CHAPTER 3

1240 IN THE KARA KUM DESERT

 

The Saracen caravan wended its way across the Kara Kum Desert. It was hot, very hot. Ahmad rode his favourite white Arabian stallion, with Ali by his side. A young boy, one of the sons of the caravanners, was attracted to the mettlesome horse, which Ahmad had dressed in elaborate livery. Every chance the boy could get, he came back to admire the horse. At camp the second night of the journey, the boy again approached the horse, which he had tethered to a stake in the ground. Ahmad watched silently as the boy hesitantly went nearer and nearer the beautiful animal, until the horse gently nuzzled his outstretched hand. Ahmad strolled over. "You like my horse, boy?"

Startled, as his whole attention had been on caressing the horse, the boy drew back. "Offendi! I meant no harm!" His brown eyes were wide and fearful of the tall man.

Ahmad laughed softly and hunkered down to be level with the boy, who he reckoned to be eight or nine years old. "I know you meant him no harm, boy. Here -" Ahmad stood and reached for a nearby bag of oats. "Give him his meal, if you like."

"Can I, Offendi?"

"You can rub him down too, if you want!" said Ahmad, hopefully.

"Oh, yes, yes, Offendi, I would like." and he took the proffered mealbag and brush, setting to his task with a will. "Offendi?" the boy asked timidly.

"Well?"

"What is his name?"

"Silver Star." replied Ahmad.

"What a beautiful name."

"What is your name, son?"

"Ahmad, my lord."

"Hah! That is my name, too! Well, Ahmad, if you like, you can care for him every evening of the journey." Ahmad was gratified to see the boy's eyes shining with pride and happiness as the horse gently nuzzled the boy's back.

The next day the heat grew to be oppressive and, suddenly, a strange phenomenon occurred. An eerie darkness blanketed the sun. There was no breeze, no movement of air. The horses and the camels became skittish and Ahmad had difficulty controlling Silver Star, who whinneyed and reared as though he were seeing snakes in the sand when there were none. Alarmed, Ahmad called to the caravan leader "What is it?"

"It is nothing, Master. This happens often in these parts. We merely follow the road. It may only last for a little while, or until we reach Khiva, I do not know, but we will keep moving."

Reassured, Ahmad comforted his stallion and urged him warily forward.

The noise began suddenly. The desert fog had a deadening effect on all sounds and it was difficult to ascertain its direction. As it came nearer, it sounded like a mighty monster with a myriad armoured feet tramping through the mist. "What is that?" someone called, alarmed.

"Quickly! Form a circle! It is desert bandits!" ordered the caravan master urgently. Realising they had been discovered, the Mongol renegade bandits made their move, yelling and screeching like banshees as they rode out of the enshrouding fog. The caravanners had no time to defend themselves as the bandits descended on them, arrows flying, swords flailing. Disoriented, Ahmad reared and spun his horse in an attempt to escape, but the move was too rapid for the horse and it fell, throwing Ahmad from the saddle an instant before a bandit's sword slashed at his body. He fell and rolled in the sand. He drew his scimitar from its sheath and turned to meet the foe. All around him he could hear the screams of death-cries of man and animal. Suddenly a Saracen warrior rode out of the mist. Ali! Behind him came a yelling horde of leather-clad Mongols in hot pursuit, intent on murder. Ahmad swung with his scimitar and a Mongol back-flipped from his horse. Ali turned to protect Ahmad, riding back into the fray. Ali saw, at the last instant, the flying arrow, aimed at Ahmad's unprotected back. He stood in its way and sank to his knees as it embedded itself in his chest. The remaining Saracen warriors, still disoriented in the swirling fog, stumbled around, thrashing at everything that moved. Downed camels and packhorses were stripped of their burdens and the whooping Mongols retreated. Ahmad made for the downed Mongol, whose right leg was almost severed by Ahmad's scything blow. He grabbed the injured man by the neck, throttling him in his anger. "Who sent you?" he shouted, dark eyes flashing. "Tell me or I'll slit your worthless throat! TELL ME!"

"I - serve - Vazir. He say - kill all Saracens, especially the tall dark one. Ayee! It is you he meant! HE IS HERE! NOGODAR, HE IS HERE!" The Mongol scrabbled in the sand for his dagger, but Ahmad was prepared. With one swing of the scimitar he decapitated his foe, the man's blood spurting all over the sand as the head rolled away.

Silence descended on the scene of carnage. Ahmad searched for, and found, Ali. He was lying on his back in the sand, his blood staining it red as he weakly tried to pluck the arrow from his chest. "Ali! Ali! Why did you do that?" Ahmad cradled his friend in his arms. He could see quite clearly that Ali was dying.

Ali coughed and a trickle of blood escaped his lips. "It is my duty - to protect you. There was nothing else ... that I could have done .. no ... time ... left ... May Allah protect you now ..." A paroxysm of pain convulsed him and he died in Ahmad's arms.

Ahmad knelt by the body of his friend and protector for he knew not how long, allowing the tears of grief to fall.

As the sun set the enveloping fog rolled away and Ahmad became aware of movement around him. The caravan had been decimated with only two camels left alive out of the original twelve and the human survivors were moving amongst the dead. Of the Saracen troop of twelve horsemen, only five had survived, two of them with serious injuries. One young soldier walked towards Ahmad. "My Lord! Have you seen the ... captain ..." his voice trailed away as he saw Ali's lifeless body. Ahmad turned his griefstricken face unashamedly towards the young man.

"There lies your brave Captain, soldier. He took the arrow aimed at me. You are now Captain of the Guard. Make sure he receives - all military honours." and Ahmad rose and walked slowly away.

The carnage was sickening to behold. Arms and legs were lying in the sand, bodies still twitching. Ahmad suddenly saw young Ahmad, sitting against his camel. As Ahmad walked towards him he suddenly stopped in his tracks and watched in horror as the upper part of the boy's body slowly slid away from the lower part. The memory stayed with him for the rest of his life.

And then, from out of the darkness, the Mongols returned. The bandits encircled Ahmad, arrows all aimed at his heart. He stopped and waited for the impact. It never came. The leader of the band dismounted. "You - Ahmad?" he asked in his guttural Mongol.

"Yes, my name is Ahmad Fanakati. Are you Nogodar?" Was this the man he had been sent to treat with?

Ignoring Ahmad's question, the leader rapped out orders to his men. They produced a wooden yolk that they fixed round Ahmad's neck, tying his hands behind his back. He, and the other few survivors of the carnage, were then force-marched behind Nogodar. Ahmad stumbled and fell many times and they rough-handled him to move on. The trek seemed endless to Ahmad but at last, in a valley ahead, Ahmad saw the lights of a cluster of yurts. The bandits' camp!

They dragged him on and he collapsed exhausted when they arrived. They poked and prodded him to his feet. "You - in there!" and they bundled him into the largest yurt, which was adorned with all sorts of trophies, like pennants, bones and coloured boxes. One of the Mongols tied him to a pole and left him there, but not for long. The leader, Nogodar, pushed aside the leather door-flap and stood, arms akimbo, looking at his captive.

"You murderer! You've killed my friends!" Ahmad shouted. He felt dizzy. "Water! For the love of Allah, water!"

"Hah! Silence, Saracen scum!" and he struck Ahmad on the cheek. The blow lanced through him and he slumped where he stood. "You die now!" and he drew a dagger and approached Ahmad.

Ahmad pulled himself erect against the pole and made his pounding brain work. "Wait! I have been sent to meet you by the Khan Hulugu!"

"Had I known you came from the Khan I would never have agreed the attack!" Nogodar spat copiously on the floor. "What does he want of me?"

"I come to you as his ambassador. He wants all the Darkhans in Transoxania to unite in friendship. In return, he offers you protection and his allegiance if you, and all the other Darkhans in the area, will meet him in Bukhara in three moons from now."

"At what price?" Nogodar was suspicious.

Ahmad's head was swimming from exhaustion, lack of food and water and the tightness of his bonds. "No price - he will pay you! Please - untie me, I feel unwell!" He felt the blackness creeping up on him and he was only dimly aware of being released before he slumped unconscious on the ground.

He came to lying on a paliasse with the feeling of cool water on his forehead and lips. He had a pounding headache. He opened his eyes and looked up into a lovely face. She was young, with rosy red cheekbones and green eyes! He moaned and held his hand over his eyes to cut out the light lancing into his brain.

"Here!" She said, her voice light and gentle. "Drink this, soon you feel fine!"

He drank the herbal potion, which seemed to refresh him and clear his brain. The entrance flap was pulled open and Nogodar entered. The beautiful girl left the yurt hurriedly.

"You say we get money from Hulugu for being allies?" resumed Nogodar.

"Yes! You, and all the other Darkhans in the area!"

"Why should I believe you, Saracen cur?"

"Do you have a scribe? Bring him to me, I have this - " he brought out a written document that Hulugu had given him for just such an occasion.

"Uh? What's this?" he grabbed the document from Ahmad's hand.

"Your scribe will read it out to you. Go on, bring him to me!"

The Mongol shouted an order to someone waiting outside the yurt and, while they were waiting, Nogodar eyed his captive like a lion eyes its prey. Ahmad's hate of this man and revulsion at the outrage he had perpetrated rose within him. The smell coming from Nogodar offended Ahmad's senses and he felt his gorge rising. Considering his captive position, however, he kept his feelings to himself - for now.

The scribe duly arrived and read aloud the missive. "'Brother Nogodar! Greetings from Il-Khan Kara Hulugu of Bukhara! The bearer of this missive is an ambassador of mine and should be treated with all honour! We hold a kurultai meeting, three moons from now. You, and all the Darkhans in the region, are formally invited to attend. I can assure you, it will be to our mutual advantage!' Signed, Il-Khan Kara Hulugu, House of Chaghatai."

"Huh! It's a trap of some kind!" responded the suspicious Nogodar.

"No trap, I assure you! Safe passage will be granted to every Mongol tribe attending." Ahmad's diplomatic patience was being tried to the extreme.

"Hm. I call a meeting of my council. Meanwhile, you eat, no?" He clapped his hands. Four women, including the pretty girl, appeared from another section of the tent with skins of koumiss, bowls of broth and plates of meat in their hands. They placed the dishes on the bare floor before Ahmad and Nogodar, who were seated on groundmats. Nogodar rose and walked to a row of small wooden figurines adorning the wall of the yurt. Ahmad recognised them as the figures of the Mongol God Natigay, his wife and children. Every Mongol had a set of the figurines in their tent. Ahmad watched as Nogodar anointed the mouths of the images with fat from the meat, then sprinkle the broth before the door of the house. The ritual completed, Nogodar returned to sit beside Ahmad, and the women who had placed the food before them also came and sat, completing a circle. "Ah! Meet my wife Ergene and three daughters Jamui, Doquz and Mabi." Ahmad gave formal greeting to the ladies, but his eyes lingered on Jamui. She was truly beautiful. Small of stature, her complexion was fair, her face round, her smile wide and her eyes were green. Ahmad had never seen green eyes before and he was enraptured. Once again, he felt his interest quicken. The other two girls were too young, but Jamui ... What a beautiful name, he thought. Jamui. He ate the sweetmeats and, refusing the intoxicating koumiss, he drank goat's milk instead, gradually feeling his strength and energy returning after the horror-filled ordeal his now-reluctant host had subjected him to. And all the time, Ahmad was looking at Jamui.

The meal over, Nogodar summoned his council of sons and family heads. The meeting was a lively, quarrelsome one, with everyone having their say. Ahmad sat silently at the back of the yurt, unable to participate. The Mongol warriors finally decided that the Il-Khan's proposition was legitimate and that they would spread the news of the kurultai amongst the other Darkhans. Nogodar himself would travel to Bukhara to discuss the cessation of hostilities at the appointed time.

They erected a yurt for Ahmad for the night and, his authority as ambassador of the Il-Khan having been accepted by the tribal Council, he was in a position to demand the other survivors of the desert attack to be accorded similar hospitality. Although he searched the corral before he retired for the night, he could not find his stallion, Silver Star.

Exhausted after his harrowing ordeal, Ahmad sank immediately into a dreamless sleep but was abruptly wakened by a movement inside his tent. He jumped up, dagger in his hand, to confront the intruder. He heard a gasp. "No! Don't hurt me, please!" It was a female voice. "I come as guestright, sent by Lord Nogodar for your comfort." She was young, very young, he guessed. In the dark he could not be sure - was it Jamui? No! Not one of the daughters at all. Curses! His interest abated somewhat, he lit a torch to see the girl's face. Comely, but not beautiful, not like Jamui. Allah! What was he thinking of? He had a wife waiting for him in Bukhara. But it had been so long since last he ...

As he used the girl relentlessly he knew he was hurting her, but he wanted to hurt her. Allah! Had these Mongol pigs not hurt him beyond endurance? Let this be his way of retribution!

---oo0oo---

An hour before dawn he let the girl go. In the morning Nogodar came to Ahmad's yurt as he was taking breakfast of bread, cheese and goat's milk. "You slept well, Fanakati?" he asked, a mocking tone in his guttural voice.

Remembering his pleasures, Ahmad laughed deep in his throat.

"Yes, you did, didn't you, Saracen swine!" and Nogodar spat in Ahmad's face. "I sent you her as a guestright, and you abused her! Were you not here in the name of the Khan, I would kill you now!"

Ahmad recoiled from the insult but, wiping the sputum from his face, he laughed insolently and walked away. He had, with a bit of luck, given the girl a lifelong reminder of the night she spent with him. Without another word, Nogodar stamped out of the yurt and ordered a detachment of his men to escort the remnants of the caravan to the outskirts of Khiva. As Ahmad rode out he again saw Jamui, even more lovely as she stood watching him ride out into the desert sunshine. One day, he swore to himself, he would have her.

---oo0oo---

When first the group caught sight of the mosques and minarets of Khiva on the horizon, the Mongol band melted back into the Kara Kum Desert.

---oo0oo---

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