Below is a short extract from early in the draft of Vampire Khan book 3 of the Immortal Knight Chronicles. I have chosen this brief scene because it gives little away of the plot but teases the content of the story and the characters. Even with scenes such as this where there is a lot of information unloaded, I always ensure there is character development. The brief character interactions are helping to set up future events.
Please do bear in mind this version has not been through line editing and has not been proofread so there will be errors. The final version of this scene will be better in the published book. (who knows, it could also end up being cut entirely…)
Bearing that in mind, I would be interested in knowing what you think!
I hope this is of interest to you and hope it will help tide you over a few more weeks. I would like to post more extracts but do not wish to give too much away. When we are closer to release perhaps I will publish the opening scene.
We arrived then in Soldaia in late May. The city stood at the apex of the triangle that is the Crimean Peninsula, on the south side, and it looks across the water towards Sinopolis. It was a trading centre at the extreme borders of dozens of lands. Thither came all the merchants arriving from northern countries, and likewise those coming from Russia and the northern countries who wished to pass into Turkia. The latter carried vair and minever, and other costly furs. Others carried cloths of cotton or bombax, silk stuffs and sweet-smelling spices.
The city was subject to the Tartars and every year had to pay a great tribute to Prince Batu, else their thriving city would be destroyed by the barbarians. However, they paid that tribute with false but prompt enthusiasm and so were left alone to do their trade, and to become wealthy even in spite of the payments they provided to their overlords. As far as I knew, the city prefects were more than pleased with the arrangement, despite being Christians under the rule of pagan savages.
Although some citizens were Genoese, others were their enemies the Venetians, and many more still were Rus and the like, those unpleasant folk with squashed features and cold-ravaged skin. There were Greeks in their hundreds, or thousands for all I know, and Bulgars and other people from the diverse lands all about us. Who the natives were I have no idea, although it was probably the Greeks, as they had founded so many places on the Black Sea just as they had on the shores of the Mediterranean.
Others there, living as well as trading, were the Saracens. Chiefly, those that were Turks but also those from Syria and other far off lands. And amongst them, and over them too, were the peoples who were from the steppe. Advising, guarding, and taking stock of all that went on there, with their cunning eyes and their tails of bowing scribes who made certain that the Tartar lords were not being cheated or plotted against.
“This is a strange land,” I said to Eva as the ship bobbed outside the port. “Strange people.”
“This is what you want,” Eva pointed out. “Always seeking what is over the horizon, never settled in one place. You revel in strangeness.”
I shrugged, uncomfortable with her accusations. “I go where William’s trail leads.”
She scoffed. “You go where your heart leads.”
Reaching along the rail, I took her hand and peered into her suspicious eyes. “My heart leads only to you.”
“I know what part of you leads to me,” she said, lowering her voice. “And it is not your heart.”
Nevertheless, she held on to my hand.
Looking around, I saw the man I wanted. “Abdullah,” I cried. “Come here.”
The scrawny man came forward along the deck, his bony shoulders bent inward. He was a young man, or young enough, but it had taken me days to realise the fact. He had the appearance of an ancient creature, beaten down by the regular blows of disappointment. Thomas had purchased him in Acre and claimed that, for all the man’s obvious misery, his ability with languages was second to none. He was said to have detailed knowledge of the lands of the Tartars, their languages, and their customs. He also claimed to have once been a famed scholar at a great house of learning so he was likewise clearly a great liar.
“Abdullah,” I said. “Why are you dawdling so, man?”
He cringed with every word and Eva leaned in close to me. “Speak softly, Richard. He is close to being a broken man.”
“Oh, for the love of God,” I muttered. But you should always obey your wife, other than those times when you do not wish to. I spoke to him with a courteous tone. “Abdullah, you wise young Saracen, come here and converse with me.”
He shuffled over, look out from under his long black eyelashes as if he was a coy princess. “How may I serve you, lord?”
“They tell me you have knowledge of the lands here about. I hear that some of the cities and kingdoms resist the Tartars and are not subjected to their rule. Will there be people from those lands in this city of Soldaia which lays before us?”
He frowned, unsure of why I was asking. I did not explain it to him but, in truth, it was simple. You never know who might one day be your allies, and who may be your enemies. And my main reason was that I wanted already to plan my escape from the Tartars.
Should it ever come to that.
“Yes, lord. Beyond this city, unseen to the east, is Zikuia, which does not obey the Tartars. And to the east of there are the Suevi and Hiberi, who also do not obey the Tartars. After that, further around the coast of the sea but to the south, is Trebizond, which has its own lord, Guido by name, who is of the family of the emperors of Constantinople, and he obeys the Tartars.”
I waved my hand. “I know about Trebizond,” I said. “That is on the other side of the sea from us entirely, you bloody fool. What about the other way?” I pointed to the west. “Who in the north and the west is there who is not subject to the Tartar rule?”
Instead, Abdullah pointed to the north east. “From the city of Tanais,” he said, and began to sweep his hand across from east to west. “All the way to the Danube, all are subject to the Tartars. Even beyond the Danube, lord, towards Constantinople. Do you know of Wallachia, which is the land of the Assan and Minor Bulgaria as far as Sclavonia? All of them pay tribute, lord. All. Even more, they say that the Tartars, as you call them, have taken in the past years from each house one axe and all the iron which they found unwrought.”
I had heard that the Tartars had subjected many lands but hearing it again when I was on the edge of their territory, was greatly disturbing. A barbarian, savage people, who had conquered and subdued so many. Wherever we ran to, should Eva and I need to run, we would be travelling amongst people who would hand us over to the Tartars in order to save themselves from their wrath.
Eva intruded into my thoughts with a question for Abdullah. “What you mean when you say, as you call them?”
“My lady?” Abdullah asked.
“You said the Tartars, as we call them,” Eva said. “We call them Tartars, yes indeed we do. But what do you call them?”
He bobbed his head, eyes wide. “A simple slip of the tongue, my lady. My lord. My French is truly woeful. I beg your pardons for my stupidity and ignorance.”
“Your French is bloody disgusting,” I said. “And your false obsequiousness is revolting, I command you to stop that nonsense. But if you do not tell me the truth about the Tartars, I shall be forced to rip out your tongue entirely and toss it to the dogs.” Saracens have an almost spiritual terror of dogs. I have no idea why. But it often does the trick.
Bobbing his head, he explained. “The Franks and Latins call them Tartars. They name themselves Mongols.”
“Then, who in the name of God are the Tartars?”
“Some other tribe, lord. Barbarians, like the Mongols. In fact, there are a great number of tribes from the grasslands, stretching back into Asia and all of them have been subjugated by those that call themselves Mongols.” The young Saracen grew ever more confident as he spoke. His voice became clearer and louder until it was almost as though he was preaching. “The Cumans are now the westernmost people who we call Tartars and these are the lands of the Cumans who we must cross to reach Batu, in the north beyond them. The Cumans fled the Mongols, and the Hungarians gave them sanctuary. But something went bad. It was all a trick, perhaps. The Cumans attacked the Hungarians, and the Mongols subjugated the Cumans. Further into the east, tribe after tribe is subject to the Mongols. The Uighurs, whose script the Mongols use for writing in their own language, for they were the most barbarian peoples of all the tribes.”
I stopped his babbling, confused by everything he said but that last point most of all. “Do you mean to say the Mongols were the most barbaric of all these savages and yet they conquered them all?”
“The Mongols, so it is said, were so impoverished, lord, that they lived in the worst land in all Tartary, in the harsh mountains. And they had to sew together the skins of field mice to make their cloaks. But there was one amongst them, many years ago, named Chinggis, who became the leader. A giant, so they say. And he was so strong in the art of war that he conquered all, and none could conquer him in turn. And now they rule from Cathay, in the east, to Hungary in the west. All the tribes fight as one, now. They have armies of tens of thousands and even a hundred thousand or two hundred thousand horsemen.”
I burst out laughing. “What utter nonsense.”
He frowned and winced, and began to protest. But I cut him off and sent him on his way.
Eva was displeased. “You should listen to him.”
“He is a fool,” I said. “Armies of a hundred thousand men? Two hundred thousand? A fool indeed. But I am the bigger fool for asking him. Listen, if we need to run, we will simply go west. Back into Christian lands. To the Kingdom of Hungary or the Kingdom of Poland.”
Thomas’ voice spoke over mine. “You mean to run, do you, Richard?”
The sneaky old Templar bastard had crept up on me like a cat.
“Of course not,” I said, not attempting to hide my irritation. “Yet it never hurts to make preparations for any eventuality.”
“Unless I release you,” Thomas said, “there shall be no running anywhere, at any time. Do you understand me, Richard?”
Eva placed a hand on my forearm.
She was right, and I swallowed my anger.
“I swore no oath to you, Thomas,” I said, with as much calmness as I could muster. “Nor to Friar William. Not even to the King of France. But I shall do as have said, which is to travel with you to the court of Prince Batu, and there challenge William to a trial by combat. Between now and then, I shall protect you. From the Tartars. And also from other threats.” I nodded over the Templar’s shoulder.
We watched as Bertrand and then Hughues climbed over the side, down into the little barge which would convey all of us in turn to the busy shore while our ship awaited its berth in the harbour.
“He means to be first ashore,” said Thomas. “Even though Friar William and Friar Bartholomew are the ones who demanded the barge, so that they could arrange our onward transport without delay.”
“Aye,” I said. “That Bertrand is a strutting bloody old cockscomb. His arrogance will make further trouble in the north.”
“His arrogance, yes.” Thomas cleared his throat, managing to convey disapproval with the sound. “I trust that you will both remain on your finest, most courteous behaviour from now onwards.”
I looked across the shimmering water at the city of Soldaia. It was the last outpost of civilisation before we crossed into the steppe and placed ourselves under the rule of the savages.
“Bertrand may be a prideful brute,” I said, “yet he is a wealthy lord, and a Christian. And yes, you are right that I also am arrogant, Thomas. As Rubruk says, my sins are many. I am filled with wrath. But we stand here at the edge of the world and what lies beyond is all darkness. Bertrand is not my enemy. My enemy is out there, and he is the greatest sinner that ever walked the Earth.”