CONSTANTINOPLE, WINTER 1396
A party of five stood on the hill of Kosmidion overlooking the city of Constantinople: the Sultan Bayezid, his three sons and the Grand Vizier, all cloaked and furred against the winter wind that swept in from the Bosporus. They held cloths to their faces.
The rain had stopped at last and a sudden shaft of sunlight ignited the spearheads on the city walls. There were pitifully few these days. Constantinople, the last gem in the empty crown of Byzantium, was a place of fields and orchards and churches whose domes no longer wore the gold to ignite.
A few of the city’s garrison had emerged in sortie the night before and now stood behind, spread-eagled in crucifixion as their saviour had been, the stench of their decay all around. Bayezid spoke through his mask.
‘We need cannon.’
The Ottoman Sultan had been known as Yildirim in his youth: ‘Thunderbolt’. He was fourth in the line of Osman and had astonished the world by the speed of his campaigns to quell the gazi tribes of Anatolia and stretch his empire to the banks of the Danube. Now he was a man addicted to wine and sugar whose size of turban mirrored the size of his belly. His heir, Suleyman, stood on one side and his second son, Mehmed, on the other. They were as different as their mothers: Suleyman tall and pointed of nose and beard, Mehmed smaller, his gazi roots there in a face as flat as the steppe. Bayezid’s third son, Musa, stood a little behind and was yet to be bearded. The brothers hated each other.
Suleyman patted his horse, flicking water from its mane. ‘We need cannon of a size not yet created, Father,’ he said. He raised his hand to the city beneath them. ‘Behold the strongest walls in the world. We can throw a million men at them and they’ll not break. We need cannon big enough to smash them, and they’re made in Venice.’
A drumbeat sounded from somewhere distant. Half-naked men worked to its tempo, hauling forward the trebuchets, mangonels and other machines of war that would wreak what havoc they could until the cannon arrived. In front stretched the open wound of the Ottoman siege lines, livid with newly dug earth. A lot had been accomplished in the two months since this army had marched away to Nicopolis.
The flower of Christendom had come west, jousting and drinking its way to do battle with Bayezid on the Danube. It was, they said, an army that could hold up the sky with its lances. But the sky had come down on its boasting and ten thousand Christian corpses lay on the field of Nicopolis. The victory had been Bayezid’s and it had sent shock waves through the courts of Europe. He had boasted: I will water my horses at the altar of St Peter’s in Rome, and before him was the only thing that stood in his way: the walls of Constantinople.
Constantinople: the second city of seven hills to serve as capital of the two-thousand-year Empire of the Rhomaioi. Once it had been the meeting place of the world, the gilded bridge between Christian West and the lands of the Prophet, the Dar ul-Islam. Now the empress’s jewels lay in pawn in Venice and her city hid behind its colossal walls beneath the early darkness of an iron sky.
A rainbow had appeared above the city, a curve of colour, heaven’s favour poured into its battered chalice on earth.
Bayezid looked up and then turned to his sons. ‘The sickle of Islam poised,’ he said. ‘When do we get our cannon, Prince Suleyman? We can’t wait for Venice.’
Mehmed edged his horse closer to his father’s. He spoke across him. ‘Didn’t you say there were cannon in Mistra, Brother?’ he asked.
Suleyman frowned. ‘Only small ones. Not big enough.’
‘Yet cannon, nonetheless,’ said Bayezid, remembering. He looked at his heir. ‘You will bring them.’
Suleyman opened his mouth to protest. This siege was where he belonged. It was to be his triumph.
But there are other things to bring from Mistra.
The woman who’d sworn to submit to him was in Mistra and it was time for her to be returned to him.
‘I’ll go to Mistra,’ Suleyman said.
THE CAMP ON THE STEPPE
GERMIYAN BEYLIK, ANATOLIA, WINTER 1396
The first snows came as the old man turned to leave; great balls of it as big as babies’ fists that stuck to his beard like dough.
Omar, the holy man from Konya, had brought Luke Magoris to the forty or so gers that made up this Germiyan camp far out on the steppe. Around them was distance with no horizon. The snow had turned the landscape into a limitless white without shape or feature that somewhere, far away, became the sky. For Luke, a boy born into the bustle of a little city on the edge of the sea, it was beyond comprehension.
Their reception had been as cold as the weather. The business at the monastery had delayed them and made the tribe late in moving to their winter pastures. And the snows were early this year. Luke looked around him at the sullen faces.
‘They don’t want me here, Omar. Look at them.’
The old man looked up at the sky through crinkled eyes, then back at Luke, wiping snow from his lips.
‘These are good people, Luke,’ he said. ‘Their movement makes them honest. “A little rivulet which is moving continually does not become defiled.” There is truth in that.’
‘Who said that?’
‘The poet Rumi. The saint of Konya, where I must now go. The saint calls and I’m not good in tents.’ ‘But how do I talk to them?’
‘You learn their language, Luke. You learn to ride and shoot like a nomad, like a Mongol.’ He turned his horse, stopped and looked back at Luke, his fist on his saddle. ‘Like Tamerlane.’
Then he was gone.
Two men approached dressed in coats with fur linings and embroidered hems and looked similar enough to be related. Father and son, Luke guessed, and the leaders of this camp. They stopped in front of Luke. The older man spoke, turned and walked away; the younger stayed. He pushed Luke to his knees in the snow. Stepping closer, he lifted Luke’s chin and spat. He jabbed his chest with his finger. ‘Gomil.’
The first night was the worst. Long after they’d eaten, the ger was still dense with smoke and Luke’s eyes stung. He wiped them with the back of his hand and looked down at the sword hilt resting across his chest, its dragon eyes staring back into his. Six hours had passed since Omar had ridden away, leaving him only this sword and a line from Rumi. He’d never felt so alone.
He’d dined in miserable silence, six wary eyes watching him through the gloom. They belonged to the family with whom he was to live: Torguk, his wife Berta, who suckled a child at her breast, and their daughter Arkal, her crippled foot tucked beneath the folds of her deel.
They’d fed him the thick mutton stew that would be their diet until the tribe’s sheep were too few for slaughter. He’d watched them suck the meat from the bones and wash it down with soured mare’s milk. And when he’d finally lain down to sleep, the smell of mutton and putrid milk had punctured the membrane of his dreams.
Now he lay awake and thought of his home in Monemvasia. He saw it from afar, perched on its fist of rock thrown out into the Mirtoon Sea. He saw its narrow, climbing streets, cobbles wet with the tread of a sixteen-year-old boy come in from the sea. Was it only four years since he’d left? He thought of Mistra, where he’d never been: sixty miles distant from Monemvasia yet so different: a place of church and ceremony where the Despot ruled amongst the saints. Two cities side by side. Two destinies: love and duty, Anna and Tamerlane.
And a plan.
Plethon’s plan, his destiny: to bring Tamerlane west to fight Bayezid. To bring one monster to kill another. He closed his eyes and there was Anna. He’d last seen her standing before him as he knelt beneath Suleyman’s sword on the bloody field of Nicopolis. A whisper.
Are you with Suleyman?
Sleep drifted in like a mist and the whisper rose to the crash of a storm at sea. He was in waves bigger than continents, waves that hid the sky. He saw a rain-lashed jetty and a giant swinging an axe until the axe fell. He saw Anna being dragged down that jetty. Away from him.
Are you with Suleyman now?
The next morning Luke was shaken awake by the girl Arkal. She watched him shyly through her dirt and handed him a cup of salted tea. The salt stung his blasted lips. For a long moment they looked at each other. Luke put down the cup.
‘Luke,’ he said, pointing at himself. ‘My name is Luke.’
The girl was perhaps twelve. A row of yellow teeth appeared. ‘Lug.’
There was a grunt from above. Torguk was standing there. He clapped his hands and gestured to the door. They were to leave at once and there was work to do. Immediately they set about clearing out the stove, pallets, carpets and everything else from the ger before stripping the felt from its sides and collapsing the trellised willow frame on to which it was tied. Outside were large wagons to pull the tribe’s belongings and larger ones on which tents had been erected for carrying the sick, pregnant and old, and for the tribe to sleep in at night.
Around the camp, fires smouldered, turning the snow into a steaming paste in which the children played until they saw Luke. Then they formed a circle to watch the tall, fair stranger as he worked, at first silent and awed, then nudgingly braver until one of them darted forward to touch his hair. Arkal limped over to shoo them away and when Luke smiled at her, she darkened in pleasure.
The young men of the tribe went from ger to ger helping to dismantle them but one they left alone. It was on the outskirts of the camp and smaller than the others. Outside it stood poles on which horse hides hung beneath animal skulls. Bones lay in the snow around them. As Luke watched, the tent door opened and an old man came out, leaning on a stick. He was dressed in a filthy deel and snakes of matted hair fell to his waist. A young girl emerged wearing skins but with bare arms and legs. Her hair was long and dirty but she was tall and had some grace. Luke couldn’t see her face but, as she straightened, he knew that she was looking at him. He turned away.
When the camp finally moved, it travelled as fast as the oxen were able to pull the wagons. On the first two days, they ground their way across the steppe and the wind blew more fiercely and the sallies of snow grew bolder. Everyone but Luke was either riding inside the gers on the wagons or on a horse. On the third day, they came across a caravan: four hundred camels making their knock-kneed way towards the warmer climes of the Levant. They stopped and talked to merchants who’d come from Bursa and had a funny tale to tell. One of the merchants opened his mouth wide to show a grey substance that filled the holes in his teeth and the gazis gasped in wonder. Then the business of trade took over and the Germiyans swapped mohair wool and bales of felt for silk and other comforts that would make life more bearable in the terrible months to come. Luke watched it all and, for the first time in a week, smiled.
A funny tale.
It was a fortnight ago that he’d seen his friends at Bursa: Dimitri, the seller of mastic to fill men’s teeth, and Benedo Barbi, engineer to kings, popes and the Genoese signori of Chios, an island they called Scio.
That night he dreamt of Chios. He dreamt of Fiorenza, Princess of Trebizond, wife to Marchese Longo, Lord of Chios, who some said was the most beautiful woman in the world. He saw her lying beneath him, her buttercup hair splayed out across grass littered with flowers and shiny with evening dew. He saw her drawing him down.
You can, Luke. And you must.
The following day, Luke tried to ride. Gomil had assembled a party to hunt marmot with hawks. As it was leaving, Luke saw the chief’s son stop suddenly and turn, staring hard at the horizon, his head tilted as if listening. Then, with dizzying speed, he drew his bow and released two arrows. He looked out beneath his hand and gave a grunt of pleasure. Luke judged it a good moment and he approached Gomil’s stirrup and gestured to a horse. But Gomil spat into the snow and cantered away.
That evening they fed on lynx as well as marmot and, since the night held no snow, sat outside around a fire, and the men passed the airag and sang and the women looked at Luke and giggled. In the firelight, Luke studied the faces around him, faces creased by hard weather, chins bright with airag and bubbles of koumis on their lips. What had Omar said?
These are good people, Luke. Their movement makes them honest.
Luke looked at Gomil. Was he honest? He was certainly drunk.
At length the women and children began to drift away to find space within the tents. The chief rose and yawned and left and the rest of the men closed in around the fire and searched the cauldrons for old bones to suck on. A new sack of airag was brought, which they up-ended and splashed on to their faces. Some had passed out, some were speechless with the drink, some argued. Luke sat a little apart.
Gomil rose to his feet and fell. There was laughter and he scowled and tried again, his hand gripping a shoulder. His eyes were fixed on Luke and the fire caught their hooded malevolence. He muttered something and staggered over, lifting his feet with exaggerated care. He stopped, swayed and drew back his foot for the kick. But Luke was quick and not drunk. He rolled easily to the side and Gomil’s foot swung through air and he fell again, this time hard.
Gomil swore, got to his knees and reached over to draw a burning branch from the fire. Then he lunged. Luke rolled again, feeling the heat on his back as the wood broke against the ground, sending a shower of cinders into the night. One of the men shouted something and Gomil screamed abuse at him. Now he was standing and Luke was on his knees, looking around for a weapon. He was too far from the fire.
There was another shout. Luke looked over to see the chief standing there, clutching a skin to his shoulders. He barked something and his son sat heavily on the ground, shaking his head. Luke didn’t wait for more. He got to his feet and turned to find his tent.
She was standing behind him. Half in the shadows, her hair over her eyes like a veil. Staring at him. The girl in the skins.
Who are you?
The snow began to fall in earnest the following day and the horses hung their heads against its driving force and men made cowls of their furs and shrank their airag heads into their shoulders. Luke climbed aboard a wagon until pulled off by a passing rider. The wind was relentless and made his eyes stream with tears that ran down his cheeks and froze on his lips. He thought of Chios and summer evenings and the sound of cicadas and the comfort of friendship and shared language. He thought of Anna and the warmth of two naked bodies in a cave.
He looked at the ponies around him. They were tough, shaggy creatures with long hair and stubborn mouths. He’d never seen their like before. Would he be able to talk to them as he could to other horses, as he did to Eskalon? He closed his eyes and Eskalon’s big head was there before him, those intelligent eyes looking into his, understanding.
Where are you now, old friend?
That night the storm grew in strength and buffeted the walls of the big ger in which he lay beneath furs, barely able to move amidst the mass of people. The wagon beneath them groaned in the onslaught and men moaned in their sleep. The smoke from the single stove hung heavy above the stench of flesh. Luke lay awake and thought of the horses outside leaning against each other for protection, their coats stiff with snow, their eyes closed, their patience endless.
The door to the ger moved. Someone was trying to enter. Heads turned and people sat up. A child screamed. A demon was forcing its way inside.
The door opened and the girl stood in its frame covered in a single, stiff sheet of felt. She looked into the tent and her eyes were dull with cold and pleading. She was seeking shelter from the storm. Luke sat up.
Who are you?
Gomil rose and lifted an arm. A boot thudded against the door frame, then another. A third hit her on the side of the head and she lifted her arm to protect herself. She glanced around the tent and there was fear in the look and blood next to the bruise on her cheek. She found Luke and, for a second, held his gaze. Then she backed away, pulling the door shut behind her.
Luke got up and picked up a wolf skin, ignoring the cries of those who’d lain beneath. He stumbled to the door and pulled it open and the savagery of the night outside almost flung him back inside. He could see nothing beyond a swirling darkness that tore at his hair and clothes. He turned back and grabbed a torch from the wall, shielding its flame with his body. He moved out into the night, pulling the door shut. He turned his head to left and right and called and felt the sound thrown back at him on the wind. He jumped from the wagon into the snow and called again. There was no answer.
He heard a sound to his right. He felt his way along the side of the wagon, the torch held close within his cloak, the wolf skin balled against his stomach. Every step was a fight to stay upright. He stumbled against something, something alive and huddled against a wheel, something that moved quickly away when he leant forward to touch it. He bent and felt the tangled hair of the girl, crusted with snow. He moved his torch from within his cloak and, in its scattered light, he saw her.
A bare arm circled the neck of a horse. In her other hand was a knife. There was a cut in the skin of the animal’s neck where she’d opened a vein and blood ran from the corners of her lips. Luke recoiled. He pushed the skin at her and it was snatched from his hand. He looked again but there was nothing there. Nothing. She’d vanished into the storm.
A week later, they arrived, quite suddenly, at the valley. For the first time in weeks, Luke saw trees climbing the slopes up to the jagged teeth of an escarpment that ran as a high ridge on either side. Below the trees were fields, thick with snow, some of which had the shapes of old walls around them.
Further on, they met another valley that ran across theirs. A little river ran through it, outcrops of snow coasting on its currents like driftwood. They stopped to let the horses drink. Dried milk curds were produced from pockets and passed around and the men’s faces curved into smiles as they chewed. Luke looked around for the girl. There was no sign of her.
Soon they were on their way again and the going was easier. The men leant from their saddles to laugh while women climbed down from the wagons to walk with their children.
The horses held their heads a little higher and the jangle of harness told of a journey’s end.
By the afternoon, they had reached a flat piece of ground where the river broke into separate paths that gurgled their way around islands on which large birds stood on one leg watching them. The men dismounted and looked around at the snow and filled their water bottles from the river, sweeping aside the ice with their hands.
Luke helped Arkal lift the bales of felt from the wagons and stretch out the frame of the ger. Together, they unrolled the layered felt and wrapped it around the latticed wall, securing it in place with ropes. The work was done in silence broken only by the barked command of Berta. The little boy helped by clearing snow from the ground and dragging the wooden flooring from the wagons. Occasionally he stopped to wipe his nose on the felt.
In less than an hour, the ger was up and Luke was helping Berta to hang the wooden door on its frame. Arkal had brought rugs from the horses and was arranging them on the floor. Then the sleeping pallets were brought in and the animal pelts, and after that came an old wooden chest and a range and utensils for making food. Soon the smell of cooking wafted up into the dusk and the tribe congratulated each other that another trek to their winter pastures had been made in safety.
Luke saw it all and felt a sense of foreboding. Winter was on its way and he was a stranger in a strange land among people who didn’t want him.
Excerpted from Towers of Samarcand by James Heneage. Copyright © 2014 by James Heneage.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Heron Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd, 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
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