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Death Among the Doves
In a small dusty fortress in Central Asia in the summer of 1494, the baked-mud battlements, grey as elephant's hide in daytime, were pinkening before Babur's eyes with the sunset. Far beneath, the Jaxartes river gleamed a dull red as it flowed westward across the darkening plains. Babur shifted his weight on the stone step and returned his attention to his father, the king, who was pacing the fortress walls, hands clasped against the turquoise fastenings of his robes. His face was working excitedly as he launched into the story his twelve-year-old son had heard so many times before. But it was worth the retelling, Babur reflected. He listened carefully, alert for the new embellishments that always crept in. His lips moved with his father's when the king reached the climax – the one part that never changed, each of its grandiose phrases sacrosanct.
‘And so it happened that our ancestor the great Timur – Timur the Warrior, whose name meant "Iron" and whose horses sweated blood as he galloped through the world – won a vast empire. Though he was so cruelly injured in his youth that one leg was longer than the other and he walked with a limp, he conquered from Delhi to the Mediterranean, from wealthy Persia to the wildernesses along the Volga. But was that enough for Timur? Of course not! Even when many years were upon him, he was still strong and robust in body, hard like a rock, his ambition boundless. His final enterprise was ninety years ago against China. He rode out with the thunder of two hundred thousand horsemen in his ears and victory would have been his, had Allah not summoned him to rest with him in Paradise. But how did Timur, this greatest of warriors – greater even than your other ancestor Genghis Khan – do all this? I see the question in your eyes, my son, and you are right to ask it.'
The king patted Babur's head approvingly, seeing that he held his complete attention. Then he resumed, voice rising and falling with poetic fervour.
‘Timur was clever and brave but, above all, he was a great leader of men. My grandfather told me that his eyes were like candles without brilliance. Once men looked into those slits of muted light they could not turn away. And as Timur gazed into their souls he spoke of glory that would echo through the centuries and stir the lifeless dust that would be all that was left of their bones on earth. He spoke of gleaming gold and shimmering gems. He spoke of fine-boned women whose black hair hung like curtains of silk such as they had seen in the slave markets of his capital of Samarkand. Above all he spoke of their birthright, their right to be the possessors of the earth. And as Timur's deep voice flowed over and around them, visions filled their minds of what was theirs for the taking until they would have followed him through the burning gates of hell.
‘Not that Timur was a barbarian, my son.' The king shook his head vigorously so that the fringe he liked to leave hanging from his maroon silk turban swung from side to side. ‘No. He was a cultured man. His great city of Samarkand was a place of grace and beauty, of scholarship and learning. But Timur knew that a conqueror must let nothing – no one – stand in his way. Ruthlessness ruled his soul until the job was done and the more who knew it the better.' He closed his eyes, picturing the glory days of his magnificent ancestor. He had worked himself into such a lather of pride and excitement that beads of sweat were bursting out on his forehead. He took a yellow silk scarf and mopped it.
Exhilarated as usual by the images his father had conjured, Babur smiled up at him to show he shared the same joyous pride. But even as he watched, his father's face changed. The fervent light in his dark eyes faded and his expression grew despondent, even brooding. Babur's smile faltered. His father's story usually finished with this paean to Timur, but today the king continued, his tone bleak, the vibrancy gone.
‘But I – descendant of the great Timur though I am – what have I? Just Ferghana, a kingdom not two hundred miles long or one hundred wide. Look at it – a place of sheep and goats grazing in valleys ringed on three sides by mountains.' He flung out an arm towards the soaring, cloud-circled peaks of Mount Beshtor. ‘Meanwhile three hundred miles to the west my brother rules golden Samarkand, while south across the Hindu Kush my cousin holds wealthy Kabul. I am their poor relation to be snubbed and despised. Yet my blood – your blood – is as good as theirs.'
‘Even so, all we princes of the house of Timur,' the king interrupted, voice trembling with passion, ‘what are any of us, compared with him? We squabble like petty chieftains as we struggle each to hold on to our own little scrap of his empire. I am as guilty as any of the others.' He sounded really angry now. ‘If Timur came back today he would spit in our faces for the fools we are. We are so proud to call ourselves Mirza, "Offspring of the Amir", so eager to call him ancestor, but would he be so ready to acknowledge us? Wouldn't we have to fall on our knees and beg his forgiveness for dissipating our inheritance and forgetting our greatness?'
The king's strong hands gripped Babur's shoulders so hard it hurt. ‘You are old enough now to understand. That is why I am telling you this. We owe Timur a debt. He was a great man, my son. His blood is your blood. Never forget it. Be like him, if you can. Live up to your destiny and let it be greater than mine.'
‘I will try, Father . . . I promise.'
For a moment, the king's eyes searched Babur's face. Then, seemingly satisfied, he grunted and turned away. Babur sat very still. His father's unexpected passion had shaken him. As he digested what he had said, he saw that the sun was almost down. Like so many other evenings, he watched the jagged landscape soften in the dying light. The cries of boys herding their sheep and goats back to their villages came out of the gathering gloom. So did a gentle, insistent cooing. His father's favourite flock of white doves were fluttering home to their cote.
Babur heard a gentle sigh escape his father's lips, as if he acknowledged that life still held pleasures as well as disappointments. He watched the king take a swig of cooling water from the leather bottle dangling at his side and, his face relaxing once more into its usual good humour, turn and hurry along the battlements towards the conical dovecote high on top of the wall and partly overhanging the dry ravine below. His gold-embroidered red velvet slippers slapped against the baked-mud floor and his arms were already outstretched, ready to take his favourite doves in his hands and caress their plump throats with the tenderness of a lover. Babur couldn't see the attraction. Stupid little birds. The best place for them was plucked and poached in a sauce of pomegranates and crushed walnuts.
Babur's mind returned to Timur and his marauding soldiers. What would it be like to feel that the whole world was yours? To take a city and have its king writhe in the dust at your feet? His father was right. How different it would be from ruling just this little kingdom of Ferghana. The petty politics of his father's court bored him. The chief vizier, Qambar-Ali, stank like an old mule in his sweaty robes. With his long yellowing teeth he even looked like one. And he was always up to something, whispering in his father's ear, bloodshot eyes swivelling to see who was watching. Timur would have sliced off the ugly fool's head without a moment's reflection. Perhaps, Babur reflected, he would do it himself when he eventually became king.
Soon it would be time to pray and then to go to the women's quarters to eat. He jumped down from the step. At that moment he heard a tremendous crack, the battlements shuddered beneath his feet and a few seconds later there came a dull crash. He put out a hand to steady himself and realised he could see nothing. What was happening? Was it one of the earth tremors that sometimes shook the castle? No, the noise was somehow different. As he gasped in shock his mouth drew in choking dust and his eyes streamed involuntary tears as they attempted to clear themselves. Instinctively Babur put up his hands to cover his face and head. As he did so, he heard swift-running feet, then felt strong arms grip him and haul him backwards. ‘Majesty, you are safe.'
He recognised the deep voice. It belonged to Wazir Khan, the commander of his father's bodyguard. ‘What do you mean . . . ?' It was hard to talk; his mouth was dry and gritty, and his tongue felt suddenly too large for it. His words sounded thick, incomprehensible, and he tried again. ‘What's happened . . . ?' he managed. ‘It wasn't an earthquake, was it?'
Even as he asked the question Babur forced his watering eyes to open and saw the answer for himself. A large chunk of the battlements where the dovecote had been had gone, as if a giant hand had reached out to break the rim off a pie crust. Dried and fissured by the intense summer heat it had suddenly given way. The doves were fluttering in the air like snowflakes.
Babur wrenched himself from the tall soldier's protective arms and rushed forward. His stomach seemed to fall from his chest as he realised he could not see his father. What had happened to him?
‘Majesty, please come back.'
A cold sweat broke on his brow as Babur worked his way along what remained of the ruined battlements and peered down into the ravine. Through the slowly settling dust he could just make out the remains of the wall and the dovecote, pulverised on the rocks. Of his father there seemed no sign. Then Babur saw his maroon turban suspended at a jaunty angle from the branch of a bush sprouting from a fissure in the rock. He must have fallen with the dovecote. He must be buried, injured, perhaps even dead, Babur thought, with a shudder.
As he looked down, soldiers with flaming torches were running from the gate at the base of the fortress and scrambling down the rocks into the ravine.
‘Hurry, you fools, hurry!' yelled Wazir Khan, who had come up beside Babur and again taken a protective hold of him. They watched in silence as, by the light of their flaring orange torches in the gathering dusk, the soldiers clawed through the rubble. One found a dead dove and tossed the limp little body impatiently aside. A kite swooped low and flew off with it.
‘Father . . .' Babur could not stop the shivering that had seized his body. Down in the ravine as the men cleared the chunks of mud and stone he glimpsed what looked like a fragment of cloth. His father's robe. A little while ago it had been pale blue. Now it was stained purple with blood. A few moments more, and the soldiers pulled out his father's body. To Babur it seemed as lifeless and broken as the dove's. The soldiers looked up at their commander high above them for a sign telling them what to do.
Wazir Khan gestured to them to carry the body into the fortress. Then he pulled Babur further back from the edge and gently turned him from the sight of the destruction below. His face was grim but also thoughtful as, for a moment, he looked down at Babur. Then he knelt and touched his forehead to the ground. ‘All hail to Babur Mirza, the new King of Ferghana. May your father's soul fly like a bird to the gates of Paradise.'
Babur stared at him, trying to take in what he had just said. His father – so full of life just moments before – was dead. He would never hear his voice again or feel his warm hand on his head or be embraced in his great bear-hug. He would never again accompany him when he went hunting in the valleys of Ferghana, or sit close by him beside the campfire at night, listening as his men's singing mingled with the rising wind. He began to cry, silently at first, then aloud, convulsed by great sobs welling up from the pit of his stomach.
As he wept, doubt and uncertainty, as well as grief, engulfed him. He was king now . . . Would he live up to his father's hopes and his glorious ancestry? For some reason a leaner, older face with slanting cheekbones and cold, determined eyes ‘like candles without brilliance' replaced his father's image in his mind. As it did so, he seemed to hear his father's much-repeated mantra: ‘Timur's blood is my blood.' His own lips began to repeat it, softly at first but then with more conviction. He would make both Timur and his father proud. Pulling himself to his full height and wiping his tear-stained, dirty face with his sleeve, he turned. ‘I must be the one to tell my mother what has happened.'
Exciting though he found Farida, his beautiful young wife, Qambar-Ali's lovemaking had been more perfunctory than usual. The vizier was preoccupied. The king's sudden and extraordinary death had left much for him to think about and little time if he wished to act. A twelve-year-old boy as king? Possibly . . . but, then again, possibly not. Splashing water hurriedly over his groin and pulling his navy brocade robes back round him, the vizier hurried from Farida's chamber without a backward glance.
As he passed through the fortress's interior passageways, lit by flickering oil lamps, he caught the sound of wailing coming from the royal harem. So, the official mourning had begun, led no doubt by Babur's mother and grandmother, formidable women, the pair of them. He would need to be wary of them. Neither would be so lost to grief that they would not be seeking to protect and promote Babur's interests.
The vizier approached the royal audience chamber to which he had summoned the other officers of state. As the two guards opened its green, leather-covered, brass-studded doors to allow him to enter, he saw that three were already there: Yusuf, the stout keeper of the treasury, the golden key of office dangling on its long chain round his jowly neck; Baqi Beg, the diminutive court astrologer, whose thin, restless fingers were twisting the beads of a rosary; and the wiry, beetle-browed Baba Qashqa, comptroller of the household. Only Wazir Khan was absent.
The ill-matched trio were sitting cross-legged on the red, richly patterned carpet beneath the empty throne. Without its occupant it looked a small, faded, insignificant thing, the gilt a little tarnished and the red velvet, gold-tasselled cushions shabby with use and age.
‘Well,' said Qambar-Ali, looking round the assembled faces, ‘who would have thought it?' He waited, wanting to gauge their views before he said more.
‘It was the will of God.' Baqi Beg broke the silence.
‘A pity you did not foretell what would happen. For once the stars kept their secrets veiled from you,' Baba Qashqa said.
The astrologer flushed angrily at the comptroller's spiteful words. ‘God does not always wish a man to know his own destiny – especially a ruler who must be as a god to his people and act for them as well as himself.'
‘I meant no offence, but if the king had foreseen his own death, he would not have left a twelve-year-old boy as his heir,' Baba Qashqa said slowly, and shook his head.
Qambar-Ali's pulse quickened. ‘Indeed. The kingdom needs a strong, seasoned ruler to survive. Shaibani Khan and his Uzbek mongrels will be baying at our gates when he learns the news. He has sworn to build a tower from the bleeding, eyeless heads of all the princes of the House of Timur. A puny youth won't keep him out of Ferghana for long.'
The others nodded, all wearing melancholic expressions as if their only concern was the well-being of Ferghana.
‘And it is not only the Uzbeks we must fear. Our late king made many enemies among his own family – his incursions westwards over the border into the lands of his brother, the King of Samarkand, will not have been forgotten.'
‘Of course, the King of Samarkand is a great warrior,' Qambar-Ali said slowly. ‘So is the Khan of Moghulistan.' His mind dwelled for a moment on the purple velvet bag plump with gold coins that the khan had pressed into his receptive hand during his last visit to Ferghana. He remembered his words: ‘If Ferghana should need me, only send me word and I will come.' The khan would surely reward him generously for the gift of a throne.
‘There is also the ruler of Kabul – he, too, is of the House of Timur, a cousin of our late king.' Baba Qashqa looked directly into the vizier's eyes. ‘He would protect Ferghana . . .'
Qambar-Ali, bowing his head in courteous agreement, resolved instantly that this very night he would send a messenger northeast through the mountains to the Khan of Moghulistan or the chance would be lost. ‘We must be cautious and not hurry in case we stumble,' he said, with an air of deep thought. ‘We need to take time to reflect and to consider the best interests of Prince Babur. The throne must be his when he comes of age. We should seek a regent from among our neighbouring rulers to keep Ferghana safe from its foes until then.' Not that Babur ever would mount the throne, he reflected inwardly. A little accident would not be long in happening. It would be so simple . . .
The four men sat up as Wazir Khan entered the chamber. He looked tired and the pink scar across his tanned face – the memento of a sword swipe a decade earlier that had also robbed him of the sight in his right eye – stood out livid and raw as if it had been received only weeks ago. ‘Gentlemen, my apologies.' He touched his hand to his breast and bowed to Qambar-Ali in acknowledgement of the vizier's position as the chief among them. ‘I have posted a double guard around the fort but all is quiet. The king's body is being prepared and everything is in readiness for the funeral tomorrow.'
‘We are in your debt, Wazir Khan. I thank you.'
‘You were speaking of appointing a regent for Ferghana?' Wazir Khan sat down beside Qambar-Ali and fixed on him his one eye with an unblinking intensity that the vizier resented.
‘We were. Prince Babur is too young to bear the responsibility of government. And we face a threat from those dogs of Uzbeks.' At the mention of the Uzbeks, the vizier simulated spitting.
‘It is true that the prince is young, but he is the king's only surviving son and has been reared since his earliest days to reign. It is his destiny, and what his father would have wished. Babur is brave, determined and learns fast. I should know. At the king's request, especially when it became clear that Babur would be his only heir, I spent much time instructing him in swordplay and archery, how to wield a spear and hurl a battleaxe. Babur is also astute beyond his years. Surely we five can guide him through the early days,' Wazir Khan said quietly.
‘My dear Wazir Khan, if only it were that simple.' The vizier smiled. ‘If these were peaceful times your plan would be suitable, but the Uzbeks' ambitions know no limits. As soon as they hear that the King of Ferghana has died leaving his kingdom to a mere boy they will be upon us, ripping out our entrails and raping our women.'
Excerpted from Raiders from the North by .
Copyright © 2009 by Alex Rutherford.
Published in May 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.