Heart Of The World – Snippet 01

This novel is being published by Ring of Fire Press on September 10. It’s historical fiction by one of the world premier historical fiction authors.

“Cecelia Holland knows history. More impressive is the way she understands human motivations. A wonderful writer.”  David Drake


A Novel by Cecelia Holland



Rikart braced his hands on the rail of the balcony, looking out. The City of Peace spread away before him in its orderly array, green with orchards and gardens. The blue stripe of the Great Canal crossed it like a sash.  Among the packed houses a hundred minarets pointed up into the sky. A fringe of palm trees hid the walls of the Round City, on its hilltop at the center of Baghdad, but above the fronds the gold dome of the House of Wisdom shone like a rising sun, and beyond that the green dome of the Palace. The people moving through the streets seemed all one being, slowly flowing along through the markets and alleys, in and out of the buildings, the lifeblood of the city.

Rikart loved Baghdad. His mother had brought him here when he was ten years old, after his father died. He had grown up here, the greatest city in the world. Now a shadow was creeping over it. The sunlight still shone down clear and bright, but out beyond, where the city ended, the air churned with yellow dust. This had begun that morning in the north and the dust cloud was moving swiftly west and south and now stretched almost to the river on the southwest, turning the sun pale. 

“You were right,” the old man said, behind him. “They’re here, after all.”

Rikart kept back the anger in his throat. He said, “You’ve got to come with me. Now, before sundown.”

“I can’t.” The Reb shook his head. His hands went to the sash of his robe. “I am too old. But you go. And you must take Dinah.”

“You have to come,” Rikart said. “You’re why I came back here.” He cast another look out over the city toward the dust. “You don’t know what’s going to happen next. The Caliph can’t stop them. Nobody can stop them.”

The old man said, “Swear to me you will save my daughter.” He was untying his belt.

Rikart faced him, thinking he might carry the Reb away in his arms. He would bring Dinah to help him. He looked past the old man, the little room with all its books, the table in the middle piled with scrolls and papers, with maps and pens. This place of peace. “I’ll talk to her. Get ready.” He went in two long strides to the curtained door, and through.

This room was the highest in the house. On the stairs below the landing, two of the servants huddled, muttering. He went by them, going down, but before he came to the bottom of the stairs, Dinah had come out to meet him.

She was a tall girl, not pretty, with thick dark hair.  Younger than Rikart was, maybe 17, she had managed her father’s household since her mother died and she seemed older. She wore a married woman’s headcloth and lately she had taken to holding her hand over her lower face when she talked to him, which he thought was ridiculous. She did it now, veiling herself, and she said, “What is this? Where is my father?”

“It’s what I told you yesterday,” he said. “The Mongols have come. We have to get out, now.”

Behind him, on the stairs, the women wailed. Dinah said, “Look what you’ve done,” and went by him to them.

He followed, ready to argue, but she was sending the two women off on chores. This made them happy and they left. Rikart caught her elbow. “Listen. Reb Moseh is refusing to go. We may have to force him.”

She frowned at him. “How little you know my father.” But then she turned her head, as if she heard something, and her face flattened. She went on up the stairs.

Rikart followed her. On the landing, he looked out the window toward the east, and saw there more of the dust boiling into the sky. He wondered if they had waited too long.  Then from the next room Dinah let out a wail like a stab to the heart.

He went into the old man’s room. The table was overturned. Where it had been, Reb Moseh was hanging from the beam, the sash of his robe wrapped around his neck. Dinah was clutching him, trying desperately to lift him up, off the pressure of the sash. She turned to Rikart. “Help me! Help me!” But the old man was dead. 


He said, “The river is our best chance. Meet me at the quay on the canal. I have a boat.”

Dinah’s face was slobbered with tears. He put an arm around her, holding her up on her feet. “He wanted you to escape. You have to try. Pack what you need. I’ll be back.” He hugged her against him; she smelled of lilac. Her body was slack against him. What would happen to her if they took her? He went on down the stairs to the door and out onto the little street.

He had not been here for years but this place was baked into his bones. He remembered everything, the warmth of the air, the peeling wall, the paving stones underfoot. The city was oddly quiet. He walked down to the canal. A boat full of watermelons was tied up at the quay. The sweet-seller who usually perched on this corner was gone. Someone called out from a house across the way and a shutter banged closed. He went down along the canal, past the edge of the Caliph’s gardens, toward the Tigris. A dozen speckled peahens were pecking in the grass under the palm trees. He smelled jasmine and oranges.

He was planning this out as he went; they could go south on the river to Maniyyurah where he knew people. There were Jews in Maniyyurah who would take in Dinah. Where the canal came down to the river, he stood a moment, watching the boats as they went back and forth. The water shone in the afternoon light. A flat-bottomed riverboat slid out of the canal, wobbling in the tangled current, and started south. Down there, the bridge crawled with people crossing toward the west.

He went upstream a little way. Days before, when he first came back, he had hidden a riverboat on the bank, pulled it up high out of the water and buried it under palm fronds. He hauled it down to the river, fit the scull into its socket, and climbed in. The current took the boat down toward the canal again. Across the city, first one voice and then another and another took up the midafternoon call to prayer.

“God is greeeaat –” The long syllables quavered out.

Just above where the canal came boiling into the river he steered the boat to the bank, got out, and wading along the edge of the canal towed the boat up against the flow.

The call to prayer still hung in the air but somewhere far off, a thin whistle rose. His hackles rose. A moment later he heard a distant crash. He did not see where what was struck.  He bent to the work of pulling the boat against the river’s flow.

The quay was just ahead. In the western sky, the dust and smoke climbed up over the setting sun; the light was yellow as sulfur.  Dark against that, Dinah stood, with a crowd of other people. He had not reckoned for that. He should have known she would try to save them all. He turned to look over the boat. Maybe it could carry four people. He wrestled the long narrow boat into the lee of the quay.

At once Dinah was pushing people into it, two children, an old woman. Rikart held the gunwale to keep the boat from tipping under their weight. “They can’t all go — there isn’t enough room!”

She ignored him. She was handing in another child. Two more women waited — her maids. Rikart pulled his shirt off; it was warm for a winter’s day. He tossed the shirt aside. The people sat in a line down the center of the boat, knees up, the children on laps, and Dinah got in.