“Do you miss the old places Eto?” Says Bulbul.
“I miss the old tea. This English breakfast does nothing for me.” Replies Eto.
“I am serious. I miss the tea, the landscape, the people. Yes, I miss the old places.”
“I feel like we used to live. But now, driving these people day after day, that’s not a life.” Says Bulbul, waving a hand at the taxi rank outside.
“It was a hard life. Would you swap back?” Asks Eto.
Bulbul doesn’t answer.
“Tell me a story about the old places, Eto.”
“Tell me about the siege at Toprak Kala.”
“Where do you want me to start?”
“Start the night before, with Claude and the astronomer.”
Eto smiles. He will indulge his friend. Taking a sip of the English breakfast tea, he pushes his chair back to make space for his hands to move.
“Four of us lie on our backs on the roof of the palace at Toprak Kala. The night sky is a sea of stars. We’re in the best company, Aadi the mahout has been sharing his hashish, and we’re well fed. These are good times.
‘Callippus, you’re an astronomer. How many stars in the sky?’ Asks Claude Harroche, his accent thick with Aadi’s smoke.
‘How many grains of sand in the desert?’ Answers Callippus.
‘Imagine this. Imagine each of those stars is a sun. Around each of those suns are worlds. Millions of them. You know what that means, Callippus?’
‘Out there, on one of those other worlds, there are beings lying on a rooftop looking into their own night sky and talking about us.’ Says Harroche.
‘How do you know this?’ Asks Callippus. Claude smiles into the sky, the stars smile back.
‘Maybe they visit us.’ Replies Claude.
‘I always thought you were odd.’ Replies Bulbul and the four of us laugh.
‘We are not alone.’ Hoots Callippus.
“Aren’t we?” Pipes up a boy at the next table. He has been drawn into Eto’s storytelling and Eto is delighted.
“What’s your name?” Asks Eto.
“I’m Theo.” Replies the boy.
“Well, Theo, we are not alone. That is true, but that is not the story. The story is much more dangerous than that. Would you like to hear it?”
The boy nods and he too is not alone. A curious quiet has come over the Station Cafe. Eto’s voice projection and hand movements have sucked in the customers. All are listening, although some pretend not to. Eto begins.
“The next morning we wake to the gravelly sound of Bulbul drawing up his morning phlegm. He pulls himself to his feet and sends a bullet of gritty saliva soaring through the morning air before stepping towards the edge of the roof to piss. He stops in his tracks.
‘What’s up?’ I ask, knowing nothing comes between Bulbul and his morning evacuations.
‘We are not alone.’ He says.
‘Hilarious. We are not alone.’ I say, parroting Callippus’ words from the night before.
‘No really. Look, we are not alone.’ Says Bulbul.
The four of us line up on the edge of the roof. Claude Harroche, Bulbul the trader, Callippus the Astronomer and me, Eto the player. In the distance smoke and dust drifts upwards to meet the mare’s tail clouds that streak white across the pale dawn sky.
‘Merde.’ Says Harroche.
‘What is it?’ Asks Callippus.
‘An army.’ Says Bulbul. ‘A big one.’
‘What are they doing here?’ Says Callippus.
‘Why does any army show up at a Royal Palace?’ Replies Bulbul.
‘There is going to be one hell of a fight.’ Says Claude. ‘And we’ll be stuck in the middle of it. God help us.’
Before the implications have sunk in, Aadi the mahout bursts onto the roof.
‘They’re gone, they’re all gone.’ He yells.
‘Calm down, boy.’ Says Claude. ‘Slow down. Tell us everything.’
‘All of them, the Royals, the fighters, everyone.’
‘Is anyone still here?’ Asks Harroche, his voice soothing.
‘Us from the caravan, the hareem girls, Eto’s players.’
‘And the townsfolk?’
‘Some here, some gone.’
‘Who is left?’
‘The women, the old, the young..’
After that, there’s silence. The five of us look at the horizon.
‘They knew. The bastards knew.’ Says Claude. ‘They ran in the night and left us.’
‘Who are they?’ Asks Callippus.
‘From the East, the Kushans?’ Says Bulbul. ‘It doesn’t matter, the end will be the same. We will die a horrible death, and the hareem girls will be jealous of our fate.’
‘And while all that happens, the cowards will keep running. We’re the delaying tactic.’ Says Harroche.
‘The wise run.’ Say Callippus. ‘Are you coming with me, or are you dying?’
There is another silence. Callippus stomps from the roof.
‘What are we going to do?’ Says Aadi the mahout..
‘I can’t leave the folk here to their fate.’ Says Claude. ‘You’re free to go. If you take the faster of the camels, you might make it clear before they sweep with horses.’
Again the silence. Bulbul breaks it. He pulls open his robe and sends a long stream of stinky, yellow piss over the roof’s edge.
‘I’m staying.’ He says.
‘Me too.’ Says Aadi.
‘Me three. Says Eto.
“Are you going to fight the Kushan army?” Asks Theo. He is standing right in front of Eto now. The cafe breaks into soft laughter.
“Patience Theo, let the story do its work.” Says Eto and looks over the boy’s head to address his audience.
“But I do promise you a fight. It is the smell of smoke that reaches us first, then animals, and after that, the odour of an army far from home. Aadi sits with his knees tucked behind the elephant’s ears. Eto sits high behind him in a carved howdah. Camels flank the elephant, one for Bulbul who is armed to the teeth with unfamiliar weapons, and another for Claude Harroche who has adopted a purple turban and flowing white robe for the mission. At Claude’s request, we keep our pace slow. Behind us, the inhabitants of Toprak Kala, the rest of our caravan, and Eto’s players are slipping away. Their aim is to reach the River Amu Darya and head west.
If the smell of the army is bad, the sight is fearsome. They bristle with spears, knives, and swords. In front of them stand three tall men, arms crossed. The welcoming committee; an approaching elephant is hard to miss.
‘Hail sirs!’ Says Harroche. ‘I present Eto, envoy of the Royal Palace of Toprak Kala. We come to parley.’
‘I am Tatar Khan. Speak.’ Says the tallest of the three, his thick dark hair almost hiding a pair of villainous eyes.
‘My Master sees your mighty army and knows you are strong, but he asks you to look at our equally mighty fortress and move on. A fight between us will be like the battle of day and night. If we fight to the end of days neither will be victorious.’ Eto’s delivery is grand and measured.
‘And if we choose to besiege you? Wait until you starve?’ Says the Tatar Khan.
‘On these plains, you will freeze or starve. Winter is coming. My Master will watch you die from the comfort of his throne.’
The three men huddle together, they speak fast, in a tongue we do not understand. Tatar Khan turns.
‘We have come far. What tribute will your master pay for us to move on?’
‘Tribute? Tribute to save you from your death?’ Eto sneers down from the elephant. Claude shoots him a look. He is pushing it too far. There is a rattle disapproving of weapons. Bulbul raises a sword as if he alone will fight the army. Claude intervenes.
‘A tribute is an interesting idea, Eto envoy of Toprak Kala, let us return to the palace and consult with our master.’
With that, Aadi pulls the elephant’s left ear. It lumbers around until its rear end is facing the three men and, without prompting, drops a giant turd at their feet. It steams in the cool morning air. We travel back to the fortress. The journey takes nearly an hour. By now it is empty, as is the town that sits behind it. The four of us, Bulbul, Aadi, Claude, and I sit in the lavish throne room of the palace. We are its defenders now. Claude makes us wait another hour before we head back to the waiting army.
As we approach, the waiting horde stamps. At first it is quiet but as we close in the volume rises until it is so loud Aadi struggles to control the elephant. Dust rises into the afternoon air. The villainous Tatar Kahn raises his fist. Silence.
‘Speak.’ He commands.
‘Hail sirs!’ Says Harroche. ‘I present Eto envoy of the Royal Palace of Toprak…’
‘Speak.’ Says the villainous one to Eto.
‘Our master agrees to your suggestion of tribute. He will present you with two war elephants, you have none and he has many.’
There is a hubbub. Words are passed and shouted down the line. The offer is well received.
‘In return, to guarantee your word, the man to the left of you, and the man to the right of you, will winter with us as hostages.’
Claude winks at Bulbul. His bet is that these three are brothers. They look alike, and he is sure one cannot abandon the others to an unknown fate. Again, the three of them huddle. They exchange ferocious words. Who would want to be swapped for an elephant?
‘We do not accept your offer.’ Says Tatar Khan. ‘Instead, we propose a battle between our champions, no quarter given. If our champion wins, we take the elephants.’
‘And if ours wins?’
‘You take this.’
Tatar Khan turns to the man on the right, who opens a small chest full of gold coins. They prepared for this parley.
‘Eto, envoy of Toprak Kala, let us return to the palace and consult with our master.’ Says Harroche.
Again, we return to the fortress. This time Bulbul is agitated.
‘Now we run Claude. We’ve bought hours for the escape, it’s our turn now..’ Says Bulbul.
‘Hours are not enough, not for the old and the young. We have to give them the night.’ Replies Claude.
‘You’re not suggesting one of us fights their champion?’ Says Bulbul.
‘That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.’
‘We’re going to get bloody massacred.’ Says Bulbul.
‘Who fights?’ Asks Eto.
‘Why me of course.’ Says Claude.
We reach the army before nightfall, but the sky is turning pink in expectation of blood.
‘Who is your champion?’ Tatar Khan asks Eto.
‘I am.’ Says Claude and climbs awkwardly from his uncooperative camel. Claude is a short man, not over five feet five tall, has grey hair, and a tired beard. The gathered horde laughs and rattles their weapons before parting to let their champion through.
A figure as tall a camel and as wide as an elephant appears. The horde starts their stamping. Slow and quiet at first, then louder. In one hand, the figure carries a club, in the other, a sword. The noise becomes deafening. Aadi gasps.
‘It’s a woman!’ He says, the words disappear in the noise.
Claude ignores the enormous presence in front of him. Instead he holds a finger in the air and mouths, ‘One moment’, before taking a pair of golden slippers from his waistband. The pink setting sun catches them and they glow. Then he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a gold cylinder about six inches long and an inch in diameter with rounded ends. Both slippers and cylinder are gold but not gold, metal but not metal. They are beyond gold, and beyond metal, and are somehow one. The villainous Tatar Khan raises his fist, the horde falls silent.
‘Now we fight. Your champion against ours. Where are your elephants?’
‘Our first elephant is here. We will bring the second if our man loses.’ Says Eto.
The woman steps toward Claude. Her legs are as thick as his waist and so knotted with muscle they could be tree trunks. Claude raises his finger.
‘Mademoiselle.’ He says. ‘May I ask that you yield?’
She grunts and lifts her club.
‘May I politely ask that you yield? If you do not, I will turn you to dust.’
There is laughter, but it is nervous. The woman ignores him and lurches forward, swiping with the club. Claude side steps, the club smashes into the ground. She swings the sword; it misses him by a whisker. A look of worry flashes across his face. He steps back quickly.
‘Yield woman!’ He shouts, holding up the cylinder. ‘This is a very dangerous weapon. It will turn you to dust!’
She charges. Claude steps to the side, light on his feet. He straightens as she passes, raises the cylinder and rubs it with his thumb. It emits a fuzzy purple light and the scent of burnt lemons fills the air. The purple light surrounds the woman and, after a soundless second, all that is left of her is a neat pile of dust.
A hubbub rushes through the horde. They collectively cower. Claude holds up the cylinder and walks to Tatar Khan, who wordlessly hands over the chest of coins. With that, the siege of Toprak Kala is over.”
“Wow.” Says Theo. “What happened next?”
“We went back to the Fortress, in through the front gates, and straight out through the back. We didn’t stop until the next morning and we never, ever, returned.”
“Is it a true story?” Asks Theo. Eto responds by fishing in his wallet and pulling out a single gold coin. He hands it to the young boy. The boy turns it in his fingers, it is pressed with the imprint of a man with high hair and a long square beard.
“All true. That's your share of the treasure.”
With that there is a riffle of applause and the attention of the cafe shifts back to its business.
“Thank you.” Says Bubul. “You took me right back.”
“What do you think the weapon was?” Asks Eto.
“There’s no way of knowing. That’s why you have to start the story the night before. You saw he died?” Replies Bulbul.
“Yes, I saw.” Eto flicks through his phone and finds a picture of Claude Harroche. Beneath it a headline reads, ‘Curious death of renowned physicist’.
“The article would be longer if they knew about his curious life.” Says Bulbul and picks his car key from the table. “Come on old friend, our taxis won’t drive themselves.”