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By Colin Falconer
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2011 Colin Falconer
All rights reserved.
Fergana Valley in the Chaghadai khanate of the Tatar the Year of the Sheep
She had always dreamed she could fly.
She imagined that the earth was laid before her, as in the eye of an eagle, could feel the updraughts of the valley in the sweep of a wing, could believe for that moment that no silver bond tied her to the earth ...
Khutelun reined in her horse, turned her face to the north wind, the cold burning her cheeks. The snow peaks on the Roof of the World had turned a glacial blue in the late afternoon sun. Below her, in the valley, the black yurts of her tribe huddled like thieves on the brown valley. Nothing stirred on the plain. She was alone up here, alone with the great silence of the steppes.
This is my birthright, on the back of a good horse, my face burned by the wind. But if my father has his way I will be given to some upstart boy who will give me his babies and have me tend his yurt and milk his goats and I will never ride at the head of my father's touman again. I am born to the wrong sex, with the heart of a stallion and the tail of a mare.
If I had been born in the body of a man I would be the next khan of the high steppe. Instead my consolation is that one day one of my sons will rule the high grasslands. Even for this I must one day go to pasture with a man.
The thought of submitting herself made her feel sick inside.
Of course she wanted children of her own. She also hungered for the physical comfort of a man, and lately she had listened to the lewd chatter of her married sisters with more than a passing interest. But to take a husband – though she knew that one day she must – would consign her to his yurt forever.
Her father had found a new suitor for her, the son of a khan from north of Lake Baikal. It was her father's duty and it was also good politics. But as a Tatar woman it was also her right to refuse, as she had done many times before. This time, however, she had made a bargain with him. If he found her a boy who could prove he was worthy of her by besting her on horseback, then she would submit to marriage.
It was not outright refusal.
She heard a faint cry and looked up, saw a falcon flick its wingtips in the face of the wind.
Look at her brothers. Gerel was a drunkard and Tekudai had the brains of a goat. They could not match her in wits, or in spirit.
I was born to be more than a receptacle for some man's seed.
She made a promise to herself then, shouted it to the Spirit of the Everlasting Sky. But her words were lost on the wind.CHAPTER 2
Khutelun's father, Qaidu, had made his camp that winter in the Fergana Valley, below the Roof of the World. Black crags rose into the sky on every side, like the fists of the gods, the slopes below dotted with silver poplar. To the north, a high col cupped a dark lake. Above it loomed the ridge called The Woman is Going Away.
The night before he had placed the headless bodies of two white goats on its crest. To win the challenge, Khutelun, or her suitor Jebei, must be first to place one of these carcasses at the door of his yurt.
Everyone had gathered to watch the spectacle: the men in their fur coats and felt caps; the women clutching snot-nosed children. There was an eerie silence. Breath from a thousand mouths rose in the still morning air.
Jebei's escort mounted their horses and waited, a little way off. Their broad-shouldered Mongolian ponies stamped their hooves in the dawn cold.
Jebei himself had the body of a man but the face of a boy, and his quick, untidy movements betrayed his nervousness. His father watched him, frowning.
Qaidu strode from his yurt, went to his daughter and placed a hand on her horse's mane. She was tall and slim for a Tatar, but the slenderness of her body was hidden under her thick coat and boots. She wore a fur-lined cap and there was a scarf wrapped around her nose and mouth so all that was visible was her eyes.
'Lose,' he whispered to her.
The dark eyes flashed. 'If he deserves me, he will win.'
'He is a fine boy. You do not have to ride your best.'
Her pony stamped its foot in excitement, eager to begin.
'If he is as fine a boy as you say, my best will not be good enough.'
Qaidu frowned at her defiance. Yet he wished Tekudai or Gerel had inherited some of her spirit. He looked around at the silent, bronzed faces. Most of the women were smiling at his daughter. They wanted her to win.
'Whoever brings me the goat has their will!' he shouted and stepped back.
Jebei nudged his horse forward so that he stood head to head with Khutelun. He smiled and nodded at Qaidu. He thinks he can win, the old man thought. He does not know my daughter.
Qaidu raised his right fist in the air. When he brought it down the race was under way.
A hard gallop through the crowd, then out beyond the yurts, towards brown hills dusted with white. Jebei stood in the stirrups, riding hard, the wind in his face. His pony's hooves drummed on the frost-hard plain. He looked over his shoulder, saw Khutelun's horse veer suddenly away; in moments it was two hundred paces distant, heading towards the steepest slope of the mountain.
He wondered if he should follow her. The broad shoulder of the col loomed above him. He had decided on the cleanest way up the ridge when he walked the course the previous day. Too late to change his mind now. What was the girl doing? Perhaps she had chosen a longer way; it must be her strategy to ensure he would win. He kept straight for the col.
She did want him to win. Didn't she?
* * *
Khutelun grinned as she imagined Jebei's confusion. Really, he had no choice. If he followed her now he would put himself behind her in the race and he could not close the gap between them unless her horse fell. What else could he do but keep to the obvious course?
She rode around the spur towards a defile in the cliff called The Place Where the Ass Died because of the steepness of the slope. Her horse's hooves slipped on the loose shale. She urged him on. Sheknew his pumping heart and sinewy muscles were equal to it. How many times had she ridden this path before, in other races, for sport?
Poor Jebei.CHAPTER 3
Khutelun picked her way back down the mountain, the carcass of the goat hanging limp from her right hand, bloodying her horse's flank. Jebei sat astride his own black mare, waiting for her, a grin on his face. So he had followed her after all. It was immediately clear to her what he planned to do. He thought she was weak and that he could wrestle the goat from her, here in the defile, where no one could see them.
She reined in her horse.
They stared at each other. 'You are not as stupid as you look,' she said to him.
'Would it be so bad to be the wife of a khan?'
'I am the daughter of a khan. I am content with that for now.'
He held out his hand. 'You may be swifter on horseback but you are not as strong. Do you think you can pass me with your burden?'
Her shoulders sagged in defeat. She had not thought he would have the wits to trap her this way. She walked her horse forward and held out the kid's carcass.
'Wait,' he said. 'Before I take my prize, I must know what I have won. After all, I have never seen your face. Perhaps I might not want your goat.' The women of the steppe were not veiled, for they were Tatars before they were Mohammedans, yet she had always taken care to keep her scarf of purple silk coiled around her face, both to irritate and intrigue him. He waited as she reached for the silk with her free hand and pulled it aside.
He stared at her. 'But you're beautiful,' he said.
Beautiful, she thought; well, so men tell me. A worthless gift for a Tatar princess. Beauty is the gift of submission.
'I'm also stronger than I look,' she said and with one fluid movement of her right arm and hips she swung the bloodied carcass of the goat into his face and knocked him out of the saddle. He lay groaning on the frost-hard rock.
Khutelun did not spare him a glance. She walked her horse over him and trotted back through the defile.
* * *
Qaidu stared at the dead goat lying at his feet. He nudged it with his boot, almost as if expecting the lifeless meat to spring to life. Finally he looked up at his daughter. 'So. You won.'
'Jebei is a fool.'
Qaidu looked at Jebei's father, sitting stone-faced on his horse, by providence too far away to hear this summation of his son's character. 'He is the son of a khan.'
'The wind blows cold on princes and goats alike.'
Khutelun saw her brothers watching from the doorway of her father's yurt, their disappointment at the outcome of the contest plain to read. 'If only Tekudai was more like you,' Qaidu said to her under his breath. Khutelun grinned beneath the purple scarf. He could not have paid her a higher compliment.
* * *
After Jebei had left the camp with his father and escort, to return to the frozen wastes of Lake Baikal, the clan decided to rename the defile where Khutelun had won her ride. From that day it was no longer known as the Place Where The Ass Died.
It became, instead, The Place Where the Ass Was Felled by a Goat.CHAPTER 4
the Templar fortress at Acre in the year of the Incarnation of Our Lord 1260 the Feast of the Epiphany
Josseran Sarrazini, alone and on his knees. A single oil lamp burned in the pre-dawn darkness of the chapel, its flame reflected in the black and gold image of the Madonna above the altar. This giant with close-cropped chestnut hair bowed his head, lips moving silently in prayer as he asked for absolution for that one sin for which he could not forgive himself.
In his mind he was far from the dusty streets and olive presses of Palestine; instead he heard the creaking of snow-heavy boughs, the smell of damp furs and the chill of cold stone walls.
'I knew it was wrong but I could not resist,' he murmured.
It had happened one morning soon after the feast of the Nativity. She had wanted to go riding in the forest and, at his father's request, he had agreed to escort her. She rode a chestnut mare, its disposition as haughty and silken as her own. Ever since she had come to live with Josseran and his father at the manor, scarcely a friendly word had passed between them.
She gave him no outward sign that his presence made any deeper impression on her than did her groomsman's.
They rode deep into the forest and her mare found a rabbit's burrow and stumbled. She fell from her horse and lay still on the frozen ground. He leaped from his own mount, fearing she had broken bones. But as he bent over her, her eyes blinked open, wide and black as sin, and he felt his belly turn to warm grease.
She smiled. He would never forget it.
She said that it was just her ankle that was hurt, and commanded him to help her back into the saddle of her horse.
Was the temptation irresistible or was it simply that he did not resist? Even as his arms went around her he felt the heat of her body and on an impulse he tried to snatch a kiss from her lips. He thought she would push him away, but instead she pulled him on top of her. He groaned, unable to stop himself. His manhood, as yet untried, was hard as oak and the frost-hard ground might as well have been a bearskin rug and a feather bolster.
Suddenly and to his great astonishment, he was inside her.
And what did he now remember of their encounter? Just the drumming of blood in his ears, the stamping of the horses as they pawed at the hard ground, the salt taste of her hot tongue in his mouth.
She racked him on the sweet stretching of her intimate flesh. Her lips were drawn back from her teeth in a grimace that was more pained than pleasured. Like an animal.
He tried to hold back from the peak but he was swept along with it, cursing his youth and inexperience. He spilled himself quickly, the oily warmth emptying his belly, leaving him hollow and weak.
She pushed him roughly away and he lay panting on his back, staring at the washed blue sky, feeling the cold frost melting into his cambric shirt. She pulled down her skirts, limped to her horse and remounted, without his assistance. Then she rode away, leaving him there with the juices of their bodies smeared on his thigh.
If it had been one of the servant girls there would have been no harm in it. But she was not. When he finally dragged himself to his feet he heard the Devil's laughter ringing in his ears and the weight of guilt had already settled in his belly like an ingot of lead.
On the way back through the forest he cried for what he had done. Yet within an hour of his return to the castle he was plotting to do the Devil's work once more.CHAPTER 5
William of Augsburg had been in the Holy Land for just two days and he was scandalized.
Acre was part of the Crusader state of Jerusalem and he had come here expecting to find a bastion of piety; instead the knights and lords charged with the protection of this sacred place disported themselves no better than Saracens.
He had arrived on a Venetian merchant galley a few days before. As he stood on the poop beside the captain, watching the great fortress rise from the sea, he was overcome. Here was Palestine, 'Outremer' – 'Over the Sea', as the Franks called it – the sacred birthplace of Our Lord. At last he would step in the footprints of the prophets. He gripped the wooden rail, his knuckles white.
My Lord, my God, let me serve Thee. Let me die for Thee, if it is Thy will.
The sails whipped in the wind as the helmsman leaned on the long tiller. Sailors clambered up the rigging to their positions on the fore and main masts. As they entered the harbour, he watched the waves send sprays of foam high up the walls of the great fort.
Beyond the Crusader turrets and barbicans William saw the domes of the Mohammedan mosques and the towers of the minarets. Their presence served as a reminder that even here the Lord was under siege. The Saracen halls had long since been consecrated as Christian churches, but the thick castle walls were all that lay between the pilgrims and the godless hordes. With Jerusalem lost, Acre was a symbol of hope to everyone in Christendom, an outpost of God among the heathen.
And he was to be its saviour.
But the heady promise of his arrival had not been fulfilled. Far from being an outpost of the sacred, the city was just another stinking, hot Saracen town. The narrow streets were crowded with heathen, the turbans and chadors of the Jews and Mohammedans bobbing everywhere, the alleys choked with their filth and excrement, the stench that rose from the cobblestone alleys almost tangible. The bazaars were clamorous from dawn to dusk with the jibber-jabber of the hawkers.
The swarthy, hook-nosed Mohammedans stared back at him from under their keffiyehs, their hawk eyes glittering with venom. He felt sullied by their looks, if not threatened, for the Templar sentries stood watch at every gateway of the city, distinctive in their white surcoats with red cross pattée.
The number and brazenness of the heathen astonished him. But it was the lords of Acre themselves who confounded him, as they would any good Christian. The palaces in which they lived were decked with marble, the walls furnished with silk carpets and high ceilings. They lived lives of sumptuous decadence, an offence to any God-fearing Christian.
They had even insulted him on the evening of his arrival by offering him a bath.
They wore loose silk robes and sometimes even turbans, in imitation of the Saracens. Their wives dressed like Muslims, with veils and jewelled tunics and flowing robes, and they employed kohl and perfumes like the common houris of Damascus.
It was hardly what he had expected to find when he left Rome.
The holy cause in Outremer had met with disaster upon disaster over the last two decades. Jerusalem, which had been wrested from the infidel at the urging of the Pope two centuries before, was once more lost to the Saracen, sacked by a horde of Turks in the pay of Sultan Ayub in 1244. It was just a decade ago that Louis IX of France had himself taken up the Cross to save the Holy City from the heathen but his expedition had found disaster in the Nile delta and Louis himself had been taken prisoner and held for ransom.
Excerpted from Silk Road by Colin Falconer. Copyright © 2011 Colin Falconer. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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