Source: unsplash

“Once upon a time in the land that was called the Steppe these things happened,” started the old troubadour. He was dressed as a man from the Great Steppe with a slight build that lent itself well to life in the saddle. His clothes which had seen better days did certainly look like it belonged to a rich man once. An ochre silk kaftan adorned with red rosettes was worn by him over it all, perfectly capturing the man in a style peculiar to the lands that he was talking about.

It was King Vytautas’ Coronation day which he shared with the Italian priest Jean Vianney. The patron saint of priests and the downtrodden. This in no small part did encourage the King to be especially generous that day. It was also recently that the Lithuanians had converted to Christianity and for appearances’ sake they had to allow this foreign celebration. And this was how King Vytautas the Lithuanian found himself to be the patron saint of the Lithuanian poor and the unwashed masses of the neighbouring Steppe.

The troubadour began anew, “These are the tales of the beginning of the end. Before a great darkness descended that even Tengri, father of the great blue sky could not help but overlook. These are the tales of the Golden Horde which ruled Transoxiana, the country which was ours but which our enemies now call Khorasan. These are the tales of Timur Beg. The son in law of Chinggis Khan by marriage but the enemy of his children.”

This captured the attention of every eyeball in the hall. A Ruthenian noble who had just recently accepted Vytautas’ suzerainty made the sign of the cross. While a Kipchak mercenary had reddened in pure fury. Reports of turmoil in the east had reached even the halls of Vytautas and all of these reports had the armies of one man involved in some manner.

Timur Beg Mirza of the tribe of Barlas. A Tatar with a pronounced limp who had subjugated all the Mongols under his yoke. The slaves had become the masters. And the masters it seemed had become troubadours.

“Time was not kind to the Ulus of Jochi. The Golden Horde had a thousand people in its borders. Hardy people who liked to live as free as the sky or the wind. Swift on their horses and nimble with their bows. They had no love for any master. And even fewer for the Mongol. One of them was Timur.

At that time, Transoxiana was divided between four powers. In the west lay the Blue Horde and the White Horde. A pale shadow of the glory of the Golden Horde. In the East were the two wings of the Chagatai Khanate. The Chagatais were always the weakest of the four Chinggisids and it could not be more true than now. Timur set his eyes on all four. And why should he not? He was outnumbered but he had a plan.”

And with that the troubadour ended his ditty. Though the song was over, its effects had not. People around grew concerned and raised their voices, begging for more of the riveting story.

Aras Kanas the captain of the Hussars, began heckling the musician to tell more of his tale. “I had heard Tamerlane was maimed by an arrow in his left leg. He has a pronounced limp. How can such a man be accepted by his own armies?” Aras himself, a hulking presence with his six score height and handlebar moustache felt he was asking a valid question.

King Vytautas too scratched his glorious red beard as his scouts too reported on the Asian warlord with a sense of doom and dread. How could a lame man inspire such terror when he a perfectly abled Christian ruler could not?

“A fair question.” came the instantaneous reply from the troubadour. “His tribesmen had decided that the question of who would lead their tribe would be settled by a foot race. A stake was placed and marked as the goal, fifty yards away. Though the men ran swiftly, Timur threw his cap to the stake, perfectly casting the cap onto it. He promptly won.”

Vytautas got up from his throne and clapped his hands to signify the end of the festivities. The mood had already worsened and he had no intention of exacerbating it further. Especially the cunning man described in the stories could easily be their enemy one day on the battlefield. He signalled his guards to take the troubadour alone. His curiosity about the steppe lord had stirred and he wanted to sate his thirst.

Then when the guests had been shown the door. Vytautas with a few of his trusted advisors proceeded to interrogate the travelling musician further. The old man did seem to possess knowledge about this Timur character.

“Tell me about his conquests in Iran?” he barked out.

“Persia is vast. Its terrain is a challenge to any conqueror. My ancestor Chinggis Khan certainly did find it so, why should a Tatar be any different? Timur could but count on the support of his ally, Toktamysh who had united the Golden Horde.”

“Who is Tokhtamysh?” asked the Ruthenian lord, mousy and wiry his voice was edging on the feminine.

“Tokhtamysh was a minor lord who had the misfortune of being born into the Chinggisid line. His uncle Urus threatened his life and so he had sought help from Timur who seemed to be the only one able to resist Urus. That Timur was not a Mongol but a Tatar and hence could not inherit Chinggis’ dream also played into his

calculations. Tokhtamysh is not important for he would be trampled on by Timur after the Iranian campaign.”

“Persia had been divided after the death of the last Ilkhan Abu Said. In this power vacuum, Persia was split amongst the Muzzaffarids, Sarbadars, Kartids, Eretnids, Chobanids, Injuids and Jalayrids. One by one, each fell to Timur as he effectively made one fight amongst the other. Timur in a show of pure rage created a tower of skulls after he conquered Isfahan. The Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad chastised Timur as this was not a conduct of a true Muslim. TImur removed the Caliph and placed his own as the new Caliph.”

Vytautas understood that the Caliph was the Muslim quivalent of a pope. His own spiritual leader was facing some problems from the Normans who were terrorizing the Italian peninsula. Not that much different from their Norse ancestors who terrorized his own people for centuries. Perhaps it was the will of God that his representatives taste a little bit of the sour wine that his son Jesus Christ drank on Earth.

“You mentioned Tokhtamysh challenged Timur. Why? Surely he should be thankful for the man who saved his life?” he asked trying but failing to understand the motives in this incident.

“He was foolish, my Lord. TImur was enraged when he learnt that the man he considered a son had betrayed him. Timur had reached the Georgian Kingdom by then. He hastily made peace with the Georgian King with the promise of an army later on when he planned to attack the Ottoman empire. He raced his troops around the Caucasus

“Wait! Hold on.” exclaimed Aras. “The Ottomans! Even the mighty Byzantines could not defeat them. The entirety of Christendom could not stand up to its might. Surely you must be joking.”

“Timur is one of those men my lord that Nature itself fears from. When he declared a holy war on Tokhtamysh winter came early. Even the Mongol and Turkish nobles clad in their furs felt a chill run down their spine. He defeated Tokhtamysh quite easily and then concentrated on the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid who had sheltered Tokhtamysh.”

Vytautas had heard of Bayezid the Thunderbolt. Bayezid had finally crossed the Hellespont and placed the Ottoman firmly on the European continent. There was no way Timur could potentially defeat Bayezid when a crusade could not dislodge the Ottomans. The Turkish Janissaries were unstoppable.

“Bayezid lost my lord. The Battle of Ankara was a catastrophe for the Ottomans. I come from there.” The Troubadour now removed his cap and the King noticed that the troubadour was not old at all. He just looked like one. Anxiety may have prematurely aged his face.

The musician continued, “Bayezid was let down by his tribal Turkish mercenaries who conspired with TImur. TImur never fights an honorable battle. He considers it a defeat already if he is fighting an equal battle.”

The Lithuanians now grew concerned. Someone asked the inevitable question, “What happened to Bayezid?”

“He is placed in a golden cage by that fiend. Bayezid is paraded publicly, people mocking him in his very presence. Meanwhile, I am sure Timur is now looking for a new enemy.”

King Vytautas sihed and dismissed everyone. He decided to ready his lands lest it appear ripe to this mad invader. He was stopped though by a messenger who broke in through the doors.

“The armies of Timur are advancing towards us my Lord. He says we have someone he needs.” Vytautas finally understood who the musician was. And why he had such intimate knowledge of the Steppe warrior.

“What is your name musician?” He finally asked, already dreading the answer he knew would come.

A regret of a thousand years burst forth from the man’s eyes. He openly weeped and announced for all.

“I am Toktamysh Khan. Grandson of Chinggis Khan who united the world. I am the rightful ruler of the steppe. Friendless and powerless. All I have with me is my tale.”

.    .    .