Heart Of The World – Snippet 20

The smaller man sidestepped, and the bigger man crashed down hard onto the ground. The tall skinny man next to Daud turned to him, caught his arm, said in Arabic, “See how Moro is using Yaqi’s own weight against him, there, see that” — and hugged him.  Daud pushed him away. On the ground, the big man reached down to his belt for his knife.


Yaqi lunged to his feet, the knife in his hand, and from the crowd the bay mare burst in between them. Baibers in the saddle was roaring at them. He spun the horse, driving the two men farther apart, and bounded down to the ground. The bigger man, Yaqi, stood with his head thrown back, but the knife was in the dust at his feet. Baibers got him by the hand. He was still shouting at them both — at them all and He leaned the other way and held out his hand, and Moro, the other man, slowly came up and took it, and Baibers dragged them together. He forced their hands together. He stopped shouting, and the crowd around fell breathlessly still.

The two men stared at each other, and then abruptly they lunged together again, but this time to embrace one another. Baibers stepped back. They stood apart, and clasped hands, and smiled, and then everybody went off to something else.

They reached a wide stone road, running east to west, and almost at once came on another caravan. Baibers went among those people and got money. He led the Mamelukes away into the west; he rode around them all, making sure they stayed close together.

Rasul, riding beside Daud, said, “Where we are going, now, The Sultan of Damascus rules. He is nothing. We have served him before and fought him before and he’s always nothing. But now we have to get across the river and go to the coast, and who knows? He might make some trouble for us.”

Daud thought, Another sultan. There were too many sultans.


When they stopped in the afternoon he took his bow and an arrow and went off beyond the edge of the camp and shot at bushes. The land here was flat and dry, running east toward the mountains like strips of blue cloth along the edge of the sky. He lost the arrow and stood, tired, looking east.

Back there, over the edge of the world, was Baghdad. What Baghdad had been, once. He thought there was something he should tell these men about Baghdad, but he didn’t know how.

He could not remember much. He remembered people screaming.  The smoke. “No, please — no–” His throat clogged and his eyes burned with tears and he stood, dumb and miserable, locked fast. That way was Baghdad. He could not think of Baghdad. He could think of nothing.

After a moment he drew in a deep breath, as if he had not breathed for hours. He thought again that he could run away, he could go back to Baghdad, somehow. There was no Baghdad. Finally he went back into the camp, where the other men were making ready for the evening prayers.


They went on, more westerly now, into the sunset. Around them the hills loomed brown as lions.  They came out through a gap in the hills into a flat wide valley, and after the desert this seemed beautiful as a garden, all green with fields and orchards. They passed through a village where the people cowered in their huts. Where goats grazed in the thatches.   

Rasul said, “We are under the sultan’s eyes now.”

He spoke to Yaqi, who was riding on his far side. That man said, “No army outrides us. Nothing can catch us.” He said this in Arabic, so Daud would understand.

“We’re coming to the river. We’ll find out.”

Daud stood in his stirrups to look around. In the fields beside the road, people in white thobes, under broad brimmed straw hats, stooped among rows of low bushes. Up ahead he saw against the sky a brown ridge. Something on it strange, like a thumb sticking up; as he rode along he made this out to be a tower with a broken top.

The Mamelukes were drawing rein around him. He looked quickly over at Rasul, who was scowling ahead of them. Out there a voice called out sharply. Rasul settled back in his saddle, unhooked the waterskin on his saddle, and drank. He handed the skin to Daud.

“Somebody ahead of us.” He swung toward Yaqi on his far side. “I told you so.”

Daud drank the musty, lemon-flavored water and gave the skin back. His nose itched from the dust. It was almost noon when they would stop for prayer and maybe they would just start praying now. He looked around again, uneasy.  Beside him Yaqi opened his bow case and drew out his bow.

Swinging toward Daud, Rasul said, “Stay close by me. Stay under my arm.” He reached down to his saddlebows, and unslung the circle of his shield.

Daud gripped his reins. He wondered what was going on. The men were drawing in closer together, moving forward stirrup to stirrup. At a walk, first. Then at a jog. Then, suddenly, at a full gallop, and around him, the Mamelukes were drawing out their bows.

Somebody was shouting — a lot of shouting, and Rasul turned to him and bellowed, “Watch! Watch out!” Like a wing sweeping over him the shield swung above Daud’s head. Rasul’s horse jostled against Friend and the mare staggered. Daud almost went off. He sank his fingers in the mare’s mane.

A rain of arrows pelted down around them, pinging off the shield. His blood leapt. A white panic flooded him and he crouched low over the mare’s neck. That made it harder to stay on and he pushed himself upright again. Then the ground in front of them disappeared, the horse was skidding down an embankment, and they were splashing into the slow-moving water.

Ahead, past a dozen other riders, he saw the dark river running over rocks. Shallow there. He tried to steer the mare that way. Rasul wasn’t beside him anymore. More arrows flew toward him; beside him a horse let out a shriek, staggered and fell into the water.  Then the horses around him were slamming to a stop, knee deep in the river. A wail went up. Past the rocky shallows he saw, ahead of them, on the far bank, a dark swarming mass of other horsemen. Above them a long green banner floated, curling like a snake’s tongue on the wind. 

An arrow clipped his arm. He flinched. There was nowhere to go. He looked around for Rasul but did not see him. Around him the horses stamped and shied in the shallow water, the men turning, their eyes wild.

Then Baibers galloped up past them all, into the gap between Daud and the enemy on the far bank.

After Baibers the rearguard of the Mamelukes followed in a stream, shooting their bows as they charged. The men around Daud all roared and followed headlong. Daud wrenched the horse’s head around and kicked her in the ribs. She pinned her ears back and stuck her nose out and hurtled forward, packed among the other horses. Daud’s stirrup banged into the stirrup of the horse beside him.  The tail of the horse in front of him lashed Friend’s shoulder.  One of a hundred, Daud flew across the shallow riverbed, toward the screaming dark mass on the far bank.

He had forgotten his bow. He got it off his back, while Friend plunged and galloped with the others, and tried to string it. Around him the Mamelukes were screaming the name of God. Just ahead of Daud an arrow struck a rider and threw him backward out of his saddle, and Friend jumped over the falling body and bolted on. Daud gave up with the bow and clung to his horse with both hands. 

The horses before him bounded suddenly upward, and then Friend was scrambling upward, onto the far bank of the river. For an instant they all slowed, jammed together. The horse before him reared, its saddle empty. Abruptly they were charging forward again, and now, through the thin rank of riders in front of him, Daud saw men out there in front of them, turning and running away.

Then there was a howl of voices, and a horn blasted again. They were stopping. Friend slowed to a trot and then a walk and stood, among the other horses, blowing hard. Daud leaned both hands on his mare’s withers. He was in the middle of the road, among a crowd of Mamelukes. Almost at Friend’s feet, a body sprawled on the stone pavement, and beyond, another.  All around him the men were whooping, clapping each other on the back.

He looked ahead; he could see only the dust of many people riding fast away.  Above the dust was a streak of green. He realized those were the men who had attacked them. They had won a battle. Dazed, he wondered if he had done anything good. Baibers rode up before them on his bay horse.

“Praise be to God, who has given us victory!”

They all shouted. Daud opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He looked around again for Rasul. He was thirsty; he licked his lips, looking around for water.