Work Header

The Heart of the Heart of the World

Work Text:

Today she is being Alp, the bek of Khazaria. She sits on the back of Cunegunde, the oldest and most honored of her growing herd of nearly two dozen elephants. Behind her is an army. Chorpan, the tarkhan of her southern forces, sits beside her in the howdah on Cunegunde’s broad back. They are passing between them one of the ingenious Persian glasses obtained from the Radanites, looking through it across the valley to where another army is gathering. An unfortunately much larger army.

“We have Crimea now,” Chorpan says. “The southern cities have always thought themselves as part of the Caliphate. Why not let them have what they want?”

She snorts, and Cunegunde flaps her ears as if in agreement. “The Caliph of Baghdad already thinks those cities are his, so why is he going to war over them? He thinks this is his chance to take us completely; he won‘t stop until he reaches Atil itself.”

Chorpan squints through the Persian glass again. “He certainly brought enough men to conquer Byzantium and Rus put together.”

“Yes,” she says, “but not enough for Khazaria.”


Today she is the bek, but perhaps tomorrow she will be the kagan instead, alone on her island with only the old Wend and her elephants for company. She will stay there for many days, leaving Chorpan on the bek’s tripod in her absence. She will live in the slow and the calm and the silence with no human ear to speak to and no human voice to hear until the rush of the wind sounds like words. She sometimes takes to sleeping among her elephants as she did as a child. She stays until her thoughts slow and spread, becoming as great and ponderous as her companions. By then she will be unconcerned with the small doings of men and armies and politics, and all that she will see is the long march of nations and history. When she speaks it is with the voice of ages. She is mother, father, and lover to her people, who speaks on their behalf to God and his angels. She is the kagan.


Cunegunde, Chorpan, and the rest of her army are all waiting in a valley very familiar to her -- she spent a memorable night here long ago, tied and gagged with Amram and Hanukkah bound beside her, awaiting her return to Buljan in the hands of the Arsiyah. The steep green cliffsides rise around her as she blocks the way. To reach any further into Khazaria, the Caliph will have to come along this road; the other mountain passes are too far and too indirect for him. The sea and the road to Atil are both at her back. She has spent days with Chorpan and her generals, considering maps, consulting spies, and arguing loudly until she decided on this time and this place.

And so here they are, in the place marked in red on the map in her hands. The armies of the Caliph are here as well, pouring into the valley from the western road. She has plans in case of defeat, routes of retreat, reinforcements placed strategically between here and Atil. This is something she has learned in her years as the bek -- that planning for failure is not failure, that pride can be as damaging as cowardice.

But here, now, all her mind is on the army before her, the bow and quiver strapped to her back, the sword at her side, the spearmen and archers in the howdah beside her, the thousands of men and horses and elephants who are waiting for her command. There is no room for plans of retreat, for worries of the Rus causing trouble in Crimea or for thoughts of friends far away.

This too is something she has learned -- that she can only be one person in one place in one time.


When the kagan's pronouncement is done, she comes back to the black tower. The book is still there, the book of maps she saw once as a little girl and again so many years later. She hasn’t opened it. She has more freedom now than she had hoped for when she first claimed the tower, the island, and the bek’s tripod; more freedom than the last kagan, but it is nothing like the brief handful she had grasped among the gentlemen of the road. If she opened that book, she would never be able to resist when Zelikman and Amram appear again.


This is not her first battle, nor her tenth, nor her twentieth. She has scars now. Wounds from many wars. One, on her arm, was so deep they had feared for her life. What would happen to them, to lose both bek and kagan in one day? There is no one who could take her place, no one like her.

She should probably stay behind, direct the battle from the safety of the rearguard. She can feel Chorpan’s eyes on her now, but he knows better than to suggest it. The kagan of Khazaria has never ridden into battle; the bek always has. And today she is the bek.

Instead of saying something so foolish she’d have to push him off the back of the elephant, Chorpan hands her the Persian glass again. “Do you see the general?”

She squints, hunting along the backs of horses and elephants for the grandest banner. “There, on the big male.”

“Could you hit him from this distance?” Chorpan asks her, teasingly. He had taught her himself how to swing a sword with intent rather than anger, but even the best instructors have not been able to turn her into an archer. She still carries them because swords do her no good from twenty feet in the air, and because aim isn’t exactly necessary to hit a man on a horse from the back of an elephant at ten yards distance.

“No, but I can put a feather in your hat if you like.” She steadies the glass on the unsteady edge of the howdah and Cunegunde obligingly holds still for her. “He doesn’t look too concerned. Are you sure your spies can count?”

“Can you count? Of course he doesn’t look concerned. Why should he be? He only has twice our numbers. No doubt you think he should be shaking with fear.”

She turns the glass on him, his face distorted and huge through the flat clear beads. Chorpan frowns at her and pushes the glass away. “What?”

“I was wondering if the glass would see through that illusion of youth to the old man you are underneath.”

Chorpan scowls. “You shouldn’t be so dismissive of age; all soldiers dream of living to be old men.”

She laughs, “I promise you, I will never be an old man.”


Not that Zelikman and Amram ever have appeared again. She received a gift once of orange fruit from the east, wizened and dry but still good, brought by Khitai traders with smiling countenances who also came bearing assurances that they would be paid for the delivery from the Khazar coffers. She had laughed and given them food, drink, dirhams, and an offer of hospitality. She sank her teeth into the bright fruit, juice running down her chin as she asked for news of her friends.


She leaves Chorpan to wallow in his anticipation of doom, climbing out of the howdah to lie flat on her stomach along Cunegunde's neck and head, her arms folded on the great rounded domes of the elephant's skull. The scent of elephant surrounds her, a more comforting scent than any she can imagine, save the smell of victory.

Cunegunde too has her scars, just as new. They were neither of them born for war. But Cunegunde has taken to it, trumpets a fierce cry as she thunders towards her enemies, trampling and dashing aside men and horses and arrows and spears.

Chorpan disapproves, she knows, because the elephants were the downfall of her father. "Don't count on those beasts," he'll say, "Elephants are all show. Build catapults, hire men. We could hire a hundred mercenaries for that price."

It's not worth an answer. Her fate is bound up with elephants even more tightly than her father's -- she is here today only because Cunegunde chose to defend her against the Rus, bashing out a man's brains for her. Without elephants, without her life as Filaq, without the Brotherhood, she would be nothing.

She reaches out a hand to stroke along Cunegunde's fanlike ear. This close, she can feel the enormous heartbeat as if it is her own, thudding slow and deep and endless.


Once in a great while, the men who knew her as Filaq come to her -- Hanukkah, rounder than ever; a few Arsiyah who escaped Buljan’s net; those of her Brotherhood of the Elephant who chose to stay in Atil and serve the new bek rather than return to their burned and looted homes in the south. They spirit her out of the Qomr to the dosshouse of Princess Celestial Hind where they drink until the dawn breaks, singing loud songs of glory and love. They treat her like they did in those days, as their imperious, impulsive, proud and foolish Little Elephant, part leader and part pet. She ducks her head and glares as they ruffle her hair, casting her famous insults like flowers into the crowd to hear their roars of laughter.


She only gets a moment, she can only take a moment, before it's time. Three beats of Cunegunde's heart, a fourth. An instant snatched from the battlefield. She doesn't get many of these, but they are when she feels the most herself.

A fifth heartbeat, and it's over. There are orders to be given, charges to lead, heads to remove from shoulders and invading armies to crush beneath the feet of her elephants.

"Ready?" Chorpan says from behind her.

She nods and stands, balancing delicately on Cunegunde's neck, one hand on the howdah for balance and one hand on her sword.


But none of that is today. Today she is Alp. Today she is Alp, the fearless son of the old bek, returned from his bondage with the Rus to lead his people. She handles a sword as if she grew up taking lessons in war from scarred and battered tutors, not merely watching wide-eyed from a hidden corner. She commands her troops in a voice loud and pure and high and obeyed without question. She no longer binds herself to hide who she is, because she is Alp, she is the bek, and the armies of Khazaria march at her command as steadily as the armies of her enemies fly before her.


The army of the Caliph is not flying yet.

They have finally arrived, arrayed across the narrow valley, waiting for their general’s signal. She can feel the energy in her own army, their restless lust for action, the men and horses alike straining forward in anticipation.

She raises her arm, looking around and meeting the eyes of her generals. Now.


And in her secret heart, in the room inside her head where no man may enter, she is the name her father gave her that no living mind remembers. She is the girl who played at her father’s feet, who huddled by his side on a frozen journey to a sacred island, who gave her mother a gift of a carved wooden lump that was supposed to be an elephant. She is a sister and a daughter and, once, a lover. She visits this inner room, this inner self, very seldom, content to peek through the crack in the door from time to time to glimpse its shadows. But she is careful not to forget that it is here. She is careful that no matter how far gone she is in the meditations of the kagan, how much her blood is singing in battle as the bek, how deeply she is buried in memories of her time as Filaq, there is always in the heart of her an unmoving, unchanging stone that carries, carved too deeply to be worn away, the letters of her true name.


She shouts her command, Cunegunde moves forward, and Khazaria follows behind.