CAPTIVES OF TAMURLAINE
Who remembers Bayezit, the Ottoman sultan? In his time, the late fourteenth century, while he ruled, he was a world-class monster, feared by all who stood a chance of encountering him. He ruled supreme in Asia Minor, terrorizing all the other minor powers and princelings, merchant kingdoms and withered empires. Venice, Florence, Genoa, Rome, they'd all heard of him, and feared his violence and greed. To the growing despair of its few supporters in the West, it was he who threatened Byzantium with final ruin, though it was another fifty years before it was destined to fall to Mahomet II. He was ready to march against the Eastern capital and beseige the city. And, who knows? He would probably not have failed. Byzantium was weakened by plague and internecine rivalry, and had few allies. There are some who say that the city elders were ready to submit, to send him the keys to the main gate in the hope of winning merciful treatment. These were dark times, and Bayezit reigned supreme.
It's 1402. Confident, he's camped a few miles from the crumbling walls of Byzantium, plotting his next move. With him is his whole court, a train of camp followers, his whole palace almost. Despina, his young Serbian wife, her attendants, his whole harem. Because, in his paranoia and self-confidence, they always travelled with him on his summer campaigns. He'd not leave them behind in the trust of his eunuchs, because there are too many men who'd enjoy the chance of cuckolding him. The chance would be denied if they were within reach; such was his simple view. And, in his way, he loves Despina. A tall, blonde-haired trophy of a wife, so unlike the short dark-haired turkic and arabic women he owns in such great numbers. A real novelty . . . a woman who looks and behaves like an Empress, and who he even intends to install next to him as the Empress of Byzantium, after he's overwhelmed the last few wretched stragglers guarding that strategically important rockpile. But that'll wait a day or two, until after he sweeps away this rabble, these horseback-riding bandits who are approaching from the east, impudently challenging him to fight . . .
Bayezit was a cruel swaggering man, full of schemes and ingenious cruelties. A doublecrosser, a triplecrosser. A user of people. An unpleasant friend, and a deadly foe. He'd been in charge of a wing of the Moslem forces that destroyed the Serbian army at Kosovo only a few years before. A defeat that resonated for hundreds of years after. He was a true hammer of the Christians. Always scheming for his own gain, to satisfy his blunt, carnal appetites. Someone who didn't know what losing meant. Someone who made the ritual Islamic gestures, but was only beholden to himself. His imams and other religious advisers knew when to speak, and when to shut up. One of them had once had his jaw nailed shut to speaking too impetuously, giving advice that was not wanted. He died, of course. no one argued with Bayezit, or stood to do battle with him. He was Allah's anointed, the undefeatable.
Until, that is, he meets with the roaming Mongol horde, freshly arrived from the far-off fabled Central Asian city of Samarkand. From a siege of Baghdad that lived in the memories of locals for generations. It had been a journey of several years, feeding off the land as he went, leaving devastation behind him. But, they're oh so peaceful, these pacified towns and cities. So disinclined to rise against him behind his back. A few riders need only appear in the distance, and they'd be begging for mercy, offering whatever supplies or help was needed.
With the benefit of hindsight, we can predict the outcome. We know this warrior's name. Even across the centuries, it's remembered. We know that Tamurlaine -- Timur The Lame, a possible descendant of Genghis Khan -- was an even greater monster, and unstoppable. Bayezit found out the hard way. He rode straight into battle, confident that his troops would sweep aside this ragged band of skirmishers. But there were more, and more. And they fought with cunning. And they fought by ambush, and they fought by retreating, then turning back on their disordered pursuers. Their archery was superb, their horsemanship beyond reproach. The battle becomes confused, the dust is thick, strategy gives way to desperate skirmishing, to panic. Suddenly, Bayezit realized he had bitten off more than he could chew. To retreat was impossible. He stood and fought. And lost. Many died at his side, but the greatest defeat was Bayezit's.
And of course, that went doubly for the beautiful Despina, and the unfortunates of the harem.
Bloodied, bruised, but not seriously injured, Bayezit is put in an iron cage after his defeat, to be paraded through his former kingdom. Tamurlaine is a nasty, mean-spirited victor. The defeated sultan is soon used as a footstool, as a mounting block, and later even pissed on in front of a jeering crowd.
The harem is captured, too. And put to Timur's use, in the obvious way, to Bayezit's deep humiliation. Because, despite what he feels personally -- hatred for everyone -- Timur is inclined to reward a few key generals and brave warriors with their own women. The rest he'll sell or barter later, when they get to Syria or Egypt. Swap some of the older or scrawnier ones for fresh meat. But deep down, he's impetuous, and doesn't value them that much. Easy come, easy go. The pious praying and silences of the unconverted Christians among them annoys Timur, more than it ever did Bayezit, who only resorted to occasional whippings to keep order and restore discipline.
Timur -- encouraged by an Iago-like imam whose name we have now lost -- finally develops the idea that he must 'convert' the women. It begins about six months after Bayezit's capture. His inner circle of soldiers -- the most desperate and unfeeling ruffians he has at his command -- begin to persuade the women, one by one, using Christian logic and techniques. Meaning the cross, the stake, the rack, slow impaling, the heated tongs . . . all the usual dungeon masters' cruelties, but done publicly as gruesome entertainment for his personal guard and family, all the more shocking. Bayezit witnesses it, roaring his rage and despair as the blood flows, the screams rise. It's a long day, of unforgettable gore and misery, sickening even the hardest hearts there. The women aren't willing martyrs, but one by one they are killed anyway. Years later, some are declared blessed, though none becomes a saint. Too few surviving witnesses for that, and few good deeds or miracles in this blighted landscape, that's the trouble.
From now on, Timur finds himself possessed with rage, almost demonic in his desire to make the once-mighty Bayezit cower before him. He arranges for him to see the lovely Despina nightly serve the Mongol horde's court at table, bringing in their food and wine like a lowly maid, but serving it totally naked. He sees her spared no humiliation in the way of being mauled, grabbed, penetrated and debauched by the men there. After a couple of weeks of watching this increasingly insulting use -- she's serviced by dogs, she's made to drink from chamber pots, she's made to crawl under the table and lick and suck the member of any man who wants her, she's spreadeagled on the table and sodomized, buggered and raped by one man after another -- he can take no more. Unable to do anything to help rescue her, or himself, Bayezit finally dies of apoplexy, though some later swear he has killed himself by pummeling his head against the bars in his bitter frustration.
To universal acclaim from his troops, cheering the brilliance of his vengeance, Timur has Bayezit's corpse gutted, pickled, tanned and stuffed with straw, and placed on a stand so he can continue to be shown as a prize.
She is forced to take his place in the cage. Timur's anger has flowed to her.
Naked, chained, heralded everywhere as the Empress of the Romans, her hair pinned up in a gold crown, draped in gold chains, she's forced to exhibit herself in the most groteque ways to crowds of urchins, beggars, vendors, anyone who's foolish or greedy enough to be found at the roadside as the horde passes by. A golden dildo in her hand, fashioned from some bishop's crozier, which she puts to good use, under threat of dire punishment if she doesn't. From one town in Anatolia to another. To Smyrna, to see the fortress of the proud Knights of Saint John reduced to rubble. From nameless village to nameless village. To see violent death, daily. To view an endless stream of humiliated captive women led away in chains, to slavery.
It's autumn. There's little left to destroy. Timur looks around him. He's pleased. But, it's time to go. The columns of wagons, the bands of warriors, all slowly set out for Samarkand, planning to go on to China in the next year or two. Timur has never seen that fabled country, and has a sudden urge to try his hand at conquests there.
Despina is in misery at the thought of going even further into the Asian hinterland, so far from home. She renounces her religion, then appeals to Timur to show mercy, to grant her dignity, or at least a quick clean death. He refuses, and says that she must taste defeat and humiliation completely, unlike her cowardly husband, who died before he could really experience the deepest depths of pain and despair. But she will suffer in his place, he promises her. So much that she'll happily curse his cowardly memory.
Timur tells her that he'll keep her like this, caged, chained and naked, for 1001 nights, then release her. But release her, he laughs, into the hands of his own wives, who will no doubt be feeling a little jealous by then of her exhibitionism and her unwitting attraction of too much of their lord's attention. But, then they will be able to repay her. They'll have had plenty of time to think about her imagined offences against them and will have spent many nights scheming, refining their plans. That's how it always is in harems: bitter feuds are hatched, evil punishments are proposed, and all while the women long dreamily for the visit of their beloved lord, and in their frustration masturbate and play dirty games together.
So, they'll know how to deal with her appropriately, he exults . . . It'll be a fine spectacle, and the whole court will attend, along with whatever guests they can invite from his allies, fiefdoms and satraps. Wherever it is, there'll be a crowd of thousands. The preparations will take weeks, and it will be declared a public holiday throughout his kingdom. People will travel hundreds of miles to see a beautiful woman tormented. And no one, however vile their taste or cold their heart, will be disappointed by what she must endure.
Because she'll be mercilessly tormented, that's for sure. All the devils of the Christian hell are nothing to compare with what a couple of dozen angry women can do, as everyone knows. They'll take turns, and compete with each other to see who can be the most vindictive. She'll be spitefully whipped and beaten, then stretched on a rack. Tortured by flame, hot metal, sharp blades, spikes. By bubbling corrosives and boiling oil. By searing, slicing, penetration, piercing and skewering. Flayed and mutilated with great care, to cause the greatest misery. Her female attributes will suffer especially vile, subtle, agonizing torments. They'll spare her sight for a long while, so she knows what is happening. It'll take her several days to die, but she'll be pleading for death the whole time. She won't go to waste, he laughs, various parts will be roasted and eaten by his dogs, before she expires . . . How? maybe torn asunder, or impaled on a spit over a slow fire . . . who knows . . .?
Fortunately for her, the malevolent Timur dies a few weeks later before the winter snows begin -- some say it was poison, but it's a simple case of dysentery, brought on by insanitary food and water. In the confusion, as rival generals bicker over what to do next, she is freed by a sympathetic eunuch, and flees in panic.
The journey back to Serbia is fraught with perils, and all sorts of near-escapes. But she struggles on, helped by several brave survivors of the bloody massacre of Bayezit's harem. Many months later, she arrives home.
And is promptly accused by a rival branch of her family of heresy: news of her renunciation of Christianity has traveled ahead of her in a troubador's ballad, and this is the Balkans, after all. Where land and property are at stake, anything can happen. She is seized.
And soon, she is at the mercy of torturers again, this time ones who are convinced of their righteousness, and comfortable with their knowledge of her evil. They've heard tales of what she voluntarily did in that cage. They are less refined in their cruelty than the Turks, but equally effective in breaking her spirit, though it takes them a whole day and night in the torture chamber. And for the beautiful Despina, the end is a sordid death at the stake, tightly bound and gagged, in a crowded marketplace one Saturday afternoon. To make it clear that her death is a disgraceful one for heresy and confessed witchcraft, she is stripped naked at the prison gates and paraded through the narrow streets in an open cart for all to see. Her striped, bruised, bleeding body should excite their sympathy, but no one dares offer any. Then, she is dragged from the cart and bound to the stake. The matriarch of the rival clan spits in her face and tosses the first burning brand into the huge pyre . . .