Leaving the Mountain
Voices outside the tent woke Iskander and Osman as they lay rolled in their blankets.
‘What’s the matter, Yacut?’ Their father sounded surprised to see his brother so early in the morning. ’I didn’t think we were hunting today.’
‘The Sultan’s agents are in the area, Ali.’ The twins sat up in horror. ‘I came to warn you. They’re bound to want one of your boys.’
‘You didn’t tell them to come here?’ The twins could picture their father’s angry glare from his tone.
‘I didn’t have to. They knew already there was a boy of the right age in your tribe - they probably heard about the twins when they took Jelal. You can’t avoid the youth-levy, Ali.’ His voice was almost smug. Jelal, his eldest son, had been a slave in the Sultan’s palace for three years now, and Yacut clearly didn’t see why Ali’s family shouldn’t go through the same pain of separation.
The twins stared at each other, hardly breathing. This was what they’d been afraid of since their cousin left. Silence now descended outside, and when they peeped out, they saw Ali and Yacut arguing at the far end of the encampment, well out of earshot. Then Yacut rode off and Ali came striding back to their tent, scowling. The twins quickly lay down and pretended to be asleep.
‘Wake up, boys. Get going. I don’t like the look of the weather. Get the flocks in.’
He said nothing to them about Yacut’s visit, but as they ate their bread and honey they could hear him talking quietly but urgently to their mother Fatima outside. He was obviously trying to calm her down, and when she hurried into the tent she immediately hugged her sons fiercely.
The Janissaries are here again, but don’t worry, boys, I’m not going to let the Sultan get hold of any son of mine. Baba’s agreed we must leave as soon as possible for our winter quarters. If we trek down to the Ruined City now they might never catch up with us. Hurry, get the animals in.’
Iskander and Osman grabbed their crooks and ran up the mountainside. The sheep and goats seemed to sense they were leaving and were scattered far and wide over the slopes, eating as if they’d never see grass again. The twins didn’t start work at once. As soon as they were high enough to be out of sight, they sat down in a favourite hollow.
‘What do you think Baba’s going to do, Iskander?’
‘If only we didn’t have Yacut for an uncle. He’s determined that one of us is going to join Jelal – he goes on and on at Baba about what an honour it is to serve the Sultan.’
‘But Baba doesn’t want us to go. He won’t give in, surely?’
‘I’m afraid Amja Yacut will go on and on at him until he does.’ The boys stared at each other. ‘Our uncle is a horrible evil man, Osman. I hate him, I really hate him.’ Iskander thwacked his stick against a rock as if he was hitting Yacut. Osman had never seen his twin so angry. ‘And I’m the one who will be sent to be the Sultan’s slave.’
‘Why you? It’s just as likely to be me.’
‘You know that’s not true.’
They stared at each other, their eyes saying more than their tongues. They both knew Iskander was right – not only was he the eldest by half an hour, but Ali always picked on him: blamed him first and beat him first. He never praised him first. In fact, now that Iskander was almost as tall and strong as his father, Osman suspected Baba feared him almost more than he loved him. It hurt Osman to realize he was his father’s favourite.
The twins weren’t identical. In fact, they looked so different people were always surprised to learn they were twins. Iskander was a head taller than Osman, and had a reddish tinge to his hair like his mother’s. Both boys had their father’s black eyes but luckily neither had inherited his big hawked nose or narrow mouth. Osman’s face was round and merry, and he was popular with everyone because of his sunny nature and his extraordinary ability to twist his body into strange shapes, or successfully fold himself into a basket that looked far too small, while grinning happily at his audience before he vanished from sight. Iskander was much shyer than his twin, and so reserved some people took him to be haughty.
Osman broke the silence. ‘Cheer up, Iskander. We’ve got Ana on our side. It won’t happen if she has anything to do with it.’
‘She’s got no power over Baba. He’s under Amja Yacut’s thumb.’
Iskander whacked the rock again for good measure and his herding crook broke in two. They grinned ruefully at each other.
‘You start to collect the animals, Osman, I’ll go down and get Baba’s crook.’
Osman watched him bouncing down to their nomad encampment far below. He could see Fatima and his sisters Leila and Gul busy outside the tent, and signs of activity up and down the lines of black goat-hair tents as others decided to leave early too since Ali, their chieftain, was leaving.
Osman turned to look up at the mountain above him. The far-away peak was always snow-covered and sometimes bit into bright blue sky, but today it wore a heavy ring of dark cloud like a turban. Circling beside the peak was an eagle, and Osman groaned. If it spotted he was on his own it would dive for a kid or a lamb. He willed it to stay high until his twin rejoined him.
Iskander ran into the family tent and stopped short. Ali was crouched on the floor, with his saddle lying upside down beside him. He was stuffing gold coins into a secret hiding place in the pommel, and was clearly furious Iskander had seen him.
‘What are you doing here? Get out!’ he hissed as he threw some loose wool over the gold to hide it, but he couldn’t turn the saddle over quickly so it lay there with its ingenious hiding place only too visible.
‘Sorry, Baba, I need to borrow your crook, mine’s broken –‘ gabbled Iskander.
‘You’ve come to spy on me!’
‘No, Baba, it was just the crook – ‘ Fear almost made Iskander run, but he needed the crook or he’d be in worse trouble. He edged towards the centre pole but his father grabbed the crook first and hit him with it.
‘You saw everything, you little sneak!’ He lifted it again.
‘I am not a sneak.’ Iskander stared his father out as he waited for the blow to fall, but Ali slowly lowered the crook before turning away as if ashamed.
‘Sit down, sit down.’ Iskander slowly sank onto his own kilim, trembling all over. There was a silence while his father calmed down a little before sitting too.
‘Now you listen to me, Iskander. I intended to keep this hiding place secret, but now you’ve seen it. I want you must promise never, never to tell anyone about it. Not even Osman.’
‘I promise,’ whispered Iskander.
‘Anyway, maybe it’s for the best that one member of the family knows about it besides me.’ Ali quickly finished stowing the gold into a leather pouch before stuffing it into the saddle with some loose wool as a plug before tying a flap over it. ‘See, I turn the saddle over and no one would ever guess anything was hidden there. I made it myself. Clever, isn’t it?’
‘Very clever, Baba.’
‘You’re wondering where this gold came from, aren’t you?‘
Iskander nodded nervously. He’d never seen so many little gold coins.
‘I found it in an old tomb.’ But Iskander wondered why his father was looking so shifty - hunting for treasure was nothing unusual. Lots of men did it, dreaming of gold. He waited as Ali sucked his teeth – he was clearly debating how much to tell his son.
‘I don’t often find gold and unfortunately Yacut heard wind of it. He was angry because since he’d found that tomb first and told me about it, we should share the gold. I refused. Why should I? He hadn’t found the gold. We had a blazing row, then he got violent so I pretended to give in and took him to where I said I’d hidden the gold and of course it wasn’t there. I told him it must have been stolen.’
‘Did he believe you?’
Ali shrugged and sighed. ‘He doesn’t believe anyone when gold is involved.’
Iskander began to understand why Yacut was trying so hard to get the Janissaries take away one of Ali’s sons: - he wanted to punish his younger brother.
‘I’ve never trusted Yacut, Iskander. Terrible thing to say but it’s true. He’s a greedy man. He’d take my share as well as his. He’s a gambler, so he’s always short of money. He’s cheated me a lot over the years.’ Ali’s whisper was loaded with bitterness. ‘Just for once, I decided I’d hold out against him.’
At that moment they heard footsteps.
‘Hush, Ana’s coming.’ Ali swiftly put the saddle in its usual place in front of the hearth where it did duty as his fireside seat.
‘She doesn’t know about any of this?’ Iskander pointed at the saddle.
His father shook his head. ‘Nobody knows except you, and I’ll beat all the skin off your back if you tell anyone.’ Then he pushed the crook at Iskander and waved him out of the door as Fatima and the girls came in.
Iskander ran back up the mountain with his mind in turmoil. This secret frightened him. He thought his father was unwise to hide the gold and risk Yacut’s fury, and he wondered how he was going to keep the whole thing secret anyway. He’d never held anything back from Osman in his life. Osman would guess something had happened the moment he looked at him. Iskander tried to banish the fear and worry from his face. But luckily all Osman’s attention was on the eagle now hovering over the flock, and he began shouting and pointing the moment he saw Iskander.
‘Go that way, Iskander, head it off!’
Osman had already starting running while Iskander took the opposite path, so that in no time the two boys were either side of the spread-out flock of sheep and goats. They started to herd the animals together, trying to leave none behind, but as usual the animals panicked and a lamb got separated from its mother. The eagle spotted it at once.
‘Over there, Osman! Quick, quick –‘
Osman ran as fast as he knew how, but he could see that the eagle had stopped hovering and was coming down like a stone. The lamb was standing still and bleating, its legs quivering as it watched Osman hurtling towards it. When Osman threw himself on the small furry body he was aware of a rush of air and a beating of wings, and claws gripped his shoulders for an agonizing second as the eagle landed before taking off again. He rolled over with the lamb in his arms, and rushed back to his brother.
Iskander stroked the animal to calm it. ‘We’d have got such a beating if we’d lost you, little lamb.’ He nuzzled its face.
‘The eagle beat me instead.’ Though his shoulders hurt, Osman laughed. ‘I won that time, but that eagle’s hungry. He’s still up there.’
‘He’ll go on watching – he won’t give up until the animals are in their pen. Come on, let’s get them down there as quick as we can.’
Eagles had already carried away two lambs and one kid, a disaster for the nomad family. Watching the herd closely, they made their way down to the spring near the encampment where their elder sister Leila was scrubbing the big copper pot that was the family’s proudest possession. It was bigger than anyone’s in the tribe and it usually rode on the lead camel, perched high to show it off, as they travelled down to their winter pastures. The boys stopped beside her as the animals took a drink, noticing that she looked very pleased with herself.
But they didn’t have to ask why, because Leila announced proudly:
‘Ana and Baba have decided I’m going to show I’m ready to be married.’
They gawped at their sister. Though she was fifteen, nearly three years older than they were, it had never occurred to them she’d be doing the trek tomorrow all dressed up in her best to indicate to other tribes she was open to offers of marriage.
‘Well, that’s not very gracious, boys. Aren’t you going to congratulate me?’
‘Didn’t know we had to until some man was mad enough to offer to be your husband.’
‘Don’t be so cheeky, Osman –‘
There was a sudden rushing flapping sound behind them, followed by bleating that quickly grew fainter. They swung round and there was the eagle flying triumphantly towards the mountain peak with a young lamb struggling in its talons. Osman started to run up the mountain screaming in rage.
‘No, no, no, no! Drop it! Drop it now!’
But though it was still flying low because it found the load heavy, the eagle didn’t falter. They heard the lamb bleating desperately until it was out of earshot. Once it was high enough the eagle suddenly let go of the lamb so that it would die on impact with the rocks, immediately plunging after it and rising through the air with the little carcass, its limp legs swinging.
‘Now we’re in for it.’ Iskander had gone pale. ‘I can’t take another of Baba’s beatings.’
Osman returned with tears in his eyes. ‘That eagle would never have got away with it if we hadn’t been talking to you, Leila -‘
‘Don’t worry, boys. I’ll explain to Baba.’ Leila picked up the shining pot and balanced it on her head. ‘It really wasn’t your fault. I’ll tell him I distracted you.’ She started the walk back. ‘Relax.’
‘He won’t believe you.’
She turned and stared her brothers, her expression fierce under the big copper pot. ’Oh yes he will. Leave it to me.’
As they collected the herd together again, sleet began to fall.