In this fantastic excerpt we get the good ol' Battle of Nicopolis (1396) as observed by Ak Boga (White Bull in Turkic) the Tatar.
Titus Fay saves King Sigismund of Hungary in the Battle of Nicopolis. Painting in the Castle of Vaja, creation of Ferenc Lohr, 1896.
The roar of battle had died away; the sun hung like a ball of crimson gold on the western hills. Across the trampled field of battle no squadrons thundered, no war-cry reverberated. Only the shrieks of the wounded and the moans of the dying rose to the circling vultures whose black wings swept closer and closer until they brushed the pallid faces in their flight.
On his rangy stallion, in a hillside thicket, Ak Boga the Tatar watched, as he had watched since dawn, when the mailed hosts of the Franks, with their forest of lances and flaming pennons, had moved out on the plains of Nicopolis to meet the grim hordes of Bayazid.
Ak Boga, watching their battle array, had chk-chk’d his teeth in surprize and disapproval as he saw the glittering squadrons of mounted knights draw out in front of the compact masses of stalwart infantry, and lead the advance. They were the flower of Europe—cavaliers of Austria, Germany, France and Italy; but Ak Boga shook his head.
He had seen the knights charge with a thunderous roar that shook the heavens, had seen them smite the outriders of Bayazid like a withering blast and sweep up the long slope in the teeth of a raking fire from the Turkish archers at the crest. He had seen them cut down the archers like ripe corn, and launch their whole power against the oncoming spahis, the Turkish light cavalry. And he had seen the spahis buckle and break and scatter like spray before a storm, the light-armed riders flinging aside their lances and spurring like mad out of the melee. But Ak Boga had looked back, where, far behind, the sturdy Hungarian pikemen toiled, seeking to keep within supporting distance of the headlong cavaliers.
He had seen the Frankish horsemen sweep on, reckless of their horses’ strength as of their own lives, and cross the ridge. From his vantage-point Ak Boga could see both sides of that ridge and he knew that there lay the main power of the Turkish army—sixty-five thousand strong—the janizaries, the terrible Ottoman infantry, supported by the heavy cavalry, tall men in strong armor, bearing spears and powerful bows.
And now the Franks realized, what Ak Boga had known, that the real battle lay before them; and their horses were weary, their lances broken, their throats choked with dust and thirst.
Ak Boga had seen them waver and look back for the Hungarian infantry; but it was out of sight over the ridge, and in desperation the knights hurled themselves on the massed enemy, striving to break the ranks by sheer ferocity. That charge never reached the grim lines. Instead a storm of arrows broke the Christian front, and this time, on exhausted horses, there was no riding against it. The whole first rank went down, horses and men pincushioned, and in that red shambles their comrades behind them stumbled and fell headlong. And then the janizaries charged with a deep-toned roar of “Allah!” that was like the thunder of deep surf.
All this Ak Boga had seen; had seen, too, the inglorious flight of some of the knights, the ferocious resistance of others. On foot, leaguered and outnumbered, they fought with sword and ax, falling one by one, while the tide of battle flowed around them on either side and the blood-drunken Turks fell upon the infantry which had just toiled into sight over the ridge.
There, too, was disaster. Flying knights thundered through the ranks of the Wallachians, and these broke and retired in ragged disorder. The Hungarians and Bavarians received the brunt of the Turkish onslaught, staggered and fell back stubbornly, contesting every foot, but unable to check the victorious flood of Moslem fury.
And now, as Ak Boga scanned the field, he no longer saw the serried lines of the pikemen and ax-fighters. They had fought their way back over the ridge and were in full, though ordered, retreat, and the Turks had come back to loot the dead and mutilate the dying. Such knights as had not fallen or broken away in flight, had flung down the hopeless sword and surrendered. Among the trees on the farther side of the vale, the main Turkish host was clustered, and even Ak Boga shivered a trifle at the screams which rose where Bayazid’s swordsmen were butchering the captives. Nearer at hand ran ghoulish figures, swift and furtive, pausing briefly over each heap of corpses; here and there gaunt dervishes with foam on their beards and madness in their eyes plied their knives on writhing victims who screamed for death.
“Erlik!“ muttered Ak Boga. “They boasted that they could hold up the sky on their lances, were it to fall, and lo, the sky has fallen and their host is meat for the ravens!” Robert E. Howard, Sword Woman and Other Historical Adventures, Del Rey, Pages 295-297
Just like the Scotsman Donald MacDeesa in REH's Lord of Samarcand, the historical German Knight Johann (Hans) Schiltberger (1380 – c. 1440) fought alongside Sigismund, King of Hungary at the ill-fated Battle of Nicopolis in 1396. The wounded Johann (Hans) Schiltberger was taken prisoner by the Ottoman Sultan Beyazıt after the battle. He served under Beyazıt the Thunderbolt until he was in turn defeated by the Mighty Timur at the Battle of Ankara in 1402. Johann was taken to Samarcand by Timur and ventured beyond Central Asia as far as Siberia, he was probably one of the earliest Europeans to write about Siberia.
I think it is more than likely that Harold Lamb would have known about the adventures of Johann (Hans) Schiltberger, and may have been inspiration for his writing of the Grand Cham, and in turn inspired REH's Lord of Samarcand.
Fortunately, Johann Schiltberger's adventures have been translated into the English language.
Here's a link to The bondage and travels of Johann Schiltberger, a native of Bavaria, in Europe, Asia, and Africa, 1396-1427, translated by John Buchan Telfer, 1879. archive.org/details/bondagetravelsof00schirich
Now, I'm gonna take a look at REH's interpretation of Samarkand, the Turko-Mongol peoples that inhabit the city and the description of Tamerlane in Lord of Samarcand. If you like Conan and have not read these historical yarns, I gotta tell ya you're missing some of REH's best stuff. In this extract Donald and Ak Boga finally arrive at their destination, the legendary Samarkand.
Timur feasts in the environs of Samarkand. Sharuf ad-din Ali Yesdy. “Zafar-nama”
They had covered that vast expanse of country in a time the Frank would have sworn impossible. He felt now the grinding wear of that terrible ride, but he gave no outward sign. The city shimmered to his gaze, mingling with the blue of the distance, so that it seemed part of the horizon, a city of illusion and enchantment. Blue: the Tatars lived in a wide magnificent land, lavish with color schemes, and the prevailing motif was blue. In the spires and domes of Samarcand were mirrored the hues of the skies, the far mountains and the dreaming lakes.
“You have seen lands and seas no Frank has beheld,” said Ak Boga, “and rivers and towns and caravan trails. Now you shall gaze upon the glory of Samarcand, which the lord Timour found a town of dried brick and has made a metropolis of blue stone and ivory and marble and silver filigree.”
The two descended into the plain and threaded their way between converging lines of camel-caravans and mule-trains whose robed drivers shouted incessantly, all bound for the Turquoise Gates, laden with spices, silks, jewels, and slaves, the goods and gauds of India and Cathay, of Persia and Arabia and Egypt.
“All the East rides the road to Samarcand,” said Ak Boga.
Doors of Timur (Tamerlane) 1871 1872, Painted originally by Vasily Vereschagin.
They passed through the wide gilt-inlaid gates where the tall spearmen shouted boisterous greetings to Ak Boga, who yelled back, rolling in his saddle and smiting his mailed thigh with the joy of homecoming. They rode through the wide winding streets, past palace and market and mosque, and bazaars thronged with the people of a hundred tribes and races, bartering, disputing, shouting. The Scotsman saw hawk-faced Arabs, lean apprehensive Syrians, fat fawning Jews, turbaned Indians, languid Persians, ragged swaggering but suspicious Afghans, and more unfamiliar forms; figures from the mysterious reaches of the north, and the far east; stocky Mongols with broad inscrutable faces and the rolling gait of an existence spent in the saddle; slant-eyed Cathayans in robes of watered silk; tall quarrelsome Vigurs; round-faced Kipchaks; narrow-eyed Kirghiz; a score of races whose existence the West did not guess. All the Orient flowed in a broad river through the gates of Samarcand.
The Frank’s wonder grew; the cities of the West were hovels compared to this. Past academies, libraries and pleasure-pavilions they rode, and Ak Boga turned into a wide gateway, guarded by silver lions. There they gave their steeds into the hands of silk-sashed grooms, and walked along a winding avenue paved with marble and lined with slim green trees. The Scotsman, looking between the slender trunks, saw shimmering expanses of roses, cherry trees and waving exotic blossoms unknown to him, where fountains jetted arches of silver spray. So they came to the palace, gleaming blue and gold in the sunlight, passed between tall marble columns and entered the chambers with their gilt-worked arched doorways, and walls decorated with delicate paintings of Persian and Cathayan artists, and the gold tissue and silver work of Indian artistry.
The facial reconstruction of Timur the Great Conqueror by Soviet archaeologist and anthropologist Mikhail Mikhaylovich Gerasimov.
Ak Boga did not halt in the great reception room with its slender carven columns and frieze-work of gold and turquoise, but continued until he came to the fretted gold-adorned arch of a door which opened into a small blue-domed chamber that looked out through gold-barred windows into a series of broad, shaded, marble-paved galleries. There silk-robed courtiers took their weapons, and grasping their arms, led them between files of giant black mutes in silken loincloths, who held two-handed scimitars upon their shoulders, and into the chamber, where the courtiers released their arms and fell back, salaaming deeply. Ak Boga knelt before the figure on the silken divan, but the Scotsman stood grimly erect, nor was obeisance required of him. Some of the simplicity of Genghis Khan’s court still lingered in the courts of these descendants of the nomads.
The Scotsman looked closely at the man on the divan; this, then, was the mysterious Tamerlane, who was already becoming a mythical figure in Western lore. He saw a man as tall as himself, gaunt but heavy-boned, with a wide sweep of shoulders and the Tatar’s characteristic depth of chest. His face was not as dark as Ak Boga’s, nor did his black magnetic eyes slant; and he did not sit cross-legged as a Mongol sits. There was power in every line of his figure, in his clean-cut features, in the crisp black hair and beard, untouched with gray despite his sixty-one years. There was something of the Turk in his appearance, thought the Scotsman, but the dominant note was the lean wolfish hardness that suggested the nomad. He was closer to the basic Turanian rootstock than was the Turk; nearer to the wolfish, wandering Mongols who were his ancestors.
“Speak, Ak Boga,” said the Amir in a deep powerful voice. “Ravens have flown westward, but there has come no word.”
“We rode before the word, my lord,” answered the warrior. “The news is at our heels, traveling swift on the caravan roads. Soon the couriers, and after them the traders and the merchants, will bring to you the news that a great battle has been fought in the west; that Bayazid has broken the hosts of the Christians, and the wolves howl over the corpses of the kings of Frankistan.”
“And who stands beside you?” asked Timour, resting his chin on his hand and fixing his deep somber eyes on the Scotsman.
“A chief of the Franks who escaped the slaughter,” answered Ak Boga. “Single-handed he cut his way through the melee, and in his flight paused to slay a Frankish lord who had put shame upon him aforetime. He has no fear and his thews are steel. By Allah, we passed through the land outracing the wind to bring thee news of the war, and this Frank is less weary than I, who learned to ride ere I learned to walk.”
“Why do you bring him to me?”
“It was my thought that he would make a mighty warrior for thee, my lord.”
“In all the world,” mused Timour, “there are scarce half a dozen men whose judgment I trust. Thou art one of those,” he added briefly, and Ak Boga, who had flushed darkly in embarrassment, grinned delightedly.
“Can he understand me?” asked Timour.
“He speaks Turki, my lord.”
“How are you named, oh Frank?” queried the Amir. “And what is your rank?”
“I am called Donald MacDeesa,” answered the Scotsman. “I come from the country of Scotland, beyond Frankistan. I have no rank, either in my own land or in the army I followed. I live by my wits and the edge of my claymore.”
“Why do you ride to me?”
“Ak Boga told me it was the road to vengeance.”
“Bayazid the Sultan of the Turks, whom men name the Thunderer.”
Timour dropped his head on his mighty breast for a space and in the silence MacDeesa heard the silvery tinkle of a fountain in an outer court and the musical voice of a Persian poet singing to a lute.
Then the great Tatar lifted his lion’s head.
“Sit ye with Ak Boga upon this divan close at my hand,” said he. “I will instruct you how to trap a gray wolf.” Robert E. Howard, Lord of Samarcand, Sword Woman and other Historical Adventures, p.299-302
From what I can remember, I think, it'll be fascinating to compare the description of this encounter between Donald and Timur with the encounter of Suleiman the Magnificent and Gottfried von Kalmbach (Shadow of the Vulture).
There's a considerable amount written about the Altaic peoples by Robert E. Howard in his historical tales.
As with similar threads can we please avoid 'politics' and all that stuff. There's plenty Robert E. Howard had to say about the Altaic peoples, from what I can tell, he had an admiration and respect for the early Turko-Mongol nomads, but his admiration seemed to diminish once the nomad conquerors settled down and indulged in the trappings of Civilization.
Roy G. Krenkel, Sowers of the Thunder Battle Scene (not published)
Here's the description of Suleiman the Magnificent from The Shadow of the Vulture:
...Suleyman was a tall, slender man, with a thin down-curving nose and a thin straight mouth, the resolution of which his drooping mustachios did not soften. His narrow outward-curving chin was shaven. The only suggestion of weakness was in the slender, remarkably long neck, but that suggestion was belied by the hard lines of the slender figure, the glitter of the dark eyes. There was more than a suggestion of the Tatar about him—rightly so, since he was no more the son of Selim the Grim, than of Hafsza Khatun, princess of Crimea. Born to the purple, heir to the mightiest military power in the world, he was crested with authority and cloaked in pride that recognized no peer beneath the gods. The Shadow of the Vulture, p.388
It is fascinating that both Suleiman and Timur have become 'Civilized' residing (between battles) in the great cities of Istanbul and Samarkand, but, still retain the characteristics of their wild nomadic ancestors.
And at times the simplicity of the Tatar is revealed at both courts:
...Ak Boga knelt before the figure on the silken divan, but the Scotsman stood grimly erect, nor was obeisance required of him. Some of the simplicity of Genghis Khan’s court still lingered in the courts of these descendants of the nomads. Lord of Samarkand, p.301
Suleyman stared at him narrowly. The Turkish vest and voluminous khalat could not conceal the lines of massive strength. His tawny hair was close-cropped, his sweeping yellow mustaches drooping below a stubborn chin. His blue eyes seemed strangely clouded; it was as if the man slept on his feet, with his eyes open.
“Do you speak Turki?” The Sultan did the fellow the stupendous honor of addressing him directly. Through all the pomp of the Ottoman court there remained in the Sultan some of the simplicity of Tatar ancestors.
“Yes, your majesty,” answered the Frank.
“Who are you?”
“Men name me Gottfried von Kalmbach.”
Suleyman scowled and unconsciously his fingers wandered to his shoulder, where, under his silken robes, he could feel the outlines of an old scar.
“I do not forget faces. Somewhere I have seen yours—under circumstances that etched it into the back of my mind. But I am unable to recall those circumstances.” The Shadow of the Vulture, p389.
I can hardly find words to express my appreciation for your interest in “Red Blades of Cathay”. Both Mr. Smith and I are highly gratified by the compliments you paid the story, and hope that future efforts will meet with your approval. I also appreciate very much your writing to Mr. Wright in commendation of the tale. I hope that our details were as nearly accurate as you say - we were rather uncertain on a few points - medieval Oriental history being so sketchy. I must admit there was a weak point in the story - from my study of Genghis Khan I feel certain he would never have allowed Godric to reign as an independent and equal king; he would have destroyed the empire of Black Cathay first. But we had to have it that way, in order to allow Godric to live and realize his ambition. You being a writer yourself, understand such difficulties. Of course we took a great deal of liberties in regard to the conquest of Black Cathay, but I suppose that comes under the head of a fictional license or something. By the way, the name “Subotai” is the Mongol term for buffalo.
I am the thorn in the foot, I am the blur in the sight; I am the worm at the root, I am the thief in the night. I am the rat in the wall, the leper that leers at the gate; I am the ghost in the hall, herald of horror and hate.
I am the rust on the corn, I am the smut on the wheat, Laughing man's labor to scorn, weaving a web for his feet. I am canker and mildew and blight, danger and death and decay; The rot of the rain by night, the blast of the sun by day.
I warp and wither with drouth, I work in the swamp's foul yeast; I bring the black plague from the south and the leprosy in from the east. I rend from the hemlock boughs wine steeped in the petals of dooms; Where the fat black serpents drowse I gather the Upas blooms.
I have plumbed the northern ice for a spell like Frozen lead; In lost grey fields of rice, I have learned from Mongol dead. Where a bleak black mountainstands I have looted grisly caves; I have digged in the desert sands to plunder terrible graves.
Never the sun goes forth, never the moon glows red, But out of the south or the north, I come with the slavering dead. I come with hideous spells, black chants and ghastly tunes; I have looted the hideen hells amd plundered the lost black moons.
There was never a king or priest to cheer me by word or look, There was never a man or beast in the blood-black ways I took. There were crimson gulfs unplumbed, there were black wings over a sea, There were pits where mad things drummed, and foaming blasphemy.
There were vast ungodly tombs where slimy monsters dreamed; There were clouds like blood-drenched plumes where unborn demons screamed. There were ages dead to Time, and lands lost out of Space; There were adders in the slime, and a dim unholy Face.
Oh, the heart in my breast turned stone, and the brain froze in my skull-- But I won through, I alone, and poured my chalice full Of horrors and dooms and spells, black buds and bitter roots-- From the hells beneath the hells, I bring you my deathly fruits.