SILK ROAD special excerpt

DAYS, WEEKS; formless, endless, the monotony of the journey broken only by almost imperceptible changes in the desert surface and the vagaries of the weather. One morning broke warm and blue, but by noon the sky was leaden with clouds and the winds turned the horizon to an impenetrable yellow haze. The storm lasted an hour. By the afternoon, the sky had cleared, and the desert was once more a furnace.

The next morning they woke with ice in their beards.

Flat gebi stones gave way to sand, which flowed like breakers on a big sea and changed shape in the wind even as they watched. The dunes stretched as far as they could see, some as high as the walls of Antioch.

There were no birds, or lizards, or shrubs. The way ahead now was marked only by occasional clumps of crumbling argol and the bones of long-dead animals, bleaching under a relentless sun.

They spent two weeks in that howling wilderness, which One-Eye called the Storehouse of the Wind. It blasted them, day after day, the landscape constantly shifting and changing. When they camped at night One-Eye would tie an arrow to a long stick and plant it in the sand to indicate the direction they should take the next morning. Then they would huddle together under the cold stars, listening to the susurration of the sand, and in the mornings when they woke their surroundings had changed utterly and if it were not for their camel man’s stratagems they would have become hopelessly lost.

Once they came across the ruins of a large city. Josseran was walking beside his camel, One-Eye in front of him at the head of the string, Khutelun behind.

As they reached the crest of another great dune the camel man stopped in his tracks. Below them lay all that remained of a forest, the gnarled fingers of the petrified trunks reaching from the ground like the fingers of a half-buried corpse. Beyond them the roofs of an ancient city protruded from the sand. In some places Josseran could make out the outlines of streets and laneways, in others there were just shapeless piles of rubble.

“What is this place?” Josseran asked.

“I do not know the name of it,” One-Eye answered, his voice dropping to a whisper, ‘perhaps it is the Golden City of the legend.”

“What golden city?”

“There is a story of a great king who built his capital here in the Storehouse of the Wind. The city had fabulous wealth, for this place was not desert then, there was an oasis here, larger even than Gaochang or Aksu. Stories of the riches that this lord possessed spread far and wide and a tribe came down from the steppes to attack him. After he had invested the town, the chief of the tribe sent a messenger to the king saying that if he gave him ten chests of gold he would leave in peace. But the old king refused. Every day the chief sent a messenger to the walls with his offer, but always the king sent him away with words of defiance. After a long siege, the city fell, and the king was taken prisoner and brought before the chieftain. Again, he made the same offer, ten chests of gold and he would let the king have his life and he would leave the city and all the people in peace. But still the king refused. You see, the king loved the treasure more than his own life.”

“What happened to him?”

“The chieftain told him that if he loved his gold so much, then he should have it with him always, even in death. So he had him executed by pouring molten gold into his ears and eyes.”

Josseran shuddered. “And his city?”

“The chieftain’s soldiers ransacked it, but they did not find the gold they believed was hidden there. So before they returned to the north, they poisoned all the wells. Without fresh water the people died, the crops withered, the city crumbled away and was forgotten. But legend says the gold is still here somewhere, hidden underneath the sand.”

“It sounds like a story a minstrel would tell around a campfire.”

“Perhaps you are right,” One-Eye answered, and shrugged his shoulders.

Josseran watched the wind lift feathery grains of sand from the dunes and send them whispering through the crumbling walls. He remembered what Khutelun had said that night by the crescent lake: the days move on, the wind blows, men die, empires fall. What this city had once been, or how it had come to ruin, they would never know.

The wind howled again, sent grit whipping into their faces. Josseran heard again the strange singing of the sands, like the tramping hoofs of some invisible army.

What if some marauders were to sweep down on us now? Josseran thought. We would never suspect until it was too late.

 

 

That night Khutelun was visited in her dreams by the Spirit of the Everlasting Blue Sky.

She dreamed she was shut inside the walls of a great palace and from her window she could see the grass of the steppe blowing in the wind. It looked like the ripples on a lake. She ran to find her horse but there were no doors and the window had a grille of iron bars.

She ran up some winding stone steps to the tower and reached out for the grasslands, so close and yet so far away. The only escape was to fly. She woke calling out her father’s name in fear.

After the dream, she lay awake the rest of the night, unable to sleep. Her thoughts wandered inevitably to the Christian and his foul-smelling crow and their stories of palaces and churches and forts.

William could not sleep either. The closer they came to Qaraqorum, the easier his journey became. He realized now that God had been testing him, and he knew he had proved himself worthy. The Tatars were his destiny.

He was to be an apostle of the new age.

At some future time, he would be spoken of in the same breath as the Church’s greatest disciples, his journey to Tatary compared to Peter taking the gospel to Rome. Saint William, the preacher who brought God to the ungodly. The agonies of this journey would all been worth it. He could not wait for the morning, to ride atop of Satan to a new dawn. The heathen souls of half the world were in his hands.

 

 

 

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. 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 sign 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.

He put an arm around her shoulders, felt her inch closer to him.

If it should end now, he thought, in this storm, if our bodies are buried here in the sand and never found, perhaps it would be a fitting end for us. We will become dust devils, and dance forever on the Taklimakan. It is the only way we could ever be together.

They lay there for what seemed like an eternity, clinging to each other, surrounded by roaring, choking darkness. 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 an embrace.

Josseran shuddered with cold, but with the warmth of her body pressed against his, he was not in the least 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 watching him. He saw the look in her eyes.

He was wrong. It was not over. It had only just begun.

 

 

 

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 must have 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. They wanted him alive, for some reason. It gave him the advantage.

They were Tatars, 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. He wondered who they were and what they wanted.

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. He could not protect him this time.

Josseran tightened his grip on his sword. The riders kept circling. He decided to make the first move.

He ran at the nearest horseman, slashing double-handed. 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.

 

SILK ROAD

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