Friday, 22 July 2011
“They’re in an awful hurry. Something has spooked them. “
“Find out what,” I order Jacob, and he questions their breathless escort in whatever language they have in common. “An attack,” he reports. “They’re fleeing back to Itil with the Princess Tilde before anything happens to her. I suggest you take the princess under your protection, my lord, to avoid any further problems. We can deal with these aggressors on our own,” he asserts with a rueful glance at the heavy burden his captives are dragging, and he points to a muddy trail on the left. “This is a short-cut that should take you home quickly, my lord.”
I accept the errand without question and also the respect and title/rank he has bestowed on me, as of right, as my due (don’t ask me why) and set off for home (where? Itil, I am informed) with my royal charge and her immediate companions. Just who the attackers might be, Vikings on the loose down the River Volga or more likely the first presagers of the Rus liberation, I can’t rightly say, but they will bear down in strength for certain on poor Jake and Izzy, as attested by the grievous wounds suffered by the former. And Izzy gave his life.
The citizens claim Itil is a multiethnic, cosmopolitan city, but its rulers are taking no chances as we’re met at the citadel and conducted via a retractable and well-defended pontoon bridge into the presence of the Council, whose august members take us below, well away from the gaze of court officialdom. Through musty corridors we are led (the querulous mutterings of the worthy princess being ignored), down and down until we emerge into what can only be termed a cavern. Despite the sumptuous tapestries that adorn the walls and the table meticulously laid for the meeting with wine glasses ready, despite the discreet lighting that flickers on welcomingly at our approach, there is no way the council members can conceal a certain gloom in these underground proceedings. Just what are they trying to hide that can’t be disclosed in broad daylight?
I was accompanying the nervous sentinels guarding the portage route whilst I admired the sight of the Steppes in flood. The captives are hauling the boat (galley) over sodden pathways. Jacob and Izzie, their guards, are not brutal but edgy. As they recount their fears, I realize that their era is reaching its end. How do they know? Signs and portents, lunar eclipse and repeated grain harvest failures. Jim tells risqué joke about barley (sowing her oats). What language are they all using in these Khazari days? But Jim is astonished at the ease of communication. He has fitted in telepathically since emerging in this circuit. Too convenient, doesn’t feel right. Locates his hands as Don Juan suggested to check on the reality of dreams. Stubs his toe against a protruding rock and it hurts. Damn, what is this - a fantasy, reverie or flight of fancy? I have always been here, can’t recall my moment of arrival – just as a boy growing up in a family takes his existence for granted. Yet I’m acutely aware that I don’t know anyone in this society – have nowhere to turn to – could be a case of sudden total amnesia except for the flow of historical knowledge unfolding in a part of my mind. I know where I am, in the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria as it fast approaches its conclusion.
Jacob whirls round and stares into my eyes as if divining my bemusement. “OK, Jake, don’t worry. (if I am obliged to play a part, I will naturally do so, no questions being asked, for the moment). Look at the setting sun which has just shown itself through a break in the cloud cover. Watch this!” and I treat him and Izzie to a shadow show with my clenched fist projecting a medley of shapes onto the bow of a galley conveniently illuminated by the brief burst of evening sunlight. Goblins, an old gnome, even an eagle swooping down to whisk them away. I have always been good at this party trick, remembering it instinctively from other days. And Jacob and Israel are indeed captivated, to the extent of forgetting to berate their slaves who likewise mesmerised by the spectacle of the dancing forms being played out on the wooden bulwark have allowed the heavy vessel they were hauling to come to halt. “Oops, sorry Izzie and Jake. Back to the lashes you were administering so efficiently.”