The English Mongol – my new historical novel
I’ve just sent a new completed manuscript off to my agent – Ian Drury of Shiel Land Associates – who is going to read it over the next few days and give me his feedback. But I thought I would also publish an extract from this new historical novel here, to give my readers a flavour of the subject matter – and perhaps whet their appetites. The novel is based on a true story I unearthed about an Englishman, a Templar, who fought for Genghis Khan and his Mongol horde for more than twenty years in the 13th century. This is the Prologue of the book, set at a small town near Vienna, in Austria, in the year 1241 . . .
Frederick, Duke of Austria, flicked irritably with a mail-covered mitten at the fly dancing around his horse’s gleaming black neck. It was suffocatingly hot that noon-tide, even in the dappled shade under the trees. His lower back ached like the Devil, his padded linen undershirt was soggy with sweat, and he was regretting his decision to have his squire dress him in his full battle-gear that morning, which covered him from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet in heavy, iron-link mail. He had been sitting astride his destrier under these tall elms for the past hour and more, waiting, waiting and his famously short stock of patience was nearly at an end.
“Heinrich,” he snapped at the nearest rider, one of fifty knights in a loose, gently murmuring pack about him, “is there any fresh word from the scouts?”
The knight, an older man with deep lines of worry carved into his cheeks, simply shook his head. The duke grunted with irritation and peered out through the leaves that shielded his knights from sight, craning his head to get a better view of the valley below the promontory on which the horsemen waited.
Below him, a little over a mile to the south, the slow, brown Danube spooled through the landscape, turning south from its eastwards route down towards the sun at the hamlet of Korneuburg, away to the left. The dust-hazed road followed the river, cutting through broken terrain on the north bank of the river, expanses of boulders and gorse mixed with small, seemingly besieged fields of golden barley. The duke’s own castle at the town of Vienna was a mere hour’s ride south of the further bank of the river.
“And you are quite certain of the information you were given, Heinrich?” the duke said. “You still believe it to be fully reliable.”
Heinrich von Leitzdorf straightened his back, looked his liege in the eye.
“The son of one of my oldest tenants, a steady, pious boy, I believe, said he saw a large company of Tartars at Zwettl last night a little before dusk. More than two score of them, he said, a scouting or foraging party. He watched them advancing eastwards along these roads, then make their camp in a sheep pasture nearby at nightfall. Unless they have crossed over the river, which seems most unlikely, or have turned back towards the Great Horde, which we think is now somewhere north of here, up in Bohemia, they will pass us on this road yonder at some point today. Unless they do not. For I cannot see the future, my lord, no man can. It is now in the hands of the Almighty.”
The duke nodded sagely and looked round at the mass of brightly coloured, gently stirring, softly chinking Germanic horsemen gathered under the dense trees, then gestured brusquely for his nearest squire to bring him the wine flask.
He drank deeply and wiped his red, sweating face with his leather-covered palm. If they left now, he calculated, they could be across the wide river and back inside the walls of Vienna by late afternoon – and he might take a cool dip in the Danube-fed castle moat before his supper. That would be delightful, by God. Von Leitzdorf was right, only the Almighty knew where these swift-moving demons from Tartarus were on this sweltering day.
A vast horde of these foul creatures had erupted out of the east, he knew that, and crushed the divided Russian dukedoms one by one. They had cowed the Kingdom of Hungary with their unnatural ferocity, and destroyed the massed knights of Poland in battle at Leignitz just three months ago. But where were they now? Not here on the empty Korneuburg road, that was for sure. The duke made his decision, and opened his mouth to give the order. And froze.
“Sire,” said Heinrich, pointing, “look yonder, by that little copse of ash.”
Frederick looked westwards at a small cloud of dust moving along the road towards them. As it drew nearer – by God, they were moving at a cracking pace – he began to make out the hunched shapes of individual riders and their dull armour, round shields and pointed helms topped with black flowing plumes.
“About four dozen of these Hell-spawn, would you say, Hen?” The duke grinned at his most loyal knight, his ageing constable. But Heinrich von Leitzdorf only grunted sullenly in response. The young lord of Austria was bouncing lightly in his saddle with excitement, all his discomfort forgotten.
“Right then, Heinrich – you will take my lord Stephen of Dalmatia and his company of Hungarians and head west to cut off their retreat back up the road. We’ll wait for them to see you – then go straight down and fall on them. We’ll catch these Tartars like a hazelnut between two rocks.”
The duke made a pinching movement with his left hand, like a crab closing its big claw. “You understand me fully, I trust, Heinrich?”
“Indeed, sire. We have discussed this manoeuvre at some length already.”
“Off you go then, old friend. May Christ and all the Saints ride with you!”
A short while later, the duke led his men out of the cover of the trees and on to the sunlit crest of the hill. Then, with loud cries of “For God and the Blessed Virgin!” and “Austria for ever!” The thirty-odd knights couched their long lances under mailed elbows, put back their spurs and clattered down the scrubby, rock-strewn slope towards the road, in a single, raggedy battle line.
The Tartars were not slow to respond. They had seen the Hungarians burst out on to the road behind them, and now the onslaught of the duke’s men coming down the hillside and, despite being pinned against the river to the south, they scattered in almost all directions. Those furthest east, nearest the hamlet of Korneuburg, galloped on and escaped into the jumble of thatched huts and barns and kitchen gardens, whipping their ponies into an undignified scramble along muddy streets to escape the pursuing, heavily armoured Christian knights. Those furthest west turned to face Stephen of Dalmatia’s men, drawing short bows from wide scabbards on the horses’ withers and loosing wicked shafts at the gallop as they urged their mounts against their foes.
Those in the middle of the Tartar pack split apart like a fine glass bowl carelessly dropped on a kitchen floor, the dagger-like shards splintering out as the charging line of duke’s men-at-arms hit the Tartars like a sweeping broom.
Duke Frederick found himself face to face with a scowling devil under a black-plumed iron helm, a flat, pale face with twin spots of scarlet on the cheek, gleaming, deep-sunken black eyes and a feather of moustache above a red, snarling, gap-toothed mouth. The warrior effortlessly drew his short bow and loosed – and the wicked shaft thwacked into the face of duke’s red-and-white shield, the point punching right through and catching his mailed sleeve inside.
An instant later, the duke’s lance took the enemy rider high in the left shoulder and ripped him from the saddle. The long spear snapped mid-strike and Frederick immediately lost his grip on the wooden shaft. Then fumbling desperately for his arming sword, he saw one of his knights arch his back as a passing Tartar smacked a shaft deep into his lower spine from three yards away.
Screaming “For God and the Virgin”, the duke finally freed his long sword from the scabbard and kneed his destrier towards the nearest living opponent.
A clash of steel, the sparks visible, a glimpse of a dirty, hate-twisted face under a shapeless fur hat, and the duke was past the ferocious Tartar rider, and reining in on the banks of the Danube. He turned his horse, dug in the spurs and and rode back into the fray again. Another foe: a curve of silver catching the sunshine, his own blade, up, parrying, catching the blow. Then the riposte, completely by instinct, the long arming sword battering past the smaller man’s defence and hacking into the side of his neck. Bubbling blood from his mouth, the Tartar slumped down in the saddle, but he still had the strength to turn in the saddle and spit defiance. Frederick closed in again, yelling, and finished him with a sweep of his sword that severed his heathen head from his squat body.
Gulping down air, his own blood fizzing from the thrill of the action, Frederick looked about him. His exultant knights were scattered all over the road, most with bloody swords in their hands. The Tartar force had been vanquished – all the enemy riders were lying in the dust, or fleeing for their lives, one was trying to swim his frightened horse across half a mile of brown river. A knot of bloody captives was kneeling in the dirt, hands held up high in surrender, with Austrian knights circling them, swords lofted, ready to strike.
His breathing calmer, the duke saw his constable Heinrich, trotting along the rutted road towards him. He had a black arrow tangled in his cloak-hem but seemed not to have noticed.
“We did it, old friend. We struck a blow for Christ today,” he bellowed.
“Yes, sire.” Heinrich was now looking beyond his liege at the wretched Tartar prisoners kneeling in the road. “I regret to say, sire, Otto von Lichtendorf has fallen. He is with God. Count Siegfried, too, is wounded – shaft in the ribs.”
“Still, it was a noble victory, eh, Hen?”
“Indeed, sire. We must have culled two dozen of the devils between us. What, may I ask, do you intend to do with them?” He pointed at the prisoners.
The duke turned to look. “I had not thought. Hang them all without delay, I suppose. As an example and warning to the rest of their filthy, Hell-born breed.”
“Perhaps it might be wise to put them to the question first, sire. If we can find anyone who can speak their accursed heathen tongue.”
“You take charge of them, Hen, will you? There’s a good fellow. Do what you will. Hang ’em, question ’em, cut out their unbelieving hearts. I care not.”
But Heinrich was already stepping from his horse, oblivious of his lord.
He walked towards the nearest prisoner, and stopped before him, looking intently into his upturned face.
“Take off your helmet,” he said, in his native German.
The kneeling Tartar prisoner looked up at the German knight out of eyes the bright blue of cornflowers. He was a man of about fifty years, square jawed, lean. He reached up and slowly began to untie the straps that secured his helm.
“You understand me? My tongue?” Heinrich could not hide astonishment.
The man slipped the iron helmet off his head to reveal a thatch of faded, grey-streaked, sweat-matted but surely once-bright-blond hair.
The prisoner replied: “I do, my lord,” in that same language. “And French, Italian, Latin, Turkish, Arabic, Persian and more besides . . .”
“Sire!” called Heinrich. “Come, I beg you – come look at this one. Sire!”
The knight felt the presence of his liege lord looming at his right shoulder.
“God’s blood,” said the duke. “He is no Tartar. Who are you? Tell me this instant, my man. Be you damned heathen or honest Christian? Speak up, now!”
“Jesus Christ is my Lord and Saviour,” said the man, making the sign of the cross with his hand, forehead to heart, left shoulder to right. “I serve God in all that I do. I have never denied my Faith – and I never shall, even unto death.”
“Why then do you ride with these fiends from Hell?” demanded Heinrich.
The prisoner shook his head and said no more.
“Why do you keep company with the Devil’s horsemen?” said the duke, shoving the kneeling man’s shoulder hard. “Tell me!”
One of the other prisoners spoke then, the words harsh, as alien as the barking of a hound to the duke’s ears. To his surprise, the blond man answered him in that same foul tongue. He seemed to be ordering the man to stay silent.
“Speak like a Christian – and answer me. Why are you with them?” The duke was growing impatient. The prisoner simply shook his head once more.
“Heinrich, seize that fellow!” The duke pointed at the kneeling Tartar who had just spoken with the blond man. The older knight moved smartly to obey.
“Speak,” said the duke, “or I shall order your comrade’s throat opened.”
The older man merely closed his eyes and began to mumble something, familiar words, Latin words. “Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum . . .”
“Talk to me – or I shall end your comrade’s existence this instant!” The duke could feel anger rising in him, like a pot coming up to the boil. “Do it, Heinrich.” The duke nodded at the knight, who immediately passed his dagger across the Tartar’s throat.
The blond man ignored the sputtering blood and continued with his prayer.
“Speak up – or you’re next,” said the duke, now through his grinding teeth.
The kneeling man shook his head. The familiar Latin prayer droned on.
“Wait, Sire! Look again at his face. I know the man. I’ve seen him before.”
The duke stared at the prisoner. He frowned. “He does look a little . . .”
“In Pest, in the court of King Béla. In spring. With the Tartar ambassador.”
“God’s blood, you’re right. He was with their envoy; he was the translator who came with the Tartars, when they demanded the submission of Hungary.”
Frederick took the kneeling man by the chin and forced his face upwards.
“You are the Englishman,” he said. “You are the traitor to Christendom!”
Bit of other news: King of the North (Fire Born 4) will be published on September 28, 2023, but you can pre-order it from Amazon. And The Loki Sword (Fire Born 3) is now on sale for just 99p. Fill yer boots!