[In instalments for the first time, to readers of my blog]
The Zagros Foothills, Persia, 1295 CE
The children were twins, a boy and a girl. They sat astride the same pony, the girl in the saddle, the boy behind on the animal’s rump with his arms wrapped round his sister’s waist. Both would have derived warmth as well as solace from the contact because the day was cool. It was just past the spring equinox and early evening. Though a weak sun peeped out from the clouds from time to time, its appearances were too brief to bring respite from the wind that blew down from the mountains.
Gaikatu, Il-khan of Persia, rode on the children’s left and a little to the rear. The pace was brisk. His eyes smarted from cold and the whirling sandy dust, but he watched them through narrowed lids, deriving lewd pleasure from their innocent proximity. They were orphans he had acquired in as-Suleimaniya. The girl was about a year past puberty, he reckoned, whereas the boy had probably just reached it. Perhaps he could devise a way to test his theory when they made camp. Even in the middle of a war there was always room for diversions.
They were nearly a week out of Baghdad and at least three days hard riding from Baidu’s main army. The nine grown men in Gaikatu’s sixteen-strong party were fanned out across the road, four to the front and five to the rear, to give warning of the approach of potential enemies. Three women and a youth formed a single file behind his pony; all four were armed.
The Il-khan had begun to relax. In another two days he would reach Tabriz. He still had considerable support, and there would be time to muster his regiments for a counter-offensive. It was true he had enemies in the capital, but most were languishing in prison for their part in the abortive rising against his authority two years ago.
Gaikatu congratulated himself on his tolerance and statesmanship. None of his predecessors would have been so merciful in sparing the lives of those who opposed them. But he would not be so forgiving a second time. Baidu would die a prince’s death – trampling and suffocation beneath a pile of carpets, while for Taghachar, his traitorous general, no torture would be too extreme. His mutilated corpse would hang on a spike on the gates of Tabriz for all to see.
One of the outriders signalled they were approaching a village. Though the light would be good for two more hours, this might be the last chance to fill their kettles with fresh water. Gaikatu instinctively waved his party forward. He quickened his pace and drew level with the children. The boy glanced round apprehensively and clutched his sister more tightly.
They were always afraid, thought the Il-khan, yet he did not want them to be. He was fond of children. They reminded him of his own childhood and of his mother, the only woman he had ever been drawn to by other than desire. No, he reflected, that wasn’t true. There had been one other for whom he would have sacrificed everything, even his kingdom – Nadia, his brother’s widow. And she alone among the many women he had known had refused him.
Time and again Gaikatu had asked himself why he let her go. The wound her Italian lover had inflicted on him had been slight and, anyway, he had an army at his disposal, while they were alone with an eleven-year-old boy. Could it have been a sneaking admiration for his rival, a man who risked death rather than give her up, or had it been the realisation that he could never break her spirit, that he could never possess her except by force?
Or was it rather that death seemed to follow Nadia around? Two of his hand-picked men had died at Maragha trying to recapture her. Five of Baidu’s agents had perished because they threatened the Italian. A puny scholar and an ancient priest had given their lives to protect her. Nadia had seen three husbands die. Had he, wondered Gaikatu, been afraid of being the fourth?
He was shaken from his reverie by the sharp warning cry from the rear guard. He wheeled his pony just in time to see three men tumble from their saddles, their chests transfixed by slender, long-flight arrows. Before he could seize his bow, one of the women fell. The barb had pierced her neck and in her last agony she clutched at the shaft in an effort to pull it free. The sight of her blood welling from the wound made Gaikatu retch.
The attack came from the left flank, ten horsemen advancing fast out of the setting sun, fully armed with sabre, lance and axe. They rode low, their bows now charged with stubby arrows for close-in fighting.
Gaikatu had forgotten the twins. He gripped his own bow and barked an order. ‘Scatter! Do not give them easy targets.’ He spurred the pony and, riding with his knees, shot two arrows in rapid succession at his attackers. Both found their mark.
Ahead were the low-lying sheds of a rural farm, dusty, crumbling brickwork that glowed blood-red in the twilight. Visible to the east were some spindly trees and the outlying houses of the village.
The youth, surviving women and two remaining men of the rear guard formed a well-spaced line of defence on the west side. They fired at the gallop and two more of the enemy fell. But the attackers had the advantage of the sun. Gaikatu found himself blinded. He veered off towards the village, hoping it would provide some meagre shelter and an opportunity to mount a counter-attack.
Two more of his party were hit – one man, one woman. A third, rearmost of the vanguard, was pitched to the ground by his mount when an arrow struck it in the flank. The pony carrying the twins, panicked and out of control, sped off in the direction from which they had come.
Gaikatu, flanked by the third woman and the youth, reached the first house. A flock of domestic fowl, disturbed by the galloping horses, scattered into the path of the pursuers. The Il-khan turned, looking for the support of his four remaining followers. To his consternation, he saw that they had lowered their weapons and joined the attackers. There were shouts of greeting then, with bows recharged, his assailants moved in from the sunset in a menacing arc.
The Il-khan wrinkled his brows in anger. Somehow he had been betrayed and led into a trap. But, if he could only find shelter and put the sun behind him, he had plenty of arrows. He was an excellent shot and could still bring three or four of the enemy down. Then, if it came to hand to hand, with the woman and youth supporting him he would have a chance.
He glanced along the narrow street. Apart from two scattered farmsteads, the village was a tiny cluster of single dwellings, mostly flat-roofed. It seemed devoid of people. At the point which marked its end, where it gave way again to desert, was one building, larger and taller than the others and further distinguishable by the crude minaret raised like a crown on its upper storey. However, it was not the symbol of Islamic devotion that caused panic to rise in the Il-khan’s chest. Just beyond this primitive mosque, five more figures in heavy armour were strung across the way like stone sentinels. In the fading light they seemed inhuman in size. Their breastplates were ochre-red and the tips of the lances they held in their rigid fists were caked brown.
The woman screamed and wheeled her mount into the path of the advancing enemy. The youth’s pony bucked violently and he was thrown to the ground. Gaikatu began to panic. His pony snorted and reared. He gripped the reins and wrapped his calves round the animal’s belly to prevent himself from being dislodged from the saddle. These guardians of the way were no living men. Each body had been crucified to a stake embedded in the ground. The rigidity of their position was maintained by means of thongs tied round their torsos and arms. The heads had been severed and were raised on the spikes that formed the summit of each cross.
The Il-khan’s blood froze in his veins and he emitted a croak of horror through his clenched teeth. The sight of blood had always revolted him and the congealed eruptions from these severed heads and trunks was more than he could bear. He swung round to face his pursuers and drew his sword.
The enemy riders were all round him. They held their bows steady but did not release their arrows. Gaikatu heard a shrill voice.
‘Hold the woman! And bring back the children!’
Gaikatu looked in the direction of the command and marked out their leader, a slim figure with a beardless face wearing a metal helmet and the plume of a battalion captain. He raised his scimitar and prepared to charge.
‘Put up your sword, Gaikatu!’
This second command halted him in his tracks. He did not recognise the voice. The brim and chinstrap of the helmet, and the high leather collar of the body armour hid most of the other’s features. All he could see were a flat Mongol nose, a bare upper lip and a pair of dark, ardent eyes.
‘Put up your sword!’ Now the voice, pitched too high for that of a fully-grown man, seemed vaguely familiar. ‘Ten arrows are pointed at your heart. Drop the scimitar now or you’ll never draw another breath.’
With a sigh, the Il-khan threw his weapon in the dust. The enemy leader dismounted, advanced a few paces and raised the helmet. A thick mass of raven hair tumbled out from under it and fell in disarray over her shoulders. The face thus exposed was unmistakeably female. She was a girl of no more than sixteen or seventeen years. Her forehead and cheeks were covered in grime and, coupled with heavy black eyebrows, this gave her a formidable, savage look, but she had a soft chin and thick, sensuous lips. It was not a face of great beauty, but neither was it repulsive.
She retrieved Gaikatu’s sword and began swinging it from side to side with a delicate movement. The bowmen followed her with their gaze, but their bows never wavered.
‘So you’ve joined my enemy after all, Doquz?’ Gaikatu had got over his terror. He faced a woman, moreover one he recognised, despite the lapse of more than a year since their last meeting. Though he had thought her a child then, she had since caused him a lot of trouble.
‘If I was with Baidu you would already be dead, Gaikatu.’ She tossed the scimitar in the air, caught it skilfully in her gloved hand by the narrow part of the blade and returned it to him.
‘Then what’s all this charade?’ demanded Gaikatu, indicating the crucified forms. He had recovered his poise and began to feel like a ruler again. ‘By the balls of Temuchin, how dare you attack me!’
Doquz laughed and drew a dagger from her belt. She strode past him towards the severed bodies and cut the thongs that bound them to the stakes. One by one the crucified torsos fell to the dust.
Gaikatu looked at them closely for the first time. Not only were they lifeless, but they had never been anything else. Each was a life-sized doll of rag and straw to which battle armour had been fitted. The heads had been crudely painted to resemble human faces. The bloody eruptions were real enough, probably the offal of some animal that had been killed for food. The Mongol armies often used such a ruse to confuse a superior enemy, but never had Gaikatu seen it used with such chilling effectiveness.
Doquz pointed to each counterfeit head with her dagger tip, giving them names. The irony in her voice was only too evident.
‘Jahan, Commander of Arbil. Mohammed Arpa, Governor of Kirkuk,’ she recited. ‘Once your friends! Noyan and Ahmad. Trusted generals but, like Taghachar, in Baidu’s pay. At this moment, they’re following false trails in the Zagros foothills. If they had met you here instead of me, you would already be food for the carrion birds.’
Gaikatu watched her through narrowed eyes. The four she named were men he had once relied upon, who had turned against him but whom he had spared. Now it seemed they had escaped prison to turn on him again.
The girl came to the last doll. ‘Genghis!’ She spat at the disembodied head. ‘In the flesh perhaps the vilest of all. Not content with debauchery and betrayal, he dared sully the name of our noble ancestor. As for the rest of these brave fellows strewn about the desert …’ She pouted. ‘I’m sorry about the two women. Whether innocent or guilty, I cannot tell. ‘Tis a pity I had to lose valuable men to teach you a lesson in desert warfare.’
‘And the others?’ Gaikatu asked.
‘The woman and the stripling I’ve no reason to harm,’ Doquz replied. ‘And the other four are loyal to me! Your followers are deserting everywhere, Gaikatu. Are you too blind to see it?’
She signalled her riders to relax their bowstrings and resheathe their arrows. Then she turned towards one of the low dwellings. With a pout of her full lips and a girlish crooking of her little finger, she beckoned Gaikatu to follow.
‘I hope you have an appetite,’ she said. ‘These Persian farmers have proved most hospitable during the four days I’ve been obliged to wait for you. There’s enough food here for a squadron.’
The homestead consisted of a single apartment. The furniture was minimal. Along the wall adjacent to the door lay a crude mattress bed. Its covering was worn and patched in places, but it was clean. A roughly-woven blanket had been folded neatly and placed at one end. There was no pillow. In the corner opposite were a chair and a commode. At the centre of the room was a table laden with simple farm fare – bread, cheese, a few joints of cold roasted mutton, two beakers of wine, and a jug of what Gaikatu guessed from its smell to be koumis – mares’ milk liquor. Next to it was a bench.
The Il-khan raised his eyebrows quizzically.
‘Friends are to be found in the most unlikely places, as are enemies,’ said Doquz. She unbuckled her sword, took off her body shield and threw them both on the bench. Then she sat down beside them, seized a loaf and a leg of mutton and began to eat hungrily.
Gaikatu followed her example. As he mouthed the food, he watched her dispassionately. He had not decided whether to trust her. Though what she had told him of the five generals rang true, some of the men who now lay dead in the desert had been with him since his coronation and he had never doubted their loyalty. She had no cause to love him, he thought. Even if he had not been responsible directly for her father’s death, he had plotted his downfall. That alone would have been enough for a son to take vengeance. But a daughter?
On the other hand, Gaikatu argued, instead of killing him, she had returned his sword and invited him to sup with her. And something else was strange. He had noticed in her followers a reluctance to fall back when she dismissed them. One man in particular, a veteran wearing a commander’s plume, had spoken to her out of earshot and had withdrawn only after an exchange of words. Now the nearest guards were more than twenty paces away. It occurred to Gaikatu that he might take her hostage and make his escape. He was alone with her and was by far the stronger of the two.
Not yet, he decided. He was curious about this woman in a man’s world – a woman he had thought a mere child.
She had grown and was now quite tall. Her breasts were small, her hips straight. Beneath the armour she wore a tunic, which did nothing to flatter her plain figure, and loose drawers that finished just above the knee. Both garments were of grey silk. Her knees and shins were covered by a pair of leather leggings that were tucked into her boots.
Doquz saw him looking. She bolted what food remained in her mouth and without speaking reached for her wine, took a long draught and gave a feeble belch. Then she slid the flagon of koumis along the table towards him.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Gaikatu took a mouthful of liquor and gulped it down.
‘I know what you’re thinking, Uncle,’ Doquz went on. ‘How did I become what I am? Perhaps you ask yourself – are the rumours true? ‘Tis no daughter of Arghun that dresses so … who commands men … who defies the will of Tabriz!’
‘I underestimated you, Doquz,’ said the Il-khan. He had heard stories but it had never occurred to him to believe them. Still, a woman with a man’s appetites might be a worthy challenge. His eyes lingered on her slim body.
‘Do not make the mistake of doing so again,’ said Doquz sharply. ‘I’m a woman, but I have not wasted my years like my sister, or my mother. I’m not the soft clay of womankind to be worked and moulded by men to suit their purpose. The Doquz you see now can shoot and handle a sabre, lasso or lance as well as any man.’
As it was becoming quite dark, she lit a lamp, and they continued eating and drinking in its pale glow. Gaikatu had noticed she did not touch the mares’ milk and her abstinence suited him perfectly. He quaffed the liquor greedily. Gradually he became more relaxed as the food renewed his energy and the alcohol warmed his belly. He almost forgot the unpleasantness of the last hour.
When the wine was consumed and only a few scraps of food remained, Doquz gave a deep sigh of satisfaction, crossed the room and sat on the low bed. Her drawers had slipped up from her knees and the Il-khan could see the tops of the leggings and the pale flesh beyond. The silk material clung sensuously to the insides of her thighs. For the first time since their meeting, Gaikatu was excited by her. Her breasts seemed fuller, her hips rounder than they had been only a few minutes ago. He felt a tightening in his groin.
‘What do you want from me, Doquz?’
She gave a girlish laugh and moistened her sensuous lips with a pink tongue. ‘What do you desire to give, Uncle Gaikatu?’
There was a little fermented milk remaining in the jug and Gaikatu drained it. He stood up and felt light-headed. The table, formerly level with the floor, now appeared to be tilted at a bizarre angle. Either the liquor was more potent than any he had tasted previously or, combined with the wine, it had numbed his brain more quickly than usual. He tried focussing on her and found that his eyes obeyed him only with difficulty.
Doquz pulled off her tunic and threw it aside carelessly. Though only a fine black down covered her forearms, under her armpits the raven hair grew thickly. Through the haze of intoxication, Gaikatu found that unexpectedly appealing. He thought too that she smelt vaguely of horses and, rather than distracting him, this encouraged him. As he went unsteadily towards her, she brushed her lips with her left forefinger then let her hand fall to her breasts. She began to fondle them lazily, running her thumb along the groove between them and squeezing her nipples delicately one after the other.
To Gaikatu, the meaning of her gestures was unmistakeable, yet he was puzzled. He had only ever known two kinds of woman – the wife, bound to him by the duty of marriage, the instinct to bear children, or the material advantages that attached to being a woman of the Il-khan – and the harlot, who was bound to anyone with a full purse. The first bent to his will as a cold, empty vessel he could fill at moments of his choosing; the second offered unimagined delights in exchange for the promise of silver. Now, here was a woman who fitted neither pattern, one who appeared to offer those delights without obligation.
He had known Doquz since infancy. The younger daughter of his brother, Arghun, she had been a quiet girl, small for her age and always running to hide in her mother’s skirts when he approached her. Even her brother Oljeitu, younger by a year, had quickly outstripped her in development, so that by the age of ten he was generally mistaken for the elder of the two. Their half-sister Oljei was several years their senior.
Now, it seemed, he had not known Doquz at all. It meant little to him that she was his niece. He was Il-khan and made the rules. If he wanted her, he would have her, again and again.
He loosened his breeches, took another unsteady step towards the primitive bed and knelt beside it. His eyelids were heavier than ever. Fumbling, he took off Doquz’s boots and began unlacing her leggings. She did not hinder him. The long fingers of her right hand pressed against his chest and slid down over his abdomen.
‘Tell me, Gaikatu,’ she breathed. ‘Tell me how good that is.’
‘And that it is never so good with my mother … or my sister?’
Gaikatu half rose and slumped awkwardly onto the bed beside her. He had never felt less in control of his body or his passion. I never bedded Oljei, he tried to say, but his tongue would not respond. He felt himself hovering at the edge of a pit of nothingness.
A chill lethargy was creeping through his limbs and inner organs. His vision clouded and bright lights danced in his head, yet other senses seemed to have become more acute. He could hear his own breathing, shallow and irregular, and the pounding of blood in his temples. Above those were audible the night cries of the desert, the chirping of insects and the mating calls of wild dogs. Then the sounds too were gone and only one sense remained. As he tumbled finally into unconsciousness, Gaikatu’s nostrils caught the scent of warm, damp flesh and the lingering smell of horses.
[to be continued]