Since I haven’t posted any extracts from my own fiction for a while, I decided today it was time I did so again.
This chapter is a taster (hopefully) from my story The Tiger and the Cauldron, set in the late 13th century in Italy and the Mongol Empire:
Nadia supposed at first it was a simple dream, that she was a small child again and lay on a silk-draped suffah in a beautiful garden. Roses grew all round her. The perfume of their newly-opened buds wafted through the arbours and over the walls and terraces. There were arboreta of cherry and citrus, and shrubberies of oleander, myrtle and tamarisk. The scattered miniature pavilions were covered in cascading jasmine.
She seemed to recognise the place, not as any real garden she had ever visited, but as a scene from a story she had once heard, or as a picture from a book. At her head, a tiny fountain spurted into a pool filled with golden carp; at her feet, a pair of peacocks strutted in all their finery on a lawn of chamomile.
As she searched her memory for the name and location of this paradise, she found herself looking down at the scene from afar, as if the wish, that she recapture its joys, had lifted her out of her body and transported her to some ethereal plane.
The girl on the suffah rose and, passing along an avenue of cedars, came to another spot where two fast-running streams from unseen parts of the garden met and flowed together over a rocky ledge into a cleft. At its foot, the waters poured then into a black cauldron in which they bubbled and frothed as if heated by an invisible fire.
When she reached the water’s edge, the girl turned round and Nadia saw to her horror that she had been transformed. Instead of the appealing features of a child, she had the wide snout, fierce eyes and snarling jaws of a wild beast. The rest of her too began to change and in the space of two heartbeats Nadia saw a feline creature with a lithe, muscular body, glossy coat striped in black and gold, and massive, flesh-tearing paws.
It leapt over the ledge. The garden vanished. Now Nadia was looking down on a wasteland of sand, rock and decaying vegetation. The black cauldron was still there, pouring forth its contents into a wide river that wended its way through grey gorges and over the featureless landscape. On the far side was a human figure shrouded in grey. Though Nadia could not see its face, her heart gave a leap of anguish for she knew without doubt that it was her son, Hassan. He approached the cauldron. Drank from it. On the near bank crouched the tiger, watching him. Its gold and black haunches were drawn up, its huge ringed tail swung lazily back and forth and its ferocious teeth were bared in a snarl. Something lay between its paws, something that had human shape even if it was no living creature. It’s features and robes were black and on its head it wore a black crown.
Nadia gasped even as the vision ended. Her heart was beating very fast. She knew only too clearly the meaning of what she had seen. The object caught between the tiger’s claws had been a piece from a game of chess. It was the shah mata – the toppled black king.
‘A tiger and a cauldron?’ said Grazia. ‘Like all dreams, it is fantasy.’
‘Yet it has meaning,’ said Nadia. ‘The Persian storytellers are fond of symbols, of allegory. It is what you call …’ She closed her eyes, searching for a word. ‘… metaphor, I think. People are likened to objects or animals they resemble … in stature, appearance, or trait of character.’
‘It’s a common element too in our poetry.’
‘The cauldron and the toppled chess piece mean danger for Hassan. That I know.’
‘I know it, Mama. The word for cauldron in the Turkish language is ghazan – the name of Arghun’s eldest son.’
‘And the tiger, Nadia? What danger do you speak of?’
‘I do not yet know, but in my heart …’ She seemed distracted and broke off in mid sentence. When she spoke again her voice was almost inaudible. ‘… farzin-band.’
Grazia caught the word but did not understand its meaning. ‘What is farzin-band?’
At the sound of the question, Nadia snapped out of her daydream. ‘You are familiar with the game of chess, Mama,’ she said. ‘I will show you.’
In the room in which they sat was a small table, its surface inlaid with red and white sandalwood, the colours alternating in a pattern of sixty-four squares. Nadia went to a closet and returned with a box containing a set of chess pieces. She selected a few and placed them on the board.
‘Now, Mama, you will play black and I shall be white.’
Grazia studied the disposition of the pieces. Her king lay two squares from the left corner, protected only by a castle and a stray pawn. At the opposite end of the board, the white king and queen sat together, as if presiding over the game.
‘But you have placed me in check, Nadia,’ she cried.
‘As you say, Mama. You cannot capture the asb – the horseman – for he is three squares away. And the rukh cannot help you – nor the foot-soldier. There is but one move open to you.’
Tentatively, Grazia slid her king one square to the left. She knew it was hopeless, that it was only a matter of time, but she wished to see the game played out to the end.
Nadia moved and it was over.
‘Now you see the power of the queen,’ she said. ‘How subtly she weaves her magic; how skilfully she commands the battlefield. Farzin-band! She protects or she deals the death blow!’
‘We women are stronger than men think,’ said Grazia. ‘Nevertheless I still do not grasp the metaphor.’
‘My son wishes to go to Ghazan,’ said Nadia, ‘… to the cauldron. Perhaps he believes he can help him gain the throne that is rightfully his.’
‘Then Gaikatu Khan is the tiger?’
‘No, Mama!’ Nadia flicked the black king with a forefinger and it toppled on the board. ‘Gaikatu is already dead!’
‘Dead! How can you know that?’
‘I know it, Mama. Be it God’s breath in my ear, or the whisperings of a sinister daeva, I know it.’ Nadia reached forward and placed her hand on top of Grazia’s and the two women sat in silence for several moments.
‘Then the tiger is ….?’
Nadia shook her head and pressed her mother-in-law’s hand.
‘I do not know who the tiger is,’ she said, ‘but I know for certain that therein lies the danger. My son is still a child.’
‘He’s fifteen. Already a warrior, I hear.’
‘A warrior in a man’s world,’ said Nadia. ‘In the ways of women, he is an innocent!’
She paused and pressed Grazia’s hand even more tightly.
‘I may not fully understand the meaning of the tiger,’ she said solemnly, ‘but this I know. The tiger is king among beasts, but it is also queen! It is the farzin! You see, Mama, the creature in my vision was a she-tiger. It was a female!’
[The Tiger and the Cauldron, first published in 2004 as a print book is now available as an e-book from Amazon