Heart Of The World – Snippet 06

The crash brought him up out of his sleep like a shocked bird. It was dark. The moon shone down into the courtyard in a silver flood but the far wall was in a pit of shadow. Something was shrieking, across the way, venting tiny screams. He pulled out his knife and went toward the noise, which got higher, the thing knowing he was coming. In the dark he plunged the knife down toward the noise. The blade skidded on something hard and down into something soft, and he twisted and hauled at it, both hands on the hilt, until the tiny screaming had stopped.

He dug the great furry stinking body up out of the rocks and carried it out to the moonlight. He would make a fire. He had the lamp, with the striker, and there was plenty of wood. He cut the rat open, the warm, smoking coils of its guts spilling silvery as fish into the moonlight. Without thinking he knew what he was going for. He had seen his mother cut up chickens. He knew the heart, the nugget of blood and meat, at the middle of this. He found that, and put it into his mouth, still hot with life, and gnashed it down, delicious, before he skinned the rest of the rat and cooked the flesh over his fire.


The city wall made the back wall of his compound, and climbing up onto the roof he could see all the way to the Basra Gate with its two towers. He sat there a while, watching. The Mongol army was off on the far side of the plain. Between them and the wall the flood from the dike had drained away into glassy puddles. On this mucky ground sat monstrous wooden frames, like horrible birds, with necks that craned back and forth, and spat rocks.  The rocks were crashing into the Basra Gate. He could see people swarming all over the top of the gate, but now someone was running toward him along the parapet, wailing.

“Lost! Lost, we’re lost –“

Up there, the near gate tower suddenly swayed like a dancer. Daud drew in a hard breath. Dust rose all around the tower, and the stonework collapsed into the dust.

Then from the great churning mass of the Mongol army, on the plain outside the wall, there went up such a howl that Daud himself yelled out. They were charging in toward the new gap in the wall, a raging torrent, as if the whole plain dissolved into horsemen. He wheeled around and jumped down to the courtyard.

Outside, on the street, people streamed by him, running, a woman with children clinging to her, a man pushing a two-wheeled cart. Boys raced past. A tiny child stumbled along, alone, its face twisted with sobs. He went to the edge of the canal. People rushed along the street on the far side, too, but down at the bridge he saw a knot of men.

Pushing against the current of the fleeing crowd, he went on down the street and across the bridge. On the far side some people were throwing up a barricade across it; they had already hauled a boat up to block the bridge’s mouth. Daud jumped over it. “I’ll help — Let me help — ” They were piling on chunks of rock and he hauled stones, and with two other men found a wagon abandoned down the street, all together lifted it, and heaved it on top, to make a  wall as high as his head.

The man on the far side of the wagon gave him a quick, hard look and a nod and a wave. Daud followed him across the street, where a big woman in an apron was chopping with an axe at a wooden gate in the wall.

More people ran to join them. The uproar at the Basra Gate was swelling toward them like a rolling wave. They heaved up chunks of wood onto the barricade and the first of the Mongols appeared at the far end of the bridge, small men on little horses.

The woman with the axe let out a scream. She wore no headcloth, no veil. Her great breasts swelled the cloth above her apron. The rest of them surged up beside her, Daud one of them, his hands full of rocks. He scrambled up onto the wagon on top of the wall. The Mongols charged across the narrow bridge, and everybody at the barricade hurled rocks.

One of the horses went down. Daud screamed in triumph, waving his arms in the air, and then the woman was shoving him down into the shelter of the barricade. The air whistled. Something struck the broken gate right before him, and the tip of an arrow like a wicked snake head poked through, still shivering. The woman, panting beside him, said, “Watch out for that.”

She reared up again, the axe canted back over her shoulder, and he rose beside her. Just over the barricade three horses were scrambling up on the boat part of the wall, smashing the thin hull strakes with their hoofs. The little horse closest to Daud, lunging forward, drove one foreleg through the boat, and hung there, stuck. The rider jumped off. Under the round metal cap of his helmet the slits of eyes looked out from a flat inhuman face, dark as leather.  The woman struck his knees out from under him with her axe. On Daud’s other side an old man swung a long Mameluke sword and blood sprayed across the barricade. Daud could reach nothing with his club and the horsemen were falling back now. He shrank down away from another wave of arrows. The woman flung an arm around him.

“Noble boy! Noble boy!”

The ground under them shook. He pushed himself up to see a dozen horsemen charge toward the barricade. He reared up to meet them. With the chunk of wood he laid around him as they surged onto the broken wood. Something struck him from behind and he fell.


He struggled awake. He was dead, he thought. He could not move and around him was only darkness. His neck hurt. He turned his head a little, to ease that. He was not dead, he was pinned down under something. Under a body, he thought, still warm, spread above him like a blanket. He could hear screaming, but there was always screaming. He slept again.

He woke when the weight above him suddenly shifted away, and the light shone in, and someone grabbed him. He struck out with his fists. Above him a face goggled, a thin Baghdadi face, not Mongol. “This one’s alive!” he backed away, his hands up. “I didn’t mean — I didn’t — ” He went away, quickly, following some others down the street.

Daud sat up, still heavy with sleep. Beside him lay the woman with the axe, her face sliced in half, her apron sodden with blood. He felt the ground shake under him and flung himself down again into the shelter of the body. A stream of horsemen galloped by him. He heard a whoop; they had caught the looters. Daud lifted his head slightly, looking around.

Down the street a tight knot of horsemen was striking down with swords at something in their midst.  Closer, three dead people lay on their backs. Across the canal, he heard a crash, and twisted to see; a string of Mongols rode along the row of gated houses there, and at each gate, two men with axes smashed it in.

Another band of horsemen raced across the bridge, carrying torches. They passed within arm’s length of him and galloped off down the street.

Daud crept back down among the bodies and the wreckage of the barricade. He knew where he was; the bridge was just below him, its footing only a few yards away. He had hidden there before. He wormed his way along, sliding past the woman with the axe. She still had the axe clutched in her hand and he thought of taking it. It belonged to her. He crawled under a section of the broken gate to the edge of the bridge, and waited there a long while. He could see most of the two streets here, one on either side of the canal, and they were full of people and horses. Two buildings were on fire. Just across the way from him, a man on the rooftop flung a body over the edge, which twisted and screamed down into the canal. Down the way, smoke began to rise from the roof of a house.