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Siberian Adventure

The Forbidden Territory

by Dennis Wheatley

I wrote a few months ago that I was planning to re-read some of Dennis Wheatley’s novels. The first three of my choices were reviewed at the time:





The Forbidden Territory is my fourth choice. It is Wheatley’s first novel, published in 1933, and introduces the characters that would appear later in some of his black magic stories. The Forbidden Territory is not about black magic. It is a conventional thriller, set in the early Soviet Union in the years between the World Wars.

The Duke de Richleau has received a mysterious coded letter from eastern Europe which he decrypts with the help of his friend Simon Aron. Their American friend, Rex van Ryn, is in prison somewhere in Russia – probably Siberia – and the Duke and Simon embark on a rescue mission.

In the course of their adventure, Simon falls for Valeria Petrovna, a darling of the Russian stage while the Duke uses his contacts (not to mention his considerable wealth) to locate the prison where Rex is held. He learns that Rex has been searching for a long-lost cache of jewels belonging to Shulimov, a minor Russian prince who fled the Revolution, and has stumbled into a secret territory forbidden to tourists.

The three men resort to some desperate measures to break Rex out of prison and, having done so, they take refuge with Marie Lou, a Franco-Russian girl who turns out to be the daughter of Shulimov. Now wanted by the authorities for murder and theft, they flee for their lives from the snows of Siberia towards the border with Rumania, taking Marie Lou with them.

They don’t make it and the three men are caught, arrested and imprisoned. Marie Lou makes her way to Moscow to plead with Petrovna to intervene.

wheatleyThe problem with this kind of story is that to reveal too much in a review risks introducing spoilers. So I will add only that the resolution introduces the fourth member of the de Richleau coterie, Richard Eaton. Eaton, as readers of the black magic stories will know, marries Marie Lou – and you will have to read The Forbidden Territory to discover how that comes about.

The jewels? Well, again, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

Wheatley’s first novel is fast-paced and very readable. His depiction of Stalinist Russia and its version of the communist ideal is quite realistic and probably accurate. The characters do have a very narrow outlook on the world (so it seems to me) and though this book is not quite as ‘non-PC’ as some of Wheatley’s other novels, I do sometimes cringe at their language and assumptions. However, the 1920s and 1930s were, I suppose, the age of the gentleman adventurer in fiction – rich, bored and well-connected – so the reader needs to bear that in mind when judging.

Re-reading after about three decades, I still enjoyed it.



Another Tale of Love and Death

Continuing the German theme of a day or two ago, I decided to feature another work that I like – literally a tale of love and death, or to give it its proper title, The Song of the Love and Death of Standard Bearer Christoph Rilke

Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke

by Rainer Maria Rilke

This poem, composed in 1899, a story of war and its senseless waste, of the dreams and fleeting pleasures of vanishing youth, became a kind of bible  for German soldiers travelling to the front in 1914. It is a true classic of German literature and almost certainly the most popular of Rilke’s works.

Right from the start it goes straight to the emotions with its picture of sagging courage and the intense longing for home::

‘Reiten, reiten, reiten, durch den Tag, durch die Nacht, durch den Tag …. und der Mut ist so müde geworden und die Sehnsucht so gross.’

[Ride, ride, ride, by day, by night, by day…. so weary our spirit, so great our longing.]

Eighteen-year-old Christoph Rilke von Langenau rides to war against the Ottoman Empire in the mid 17th century alongside a French marquis. As they cross harsh, dry terrain, they talk of their mothers and their sweethearts. They sit by watchfires and sing of their homelands. Language is no barrier because each and every man has a mother. The marquis takes a rose from inside his tunic and kisses it. When he and  Langenau finally part to join their respective regiments, the marquis pulls off a petal and gives it to his young companion, who now ‘… lächelt traurig:  ihn schützt eine fremde Frau.’ [smiles sadly: he is watched over by a foreign woman]

Langenau comes before the general, Count Spork, with a letter of recommendation and is appointed standard-bearer. The army rides out to engage the Turks, camps by the River Raba (a tributary of the Danube). Langenau begins writing a letter to his mother. They ride out again, find bodies, come to a castle, are welcomed by a fanfare and by barking dogs. The enemy is nearby.


SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA[page L – Langenau writes to his mother – ‘Be proud – I bear the flag, do not worry: I bear the flag, love me: I bear the flag …’]
[page R – They ride over a slain peasant, eyes wide open, no heaven reflects therein. Later  … a village …huts … a castle … Listen! Clammer, clatter, baying dogs … neighing, hoofbeats and shouts.’]
(photo from my own copy of ‘Die Weise’)


They are able to rest. There is food, wine, dancing, women and a proper bed. Langenau endulges his youthful fantasies, but it is not always clear where the dream begins and reality ends. ‘Die Turmstube ist dunkel … Fast wie Kinder … drängen sie sich einander ein. Er fragt nicht “Dein gemahl?” Sie fragt nicht “Dein namen?” ‘ [The room in the tower is dark  … they cling to one another like (fearful) children. He doesn’t ask about her husband, she doesn’t ask his name.]


SANYO DIGITAL CAMERA[last page – In the castle, his tunic was burned, his letter too, and the rose petal of a foreign lady. – The following spring, one that came sadly and coldly, a courier from Baron Pirovano rode slowly into Langenau. There he left an old woman weeping.]
(photo from my own copy of ‘Die Weise’)


The remainder of the poem returns to the realities of war. The enemy attacks and fires the castle. Langenau seizes the flag and goes out to meet them, throws himself among them. He smiles – he imagines himself in a garden.  – He is surrounded and cut down: ‘… die sechzehn runden Säbel, die auf ihn zuspringen, Strahl um Strahl, sind ein Fest. Eine lachende Wasserkunft.’      [the sixteen scimitars that rush towards him – flash upon flash – are a celebration – a fountain.]


I found it helpful in understanding the text to read up on the historical background. Without it, the character of the marquis and the reference to many languages are a little puzzling. In 1663, the Ottomans attacked Transylvania, part of the Habsburg Austrian Empire. Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor raised an army to oppose them. Even Louis XIV of France responded and a mish-mash of German, Hungarian, Croatian and French troops eventually drove the Grand Vizier’s army back.

Die Weise von Liebe und Tod is something of a fantasy of youth, one filled with metaphor, romantic ideas and sensual language. But it has realism too in its description of the desolate, war-torn countryside and in the build-up to the final battle.



A Tale of Love and Death



Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué


November is German Literature Month apparently – see the hosting site :


so I thought I might read (re-read as it happens) one of my favourite classical German works.

Despite the rather French-sounding name, Fouqué was German and wrote his 1810/11 novella in that language.

English readers are probably more used to the ‘fairy tales’ of Hans Christian Andersen and if looking for a parallel to Fouqué one is likely to find it in Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. The theme of Undine is similar and from the same corner of folk memory – some might even argue, from the same dark corner as the vampire: – the search by a mythical or supernatural being for a soul.

Undine is a charming, bitter-sweet love story, and though perhaps its ending might be considered satisfying in one sense, it is not a tale of the traditionally ‘happily-ever-after’ kind.

The old fisherman and his wife have lost their infant daughter to the waters of the lake where he makes his living. This lake is truly beautiful, but on its fringes lies an enchanted forest where all sorts of mischievous beings play tricks on human beings foolish enough to cross it.

‘Was er in manchem stürmigen Nàchten von den Geheimnissen des Forstes getraümte hatte, zuckte ihm nun auf einmal durch den Sinn, vor allem das Bild eines riesenmässig langen, schneeweissen Mannes …’

[What he had dreamed during many a stormy night of the forest’s secrets now flashed through his mind, above all the image of a gigantic man all in white …]

One evening, many years later, the fisherman is sitting by the lakeside mending his nets when out of the forest comes the knight Huldbrand, to whom he offers hospitality. Their cosy fireside chat is interrupted by the playful, self-willed Undine who, the fisherman explains is his eighteen-year-old adopted daughter.  Huldbrand immediately falls in love with the beautiful girl and she with him.

The fisherman’s cottage is now cut off from the mainland by a violent storm and for the time being the four live together, Huldbrand and Undine as  a betrothed couple. One evening an old priest who has been cast into the lake from a boat arrives at the door and he agrees to marry the young pair. The morning after the wedding night Undine seems changed. She is less wild, less playful. She tells Huldbrand her origins, that she is actually a water spirit, daughter of a mighty prince of the Mediterranean who has sent her to the upper world to acquire a soul by marrying a mortal.

‘ “Darum haben wir auch keine Seelen; das Element bewegt uns, gehorcht uns oft, solange wir leben, zerstaübt uns immer, sobald wir sterben, und wir sind lustig, ohne uns irgend zu grämen …” ‘

[‘And so we have no souls; we are moved by the elements, indeed they obey us as long as we live, but scatter us like dust when we die; and without anything to vex us we are happy …’]

The storm waters having receded, courtesy of Undine’s uncle, the river spirit Kühleborn, the young married couple travel to the nearest city, where Hulbrand finds Bertalda, the foster daughter of a duke and duchess, the girl who sent him on his quest through the dark forest in the first place. Despite being upset at his marriage, Bertalda befriends Undine.

But all does not go well. The malicious Kühleborn reveals to Undine that Bertalda is the true daughter of the old fisher couple and that he has arranged the switch when they were children. Bertalda is not at all pleased to discover her secret. She rages at the world and becomes very jealous of Undine. Huldbrand too begins to be fearful of his lovely wife and turns more and more to Bertalda. But Undine continues to love them both. To prevent Kühleborn coming into Huldbrand’s castle, she tells workmen to seal the fountain in the courtyard with a huge stone. She warns him however that he must never cause her to weep over water else her elemental relatives will regain power over her. Worse, should they ever have cause to send her back to him it will mean his death. Huldbrand disregards the warning and when the three are in a boat on the Danube, he rebukes Undine and she vanishes into the river.

‘ “Ach, holder Freund, ach, lebe wohl! Sie sollen dir nichts tun, nur bleibe treu, dass ich dir abwehren kann …” ‘

[‘Farewell, dearest friend, farewell! (The elements) will not hurt you, only stay true so that I can protect you from them …’]

With Undine gone, Huldbrand, heedless of all the warnings that his wife still lives, arranges to marry Bertalda. On their wedding night, Bertalda has the stone removed from the fountain, which allows Undine into the castle. She appears to Huldbrand in his bedchamber and kills him with a kiss.

‘ “Sie haben den Brunnen aufgemacht” sagte sie leise, “und nun bin ich hier, und nun muss du sterben.” ‘

[‘They have opened up the fountain,’ she said softly. ‘I am here now and it is time for you to die.’]

Fouqué, rather like – and maybe anticipating – Hans Andersen, invokes nature both in its raw beauty and, to quote Tennyson, ‘red in tooth and claw’. In spite of its underlying Christian ideas and morality, Undine is at once a romance and a supernatural thriller. In places, it borders on the gothic and were it not for its rather quaint language – both in the original and in translation – it might well fit into the modern horror genre. The manner of Huldbrand’s end tingles the spine on subsequent as well as on first readings. This reader for one has little sympathy with Bertalda and can’t help feeling the hero knight comes off better than he deserved.

‘… sie küsste ihn mit ein himmlischen Kusse, aber sie liess ihn nicht mehr los, sie drückte ihn inniger an sich und weinte, als wolle sie ihre Seele fortweinen.’

[… she kissed him with a heavenly kiss, and did not release him but held him even closer to her and wept as if she would weep her soul away.]


(The Undine statue pictured above is in the city of Baden in Germany.)


Women Behind the Throne – Part Three

Sorqoqtani – ‘Munificence and Benefaction’

Shirimun and the sons of Ghaimish opposed the election of Mangke as Great Khan. They prevaricated and would not attend the quriltai to endorse the appointment. When they did at last set out for the Mongol homelands, it was with mischievous intent – or so the contemporary historians would have us believe. According to Wilhelm van Ruysbroeck, ‘ … Siremon … went in great state towards Mangu as if to do him homage. In truth, however, he intended to kill him…’
There are several versions of the story, but all are agreed that the supposed conspirators were put to death, including Shirimun, Ghaimish and her progeny. When it came to punishment, the women could be just as vindictive as the men and Sorqoqtani proved she had a savage streak equal to that of any of her male associates.


Mangke came to the throne as Great Khan in the summer of 1251. His priority was to restore order and unity to the Empire. The royal family had been divided by disputes and Temuchin’s grand design had been forgotten. Since Ogodai’s death, many of the princes had gone their own way, disregarding the assemblies, issuing decrees of their own and raising their own taxes. Mangke’s first task was to reorganise the army, which he divided and gave into the charge of two of his younger brothers. Kublai became commander-in-chief of the eastern divisions, Hulegu of the western. Mangke himself would support Kublai in completing the conquest of China; Hulegu would go to Persia and extend Mongol domination to the Mediterranean.

The new Khan also ordered a census of population, wealth and military capability throughout his empire, a policy designed to flush out extra taxes. He repealed the old tax laws and gave orders that no local decrees were to be issued without his express authority. Every citizen should pay according to his wealth. The clergy – Muslim, Christian and Buddhist – were exempt, as were the very old and infirm.

It must have seemed to the fourth son of Sorqoqtani, Ariq Boke, that he was being sidelined. Like his father before him, he had to be content for the present with responsibility for the Mongol heartlands. Mongol history records that it was not a situation he would tolerate for long.


Mangke ruled the Mongol Empire for another seven years. His brother and successor, Kublai, would rule it for thirty-four, not the last but certainly the greatest world emperor of his dynasty.

Sorqoqtani died in 1252, still very much the mother figure and supporter of good causes. Among her many projects was the founding of an Islamic college in Bukhara. She was by no means the last woman to exercise a powerful influence on the Mongol princes of Asia. Chabi, wife of Kublai, and Doquz, wife of Hulegu also played important roles in forging a stable empire.

What was the truth about these women? Both Ghaimish and Toregene, along with her confidante Fatima, (1) have been cast on the basis of contemporary opinion as scheming harpies. Khan Mangke, in a letter to the King of France later described Ghaimish as viler than a dog. Doquz for her part in sparing Christian lives during Hulegu’s sacking of Baghdad was venerated in the writings of the Christian historians Bar-Hebraeus and Kirakos. The former called her a ‘second Helen’; the latter that ‘she lived piously, aiding and supporting the Christians.’ In all probability, none was either better or worse than her male counterpart.

However, Sorqoqtani remains unique in the story of the Mongol Empire. Praised by her contemporaries, she has even made it into a 21st century book for children. (2)

I will let the Persian Ata-Malik Juvaini have the last word;

‘And her hand was ever open in munificence and benefaction, and although she was a follower of Jesus she would bestow alms and presents upon imams and sheikhs and strove also to revive the sacred observance of the faith of Muhammad (may peace be upon him).’ (3)

[This article was adapted from Chapters 5 and 6 of my book The Lion, the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky.]

‘1. See Parts One and Two

2. Sorghaghtani of Mongolia by Shirin Yim Bridges – Goosebottom Books

3. The translation is that of Professor JA Boyle from The History of the World Conqueror


Women Behind the Throne – Part Two

Sorqoqtani Makes Her Move

Toregene Khatun managed to delay the quriltai until 1246 but by then she was ill. She must have recognised that her son Guyuk was a weak man, even more of a drunkard than his father but without Ogodai’s good nature. The quriltai formally endorsed Guyuk as Great Khan. The coronation was a lavish affair and brought to Mongolia – among others – Giovanni di Pian del Carpini, a Franciscan monk sent by the Christian Pope. Carpini did not have an easy time in Mongolia. He was nearly seventy years old in 1246 and was subjected to conditions that a much younger person would have found arduous. However, it was he who brought back to Europe the first detailed account of the Mongols and their ways.


Having relinquished her hold on the empire and given her son his chance, Toregene succumbed to age and died within a year of his accession. Guyuk did not long survive her. He died in 1248, poisoned some said by his wife Ghaimish, leaving a vacuum that only another strong woman had the political acumen to fill.


For fifteen years, Sorqoqtani had been ruler in her own right of a huge territory comprising not only the Mongol homelands but Northern China as well. Her husband Tolui, Temuchin’s youngest son, had not long survived his accession as its Khan. Hulagu_2During those years, Sorqoqtani had received ambassadors, dispensed favours and was a chosen counsellor of many of the Mongol princes, including Ogodai himself. She had brought up her sons in the traditions of Genghis Khan and had ensured their broad education at her court. Though a Christian, she gave generously to Muslim and other causes. During Guyuk’s brief reign, she had formed a strong alliance with Batu of the Golden Horde, having warned him of Guyuk’s intention to invade. Batu had not supported Guyuk’s accession and had not attended the coronation.

Sorqoqtani’s wisdom was about to pay off. She would see that her sons inherited the Empire.

On Guyuk’s death, the regency fell according to custom to Ghaimish. Neither Sorqoqtani nor Batu disputed the arrangement. Ghaimish, like Toregene, was a Merkit, but unlike Toregene she was a lightweight and would be easy to control. Moreover, her children were too young to be eligible for the throne. Ghaimish, eager to retain power in the House of Ogodai, put forward a nephew for the khanship, but he was too distantly related to Genghis Khan to be acceptable.

Shirimun was again a candidate. Batu, the eldest prince, and himself a grandson, was a strong contender, but he stayed loyal to his alliance. Either he was content with his own kingdom – the Golden Horde – or, mindful of the cloud over his father’s legitimacy, *** felt that the sons of Tolui had a better claim. At the first quriltai – held in his territory – he nominated Mangke, Sorqoqtani’s eldest. Ogodai’s family sent agents but stayed away.

There is little doubt that Mangke was the best candidate. A brilliant general in his own right, he also had three brothers who had seen action and had led armies to victory. Sorqoqtani argued his case skilfully. The throne should go to a grandson of Genghis rather than a great-grandson; since Batu, the first choice, had declined, her son was the next in line. Her arguments prevailed.

Mangke was enthroned as Great Khan – but not without blood being spilt.

*** Temuchin’s eldest son, Jochi, may have been passed over in favour of Ogodai for this reason.


(next: Part Three – the judgement of history)

Women behind the Throne – Part One

Sorqoqtani and the Mongol Succession

[adapted from Chapter 5 of my book The Lion, the Sun and the Eternal Blue Sky]

In Mongolia, where Temuchin (Genghis Khan) is honoured today as a national hero, women enjoy a remarkable degree of economic and social independence compared to their counterparts in some other Asian countries. And, when studying the Mongol Empire of the 13th century, one cannot help but conclude that the emancipation of women in those days had proceeded far beyond anything existing in Christian Europe.

The dualist nature of Mongol beliefs and superstition lent itself to giving equally important roles to male and female. Tengri, the Eternal Blue Sky, represented the male; Itugen, Mother Earth, and the waters were female. Some later Khans would call into question and bend this simple philosophy by acts that demean women – enslavement, prostitution and even mass rape, but to Temuchin himself it was an all-guiding principle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Great Khans ruled half the world. But often it was their wives who held the reins of power. The Mongol women of the Steppes knew how to fight; they could handle bow and sword, often with great skill. Their responsibilities went far beyond cooking, housekeeping and caring for young children to managing the clan economy. When the military leaders were away on campaign, they made political decisions and commanded armies for the defence of the cities.

One such woman was Princess Sorqoqtani. She was born around 1190 in the Chinese province of Xi-Xia, where her father, Jakha, was a prominent military commander. Jakha belonged to the Keraits, one of the great tribes of Mongolia. He was the brother of Toghrul, the Kerait chieftain once foster-father of Temuchin – Genghis Khan – soon to be World Conqueror.

In the first decade of the thirteenth century, Jakha returned to Mongolia and joined forces with Genghis against the natural sons of Toghrul, who resented the young Mongol’s power and influence. And when Genghis stood finally on the pinnacle of lordship over the tribes, their alliance was cemented in two marriages. The World Conqueror took Jakha’s elder daughter Ibaqa for himself and gave Sorqoqtani as a bride to his youngest son, Tolui. In the years that followed, those two would have four sons whose names have resounded through the centuries almost as much as that of Temuchin himself – Mangke, Kublai, Ariq and Hulegu.

Sorqoqtani was never wife of a Great Khan but she was an ambitious and resourceful woman. The contemporary historian Ata-Malik Juvaini says of her that reports of her wisdom and counsel had spread across the Empire and that no one would challenge it. Rashid ad-Din describes her as being on a different level from all other women in the world. Juvaini even quotes lines from a tenth century Arab poet in praise of her. If all women were like that, he says, women would surely be the superior sex, strong sentiments from a Muslim man whom one might expect to take a negative attitude to women in politics!

OgodeiCorminiOn his father’s death, Tolui took over responsibility for the Mongol homeland. Had he become Great Khan, it is possible that Mongol and world history might have been very different. Sorqoqtani, like the majority of her clan, the Keraits, had been brought up a Christian. Thus, as a woman of strong character, she would have been in an ideal position to woo the Khans away from their native shamanistic ways and convert them to Christianity.

There is no evidence that such a thought was ever in Temuchin’s mind or in the minds of the imperial family. However, the modern historian John Man, in his biography of Genghis Khan, hints that it may have been fear of such a loss of identity that caused Tolui to be passed over as heir to the empire. Instead, Sorqoqtani became queen of the Steppes. Her time and that of her sons had not yet come.


Temuchin’s empire passed to his son Ogodai, who ruled as Great Khan for twelve years. Towards the end of his reign, power began to drift into the hands of his wife Toregene Khatun. * Toregene came from the Merkit clan, another of the Steppes peoples conquered by Genghis, and her history was similar to that of Sorqoqtani. Though not the eldest of Ogodai’s wives, she was certainly the most capable. She was also the mother of his eldest son Guyuk.

The Persian historians Juvaini and Rashid depict Toregene unfavourably as cunning, masterful, ugly and a shrew. How could it be otherwise! Even today, successful women are rarely given proper credit for their accomplishments. Toregene undoubtedly had a ruthless streak, and was particularly vindictive when it came to dealing with politicians – and even princes – who openly defied her. But these were characteristics to be found in equal measure in the Mongol men.

When Ogodai died, she took power. Dismissing the rights of Moge, Ogodai’s senior wife, she persuaded his brothers and nephews to grant her the regency. Guyuk had not been Ogodai’s choice as successor – the Great Khan himself had named instead a grandson, Shirimun – and Toregene needed time to groom her son into an acceptable candidate.

By distributing favours and gifts, she softened up the rival princes, with the exception of Batu, Khan of the Golden Horde, who remained intransigent. Sorqoqtani, the one princess who might have challenged Toregene’s supremacy, stood aside. By following her instincts and those of her four sons, and by combining their strength with that of Batu, she might have made a difference. She chose not to. Even if she had dared question tradition in the matter of the succession, she may have felt her support was inadequate to mount serious opposition.

It would be another five years before Sorquoqtani came into her own.


Toregene postponed the quriltai * indefinitely and set about making her mark on the politics of the Empire. She appointed her own ministers, including a number of women, of whom the most influential was Fatima Khatun. The title was unfortunate, because this Fatima was certainly no princess or lady. She had once been what we would call today a ‘Madam’ and was recruited by Toregene principally to spy on her relations.
The Empress may have been a shrew, but she seems to have been one who knew how to keep men on her side. From a Persian perspective, she may have had little to offer, but the Juvainis at least had reason to be grateful to her. Baha ad-Din, father of the historian, who could have so easily been brought down in the political scheming of Qaraqorum, survived the fall of his superior, the Persian governor, Korguz.
Moreover, in the end, Toregene may have done some good for it was during her reign and under her patronage that there came to prominence in Persia the man who would become its most effective and longest-serving governor. Known as the Emir Arghun, or Arghun Aqa, to distinguish him from the later Il-khan, he was undoubtedly responsible for reshaping Persia over the next thirty years.

As for Korguz, he was arrested and brought to court, though he was denied an audience with Toregene, possibly as the case was filtered through Fatima. She would have nothing to do with him and sent him on to the Chagataid Mongols who had him executed by suffocation. His mouth was filled with stones until he stopped breathing. The fate of Fatima was even more gruesome: having later fallen foul of Guyuk and having lost his mother’s protection, she was starved and beaten until she confessed to witchcraft and other spurious crimes. Finally, her torturers sewed up all her orifices and suffocated her in a rolled-up carpet. To make triply sure, they tossed the bundle into the nearest river. Such was the barbarity – perhaps even the originality – of Mongol methods.


* quriltai = the council of nobles called to elect or confirm the new emperor

** khatun = princess or lady

(next: Part Two: Sorqoqtani and Batu join forces)


The Future in the Fire

from The Il-khan’s Wife

(In my novel The Il-khan’s Wife, Gobras is a priest, patriarch of the followers of Zoroaster. Although old and blind, he often has dreams of future events . . . . )



‘The fire in the hearth was low and Gobras was dreaming. So often now, in the solitary silence of early evening, he withdrew into his own world of dreams and visions, where spectres of the past and realities of the present mingled indistinguishably with phantoms of the future.

‘Sometimes he was in the grand temple of Istakhr, or in the palace at Ctesiphon. where the ghosts of priests and kings, pale shades, still offered their prayers and sacrifices. On other days, he was at the altar in Kerman, suffering again with the unavenged souls of the innocents condemned by a lie and slaughtered there.

‘Tonight, the images were clear. He was in a room lit by candles. Their flickering light illuminated paintings of animals and birds that decorated the walls. The air was filled with the scent of burning herbs and resins. In the shadows, two figures moved. Their robes were the colour of congealed blood, their faces hidden by dark hoods.

‘Near the centre of the room was a bed, on it the body of a man. His linen and the pillows on which he lay were stained red. His eyes were wide and staring, From behind his clenched teeth came the sound of gurgling. One of the shadowy figures approached, in his hand an object that glistened in the candlelight. The man on the bed reached towards it, seized it. Then, overcome by violent spasms of his chest and arms, he released it and fell back on the pillows. His teeth parted, the gurgling grew louder and from his open mouth erupted a torrent of blood.







‘In his dream, Gobras froze in horror. The bright object had fallen on the floor, a gold cross with the span of a man’s hand whose hooked arms were turned to the left and at whose centre was the engraving of a crescent moon.

‘And as the Patriarch watched, the arms blackened and shrivelled until nothing remained but a bundle of smouldering ash.’


(The Il-khan’s Wife is currently available as a Kindle book from Amazon UK for only £0.99. It is also available from Amazon.com and other sites.)



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