The Making of the Morning Star/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI

THE ROAD AND ITS END

IT WAS late when Robert was led into a small woolen tent pitched near the horse lines of the Mongol camp, and the rivets of his fetters were struck off by a smith. But he did not go to sleep at once.

The warriors had sought out one who knew a smattering of Arabic, and of him the knight requested water and rice and mutton, and ate until the Mongols smiled approval, believing it a sign of a strong heart that a man should eat mightily before going forth to fight for his life. They asked what weapon he would select, and brought him a varied collection of Moslem mail and swords.

From these the knight selected a strong haburgeon, and tossed away his own, that had many broken links. He refused all the simitars, and the Mongols inquired if he wanted one of their shorter swords.

Robert, however, had determined to fashion a weapon which would not break in the combat on the morrow—as his simitar and ax had broken on the wall—and which would decide the issue swiftly. Hope had forsaken him, and he longed only for two things—the strength to stand against the champion selected by the Mongols, and a sight of Ellen.

He called for a stout staff of hard, seasoned wood as thick as his wrist, and the smith brought him one reenforced with iron—the broken handle of a great mace. Then Robert took up the spiked knob and the chains from which his wrists had been freed and set to work grimly to fit the fetters at the ends of the chains upon the staff.

The Mongols watched the making of this unwonted weapon with attentive interest. They had orders to deny the champion of the Franks no request, and the smith helped find bolts that would fit the holes in the shackles.

When the work was finished, Robert had the mace-handle attached to the two chains, each about a foot long. From these chains swung the spiked knob of iron that had been his gift from Osman. The warriors took turns trying to swing it around their heads, and only a few could do so, with an effort.

“What is this thing?” they asked of the interpreter.

Robert smiled.

“It is the morning star.”

“How is that?”

He thrust the handle in the water-cask so that the wood would swell and grip tighter the iron bands.

“When it falls a man dies.”

The guards squatted down to watch while he slept on a pile of skins. And in whispers, not to disturb him, the Mongols discussed his stature and mighty muscles, the lines in his dark face that were deep even in slumber. They pointed to the tawny mane of yellow hair and shook their heads, for they had never seen a man like this. With equal interest they watched the morning star soaking in the water cask, certain that this was some kind of magic.

 

WHEN the sun scattered the mists on the sandy plain, throngs of Mongol warriors moved toward the standard of Genghis Khan. They squatted down, keeping clear a space some hundred yards square in front of the pole that bore the horns and the yak-tails. A little later the chieftains of the Horde walked over from their tents, and all raised their arms as the Khan appeared in the entrance of his pavilion and mounted a pony.

It was ever his custom, bred of a life of constant warfare, to be in the saddle; and he was never known to walk when a horse was at hand.

After he had taken his place at the edge of the cleared ground and received the greetings of the palladins, Chepe Noyon rode up and dismounted. Two warriors with drawn swords forced a way through the ranks of watchers at one end of the square and halted. Robert, clad in mail from knee to throat, walked between them, bearing the new mace in his hand, and a thousand pairs of eyes fastened on it curiously.

The knight swept a quick glance at the lines of silent warriors, who sat or stood where they willed, each with a spear or sword at hand—at the savage standard and the deserted wall of the city that loomed above the round tents of the Horde, and the pall of smoke that rose behind the walls and overspread the sky. He stood erect, smiling a little.

For here was no fair fist, fashioned for jousting, with heralds and poursuivants to tend the combatants and enforce the rules of the tournament—no minstrels to make memorable the names of the men who bore themselves well. He rested the spiked knob on the earth and turned to where a commotion at the other end of the square announced the coming of the antagonist whom he was ordered to overthrow if he would live longer.

He saw a tall figure, glistening in the finest of Damascus mail, and a crested helm. The man left his guards and moved toward the knight, who noticed that he carried only a battle-ax, a heavy blade with a long haft.

“Will Bunsley!” cried Robert, taking a pace forward.

It was the archer, and he was pale to the lips as he moved closer. Within easy speaking distance he paused to wipe his forehead and to lean on his ax.

“Aye, Sir Robert, 'tis Will Bunsley, who will ne'er pull a bow or buss a lass again. Harkee, time lacks for parley, and so do thou listen while I gabble—as is my way.

“The Demoiselle d'Ibelin rests within Abdullah's tent. Some words the minstrel did contrive to make clear to her, as follows: Item, thou and I, my lord, must e'en stand and smite each other till one is done to death; item, the maid doth pray for us both, but her heart aches for thee; item, these Mokals be dour fighters—as witness yonder fair city taken in despite of sword and bow and wall—and they will be an-angered if thou dost quibble or draw back.”

He glanced with widening eyes at Robert's new-made mace, and with a muttered, “Saint Dunstan abet me!” went on.

Item four, and last, Sir Robert, by no means might I prevail against thee in combat, so do thou hew me down—would thou hadst chosen another weapon—and fail not. To make sport for these our captors I will rap thy ribs a time or two and e'en deal thee a buffet on the sconce.”

Drawing a deep breath, he tightened his grasp on his ax.

“And so—fare thee well, my lord.”

It was a changed Will Bunsley that faced Robert, the merriment vanished from his blue eyes, his jaw set stubbornly. Whether Genghis Khan or Chepe Noyon had selected the archer to oppose him, Robert did not know. Probably they had singled out the two Franks for the duel, aware that Robert was more than a match for any man of Khar. And Robert, knowing that Will Bunsley was no match for him, took a step forward.

“A true man are you,” he said, smiling, for he saw his way clear before him now.

Will heaved up his ax hurriedly.

“Nay, Master Robert, get thee to the work. One of us must fall upon the ling, and—what would it avail me to strive with thee? Come, lad, a few good blows——

“Aye,” cried Robert and, striding foward, thrust aside the other's weapon and gripped his shoulder hard. “We will show them how two Englishmen can bear arms. Shoulder to shoulder, bowman——

“What would ye, master? Ah, the good Christ aid us!”

For Robert had turned and was walking toward the nearest Mongols, swinging his mace in widening circles.

“'Tis madness for both to die. Bethink ye of the maid Ellen——

“—who would hold me a caitiff and recreant, to strike you down!”

Robert sprang into the Mongols, who rose to meet him, growling and catching up their weapons. Steel ground against steel, and the great morning star swept clear a space about the knight.

Will Bunsley thrust a quivering hand across his eyes, then leaped after his comrade. His ax smashed down on the iron armor of the scattering Mongols and rose red, to flash down again until he gained Robert's side.

The warriors, who had started back in astonishment as the captives turned on them, closed in swiftly, making a circle about them. But Robert kept moving onward, and ever the iron flail kept clear a space before him, crunching into the heads and breasts of the men who leaped at him.

The knight was making his last stand, and all the power of his long arms went into every sweep of the mace. The ring shifted and changed to a black knot that writhed and twisted and finally came to a halt near the standard, where Will went down voicelessly and disappeared under the stamping feet. A man's spine snapped like a bent branch, and some one cried out:

“Subotai! Way for the Buffalo!”

The knot about Robert fell away as the warriors drew back, glaring and snarling at their victim—as dogs might leave the side of a stag half-pulled to earth. On his pony Genghis Khan had not stirred, although the beast snorted and stamped, a spear's length from the struggle. Only the eyes of the old Mongol followed every move of the men below him.

Robert reeled and steadied himself on his feet against Subotai's rush. His breath was whistling from his lungs; both hands were slashed to the bone, and blood streamed from his forehead into his open mouth. Recognizing the warrior of the buffalo horns as the one who had sought him on the causeway, he swung up the morning star as the giant leaped forward.

Instead of plunging on, Subotai halted, digging his heels into the earth. But Robert did not strike as he had expected, thus leaving himself open to a slash of the massive curved sword of the Mongol. The other warriors stood back to watch the two champions.

This time Subotai rushed in earnest, head up and shield down, his lips snarling and his sword-arm swinging at his side. Both struck at once. The knight's mace smashed the Mongol's iron shield, and the sword swept the helm from Robert's head, sending him back, staggering.

“Hai!" Subotai grunted and leaped in, slashing low.

Robert could not parry the blow; instead of trying to do so he stepped forward, into the sweep of the sword. It bit into the mail on his side and thigh, snapping the steel links, and glanced down to the earth.

The spiked knob smashed down on the Mongol's chest, ripping off the iron plates and drawing blood in streams. Before Subotai could leap clear Robert dropped the mace and gripped him about the knees. Gasping with the effort, he put forth all the strength of sinews and back muscles, raising the struggling body of the chieftain to his shoulder, shifting his grasp in a second to throat and belt of his foe, holding Subotai at the full reach of stiffened arms.

No one among the watchers moved to intercept him, and, filling his laboring lungs, he hurled Subotai to the ground. The warrior, striking on head and shoulder, rolled over and was still.

Robert stood looking down at him, swaying the while on his feet from utter weariness. He heard Chepe Noyon call out, and the deep voice of the Khan bark a command, and he tried to step toward the place where his mace had fallen, but had no longer strength to move foot or arm. He saw Chepe Noyon running toward him, felt the iron embrace of the Mongol's arms about his bruised ribs and looked up as a shout roared forth from ten thousand Template:Nowap

“Ahatou koke Mongku, ho!”

“O little son,” cried the Tiger Lord, “you overthrew the Buffalo! You lifted him in your hands and tossed him down! Hai—I chose well—by the white horse of Kaidu, by the eyes of all the gods—I picked a man!”

He drew back to look into Robert's scarred features.

“Did you hear the salute of the Horde? No man hath overthrown Subotai before. Nay, you know not the words of the Horde. 'Ho, brother, warrior of the Mongols, ho!'”

Genghis Khan spoke again, first to Chepe Noyon, then to a group of swordsmen who ran to the fallen Subotai and stood over him. The Buffalo had opened his eyes; now he shook his head savagely and sprang up. Instantly a score of powerful hands gripped him and held him, while the red glare faded from his eyes and he looked at Robert curiously.

“The command was given,” explained Chepe Noyon to the knight, “to stay the Buffalo until his anger passed. You and he must pour water on your swords. The Khan is not minded to lose either of you.”

Robert lifted his head with a wry smile.

“What mockery is this? I fought against you and slew many. Make an end!”

“Then will I tell you the judgment of the Khan. He said—

'The two Nazarenes kept faith with each other, and so will they keep faith with all men.'

“If you will ride with us, you will sit in a high place at the feasts and ride the best of the horses and have a great tent. Little son, this battle was a test, even as my offer to you to surrender Bokhara was a test, and in each thing you have stood your ground and held to your faith. We have honor for such a hero, as you will see.”

The knight was silent, finding this hard to believe. Yet the warriors he had wounded came to look at him closely and examine the morning star, utterly indifferent to their hurts. Subotai after a while walked over and took up the mace, whirling it about his head like a sling.

He grunted something, and Chepe Noyon interpreted:

“He says that you are to make him such a weapon and he will go against you or any other three warriors.”

Now Robert laughed a little unsteadily.

“Well for me he did not have the mace a while ago. Nay, spare me another such test.”

He remembered Will Bunsley and sought him out, to learn from Chepe Noyon that the Mongols had refrained from slaying the archer and had had him borne away to a tent to mend his wounds. As they talked Genghis Khan wheeled his horse and made off, a lane opening for him through the Mongol ranks. Robert saw that smoke was rising in dense plumes over the wall of Bokhara, and flames, fanned by a stiffening wind, were leaping through the smoke over the mosques.

“'Tis the end of Bokhara,” nodded Chepe Noyon, following his glance. “But the treasure is safe. Come, I have put aside a tent for you, and your share of the treasure awaits you.”

 

AS THE wind-storm lashed the plain and the horse-herds of the camp tinned their backs to the eddies of dust the flames raged in Bokhara, and the plumes of smoke grew into great clouds that hid the sun and swirled down on the quivering tents. Robert and Chepe Noyon wrapped their mantles over their arms, and the knight shielded his torn face as best he could from the smarting dust. Coming to the closed flap of a round woolen tent, the Mongol raised it and signed for the crusader to enter.

Still holding his mace, Robert stooped under the pole that served as a lintel, and the next instant he was fighting for his life.

A simitar smote his chest, and he warded a blow at his head with the handle of the mace. In the semi-darkness of the heavy tent he could make out the figure of a Moslem in armor—a flying cloak and a curved sword that sought vainly for his head.

The figure leaped at him fiercely, and he brushed aside the steel blade with surprizing ease and caught his antagonist fast within both arms. As he felt for the Moslem's sword-wrist his right hand closed on the warrior's throat, and he was aware of a pulse that throbbed frantically under his fingers. The helm of his adversary fell off, and Robert released his grip.

But only to tighten his arm about the dark tresses that fell about the slender shoulders of Ellen, who stared bewildered into his eyes.

“By the cross, demoiselle,” he laughed out of a full heart, “hast still a mind to war?”

Her hands caught his cheeks and held him with rigid strength, while her warm breath beat against his throat. And he saw that she was pale as the white silk khalat.

“Ellen!” he cried. “Dost not know me—Robert?”

At this her eyes glowed, and she pressed her lips against his, running trembling fingers through his clotted hair, her throat quivering with sounds that made no words. Robert kissed her closed eyes and felt the weariness pass from him. Both flaps of the tent were ripped back, and Chepe Noyon strode in, hand on his sword hilt, looking greatly surprized.

“What—ha! No need to lead thee to the treasure, O Nazarene.”

Ellen looked up as the light flooded in and brushed a hand across her eyes.

“My lord—I thought you slain when you came—I deemed you a Mongol, and I did not want to be—parted, again. Oh, what have I done?”

Her eyes widened, and she swayed back against his arm.

“What?” Robert smiled.

“Your face—and your armor hacked!”

Tears started to the girl's eyes.

“And see, your hand is slashed. Nay, I sought only to die, and now I have hurt you sore.”

Robert stared for a moment in astonishment and then rocked with laughter.

“Little warrior, these few wounds were dealt me by the men of the Horde. Nay, Ellen, methinks you make a better maid than man-at-arms.”

For many an hour they sat upon the rugs of the tent and talked, hand in hand, recounting all that had befallen them; and Chepe Noyon, leaning against the pole of the pavilion, took up a lute—for he was well content—and sang again for them the song with which he first greeted Robert. Until Ellen fell silent, her glance ever on the man who sat, chin on hand, looking through the entrance at the swirling sand and the riders that came and went.

“In another day, brave heart,” he said, “Bokhara will be no more, and the road will be before us again. Chepe Noyon hath made clear to me the Mongol plans. I told him we would ride with them nowither save to Palestine. For there is my place—and you did promise the good Father Evagrius to seek Jerusalem.”

“Then will we go together, and you shall take Jerusalem,” she nodded decidedly.

“Am I an emperor with a host?”

“Aye, so.”

“Nay, I think not. Fair heart, our king lies at the island of Cyprus, and there we will seek him if we reach the end of the road. Yet none before us hath returned alive from Khar. These barbarians set out upon a way of peril, for they seek out Muhammad to overthrow his power and will follow him even beyond the Gates, to Bagdad or to Byzantium. They would have me strive to aid them at siege and assault upon the great cities. Will you come with me?”

“Aye, so.”

She bent her head.

“If you will have me.”

“Then is your promise given."

He sprang up, and Chepe Noyon rose.

“And I will hold it binding. Aye.”

He looked at the Mongol, who held up his hand for silence.

From the center of the camp came the mutter of drums and the brazen note of a great gong. Chepe Noyon spoke, and the knight nodded understanding.

“The summons to saddle hath been given,” Robert said, and his eyes gleamed with swift joy. “Never a queen shall have her coming heralded as yours, and never a maid shall put such a song upon the lips of the troubadors of Christendom.”