plain. There were seventeen of them, a few young girls, one old woman, the rest of middle years. The horses ahead of them kicked up a dust that yellowed the sun. After them came a train of carts. Dinah thought they were crossing fields, put under for the winter, but nothing grew here now. The ground beaten to flour. They came to a canal and had to wade it. The carts took longer to get across and fell behind them. Horsemen trotted busily up and down, swerving past them, but paid no heed to them, except to bring water and food.
The other women watched her. One said, “She’s not one of us. You heard her.”
She pretended not to hear them but the skin crawled on the back of her neck. The Mongols brought them bowls and a jug, and she licked her lips, hungry.
She stood back. They were passing the jug, full of the thin clear stuff the Mongols drank, that tasted like sour milk. She waited until they were all done, and sipped up the little left in the bottom.
That night they slept on the ground. Before dawn the horsemen roused them up and started them off again. Soon after the old woman sat down where she stood, and they all walked on and left her there.
Dinah turned to look over her shoulder; in the dust the woman was a disappearing lump on the plain behind them. She thought, I could do that. Escape like that.
The Mongols fed them all more of the sour milk, bread, a handful of figs. She thought of Persephone, but she ate it all.
The days blended together. A horseman brought her a blanket—she thought he might be the same man who had talked to her in the ruins, young, a round face, high cheekbones, slits for eyes. The other women would not let her eat with them. One shoved her away and another threw stones at her.
The flat ground was rising, and ahead, hills lifted from it, long ridges like waves they walked along the valley between them. During the day she wrapped her blanket around her like a skirt and at night she curled up beneath it. The other women spat at her. They tried to keep her from getting any food at all.
They came out of the valley onto a broad grassland, stretching off long to the horizon. From the height of the pass she looked out to what seemed the edge of the world. Great herds of horses grazed on it but the enormous sky made them seem little. There were no clouds. The wind ruffled along the hillsides, turning over the grass in waves.
A dozen riders came up to the women, and with their horses herded them all together, as if they were sheep. Dinah hung back, wary of the other women, until a horse struck her from behind and bumped her forward into their midst.
The tall woman wheeled and slapped her. She turned to the horsemen and shouted in Arabic, “Take her away! She is not one of us, you heard her—the dirty Jew! Take her away!”
The horse behind her brushed up against her again. She turned, trying to escape, and the rider got her by the arm and hoisted her like a child up in front of him. He slung her across his saddlebows, face down. She clutched at the air, at the horse, at the stirrup by her shoulder, and the horse bounded forward and she was sailing off along with it, the grass sweeping by her, a foot from her nose.
They stopped, abruptly, in front of a round tent. The Mongol lifted Dinah by the arms and slid her down feet first to the ground. He shouted something; his horse backed a few steps away from her. It was that same boy, she thought, who had first spoken to her in the church.
In front of the tent was a two-wheeled cart. Three women stood there, their arms full of cloth and boxes, staring at them. When the Mongol boy shouted again, one turned, set her load of boxes down, and came up toward Dinah.
Dinah backed away; she could not stop herself. The woman stopped. She spoke to the Mongol, who answered her with a shrug and some words. Turning back to Dinah, she said something in another language, and then, suddenly, in Arabic, “You want water? To wash.”
Dinah’s mouth fell open. She said, “Yes, please.”
The Mongol boy galloped off. The woman—lanky, a lean face, a gap between her front teeth—brought out a basin of water. The other two were younger, maybe her daughters. They stood watching her; when she looked up one smiled and nodded and made sweeping motions toward her face. Dinah set the basin on the tail of the cart. Bending over it, she washed her face, and the water turned to mud.
They brought more. She washed down through a crust of dirt, to the sunburnt skin of face and arms, and then—with a glance at the women watching her—she peeled off the rags of her dress. Her underthings were gone. She washed her body, her legs.
They brought more water, and some cloths. She washed between her legs, the blood caked on her thighs, everything still sore.
They brought her leggings of thin leather, and a long coat, blue, with a front that crossed one side over the other and buttoned on the shoulder. The gap-toothed woman said, “Sit down, here,” and sat behind her and took a comb to Dinah’s hair.
The comb stuck in her hair. One of the daughters murmured. The mother muttered to herself. Dinah could see the comb full of broken hair. Finally the woman got up and went to the cart.
She came back with shears, and Dinah cried out, “No!” and put her hands to her head. Under her fingers a mass of filthy straw. One daughter seized her wrists and held them out in front of her, and the other gripped her head by the ears.
It was terrible; it was like the other time, when they held her, and she thrashed and screamed and wept. They kept her fast. They cut her hair off, and let her go, and she sat there panting.
The gap-toothed woman said, “You are done, now. Be calm.”
Dinah wiped her cheeks with her fingers. She touched her head, the hair stubbled like a beard. She said, “I will never be done. It will never be done.” Her breath came short; a scream gathered down in her throat.
The gap-toothed woman shrugged. “Your hair will grow back.”
Dinah ran her hand again over the burr of her skull. The scream never came up. The woman brought her some of the sour milk to drink. She sat and watched while they went back to unpacking the cart. They took everything into the round tent, boxes, bowls and pans, stacks of cloth, rugs.
Being clean was astonishing. Dinah’s skin felt soft and new as a baby’s. Drowsy, she was half asleep when the Mongol rider came back.
He rode in among them; he spoke to them from the saddle. She could not remember seeing him ever off his horse. He turned to her, and said, “Stand up.”
She stood, moving away as she did. He nodded. “Good. You look much better.” He spoke to the other women in a laughing way, and they bowed and he gave them something from his belt pouch. He turned to Dinah.
“Come with me.” He kicked loose a stirrup and bent down, one arm out.
She saw he meant her to get on behind him. She slid her hands behind her. “Where?”
“To see my mother,” he said. “Now, come on, nice as you look now, I don’t want to muss you up getting you there.”
She was afraid; she looked around as if somehow she might be able to escape. They were all watching her. She remembered them cutting her hair, the hands gripping her wrists and her head, and how she could not fight back then. And so not now. She gathered herself, went up to him, and took his arm, and tried to put her foot into the stirrup. He swung her up behind him, and before she was settled the horse galloped off.
She held onto his belt with both hands, jouncing painfully on the back of the saddle, but almost at once they were slowing down, coming up to another tent. He dropped her down on her feet, and for once dismounted from his horse.
The tent was a great circular wall made of heavy cloth, with a pointed top. It was much bigger than the one where she had bathed, and she saw it had a kind of floor under it laid down of wooden planks. People bustled around it. Some were unloading carts and carrying goods into the tent but many were just standing around. They wore coats like her new coat, but of fine shining fabric; they had fur hats on their heads. When her Mongol came after her, they burst forward toward him from all sides, everyone shouting.
“Noyon! Nikola! Noyon!”
He tramped through them, got her by the elbow, and steered her forward, through the door of the tent. Inside, he stopped a moment, still holding on to her, and said, “I am Nikola. You are—”
She swallowed. She wanted not to tell him, but she did not want to lie. She looked away. “Dinah.”
He muttered at her, but she was looking around her now. She stepped into a wide round dim space. The noise from outside died away. Rugs covered the floor of the tent, like a bazaar. The space was open, with only a few thin columns for the roof. In the middle of the room in a hearth of iron were red glowing coals. Nikola nudged her onward, through people carrying in boxes and cloth to either side of the big room. A soft light filtered down through the cloth roof, mellow as honey. Nikola pushed her on across the room, across the soft cushions of the rugs, around the hearth.
In that space was a low table, with, she saw, astonished, a crucifix on it. Behind that, almost to the tent wall, stood an empty chair. Someone put a table down beside it. Two men struggled setting up a folding screen behind it.
The table, the column holding up the roof, the chair were all carved into intricate patterns. As she went by the column she saw in the carvings the glimmer of gold. One hand on her arm, Nikola forced her forward, toward the chair. The men with the screen stood up straight suddenly, and the man with the table also, and toward them all came a woman.
Dinah stopped. The woman was no taller than she was but facing her Dinah felt much smaller. Pale eyes in a dark face. Her coat was sleek as spider silk, lined with fur. On her head a fur cap. Her ears were rimmed and ringed with gold and around her neck were chains of gold. She stood with her head thrown back, as if she looked far off. Then she was turning toward Nikola, and he gave her first a sweeping bow and then embraced her, and Dinah saw this was his mother.
He said, “Girl, this is the Khatun Dokaz.” He spoke to his mother in another language, but Dinah heard her name.
She bowed. The Khatun said, “My son tells me you are a Jew.”
Her heart clenched. Now they would murder her. She lifted her face, eye to eye with the Mongol woman, and said, “Yes.”
“The Great Shaman began as a Jew. You are a favored people. I am honored to have you among us. Come and talk to me.”
Dinah went loose limbed. The Khatun waved Nikola away. She turned to the carved wooden chair and sat down. Dinah did not move. She pressed her hands together. The three-paneled screen behind the chair was painted with birds. Beside the chair was the small table, the top a shining panel of wood inlaid with loops and curls of gold. Someone brought over a gold tray with a pitcher and some cups and set it carefully on the table. There was a little chest next to the pitcher. Beside that, a tiny brazier on its own metal feet. Dinah looked back wonderingly toward the woman in the chair, who smiled at her. The chair itself was carved and figured with metal and with jewels. Set into the high back was a silver medallion—she saw at once it was a map of the world.
“Idrisi,” she said. “That is Idrisi’s map.”
“It is.” The Khatun leaned toward her. “You recognize it? Tell me your name again.” She spoke slowly, carefully, as if the language were new to her.
Dinah cleared her throat. She wondered what she should say. “My name is Dinah, my lady. My father was Reb Moseh ben Maimon, of Baghdad—“
When she said that, suddenly, her heart burst, and she began to weep, not for herself, nor even her father, but for Baghdad, gone to dust. She put her hands to her face.
“Ah, well,” the Khatun said. “Come sit down. Tell me why you are crying.” With her hand she drew Dinah forward. Beside the big chair was a stool, and Dinah sank down on it.
“You ruined my city,” Dinah said. She was gushing with tears. Everything she had suffered poured out of her. “You destroyed us.”
“This happened,” the Khatun said. Her hand lay on Dinah’s shoulder; her fingers pressed and kneaded, as if she would push her into another shape. “And you have been hurt and you have lost all. We did this to you. You see only that we destroy. But we are bringing in a greater world. We must wipe away the old world first, to bring the new. We are gathering all the peoples of the world together again, as we were meant to be, under the most high God, as the earth lies under the sky.”
Dinah lifted her head, astonished. The Khatun smiled at her. Her hand shifted to Dinah’s cheek. “You are welcome here. You are my guest.”
Dinah lowered her head. She could not think this into anything straight. She felt suddenly exhausted. The Khatun touched her again, soft.
“Your father was a rebbe—was he a scholar?”
“There were thousands of scholars in Baghdad.”
“And he was one?”
She sighed. “Yes.”
“And you are a scholar? You recognized Idrisi’s map. You speak Arabic. What else?”
Dinah blinked at her. “Hebrew. Some Farsi.”
“Can you read?”
“Can you read Latin? Can you read this?” The Khatun reached down to the table and took something from the floor beside it, and held it out.
Dinah took this up, a scroll of reed-paper. Black ink marks crossed it, lines and circles, and she could make nothing of it for a moment, until part of a word swam up at her, and she saw the marks as letters of the Latin alphabet. “Frere,” she said. “This is French.”
She began to weep again, tears trickling down her cheeks. The Khatun took her by the chin and turned her face up.
“Why are you crying now?”
“You murdered him,” Dinah said bitterly. “Him I knew who spoke French.” She rubbed at her eyes.
The Khatun patted her cheek. “Ah, poor thing.”
Dinah turned her face away. This kindness gave her nothing to defy. Across a space covered with rugs Nikola stood watching her. The Khatun took the scroll out of her lax grip.
“You have endured much, and yet you live. You interest me. You will stay here, I shall find you some duties. Now share chah with me.”
With her finger she beckoned over a stout woman in a long shining gown.
This woman went to the little table. She poured water from the ewer into a cup, and set the cup on the brazier. After a moment it was bubbling, and the servant emptied it quickly into another cup, filled it again, and set that on the brazier. When this cup was boiling, she dumped out the water in the second cup, filled it again with the fresh boiled water, and opened the little chest.
A heap of dry leaves filled it. A wonderful aroma escaped it. The servant sprinkled several of the leaves on the water, and from the table took a round of wood and fit it over the top of the cup.
Dinah murmured. The Khatun said, “I learned to drink this in the east, when my lord and I were there for the kuriltai.” She spoke as if she and Dinah had known each other for years. There seemed no space between them, as if they were old friends. The servant was going through the whole process with a second cup. When she was done, she took the wooden lid from the first, and kneeling down held the cup out with both hands to the Khatun.
Dokaz stood; she took the cup, held it up to the sky, then to right and left, then toward the ground, and then back and forth. She sat again, and sipped up the steaming drink. “Aaah,” she said. “The eyelids of God, the Han call this.”
The servant gave Dinah the second cup with far less ceremony. Dinah held it, uncertain. She thought briefly again of Persephone, but the delicious smell filled her nose and made her mouth water. She lifted the cup. It was hot, almost too hot to drink, and she sipped cautiously. The savor flowed over her tongue. She felt suddenly warm and happy. Looking to the Khatun, standing there above her, she smiled.
The women had one side of the big tent, and the men the other. At night they slept on mats on the floor. During the day they sat and gossiped and waited to be told what to do.
They took the rugs out into the sun, shook them, beat them, and brought them in again. They kept the fire going in the iron hearth, carrying in dried dung to fuel it. They took food here and there. Dinah obeyed. They gave her a broom and she swept. They gave her a bucket and she went for water. The work was steady but easy. She felt light, hollow, an empty skin. Everything she knew was gone, the household she had managed, the father who had ordered her life, the city that had contained her. She had nothing to hold onto. She watched the other women, and did what they did, stood waiting to be fed, used a certain part of the latrine. Slept on the floor.
She learned words. The tent was a ger, the clear fermented milk was airaq. Nikola was a noyon. Thank you, please. She learned names, like Jun, the big breasted woman who gave them all orders. Tulla, slight and pretty, who could speak some Arabic.
There was a baby, which they brought to her often; he cried a lot, even with his honeytit to suck on. His mother had died.
Tulla said, “He die too, alas. So be it.” She patted Dinah’s shoulder and said something in Mongol.
But Dinah loved to hold him, to have something, anyway, to care for. She took him outside, to the edge of the platform, in the sun.
The camp spread out around her. On either side of this ger was another, just as big, and around them all a little open ground, like a dry moat. Beyond that the gers crowded the long slope as far as she could see. Once she thought it must have been grassland but now the ground was beaten to dust. She sat with the baby in the sun, sang to him as he cried, and lifted her head into the warmth.
He slept, after a while. Cradling him in her crossed legs, she leaned down past the edge of the board floor and smoothed the dust with her hand. With her finger she traced letters in the dust. Some other children came out of the ger, the little girl and two boys. One of the boys was the Khatun’s youngest son, Nikola’s brother. This gave him nothing with the other boy, who was bigger and picked on him. They both went off quickly toward the horses in the open ground. The little girl came over to Dinah and sat down.
She said something, which Dinah thought meant, What are you doing?
Dinah said, “I’m trying to write, khatun.”
The little girl giggled. She probably didn’t understand but she liked being called by the honored word. She leaned on Dinah and watched, and Dinah drew the letters of the Latin script in the dust with her finger.
She remembered how Dokaz had reacted when she recognized the French. If she could remember this, she could find some favor. Once, she had studied this. Her father had often needed help with his library, and she had learned to read the titles of scrolls and books in the Hebrew and the Latin scripts. She thought the Latin letters had some order but she had no idea what it was. The Hebrew script began with Aleph and so she put the Latin A first, and slowly she remembered others, and said their sounds, and drew them in the dust.
The little girl beside her moved closer. Dinah looked over; the child was drawing in the dust, looking carefully at what Dinah did, and copying it.
Dinah laughed, and hugged her. The child shrugged her off and she drew away.
She had fourteen letters in the dust when Nikola came.
He rode up on a spotted horse, without saddle or bridle, which nonetheless came straight beside his mother’s ger door and then stopped. He slid off, and the horse wandered over toward the other horses, in the open ground, where the two little boys were trying to scale their legs. Nikola came over beside Dinah and sank down on his heels.
“Your hair is getting longer,” he said, and reached out toward her head.
She pulled back away from him, and he lowered his hand. He looked down at the dust. “What are you doing?”
She stared down at her hands in her lap; she cradled the baby. Her heart was pounding. She did not dare look at him, or he might try to touch her again.
She said, unsteadily, “This is lettering. An alphabet. But not all yet.”
He frowned at it. “You know this. That’s good. But—for me—“ He put his hand down in the dust and swept all her letters away. “Tell me what is west of here. You knew Idrisi’s map, my mother said. Make me a map.”
She stifled down a rush of anger. She reminded herself she did not own the dust. The baby was waking anyway and she found his sap and gave it to him.
She said, “I am not all so sure where we are now. Here is Baghdad.” She remembered all the maps she had seen of the trade routes east and west. “Here is Damascus, and here is the edge of the sea, and here is Constantinople.” She drew the straight vertical shoreline of the Middle Sea, and made dots in the dust for the cities. “Here is Cairo.” The baby was howling; he had soaked himself, and needed tending. She started up. Nikola got her by the arm and pulled her down again.
She swallowed. Her arm burned where he had touched her. He said, “There is—somewhere—a golden city.”
Startled, Dinah gave a shaky little laugh. “What?”
“The city of Jesus? Sah-lem.”
“Jerusalem,” Dinah said.
“Ah, then it is a real place.”
“Not made of gold,” Dinah said.
“How do you know? Have you been there?”
“No,” she said, with another shaky laugh. Nothing was made of gold; Baghdad itself had been only stone.
“So.” He smiled at her.
She said, “Very well.” She looked down at the map. She did not want to tell him where the Holy City was. She made a random dot. “There is Jerusalem. Now. Answer me, then. What is a shaman?”
“Someone who goes between here and—“ He nodded up, toward the sky. “She said that? She means Jesus. He hung himself on a sacred tree so that he could reach the overworld. That’s what shamans do.”
That was not how Dinah understood Jesus. She got up, holding the baby. “I have to take care of him.”
She went back into the ger; Nikola followed her. As she went through the door of the ger, his hand brushed her backside. She licked her lips. If he attacked her she could not stop him. She took the baby back over to the corner where they kept his fresh clothes.
Ever since they moved off onto this part of the steppe, Dokaz had been expecting some message from the Mongols in the north, and when an emissary came, she had him brought before her right away.
He was one of Berke’s sons, harsh and coarse; the north wind made them so. He stood in front of her, in the middle of the ger, and said, “The Khan of the Golden Ordu has sent me to tell you to stay out of our pastures.”
She sat straight in her chair. The blocks under it put her at eye level with him. She said, “This grass is not yours. We have rights here, and we are here, and you are not.”
He bared his teeth at her. Put his hands on his belt. “The Great Khan, praise to his name, gave all west of the River of the Chumash to Jochi, the eldest son–”
Dokaz spat to her left. “Jochi was not his son.”
Berke’s son bridled up. She glared into his eyes, her jaw set, and waited for him to speak.
He said, finally, “That is not material. The Great Khan accepted the lord Jochi. And left him all this pasture which you are now treading on.”
“West of the Chumash. North of the Sea of the Georgians. “
“Do not make us settle this in the old way.”
She held still a moment, her mind hot. She considered coming forth with a threat of her own. Just words. She said, “The Khakhan has sent us here to do his will, the Khakhan, the Lord of the World, even of you.”
The emissary pulled his lips back from his teeth again. “Do not make us settle this in the old way.” He turned on his heel, with no courtesy, and walked out, his men following him.
She leaned back in the chair and put her feet on the stool. Nothing ever ended. This was an old sin that kept causing trouble. Before he became the Great Khan, Temujin was just another young man with a handful of followers. When a greater man’s army attacked his camp, he fled, leaving his young wife behind. After a year he got Bortai back, but she was with child, after all that time in the ger of his enemy. Temujin owned the child as his, because what had come on his wife was through his fault. He named him Jochi, the guest. Now a generation later , a hundred days’ ride away, the name still fell like a rock in to the soup.
She did not think Berke Khan would attack them here. Temujin’s bequest to his eldest son had included vast territory but no Mongol army. Berke commanded a dozen tumans, good men, steppe men; with them he and his father had beaten the Rus, the people west of the Chumash, who were very many, and rich, subduing them as far as Rum itself. But they were not Mongols. In her mind she went through the meeting she had just had, so that when Hulegu came she could tell him exactly what was said. But she did not think Berke would attack them and she would say that also.
Dinah fed the baby milk and honey, rocked him and sang to him, and he seemed happier. She had him now all the time. At night he slept in the hollow of her body. During the day she carried him everywhere. When the khatun’s leftovers come down to the women, she mushed up bits of meat and poked them into his mouth. The other women were glad to have him off their hands and patted her and nodded.
She learned more words, help, and where, and the colors red and blue. She learned that the name they had told her for the baby was just the word for baby. She began to call him Moseh. Only in her mind at first. When the other women bounded onto horses and rode off to the lake, she climbed on a horse and jounced along with them. They swam in the lake, taking turns standing watch to keep the men away. When she took off her clothes her arms and hands were brown, but above the elbow so white the other women laughed.
Dokaz sent her with Jun to the bazaar to buy chah, and she went with the baby on her hip.
The bazaar was on the flat ground, in among the gers, a row of stalls and awnings and people selling things. Most of these people were not Mongol. Dinah drifted along past the stalls, heaps of figs and apples, nuts, jars of honey. A tinker, mending pots, selling them. Jun whispered something, and drew her toward a tray of little jewels.
“Oh, they’re beautiful.”
These were crosses, necklaces and earrings, mostly silver, or at least silver looking, with chips of glittering stones. Jun moved on soon but Dinah stayed, poking among them, looking for something Jewish. The merchant was watching her narrowly and she stepped back, embarrassed, and then in the stall behind him, behind a screen, someone called to him.
The merchant turned and answered, and they were speaking French.
She hovered, listening. She got some of it. She went back to the counter, and the merchant swung back to her.
She said, stumbling, “Je vuv-veux menorah? Shofar?”
He looked at her as if she were witless. She had said it wrong. “Ah,” he said. “Une Menorah.” Leaning on the article. He leaned toward her and rattled off some words.
She got the gist of it; he was asking if she were Jewish, and she said, “Ah, oui.” And tried again. “Je suis—”Oh God, she had forgotten the word for servant—“une femme de la Khatun.”
The merchant was entering into the spirit of this; he leaned on the counter, and spoke slowly and carefully, broadly smiling the while. They talked back and forth. Then another customer came to his counter and he waved his hands at Dinah, shooing her off, and went to sell something. She walked down the lane of the bazaar after Jun, who was in the little crowd listening to a man play a kind of lute, and took her along to buy the chah.
Thereafter she went by the bazaar as often and she could, and she stopped by that merchant’s stall and they spoke in French.
She was in the ger, laying down a rug, when there was a stir and a shout and the door thrown back, and a man came in. Everybody in the ger at once stood straight and still, and Dinah, as always, did as they did.
From the other end of the ger Dokaz strode, and as she came on she sang, in a high joyous voice. The man stopped inside the door; he was not tall, but square, solid. He flung aside his hat. His long black moustaches hung down to his chest and his eyes gleamed pale in his sun-darkened face. Other men crowded in behind him, going to one side of the ger. Dokaz came up face to face with him and bowed to him, and he bowed. She held out her arms, palms up. Their eyes locked. He stretched forth his arms over hers, and they both leaned forward and touched their noses first to one cheek and then the other. They straightened, still holding each other, and they both bowed again, several times. Then they walked together through the ger to the back, and disappeared behind the painted screen.
Beside her, Jun muttered, “Hulegu, the Il-Khan. The grandson of—“ She gestured up. Dinah had seen there was someone they would not name, who was not, she thought, Jesus. But their Jesus was different from the one she had learned of, not the son of god, not god at all. Jun nudged her. Around them the other women were moving eagerly into the middle of the ger. “Come along,” Jun said. “Now are the gifts.”
They all crowded together into the center of the ger, around the hearth, and by the altar, and suddenly all around her they were calling out.
“Welcome home, father Hulegu! Welcome home from the hunt!”
Whistles and cheers followed this. The Il-Khan came out from behind the screen again. Dinah saw again how stout he was, how he walked as if he owned the earth. He came up before the ger’s welcoming people.
He bowed. They all bowed, Dinah among them.
He said, “Pleased am I to be back among my children, the people of my heart. Kitboqa!”
Two men came up, carrying a rug rolled up. They unrolled it on the ground between the servants and the Khan, and on it was a great heap of gold and silver and ribbons and tassels and little bowls and cups. The Khan bowed again, and all the people bowed. Then the Khan went back behind the screen and the officers who had brought up the rug stood beside it, and one by one each of the ger’s people went up and received something.
Dinah went up last, her eyes lowered. All she saw of the tall man by the rug was his hand, holding out a silver coin.
She went back to the women’s side of the ger, and Jun came up at once. “Let me see.”
Dinah showed her the coin. “Why is this?”
“The Khan took this all in a raid, and he shares it with us all, least to greatest, because that is our way.” Jun held up a little brass bell, which tinkled. “All I got was this. Maybe Kitboqa has his eyes on you.”
Dinah held the coin out. “Do you want it?”
Jun burst into a smile, took the coin, and gave Dinah the bell. Dinah rang it softly; she thought the baby would like it: better than the coin.
Hulegu, who missed nothing, said, “Who is this popeyed girl with the odd hair?”
Dokaz was helping him get out of his deel, which he had worn for days, riding, and which stank. She said, “My Jew. Nikola found her among the people brought out of Baghdad. She is a clever bit, I think she will be very useful. Where did you go?” She took the filthy stinking coat out to the opening by the screen, where someone could take it away to clean, or maybe just burn, and bring another one.
He sat down on the low bed, yawning. “I went south, to the salt, to see what was there.”
“And what was there?” She came back, and he pulled her onto his lap and they wrapped their arms around each other.
“Cities, ready to surrender.” He stroked her hair. “They have much, so much. In the harbor at Basra there were ships from beyond the salt, and goods piled on the shore. Mongke will be pleased.”
She leaned against him. They had loved each other since they were children, long before they married, when he had come to her clan to court her older sister. Her older sister now lived somewhere else. He had other women sometimes but between them there was perfect trust. She had never needed another man. “Then we’ll go down there next?”
“No. those places are already yielding, and there are bigger prizes to the west. Damascus. Cairo.” He was sliding her clothes away, his hands searching, but he yawned again; tired, he would want only to sleep in her arms. He said, drowsy, “Whatever lies to the west.” They lay down together.
The baby Moseh fattened, and sat up. She taught him to clap hands, and they sang together, sitting in the sun. Then Jun too would sometimes sing, and Tulla, the four of them sitting out before the ger spilling out music. Jun sang in an eerie voice, high and low at once.
They were working harder. With Hulegu there the place was much busier. His officers came in and out, in and out, tracking the place full of dust. One day they all were suddenly put to packing up. Everything in the ger had to go into boxes, and the boxes outside to an unending row of carts. The men lashed rows of carts together, side by side, front to back, into a great square on wheels, and all the ger’s people, and many others besides, gathered around the tent and lifted it up into the air and set it down on top of the square. Then rows of horses drew it slowly away over the treeless plain, rocking and swaying above the trampled ground like a cloud fallen to earth.
The people went along after it. Jun offered Dinah a horse but she wanted to walk; the ger was going so slowly she could easily keep up. She walked up to one side, out of the dust, Moseh on her hip.
She heard a horse coming up behind her, and turned her head. Startled, she saw one of Hulegu’s chief men. He dismounted and walked along beside her, leading his horse.
He was tall, and not Mongol: a broad, high-cheekboned face, light skinned. He stared at the baby Moseh a moment.
“Who is this one’s father?”
She hugged the baby closer, like armor. “I don’t know. His mother died. He is an orphan.”
His face slackened; he looked away a moment. She picked up her step, looking around for Jun and the others.
He said, “Your name is Dinah.” He drawled the a, as the Mongols all did.
“Yes,” she said.
“I am Kitboqa,” he said. “I am great in the Il-Khan’s favor.”
“I’ve noticed that,” she said. She saw how he puffed himself up as he spoke, throwing his chest out, making himself bigger.
He said, “I have my own ger.”
She saw now where this was going. She held the baby snugly against her. “I am happy with the Khatun Dokaz.”
“She has said I might have you.”
“I am happy where I am,” she said, again, but her throat went dry. Moseh sensed this, and gripped her sleeve with both fists. Tilting his head back, he gave Kitboqa a dark look.
He said, “You need not come with me now.” Turning to his horse, he gathered up his reins. He gave her a quick look up and down. “Later,” he said, and bounded into his saddle and rode off.
She watched him go, her skin creeping. The baby called out, “Amamama—“ And pulled on her sleeve. She held him tight, and turning forward again she walked quickly, to catch up to the ger.
Around midday, Hulegu galloped up to Dokaz, who was riding along out of the dust; he had been all morning going around talking to his soldiers. She sent a woman to bring airaq and figs, which she knew he lusted for. He sent his men away with a look, and she sent the women off with another look, and they rode along stirrup to stirrup, sipping from the leather flask and sharing the figs.
“Did you think about what I told you—about Berke?”
Hulegu shrugged. “He knows what I am doing here. If he thinks he can sneak up on me from behind, he will, the cur. But I don’t see anything to do about it until he moves.”
“He’s an old man,” she said. “He will do nothing. But his sons might.”
“What ails this pop-eyed woman of yours? She turned down Kitboqa.”
Dokaz snorted at him. “He’s got no charms, Kitboqa. Not for women, anyway.”
“What’s wrong with him? He’ s a tuman commander. His father was some kind of chieftain.”
“I don’t like him much either.” She thought Kitboqa smiled at those above him, and snarled at those below. “You give him a lot of power.”
“I’m thinking over the horizon. I won’t have all these Mongol tumans here forever, Mongke will need them, or Kubilai. I want a Turk commander I can trust, because those are the men I’m going to have.”
Dokaz thought this over. Hulegu was right, she knew; she admired his broad sense of this. Still, she disliked Kitboqa, if only because her sons did. And he was a rude man. She said, “I wonder why that one.”
“He’s clever and he’s brave. We have to get the best out of every man we have,” he said. “Let every man think he could be Temujin.”
She nodded. He saw Kitboqa in a different way, maybe better than she did. She said, “Do you want me to talk to Dinah?”
“He’s broody over her. Yes.” Hulegu shrugged. “I suppose, if she doesn’t want him, there’s no way to force her. Unless, you know, she is really a slave.”
“She is my guest,” Dokaz said, sharp. She saw a use for Dinah. “I do not hold my guests as slaves.”
His teeth flashed behind his moustaches. He said, “You are always the north star to me.” He leaned forward and sniffed her cheek.
They stopped before nightfall, but only to camp; they would go on in the morning. The ger’s women spread out beds in the open and made a fire, but Hulegu did not come. Nor Dokaz; Dinah kept an eye out for her, as the night settled down, and the firelight made a little room in the great darkness. She lay down to sleep but she could not sleep. She kept thinking of Kitboqa, and her body felt stiff as a corpse. She imagined it all broken, down there, the channels of her body hanging loose, like the roots of an uprooted tree.
Then suddenly in the dawn light, she was jolting awake. The others stirred around her; she got up, rolled her bed and stowed it, got the baby some gruel to eat. Already the ger was starting off on its great slow passage over the earth, its peak swaying back and forth.
Then Dokaz rode in among them all, on the gaudy brown and white horse she loved.
“Soon,” she cried. “Take heart, all of you, we’ve found a good place with a lot of water. Ha!” Abruptly she bent down and scooped Moseh out of Dinah’s arms and set him on the saddlebow before her. “What a little man!”
Dinah clung, desperate, to the side of the horse. “Khatun—” Moseh was gaping around, his eyes wide and his mouth open, his fists full of the horse’s mane.
“Oh, what a mother,” Dokaz said. She jiggled the baby up and down. “I won’t keep him. Isn’t he the ugly little thing, though?” She beamed down at Dinah.
“Khatun–” Dinah gulped. Now she could speak about the other thing but she was suddenly afraid. She gave Dokaz a pleading look. “Kitboqa—“
“Ah,” Dokaz said. She nudged her horse to walk along, still holding onto the baby with one hand, but the other she stretched down to Dinah. “Here, now. He has no knack for wooing, I expect.”
“I want to stay with you,” Dinah said.
Dokaz’ fingers squeezed her shoulder. “He would make you a good husband. You would have a household, your own children. You should consider this. You won’t be a girl forever.”
Dinah gulped, and looked away. “I—What happened to me, I—” She brought her gaze back to Dokaz. “Maybe I can never have children.”
The Khatun’s face drooped, and she reached out one hand to her. “Don’t say this.”
“I want to stay with you.”
Dokaz was still regarding her sadly, and her hand brushed Dinah’s hair. She blinked a few times. She said, at last, “This is your choice. You are not a child anymore, but you make your choice.” She slid the baby down into Dinah’s arms. “By tonight we’ll have the ger on the ground again. Things will be easier.” She gathered her reins and rode off.
In the afternoon they came to the edge of a shallow lake, and there they laid the ger back down on the ground, which took much digging and smoothing and rearrangement of the dirt, and then fitting the boards of the floor together. When that was done, and the ger laid on the floor, Hulegu with a crowd of his officers appeared and Dokaz went to greet them with the usual ceremony.
Dinah hung back; she saw work to do. One cart was full of rugs and beds and she got a rug she could carry by herself and took it into the huge, dim room, and while she was near the wall laying it down she heard someone come in behind her.
She glanced over her shoulder, and wheeled quickly around. It was Kitboqa. She saw purpose in his long narrow face, and she backed quickly away from him.
He said, “I will not let you say no this time.” He reached for her.
She shrank back but he had her by the sleeve of her deel. She whined in her throat. He reached for her with the other hand. “Listen to me. You are like me, not them. I can—” Then behind him someone came into the ger.
It was Nikola. Seeing him, she struck away Kitboqa’s reaching hand. Kitboqa let her go, and turned, putting himself between her and the Mongol prince.
He said, “Get out. I’m busy here.”
Nikola looked past him to Dinah, and shortened his gaze to the big Turk. Kitboqa was much taller. Nikola stood with his head back, his chest out. “No,” he said. “Leave her alone.”
Kitboqa swayed; he gave off a stink of rage. While the two men glared at each other, Dinah darted past him toward the door. She heard Nikola laugh, behind her. She fled out into the sunshine and the crowd of other people.
Jun gave her a sharp look. “What’s wrong? What happened in there?”
Dinah shook her head. “Nothing. Nothing.” She went in among the other women, comforted by their numbers.
One day the French merchant told her, “Bohemund is coming.”
“Bohemund,” she said. Vaguely she knew this was the Prince of some Crusader city, off to the west by the Middle Sea.
“There will be people here with money again,” he said. He complained often of the Mongols’ wanting to barter with him, offering him horses or blankets or goats, but not money.
Then back in the ger, the Khatun summoned her in behind the wall of screens In the dim space, Dinah greeted her in Mongol, with a bow.
“Well, good for you,” said the Khatun, and spoke on in her own language. “We are having some people here from the west, in a few days—“
“Bohemund,” Dinah said, and put her hand over her mouth.
The Khatun’s eyes widened in surprise. “How did you know that? I only heard a little while ago.”
“In the bazaar, Khatun.“
Dokaz laughed. Her gaze rested on Dinah as if she had grown wings. “Ah well. That’s where the news is freshest, always. Anyway. When they come, will you help me? I need to find out all I can about them.”
“Yes, of course.” Dinah made another bow.
“Good. We shall see how this goes.”
In the bazaar the next morning, just as she came to the French merchant’s booth, shouts sounded, and the crowd shrank quickly back, out of the lane. Dinah craned her neck to see over the shoulders in front of her. Men ran by with sticks, chasing the crowd out of the way, making room for a huge grey horse. The man upon it carried a banner with a cross. He wore armor, his helmet bright in the sun. Behind him came more Christian knights, riding in rows.
Among them came one in gilded armor, whose horse danced this way and that, half-reared, snorted, as the knight waved around him. From either side came cheers. Behind her, the French merchant called out, “Prince of Antioch! God save the Prince of Antioch!” That brought a few more whoops.
The gilded helmet jittered by her. Then, in the crowd of riders just behind him, she saw Rikart.
She gasped. He was dead. She had thought him surely dead. He wore mail, under a loose white sleeveless surcoat, but no helmet. On his head a flat-brimmed peasant’s hat of straw. She shrank back, but he did not look her way. Among a dozen other Christian knights he passed her by.
He would not know her if he saw her, she thought. She was another person now.
Later, the Prince and some of his men came to the ger to present themselves to Hulegu and Dokaz. Jun took the baby for her, and Dinah wrapped her head in a cloth to cover her hair, tightened her belt, hooked her coat up close to her chin. She waited by the side of the ger, watching the Franks come; relieved, she saw Rikart was not one of them.
When they went into the ger, she followed. In the men’s side of the ger were the jugs and cups for the greeting ceremony. She stood there, the other people staring at her, while the Franks filed in and arranged themselves, six men in two rows. From the side of the ger Moseh called out to her but she gave him only a quick smile, her eyes always watching the Franks.
They were looking all around at the ger. Some lamps shone, here and there, and the place gave off gleams of gold. Before them was the hearth, and then the altar, but the two chairs beyond that were empty.
With the men serving, Dinah went up to give cups to the knights. To her surprise, the jugs were full of wine. She wondered where the Il-Khan had found this. Going along the row, she filled the cups.
Bohemund, in the middle, was jiggling a little in place; he looked quickly around, as if he expected a chair, and took the cup from her without even looking at her. He spoke a rapid French, sharp-edged. “What a place. Reminds me of the Venetians, a little gold here and there and a man thinks he’s a king.”
The others all laughed. Behind the Prince a short, square man said, “Yet they’re Christians. See the cross?” He pitched his voice to reach Bohemund’s ear; Dinah went to fill the next cup. “We can use them, sir. God sends us what we need to do His work.” He crossed himself.
“If you ask me,” another man said, “Rikart is right.”
She gripped the jug tighter, her heart thumping. Calmly she went on to the next man, the next cup. From behind her someone clutched at her behind. She twitched out of the way. Looking up toward the wall, where the Mongols stood, she saw Nikola scowling, his gaze aimed past her.
In the front of the ger, by the door, was the cask, and she went there to fill the jug. Back in the center of everything Hulegu stood up in front of them all, held his cup up and down, back and forth, and said, “God above us give all peace. Greetings to the Prince of Antioch.”
In the front row of the Franks, the short man piped up in Latin, “Pax nobis, O Domine! Ave, Princeps Antiochus!” He leaned toward Bohemund and said, low, in French, “Peace to everybody.” Bohemund leaned closer to hear him, half-turning his head. Not a Latiner. He held up his cup.
“God grant us all the strength to do His will. I greet the Lord Hulegu, conqueror of the Caliph!”
That rattled back on through the translators, God granting all, and Hulegu conquering. Everybody drank. She went down the line to Bohemund again, to fill his cup again. As she did, she looked past him, to the man who had said Rikart’s name.
Tall and lean, this one, with a red cross on the chest of his white surcoat. She knew that meant he was a Templar. She dropped her eyes quickly to the jug.
Now Bohemund was presenting gifts, each one with a chain of words in several languages, up and down. She did not see how they would get anything done this way. Hulegu also had gifts. The Franks stirred, restless. The short man beside Bohemund tilted toward the prince again and said, “Get to the Sultan Yusuf somehow. Tell him we have a common enemy.”
She kept moving, her eyes lowered, cup to cup. But her ears tingled from listening. Bohemund cleared his throat, and said, “Conqueror of the Caliph, we are here to honor your great victory. But also, to tell you, we stand with you against the Sultan, we are ready to fight side by side with you against Damascus! Christians together!”
That turned into a flurry of excited Latin and then Mongol. Hulegu answered that all honor went to the Khakhan but he would convey this to his brother. As for the Sultan in Damascus, that would happen as God intended it. They drank again, with many gestures.
The man behind Bohemund said, “Ask him for a private hearing tomorrow. See if he’ll come to us.”
She filled up his cup. The Templar said, “Do you think he’s a nitwit?” When she lifted the jug he waved her off. She drew back.
Bohemund and Hulegu nattered a while about meeting again. Hulegu was hunting in the morning; for a while it sounded as if he wanted to go off at that by himself and meet Bohemund later, but gradually they came to the notion that the Franks could try their hands at this as well. The Templar said, between his teeth, “We aren’t allowed to hunt.” The stubby man beside Bohemund said, “Catch him at his ease, sir. We can keep up with them.”
The Templar rolled his eyes. Dinah poured them all more wine. Now they were winding this down. More speeches about peace and glory went up and down the ladder of translations. Somebody stroked her again. Then they were filing out into the blazing spring sunlight.
She went to wash up the jug and gather cups but at once Tulla came and said, “The Khatun wishes you.”
Dokaz was sitting in the back, behind the painted screen, drinking chah. When Dinah came in and bowed, the Khatun said, “Sit down, please. I saw you, that was daring, I thought, and I hope useful. What did you find out?”
“Just what you heard, Khatun. The Prince wants to ally with—”he almost said “us.” Instead, she said, “The Il-Khan, against the Sultan in Damascus. The man behind him was urging him on.”
“That man. Did you hear his name?”
“Find out, if you can. What about the others?”
“They’re Bohemund’s men. Except one, the man in the white surcoat with the red cross.”
Dokaz was pouring her a cup of chah. “Who was that?”
“I think he is a Templar. He is against this, I think.”
“They are knights. Monks. Brothers of the Order of the Templar of Jerusalem.” This was coming to her in bits. How to explain. “They fight for the Cross, for Jerusalem. A little army.” Very little, compared to the Mongols, she knew. “They have Acre, I think. Much of Acre. The big city on the coast.”
Dokaz frowned, her fingers tapping on her cup. Dinah lifted the cup to her lips and sipped the steaming brew. The Khatun said, “Find out some names for me. That one man, I saw how he spoke to the Prince. If we can influence him, we shall have done something.” She smiled. “You did well, Dinah. Thank you.”
The chah warmed her; the praises warmed her more. She sipped the tea, content. Going out, with only a little listening, she found out the small man was a Genoese named Simone de Bonafaccio.
Then in the afternoon, in the new bazaar, she came around a corner and Rikart stood there.
He stared straight at her. He paid no heed to Moseh. He said, “Why are you here? Why are you staying with them?”
“I have no choice.”
“What a lie that is. You never lied before. They destroyed Baghdad. Everything beautiful and wonderful in Baghdad is gone. Your father’s city. Have you forgotten that?”
She said nothing. She thought she had put that behind.
“They will do that to every place they come to. They hate cities. Listen to their prayers sometime. They want only endless grass, and horses, and the great blue sky.”
“There is nothing left for me back there. My father is gone, Baghdad is gone.”
“Damascus and Aleppo come next. Then Acre, Antioch. Jerusalem, what’s left of it.”
“They will win.”
“Ah.” He stands back. “That’s not what matters.” He stared at her. “Gilbert can always find me. If you change your mind, I will help you.”
Yvain de Foret-le-Garde, Grand Marshall of the Templars, had deliberately taken a slow horse; he watched the hunt gallop away up the long slope beyond the lake and sat back in the saddle and let his reins loose. The Mongols on their infernal ponies were racing on ahead of Bohemund but the Prince was doing his gallant utmost to keep up.
The Mongols were hunting with eagles. The Marshall fought down a pang of envy at that, he would have loved to have seen that. In the sky, out there, he thought he still made them out, those faint specks. Below, the earthbound leaders of the hunt were disappearing into the slopes and draws around the lake. Cranes, maybe. Even hares, he would have liked to see that.
But now, up along the wide undulating plain, here came another rider.
He let his horse amble. The wind swept out of the east here, smelling of the steppe, wild and bitter. The hunt had begun well north of the Mongol camp, which stretched out across the open plain under its usual yellow cloud. Jogging through the tall grass, Rikart Rannulfsson rode up to him.
“Well met,” Yvain said, and they shook hands. “I thought perhaps you had gone. Where have you been?”
“I went looking around,” Rikart said. “I know some people here.”
Yvain had heard that Rikart had once lived with the Mongols, that he had married a Mongol woman. There were a lot of wild stories about Rikart the Ghost. Yvain looked the younger man over. Rikart had cut his beard and let his hair grow. He wore a red silk Mongol shirt over his mail. He looked half-Mongol.
“You were in Baghdad when they attacked, I heard. How did you escape?”
“I ran. I fought, but mostly, I ran.”
Yvain grunted. He would have liked to know more, but the look on Rikart’s face held him back. He said, only, “What have you found out?”
“This is a huge army. They’re saying fifteen tumans, and it may be all of that.”
“A tuman is what?”
“Ten thousand men.”
Yvain swallowed. His eyes drifted off, toward the yellow cloud.
“The proof is the horses. Their horse herds are grazing the land for six days’ east of here. They must have over ten hundred thousand horses.”
Yvain scratched his beard. Such a number was impossible. However it did mean they had to move constantly, always seeking new grass. This, he thought, explained much.
“Worse, for our sake,” Rikart said, “is these men are mostly Mongols. The Khakhan has sent the best of his home forces here, with his own brother commanding. They have a few Turks, Naimans, Kipchaks, some very high up, but this is an army of well-armed, well-trained men with very good officers. They have a big purpose here. Baghdad is just the beginning.”
“This Khakhan is their Emperor? I have heard another word, a name—Tema–gan–”
“Temujin. He gathered them together, two generations ago. They were just steppe clans then. He made them into the Mongols. Turned them loose on the world. Hulegu is his grandson.”
“Bohemund thinks we can make use of them.”
“Bohemund is an idiot.”
Yvain laughed. “I wouldn’t turn my back on him. He hates you. What you said to him yesterday did you no good with him at all.”
“Yes. I am leaving, I don’t trust Hulegu not to move on me, either.”
El Shab’h, the outsider, everybody’s enemy. Yvain said, “Come to Acre. Maybe we can convince my brothers.”
Rikart shrugged one shoulder. The hunt had vanished in among the rumpled land along the head of the lake. He said, “You and your brothers won’t stand a day against them.”
The skin of Yvain’s neck roughened up. “God wills it,” he said. This gave him less comfort than it once had. He laid his hands on his saddlebows. “Who else? You think you can rouse Damascus against him? You think Yusuf would listen?”
“Put it in a poem,” Rikart said. “Write it on the rear end of a pretty girl.”
Yvain laughed again. That left only one other, and he said, “What about Egypt?”
At that Rikart straightened, and his eyes came back to meet Yvain’s. “Do you get along with Baibers?”
“Holy Blood,” Yvain said. “Does anybody get along with Baibers? Not even the other Mamelukes get along with Baibers, which is why he’s outcast. I was thinking about Qutuz.” This was the Mameluke Sultan of Egypt.
“We make an alliance. You,” Rikart said. “As many of the other Christians as we can. Qutuz and the Mamelukes of Egypt. Maybe Yusuf. That’s a solid wall against them. But it must be solid. Baibers and the Bahriyya Mamelukes control the center of the wall, the Jordan Valley and south.”
Yvain said, “Such a thing has never happened. At least, not for very long.”
Rikart swept his arm out, toward the yellow cloud, the distant camp, the hundreds of thousands of horses. “Such a thing as this has never happened.”
Yvain lifted his reins. “We shall see, then. Come to Acre. At the very least the Venetians will pay you well to talk to them.” He nudged his horse, turning back toward the camp; the Il-Khan had provided them with a good larder and a fine southern wine. Turning brought the whole plain before his eyes again, the vast clutter of the Mongol camp, stretching it seemed over the edge of the world.
He blurted out, not thinking, “How can we beat them? Has anybody ever beaten them?”
“No,” Rikart said. “Never.” He nodded stiffly. “They say that’s God’s will.”
He backed his horse quickly away. “Until seeing,” he said, and galloped off down the slope.
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.”
“Absolutely.” Some of it probably was gold. He said, “I have dirhams.”
“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.
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.
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?”
“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.
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.
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.