Heart Of The World – Snippet 03
Rikart flung his hands up. Daud saw he was angry. Rikart said, “Very well. Give me the sword.”
The soldier struck him across the shoulder. “I knew you would stand up.” He went across the room, and Rikart followed him, and Daud got up and went after. Through an archway they went into another room, smaller, where on the walls hung swords and shields.
“Nothing matters but the will of God,” the soldier said. “Here, arm yourself.”
Rikart took a sword from the wall, held it a moment, and put it down and took another. He looked around for Daud. The soldier had gone out.
“You can stay here.”
“No,” Daud said.
“They’ll take care of you.” Rikart balanced this sword a moment and laid it aside also, and looked back at the wall full of blades. “Better than I can.”
“No, please,” the boy said. He imagined another ripping away of everything, this time all. “I want to go with you.”
The Frank turned and knelt down and put his hands on Daud’s shoulders. “Boy. Listen to me. This is as far as you can go with me. Tomorrow we will go out to fight. You are too young to do that. You have to stay here.” He gave the boy a little shake, his eyes fixed on Daud’s. “You’re lucky, little brother. Stay that way.”
Another shake, and his tone changed. “You need some dry clothes,” he said. He stood up, turning back to the arms on the wall. His gaze sharpened; he reached down into a chest below the swords, and took out a tunic of fine white cloth. He laid this on top of the chest and smoothed it with his hands; on the breast was a red cross, like a splash of blood. Rikart stroked his hands over it. Without looking up from it, he said, “Go ask for Umm Maryam, she will take care of you.” Daud turned, wooden, and walked back to the next room.
Rikart went into the garden, into the back where no one would see him, and standing with his face toward the wall, his feet apart, he stretched his arms straight out to either side like a cross. He did not pray. He had no one to pray to. His God had failed. The Muslims had won that war, and now in turn the Muslims would lose. He saw no sense in this. His arms began to ache but he held them outstretched. He thought of the old man hanging from the beam, of the bodies floating in the river. The boy, clinging to him, whom he could not save. The thin shriek of the catapults. His muscles were burning, his body shaking with the effort of holding his arms out. Some order in it teased the corner of his mind but he could not grasp it. Maybe he was unworthy of it. He lowered his arms to his sides.
Something pounded in the distance, not coming closer, just a steady far off thud. Daud, leaning on the palm tree, thought he could feel the shudder of it through the tree’s skin. Smoke drifted in the air even here at the heart of the Round City. He began to climb the tree, his hands on the boll, his feet walking up the slender trunk.
As he climbed higher he rose above the level of the wall around the palace, and he could see the hundreds of mounted men lined up on the pavement there. Rikart was one of them, somewhere. He looked for the white coat with its cross, in a sea of white coats. He swallowed a bitter taste in his mouth. Rikart had said he would take care of him and then had abandoned him. He climbed higher.
Now he could see the porch of the Caliph’s Palace. On the balcony there a man in a big white turban was waving his arms and speaking. Now and then the crowd watching gave off spurts of loud noise. They thrust their arms into the air. The horses reared and danced. There were very many of them, he could not pick Rikart out among them.
His eyes stung. Rikart had cast him off.
Now a great shout went up from the army — “God is God! God is great–!”
All around the city, behind Daud and on either side and all over, other voices rose. “God is great!” as if the whole of Baghdad cheered. His heart swelled, part of this great power.
He put his cheek against the palm tree. God would save them. Rikart would come back a hero and Daud would go to him and they would be friends again. Brothers, as Rikart had said.
Now they were turning, the whole army, swiveling in place, still in their lines, and riding toward the gateway. In his plumed turban the amir led the way. “God is great!” all the people shouted, and Daud scurried down from the palm tree and ran around the side of the palace, toward the great street there.
Crowds packed the side of the street; he had to worm his way through them to get to where he could see. He squeezed in between two men shouting God’s name. Down the broad pavement the mounted horsemen rode in their ranks, and the ground trembled under them. Daud let out a cheer. He saw Rikart, there in the first row, and waved, and ran along the edge of the street, keeping up. The roar of the crowd rolled like thunder. The horsemen waved their hands, and their horses capered, dancing, their eyes flashing. A girl darted out of the crowd and cast an armful of flowers in the way of the army. Daud cheered again, exalted. Ahead was the gate; he worked his way off through the crowd again, down to the wall, and up the stair along the wall to the parapet.
A boardwalk ran along the wall just below the top of the parapet and from here he could see, out there on the plain beyond the Canal, the whole long dusty mass of the enemy, an indistinct shifting cloud. People crowded in around him, so close he had trouble keeping his feet. The walk groaned under their weight. Everybody was jumping up and down, shouting and waving their fists. He leaned on the wall to keep his place. Below, the broad brown water of the New Canal flowed by, pent between the city wall and the high earthen dike.
The Southern Gate opened out here, leading over a bridge across the canal. As the army came out the gate they had to slow, narrow their ranks to four abreast, edge their way onto the bridge. The howling crowd urged them on.
And out there, even the enemy quailed at their approach. The dusty cloud was backing away, giving up the broad plain beyond the canal. They were afraid. Daud yelled and could not hear his own voice in the uproar. He beat his fists on the wall. The Caliph’s army was crossing the bridge, was forming up its ranks on the far side. The Amir with his feathered turban held his arm up. In the screaming of the crowd Daud could hear nothing, but then the Amir dropped his arm.
The army charged forward, the front rank stretching out to either side, broad as a blade. Behind that the rest of the horsemen pushed up to fill the gaps. Their cloaks fluttered. The manes of their horses rippled like banners. They swung their lances down to level, and bolted across the level ground at the enemy, which was shrinking back, retreating.
Under Daud’s feet the ground shook, slightly, and a low boom reached his ears.
He leaned across the wall, trying to pick Rikart out of the mass of charging men. Then someone near him wailed, and pointed, and he swung around — they all swung around — and saw, up beyond the bridge, the dike of the New Canal collapsing, and the water gushing through onto the plain.
The charging army wavered. Daud called out, sobbing. It was too late. The tide of water was sweeping down along the plain, flooding the low ground, cutting the horsemen off from the city. And now the cloud of the enemy was wheeling back, closing in. From all sides they pushed in against the Caliph’s army, a dusty horde, a whirlwind, a storm. They filled the air with their arrows. The Caliph’s army broke into bits, running men, running horses, and the enemy swarmed over them, and they were gone.