Imagine the usual disclaimers. Lest we offend the gods of Copyright, forgive us now! I'd like to add a word of thanks to James Chambers, author of The Devil's Horsemen - an amazingly good book about the Mongol invasion, and one which gave me not only the idea for this story, but most of the background to boot.
Hebrew history and vocabulary betaed by Dvorah - thanks, D!
Warning: history, psychopathy, homeopathy. Graphic violence.
The First Horseman
"Amadand, u kandand, u suktand, u kustand, u burdand, u raftand!"
"They came, they uprooted, they burned, they slew, they despoiled, they departed!"
--words of an Islamic historian
There once was a foolish shah who ruled a vast empire.
His possessions came to him by the right of his father, shah before him, and by the sword-arms of his mother's tribesmen, who were reckless Kipchak warriors from Russia. He ruled from the Hindu Kush to the Caspian Sea, and his crown was threefold, starred with six great diamonds - jewels beyond compare!
His threefold crown was three kingdoms: Khwarizm which Europeans called southern Persia, and Khurasan which was northern Persia, and finally Transoxiana, which the educated men of the west knew as Sogdiana. His six diamonds were cities famed across the world: Nishapur and Balkh, Herat and Shiraz, and Bukhara . . . and Samarkand, lovely Samarkand. And he called himself the heir of Alexander.
He was a foolish man, and he made a foolish error. He signed a trade treaty with a distant neighbor, perhaps never taking it seriously; soon afterward, when the first treasure caravan appeared in his demesnes, he allowed it to be pillaged. Its goods were looted, its merchants killed out of hand. When an envoy appeared asking for justice, the foolish shah had the envoy's head removed and sent back in a basket. It was a declaration of war.
And that was the year 1217 AD. And the shah's name was Mohammad Ali; Western history has forgotten his glory. But his neighbor was the Kah Khan, unifier of the Mongols, conqueror of China, the chosen of God: Temujin, mighty Chinggis.
There was a river called the Darya, which formed the northeastern border of Transoxiana.
West of this river lay a fortress around which had been built a walled town; its name was Qaba. There, the summer grazing was good - though the climate was so malarious that people said the very sparrows got fever every autumn, and as for the poor horses, they sweated blood from fly-bites all summer long. Fruit grew well there, and the pomegranates of Qaba were just as famous as the apples of Samarkand. Just south of the fortress - some five or six miles distant - was a humble town called Kand-i-badam: the Village of Almonds. In this town lived perhaps fifty people, in mud-brick houses with roofs of sticks and clay. One of them was the wise-woman Sarah, famous throughout all Asia.
That summer afternoon, Sarah was walking upon the mountain, gathering mandrake. And wild walnuts.
Mandragora. Satan's Apple. Baaras. Mandrake grew everywhere in the hills above Kand-i-badam, and young wives sometimes poisoned themselves, eating the leaves and apples to cure barrenness. According to Apeleius, mandrake expelled demons. In France, it was held to flourish only under the gallows. The ancients held that its root, when pulled, shrieked out like a human child; since none might hear the sound and survive, one tied a dog to the plant and let the beast die in the gathering. All this was mere superstition. Sarah had dug mandrake by moonlight and sunlight, during every phase of the zodiac, and she had experimented with black dogs, white dogs, yellow dogs, and spotted dogs; nothing made any difference. As for the demons, she had never met one.
However, mandrake root chewed made an excellent agent of anaesthesia. When the young men of Qaba fell to breaking each others' skulls (it happened, sure as weather, every springtime) a good store of mandrake was essential. One scraped the bark of the root and infused it in water; if her patients gave her trouble, she could also purge them with it.
But the walnuts, all in all, were more important. With baked eggs? Yes, with eggs.
She sang as she walked down the mountainside. In a sling twisted across her back she carried fresh-pulled mandrake plants: they looked like big brown parsnips, and their leaves stank with a powerful stench, but their young fruit was sweet, like bruised apples. In her hand was a basket of walnuts. Everything else she required was waiting for her at home. All except fresh eggs, and as for those, the Almighty would provide.
Her house was the largest in Kand-i-badam. In its walled garden, beneath the apricot trees, grew a fine lawn of trefoil; there was a plot edged with quince bushes, where Sarah grew herbs and melons. She had some spikenard plants which had come by wagon all the way from Kabul. Just inside the wall, a small huddle of people squatted in the dust. Sarah, walking through the gate, judged them with an experienced eye. There was a mother-to-be, and a woman whose infected eye was seeping white matter, and a young man cradling a swollen cheek. And a maiden suffering unrequited love, from the look of it. And a little girl, clutching a chicken.
The Almighty provided. Sarah spent the next two hours dealing with her patients, ending with the chicken. It had a broken leg. She set it and splinted it, and the little girl watched with large solemn eyes and finally vouchsafed a doubtful smile. But the child had brought payment: a reed basket, holding five fresh-laid eggs.
The Almighty provided.
In the warm months in Transoxiana, everyone lived outside. Sarah was still in the garden, kneeling under the awning of the summer-tent and cracking walnuts with mortar and pestle, when the horseman arrived. He came riding in through the garden gate: a fine young soldier in mail, with a pointed helmet and a pointed beard. "God be with you!" she said.
"May God be with you. You are Sarah Hajji?"
"Pilgrim Sarah, yes." Sarah eyed him, and then turned her attention to his mare. Both seemed healthy. "If you come from the governor, tell him the answer is still no."
She turned back to the matter at hand. Her oven was fired, and a copper bowl sat hot on the grill. Hung by the oven was a dolmbeh, the hunk of fat from under a sheep's tail; she sliced a good chunk off, and put it into the bowl to melt. In a moment it was sizzling. Time to add the chicken and onions. And the bread she had kneaded at dawn was waiting to be baked. The young man was still present, dismounted, with the mare's rein in his hand. Talking.
"I know the governor's promises," she said, when he paused for breath. "I know what the governor wants. Tell him that I will not go to Qaba."
"But he has made a vow, that if you go to live in Qaba, he will take the fifth of taxes he gathers for this year and with it, build a hospital--"
Sarah plunged her arms up to the elbows in the bucket of water which stood by the mud-brick oven. Then, swiftly, she picked up two rounds of flat bread-dough, thrust her wet hands right into the oven, and slapped the loaves home: smack against the walls of the oven, where they would cling until they were baked through.
"The fifth is gathered for alms and charity," she said. "Tell the governor that if his faith is pure, he ought to build his hospital no matter where I live."
"I can't say that to him!"
Slap slap slap! went the loaves of bread, against the hot bricks of the oven.
"These are my words, not your words," said Sarah. "He knows me well. He will understand."
Shielding her hands with the cloth of her skirt, she pulled out the big bowl and stirred the contents well; then she added the walnuts, along with a measure of pomegranate juice. Her mind dwelt upon these things, not upon the young man. Handsome though he was, the work at hand was vital. She lidded the bowl and slid it back into the oven. A good housewife always knew, as if by a sixth sense, when the loaves were about to peel off and fall into the flames. All women in Persia baked in this manner: with dolmbeh fat to grease the pot, with pomegranate to sauce the meat, with bread slapped on the walls of their ovens. Chicken, walnuts and onions, baked black in sweet pomegranate juice, with goat's milk and good hot bread, and baked eggs . . .
It was Methos' favorite meal. And what in all creation could be more important than that?
"The governor suffers from an affliction in Libra," she said, absently, "and a disease in the region of Scorpio. As Ptolemy observes, those zodiacal signs which contain the affected part of the horizon will show in what part of the body the misfortune exists . . . He believes that his ills are due to flying venom; I have sent him butter churned on a Friday, and a paper with the incantation 'A crae aercrae aerm aernem madre, aercume het aernem, aeradospice.' I also made him a salve of horehound and pepper pounded together, to be smeared where he is most troubled . . . If he still suffers, he should make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the Iman Hafiz. For only saints can work miracles."
"You're an infidel."
"I am a Jewess. Yes. This is exactly my argument. Let the good governor abstain from female Jews and resort rather to a good Muslim iman! He needs to go to a holy man."
"But you're a holy woman, so everyone says - the wife of a great magician? The whole district boasts of your miracles--"
"Nonsense. It is true that my man is a magician. But I am no wife, only a concubine. I cannot marry him; he does not have my faith."
"But they say you've even been to Mecca!" His eyes were dark with superstitious awe.
"More nonsense. I have visited many holy places - but as a Jewess, it would be blasphemy for me to gaze upon Mecca." She lifted her hands, stained with flour and pomegranate juice. "I've studied medicine. But miracles come from God."
And here was her man at the gate.
He took one stride into the garden, his collecting bag slung over his shoulder and his step merry and light, and stopped short. "Sarah, I caught your--" And in an instant, Sarah's peaceable Methos vanished, and in his place was a stranger. She had never seen this man before. He moved forward in a long pouncing step, his knife appearing as if by magic in his hand, and the collecting bag swung from his other hand like a missile; he seemed taller, his shoulders suddenly wider, and his expression was like grim death. Her handsome young soldier had sprung to his feet. Her handsome young soldier had drawn his sword; the glitter and flash of the blade was like the moon at its full. Sarah froze.
Then both men shook themselves, as if coming out of a trance. Methos said, his voice hard, "We have no quarrel, I think."
The soldier said, "We have no quarrel. My name is Auda Mirzat. You're the magician?"
"I am." Methos glanced toward Sarah. "This place is not private."
"Your woman is not one of us," said the soldier, mysteriously. "But as Allah is my witness, I didn't come here to fight. And your garden to me is as holy ground."
"Then lay down your sword." Methos made his knife vanish, and came to bend his knee to Sarah and kiss her hands. "Azzi zam, Sarah-Begum; he has not harmed you?"
"No, no. Beloved, what is this?" For he was the gentlest of men.
"A misunderstanding." He set down his bag. "Sarah, I caught the chameleons you wanted. Auda, be welcome in our house. You'll stay and share our salt?"
They sat down together like three old friends. Strangely enough the soldier Auda, whose silk robes were embroidered with gold, seemed to defer to Sarah's man as if Methos was a great lord . . . her quiet Methos, so much younger than she! Sometimes other women wondered aloud what spells Sarah employed to keep Methos. But then she had always known that her man had some secret in his past. "I've just come to Qada," Auda admitted, "but even I can see the governor has not all a man's wits about him. You've heard the news?"
"No. What news?"
"We're at war with the Mongols from beyond Kara Khitai. There's no real threat, of course, but the army is being moved to patrol along the Syr Darya for now. Have you ever seen a Mongol? Men say," said Auda, "they have the heads of dogs, with long woolly ears. For armor, they know nothing better than the scales of fish. And they eat anything, even their own horses and each other. Young virgins especially." He glanced toward Sarah and made an apologetic gesture. "The breast-meat is their favorite meal. Or so it is said."
"I've traveled in the Far East," said Methos. "Those are only stories, but the tribes of the Mongols are formidable fighters. The last I heard, their king had conquered all China and then retired to Lake Baikal to die. Taking along his harem of ten thousand wives."
"May we all die in such bliss!" Impulsively, Auda reached across the platter of chicken-and-walnuts, gripping Methos by the arm. "But let them come! You and I alone would be a match for any number of infidels. We will win such glory as few men dream of! Now that I know you are here--"
"These are the words of a child." Again, Sarah was troubled; her gentle Methos' voice was like cold steel. "This is not our war. If it comes to war."
"They're barbarians, who eat dogs! Do you say you'll watch them invade our land, and do nothing?"
"This is not my land," said Methos. "Or my battle. Or yours, Auda. Or yours."
"Sarah Hajji." Auda turned to her in appeal, stretching out his hand. "I hear you care for the people of Kand-i-badam as a mother with her children. Will you let the Mongols slaughter and burn everything around you? Will you suffer your man to sit by and watch it happen? What will you do?"
But Sarah exchanged glances with Methos, and found a perfect accord in his face. "We will gather more mandrake, Auda. And cultivate melilote." She was thinking hard, totting up the local herbs, reviewing uses and remedies. Melilote boiled in sweet wine, with the roots of marsh mallow and hog's grease stamped together; it was considered sovereign as a cataplasma. "And dog's-mercury. And wound-wort, and yarrow." A lotion of dog's mercury was antiseptic; wound-wort bruised with grease was the best of poultices; as for yarrow, not for nothing was it called herbe militaris.
"Better review Galen on trepanning, too," Methos added. He made a wry face. "Men fighting from horseback invariably seem to hit each other on the heads."
"Begum, you'll let him do this? Stand aside, and play the physician, while - while brave men go out to face--"
"You mistake me." Sarah had just brought out the bowl of eggs. "I am a physician; Death is my enemy. And the dead represent failure to me." She made her voice pleasant and firm: "It is my command to him."
"You're mad." All the blood had ebbed from Auda's face; he looked as if he had bitten into wormwood. "Tell him to get out, and hone his sword. Sitting here talking about herbs - what good will that do?"
"Please. We are peaceful people." She held the bowl out to him. "Let us divide these good eggs, and talk of something other than battle."
"Five eggs for three people," Methos added. "It's like the old riddle: one for you, Auda, and one for me, and three for you, Sarah; then we'll each have three--"
But Auda spat on the ground. Then he was on his feet, snatching the bowl away. "I know how to divide five eggs too. One for myself: now I have three." He was staring at Methos, and in his eyes was disgust. "One for your woman. The rest for you, and then we all have the same number, don't we?"
He threw the whole bowl down, and strode away toward his horse . . . leaving Methos sitting there with a quizzical look on his face, and smashed eggs all over his lap.
Somewhat later, Sarah found her man busy in the garden.
During these late-summer evenings, the daylight lasted and lasted; one could read by it, far into the night. Methos was by the oven, using Sarah's wooden chopping-board and Sarah's small knives and skewers. His head was bent over his work, and a sheet of good cotton paper was set out beside him, along with the reed pens he used for calligraphy. He was dissecting a chameleon, and drawing anatomical diagrams.
Sarah stood and watched him, as she sometimes did; sometimes she thought she could watch him for hours without tiring. Her Methos. Her man. She had met him five years earlier . . . when, leaving her studies at Cordoba, she had fulfilled a childhood desire and walked to Jerusalem. Learning along the way from every man and woman she met. In Jerusalem itself, studying under any learned man who would teach her. She had already been over thirty years old then, resigned to the thought that she would never feel desire; she would die without knowing love. Her father had once said that Jehovah when He created her, had given her gifts which left no room for marriage - that she was made to serve not one man, but all men.
And then, in a street of the Holy City, she had glimpsed a pilgrim with the eyes of a saint, with the face of a prince of Persia. Still a boy, but wise beyond his years. His mouth had been tender, vulnerable - made to laugh and be kissed. When he saw her staring, a blush had risen in his ivory cheeks. And he had frozen, waiting for her to approach him, in humility and bemusement.
From that moment, the accord between them had been complete.
Now Sarah came to kneel behind Methos and link her arms loosely around his neck. He leaned back into her grasp with a sigh; his upturned face was pale with weariness. "Sarah, I can't make it come right . . ."
"How many chameleons did you catch me?"
"Three of them. Well, two now."
"Demokritus says if you burn their heads, thunderstorms ensue. If you boil the right eyes in goat's milk, the tincture will dissolve cataracts. If you wrap the hearts in lambswool of the first shearing, you have an amulet which fights quartain fever. Of course only experimentation will prove his theories, but I can use a good remedy against cataracts."
"He wrote that you roasted their left feet along with the plant also called chameleon, adding an unguent, and made lozenges which, swallowed, cause invisibility. Don't bother trying that one, it doesn't work no matter what unguent you use. I did save you the eyes." He poked at the small carcass, whose skeleton and sinews lay spread out, explicit as the diagrams drawn upon the paper. "When did it die, Sarah? I felt its heart cease to beat, saw when its eyes dried. But the growth of human hair and fingernails does not cease until two days after what we call death, and there are movements and reflexes which persist in the muscles . . ."
She let her fingertips play across his skin. She could name every muscle and bone she found, in an orderly procession of Arabic; but his living flesh moved her beyond words. "What are you searching for, Methos?"
"When a mortal man or woman dies, there is a loss in weight of up to six ounces," he murmured - to himself, not to her. He was thinking aloud. "I've measured it, it isn't a myth. But where is the seat of life in us? What flies away out of the flesh, at the moment of death? Sometimes a healthy man simply closes his eyes and gives up the ghost, or a woman perishes from pure emotion. What makes men die?"
"The loss of the soul," she said, into his hair.
"And where is the evidence of it? When a soul quits the body, there must be some sign. I've seen it ten thousand times, dissected corpses, observed the instant of mortal death - in men, in animals - where is the lightning, that should result when a spirit is torn free of the flesh? Where is the thunder? Where is the tumult and noise that we should see?"
"Why expect thunder and lightning?" Sarah was disturbed. "Methos, you speak as if you would vivisect men to search out their souls. These are flights of fancy, unhealthy obsessions. Do you know the legend of the Golem?"
"Not offhand, no. Tell me."
"They say that long ago, the Jewish people were led into persecution. So a wise rabbi, a rabbi versed in magic, built a golem to fight for the downtrodden. It was a giant made out of clay, and so long as frightened people cried out for a protector, it would live and fight; when war and pain were wiped out of the world, only then would the golem revert to lifeless clay."
He had turned, listening, and lifted one of her hands. He held her hand as if she was infinitely fragile- she, who had walked barefoot across half Europe!
"But as the monster fought injustice, it grew larger with every blow . . . until at last the word Emet marked upon its forehead could no longer be glimpsed." Sarah smoothed her hand over Methos' forehead, writing with her fingertip. "Emet: truth, in Hebrew." Her finger drew the word. "Even after all the enemies of the Jews were defeated, the golem fought on, resisting its own death. For even abominations do not want to die. Until the wise rabbi, with a single stroke of his hand . . ." Her hand stroked his forehead. ". . . wiped away the first letter of Emet - truth - leaving the word Met - dead - and the golem slumped down, returning to the clay."
And her hand became still, as she realized what she had just done.
"Sarah." Methos pulled her hands down. "Don't fear. Your ways of fighting against war are the best ones."
"I hate war, I hate death!" Her hands clenched in his. "They are my enemies."
"It's God's way, azzi zam."
"I shall always fight them."
"Ah, you were born a fighter." Methos pulled her around, against him, and ran a lingering hand down the side of her face. Then his hands were pushing her headdress back, burying themselves in her hair. He pulled the pins out of her hair, stroked it down with his fingers. "I remember when I first saw you. The first thing I saw was your hair. Like a sheet of polished copper, pale and ablaze in the sun."
"Like the bottom of an empty cooking pot."
"Like a miracle." Between kisses, he murmured, "You wore man's clothes. A linen shirt so threadbare, I could see right through it. With that copper hair, with that unworldly face - I remember being struck dumb. Any other woman, you'd think she was begging to be raped. But you were strolling along as if there was nothing to fear in the whole world."
"Of course I was. I have no more breast than a boy. Nobody but you has ever offered - well, that's not quite true, I remember one time--"
"What!" Methos straightened, removing his hands from under her gown. "You never told me that!"
"Didn't I? It was on the road to Damascus. A bandit came at me on the roadside, and I split his skull open with a stone." A gust of silent laughter shook her; she bowed her face against his shoulder, overcome with mirth, while Methos sat gazing at her in indignation. "I was five weeks delayed, nursing him back to health. But you should have seen his face when he woke up! . . . I once studied under a Nestorian physician who put it in a proverb: heal the sinner, hate the sin. There is something that is wise in every faith."
"Come to bed," said Methos.
But long afterward, her limbs limp with contentment but her mind wide awake, she lay gazing through the tent-entrance at the stars in the night sky . . . and planned her battle against the Second Horseman: War. A battle to be fought with mandrake root, and yarrow. And melilote, woundwort, and dog's mercury.
But nothing happened.
Mohammad Shah forgot this trifling matter. He sported and took his leisure in the city he had chosen for his capital - in Samarkand, lovely Samarkand. Balkh was called the Mother of Cities, and Merv was paradise; in Bukhara were mosques and universities famed throughout Persia; but Samarkand was luxurious beyond compare. It was a city so rich that even within its walls, every house had a garden. Beyond the walls spread wide suburbs decorated by shade trees, fountains and canals. From the artisans of Samarkand came silk and silver lame, Persian saddles and harnesses, priceless copperwork, and cheap paper which was sought after throughout the Middle East. From the farms of Samarkand came melons and aubergines, packed in snow and exported in lead boxes. In the palaces of Samarkand, Muhammad's courtiers kept their treasures and their harems; from Samarkand, they rode out to the hunt clad in cloth-of-gold, with collared cheetahs riding on the cruppers of their saddles.
Late in 1218, there was a rumor of Mongol soldiers in Ferghana, a fertile mountain valley guarded by the garrison city of Khojend. The Islamic knights of Khojend rode out, splendid as a painting: in burnished armor they rode, upon blood horses also armor-clad, sporting swords which had been bent to the hilt during forging. They sallied forth avid for battle and glory . . . and found a few thousand ragged beggars on half-dead ponies, who promptly turned tail and fled into the Tien Shan mountains. The news of this spread throughout Muhammad Ali's empire; Muhammad Ali made jokes, and all his courtiers laughed.
In early 1219, terrified reports came from the town of Otrar. This was where the Mongol trading caravan had met its doom, but it was only a frontier station - a fortress, lying beyond the Darya. And the northern borders of Muhammad Ali's empire were formidable. Only along the five hundred miles of the Syr Darya's course could the empire be invaded: south of the Darya was the Tien Shan range along whose passes, even in summertime, the snows lay heaped five feet deep; north of the Darya lay the Sea of Azov and the impenetrable Kizil Kum desert. And stationed along the Darya were four hundred thousand soldiers of Islam - every man of them ready to die for paradise. Even when all word ceased from Otrar, no one took alarm.
In late 1219, Transoxiana was invaded.
Mongols had attacked from the south - the south! - along the old Silk Road trade routes. Thousands of them had crossed the Tarim desert and climbed through the passes west of Khotan. The ragged invaders on their shabby ponies traveled like lightning. They lived off the land, and laughed at the effete European notion of supply lines. Their contemptible mongrel horses flourished like weeds in any terrain; their contemptible nomad soldiers (each trailed by a herd of remount ponies) lived quite happily on kumiss and the blood of their own mounts. When in dire straits, they slaughtered and ate their remounts.
An army of twenty thousand was advancing into central Persia, splitting the empire and dividing Muhammad Shah's southern reserves from the northern front. An army of thirty thousand had swung north and was raging along the entire length of the Syr Darya, attacking every fortress they found and pinning down the Transoxianan forces stationed there.
At Qada, the governor received warning, and rallied his troops. There were forty thousand men stationed in Qada, it was one of the largest fortresses on the Darya; when word came that the enemy had been sighted, they went out confidently. They had chosen the field of battle - a broad ravine south-west of the citadel - and knew from spies that they outnumbered the Mongol force; their arms and armor, everyone knew, were without parallel anywhere in the world. They drew themselves up in battle array. Presently a black cloud appeared in the distance, and the knights of Transoxiana readied themselves; their banners were waving, their blood horses danced in place with nervous, agile, eager steps. Drums and hautboys played, for it was their custom to go into battle with music. When the trumpets sounded the order, they began their advance.
Again, the trumpets sounded, and the knights couched their lances, letting their horses run loose-rein. Ahead, a much smaller force cantered toward them. There, in the distance, the battle standard of the Mongols jabbed toward the sky; the tails of nine yaks, long and silky as woman's hair, streamed out in the wind. The trumpets sounded. The knights of the Transoxianan cavalry spurred their mares, and the mares began to gallop.
Within instants, herd instinct drove the horses into a full charge. Their tails lifted like flags, their ears went flat. Foam flew from their mouths. Auda Malik was riding in the front line, his feet firm in the stirrups and his heart singing within him. The drum-beat of hooves, the blast of the mares' snorting breaths, were all he could hear now. But he could see the Mongols ahead: men on ridiculous little ponies, men in conical hats decorated with fur trim and red ribbons. For armor they seemed to have nothing but cuirasses of some shiny quilted material. A flight of arrows went over, whistling. Were they shooting from horseback? That was impossible at full gallop. They were too close. They were too close! They were breaking ranks.
The whole Mongol charge was dissolving into chaos, man after man wheeling to flee from the Transoxianan lancers. Auda shouted to Allah in triumph, heard his cry echoed from forty thousand throats. The enemy was very close, enough so that he could lock eyes with one of them - for just a heartbeat - a Mongol just swinging his pony into an unhurried turn - and a thrill ran through Auda's whole body: the man was another immortal. His face was scarred, ancient, savage, ironic; when his gaze met Auda's, the glance was like a blow.
He vanished in the melee of retreating Mongols. Well, there was nothing to do now but chase them down, complete this rout and teach them a lesson they would never forget. And they were almost close enough to catch the Mongol horses by the tails - barely five lengths separated the two armies. A black pall of smoke blocked the ravine ahead - were they that near the Mongol camp? The enemy horses charged into the smoke. The Transoxianan riders followed.
It was the screaming of the men around him that alerted Auda. There were arrows falling like rain, slicing through the drifting smoke. This was an ambush. This was an ambush with archers massed along the slopes of the ravine, waiting for the Transoxianans to fall into the trap. Men were falling on either side of Auda; horses went down, shrieking like women, with their necks and quarters quilled full of war-arrows. The smoke must come from smudge-pots placed to cover the Mongol archers. Auda held his shield over his horse's head, prayed to Allah and was delivered: not one arrow struck him or (more importantly) his mare. And now the arrows were slackening, the smoke eddying aside--
The Transoxianan charge was in shambles. More than a third of their number lay weeping, bleeding, screaming, dying in the red mud of the ravine. Ahead, the enemy could again be seen.
The Mongols - cursed be their name! - were wheeling their horses, in perfect order. They were advancing at a leisurely pace. And now, passing through the line of their light cavalry, another cavalry corps appeared: riders in mail and iron helms, armed with scimitars. With battle-axes. With twelve-foot lances.
Auda's gaze sought and found the other immortal - riding among the Mongols in the second rank. The man crooked a finger, and moved his mouth in a kiss.
This was the final stroke of every Mongol victory: the charge of the heavy cavalry. They came on at the trot, in an eerie dead silence. And then at the very last moment, immense kettledrums boomed across the killing ground as the order to gallop was given. The Mongol warriors all threw back their heads and uttered one hideous concerted scream of blood-lust. By the time the sound died raw in their throats, their lances were already among the enemy.
This, the fourth army of the Mongols, was commanded by Genghis' trusted general Jebe. The Kah Khan himself had ridden south across the Darya, to confer with him. Behind them at Otrar, the first and second Mongol armies, led by two of Genghis' sons, laid siege to the fortress. There were eighty thousand men stationed in the garrison there, but after an investment of five months the Mongols had broken through the walls. And slaughtered every man, woman, and child in the outer city. The citadel still held out, and would for two months longer. During the final massacre, the governor and his wife would climb up onto the roof of their house and shower the Mongols with arrows, and when the arrows ran out, they would fling down ripped-off tiles. This was the governor who had had the caravan seized, and the invaders would undermine the house just to take him alive; such were their orders. He would be sent to Genghis' headquarters, where molten silver would be poured into his ears and eyes until he died.
But that moment of harsh justice lay in the future. Now, in the aftermath of the rout at Qaba, the Kah Khan and his general rode across the battlefield and watched prisoners being beheaded right, left, and center. And Auda might have been gratified to know he was not the only one to notice the other immortal - the immortal fighting on the Mongol side. Even now, great Genghis was remarking: "The man who led the suicide feint. What is his name?"
"Jessutai, of the Kerait ordu." Jebe had also taken note. "He holds the rank of noyan, commander of a thousand - one of the noyans you appointed after the conquest of Kara Khitai. He's a hero. The men say that he feels no pain, that he can take an arrow in the side and laugh as if at a kiss - that he neither eats nor sleeps nor tires nor feels fear, nor dreams of anything save killing your enemies, Temujin."
"A formidable man, then."
"As if he was immortal. You might promote him to commander of ten thousand." Jebe considered. "In him, you might even find another general."
"We shall see," said Genghis Khan.
Meanwhile, the immortal presently called Jessutai was about his own business. The squadrons of the army, after sacking the citadel at Qaba, had spread out across the countryside and were looting and pillaging, ad lib; and it was a good time for a hunt. He was very old and very experienced in the Game, and could track another immortal across half a continent. Once he had a taste of a stranger's quickening, nothing stopped him for long.
This quarry had fled from the field of battle. He had been young, his quickening weak and faint . . . easy pickings, like an apple plucked off a tree and devoured, bite by bite, both the flesh and the stem and the core. Forbidden fruit, food for the spirit. A feast undreamed of by mortal men.
If only they knew!
The trail led straight as the flight of an arrow. A young immortal spent his first few centuries driven by instinct; old immortals could look back and laugh. They all thought they were writing the book anew, but every young one pulled the same old tricks. This behavior, now, spoke of a very young one, spooked like a nervous horse - bolting right back to the stable. Poor frightened child! In over his head, running for shelter. This was the behavior of a student running to hide behind the nearest old one.
Now, there was a thought to make a man drool. For the quickening of an old immortal, next to the quickening of a young one, was the whole tree of Paradise against a single bite of apple.
And he found the young one in a burning village.
The other Mongols had already swung through this district. They had fired the groves of almond trees, and flung torches on the roofs of the houses. All the peasants were long gone. The wise ones would have fled into hiding, and the fools would be dead. The Kah Khan had ordered a day and a night of looting, that his children (who followed him from loyalty, not for pay) might be satisfied.
But all the burning houses were empty. There were no bodies - not so much as the carcass of a dog on the road.
Nevertheless, it had rained here within the last day or so. The village road was the same kind of dirt track you encountered everywhere: nothing more than two broad meandering ruts, rolled a handspan deep into the ground and packed hard as stone - except when it rained, and then the whole sorry mess became a morass. Here, in the soft ground, were enough tracks for a blind man to follow. The villagers had fled away up the mountain, driving their sheep before them and leading donkey-carts laden with valuables; they had taken everything, even to the doors of their houses. Overlaying their trail were the prints of a horse's hoofs.
He followed, not hurrying. His white-faced pony trotted tirelessly along, snatching bites of grass from the wayside. Two hours went pleasantly by; he had millet and apples in his saddlebag, and a flask of water. He ate and drank in the saddle, contemplating life. His plans were simple: today he was the commander of a thousand, but Genghis promoted without regard to tribe or birth . . . and the great Khan was already an old man. Soon he would be dead. After conquerors died, didn't empires always fall to those strong enough to seize them? Soon enough--
This campaign would last at least two years. Before it was over, he intended to rise in the Khan's favor. He would command the Khan's armies, and slaughter the Khan's enemies. And win the battles the Khan wanted won, and sack the cities the Khan wanted sacked. What could be more pleasant than that? Until the Khan went the way of all mortal men. Soon enough.
Walnut trees cumbered with great swags of rambling roses grew on either side of the trail. The roses glowed pink, and raspberries gleamed like rubies upon their canes. The grass was piled like green and tawny velvet. When he felt the presence of the young immortal, he drew his sword and shrugged his arm through the straps of his round Mongol shield. The pony scented trouble on the air, and picked up its pace. Ten steps, and they heard bleating. Twelve steps, and the voices of children carried to their ears. His heart began to speed with anticipation. He let his rein fall, squeezed the pony's ribs in warning, drummed once with his feet. It leaped forward in a dead run.
He swept out of the rose-thickets and rode roaring down upon a tumult of unarmed peasants - screaming women and children running with their sheep. They scattered before him, and in the blur of his memory they were like a hundred thousand such rabbles. All dead. All dead, soon enough. Sheep and mortals, mortals and sheep. They painted him red as they died. They painted the pony until its white head was scarlet, its sides matted with splotches and splatters. They made him into a red king on a blood-red mount: War, the Second Horseman.
He was yelling with laughter as his sword rose and fell; he was bellowing with mirth when he saw the other immortal spurring his blood horse forward in the charge; he swung his pony's head around and set it at the other immortal, shrieking with endless laughter; and the other immortal looked him in the face, turned tail and fled.
The young one would wait. He wagged his head in reproof, and turned back to killing mortals.
Mortals and sheep, sheep and mortals. Not enough of them, the rest must have scattered - and their flocks with them - but enough for a taste of the flesh, enough for a sip of blood. There! and they were one less. There! another one fell weeping under the hoofs of his horse. Sheep and mortals! All of them, too easy to kill.
There was the young one! there by that woman. The woman with the long flag of coppery hair. She was no immortal, but the young one had been shaking her, demanding something in a frantic shout. She wrenched herself free, swung him around by the shoulder, and shoved him away. All the while, her face remained calm. Then they both saw him riding down upon them.
The young one had just enough time to raise a sword. A weak defense made by a hand that wavered. And look at the terror on that face! Sweeter than Candy wine. He struck left, across the saddle-horn, and the woman fell. He had already forgotten her as he twisted back, swinging the sword in a long flat stroke . . . which hacked the young immortal's sword-arm half-off at the elbow.
Blood. There was blood roaring in his ears. "The old one!" He shouted it at the top of his lungs, enjoying the sound of his voice. He reached down and grasped the young boy's arm, and the young one screamed like a woman. "Where is he, puppy? Give him to me, and live an hour longer!"
"Up the mountain - he went ahead, ahead - ahhh! my arm!"
Blood. His head rang hollowly with it. Blood and power. "Enjoy the pain, whelp. Pain is life. When pain ends, life is over."
He raised his sword, gloating.
"You - you promised an hour--"
"I exaggerated." He released the young one, watched him sag to his knees. Then he slashed the sword down and across.
Blood. Thunder. Lightning. As sweet as the forbidden apples of Eden.
It was while he was turning, with a vague remembrance of a woman and unfinished sport, that the thrill ran across his skin. It was like drum music. And chanting voices far away. Like a multitude of voices - like something which, once experienced, could never quite be forgotten. Not even after two thousand years. It was the signature of an ancient immortal, familiar as the face of a brother. And the wonder he felt ran in his veins - like living blood, distant thunder, crawling lightning . . .
"Methos?" Kronos whispered. He let his sword drop, forgot the mortal woman. Then he was riding, riding breakneck up the mountainside.
. . . but the presence was gone.
"Life is short, and Art long;
the crisis fleeting, experience perilous, and decision difficult."
The fortress at Qaba was considered impregnable. Its curtain walls were thirty-five feet tall, and beneath the walls was a glacis sloping down another thirty feet to a dry ditch with precipitous sides. Across this ditch went a bridge, which was (of course) withdrawn in times of siege. To gain the gate, an invading army would have to storm the ditch and then climb a road rising clockwise along the wall - exposing their right sides to barrage from above. To take the gate, they needed to breach a solid steel portcullis. Between the inner and outer wards, they would have to fight their way around three-quarters of a circle and then breach a second gate, a gate guarded by double watchtowers. Beyond these barriers lay the citadel itself: a squat round beehive of a tower, beneath which lay cisterns holding enough water - so it was said - to last a whole year.
The lower town, surrounding the fortress, opened its gates to the invaders between afternoon and evening prayers. The people of the lower town were rounded up, to be herded away and penned outside the walls. There, five hundred comely virgins of Qaba were selected and portioned out to Mongol masters. Those who resisted, died - or wished they had.
The buildings of the Chinese quarter were identified, Mongol guards set over them, and their inhabitants suffered nothing . . . for China was part of Khan's empire. The rest of the lower town was sacked.
The Mongol army pitched its round felt tents in a convenient field, just outside the lower city. Engineers demolished every building within a three-block radius of the fortress. Beyond this no-man's-land, herds of shaggy ponies grazed in every garden. Every tree in the small city was chopped down for firewood. The Mongols settled in for a siege, and the remainder of Qaba's garrison looked down from the walls and sneered. For the fortress at Qaba was considered impregnable.
Elsewhere, Methos trotted up the mountainside. He ran with a lazy long stride, the effortless pace of the distance runner; he could run for a day and a night without flagging. Fifteen campaigns served in the Roman infantry will do that for a man. In the far distance, the small city of Qaba was a golden smudge against the horizon. Since afternoon, that smudge had been obliterated by a billowing black pall. Clouds of smoke were rising from the city. And he knew that Qaba had fallen.
He shook his head, and loped on. The peasants of Transoxiana would do what peasants always did: flee into the forests, driving their flocks before them. In the forests of the north, they could hold out for months on end. Thus, the people of Kand-i-badam had rounded up their livestock, and gone into hiding. Methos had just made a circle through the vicinity, checking for signs of Mongols . . . and then he had sensed another immortal, and been forced to detour before heading back. It was probably just the young one, Auda - but you could never be too cautious.
He glanced up at the glowering sky. It would rain again, within the hour, and then all tracks would be obliterated. The poor folk of Kand-i-badam would survive.
Sarah would be safe.
Beautiful Sarah, with her glowing cheeks. Peach-colored all over, from the sun of the Holy Land, and so absent-minded that she thought no man noticed her. And when she saw him staring, she would look back straight into his eyes, her mouth crooked with the attempt to hide a smile: ironic, shy, and finally just surprised. His Sarah. Damn, he should have taken her west a year ago, when the first rumors began - but try making that woman move a step when she didn't want to go. Just try.
There was the trail again. A first few raindrops were splattering in the long grass as Methos ran along the long road, his head turning right and left as he scanned for tracks. Donkeys. Wagon wheels. Sheep, goats, bare human feet. Cattle.
And not the local horses, which were shod with round iron plates bearing twelve nails each . . . these horses were unshod.
Not horses, ponies. Not very big. Four of them. Ridden fast. Mongol ponies.
Methos felt his skin go cold. His heart began to hammer. He forgot about pacing himself, and began to sprint.
The Mongols he was tracking were a mile or two ahead, no more, and they were cantering along the obvious trail of driven cattle. They were short broad-built men with long drooping mustaches, wearing blue tunics and trousers faced with red; each was armed with two bows, a shield and lasso, and a sword and several light javelins. When they laughed, sharing a joke or merely in anticipation, their eyes narrowed to merry slits and their round cheeks shone. Their gear and weapons were army issue; back home in northern China, they would wear the same set of ragged clothes year in and year out. Raiding, hunting, herding, moving the tents from place to place . . . army life was just like life at home. Except that the food was better, and the loot came easier. And they carried themselves with the confidence of strong men, powerful men, true men who fear nothing - of men who are invincible.
When they heard someone coming up the trail behind them, they reined in and spread out, glancing at one another. Here the fool was! an unarmed man, afoot, speeding along the way. He saw them only when he was almost upon them. He stumbled and his eyes went wide. He turned and tried to flee, and by then they were riding him down, drawing their swords; the first to reach him slashed casually - and the poor fool fell face-down in the muddy cow-tracks.
They laughed and made their ponies prance, and the one who had made the kill dropped off his mount and hacked at the body a few more times, just to be sure. Then he turned the corpse over and began to search it for money. He grunted. "Nothing. Not worth the effort." The dead man lay with limp hands, his clothing ripped and bloody. Crows were already gathering, hopping closer, croaking and chuckling in crow-talk over the feast to come; those at least would not be disappointed. The Mongols left the body where it lay, for the birds to devour.
They rode away, already forgetting the fool.
At the turn of the track, they heard a commotion behind them. The last in line glanced back over his shoulder; at his cry, the others looked too. Their jaws dropped. Their eyes went white-rimmed with terror.
The crows were scattering into the uppermost boughs of the trees; their flapping wings seemed like a whirlwind of stark feathers in the air. Black as the evil wings of bats. Last autumn's leaves blew in a flurry of cold wind. Rain splattered and kicked in the dust. The dead man was sitting bolt upright, with rain running out of his eyes.
His mouth gaped open, lolling in a grin. A madman's jeering grin. A leaf clinging to his cheek suddenly ripped free and spun toward the three frozen Mongols on their restive ponies; it looked like a flying moth. The dead man's eyes tracked, following the leaf. One of the Mongols screamed out in fear.
The dead man's arm shot up. His fingers jabbed at the Mongols. His mouth yawned impossibly wide.
"Go back!" he cried in a terrible voice. "Go back!"
The three Mongols spurred their mounts. With one accord, they plunged off the road and galloped through the forest - skirting a wide circle around the fiend, lest it lurch to its feet and come rushing after them. Bloodthirsty laughter echoed behind them. Their ponies stampeded through the trees. They did not rejoin the track until they were far down the mountain . . . and they did not slow down until they reached Qaba.
Methos, shaking his head in amusement, climbed to his feet. He brushed at his clothes, clucked and pulled his long striped coat shut over the tatters of his shirt. The rain was now falling heavily on every side. He wondered how long it would be before those three rode out alone again - and what story they would take back to the army, when the three of them--
And then he halted.
As frozen as they had been, he stood gazing down at the tracks in the mud. Three Mongol horsemen, riding hell-for-leather back down the mountain. Three horsemen . . . and four sets of hoof-prints. Oh, Sarah.
He began to run again.
About a mile further up the way was the scene of a slaughter. Dead sheep lay in pathetic bloodstained heaps of wool. Blood ran slick as oil upon the rain-wet grass, and the soil had been cut and churned into a moil of brown all streaked with livid red. Here, tents had been hastily pitched and the wounded were sitting groaning in their shelter. A dozen bodies lay beneath a makeshift awning. Women and children scurried to and fro, and in the midst of it all stood Sarah, swathed in bandages. Giving orders. "Put more brush on that fire, we need to keep them warm. Yes, those clothes, cut them up - I don't care whose they are! Do it now. And get those ewes out of here! Methos, beloved, your coat is in ribbons - are you hurt? Ah, good, we need a man's help. I want those wagons tipped over in a ring, to pen the sheep, and then-- This? Oh, the bandit slashed my arm - a shallow cut, though it does sting - and then I fell and bruised my forehead, that's all. Why are you laughing? Methos, let go of me!"
In Qaba, the commanders of the Mongol army met.
They sat astride their horses on the edge of the no-man's-land, gazing toward the glacis of the citadel. Genghis Khan was there, along with his general Jebe. The three commanders of the cavalry tumen, divisions of ten thousand, waited patiently; and the commanders of the minghans, regiments of a thousand, were with them.
"The baggage train and artillery minghans will arrive by nightfall," said Jebe. He smiled. "It'll be good to see my women again."
"How many heavy catapults do you have?"
"Only one. The other two broke down while we were crossing the Tarim desert, and we had no wood to repair them. I've sent logging parties up into the mountains, but they haven't returned yet."
"I'll send you three catapults from Otrar. Those walls are too high for fire arrows." Genghis looked around. "You! What is your name?"
And Kronos, riding forward, inclined his head respectfully. "Kah Khan, I--"
"Address me as Temujin. We eat the same food every night, I sleep in a yurt as you do."
"Temujin. I am the noyan Jessutai."
"Jessutai, if you were put in command of the army, what would you do here?"
Kronos smiled, and the scar across his right eye pulled sideways in humor. "I'd go somewhere else. This is a well-built fortress, we could be pinned here for months. The army must remain in the field, Temujin, to paralyze resistance along this front and distract the Shah's attention. While your other armies advance in secret to flank the enemy, perhaps?"
Genghis turned his head. "This strategy has not been discussed with the noyans. You guessed it?"
"You left two armies investing Otrar. It seemed . . . excessive."
"Indeed. So you would abandon Qaba at our backs?"
"No. But it wouldn't take the whole army to keep this garrison occupied. There must be only a few hundred of them left. I would," said Kronos, thinking aloud, "I would withdraw, but leave at least a regiment to pin the garrison in place. Keep them in check. Yes, a regiment, commanded by a noyan who was hungry for glory."
"Such as yourself."
"Yes. Such as myself." He looked Genghis Khan in the eye, and the other noyans noticed that he spoke as one equal to another. And yet mighty Genghis had conquered half the world, mighty Genghis inspired terror in the hearts of all men; the legend of Genghis would endure millennia. What had Jessutai the noyan done to match that?
And Genghis Khan brooded, looking upon his junior officer. "All men have weaknesses, Jessutai. Have you any?"
"I have one delight, Temujin."
"Tell me of it."
"There is only one true delight for a man. It is not the hunt, or the embrace of a wife. It is to destroy your enemy, to seize his horses and sleep in his yurt, to know that his shade weeps in sorrow while you drag his women screaming to your bed. That is the only true joy."
"I said that once."
"Yes, Temujin. Your children remember your every word. What are the Mongols, save your hands and fingers, your arrows and swords - the thoughts in your heart, carried out like commands?"
"Jebe, return to the field," Genghis ordered. "Leave Jessutai's regiment here. Jessutai! You may also have the artillery minghans and the engineer corps. Qaba is yours." His voice rang out, the voice of an emperor. "Qaba is yours! If you can take it."
The staff meeting was over. Genghis wheeled his pony and rode away, followed by his officers. They left Kronos behind, looking dreamily toward the citadel.
"Oh, I can take it," he said, as if to an absent comrade. "And so much more."
The artillery arrived after midnight.
The baggage train came first: it was a caravan of shaggy Bactrian camels, running blind in the dark, and its arrival came as a riot of curses, laughter, and confusion. It drove smack into the east side of the encampment and blundered amidst the yurts, kicking the tent-ropes loose and knocking tents right over. Mongol blasphemy rose toward Father Heaven. The camel-drivers, uttering unrepeatable insults, sorted their beasts out and set about unloading them; the soldiers who had been wakened by yurts falling down upon them, rubbed their sore heads and put their tents back up. They swore, but they swore cheerfully . . . for on the heels of the baggage train would come all the other possessions of the army. Remounts, and the wagon train with the spare equipment, and the pack-horses. And also merchants, craftsmen and hucksters. And the women.
In the van, the heavy artillery trundled along on carts pulled by long double lines of cattle. Reserve soldiers guarded them. The heavy artillery was built for siege warfare; each catapult required a crew of a hundred prisoners to prime it, and each could launch a twenty-five-pound ball across a hundred and fifty yards. Their use was to break down gates, and punish walls.
Long before this, Genghis had departed. Jebe, too, had collected his divisions and left - moving out under cover of darkness, to keep the garrison in the citadel from observing. Let the Muslims think that the whole army still surrounded them! Dummy yurts were left to deceive them. The common women and other hangers-on from the baggage train moved obligingly into these yurts, and made a great show of bustling activity. One of the jagun officers - responsible for a squadron of a hundred men - oversaw the unloading. By the time everything was seen to, dawn was pinking the eastern horizon. As per orders, he went to look up the noyan.
He found Kronos on a hillside just beyond Qaba's perimeters - a good command post, with a view of the citadel and its surroundings. Here the Mongol standard had been set up: the nine yak tails, fastened to its crossbar, waved in the wind. It was still night, but bright enough that the torches had been extinguished. And there was a prisoner pegged out on the ground, with yak-horn tent-pegs thrust through his hands and feet.
The noyan was not questioning this prisoner, though. He squatted at a little distance from the groaning man, back to him and hands idle between his knees. He was gazing away toward the citadel again, and as the jagun officer approached, he spoke aloud. ". . . what would he do, I wonder?"
"Jessutai?" said the officer. "I didn't catch--"
"No, no, it's nothing," Kronos said. "I used to have a brother, long ago. Sometimes when I'm lost in thought, I speak to him still." He pointed, with a jab of his thumb. "Tell me. How would you take a fortress like this?"
"I'd sit down and outwait them. Not much else we can do."
"Mm. You weren't with Genghis at the siege of Volohai, were you?"
"Volohai? No, I don't remember a city of that name."
"You would have, if you had been there." Kronos began to laugh to himself. "The Khan sent word that he would withdraw, if given an impossible tribute. A thousand living swallows. The people of Volohai must have set snares on every rooftop and gutter in the city! They brought us so many swallows, there must have been a thousand twice over; they didn't know whether to rejoice, or be suspicious. But Genghis had us tie tinder to the tails of every swallow, light them, and set them free to fly home . . . The whole city burned down. It was an amazing sight."
His junior officer squinted at the walls of the distant citadel. "It's made of stone, mostly. And I don't see many birds."
Kronos shook his head slowly, still chuckling. "You've missed my point. The point is: do the unexpected . . . Well, back to work."
He strolled over to the prisoner, and crouched down with a lithe movement. An instant later, a raw scream ripped through the air. No one was squeamish, who had seen battle and the sack of cities - but still, the jagun officer looked once, and then averted his eyes.
The shriek subsided to a liquid bubbling sound. "Now, now," said Kronos, in the local Farsi dialect. "There's no hurry. We have infinite time, you and I. Tell me again."
"I don't - I didn't - I've never--"
"Yes, I know. You've never seen the man I described. Well, let's remind you one more time. A tall man, with brown hair. His face, all bones and angles, with hard glittering eyes. Slow to speak, as if lost in a daydream; seldom smiling, never laughing. An air of infinite weary boredom. Come now, wouldn't you remember such a man?"
"No . . . no . . . no . . . I swear I've never met him!"
"Mm. Let's talk about the foreign woman, Sarah Khanum or whatever her name was. She has a husband?"
". . . yes . . ."
"Tell me about him. The magician."
". . . I think people say he's an infidel . . . from some blasphemous foreign land - called England?" Hastily: "But I've never met him! Upon my father I vow it, I've never been near him!"
"I think you're telling the truth," murmured Kronos. He stood up, brushed off his hands. He remarked, to the jagun officer, "We're done here."
"You speak their language well."
"I've traveled," Kronos said absent-mindedly. "Lived south of here, once. Long ago. This is an ancient land, you know - its history goes back thousands of years." He stared hard at the citadel. "I lived in the south, when the southern land was called Shinar - yes, Shinar! That was it! There was something we used to say then--" His voice changed, harshened; then, for the first time in over three thousand years, the Sumerian language rang out across the plains of Persia. "Na-mi-gurre, aba ses mu-gin! 'Who is as my brother? Who is as good as my brother?'"
He had shouted the words. Now, the echoes died in the surrounding hills; the jagun officer was looking at him strangely. Kronos shrugged, smiling at the memory. "Well, enough of it. How long till dawn?"
"I know now what to do. We still have those merchant translators we hired in Khotan? Good. Now, soon you'll hear a bell ring out over the fortress - it signals all the faithful to prayer. Five times a day, they pray: dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, night. I want ten young girls from the prisoners taken to each of the four quarters beneath the citadel wall, just out of bowshot. When they finish prayers, I want the soldiers in the citadel to look down and see them there. Have trumpeters play, as if for a parley. Then have the girls stripped."
The officer's eyes widened.
Kronos leered at the look on his face. "Shut your mouth, man! What better way to bring men flocking to the walls? Virtuous Muslim virgins, martyred . . . Have them killed. Make it slow - I want the dogs up there to suffer every wound. When it's over, have the translators shout up: 'Jessutai will speak to you after the fourth prayer!' Do it again at the noon prayer. And the afternoon prayer too."
"And after the fourth prayer?"
"It will all be done, just as you command." The officer glanced down. There the prisoner lay, gasping for breath; it would be a miracle if he lived till nightfall. "And this one. Shall I finish him off?"
"What?" said Kronos. "Oh. No - he answered honestly. Let him go."
". . . let him go?"
"The matter is closed." Kronos turned away, sauntering down the hill. Another officer was hurrying up to meet him. "Yes, what is it?"
"A report, Jessutai. The village you were interested in - Kand-i-badam? We sent soldiers to comb the forests there, as you ordered. But this has just come to my ears: some of the men were looking for loot in the vicinity, and they're spreading a wild tale of talking corpses--"
Kronos halted. "Aha," he said. "Go on."
"Zainab has had twin sons."
Sarah Hajji walked out into the sunlight, wiping at her face. Her long dress was brown with bloodstains; her long hair was lank with sweat. Behind her, a makeshift structure had been erected from the overturned carts. "Well," she added, "and that's a blessing. Three girls before, and then the miscarriage. She was afraid Jahan would set her aside."
"He wouldn't have," Methos remarked; he was sitting on a ledge, waiting for her. "Her embroidery supported him and his brothers too."
"But now, he will treasure her . . . and she's ecstatic, Methos. Ecstatic." She walked on, barely aware of him as he followed her - down a rocky ravine, picking her way from foothold to foothold; the path was so narrow that riders would have to traverse it single file. Methos had brought them to this place. It was inconspicuous, hard to come at. At the top of the ravine, a ledge overhung a cave running back into the mountain's heart.
Here, the wounded lay hidden. They had carried them up on makeshift stretchers, and Zainab had climbed after, her belly great with child and two other women pushing her from behind. Those women were tending her now. The able-bodied had all gone higher, carrying the children, driving their flocks along before them.
"Will they be safe?" she asked, suddenly. "Beloved, what will become of us all?"
Away from the cave, it was quieter. In Sarah's improvised hospital, the moaning of the injured and the weeping of her helpers had never seemed to cease. She had never worked in an army camp, but this reminded her of the stories she had heard. Cautery prevented mortification in wounded limbs. Threads of cloth driven into sword-slashes had to be picked out one by one. The signs of infection were hot humors, weeping and pus, and inflamed streaks spreading up the limb. Once black gangrene set in, the bone saw and the knives were all that stood between the patient and death. The devastating thing about battle hospitals, all doctors said, was being faced with too many wounded to save - so many, that a surgeon could only treat one in ten.
"From all accounts, the Mongols are unbeatable." Methos put an arm around her shoulders. "Sarah. I want you to listen to me now--"
With a twitch of her shoulders, she freed herself. The look she gave him was one of resigned affection. "I know, I know," she said. "Don't start, beloved." And she walked a little way onward, hugging her arms around herself. Where the bottom of the ravine opened into a grassy place overlooking a long wooded slope, she halted. "I know I need to rest."
"Sarah." He spoke to her back; she never turned. "Whichever side wins, this kind of war won't end for at least two years. The Mongols have traveled a thousand miles to invade Transoxiana, and if Muhammad Shah breaks their back tomorrow, still the horde will split up into bandit armies and plague this country for a generation." He paused, then went on resolutely: "I've seen this happen many times. It will happen, azzi dam. Now is the time for us to think of leaving. I'll take you wherever you want to go - perhaps to Montpellier? Or Salerno - they accept women as medical students without question in Salerno. But we have to say goodbye to our life here."
She did not move. Methos eyed her, worried. What was going on in that head of hers? He was about to step forward when she spoke up, in a ringing voice - suddenly, strongly, mysteriously: "I smell devil's dung!"
Methos jumped. "Sarah!" He hurried toward her.
"What?" Sarah glanced at him. "Oh. It's fresh-growing asafetida, can't you smell it? Out there in the forest. It stinks so much, all the local women call it devil's dung. And in a month, Methos, just a month - the seasonal pickers should have been coming from all over the country, and merchants would be arriving to buy up the crop. Without the asafetida harvest, how will people cure their meat for winter? How can they lay food aside? The children and the old folk will starve, and women like Zainab will be bereaved. What can we do, beloved?"
"You want to stay," he said.
She took his hand and began to walk onward again, tugging him with her.
"I don't," she said, smiling at him, "want to die a martyr in this foreign land - if that's what you fear, my friend. I don't want to die at all. But this beautiful country should not be laid waste by war. You and I should not turn tail like cowards and flee, if we can see a way to fight. And yet all violence is wrong. How can we oppose this madness, without soiling our own hands?"
"Not all violence is wrong, Sarah."
"All violence," she repeated, "is wrong."
The whole world seemed made of green: green moss and ferns, green leaves and the green living boughs of trees. It was dim. It was warm. Dappled shadows played across Sarah's hair. The leaves whispered and rustled, and somewhere there were red finches, singing in the raspberry canes.
"Sarah, you know that not all violence--"
"Violence is evil," she said, her voice determined. "It is the devil's work, and we must prevail against it."
They came to a place where water trickled gleaming across the shoulder of a vast rock almost overgrown by wild apple trees. At the foot of the rock face, the ground was piled thick with greenery and leaf-mold. Gentians shone evening blue; sprays of wild carrot blossom, like fancy lace gone astray, nodded wherever a ray of light pierced the foliage. Methos drew Sarah to kneel in the lush blossoms, and where her knees bruised the undergrowth, a great waft of scent rose. It was crisp, it was dizzying. It was wild mint, fresh and intoxicating.
She thrust her hands into the growing mint, crushing the thick furry leaves between her palms and rubbing them to and fro. Essential oils streaked her fingers. Whorls of pale flowers rose between her spread knees. And Methos leaned over her, kneading her shoulders, stroking her head, brushing her hair aside to kiss the nape of her neck.
Her fingers clenched upon mint leaves. Spearmint, peppermint: the scents rose like opium smoke. Horsemint with its lemon tang. Pennyroyal underneath her bare toes. Growing in crannies in the wet rock was orchis satyricon, so called because its bulbs exactly resembled the male testes; and fly agaric, and basil, and damiana. All aphrodisiacs.
He turned his face suddenly, restlessly, stroking along her throat with his cheek; his voice was a tickle that sent thrills across her skin. "The Mongols came upon us like the horsemen of the Apocalypse . . ."
"That's a Christian myth," she said. "Isn't it?" She arched her back, raised handfuls of pressed mint leaves to rub against her face - gasping at the perfume. Then she twisted in his arms and slid her long hands up under his shirt. ". . . I think I remember . . . Wasn't War the First Horseman? There was Famine too, and there was Pestilence . . . they came fourth and third, I believe. And Death? All the storm-crows that ride with war. And they all rode upon pale horses."
Methos spoke indistinctly. "No - in the Book of Revelations, War is the Second Horseman; he rides on a red horse, carrying an invincible sword. The Third Horseman travels on a black steed and holds a scale to measure wealth and hunger. He is Famine. Death and Pestilence together make up the Fourth Horseman. Who rides upon a pale and bloodless horse."
"Yes! Yes, that's it. I don't remember what the First Horseman was, but he must have been terrible indeed."
Why did his hands suddenly pause?
His striped coat fell across the greensward. While his hands and eyes were otherwise occupied, she picked it up, shook it out. She was about to fold it and lay it aside, when she paused - looking at the long slits which ran across it.
"When Auda died," she said. She tossed the coat down. "You haven't asked me what happened when Auda died."
"Is Auda dead?"
"You saw his body. Didn't you?"
And there - his pulse jumped.
But he raised his face to hers, his cheeks glowing and flushed; his lips were reddened, his underlip swollen from kisses. So she stroked the length of her hand deliberately along his bare chest. "I didn't," Methos said. "How do you know he's dead?"
"The Mongol horseman killed him," whispered Sarah, into his ear. "Auda came riding breakneck, screaming for you, Methos. With a scarred devil of a Mongol after him. He beheaded Auda. And there was thunder, and lightning. You're hurting me!"
The thrust of his hand sent her flat on her back, breathless. She lay with her arms outflung, staring calmly up.
"Thunder," she repeated. "Lightning. Beloved, I've always known you have secrets. Sometimes it seems to me that you're older than time." She reached up, brushing his cheek with a fingertip. "I love you. But you're a stranger. Tell me who you are."
Suddenly, softly, his hands were cradling her face. He bent over her; she could see nothing but his eyes, blazing down into hers. His enormous, stricken eyes. "Sarah, you wouldn't believe me. And if you knew, you would stone me away from you."
"No. What, are you a bandit? A highwayman? A notorious murderer, escaped from the gibbet in Syria? Methos, I will always love you."
He said nothing. She propped herself up on her elbows, saying, "Beloved, tell me!"
"All right," he breathed. "I am--"
It was then that the screaming reached them.
And then she was running with Methos, running through the endless forest; she was wrenching her dress up around her shoulders, flying to catch up to him. The screams came from beyond the ravine. The screams were like those of the damned - suffering torments in Gehenna - crying out for her to help - mounting to a din that ripped her heart - dying away. Dying away. Dying away, so that even as they reached the ravine, the last despairing pleas ended.
Five Mongols came riding down from the cave, as Sarah and Methos slid to a halt. Hooves clattered on the stones; the riders were laughing wildly, sitting back inclined in their saddles as their surefooted ponies came springing down the rocky slope. There was blood on their drawn swords. The foremost rider saw Methos and Sarah, and he shouted out and spurred his mount.
The first Mongol died then. Her eyes saw, but could not comprehend, the grace in Methos' movements as he sprang forward; the sword-stroke which should have cloven his skull somehow went awry - and then the Mongol was on the ground at Sarah's feet, chin wrenched back and neck broken. As she gasped, his life ended. And Methos was in the pony's saddle, with the Mongol's sword in his fist. As she bit back her shout of shock, her gentle Methos had turned the pony and was riding headlong past her. As her eyes went narrow, the four remaining soldiers were charging.
The second one died.
The third one died.
The fourth one died.
And by then, the fifth had reached Sarah.
Even as his blade came stabbing at her, Methos was upon him from behind. But pain ripped along Sarah's right shoulder. Her head went hollow, her ears rang, her vision blackened. Then she found herself on her knees, a hand clapped to her shoulder; fresh blood soaked through the thick woollen stuff of her dress almost instantly. She had been run through. Lucky to be alive--
She blinked. The fifth Mongol lay sprawled before her, dead in his own gore. Beyond him, Methos lay. Her Methos. Her Methos lay upon his back, his eyes staring blindly upward. Dead, dead, obviously dead.
The Almighty forgive him. He was dead. He had killed five men so swiftly that no butcher could rival his handiwork. He had saved her life-- Sarah squeezed her eyes shut, pressed hard upon her wound; waves of cold coursed through her. Once she sobbed aloud, her voice breaking upon a wail. But presently it seemed to her that the bleeding had slackened. She could lurch to her feet now. She stood listing to one side, feeling grief twist her face so that her skin seemed wrung tight and her whole jaw ached. She couldn't look at his body. She averted her gaze, and stumbled up the ravine toward her patients.
But the Mongols had killed them all.
She could not weep. Her heart would break. She must go on. Somehow, after what seemed a long time, Sarah came out of her hospital again. She walked step by step down the uneven slope, and now she was able to lift her head again, to unclench her jaw. She must go on. Her heart would not break. She would not weep! For if she broke down now, who would bury Methos?
As she took the last steps out of the ravine, Methos began to return to life.
So the first thing he saw, when he opened his eyes, was her white face all streaked with tears. Her hands were groping across his chest, fingers stuttering over the healed flesh; the palms of her hands were so red, it looked as though she had hennaed them. She gasped and gasped in incomprehension. Methos pinned her wrists, pulling her bewildered hands aside. "Sarah. Azzi dam--"
Sarah wrenched herself out of his hold. "I saw you die. You killed them all. Methos - Methos - you were dead, and then - then--" Her mouth shut tight, her brows met in a frowning line. She breathed, "What manner of infernal mammet or clockwork of clay are you?"
"Sarah, I can explain--"
But she was already stumbling backward, her face as hard as stone. "It is an abomination of nature." Her hands flew up in a gesture of abnegation. "No work of God nor mortal man. Unnatural. Unnatural!"
Slowly, she traced Hebrew letters upon the air. "Met," she whispered. "Meth. You were dead. Mavet: death. You are Death. Death, get thee away from me!" She turned, straightening her shoulders, and began to walk back up to the cave.
He took one step after her - and she had swung around, eyes blazing; the stone she grabbed up and hurled, struck him in the mouth and sent him reeling back. "Never come before me again!" was all he heard . . . and then Sarah was gone.
Dawn prayer, noon prayer, afternoon prayer had passed them by. A hundred and twenty girls lay dead beneath the citadel walls. And evening prayer approached.
Kronos had interrogated eight men, now, from the Village of Almonds. Certainly they knew of Sarah Hajji. All Transoxiana boasted of the holy woman! Her husband? Why yes, she had a husband. A foreigner, like her - from Jerusalem. A notorious magician!
But that was all they knew. Certainly Sarah Hajji's man was a magician; didn't he keep to himself, speak of ancient events as if he had been present, walk aboard in the hills catching hedgehogs and reciting poetry? He had been heard singing aloud in strange foreign tongues. He did no work, yet produced gold coins to pay every debt. Ah, he had an uncanny manner about him. Only a magician could know so much.
None of them knew his name. He was Sarah Hajji's man, that was enough. They couldn't even agree on a description.
As the afternoon shadows lengthened, the Mongol soldiers worked. Throughout the long day, they had labored without rest, forcing the prisoners to help them; thus, the former citizens of Qaba blistered their hands bloody demolishing their own houses. They were made to take the lower city apart, building by building - and after the walls of each building were broken down, the cedar beams were dragged away by teams of prisoners harnessed like oxen. They were taken to the ditch which protected the citadel. Here, again, the prisoners were forced to work . . . with shields held over their heads, for the soldiers on the walls above rained arrows down upon them.
The prisoners were building a stockade. They were walling the citadel in. The wall was already three-quarters finished.
"Is everything else ready?" Kronos, surrounded by his jagun officers, stood watching the work. The soldiers ate as they conferred; one of the army cooks had just come by with his helpers, ladling out thick mutton stew to anyone who wanted it. Common soldiers and officers ate the same food in Genghis' armies, as they shared the same yurts and the same risks . . . but tonight, there was much to do, and no time to pause for a meal.
One or two of the officers squatted, sucking loudly on their fingers and swearing with appreciation: the stew was almost solid meat, thick with chunks and swimming with sweet glistening fat. Several more were passing around a skin of kumiss, freshly-fermented mare's milk which fizzed slightly and had a pleasant tang of almonds to it.
"Yes, Jessutai. Once you give the word, every man we have will set out for the mountain."
Kronos looked hard at the officer who had spoken. "And you think my orders are those of a madman. Don't you?"
"Perhaps." The man met his gaze squarely, without fear. "But then, the Kah Khan's orders often make no sense. And he has commanded us: follow you."
"Yes, he has." Kronos inhaled deeply. "Are we not his children, his horses, his slaves?"
"We are." All around the circle of officers, heads nodded in agreement. "As long as we follow him, we will conquer all. For he is the son of Heaven."
"If only he were one of us . . ."
"Nothing. Just a thought."
High above, a bell tolled in the citadel: the muezzin bell, summoning the faithful to prayer. A voice cried out, torn ragged by the wind. Evening prayers had begun.
"You're not eating, Jessutai. Kumiss?" The man who stood closest to him held out the skin of milk. "It's good."
"Until Qaba is ours, I will not eat or drink." Kronos spoke the words distinctly, knowing that the common soldiers without earshot would hear them, spread the word. "Come, now. It begins."
One quadrant of the stockade remained open. As evening prayers ended, a great throng of Mongols gathered in the gap; and a great throng of soldiers appeared, lining the walls above. A few arrows fell. The Mongols below, just out of range, jeered and thrust forked fingers at the defenders. They shouted insults, they screamed and hooted. The Islamic knights above screamed, hooted, and shouted back.
Trumpets rang out. The Mongol soldiers drew back, leaving an aisle free. Down this, Kronos and his officers walked without hurry. Two of the jagun officers brought a prisoner with them, dragging the man along by the arms; this man faltered and stumbled and fell, crying out in pain, and they lifted him effortlessly and carried him.
From above, hundreds of staring faces looked down.
Kronos halted, hands on hips. He bellowed in Farsi: "Do you see your governor!"
The officers who held the former governor of Qaba flung him forward. He landed on his face, his shining armor dinted and stained, and his helmet fell off and rolled along the ground.
"At the ravine, we took your governor!" Kronos shouted. "He led his men onto our swords, like lambs to the slaughter! He sent them into our arms to die - and when it was over, we found him hiding under a heap of dead men! Look at him, men of Qaba." He drew a deep breath, and now his ringing shout could be heard all through the citadel. "Look at him. Look at him. Look at him!"
They looked. The governor, whose worst sins before that year had been concerned with afflictions in Libra and diseases in the region of Scorpio, was clambering to his feet. He moved stiffly; he was very fat. He drew himself erect, and spat in Kronos' face.
Kronos spoke gently, in a conversational voice; it had become so quiet that many still heard him. "Now. Watch him die."
He drew his sword. He raised it, holding it backhanded.
He slashed, and the governor died.
Now, he thought - now, the true game begins.
He began to walk forward, away from the slumped body. The bloody sword was in his hand. The Mongol horde, as intrigued perhaps as the men on the walls, stood frozen: above and below, the world was made of glittering eyes. And the lurid light of evening painted them all with vivid color. The red blood on the sword, the blaze of the steel, the blue of Kronos' tunic and the white flash of his grin. As he walked, he loosened the fastening of the serge tunic and shrugged it off, exposing a sweat-stained undershirt of Chinese silk. He pulled this shirt over his head and dropped it. He was within arrow-range now, but no one shot him . . . not yet. The Qabans had forgotten the bows in their hands; even their officers had forgotten.
At the edge of the ditch, Kronos stood half-naked. His body gleamed with sweat. "Soldiers of Qaba!"
They listened. He knew that behind him, translators were relaying his words to the Mongols.
"Hear the words of the Kah Khan, the power of God on earth, the Emperor of mankind. Genghis Khan has commanded: give me the fortress of Qaba!"
An arrow fell whistling, and buried itself in the ground behind him. It had passed a yard from his head, no more.
"Now I, Jessutai of the Kerait ordu--"
Two more arrows fell.
"--swear to take the fortress of Qaba. And until--"
He jerked. A crossbow quarrel had buried itself in his left shoulder. Blood ran across his chest. And now the arrows were coming thick and fast.
"--until I take Qaba, I will not eat or drink. I will not enjoy a woman. I will not--"
Four arrows stood out from Kronos' body; at each impact, he had jerked visibly, and now he staggered and took a half-step sideways. But his words never faltered.
"--lie down to sleep. I will never rest. I say this: I, Jessutai! Remember my name!"
He reached up and grasped the quarrel in his shoulder. He gave a great jerk, and gasped. Then he tossed down the shaft of the quarrel - broken off short below the point. There was a flicker of lightning; but no one was close enough to see.
From above, the rain of arrows had slackened. Incredulous faces gaped down.
Slowly, impassively, Kronos broke off the remaining arrows and threw them aside. He knew that the Mongols behind him watched his every move, awed into utter silence. Let this moment become a legend among them! When he was finished, he raised his sword on high. He reversed it.
"Let Genghis hear me! Until Qaba is mine, I cannot die!"
With a thrust of his arms, he sank the sword into his own body.
The moment seemed to stretch on and on. Kronos hung slumped over the blade, groaning; the pommel of the hilt, braced upon the ground, seemed all that held him up. A din of voices rose. The men on the walls called out to Allah, while the stunned Mongols invoked Father Heaven and Mother Earth. Blood ran down, thick and endless, and puddled about the impaled man's feet. He was dead, he was dead; he had killed himself! Then their words cut off - for Kronos was moving again.
He grunted deep in his throat as his arms heaved. Muscles writhed along his reddened shoulders. Inch by inch, the blade withdrew. When the point appeared, Kronos shuddered from head to foot. Then, as with the arrows, he hurled the sword contemptuously aside.
He turned on his heel and strode back toward the waiting Mongols.
Inwardly, he exulted. Now, he thought - now. Now, these men will follow me to Hell itself.
Now, the true game begins.
"They are all compleat Men: vigorous and looking like Wrestlers; they breathe nothing but War and Blood, and show so great an Impatience to fight that their Generals can scarcely moderate it; yet tho' they appear thus fiery, they keep themselves within the bounds of a strict Obedience to Command, and are entirely devoted to their Prince. They are content with any sort of food, and are not curious in their choice of beasts to eat. They are like the Grasshoppers, impossible to be number'd. The neighing of their steeds is enough to make Heaven shut its ears, and their arrows convert the sky to a sea of reeds."
Description of the Mongols, by Muslim writers.
Beyond the ditch at Qaba, the stockade was complete. The defenders were now walled in, immobilized.
More than half of these defenders were Kipchaks from Georgia, fighting in the hire of Mohammad Shah. Their tribe had fought the Mongols before, and indeed there was little difference between them. You looted, you seized women, you stole horses and cattle; what more could be asked for from life? And they knew what the invaders were capable of. The Mongols were merciless. Those who surrendered to them were not treated too harshly . . . but those who resisted, died screaming. Cities were razed to the ground, whole populations put to the sword. Wherever the Mongols rode, a red tide of blood flowed before them.
Walling around a fortress under siege: it was a favorite Mongol tactic, well-known to the Kipchaks. Diverting a river against a low-lying citadel, to flood out its defenders; that was another. The Mongols were the most ingenious soldiers under Heaven. The Kipchaks told each other old war-stories. They looked sidelong at the native Muslims with whom they served. They conferred among themselves.
They wrote out a proposal, put it in a basket and lowered it over the walls. When this was taken to Kronos, he scanned it and laughed deep in his throat. "Let them pay the ferryman," he ordered the officer who had brought it. "Shoot a message-arrow back, granting them safe passage - for a fee. A fee of two coins to a Kipchak."
He swung himself into the saddle, and rode to the Village of Almonds.
A mere two hundred Mongols had been left behind to guard the stockade. The rest of Kronos' minghan waited at Kand-i-badam, massed in the village's single crooked street. Here, all the houses lay in ruins. Every almond tree had been hacked down. With the cavalry soldiers were the men from the engineering minghans - and the traders from the baggage train, the camel-drivers, the cooks and the wagon-coopers and the quartermaster's assistants. Even the Mongol women were there, dressed (as was their custom) exactly like their menfolk. In total, they numbered almost twenty-five hundred. They were mostly mounted, all armed - with slings, lassos, bows and whips - and in their hands, they carried long poles. There was a keen light of anticipation in their eyes. They were going to play.
Above and beyond the Village of Almonds, the mountain loomed. It was long: a spur, deeply folded with ravines and covered with woods of beech and wild walnut, ran from it almost ten miles north. Indeed, the mountain's peak cast its shadow across the Village of Almonds, and the spur of the mountain stretched far past Qaba. At its southward crown was a jumble of immense rocks rising sheer from alpine meadows, dissolving into a labyrinth of cliffs and scarps and avalanche slopes. In this peak, an army could conceal itself. In the ancient forests which clothed the mountain's skirts, hundreds of refugees might hide. Somewhere up there, a detail of Mongol soldiers had met a dead man who sat up and pointed his finger; and a second detail had vanished, gone without a trace.
Kronos sat on his horse, gazing up. Was that a thrill along his nerves he felt, as if of the presence of a long-lost brother? Did he hear an echo sounding from far above? He gave orders, and the Mongols set out.
The officers had marked out a starting line; it was miles long. Along this line, beneath the ramparts of the mountaintop, the Mongols stationed themselves. They spread themselves out - each man along the line within sight of his neighbors to the left and the right. When all was prepared, the horns were sounded. Far and wide, high and low, their music sounded; they were hollow ram-horns, cut from the mountain-sheep of the faraway Mongol homeland - the immense horns of the beasts which would someday be called Marco Polo sheep. And the drive began.
The hunters rode forward slowly, keeping always within sight of their neighbors. As they went, they beat the bushes and shouted. Silver-eared hares started from their forms, and fled before them. Red roe-deer and leopards appeared, flashing away and vanishing into the distance. The Mongols started up wild dogs, and great grim grey-shouldered wolves. Flocks of birds flew up afrighted, and settled again after the shouting drivers had passed; but nothing that lacked wings was allowed to escape. Not a single hare, not a wild ass or a stray ewe managed to double back through the line. It was a matter of pride.
As they climbed the mountain, they moved closer together. They startled a tiger, which snarled and charged the line; it was beaten back with whips, and ran like a streak of yellow-and-black lightning further into the beechwood. Higher up the mountain. But this meant nothing. As the hours passed and the drive ascended, the same tiger was hunted out whenever it tried to hide; it was forced mercilessly onward, never given a moment's peace. There would be no escape.
The first men the Mongols found were terrified villagers from Kand-i-badam, scurrying higher with their flocks of sheep running before them: ragged men and women, some with children clinging round their necks. As with the wolves and leopards and deer, these men and women were not allowed to break the line. If they tried, they were beaten back. Their sheep were chivvied onward, with stones flung from whirling slings. Villagers and sheep and humble cattle alike fled before the hunt.
They would not be allowed to rest until they reached Qaba.
Officers rode up and down the line, keeping it together. As they climbed toward the jumble of boulders at the pinnacle of the mountain, the pace slowed; time crawled; but the drive's advance never stopped for long. Men with mountaineering experience swarmed over the peak, using crampons and ropes; they climbed barefoot, and routed out a dozen springing ibex, and also a silver-red bear which was driven onward, waddling, before a shower of stones. And three villagers, who were stoned out of hiding like the bear and sent fleeing into the forest.
Night fell. Men rode along the line, passing out sweet kumiss and white, tasteless cheese-curds. Torches were lit. Now the ends of the long line were swinging forward, descending the spur of the mountain - gathering in the net. All the beasts of the mountainside fled before them. This was the manner in which men hunted in Asia: slowly converging into a ring, penning animals by the hundreds for the slaughter. Sometimes in Mongolia, the spring hunts could involve entire armies, and last for a month at a time. Kronos worked alongside his jagun officers until long past midnight, and wherever he rode, the Mongols gazed at him with shining eyes. He did not eat, he did not rest. Before dawn, he was on his way back to Qaba.
The eastern horizon grew pink and bright. Under a mackerel sky, five Mongols found themselves on the brink of a cliff. Below, a ravine snaked its way downhill, and its stones were bloodstained - brown and dry. The Mongols conferred. They peered over the edge of the little cliff, into a dark and mysterious overhang. Nothing moved in its depths, and there was no sound. They worked their way down to the foot of the ravine, and found nothing untoward. So four of them rode up the ravine, to investigate the cave.
And Methos fell upon them like the Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In the cave, Pilgrim Sarah lay dreaming. Her shoulder and arm were bound with rags, poulticed with a styptic of bruised yarrow leaves. She tossed, she turned. She burned with fever.
". . . friend, do you know the old town?" she had asked him, in Jerusalem. Long ago. "I'm a stranger here, I'm looking for an Armenian, a dealer in old documents - his name is Ely of Derbend. I've heard he has a book I want to buy, a translation by Johannitus of Galen." And he had answered, "He left for Acre a month ago. But don't bother chasing him - it's a forgery."
He had taken rooms near the Damascus Gate; she was living with friends in a caravanserai under the shadow of Mount Zion. At the time, she was penniless - beggared by months on the road, used to asking charity from strangers. "How were you going to pay for the book of Galen?" She had shrugged, not concerned. "Everywhere you go, there are patients. Someone will give me a little money . . . They said he had a copy of Rhazes' work, the Kitab al-hawi. They said he had a book on obstetrics by Soranus." Methos had stood gazing at her, and the words had died in her mouth; all she could see was the shape of his underlip, red as a child's, and the way the light molded itself along the high curve of his cheekbone. When his eyes narrowed in a smile, they seemed to lengthen and slant. "I have them both," he had said. "Do you want to copy them?"
And in his crowded room, she had found more books than anyone could read in a lifetime. All through one long afternoon and evening, she had sat cross-legged amidst stacks of books, copying out Soranus and stealing looks at him. "Mythos," she had remarked finally. "A Greek name?" He had only shrugged, saying, "No, Methos is my name," and she had laughed and said, "That sounds like bastard Hebrew. Meth means dead. How long have you been Methos?" He had put out his hand, and pulled her to her feet; there they had stood, hand in hand. How her heart had hammered when he reached up to touch her face! "Vita longa, ars brevis . . . when I saw your face, I came back to life."
Such a liar he was. Such a fool she had been.
How could she have been so wrong?
When the drive was delayed, a jagun officer came cantering to the source of the problem. He found a cavalry-rider sitting slumped on his pony, with a pair of camel-drivers beside him. All three appeared to be deeply depressed. "Batu? The line's drawing ahead of you. What happened, where are the others?"
Batu pointed into the shadows of the ravine. "Sochi. There are men up there - men with swords." He tightened his hands on the reins, and his pony backed a step, tossing its head. "Villagers. Six at least. Fierce fighters, Sochi. Our arban officer took the others in, and - I heard nothing, Sochi. Not a sound, not a cry. But none of them came back."
"Did you see these villagers?" Sochi peered up the ravine, then shouted. Only echoes returned.
"Well, I rode up a little way." Batu's eyes showed white. The camel-drivers were pale and sweating. "I almost didn't make it back out! One of their horses was up there . . ." His voice dropped. "Riderless. It was riderless. Then the men came at me, and I--"
"You withdrew?" said Sochi dryly.
"I tell you, there were a dozen of them!" His voice dropped. "Did you hear about the demon? The one who sat up and sang, with his own guts hanging out between his teeth?"
Sochi raised an eyebrow at Batu, whom he knew well; he reflected that, in Batu's terms, a dozen fierce fighters was likely to be a pair of farmers armed with hoes. And perhaps their cow. But if, on the other hand, an arban of ten had vanished up there . . . "Mm. Do you have your rope?"
"Here it is, Sochi."
"Come along, all of you."
Together, the four Mongols worked their way up to the bluff overhanging the ravine. They dismounted and went the last part of the way on foot, so as not to warn the foe of their coming. "We'll tie our ropes together and run them around that boulder," Sochi murmured, "and you three can brace it. I'll drop in on them from above. Wait here with arrows on bowstrings. When I decoy them out into the open, kill them all." The rope was ready; he tied a loop at one end and draped it around himself, and checked his weaponry. Batu was grey-faced, his jaw clamped hard with superstitious fear. Sochi walked softly to the edge of the cliff and had a look over - he saw nothing below save a litter of boulders and shale - and then he nodded once to Batu and the camel-drivers, and dropped over the edge.
He landed hard, springing a step sideways and tossing off the sling of the rope. His sword was in his hand, he felt a sweat of excitement and terror prickle cold all over his skin. But he saw no riderless horses. Sochi walked a little across the ravine, slitting his eyes as he scanned right and left. Nothing was moving. Nothing made a sound. The place was deserted. Were those bloodstains?
Then he trod on something soft.
Sochi looked down, and his eyes widened.
There were bodies jumbled on the ground. Mongol bodies. On every side. Half-covered with loose gravel.
His gaze snapped up and there was a figure standing before him, standing in the shadow of the rock wall. It was a man in a long loose shirt, his hair also hanging long and loose, and the sword slanting down from his relaxed hand was so dingy with dirt and dried blood that it blended into the background without a single glitter. As Sochi saw him, he came alive: the sword lifting, the face tilting into the light, and then he was a blur of motion--
Stepping forward with what seemed an utter lack of hurry.
Somehow untouchable - like the shadow of the moon on the water, just beyond the reach of Sochi's sword-slash.
It was a trick! Again, Sochi slashed - and again the man was just out of reach.
And again. Like magic. Impossible to hit. As if Sochi was fighting a reflection.
Sochi uttered a harsh cry, a grunt of fear and frustration. He lunged wildly forward, and then he saw that the man had moved with his movement - dancing like a shadow upon the water - and he saw the man's blade swinging, and then he knew that he was within sword's-reach.
Above, Batu and the camel-drivers were lying on their bellies, peering fearfully down into the ravine. They heard Sochi cry out. And then there was a clatter of steps, and there came Sochi, reeling backward into sight. Clutching at himself. Tumbling over, with his quilted jacket ripped open; and then, as Sochi slumped limp, the entire front of his body became a flood of red, with glistening brown-slimed serpents writhing out in loops. Gleaming like fresh meat. Running with fresh blood.
A man with a red, red sword walked calmly out after him. Methos glanced upward, and Batu and the other men forgot their orders. They dropped their bows, and ran - as if the devil was on their heels.
". . . you're not a Jew," she had remarked, soon after they met. Perhaps half a day after. They had been lying together in his bed; the lamp had burned low, lighting the room with a golden flickering gleam. Sarah framed his face with her hands. "You aren't, are you?"
Methos had rolled over and pinned her down, grasping her wrists. She had laughed, letting her head tip back to expose the column of her throat; he had buried his face against her throat, and then released her wrists and, bracing his weight on his hands, begun to burrow downward. As if digging his way into her. "I'm not," he had said, vaguely. "Is that a bad thing?"
And the wetness of his mouth had made her slump back against the bed, boneless, her thighs parting involuntarily.
"It means I can't marry you," she explained, reasonably.
Methos bit down. She had yelped in surprise, reached down to cradle his head. "What did I say?"
He had lifted his face. Their eyes had met. "Marry me, you said. Sarah, you haven't even known me for a day yet."
She had gazed at him, every shift of thought reflected on her face: a flush of sudden self-consciousness relaxing into calm confidence and expectation. And then a surge of humor that shook her underneath him - like a wave bellying across the deep sea. She had pulled his head down again, laughing in gusts till the bed rocked. "Ah. Well, why that look of fear, my friend? All I did was promise not to marry you. Many men would thank their Gods-- Ahhh!"
Already, she had been planning her whole life around him.
How could she have been so wrong?
And now she lay weeping with grief, her teeth chattering from the cold. So cold - except where the burning heat seared her arm. It was the loss of blood that left her weak as a plague victim, racked with shivers and memories. When the red streaks raced across her skin, when gangrene set in . . . that would be the beginning of the end. Methos had - he had - he had covered her with fleeces, poulticed her shoulder, wiped her face. But when he had ventured to speak to her, she had screamed at him to get away.
He was gone.
Sarah shuddered, and knew she was dying.
It was noon now. Outside the cave, the drive was three miles forward down the mountain, moving inexorably toward Qaba. Mongol soldiers flushed out every squirrel and fox, every wretched man and woman in their way. And now herds of deer surged ahead of the hunters, wolves ran with their tongues lolling out, and spotted leopards streaked from thicket to thicket. Whole meadows hopped with rabbits, as if with waves of agitated ears. The line had stretched thin where the mysterious snag at the ravine threatened to hold things up; then the officers had come riding to address the problem, and sent that section of the drive on to catch up with the rest. First an arban of ten had been swallowed by the ravine, and then Sochi had vanished in there. Now, two more arbans had assembled. Their plan was simple. They would storm the ravine, and carry the day by sheer force of numbers. Their mounts champed and fretted, the Mongol soldiers gazed with hard eyes toward the mysterious cave. With their thumbs, they stroked the edges of their swords. And at a signal from their officers, they spurred their ponies into a charge.
In the cave, Sarah tossed and turned. She imagined that Methos hovered over her, his face drawn in strange exhaustion. She imagined the sounds of battle, the clash of swords and the screams of the maimed. "Who is the First Horseman!" she cried . . . but he did not answer.
"I love you," she whispered. "What are you, Methos?"
"You always knew I had secrets," he said. She thought she heard him say it. Why did he look so old? "You always said that it didn't matter."
"I never imagined this!"
Her eyes swam. It seemed as if he blurred and vanished, only to reappear - an image in her dream. And now he was the beautiful stranger from Jerusalem, sitting with folded hands. Saying nothing of his past. Watching her as she watched him, his face bemused, resigned, hopeful. As if he had been born upon the day they met.
"Mavet: you are Death," she gasped out - hot as fire. "One of the demonic creation written of in the Midrashim - creatures with powers like angels, but imitations of Satan, not God. Imitatio Dei - as He is merciful and gracious, so be we - merciful and gracious. As He is righteous, so - so be we righteous. As, as He is holy, strive - to be holy-- Beloved, help me, it hurts!" But he stood unmoving. "Methos, I'm dying, aren't I?"
"You shall be holy," his voice said, distantly, "for He, the Lord your God, is Holy."
"Why did you hide your nature from me? The way you healed was like a miracle!"
"Because," he said, "I am Death."
"You are no more mortal than the Golem," she whispered, and he burst like a soap-bubble and vanished.
But no. Lying limp upon her pallet, she turned her head and saw him framed in a glare of light. A blur, against the long slanting entrance of the cave - a blur of a man, carrying a blur of a sword. A blur which came to her slowly, with halting steps. Sarah blinked, gave her head a tiny shake. He came into focus, and she gasped.
With every step he took, he was healing. Small lightnings sizzled across his flesh, sword-slashes vanished like magic; even the bloodstains seemed to burn away. Sarah heaved herself up, leaning upon her good arm, and her gaze fixed fascinated upon this work of magic. And by the time he stood within reach, he was whole and unmarked . . . not even a trace left, where he had been cut half to ribbons. Her mind raced over theories, her heart ached with sorrow. Her gentle lover had been an illusion, no more real than a soap-bubble.
This was the true Methos.
"What's happening?" She dared to touch him. Yes, he was there. "Who hurt you, Methos?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Why are they doing this? Why?"
"I don't know," said Methos. "I wish I did." His voice seemed halting, tired and remote. "Lie back, Sarah. Do you think you can travel?"
Her fingers fastened weakly on his sleeve, drawing him closer. She stroked her palm in wonder across his chest. Not a mark on it. Those had been death-wounds upon him. Her face hardened, and her hand closed in anger. Then she drove her fist straight into Methos' nose.
He yelled. Sarah slumped down, exhausted by even that small effort, and saw him double over in pain. And there - there - there! he was healing before her eyes. She had to watch every moment of it. How dared he have kept such a thing from her? "Damn you! How many did you kill, Methos?"
Ten thousand? Was that what he said?
"You are the First Horseman!" Sarah shrieked, and watched with satisfaction as he backed away.
Outside, the ravine looked like the site of a battle between armies. Dead men lay strewn, and dying men clutched their wounds and rattled out their last breaths. There were spent arrows littering the ground too, and even a slain pony or two. In the shelter of the overhang, Methos stood leaning on his sword. He glanced quickly left and right, and then he let his head droop and shut his weary eyes, resting for just a moment; during that last attack, he had died twice. As he gathered his strength, he allowed his mind to dwell upon memories of Sarah.
At the mouth of the ravine, two arban officers and a few stray soldiers had gathered to confer. Their mouths were set in grim lines, they darted wary glances up toward the killing ground. At last, one of them spat on the ground and commanded, "You know our orders. Send word to Jessutai."
Night was falling by the time the messenger reached Qaba. He rode morosely through the half-ruined city, asking his way to find the commander's yurt. And there was the commander, hunkered down on the ground by a cooking-fire, stroking his chin thoughtfully with one hand. Two women - the spoil of battle - scurried to and fro to serve their new master; one of them edged up to Jessutai and began to wipe his brow with a cool cloth. She trembled and her full lips quivered. The other woman came timidly forward, holding a bowl of goat-stew at arm's-length.
"No," said Kronos, waving her off. "Give it to this soldier."
She put it in the messenger's hands, and scuttled off into Kronos' yurt. The switching of her hips as she ran was wonderful to behold. "Jessutai," said the messenger, through a mouthful of meat. "Word from up the mountain. Should I tell you in the yurt, out of the sun's heat?"
Kronos shook his head, raised his voice a little. "We'll stay out here, where I can be seen. Let all my men witness, I am keeping my vow. Well? Have they rooted the nest of scorpions out yet?" And when the messenger had delivered his news, Kronos said, "A strong force of men, probably mercenaries. Armed to the teeth, not less than thirty in number?" He snorted. "Why do my officers trouble me with this? Must I pick off their lice for them now? Well, well . . . Thirty, you say?"
"Yes, Jessutai. At least that many."
"Not what I asked for word of, not at all. You've heard what to look for? A single man, fighting alone. And young-looking, and tall. You're sure it was thirty men, and not one?"
"Yes, Jessutai," the messenger repeated, doggedly. His face wrinkled into dour lines, world-weary and pessimistic. His name was Batu. "Perhaps forty or more. Saw them myself."
"All right," Kronos decided. "I'll come deal with the matter personally--" But a second messenger came riding up, shouting for the commander, and Kronos swung around to face him. "Yes, yes? Spit it out, man!"
"Jessutai, the line is within sight of Qaba!"
"Damn!" For just an instant, Kronos gazed up at the distant mountain. It was painted with the sunset like a garden paradise, and his eyes became dreamy, forgetful. Then he shook himself, and turned back to the matter at hand. "There's no time for self-indulgence now. You! Find Mejji and tell him I said to gather three arbans and take them up the mountain. He is to finish off any resistance. Tell him, I'll come myself when events here permit it; by the time I do, I expect the problem to be solved . . . You, call in my jagun officers, have the men massed behind the stockade. Tell them to make sure everyone knows what to do." He was shrugging into his armor, rattling his sword to loosen it in the sheath. Then he turned and crooked one finger at the terrified girls peering from the threshold of his yurt. "You two. Come here."
They came sidling forth. Kronos put his hands on his hips, and looked them over at leisure. "You," he decided, finally. "What was your name again, girl?"
The girl he had chosen was tall and strapping, but she froze like a terrified doe when he singled her out. "Y-you decided to call me Houri, great shah."
"So I did. Strip, Houri. Every rag, every shred. I want it all off. Now, Houri!"
"Yes, great shah!"
And as he watched her, his grin widened; he murmured, half to himself and half to the staring soldiers, "Strange, isn't it? How being denied something, makes you burn for it all the more."
. . . In those days, holy Jerusalem was so small that a man could walk around its walls in an
hour. Within the walls, the streets were crooked and narrow, and every house was crowned
with a bulbous dome like a whitewashed knob. Or two domes, or three or four. During the
last hundred years, the city had belonged to Christian Crusaders and then to Saladin of the
Ayubbids; during the next hundred years, Jerusalem would change hands three times -
conquered by Christians and Turks and Egyptians in dizzying succession. But just now it was
an Islamic city, and Jews were allowed to dwell within the walls.
So she had been able to live with Methos in peace. That day, they had been at the Pool of
Siloam: a deep, walled ditch of running water, before which bird-merchants had set up a
bazaar. All around Sarah and Methos, long willowy poles held collapsible bird-cages
swinging in the breeze: cages of painted netting, shaped like half-eggs and crowded with
nightingales and fighting partridges. The merchants had squatted under their wares,
sleeping in the sun. The women of Jerusalem came and went, with water-jars upon their
heads. A line had formed before Sarah where she sat: dozens of mothers, carrying squirming
children. The eyes of every child had been ringed with black, buzzing, ravenous flies. As
these children were deposited before her, she had held them between her knees and bathed
their faces in marigold-water; and then handed each child a screw of paper, on which Methos
had written the word Allah.
Some could not pay. Some held out a coin, a cup of barley-meal, an olive or a pomegranate.
One child brought Sarah a flower, and one gave her a kiss.
All went away smiling, clutching their paper talismans.
"You're restless," she had remarked, eventually.
She remembered how he had sat by her feet, cross-legged upon a mat. It had not yet been
noon, yet the sun had been so fierce that it had seemed to burn his hair white. He had had a
piece of cotton paper, pasted onto a board and polished smooth with a calligrapher's agate,
and he had been painting on it - inscribing a Surah of the Qur'an, in ink and gouache and
"I'm not restless," he had said.
She had rested a hand upon his shoulder. "I can see right through your lies. Every story
you've ever told me has been of wandering. If we quitted Jerusalem today, which direction
would you go, Methos?"
And he had said, instantly: "North, into Persia."
She could still remember the verse upon his paper, a calligraphic composition in the old
tradition of Muslim holy art. At that time it had been nothing but a sketch, a spiderweb of
faint guidelines, but already it had been beautiful to behold. 'Now hath come to you', it had
gone - 'now hath come to you An Apostle from amongst Yourselves; it grieves him that you
should perish; Ardently anxious is he over you.' Flowers and fruit, not yet fleshed out with
color, had twined along the margins of the sheet. And the ornamental Reqaa script had run
in a severe, sumptuous line along the foot of the paper . . . flowing with lush curves, with the
uprights of every letter rearing themselves up to entwine in the forms of dancing birds.
"And," she had pursued, cleaning out a baby's inflamed eyes, "if by chance I decided to set
out tomorrow for Persia, do you think you might follow me?"
"Azzi dam." He had set his reed pen aside. "You don't need to do that. I'm happy
wherever you are."
"I think that was exactly my point. Humor me. I'm not used to being pursued by a man, I
want to enjoy the sensation." She had stood up then, tipping up her marigold-water basin to
show that it was empty, and called out, "No more today, no more today! Come back
tomorrow morning!" She added, "You might be bored with me by the end of next year, and
then where would I be?"
"Alone. In the middle of Persia. Apparently."
"Don't grumble. You are twisting my words. If you decided to leave me, I think I would
hunt you wherever you went. It would become for me a sort of personal pilgrimage." Half
her patients remained, thronging around them and clamoring for attention; Sarah had
clapped her hands, shooed them patiently away. But she paused when a tall Arab came
shoving through the crowd, with a black-eyed boy in his arms. Three other men - his
brothers, from the look of them - and their women were on his heels. The man held the child
on high like a trophy, shouting praises to Allah: "Ya Rahman, ya Rahim! La ilaha illa -
'llah: Mohammad rasulu - 'llah!"
"Do I know you?" she had asked, and then Methos grabbed for his paper and ink and paints,
getting them out of danger as the whole family descended upon Sarah. The women threw
their arms around her, the men bowed down gracefully with tears in their eyes. "Yes, yes,"
she had agreed, "he looks as healthy now as the first-born of a caliph; when he is grown, he
will rule all Egypt. Thank you!" as an uncle, beaming, put something into her hands; and as
quickly as they had come, the family rushed away. "What's this?" Sarah had said.
It had been a lead box. She had opened it; and within, folded in vine leaves, were the first
grapes of the season . . . grapes like gemstones, in every color from purple-black through gold
to the palest green.
She remembered turning to Methos, her face lit with surprise and delight. "You see! The
Almighty will certainly provide . . . and I would like to go to Hamadan."
"That's where Avicenna was buried."
"The greatest physician since Hippocrates. A personal pilgrimage," she agreed, mildly
puzzled. "Methos, how do you know so much?"
But he had plucked an elongated green grape from the box and popped it into her mouth, and
the sweet burst of flavor had made her gasp aloud. "Vita longa," he had murmured, with
his eyes making promises, "ars brevis, Sarah."
She had been sure she would love him for ever and ever.
How could she have been so wrong?
So she had been able to live with Methos in peace. That day, they had been at the Pool of Siloam: a deep, walled ditch of running water, before which bird-merchants had set up a bazaar. All around Sarah and Methos, long willowy poles held collapsible bird-cages swinging in the breeze: cages of painted netting, shaped like half-eggs and crowded with nightingales and fighting partridges. The merchants had squatted under their wares, sleeping in the sun. The women of Jerusalem came and went, with water-jars upon their heads. A line had formed before Sarah where she sat: dozens of mothers, carrying squirming children. The eyes of every child had been ringed with black, buzzing, ravenous flies. As these children were deposited before her, she had held them between her knees and bathed their faces in marigold-water; and then handed each child a screw of paper, on which Methos had written the word Allah.
Some could not pay. Some held out a coin, a cup of barley-meal, an olive or a pomegranate. One child brought Sarah a flower, and one gave her a kiss.
All went away smiling, clutching their paper talismans.
"You're restless," she had remarked, eventually.
She remembered how he had sat by her feet, cross-legged upon a mat. It had not yet been noon, yet the sun had been so fierce that it had seemed to burn his hair white. He had had a piece of cotton paper, pasted onto a board and polished smooth with a calligrapher's agate, and he had been painting on it - inscribing a Surah of the Qur'an, in ink and gouache and gold.
"I'm not restless," he had said.
She had rested a hand upon his shoulder. "I can see right through your lies. Every story you've ever told me has been of wandering. If we quitted Jerusalem today, which direction would you go, Methos?"
And he had said, instantly: "North, into Persia."
She could still remember the verse upon his paper, a calligraphic composition in the old tradition of Muslim holy art. At that time it had been nothing but a sketch, a spiderweb of faint guidelines, but already it had been beautiful to behold. 'Now hath come to you', it had gone - 'now hath come to you An Apostle from amongst Yourselves; it grieves him that you should perish; Ardently anxious is he over you.' Flowers and fruit, not yet fleshed out with color, had twined along the margins of the sheet. And the ornamental Reqaa script had run in a severe, sumptuous line along the foot of the paper . . . flowing with lush curves, with the uprights of every letter rearing themselves up to entwine in the forms of dancing birds.
"And," she had pursued, cleaning out a baby's inflamed eyes, "if by chance I decided to set out tomorrow for Persia, do you think you might follow me?"
"Azzi dam." He had set his reed pen aside. "You don't need to do that. I'm happy wherever you are."
"I think that was exactly my point. Humor me. I'm not used to being pursued by a man, I want to enjoy the sensation." She had stood up then, tipping up her marigold-water basin to show that it was empty, and called out, "No more today, no more today! Come back tomorrow morning!" She added, "You might be bored with me by the end of next year, and then where would I be?"
"Alone. In the middle of Persia. Apparently."
"Don't grumble. You are twisting my words. If you decided to leave me, I think I would hunt you wherever you went. It would become for me a sort of personal pilgrimage." Half her patients remained, thronging around them and clamoring for attention; Sarah had clapped her hands, shooed them patiently away. But she paused when a tall Arab came shoving through the crowd, with a black-eyed boy in his arms. Three other men - his brothers, from the look of them - and their women were on his heels. The man held the child on high like a trophy, shouting praises to Allah: "Ya Rahman, ya Rahim! La ilaha illa - 'llah: Mohammad rasulu - 'llah!"
"Do I know you?" she had asked, and then Methos grabbed for his paper and ink and paints, getting them out of danger as the whole family descended upon Sarah. The women threw their arms around her, the men bowed down gracefully with tears in their eyes. "Yes, yes," she had agreed, "he looks as healthy now as the first-born of a caliph; when he is grown, he will rule all Egypt. Thank you!" as an uncle, beaming, put something into her hands; and as quickly as they had come, the family rushed away. "What's this?" Sarah had said.
It had been a lead box. She had opened it; and within, folded in vine leaves, were the first grapes of the season . . . grapes like gemstones, in every color from purple-black through gold to the palest green.
She remembered turning to Methos, her face lit with surprise and delight. "You see! The Almighty will certainly provide . . . and I would like to go to Hamadan."
"That's where Avicenna was buried."
"The greatest physician since Hippocrates. A personal pilgrimage," she agreed, mildly puzzled. "Methos, how do you know so much?"
But he had plucked an elongated green grape from the box and popped it into her mouth, and the sweet burst of flavor had made her gasp aloud. "Vita longa," he had murmured, with his eyes making promises, "ars brevis, Sarah."
She had been sure she would love him for ever and ever.
How could she have been so wrong?
It was dark now. In the fortress of Qaba, the Kipchak mercenaries prepared themselves. They numbered over half the remaining defenders, and their commander had taken charge of guarding the gate. The word had been passed among them: when the time came, they would pretend to make a sortie against the enemy, and instead ride to join the Mongols. Taking with them the army's pay-chest.
The stockade which encircled the citadel ditch was a rough-and-ready affair - a twelve-foot wall of stacked lumber and rubble, nothing more. There was one rude gate, directly opposite the gates of the citadel itself. In the last arrow-message sent to the Kipchaks, Kronos had told them to move when the stockade was left open.
Now the signal was seen. Word came from the guards on the walls; from every direction, loitering Kipchaks passed the message, and converged on the citadel gates. They led their horses, whose hooves were muffled with felt. The commander came last, and with him hurried four men bearing the poles of a stretcher. The iron coffer they carried on this stretcher was not large, but it was very heavy. It was full of silver and gold. At the commander's order, the gates of Qaba were thrown open, and the Kipchaks began to stream quietly down the glacis road and across the deserted ditch.
As they went, they marched past the corpses of the dead Muslim maidens, but none of them noticed or cared. No alarm was raised behind them. And they had got almost to the stockade entrance before they sensed danger.
What was that sound they heard? Their commander was hurrying ahead of the long file of men. He held up a hand, and they shuffled to a halt - every one of them on alert. The commander drew his sword, and took a step forward.
A tiger came slinking around the corner of the open gateway. It was yellow and black, vivid as a forest fire, and it snarled at the commander and sprang away with lashing tail - racing along the wall of the stockade. On its heels came a springing bevy of red roe-deer. And then there were wild asses galloping through the gateway - scattering with explosive snorts when they winded the Kipchak soldiers - and a boar with its sow and striped piglets scampering after - and a stampede of cattle and goats and sheep. Foxes and vixens, leopards and wolves ran snarling side by side with their prey. The tiger roared; from the wolves, a desolate howl wavered skyward. Within Qaba, the alarm tocsin belled out its harsh iron chime. Along the top of the stockade, lights blazed in a swift line as torch after torch flared up. The conical helmets of hundreds of Mongols bobbed into view.
The Kipchaks, like flotsam in a sea of animals, spun around in bewilderment. Their horses were rearing and plunging. They themselves did not know which way to go. And now, whole armies of rabbits and hares were hopping by - past the Kipchaks, between their legs, even across their feet - and now, wild deer and ibex went leaping up the glacis, surefooted on the steep slope. Beautiful yet strange to behold. While a dark stream of frightened peasants came crowding through the gate. Men and women. Boys and girls.
This was a well-known Mongol tactic: driving prisoners and herds of livestock ahead of a charge. The Kipchaks joined ranks as the first flight of arrows hissed overhead like rain. "Withdraw," their commander ordered, "back to the citadel. Cut your way back in if necessary!" And the Kipchaks all about-faced, and made for the citadel gate.
As they ran along the road up the glacis, graceful ibex flew like birds over their heads - scattering madly in every direction. The ibex soared in immense leaps and bounds, and one or two were already halfway up the citadel wall, as if playing on the cliffs of a mountain. And then the first of them crumpled in mid-leap, and plunged to earth. And another. And others. The Mongol archers on the stockade were shooting them - picking them out of the air. The archers were shooting the rabbits, and the leopards and running deer. On every side, animals were falling in death.
The archers were shooting the peasants, too. Men and women. Boys and girls.
Screams echoed off the walls. "Go," shouted the Kipchak commander, calm even in the chaos, "go, go - ignore the rabble, go!" He could hear the clash of swords and the harsh shouts of fighting men ahead at the gate. "Don't drop the money," he ordered the four stretcher-bearers, in a lower tone. "Before those Mongol bastards get it, I'll swallow every coin myself." A dozen peasant women had found the road up, and were running, stumbling, reeling along it; he glanced indifferently at their frightened faces, and then he turned his head and gazed across at the stockade gate. The Mongols were not charging yet. Well, whatever their plan was, it didn't matter - it was too late to make any difference now. Further up, a Kipchak was hit by an arrow and pitched off the road, tumbling down into the ditch. The commander shrugged and walked on.
By the time he passed through the gate, most of the fighting was over. Behind him, the rain of arrows had slackened. The commander turned, swinging an arm to bring the last stragglers up the roadway. "Come, come!" he roared. "What are you waiting for, doomsday?" And as the steel portcullis slammed down, the peasant women were the last ones through.
In abject terror, they scurried in every direction; they looked like a covey of startled quail. The commander smiled briefly at the comical sight, and then he forgot about them. He strode onward, snapping questions and orders. "Is the inner gate taken? Good, all's well then. Take that money to my quarters, don't let anyone see--" He turned to glance at the four men carrying the money.
The money-stretcher had overturned. The chest had burst open, and gold and silver coins lay scattered in the dust. The peasant women, swords in their fists, stood over the tumbled bodies of the bearers. The peasant women were Mongol soldiers.
The Kipchak commander gasped. It had been a ruse - the whole bloody circus, had it all been a ruse? His jaw sagged, his mind went blank. One of the Mongols was Kronos; even now, he was shrugging off the rags of Houri's dress, lifting a bloody blade. Kronos turned his head and grinned like the tiger. He came stalking forward, licking his lips.
Though the Kipchaks did not know it, Qaba had just fallen.
. . . His piece of calligraphy was finished. Across it, hoopoes flew in a parade, with red crests
and white black-barred wings; they looked like butterflies. Alternating with them, scarlet
ibises stalked across the painted paper. The margins were a glory of hops and columbines, of
grapes and Egyptian peas; the letters of the Surah had shone like jewels. In holy Bamian, he
sold it to one of the city's many mosques. It had taken Methos three months to complete; the
price he got for it would feed himself and Sarah for a year.
The Bamian valley was ancient. It had been a Buddhist holy place once, and the catacombs
where the lamas had lived still honeycombed the heights above the river. West of the city,
upon a sheer cliff several hundred feet high, immense figures had been carved: Buddha's wife
and Buddha's child, and the Buddha himself, gazing serenely into eternity . . . one hundred
and seventy-five feet tall.
"What are you thinking?" she had asked.
"I'm thinking that this is a good place. This country is safe and secure. It's been at peace
for many years, and the Muslims are enlightened, and tolerant of Jews . . . You'd be safe
here, Sarah. This might be a good place for us to live."
"I'm not as fragile as you think," she had said; she remembered, later, how she had laughed.
"You always worry about me."
It had been sunset. They had stood together, gazing across the city with its many mosques to
the looming, mysterious Buddha statues, and a golden haze had hung in the air.
Methos had slid an arm around her waist, leaning his cheek against her hair. "Life is
precious," he had agreed.
She had murmured dreamily, "Now hath come to me, an angel with an unknown past; it
grieves him that I should perish; ardently anxious is he over me. You make me feel so safe."
"Sarah, you've never asked about my past before."
"I'm not asking now. What you did before we met isn't important. All that matters is that
I'll always love you."
But at the first trial of their love, she had spat in his face.
How could she have been so wrong?
The Bamian valley was ancient. It had been a Buddhist holy place once, and the catacombs where the lamas had lived still honeycombed the heights above the river. West of the city, upon a sheer cliff several hundred feet high, immense figures had been carved: Buddha's wife and Buddha's child, and the Buddha himself, gazing serenely into eternity . . . one hundred and seventy-five feet tall.
"What are you thinking?" she had asked.
"I'm thinking that this is a good place. This country is safe and secure. It's been at peace for many years, and the Muslims are enlightened, and tolerant of Jews . . . You'd be safe here, Sarah. This might be a good place for us to live."
"I'm not as fragile as you think," she had said; she remembered, later, how she had laughed. "You always worry about me."
It had been sunset. They had stood together, gazing across the city with its many mosques to the looming, mysterious Buddha statues, and a golden haze had hung in the air.
Methos had slid an arm around her waist, leaning his cheek against her hair. "Life is precious," he had agreed.
She had murmured dreamily, "Now hath come to me, an angel with an unknown past; it grieves him that I should perish; ardently anxious is he over me. You make me feel so safe."
"Sarah, you've never asked about my past before."
"I'm not asking now. What you did before we met isn't important. All that matters is that I'll always love you."
But at the first trial of their love, she had spat in his face.
How could she have been so wrong?
In the citadel at Qaba, there was wholesale slaughter.
Outside the cave, thirty Mongols danced with death; and Death won.
In the cave, Sarah opened her eyes.
It was midnight; the entrance to the cave was a patch of starry sky. The tumult of battle from the ravine beyond, which she vaguely remembered hearing, was long since over. Her sight was clear. Her skin was cool. Her arm ached from elbow to shoulder-blade. She stood, wavering, and began to walk toward the starlight. "Methos?" she called, faintly. "Beloved?"
Methos was sitting at the cave-entrance. His head was down and his shoulders were slumped. Because he had been weeping, he did not immediately look at her.
"You've saved my life," she said.
Now he lifted his face, slowly.
"I'm a fool," said Sarah. "Twelve kinds of a nitwit, born with the head of a pig. I ought to be sent to St Patrick's Purgatory. How do you put up with me?"
"Sarah?" he said. His voice was cautious. But his eyes had begun to dance.
"Forgive me," she said. "And shouldn't we leave? That is, if you think it's safe."
"For now it is," said Methos, scrambling to his feet. "I got us some ponies."
Outside the cave, she walked open-eyed all the way to the ponies, which were tethered at the foot of the ravine. She said nothing until afterward, when he put her up on her pony; then she spoke. "Methos. Who was the First Horseman?"
"He rides on a white horse, he wears a golden crown," said Methos. "Three Horsemen come from Hell, but he is the sword of God - the power of the Kingdom of Heaven." He bent and kissed her open hand. "And he fights to defend the children of the Almighty."
"Like the Golem," she said.
"Like the Golem."
Sarah smiled. She traced Hebrew letters across his forehead. "Emet," she said.
Too late, Kronos rode up the mountain.
Behind him, Qaba was being sacked. He had foregone that pleasure, staying only to see victory assured; yet this moment of supreme triumph seemed like nothing to him. There was in him no desire for common things - neither eating nor drinking, nor sleeping nor enjoying women - until he found his brother again.
In later years, the mountain would be called Kushkoram: Killer Rock. Fables would be spun about the great slaughter here. The ravine, and the forest around it, had been the scene of a battle without quarter . . . a battle in which a hundred Mongols died - or a thousand - or ten thousand. Whitened bones marked the place, skulls and thigh-bones and long jumbled ribs - so many, that no man could count them; so many, that they could be ploughed like stones out of the leaf-mold. Now Kronos and a small troop of guards rode across the blood-churned ground, gazing at their dead kinsmen. All the birds of the forest had fled, and even the surviving ponies had galloped away.
They found a last few Mongol soldiers gasping out their lives at the foot of the ravine. Kronos himself dismounted and stooped over one, raising his head and giving him a last sip of kumiss. All around, the dead lay contorted; the guards, their faces pale, mumbled invocations under their breaths. One of them (it was Batu) muttered, "King Death rode here!"
"Who did this?" Kronos asked the dying man. "How many were they?"
"It was . . . one man." The soldier's voice came faint but clear. "The man . . . the man . . . that you described . . ."
And the soldier's head fell back, his eyes looking into Hell.
The Mongols, not understanding, saw their noyan's face go blind and yearning . . . transformed as if by the realization of a dream. He started to his feet, looking wildly out into the forest. It seemed for a moment as if he was a stranger to them. One of them said, tentatively, "Jessutai? They're waiting for us back at Qaba . . . Genghis' work is waiting to be done."
Kronos took one step away from them. Then he halted, and mastered himself with a visible effort. "Yes . . . Genghis waits." The scar across his eye stood out in a scarlet, throbbing welt. He was looking now at Batu. Batu, who had mistaken one man for an army. Batu, who had misled him.
He crooked one finger, and crooned, "You. Yes, you. Batu. Batu, come here!"
And later, at distant Otrar, Genghis Khan read through dispatches. His strategies were unfolding one by one, each at its perfect moment. Transoxiana was now cut off from southern Persia, Otrar close to falling. Within the month, Genghis himself would take an army through the Kizil Kum desert, across terrain thought impassable, and in a single blow drive deep behind the enemy's lines. Within the year, his forces would take Bukhara - burning the city down, slighting its walls and destroying its citadel. Within a year and a half, four Mongol armies would be advancing through Transoxiana: Genghis from the west, his sons Ogedei and Chagatai from vanquished, northern Otrar, his third son Jochi marching from the southern front, and Jebe's forces from Khojend in the east. Converging upon a single point. Upon the jewel of Transoxiana: Samarkand, lovely Samarkand.
Within two years, Muhammad Shah would be a penniless refugee. It was his destiny to die in exile, without even a shirt to his back. As it was the destiny of Genghis Khan, to rule the world. He was mortal, he too would die . . . but his glory would never be forgotten.
But now, mighty Genghis read the tale of Jessutai's victory. He pondered over it, considering long and hard. At last, he spoke. "There is no man alive who is braver than Jessutai. No march can tire him, he feels neither hunger nor thirst . . ." And then Genghis shook his head, and his words came with finality. "Never promote Jessutai. For that is why he is unfit for command."
Brief note: there was a Mongol soldier named Jessutai, but nothing is know of him save through this one remark made by Genghis Khan. Wherever the Mongols rode, they raped, sacked and pillaged - at the holy city of Bamian, for instance, every man, woman and child perished - and in their wake, they left good government, peace, and religious freedom. Genghis himself is now counted among the gods of the old Mongol religion.