The Frank reached two long fingers and a thumb into the wound in his hat, grimaced and with difficulty jerked out the dagger from the post. He turned the freed hat in his hands, suppressing the urge to stroke it, it seemed to the mahout, the way he himself would stroke the stubbled croup of a beloved dam as she expired. With an air of incalculable gravity, as if confiding the icon of a household god, the Frank passed the hat to the stripling and carried the dagger across the room to the African, who had long since returned to his bowl of stew.
I believe, sir, the Frank informed the African, speaking again in good Byzantine Greek, that you have mislaid the implement required for the cleaning of your hooves. The Frank jabbed the point of the dagger down into the table beside the shatranj board, jostling the pieces. If I am mistaken as to the actual nature of your lower extremities, I beg you to join me in the courtyard of this house, at your leisure but preferably soon, so that, with the pedagogical instrument of your choice, you may educate me.
The Frank waited. The one-eyed mahout and the stripling, wondering, waited. By the door to the inn yard, where the ostler leaned, whispered odds were laid and taken, and the mahout heard the clink of coins and the squeak of a chalk wielded by the ostler, a Svan who disdained the distinction between turning a profit from seeing to the comfort of his guests and that of turning one from watching them die.
Im sorry to report, the African said, rising to his feet, his head brushing the beams of the sloping roof, speaking in the lilting, bastardized Greek used among the mercenary legions of the emperor at Constantinople, that my hearing shares in the general decay of the broken-down black-assed old wreck you see before you.
The African yanked the shard of Arab steel from the table and with it went in search of the Franks voice box, ending his quest no farther from the pale knuckle of the Franks throat than the width of the blade itself. The Frank fell back, bumping into a pair of Armenian wool factors at whom he glared as if it were some clumsiness of theirs and not his cowardly instinct for self-preservation that had cost him his footing.
But I take your gist, the African said, returning the dagger to his boot. On the ostlers slate the odds began to run heavily against the Frank.
The African restored the shatranj board and pieces to a leather pouch, wiped his lips and then pushed past the Frank, past the craning heads along the benches and went out into the inn yard to kill or be killed by his insulter. As the men trooped after him into the torch-lit courtyard, carrying cups of wine, wiping their bearded chins on their forearms, the weapons belonging to the combatants were fetched from a rack in the stable.
If because of his immensity, the span of his arms and his homicidal air, and despite his protestations of senescence, which were universally regarded as gamesmanship, the betting had been inclined to favor the African before the weapons were fetched, the arming of the two men decided it. The Frank carried only a long, absurdly thin bodkin that might serve, in a pinch, to roast a couple of birds over an open fire, if they were not too plump. The travelers had a good laugh at the tailor with his needle and then pondered the mystery of the Africans choice of sidearm, a huge Viking ax, its haft an orgy of interpenetrating runes, the quarter-moon of its blade glowing cold, as with satisfied recollection of all the heads it had ever lopped from spouting necks.
Under the full moon of the month of Mehr, with the torches hissing, the African and the Frank circled an ambit of packed earth. The Frank minced and scissored on his walking-stick legs, the tip of his bodkin indicating the heart of the African, glancing from time to time at his own fine black boots as they threaded a course through the archipelago of camel and horse turds. The African employed an odd crabwise scuttling style of circling, knees bent, eyes fixed on the Frank, the ax held loosely in his left fist. The awkward, almost fond way they went about readying themselves to murder each other moved the old mahout, who had trained a thousand war elephants to kill and so recognized the professional quality of the interest these two combatants were taking in the fight. But the other travelers jostling under the eaves and archways of the inn yard, who knew nothing of the intimacy of slaughter, grew impatient. They jeered the combatants, urging them to hurry so they could all finish their suppers and file off to bed. Half-maddened by boredom, they doubled their wagers. Word of the duel had reached the village down the hill, and the gate of the inn yard was lively with women, children and sad-faced lean men with heroic moustaches. Boys climbed to the roof of the inn, shook their fists and hooted as the Frank and the African emptied their heads of last regrets.
Excerpted from Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon Copyright © 2007 by Michael Chabon. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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