Sachiin's painted saddle creaked as he stood in his stirrups and slid down the cloth swathing his face, the glare thrown up from sinuous crescents of pearl-coloured sand drawing his pupils into slivers. Muttering, he caught the pommel and climbed up to balance barefoot on the mare's back while the horse dozed, blinking away the flies clustered around her eyes. Even this new vantage was frustrated by the layers of fractious air boiling over the distant wadi that was the focus of his interest, obscuring the size of the Frankish corps monopolizing its ephemeral waters, if not their telltale colours, glimpsed as they flapped listlessly. His ears were of little use to him, the dunes' curvaceous interfluence perverting all sound loud enough to carry through them, and he sat back down, patience dissolved as much by bitter introspection as the day they had been forced to wait for water. Behind him the band of Imazighan mercenaries of his brother's retinue had dismounted and erected a shelter from portions of their voluminous blue alasho, contriving a small chip fire for tea and gossiping in the luxury of shade. Kala'amātya himself sat on his brown mare with his back to the sun, coaxing a needle and thread through a length of unfinished bridle.
“Rhissa says that to his reckoning, a sound black goat is worth more than any woman he has shared a tent with thus far.” he related, referring to the topic of nomad conjecture. Sachiin swung the plume of a balding swat past his nose, eyes narrow.
“A goat is worth three score chebel pressed to overflowing with the shaitans.” he muttered. His brother made a brief protective sign with his right hand.
“Siith ilsii y’li sivai'isha. Such blasphemy."
Swinging a leg over the neck of his horse, Sachiin hunched in a manner befitting his mood.
“I am far more sinned against than sinning.”
“What more can you wish from life than to pass summer in the desert, fattening Rana’s purse while she eats grapes by the Loire?” Kala'amātya observed, leaning over to bite through the thread. Sachiin stared hard at the back of his head.
"Was it not enough to carp like a fishwife all the way to Palestine? I wish only for some great wave to sweep her into the sea." Sachiin murmured dully, staring down at his horse's shadow. "And you besides. You will both cry out to me in your despair, but I will be deaf to your entreaties.”
Kala'amātya accepted a cup from one of the nomads.
“Forswear servitude and you'll have no need of fickle calamity.”
“Foreswear your accursed counsel..." Sachiin grasped his head as though it were beset by hornets. "Does nothing else concern you? If my wife were to fall into the Garabogazköl tomorrow, you would drag her out, for fear of having to discuss some other matter."
His brother regarded him with an expression almost private in its obscurity, though its unflattering gist was familiar enough to him. Shaking his head, he emptied the last of his water over his veil and glanced back at the conclave behind him as they unfurled prayer rugs and kneeled within their mirhabs.
“Which spirit do they plague with their wailing?”
“The god of the Arabs." Kala'amātya replied, stowing his handiwork. "Or of the Franks. They seem like enough, to my benighted pagan eye.”
"La'iah... they are mujahidîn, in both camps.”
“I have never been paid so well to murder strangers, and thus the holiness of this affair can scarcely be questioned.”
Sachiin lay back on his horse's rump and shaded his eyes with his hand.
"May the Mother turn their flesh to ice. What of their number?”
Devoting his full attention to the mirage-shrouded detachment, Kala'amātya counted off the men and horses until the tortured air defeated him. The corps before them were almost unaccountably distant from their beleaguered stronghold; news of the débacle at Acre had flown through the Levant and he surmised that they had fled the very conditions they had created. His immersion in the region's perverse vicissitudes since turning south from Samarkand had taught him contempt for all involved and greatly sharpened his rapacity. He consulted the nomads from his horse before returning a verdict.
“Rhissa says there are twice as many Christians as one sees, since the white devils carry witches and djenoun with them to increase their number at will."
Sachiin replied without looking up from studying the jewel tied around his neck, its Carolingian artistry marking it as the keepsake of some noble Frank.
“Rhissa has passed too many days in the erg."
"He has seen this evil prodigy many times."
"If there were witches to be had nearby, my yard would drag me thither and it does not. I say there be forty Christians, and that they be Templar.”
Kala'amātya’s mount swung its tasseled head impatiently. Sitting up, Sachiin opened his mouth with the intention of supporting his own assertion as a line of French knights broke over the crest of the dune and fell upon them in a heaving charge of airborne sand and dark, colossal horseflesh. His mare flew up on her hind legs and was struck by two leviathan contemporaries as the line braked around them on the slope, under the crimson and white of their banners; they toppled together, flattened against the sand and harrowed by the cleated hooves of the chargers thundering over them. Wrapping himself around a stout black limb, Sachiin felled the hapless animal into a heap of sweating flesh and tangled caparison, rendering its knight as helpless as a cast beetle in his cocoon of padded mail, left leg crushed by the floundering weight of his steed. Sachiin swung his sword but lost the credit to his brother, the latter thrusting a captured standard through the bars of the victim’s visor from his saddle. Kala'amātya planted it through the helm and another Templar stallion ploughed head-first over the haft, its rider snapped in two as he was whipped face-first into the ground. Catching the charger's harness as it kicked onto its feet Sachiin swung up and turned the beast with hands and heels, riding hard into the shoulder of another. He was thrown against the rider scrabbling for a hold on its slick neck and dragged himself into the saddle behind him, hauling back the gorget from the christian's throat and ripping the quillon from his waist. The point of the blade burst through the man's nape, almost into his own neck; while his victim bucked beneath the impaling steel Sachiin rode again at the moiling Franks, employing the body before him as a shield against their wheeling maces.
At some small distance Kala'amātya dropped from his horse and took a stroke to the back from an unseated knight; when he did not bleed red or falter, the perpetrator was stiffly transfixed, crying out as his head was seized by the stranger he had so rashly engaged. His scream drowned in whistling, liquid gutturals as his adversary ripped back his chin and tore out his throat with pointed, blade-like teeth, the slick veins and snapping grey chords spat in a mass onto the ground. The knight fell like a lopped branch and Kala'amātya drew his knives, wearing the fresh blood under his bleached stare into the fracas.
Obliging a nomad who lay pleading to be dispatched, Sachiin caught a chopping blow that opened his left arm, striking at the offender before pausing to wipe the jetted blood from his eyes. In his momentary distraction he took a mace to the side of his skull from a knight looming behind them, its ball head clouting him flat, the first of two converging avengers hoisting an axe with both mailed fists. The blade fell and bit deeply though he fended its haft with his arm, shearing flesh from his throat and bouncing on the diamond-hard matter of his spine. Dust flooded the darkness in his chest; he dropped his arms to his sides and performed a convulsion that satisfied his assassins though with their backs turned he rolled quickly, wrapped his oozing neck with his head cloth and reclaimed his lost sword.
They had been reinforced by a band of tribesmen who rode hard at the occidentals with their diverse blades. Listing slightly, Sachiin made his way through the edge of the fighting, swinging at those that blundered into him. He killed a screaming standard bearer amid the last knot of Franks afoot, dropping here and there to relieve Templar corpses of their rings and religious jewels with expert fingers. On the flank of the dune his brother broke a helmless knight's jaw and knocked the man onto his face, punching twin blades into his shoulders. Shucking them free, Kala'amātya seized the thatch of pale, sweat-greased hair atop his head and sliced a broad swatch from his scalp, stowing it with the other bloodied trophies in his belt. As though grasping at their own deaths the unhorsed men descended on him, insensate or already losing their blood to the parched sand, to have their glistening bones bared to the sun, to be docked of limbs and cut down with weapons impounded from their own hands by an adversary as silent and automated as any nightmare agent. Their desperation met no answer, nor could his victims impress any memorial upon him, their faces two blurred shades of the same dull colour, their appeals and threats unheeded mime. In the midst of killing Kala'amātya enjoyed a privileged and intimate tranquility born of rhythm and stilled detachment, in which no troubles save the geometric challenges of violence could survive, muting the few blows that broke his guard and the intolerable heat that forced the dying to slough their mail and gambesons like a clutch of frantic crustaceans. A slew of bruise-coloured innards slithered from the belly of a senior knight when he opened it with both knives, the mass raveling almost to the ground; their owner stared down at them while he was relieved of his head. Stepping backward, Kala'amātya was called out of himself by a sound more remote than the encircling tumult and turned with his brother toward the shrilling cries of the remaining nomads, staring with them to the south.
A cloak of stinging, gale-borne sand swept over the dunes, thickening to lurid orange as it whelmed them, choking the screams of men and horses, as hot as a belch from a kiln and roaring like a funneled blaze. Sachiin felt it scour his face and bank around the tumbled bodies at his feet and climbed out for fear of immurement. The sun receded to a dead, flat coral disc, though he dared not remove the cloth from his eyes, crouching in the lee of the mounded dead to ride out the storm.
Only when the hiss of the habub died away with its swing to the north did he lower his veil. Kala'amātya leant over to haul him up onto his horse, his face and long blue sleeves crusted with blood, a thick wad of bicoloured banners tied about his neck for safekeeping. Whistling for his brother's mare, they waited while she jogged down the dune toward them, trailing her reins. Half a mile away across the sand a small band drove a covey of stumbling captives toward a ribbon of sang de boeuf sunset, the colour hovering beneath thundercloud that spat bifurcated lightning at the horizon, the two skies meeting with the sound of clashing stone.
“The Caliph promised a mare from his own stable for each of these, so I will go to Baghdad and hold him to his word." Kala'amātya advised, referring to his looted pennants. "We may find riches enough to stave off a beating from your beloved.”
Sachiin eased himself into his own saddle as his mount drew alongside, rocking back and forth to seat it squarely on her withers then devoting himself to scraping grit from the wounds in his neck with claws that slid from the end of his fingers. His voice returned as his throat began to close.
“No such gold exists.”
"Sai a' si ina'abiih ilalae'an..."
"If I abandon Rana, I trade an idle scourge for one that slavers on my trail."
His brother raised a hand to the nomads stripping a christian bailiff in passing.
"If you mean to return to her you can make your own way. I will not suffer you while you abide her."
"And in that, you could not oblige her more, so what am I to do?"
“Cut out the dead flesh where you find it.” Kala'amātya recommended.
“My dead flesh has a name and face.”
“Her kind had no thought for mine.”
Able to devise no meaningful rebuttal, Sachiin turned his horse from beside his brother's as rain began to pound the dunes in the wine-coloured dusk, riding for the deserted wadi on his own.
CONTINUED NEXT WEEK
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