Heart Of The World – Snippet 18

The Mamelukes, bunched all around, gave a low general laugh. Bohemund braced up. His men were watching him, intent. He sat silent a while, staring into the Mameluke’s eyes; Gilbert grew fearful they would fight. He saw no way the Prince could win, and clearly Bohemund thought so as well, because after a moment he tipped backward slightly in his saddle, his chin up, and said, “This time, Baibers, you get your way.  But my time will come.”

Gilbert gave a little shake of his head. Up there, the Mameluke amir’s white teeth flashed. “I look forward to that.” He waved a hand. “One dinar a head. Two for you.” His eyes swiveled around, toward the rest of them, counting, and he saw Gilbert. “A dinar for every kaffir.”

Almost in unison, the drovers all called out the declaration of faith. Gilbert said, “The boy is sahih.”

Baibers had gone back to his staring match with Bohemund, but he heard this, and he turned back toward Gilbert. He was younger than Gilbert. A train of horrible stories followed him. His face was hard as a blade. “Let him say so.”

Gilbert said, “He has no speech.” Except, he suddenly remembered, that outburst against Bohemund. “He was in Baghdad when the Mongols came. He survived. Whatever happened there took his voice.”

Baibers nudged his big bay mare around and jogged a few steps toward them. His gaze fixed on the boy. The child stared back. Gilbert wished he had said nothing.

“I will take him, then,” Baibers said. “For your passage.”

Gilbert blurted out, “He is a child –“

“Or all your money.”

Gilbert clamped his mouth shut. Baibers waved a hand, and a Mameluke from the swarm around them came up, reaching for the boy on the camel. The boy shrank back, casting a pleading look at Gilbert, but the Mameluke got him by the arm and swung him down. Another of the turbaned riders lifted him onto the back of the first man’s horse, behind the high-cantled saddle.  The boy gave Gilbert one last, frightened glance, and they all rode off.


Daud gripped the cantle of the saddle with both hands, to stay on; they rode at a quick trot back through the hills. The long grass was dry and yellow on the slopes. He glanced around him at the other men, riding all around him. They were still looking back over their shoulders, but one by one they were sitting down deep in their saddles and sheathing their bows.

The beaten path they followed wound through the cleft between two hills, steep and grassy, rounded like breasts. Daud’s rider was near the last of the pack, and the boy watched the side of the road. He thought he might be able to slide down off the horse and run, if he found some cover. There was no cover. He caught the eye of the nearest of the riders, staring at him. Daud turned quickly forward. His mouth was dry. He wondered what they would do to him.

Around the shoulder of his rider, through the dust of the horses, he could see a fortress on the high ground. That was where they were going. He glanced around him again; the land fell off sharply at the edge of the road, down into a ravine. He could run — The rider near him pushed his horse up alongside him and glowered at him.

Daud hunched his shoulders, facing forward again. He watched the rider from the corner of his eye. He had grey streaks in his beard. His face was sun-darkened brown but his eyes were pale. Daud’s insides felt like hot iron. He kept his eyes on the rider ahead of him.

They rode up to the gate of the fortress and half the men stayed outside, but Daud’s rider and the grey-bearded rider followed the rest into a courtyard. At a nudge from the grey-bearded man Daud slid down from the horse. The men pushed him ahead of them, on across the courtyard toward the stone tower, and inside.

They came into a wide, dim space. Overhead were the beams of a ceiling. Around the walls were rolls of carpet, saddles, pots. The floor grated under his feet, unswept. He had a moment to think he had kept the caravanserai better than this, and then one of them pushed him and yelled at him.

He jumped back, all his hair on end. They were gathering around him. He thought he saw knives in their fists. He spun around, looking for a way to run, but they were all around him. One grabbed him, and Daud kicked out, yelling.

They closed on him. He could hear them laughing. He flailed out with his arms, striking blows, and their hands were all over him. They pawed at his body, his face, his arms. He was falling. He screamed again.


Abruptly, they let go of him. He lay still, panting. He was lying on the dirty floor of the tower. The men around him had backed away, were staring at him, round-eyed.  He sat up. One man remained beside him, the grey-bearded man, who squatted down on his heels.

He said, in slow Arabic, “Are you mad? Are you raving?”

Daud sat there, panting; he thought of the hands gripping him, of the laughing. Maybe, he thought, maybe that didn’t happen. Not that way anyway. He shut his eyes. His whole body throbbed.

“He doesn’t talk,” someone said, from the crowd watching him. “That’s what the merchant said. Where is Baibers? This was his idea.”

The bearded man put out a hand to Daud. “Here. Come. Sit and eat something.”

Tamely Daud let him lead him to the wall; he sat against the wall; he felt drained empty, slack as an empty skin. He began to cry, not aloud, just tears trickling down his face. The grey-bearded man put a cup into his hands; there were bits of lemons in the water.


He drank. The water trickled down his throat and into his stomach and made it all alive again.

The grey-bearded man said, “Rasul.” He tapped his chest. “My name.”

Daud wiped his mouth. Then across the dim hall the tall man was striding toward him.

Daud stood up, dropping the cup, his back to the wall. This was the man who had taken him from Gilbert, his eyes like pale chips in his face. Dark, weathered face. One eye had a white dot in it. His forehead was bruised. Daud’s stomach churned. Now they would kill him. But he could not move; the tall man’s stare pinned him like a lance against the wall.

Rasul said something in another language. The tall man grunted. He reached out and wiped a hand over Daud’s cheek, wet with tears.

In harsh Arabic, he said, “You are my slave now. If any asks you, say that you belong to Baibers. Rasul is your brother. Listen to him. Obey me.”

Daud could not move; he licked his lips.

“They said you were in Baghdad. Is that so?”

Daud nodded.

“Yet you lived.”

Daud shut his eyes, tears leaked down his cheeks again. He gasped for breath.

A hand fell heavily on his shoulder. The tall man said, “You will tell me, someday. But now you are with us, so you will bear yourself as one of us. Remember. We follow the will of God. My will.  Obey me. Come. The time for prayer is on us.”

Daud shivered. Around the hall some of the other men were spreading out their carpets in rows, facing the far wall. He stood. He did not know what to do now. His mother had taught him some prayers but he had not been to madrassah, and living in the reb’s house he had seen nothing of Islam. Rasul stood beside him. Rasul led him out of the hall, back to the courtyard, to the fountain there. He washed his hands and face. He knew to do that. He thought of another mosque, somewhere else, and his mind whirled up a blur of rage and fear. He followed Rasul back into the hall. Rasul had spread a carpet down, but there was none for Daud. He stood there, trembling. Rasul took his hands and put them together, palm against palm. Rasul began the words, and Daud remembered them, the oldest words, spoken even in Eden.

“There is no God but God–“

He was still weeping, but he remembered what the tall man had said.  These were magic words. If he said this and did this, they would take care of him. He was safe. For now.  He was never really safe. He bowed and knelt and put his forehead to the floor, grateful.  But even bent to the ground like that, he told himself, nobody owned him.