(The following is based on true events following the Battle of Ankara in 1402)
The tapping of the Amir’s cane woke the Sultan. The previous night had brought with it a strange calm before the thunderstorm that would follow, another strike of the thousands of tribesman ravaging Anatolia one town after another. It had been three months since his humiliating defeat at Ankara, where Timur the Lame’s men captured him and his delegation without much fuss.
The Sultan sat up from the tent cushions he was laying in. His wrists hadn’t felt chains since Timur ordered them off shortly after his capture, but he still knew the stinging of the iron on his skin. The burning associated with extreme cold shook him — it was not a feeling meant for someone of his blood. The old man walked over, a zestful bounce to his step for one in a cane, and sat across from him.
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“Assalamu Alaikum, Sultan.”
Timur raised a brow. “Oh…so many moons we’ve known each other, yet you insist on not returning the peace? To an old man nonetheless, and a cripple!”
“A cripple who imprisons me and my family…” Bayezid wiped his eyes and looked down at his emerald ring. Unlike most prisoners who end up in the hands of Mongol hordes, he wasn’t stripped of the valuables on his person. Other than his armor, he remained in the same garments he’d been captured in other than the extra shawl given to him to withstand the chilly fall nights.
“It is Allah who grants freedom and takes it away. Perhaps if you’d woken up for the dawn prayer you could have prayed for it.”
“Why would I pray for that which I know for a fact you won’t give me? Besides, if your savage horsemen hadn’t kept me up beforehand, then I’d have the strength to rise for it.”
Timur laughed, “I tapped your side with my cane three times and you didn’t wake up. No excuse!”
Bayezid scoffed with a smirk, playing with his ring. He looked up at Timur and stared into his narrow eyes. “And what of my Olivera this morning? I wish to know how she fares.”
“My personal servant girl checked on her. She remains in good health, though refuses to speak still. Up from on your behind, we must continue our ghazwa!” he said, the roughness with which he said the sparse Arabic words he knew rubbing on the ears of Bayezid like steel on the grindstone.
Timur’s army, the great horde of Turkmen, Mongols, and Tatars that spanned the horizons of the Anatolian countryside continued heading west, meandering around where they knew of more bounties to be had. Bayezid was kept on a horse by Timur’s right, who rode alongside a few of his many sons and grandsons, some servants, and his chief advisor and religious chief — Imam Abdul-Jabbar al-Khwarizmi. He was a scholar of the Hanafi Islamic school of jurisprudence, a man of Timur’s generation, who in addition to knowing the entire Quran by heart and countless hadith, would tell many tales of war in older times from across Arabia, Persia, and the Levant. Often Timur asked him to recite the Quran aloud as they strode in their long marches, hundreds at the front falling in silence as his soothing voice echoed across the fields.
Other times Khwarizmi told them stories of the earlier conquests of the beloved Prophet, peace be upon him, or his great companions whom Timur adored and admired. Bayezid knew it all of course, but was stunned at the matter in which Timur and his Mongols interpreted certain events from the Prophet’s ﷺ life. Their favorite story, as Timur said twice to him during his captivity (he’d forgotten he’d told it to him the first time), was the time the Prophet ﷺ ordered the execution of every adult male of the Banu Quraidha tribe for their treachery during the Battle of the Trench against the polytheists, with every woman and child taken captive to be either ransomed off or enslaved. Bayezid understood it from his teacher as a special circumstance — a fate reserved for those who break their oaths — but to Timur and his men, this represented the standard, as all whom he besieged and stacked the skulls of had betrayed Allah, His Messenger, and that Messenger’s nation by not submitting to him; the one with the real mandate to rule.
Bayezid was too despondent the first time Timur told him of it, but the second time he had built up the will to object, “I hate to be the one to tell you, Amir of Samarkand, but despite your belief in Allah and his Messenger ﷺ, you insist on the habits of your non-believing ancestors. Did your Imam not recite to you the verse in Surah al-Baqarah: ‘Allah bestows kingship on whom he wills’? It is indeed possible for a man to be qualified in every manner — to be of noble blood, as I am for example, to be granted riches and palaces, strength of body and mind, the love and admiration of the rest of mankind that inspires them to die for him — as both of us have — and yet still not gain kingship at all if he is not virtuous and fearful of Allah with whom he rules.”
Timur listened when Bayezid spoke, a nod given each time the Prophet ﷺ or his companions were mentioned. He remained quiet for a minute, none daring to answer on his behalf.
“Is this how you justify your defeat, Bayezid? Do you recite these verses out of genuine contemplation, or do you seek to deflect blame for the loss of your freedom at my hands? We could have avoided this. I wrote to you repeatedly to return my enemies whom you hosted despite my objections, and if you had and submitted, there would be love and peace between us. There is Allah’s will indeed, but what of man’s responsibility to his kith and kin? I found no trouble at all when your Turkmen defected from your ranks and joined mine. May I remind you of the time our dear Prophet ﷺ was in the thicket of battle with his enemies at Hunayn, and said those famous words: ‘I am the Messenger, without doubt, I am the son of Abdul-Muttalib!’ When his ranks were shaken, it was his shared blood with the Arabs he reminded them of that restored their courage. You claim to have surrendered to God’s will in this matter, but what use does such submission have when done without man’s common sense for the world around him, which runs on blood and gold? It is like the man at the mosque whom our Prophet ﷺ advised: Tie your camel, then go inside and pray! What you have done instead, my dear Sultan, was carelessly let your camel loose upon my fields, then cried and complained when I took possession of it! My offer still stands, dear Sultan. Pledge your lands to me, and I’ll turn this army north to return you and your family to Edirne myself!”
They rode for hours until they came upon a spring to water their cattle and themselves. Bayezid let out a deep sigh before he dismounted, mourning the beauty of his country that he’d lost to his enemies in what seemed like an instant. He thought about the fate of his sons, how they’d quarrel over his throne should his death be certain. The once brisk air that added speed and gusto to his riding did nothing now but chill to his grieving heart, the turning colors of the grass fields and forests reminding him of the fair hair of his beautiful Olivera. Bayezid knew Timur treated him better than the rest of his imprisoned delegation — but it was not enough. He continued to think of his lovely consort, of her intense suffering without him. How afraid must she feel, he thought, to be in such close proximity to these devilish animals that claimed to be of his faith?
A servant ran to Timur with a freshwater pouch, which the old man emptied in a few seconds. As he drank he spotted the sullen Bayezid, sitting on the bare grass watching from afar the servant girls as they rushed about in their duties. Timur pointed for the same servant to give water to Bayezid immediately, and walked over accompanied by Khwarizmi.
He said nothing as he approached the Sultan, who drank the water without hurry. Moments of silence passed between them as the time for their short rest was close to an end. Bayezid grabbed Timur’s arm with strength the latter didn’t think such a depressed prisoner could muster. He tried to pull him close but the old man barely moved, Bayezid pulled himself towards Timur instead. Swords were drawn but their Amir raised his hand, and the Tribesmen had frozen like statues.
“Swear to me by Allah, if there’s a shred of honor and respect between us as Muslims, that if I perish you will spare my wife and not take her into your harem. I will not beg or plead like a slave, but I appeal to you as a brother in faith, despite our differences.”
Timur furrowed his dark brows and wrinkling face, showing his teeth. “I told you before that I wouldn't harm her.”
“Swear anyway. You admired the Serbians as warriors did you not? Then as a token of your admiration swear you’ll release their princess unharmed. Allow her to return to her brother Stefan in the north.”
The old Amir rolled his eyes, looking towards Khwarizmi who shrugged his shoulders. The Imam didn’t have to speak for Timur to hear the hadith in his voice: ‘The merciful ones shall receive mercy by He who is most merciful,’
“Fine. By Allah, your wife will not be harmed should she become widowed. If a man so much as touches her hand, I’ll have his head.”
Bayezid said nothing back. Soon they’d continue their march, and though few words were said as the orange sun escaped behind the plains, Timur felt the relief emanating from his prisoner as a lightness descended on the sound of his breathing.
Weeks would pass, and two more villages were descended upon like a swarm of locust on fresh crops. Timur usually spared Bayezid the sights by keeping him at camp, but other times he was tied up and brought forth to be paraded — to mock the defeated and ignorant chieftains who in their fresh captivity threatened the wrath of their Sultan upon Timur and his armies. He was walked down the streets for the people to bear witness, hit in the calves by a guard each time he tried to hide his face with his garments. Many young Turkmen taken prisoner opted to join Timur’s army when granted the opportunity and had little qualm raiding their own neighboring villages with tribes they’d been rivaling for as long as they could remember. It was not just to teach the newly-conquered that Bayezid was humiliated in this way; dirty, downtrodden, the dark eyes of his despair foretelling the fate of those who weren’t killed outright, but to show Bayezid himself where the loyalties of these converted tribes lay.
“Do you see, dear Sultan? Blood really does matter after all!”
Bayezid spat on the ground, prompting Timur to frown.
“It could be far worse, Bayezid! I could have put you in a palanquin, like a bird,” the Amir said, laughing as he rode through victorious.
Later in the night, after some light drinking, Timur walked over attended by his sons to the camp of the female servants and prisoners. He’d picked one of the new captives for himself, as did his sons. They’d developed a ratio after some time — for every hundred girls they had taken captive, there was always one or two gems among them that had great potential for the royal harem.
After Timur made his pick, passing by he saw the acclaimed Olivera. The scene was nothing like he’d ever witnessed, reminding him of the ancient mosaics his men uncovered in the Byzantine tombs of Syria. Olivera sat at the center of the tent, surrounded by dozens of captive girls engaged in no other activity besides lounging about, each sitting in a manner primed to get the best look at the princess from where they were. The princess, though no longer in the prime of her youth, proved more beautiful and enrapturing than nearly every other woman there. The grace of her calm look inspired these new captives to forget their own uncertain fates, as they admired a high veteran of their predicament.
One of Timur’s sons scoffed, “You are free to take her, father. What right does the defeated Sultan, stripped of all glory, have to object? All he can do is weep about it.”
The old man tapped his cane twice before entering. He adjusted his turban, spat into his fingers to comb down the stray hairs of his mustache. The picturesque scene was destroyed, like a colony of fish making way for him as they crawled to the edges of the tent in terror. Olivera, still seated in the center, looked up at him with emerald-green eyes that told of indifference rather than fear. Timur snapped his fingers at some servants he recognized and pointed to the ground in front of him, in an instant some patterned cushions were placed for him right across from her. He ordered his sons outside by the door, a toothy and yellow smile in the center of his black beard.
“Are you comfortable, Despina Hatun?”
She said nothing. Olivera still wore the Ottoman gown she was in at the time of her capture, a modest covering that left nothing but her face exposed. The hijab portion was loosened such that Timur could see the front locks of her braided hair, but nothing else. Her eyes darted at him up and down as he played with the pommel of his cane, waiting for an answer. Eventually, he spoke again.
“Your countrymen, the Serbian knights…I must admit they fought very well at Ankara, like packs of lions who preferred death over dishonor. I expected them to desert your husband and flee, as did the Tatars and Turkmen who joined me in turn. Instead, loyalty seems to be a strong suit of your people. Am I mistaken?”
Olivera shook her head. He’d gotten a reaction at least, it was progress. Timur continued, joking about his sons and grandsons, about the foolish mistakes some of his men made who were recent converts to Islam (leading to their execution), he even poked fun at some of the servant girls he knew Olivera would recognize. As he did so, he saw her relax as the minutes of their one-sided conversation went by. Her shoulders dropped, and her eyes stopped looking toward his blade and the tent’s entrance. Eventually, he realized it was futile. The poor woman must have gone in shock when captured and lost her ability to utter another word. He’d seen it before.
He rose with the help of his cane and turned, but as he was a few steps from the curtain he heard a voice bordering on sultriness.
“What…what will you do with my husband?”
Timur looked back. It was indeed her that spoke, as every other girl in the enclosure had their hands on their mouths fearing they’d be accused of an offense. He went back to where he was and sat back down.
“I have not decided. Are you hoping I spare him?”
“I do not rely on hope anymore, Amir. All I know is you parade him at each town and village we cross, so it seems you do not wish to kill him, at least not now.”
“And who says I won’t kill him when I’m done parading him? Your husband has offended me and my people in a great way, a debt remains in place.”
“So you do plan on it eventually?”
“It is not a clear decision. You wouldn’t understand.”
In an instant, Olivera’s face changed. She was inquisitive when she began speaking, now she shrugged her shoulders in a lack of care not seen from the most pompous of royal girls Timur witnessed across his life.
“I don’t need to understand. What will happen to me, though? Will I become yours?”
Timur squinted and pulled his head back. She seemed to have thought ahead in the case of Bayezid’s demise. He could only remember the panicking, neurotic Sultan earlier; whose foresight for his kingdom and men was halted by the fate of this measly princess. Yet despite the shock of what he heard, he didn’t tell her what was agreed upon between him and her husband. The situation had grown interesting to him.
Timur chuckled. “Your heart does not seem warm to him anymore, I see?”
Olivera breathed in before she spoke again. She didn’t move from her place, but seemed to have gotten closer. “My heart has never been warm to him. I was married to him as a young woman so peace between my people and his would be possible, and in the past twelve years, it was I who kept that peace standing, in the many times he was tempted to break it.”
“So you’re indifferent to his death?”
“No…rather I prefer it. In truth, Amir, I despise him. He has borne me no children and still insists his dastardly practices and beliefs on me, despite my objections. I have heard of the endless cruelties of you Mongols, but dealing with him upon his return from each battle was cruelty of its own! You tell me now my people fought beside him gallantly to the end, yet he ridiculed them to my face before that fateful day!”
The old Timur listened quietly, his face on his palm as he pondered in astonishment. The words of Bayezid struck his ears over and over like the trampling of horses. Swear by Allah! Spare my wife! My Olivera!
She continued when she saw Timur had nothing to say, “Please, Amir, if you do plan on killing him, allow me one request. You know despite my captivity that my status is far higher than any servant girl…may I ask one thing be done before you are rid of him.”
Timur clenched his fist. Olivera looked to the other girls, then leaned into the old man before she even had a response and whispered into his ear. When he leaned back after she said it, Timur looked away to see both his sons still standing at the entrance, each of their heads turned inwards with relentless curiosity.
“So,” she asked, “Is it possible?”
Timur fell silent for a moment, thinking. He then nodded in the affirmative. “It is…a servant will make the arrangements.”
He saw the princess smile, in an instant he was filled with disgust. He stood back up and walked off, not even paying mind to his sons who followed right behind him. He breathed out in the cold night, shaking his head. “La illaha illa Allah, there is no God but the one God,” he muttered. Indeed, he had not witnessed such wickedness up close before this day.
They were in the final leg of their journey across Anatolia, to lay siege to Smyrna, now in the hands of the Christians. Out of nowhere, Timur decided they should have a feast to celebrate their endless victories thus far. Their camp was quickly prepared for the occasion, a center table set up for the Amir, his family, and his greatest generals. Bayezid, much to his surprise, was taken out of the prisoner’s tent and directed to sit across from Timur at that very table. He caught many stares and wicked smiles from the Mongols as the celebration went underway. A number of bloody duels took place, wrestling matches, even some dancing. Before food was allowed to be served, however, Timur ordered Khwarizmi to open the occasion with a prayer for their good health and prosperity. All fell silent as he read some verses from the Quran raising his hands to the heavens, saying the prayer in Arabic first, then Chagatai. There was no translation to the Turkish of Bayezid.
The food was put out, mostly scavenged and looted from raids as well as some wild game caught on the march. The servant girls rushed past, going back and forth with the food and drink in a shaking hurry as if their lives were at stake. Bayezid smiled at their nervousness, but the entertaining sight did nothing to calm his own nerves. He looked over to Timur who did not eat much, which was unusual. The Amir was an old man, but ate plentiful for one so energetic, yet to retire from the thrill of warfare. Bayezid found the calm to begin eating, realizing the food wasn’t much better than what he was served the entire three months he’d been captive.
As he ate, he noticed all at once a commotion ensuing around him. It seemed everyone was looking either to the front of the table, or to himself. It took one glance to see why.
Bayezid’s heart dropped. Worse still, it felt as if it were ripped out of his rib cage and cut into a thousand pieces. A sense of burning and discomfort worse than any rusted chain overtook his head and chest, he felt he could drop dead in an instant. He didn’t even have the strength to say her name aloud, let alone yell it in a bout of righteous gheerah, for indeed his throat clenched up from the shock.
Olivera walked along the side of the table with her chin held high, in her same Ottoman garments, holding a bottle of wine. She came beside Timur, and that’s when it happened. She looked Bayezid right in the eye as she poured in his enemy’s cup, the unmistakable scorn pouring out of her gaze in kind. Timur sat with a neutral face at first, but upon seeing the color drain from Bayezid’s face he instead spoke to him with just the wrinkles of his forehead as if to say: do you see clearly now, who you argued so hard to protect?
For the remainder of the feast, Bayezid wouldn’t utter a word nor consume another morsel. His hands weren’t even seen upon the table again. When it was time to retire from the celebration, Bayezid followed the guards with no protest and his eyes to the floor. Olivera was sent back to her own tent, similarly despondent despite receiving her request in full.
The morning came, and out climbed Timur from his covers for the dawn prayer. A servant arrived with a bucket of water as the Amir pushed aside the concubine at each side of him. He performed the ritual washing, then went out in the breeze over to the prisoner’s tent. He entered upon Bayezid, who once again was asleep. He knocked him with his cane, nothing. He did it twice more, except the third time it was done with enough force that Bayezid turned — and Timur saw his blue lips. He fell to his knees and felt the Sultan’s cold skin, and screamed immediately for the servant to fetch his personal doctors. In the time it took for them to come, Timur looked down and noticed Bayezid’s ring. The gemstone was gone, a half-drop of dark liquid still moist upon the signet. He was driven to such a rage that he broke his cane against the back of one of the guards outside the tent.
The army did not move for hours as they awaited further orders. Before further commotion was drawn up, a command came. The entire delegation of the late Sultan was to be released, with Olivera herself to be escorted on her own to the lands of the north. Ahead of her and her escort, a horseman was sent with a letter of introduction to Prince Stefan of Serbia.
When their journey resumed, nothing but the hooves of horses would be heard at the front of the march. No Quran, no hadith, no stories. Timur rode quietly as he soon saw the high castle walls of Smyrna on the horizon. Still, he could not think of how to conduct the siege. How absurd, he thought, the fate that Allah had ascribed to the wicked and mendacious creatures He had formed called “humans”, and how frivolous their wants were. His foe was not a dumb or weak man. The Sultan had won every battle he’d fought before he’d encountered Timur, he was an appreciator of poetry and Islamic knowledge like himself, and of noble blood. Yet despite it all, he was as blind to the hatred of one so important to him as an old farm dog. How could such a man conquer so much, yet remain so ignorant, Timur thought.
Then, he began to laugh. He laughed harder than he had in months. Maybe it’s just as outrageous, Timur the Lame thought, that a crippled boy would go on to conquer the lands of his fathers, all of Khorasan, the Levant even, in less than the average man’s lifetime. How truly worthless this world is, as you have said oh Allah, if this is how gold and land are distributed amongst your creation. How utterly worthless!
Timur ghazi realized what he chased was far greater. The reason for his gallivanting, his insistence on riding and fighting as a crippled old man, razing a miniature hell wherever he saw fit — he needed an escape into the world that was eternal, heaven or hell it may be, that unlike this one actually meant something to his Creator. When he reached Smyrna, he laid siege to the Knights of Rhodes in their sea-castle for two weeks and breached their outer wall. The garrison and its inhabitants were destroyed completely, and each knight who withstood the siege was beheaded.
The fourth son of the late Bayezid, Mehmed, became Timur’s vassal. In the year 1402 the Amir began his return to Samarkand. Armenia, the Levant, and Georgia had not yet recovered from their razing. Baghdad was conquered, twice. When he finally reached home, Timur spent nine months celebrating his victories. He was the master of Asia.
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This was really good, and that ending, hot damn... I do hope fiction becomes a regular feature of this substack, I was on the fence with buying your book (since I'm not a huge fan of historical fiction) but you just earned yourself a reader brother!