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Swords from the Desert

Swords from the Desert

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by Harold Lamb, Howard Andrew Jones (Editor), Scott Oden (Introduction)

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Countless authors have swept us into the exotic east, but few based their tales there. In a time when westerners still spoke publicly about “the white man’s burden,” Harold Lamb was crafting action-packed stories featuring Arabs, Mongols, and Hindus as heroic, sympathetic, and believable characters: men of honor and integrity ready to lay


Countless authors have swept us into the exotic east, but few based their tales there. In a time when westerners still spoke publicly about “the white man’s burden,” Harold Lamb was crafting action-packed stories featuring Arabs, Mongols, and Hindus as heroic, sympathetic, and believable characters: men of honor and integrity ready to lay down their lives for their countries and their comrades.
Assembled in this volume are four novellas and three short stories gleaned from the work of one of the greatest pulp writers. Lamb eventually won acclaim and awards for his accurate historical research and was regularly consulted by the State Department for his Middle Eastern expertise, but before any of that he drafted these thrilling tales of adventure.
In “The Shield,” Khalil el Khadr reaches storied Constantinople just before it is besieged by a horde of crusaders. He must survive the intrigues of his rivals, bypass the invading Franks, rescue the maiden under his charge, and escape with the city’s most fabulous horse. Journey to sixteenth-century India with the brilliant Daril ibn Athir, a skilled Arab physician with a sharp wit and a sharper sword that he must wield in three novellas to keep schemers and assassins at bay. Three shorter tales of heroes and maidens from desert lands round out this volume, a must-have for those who thrill to tales of bold deeds and daring exploits.

Editorial Reviews

S. M. Stirling

“Lamb knew how to write straight-ahead adventure the way Michelangelo knew how to paint.”—S. M. Stirling

"Heavy on history but with enough action to give aerodynamic lift, Lamb’s prose exemplifies and occasionally transcends the pulp genre."—Mike Pursley, PopMatters.com

— Mike Pursley

Historical Novels Review

"All of the stories collected in Swords from the Desert are excellent adventure tales brilliantly told, and they offer a wonderful glimpse of the culture and landscape where the Crusades were fought." —Eva Ulett, Historical Novels Review

— Eva Ulett

PopMatters.com - Mike Pursley

"Heavy on history but with enough action to give aerodynamic lift, Lamb's prose exemplifies and occasionally transcends the pulp genre."—Mike Pursley, PopMatters.com
Historical Novels Review - Eva Ulett

"All of the stories collected in Swords from the Desert are excellent adventure tales brilliantly told, and they offer a wonderful glimpse of the culture and landscape where the Crusades were fought." —Eva Ulett, Historical Novels Review

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UNP - Bison Books
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5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Read an Excerpt

Swords from the Desert

By Harold Lamb, Howard Andrew Jones


Copyright © 2009 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-7872-1


The Rogue's Girl

* * *

The sun was going down behind the roofs of Paris. A chill wind came up from the river, whispering over the bridge of Notre Dame. One after the other, far-off bells clanged and chimed for vespers, and Jeanne put away her fiddle. That is, she tied a cloth 'round it and started homeward — a slight, ragged girl with slim legs thrust into muddy slippers.

The wind tossed the tangle of red hair upon her shoulders as she bent to count the day's earnings in her hand. Six copper coins she had, a clipped piece of silver, an old ring with a broken moonstone in it and a link from a gold chain. A great lord had thrown her this link as he rode past, but Jeanne doubted it was gold.

At a money-changer's stall she held it out, and a claw-like hand reached for it? — ?felt of it and rang it down upon the counter. And thrust it back to her contemptuously.

"Brass!" The money-changer sneered. "Not the value of a sol."

"But," cried Jeanne, her gray eyes innocent, "a seigneur with six spears and a trumpeter to follow him gave it me."

"Eschec! Will the like of him cast gold to a rogue's girl? Now that ring you have is worth a chip —"

"Don't burn your fingers." Jeanne had been looking at the pale moonstone all afternoon and she liked it.

"Half a crown."

"My faith," she grimaced, "do you think to buy a crown jewel for silver? I'll be wearing it myself."

With a toss of her head she was off across the bridge, pausing only to bargain for cheese and bread. She nibbled at her supper as she edged around a veiled leper who sounded his clacker mournfully. It was late — almost dark between the leaning houses — and she circled wide where men-at-arms loitered over a watch fire. Jeanne was sixteen years old and she knew well where harm and where safety lay for a fair fiddling girl in the alleys of Paris. Humming to herself, she tossed a copper into the basket of a begging woman, mimicking as she did so the air of the seigneur who had thrown her brass for gold. Then she shrank against the wall, hiding her face in her hood.

The horsemen splashed through the mud of the alley, heedless of the women. The leader, a bearded man in red Burgundian colors, carried two shields, and Jeanne saw that one had been broken. Down toward the river galloped the riders, swinging away from the watch fire.

"My faith," Jeanne muttered, "they go apace!"

She wondered, as she turned from the alley into another, why a led horse with empty saddle had been with the men, and why they chose a way to darkness and water instead of a lighted square. But she had seen much of the feuds and the fighting of the lords of Paris.

Abruptly she stopped, peering into the dimness before her. A man lay there, outstretched and motionless. A tall youth with yellow hair darkened by running blood. Jeanne knelt down and touched his chest, her fingers feeling the iron rings of mail. But he was breathing.

Quickly the girl glanced about her. No one else was in the alley and the walls were blank and silent. Jeanne bent over the white face of the wounded man, and it seemed to her he must be dying. She drew a long, helpless breath, and hurried to the end of the alley through an archway to the black void of a stair.

"Giron!" she called, and whistled melodiously.

After a moment a figure broad as a bear appeared before her, and another followed, bearing a candle. They had shaggy heads and they smelled of the wine cellar from which they had come.

"There's a poor dupe," she cried, "turning up his toes yonder."

The two rogues grunted and followed her to the wounded man, where they blew out the candle and searched the ground by him.

"Thunder of God," whispered the broad fellow, "he's been stripped by them that laid him down. Aye, pouch and rings, all gone."

"And belt and cloak," added the other. "Sword and knife gone? — ?like a peeled turnip he is."

But before the candle had been put out, Jeanne had caught a glimpse of a lean, proud head and gentle lips twisted by pain. "Nay, Giron," she exclaimed, "carry him down to the cellar and look to his hurts."

"Let him lie," muttered the big man with an oath. "See you not, Jeanne, he is a high Mark? He'll be cold in another hour, belike, and if he be found in our hands, they will e'en hie us off to the Big Jump."

He meant that this was a seigneur, whose death in their cellar would mean hanging for all of them. Giron was one of the most skilled dice coggers and picklocks in the city, while his companion, Pied-à-Botte, was a veteran mockmonk and mumper. They felt aggrieved that the fallen man had not even a belt worth taking on him, and they had no mind to set their necks in a noose to help him in his dying.

"Nay, he will live," cried Jeanne. "See ye not how strong he is, and a stranger, by his dress? And if he is a lord's son, ye will not lack pay for this hour's work. Be quick, before he bleeds his life away."

She kept at the rogues until they bore the man down to their fire in the abandoned wine cellar and laid him on the straw. But they had neither clean clothes to bind up his hurts nor water. Jeanne tried to wash away the blood with wine, in vain.

"Wait!" she cried. "I will bring one to tend him."

Ten minutes later she was climbing to the top of a dark stair, with her pulse throbbing. At the landing she found a lantern that cast specks of light upon a black curtain, disclosing curious writing embroidered in gold upon the cloth. Jeanne could not read, but she knew this writing was not honest French — since she had come to stare at it once before. And at the curtain she hesitated.

Behind it lived Ibn Athir, the Arab. Some said he was an alchemist who knew the art of drawing the essence of gold out of quicksilver. Others said he was a sorcerer who could summon to him the demiurges of Satan in the fire of his furnace. Surely the great ladies visited him to buy spells for their beauty, or secret potions. Yet Jeanne had seen him give medicine to a wine crier who had a fit in the street below.

"Maitre Athir!" she called, crossing her fingers before her eyes. A strip of light showed beneath the curtain, and she heard slippers moving over stone.

Then the light vanished, and Jeanne almost turned and fled as the curtain was drawn aside and a tall figure confronted her within the gloom of the doorway. "Who seeks?" a deep voice asked.

"'Tis Jeanne, the fiddling girl," she explained. "Oh, Master Athir, will you come now, at once, and bring a medicine to save a young lord who has been cracked on the scrag — on the head?"

"Who is this seigneur?"

"I know not. I found him in the alley, and he can say no word."

Athir disappeared from the doorway and after a moment came out on the landing wrapped in a long, gray kaftan, the hood drawn over his head. In one of his wide sleeves he carried a bundle, and he nodded to her — she thought that his dark eyes were not evil, but only amused. "Lead," he said briefly.

The two rogues and the girl watched while the Arab drew the mail shirt from the wounded lad and ran a lean finger over the wounds — for the silvered mail had been hacked through across the chest. He felt the faint pulse beat in the wrists, and drew the slashed flesh together, applying an aromatic gum that stopped the bleeding. Then he bound up the wounds, and skillfully poured a little fluid down the throat of the unconscious man.

"Will he live," Jeanne asked, "now that you have worked this magic upon him?"

Athir shook his head. "Verily, little demoiselle, I have worked no sorcery. The drink will bring sleep to him presently. Such a blow on the head may do great harm, but this youth is strong as a colt, and — inshallah — if God wills it, he may yet live with a clear mind."

"Yonder whack on the scrag," observed Giron from the fire, "was a foul blow. Aye, 'twas dealt him when the poor lordling lay outstretched on the ground."

"And how so?" demanded Pied-à-Botte.

"Did I not see the cut o' the blade in the mud? Aye, right against this young cock's comb. Now bend thy peepers on this."

Giron pointed out the line of a red bruise running across the forehead of the wounded man. "'Tis the mark," he said, "of the steel cap that kept him from being cracked open like a melon."

"And where," Pied-à-Botte inquired, "is this helmet? It lieth not i' the alley. Nay, who would carry off a split cap?"

"Why, them that stripped his gear from him. See ye not, addlehead, that they took every mark of his name and rank, and left him for dead."

Suddenly Jeanne bethought her of the three riders with the riderless horse and the broken shield galloping toward the river. "Then," she exclaimed, "I saw them, and they were followers of my lord of Burgundy, with a red-bearded lord leading them."

"A red beard close-clipped upon his chin?" demanded Giron. "A hawk's beak and a roving eye?"

Jeanne nodded.

"God's thunder! That will be Renault. Aye, the duke's lieutenant he is."

The name of Renault was well known to the rogues of Paris. They called him the Gardener, saying that he kept the gallows-tree loaded down with fruit, and the grave diggers ever busied at turning up the soil. This red Renault was the confidential agent of John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy. So if Renault had struck down this stranger secretly, the duke had desired his death. And it was not safe to cross the path of John the Fearless.

"Here we be," muttered Pied-à-Botte, "a-nursing of this wight."

A shadow of dread fell upon the two rogues. That day they had seen the archers of Burgundy mustering at the street corners, while the butchers came forth from the markets with poleax and knife to join them. Rumors ran through the alleys that the duke had become master of the city. Certainly he held the gates, while the retinue at his house — the Hôtel St. Pol — was more like an army. Both Giron and stout Pied-à-Botte could not help wondering how much Renault would pay to hear that the man he had thought slain was lying alive in a certain cellar. And Jeanne read their thoughts.

"Asses, with long ears!" she cried. "You would flit off to the duke's men and gab for a silver pound. And then what would befall you? Why, Renault, who hath taken pains to hide this deed, would swing you up to dance in the air, to still your tongues."

The straw beside her stirred, and a deep voice muttered drowsily, "What is this talk? Where is — my horse?"

Aroused by their voices, the wounded man had raised himself on his elbow, to stare wearily at the fire. His brown hand quivered as he raised it to his head, then fumbled at his side for the missing sword.

"Messire," said Athir quietly, "you were struck down before nightfall and left to die. Your horse is lost, with all you carried on you, and these people — "

"Get me a mount. I must go on!" He rose to his knee, thrusting aside the Arab's restraining arm as if it had been an empty sleeve.

"Nay, this night you cannot sit a horse, messire. Wait, and sleep."

The sleeping draught had begun to take effect, and the boy's head swayed on his shoulders. Only by an effort did he keep his eyes open. "I tell you," he said hoarsely, "I carry word to the king, and it may not wait."

"The king!" Giron and Pied-à-Botte, stared, round-eyed, but the alchemist glanced shrewdly at the half-conscious messenger.

"Then, messire," he suggested quickly, "write it down, or tell it me."

"Am I a clerk, to write a missive?" The wounded man shook his head and swore under his breath: "Sieur Dieu! No one but I may bear it." He tried to stand up, but sank back on the straw instead. "Aye, Sir Rohan and De Trault, they lie dead by the road — "

As his eyes closed and his limbs relaxed, Athir touched his shoulder. "Your name," he whispered urgently, "what is it?"

The two rogues edged closer, their ears cocked, and the wounded man smiled a little. "You may well ask that, but you'll not know it." And in another moment he was asleep.

Athir, however, could guess at a good deal. By his profession he was brought close to the court, and for some time he had heard whispers that the rising star of John of Burgundy would soon eclipse that of the sickly and irresolute monarch of France. Did not John the Fearless virtually hold Paris in his grasp — so that he might at any hour close the gates? He had gained the support of the guilds by promises, and had rid himself of some nobles of the king's party by a reign of terror in the streets.

And now John of Burgundy had the monarch of France a guest in the Hôtel St. Pol. Few men gained admittance to Louis without the duke's consent, and rumor had it that the Lord of France could not leave the gardens of St. Pol until the duke chose for him to do so.

The king, no doubt, had officers and servitors to attend him, and even John of Burgundy would not risk harming his person. But Louis was a prey to moods, and the Burgundian persuaded him that only in his house would His Majesty be safe from the mobs of Paris. Athir suspected that John of Burgundy had not wished this stranger to reach the presence of the king with his message, and if so it was no matter to meddle in.

"Keep him here," he advised Jeanne, "if you wish him to live."

Then he went thoughtfully up the narrow stair. As he did so he heard above him a sound as of a rat scampering on the stones. Hastening his step, he gained the top and glanced quickly to right and left along the alley. The only light came from the stars and a distant lantern, but Athir had eyes accustomed to dark nights, and he made out the figure of a man slipping away under the wall? — ?a man clad in a beggar's cloak and hood, yet moving away with a stride that was no beggar's discouraged shuffle.

Whereupon the Arab waited until the alley was deserted. Then, muffling himself in his kaftan, he vanished silently in the other direction. John of Burgundy had eyes and ears that served him well for hire of nights, even, perhaps, in the rogues' alleys.

Jeanne did not go to her room, in a neighboring attic. While Giron and Pied-à-Botte snored in their cloaks, she sat in the straw to tend the fire, and ceaselessly her eyes strayed to the face of the sleeping stranger. At times she reached out to touch his bandaged head and run her fingers timidly through the yellow hair dark with dried blood.

Hugging her knees and wide awake, she played a game of pretending — that this unknown man belonged to her, and looked at her with eyes of love.

Early the next morning Ibn Athir answered a tap at his door to find Jeanne standing by the curtain. The girl had made a hasty visit to her quarters and had washed carefully, adding a touch of rouge to her cheeks and a flimsy bit of lace to the throat of her dress. She said nothing as she wandered about the alchemist's room, glancing idly at the brick furnace, the crucibles and glass vials and the piled-up folios.

"Is it true, Master Athir," she asked at last, "that you make draughts of magic for the great Marks? — ?the noble dames?"


Jeanne's tongue seemed to fail her, and she flushed. "I mean the things they call — love potions. You know well the draughts that make — other people — love these ladies?"

"Verily, I know them." Athir sold talismans and potions to his patrons, while he smiled inwardly at their superstition.

"And such a draught will work no harm to him — to the one that drinks of it?"

"Little Jeanne, such potions are for the seigneurs' ladies, who pay for their whims."

"My father was a seigneur even as they, but a minstrel of the southland with an empty purse and a great thirst in him, which brought him down to singing ballades to the crowds while I fiddled among them, thanking them for the silver. A year ago he died, and I have made good shift for myself. I can pay only a small price, but, please, Master Athir, mix me the draught with magic in it for I need it sorely."

The Arab looked at her curiously, seeing anew the soft hair, the clear, troubled eyes. And he wondered, as he went to his table, what minstrel had caught the fancy of so fair a girl. He measured out a little red fluid. "Juice of the root of manna," he explained, and added a pinch of dark powder that vanished from sight. "'Tis star dust brought from the Egyptian desert where the heart of a flying star fell. It hath power to arouse great love in a human, but be sure that you keep near to him who drinks it."

"I will do that." She nodded gratefully and hastened away with the red elixir in a vial.

In the cellar the wounded man, alone, was pacing restlessly by the embers of the fire? — ?he had been asleep in Giron's charge when Jeanne had left him to seek the alchemist.

"What hole is this?" he cried. "Who brought me hither?"

Jeanne lowered her eyes and clutched the vial tighter. "Messire — I did. Truly, you are sore hurt and have not strength to venture forth."

"Thy name is Jeanne? — ?I heard it spoken last night — and meseems I owe thee much." The boy smiled impulsively. "Wil't help me more?"

"Aye, but first," she added warily, "you must eat, and drink."

She hurried to place bread and cheese on a clean cloth, and to pour wine into a cup. After a second's hesitation she emptied the vial of red fluid into the wine and brought it to him. He gulped it down and chewed at a fistful of the bread, while Jeanne sat in the straw pretending to eat, but watching him breathlessly.


Excerpted from Swords from the Desert by Harold Lamb, Howard Andrew Jones. Copyright © 2009 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Harold Lamb (1892–1962), who wrote biographies and screenplays as well as historical fiction, is best remembered for his tales of Cossacks and crusaders.
Howard Andrew Jones is the managing editor of Black Gate magazine and the editor of the Bison Books editions of Harold Lamb’s Wolf of the Steppes, Warriors of the Steppes, Riders of the Steppes, and Swords of the Steppes.
Scott Oden, a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, is the author of Men of Bronze and Memnon.
More information about Harold Lamb and his works is available at www.haroldlamb.com.

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Swords from the Desert 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really fantastic stuff -- I have no idea why Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard have all the glory but Lamb is mostly forgotten, as Lambs stories are easily on par with the best of those authors' works. If you like masterfully paced adventure fiction, especially one written by a world-class historian and researcher, pick up at least volume of Lamb's short stories.