Heart Of The World – Snippet 02

Rikart climbed over the stern, took the scull, and pushed them out into the flow of the canal. Other boats rowed past them, pulling hard. Rikart held his boat in near the bank, where the rip would be less, and nudged them out through the mouth of the canal. With the scull he held the boat steady, feeling for the edge of the wave.   

The Tigris was running full and the rip current caught them at once. The long narrow boat creaked. One of the women wailed, and they all clutched for the gunwales. Dinah began to sing, a high cheerful note, which calmed them. Rikart eased the boat along, riding the high side of the wave, steering out of the way of a big barge paddling hard for the east bank. All along the river between them and the bridge, boats thrashed along. Most were moving east. He thought that would not help them. He let the current take them on south. The sun had disappeared into the smeared dust of the sky. An early darkness came.  The bridge spanned the river on its seven piers. Rikart steered them toward the space in the middle and leaned on the scull, holding the boat at the edge of the standing wave there, and they swooped on through the momentary darkness under the arch.

The old woman at the bow with Dinah let out a scream, but Dinah cheered, and so they all cheered. Rikart moved them back toward the west bank, where the river ran slower. The river curved to his right. Up there he saw the top of the old Al-Shams mosque, gold against the last light.

Now they were coming to the al-Mansur bridge. Beyond the long arched span, he knew, the river ran broader, out past the walls, past the mouth of the New Canal, out across the plain between the fields and gardens. He thought if they passed through this bridge, they would escape.

The bridge crawled with people. He steered the boat down toward the second arch. In the dark he could just make out the women and children huddled in the boat, clutching each other. Downriver a sudden burst of light shone. For an instant the bridge, outlined against the red light, was a creeping black line across the river.

Thin and far away, but coming closer, a thin shriek like a flock of piping birds reached his ears. He clenched his jaw. Too late. They were sweeping down toward the archway through the bridge, and then a roaring torrent of rocks hammered down out of the sky.

Almost overhead, the center span of the bridge collapsed, flinging people down as it went, and the river heaved and churned and the boat swung around. Rikart fell out. People bobbed in the water around him, dead, alive. He swam hard after the boat, which was drifting off sideways toward the bank; against the last pale sky he saw Dinah in the bow, the old woman hunched at her feet. The scull swung idle. The boat rocked in the violent water.

Rising out of the water ahead of him, a long arm seized hold of the boat. The old woman struck wildly at it and the boat tipped and rolled over.

The wash broke over Rikart and he swallowed greasy water. The current was dragging him off. He kicked out and his feet struck something floating behind him, something wooden. Not the boat.  He could not see the boat. Heads floated in the water around him. He looked for Dinah. A canal opened in the bank here and in the back eddy above it, the boat was wallowing upside down. He swam to it, searching the water around him for Dinah. People screamed. A corpse floated beside the boat, the shirt full of air like a bubble over the water.

He pushed the boat ahead of him into the shallows. High overhead, the shrill shriek sounded again, high and coming closer. He sank down deeper into the water and a blazing red ball flew out of the dark and plunged into the middle of the Tigris. For an instant he saw nothing but the wash of light. Then the river out there began to burn and the whole sky turned blood red.

He smelled the hot oily smoke, the smell of sea coal. They were firing naftun. He thought, Baghdad is gone. He cast another broad look around him for Dinah, and then heard the whimpering under the boat.

He dove down, and came up beneath the overturned hull, into a pocket of air, dark as pitch. “Dinah,” he said.

Then something leapt on him and clutched him, sobbing, wrapped itself around him. He pulled himself loose enough to grope over this body. Not Dinah, too small. He wrapped the screaming child in one arm and dove again, out and up to the surface of the river.

This was not wholly dark. Red flickering light streaked across the river, glittered on the waves, glowed in the rolling smoke just overhead. His feet struck the riverbed here, and he stood to his shoulders in the water and fought through the churning water his way up to the canal gate. In his arms the child was gagging and coughing. He heaved the body up on the bank beside the canal and pounded on its back to knock out the water. He could smell the fire burning on the scummy water. Another thunderous crash echoed out. 

He went along the shore, looking out at the filthy, churning river. Cupping his hands around his mouth he screamed her name. Twenty feet off shore in a red patch of fire a body floated, burning. Not Dinah. Other things bobbed in the glow.  The catapults whistled again, and he backed away, and down out of the sky came a rain of stuff that hit the water and burst into flames.

The child had followed him — a scrawny boy. Rikart said, “We have to get out of here.” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, pushing him back the way they had come. At the canal gate a stone stair went up the bank. “What’s your name?”

The boy whispered, “Daud.” He was shivering.

“Come with me. I know some people here.” Rikart with a hand on his shoulder steered him into the city.


Daud was nine, small for his age. He had no father. He had worked in Reb Moseh’s house, carrying water, hauling wood, because his mother was the cook. Now his mother was gone. Everything was gone, except Rikart the Frank beside him in the dark.

He ran to keep up. They went on away from the burning river, along the street by the canal. The light from the river flickered around them, ahead of them. Rikart got him by the arm and pulled him back under the palm trees. Three horses galloped by them; the riders carried spears. Daud was wet to the bone, and cold. He thought of his mother. He had been reaching for her when the boat went over. He tore his mind away from that. They moved through the trees. In the square beyond that lots of people crowded around a mosque and the high drone of prayers sounded. Rikart went around the edge of the square, and down a lane. At a door in the stone wall he knocked.

 His teeth chattering, Daud went in close against him, to the shelter of the wall. The door opened, letting out a shadowy lantern beam. A deep voice said, “Rik! I thought you had gone. Come in. Quick.”

The Frank pushed Daud on ahead through the door. In the warmth and the light, he stood blinking. The men talked over his head.

“I thought you had escaped.”

“I tried,” Rikart’s voice said. “They’re sealing the city off, even on the river.”

“Then you can join us. The Caliph has ordered me to gather the city guard.  Tomorrow, by the will of God, we will save Baghdad.”

“So the old fool has finally realized what this is that’s happening.” Rikart’s voice cut.

“Yes, you were right. But now we have to save Baghdad, somehow.”

That man was tall, stocky. Daud knew that the jewel on his turban meant something important: he was an amir, a soldier. 

Rikart said, “There are a hundred thousand of them, Ra’is. They have machines. They have greasebombs. They won’t let anybody live.”

“If you’re with me,” the stocky man said steadily, “I can give you a sword. Otherwise, get out of my house.”