IT CAME OUT of a blue sky, sweeping down from the north.
The camels sensed it first. They began to fidget and growl long before the first clouds appeared on the northern horizon. Then Josseran saw a dirty yellow haze creep quickly up the sky. Dust devils leaped and danced all over the plain, vanguards of the terrible onslaught to come.
It was still afternoon when darkness fell on the desert. The sun disappeared behind the thunderheads, and lightning flickered in sheets along the borders of the desert.
A cold wind whipped sand into their faces, as if flung at them from a giant fist.
The camels shrieked and pulled on the ropes. One-Eye shouted for everyone to dismount.
“The karaburan,” Khutelun shouted. The black hurricane.
A dun-colored veil of dust rolled towards them across the desert, herded by the storm. It came on them quickly, like a wave rising from a calm sea. There was nowhere to shelter, nowhere to run.
There was a clap of thunder and the younger camels screamed and stamped their hooves. The older beasts knew what was happening and had already dropped to their knees and begun to bury their mouths and noses in the soft sand. One-Eye ran up and down the string, jerking on the nose cords of the younger animals to drag them to their knees, forcing their muzzles close to the ground.
“Help me!” he shouted to Josseran. “Otherwise they will suffocate!”
When the work was done, Josseran took the only shelter there was, crouched in the lee of his camel’s flank. The first sheets of rain swept towards them. A few minutes before they had been blistering in the sun. Now they shivered under a barrage of driving sleet.
He looked up, saw Khutelun, her face transformed by the storm-light, eyes wide. There was no mistaking the look on her face: the ice princess of the Tatars was afraid. Her companions, too, were gibbering like fools, shrieking and ducking with each peal of thunder.
“It is a signal from Tengri,” Khutelun shouted. “The Spirit of the Blue Sky is angry with us!”
It is only a storm, Josseran thought. Some rain and some thunder. How bad can it be?
Only a storm.
A storm, yes, but unlike any storm he had ever known. The wind howled like a banshee. Away to their left a massive dune had started to avalanche, the sands drumming down from the crest like the breaking of a golden wave.
And then the driving sleet turned to hail.
Khutelun huddled against the flanks of her camel. She was no more than a dozen paces away from him but was now almost invisible through the sheets of icy rain and wind-blown sand. Josseran stumbled over and threw himself down beside her.
“Pull your hood over your mouth and nose!” she shouted at him. “Or you will die!”
He did as she told him to do. She was right. There was sand in his eyes, his mouth, even his nose. Already it was almost impossible to breathe.
There was a terrible groaning, as if the ground itself was creaking open. Josseran pulled the hood of his robe further over his face, choking on grit.
Even in his terror he was aware of the closeness of her. He put an arm around her shoulders, a gesture of possession and protection, and he felt her inch closer to him. Now their bodies were touching. He even felt himself stirring, despite the upwelling of fear, or perhaps because of it.
He felt her arm close around his waist.
If it should end now, he thought, in this storm, if our bodies are buried entwined in the sand and never found, it would be a fitting ending. Then I will never have to suffer the agony of leaving her, as I surely must. We will become dust devils, and dance for ever on the Taklimakan.
They lay there for what seemed like an eternity, clinging to each other with the same urgency as they clung to life, surrounded by roaring, choking darkness. No words were spoken; none were possible. Yet Josseran knew that a pact had been joined.
The ice-wind whipped and tore at their clothes, sand and stones thrown into the air around them clashed in a maelstrom of noise, as if the Devil himself were cursing and shrieking at finding them in their embrace.
Josseran shuddered with cold, but with the warmth of her body pressed against him, like the heat of a raging fire, he was not afraid.
It went on for hours, and departed as abruptly as it had come. The noise stopped. The sun broke through a leaden sky, like a second dawn; Josseran felt its heat again on his back. He stirred, cautiously, slowly raising his head from the sand. Khutelun’s camel, which had been their shelter through the storm, staggered to her feet, coughing and braying.
The orange dust-tail of the storm hastened down the sky.
Their robes were soaked with ice and rain, and they steamed in the heat of the sun. Khutelun tore the scarf from her face, and lay gasping and coughing on her back. Finally the spasm passed and she sat up.
They looked at each other. Neither of them spoke.
The dunes around them were covered with tiny, misshapen hummocks. One by one these hummocks rose and were transformed into the shapes of men and camels who had been half buried by the storm. The Tatars stumbled around like drunks tumbling from an inn, laughing and patting each other on the shoulders, congratulating each other on their survival.
Then Josseran heard William’s groans. A hillock of sand, no more than ten paces away from him, crumbled and moved, and William sat up, sand clinging to his cheeks and lips and eyelids, like some long-buried turtle.
He was trying to breathe.
Josseran cradled William’s head in his hands and held his leather water bottle to his lips. The friar coughed violently, vomiting most of the water back into the sand, and then lay on his side, gasping like a stranded fish. Josseran pulled him clear of his sandy tomb. Wind-blown gravel had shredded his cloak.
“It is over,” Josseran told him. “The tempest has passed.”
He felt Khutelun’s eyes on him. When he turned back to her she had on her face a look such as he had never seen before on any woman – well, perhaps Catherine that first night. Her eyes could have melted candle wax.
He was wrong. It was not over. The tempest had not passed.
After a few days the sand gave way to a plain of hard quartz pebbles that crunched under the hooves of the camels. The distant, snow-capped peaks of the Tien Shan finally dropped below the horizon.
With the passing of the storm the Taklimakan had blossomed, if only for a few days. Tiny yellow trumpet flowers bloomed on brown thorny shrubs and pale yellow lupins pushed their way to the surface. A miracle of the desert. Some seeds, One-Eye told him, might lay dormant for decades, waiting for just one day of rain.
They were on the borders of Cathay now, One-Eye announced. Soon we will be in Kumul. Khutelun and the other Tatars appeared nervous. Some of them had even taken to wearing their leather armor, despite the heat. Josseran buckled on the damascened sword meant for their Khaghan. If there was fighting to be done then he would be ready.
Khutelun had not spoken to him since the storm. What am I going to do? Josseran wondered. A man should act, he thought, else he is carried along with the way of the world and his decisions are made for him by fate. But what can I do? Do I really imagine myself staying here with her, living like a savage on these plains at the edge of the world? Can I spend the rest of my days milking the mares and drinking koumiss with her ripe and barbaric brothers?
Would she, the daughter of a Tatar khan, give up her own people to return with me to Christendom and life in a small and draughty castle in Burgundy? He could hardly imagine her sitting on a stool in his manor house, weaving a tapestry with needle and thread.
What, then, was the answer?
The answer was that there was no answer. If the Lord were kind he would have buried them in the storm, locked in each other’s arms. It was the only way they could ever have forever.
Soon they would arrive at Qaraqorum and their torment would be over.
They pushed on through a wasteland of clinkers and scorched stones, a black plain devoid of life as if some marauding army had passed this way, putting even the ground itself to the torch. Brother William prayed almost constantly, even in the saddle. He believed they had almost reached the end of the world. Strangely, he seemed almost cheerful about it, had even stopped his complaining and sermonizing.
He would never fathom him out.
Khutelun called a halt in the middle of the afternoon for a rare moment of rest. There were no trees so they sat in small groups in the dismal shade of their camels, regathering their strength. In the east the oasis of Nan-hu appeared as a green island floating on the plain. They would be there by nightfall, One-Eye told them, but no one among them seemed encouraged by the prospect. This endless desert had even tired the Tatars.
The raiders appeared like ghosts rising out of the very ground itself. The trap had been carefully laid, Josseran realized later, the horsemen waiting for them in a slight depression to the east, their presence masked by the glare of the sun.
They heard only the sudden rumble of hoofs. Khutelun shouted a warning. The Tatars jumped to their feet but they were too late. They came out of a white sun; he had to shield his eyes even to see them. There were perhaps three-score riders, he guessed, riding broad-shouldered Tatar ponies.
The camels shrieked in their hobbles; several of them were hit in the flanks and shoulders by the first volley of arrows. One-Eye screamed and ran up and down the string sobbing. The camels were his life and his livelihood. It was as if each arrow had pierced his own flesh.
Their attackers rode straight at them, firing from the saddle. Josseran drew his sword and instinctively ran out to meet them.
“Stay back!” Khutelun shouted at him.
He saw three of the Tatars stagger and fall, hit by the second wave of arrows. Without his war horse and his suit of chain mail, he was all but defenseless.. He readied himself to die. He wished he had had time to better prepare. Perhaps I should have made my confession after all, he thought.
The horses thundered into them; he heard more of his companions go down screaming under the hoofs.
Perhaps as many as a dozen of the riders detached themselves from the main force and rode towards him. But they did not run him down, as he expected them to do. At the last moment they veered away, encircling him. It must mean they wished him alive, for some reason. It gave him the advantage.
Josseran held his sword two-handed and waited for them to come. They were Tatars, he saw, but they wore heavier armor than any he had yet seen: iron lamellar sewn on to leather cuirasses, giving them a fearsome aspect, like massive brown beetles. Their helmets were winged and decorated with gold, and some of them had leopard skin furs around their shoulders and brilliant red blankets on their horses. More than just bandits. But there was no time to speculate on who they might be and why they had laid this trap.
He saw William, perhaps twenty paces away, darting among the horses and camels in his flapping black robe, clutching the leather saddle with the Bible and missal. One of the horsemen ran him down and clubbed him on the back of the head with the flat of his sword. The friar went down, face first, and lay still. This time he could not protect him.
Josseran tightened his grip on the hilt of the sword. The jewels in the hilt glittered in the sun. The riders kept circling. He decided to make the first move.
He ran at the nearest horseman, slashing double-handed with his sword. The man parried the blow with his own weapon, but made no attempt to strike back at him. Josseran swung again and the man panicked and rode away a dozen paces. He was no swordsman.
He heard the other riders closing in behind him and he wheeled around and slashed again, forcing them back. Josseran grinned wolfishly. If this was the best they could do he could keep this up all day.
Their leader shouted an order and they all spurred in at once. He brought two from the saddle but then they crowded in, their horses perfectly disciplined. He did not even see the blow across the skull that finally sent him crashing to the ground.