Heart Of The World – Snippet 17

The Prince drank it down. “What is it, then? Gilbert, right?”

“Gilbert, my lord. I am traveling west, and I wondered if I could keep company with you and your men, the roads being full of bandits here.” 

Bohemund looked him over. The Prince was a young man, handsome in the ruddy golden way of the Franks, with bright blue eyes. His beard, redder than his hair, was a mass of oiled curls. He said, after a while, “How much can you pay me?” He lifted his cup.

Gilbert pressed his lips together; he struggled with his face. He said, “My lord, I am a subject of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Surely–“

Bohemund flapped a hand at him. “Yes, yes. Come along. Keep up.” He was drunk. “I’ll take a tithe. Where are you going?”

“Acre, ultimately, my lord. I only need an escort as far as Palmyra, probably.”

“Come with me, then.” Bohemund swung around to talk to the other men around him. “But everybody has to pay the tolls.” He laughed.  “Sit,” he said to Gilbert. “Eat.”

Gilbert dropped onto the bench, delighted. He reached for bread, for fig jam and soft white cheese. The Arab boy was hovering nearby. Clearly the knights awed him. The master of the caravanserai went around directing his servants — only the two men servants, Gilbert saw; he kept the women hidden away inside.

They were talking about the Mongols; how small they were. How many.

“Hand to hand, we can beat them. Carve them up like pigs.”

“They don’t fight that way.”

“Like with the sand-monkeys. Pin them where they can’t run.”

Bohemund overheard this, and said, “They are Christian men, like us.” He lolled in his seat; the drink softened his face. “We won’t have to fight them.”

“Not like us,” said another man, stubbornly. Clearly they had had this argument before. “They’re Nestors, they’re not like us. You heard Rikart.”

The Arab boy jerked his head up; probably he did not speak French, but he had heard something in that. Gilbert poured himself more wine.

“They are Christian. They’re friends.” Bohemund leaned forward. “We have the same enemies. Once we convince them of that, everything will go well.”

The other man said, “I hope you are right, my lord,” in a voice that suggested he thought otherwise.

Bohemund gave him a fierce, drunken look. He lurched up onto his feet and lifted his cup. “Friends! To the Mongols! To Hulegu! May he save us from the Mamelukes and give us back Jerusalem! Hulegu!”

His men roared, drinking with him, but from their midst suddenly the Arab boy erupted toward Bohemund, shouting.

“No! No!” He rushed at the Prince, his arms milling.

The master reached him in one stride, wrapped an arm around him, and held him down. The cook servant came over and between them they wrestled the boy still.  Bohemund jerked back, his head up,.

“What does this? Who is this?”

The master shouted, “My lord, pay no heed–he is silly, he is weak-minded, who knows what he meant.” He slapped the boy hard on the side of the head and dragged him off.

The boy struggled in his arms. His voice croaked out. “He was cheering — them.” He lashed out with his fists and feet. “He was — cheering–” Gilbert got up and went to help. By the time he reached them the boy was sobbing, limp, and mute again. They took him into the back of the caravanserai, to the master’s quarters, and locked him in a storeroom.


Daud curled up in a corner of the room, on a heap of empty sacks. His insides were boiling, and he burst into tears again, burying his face in his hands. A kind of raw terror filled him. He leapt up, and went around and around the room, swinging his arms and breathing hard. He had to run but he was pent here, the walls around him like a shell.

In another corner was a sack of dates and he fell on these and ate until his stomach was full. Then he wept again. After a while, sitting with his back to the wall and licking the date sweetness from his fingers, he realized that he had to get out of here.

The memory of Bohemund oppressed him. He had thought — they were knights. He had heard Rikart’s name. He had thought–

He was tired but he was afraid to sleep, because of the dreams. He found himself up on his feet again, walking around and around. He could not stay here anymore. He had been here too long.  He swung his arms back and forth. He was thirsty now and he went to the door, which was locked, and tapped on it until Mina came.  She opened the door and looked in, and shut the door again, but in a moment was back with some bread and water in a jug. She put her finger to her lips and closed the door again.

He drank the water. He had been here too long.

He remembered — they had said Rikart’s name.

He had seen the Caliph’s army drowned in the tide of the Mongols, Rikart among them, but he remembered also that people called Rikart the Ghost because he escaped from everything. Maybe he had escaped even from the Mongols. Daud decided he would go to find Rikart. Thinking that made the whole whirling mess settle down around him. He sat down, his back to the wall, and ate the bread.


In the morning Bohemund’s steward came to Gilbert, demanding money. Gilbert was packing his camels. The night before he had divided his money up, so that he did not have to expose it all at once, and now he made a show of unhooking his purse from his belt and counting out twenty pieces of silver to the steward.

This was a stocky, short man named Simone, a Genoese. He took the coins, but his eyes were on the pouch; Gilbert knew he was guessing at the amount left.

He said, “I don’t like these. Don’t you have isaacs?”

Gilbert shrugged. “I have some Egyptian dinars.”


“Absolutely.” Some of it probably was gold. He said, “I have dirhams.”

“From where?”


“Let me see the dinars.”

Gilbert produced the three battered coins. The steward wrinkled his nose, but he took them, and slid them along with the other money into his own belt pouch. He shrugged.

“Ride at the back, so we don’t have to put up with the stink of your camels.”

Gilbert bowed, very deeply, so it was more an insult than a grace. “As the Prince desires.” Simone sneered at him and left.

They went off along the Diocletian road. Bohemund and his knights chattered and made their horses cavort around the road, and they kicked up more dust than the camels. By midmorning, Gilbert saw that the Arab boy from the caravanserai had come after them.

The boy stayed well behind them, perhaps thinking he was unseen, but he kept pace. Later, when Bohemund decided to stop for the night, Gilbert sent one of the drovers back to fetch the boy into their camp. There was no caravanserai here, only a spring, with some little ruined stone buildings around it. Many people had fled this part of the country, since the Mongols moved in. Nobody knew who was lord here, and the place was full of Bedouin thieves. The boy silently went around hauling water for the camels. Gilbert saw he avoided even looking at Bohemund.

In the morning they went on again. The road was straight and true, as the Romans had always built.  The first heat of the summer baked the hills around them. The road ran between two low grassy rises, and from all sides suddenly horsemen rushed in around them.

Gilbert jerked his mount to a stop. He saw at once these were not Bedouin; they rode blooded mares and he recognized their blue coats. He looked quickly around at his caravan. The drovers were bunching the camels together. The boy sat on top of one, his hands on the hump, looking startled. Gilbert heard Bohemund call out, and turned forward again.

On the road, the Prince was wheeling his horse around, face to face with a tall rider with a badge on his turban. Gilbert stiffened, his stomach tight. He glanced right and left. The Franks were outnumbered more than two to one and the Mamelukes surrounding them carried their bows ready across their saddles.

Bohemund shouted, “How dare you block my way? Do you know who I am?”

The Mameluke amir said, “You can pass, but you will pay me.  As to the rest, I think you are the Prince of Antioch. For that, you will pay me double.”