Novel Excerpt: The Golden Lynx

C. P. Lesley is the pseudonym of Carolyn Johnston Pouncy ’74. A specialist on 16th-century Russia, she is the managing editor of  Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History.  Her The Domostroi: Rules for Russian Households in the Time of Ivan the Terrible won the Heldt Prize for Best Translation by a Woman in Slavic Studies in 1994. The Golden Lynx is her first novel, volume 1 of a five-part series. For more information, see www.cplesley.com. She would like to thank Lyon Review editors Anna Isozaki and Sandi Sonnenfeld for all their help in preparing this excerpt for publication.

Kasimov, Sha’ban 940 A.H. / February 1534

Nasan, warned by her brother’s shriek, stuck out a foot, sending him somersaulting over the snow. She pelted him with snowballs, taunting him. “You forgot again, silly! How can you take me by surprise if you yell like that?”

He rolled on the ground, cursing, which made her laugh. Girei got so mad every time he spoiled his own sneak attacks, but more often than not, he forgot to save his war cries for battle.

He soon recovered. Most of the snowballs bounced off Nasan’s quilted overcoat or hit the birch trees that bounded the clearing they had chosen as their private playground.

But a few better-aimed missiles sent icy shivers across her cheeks, reddened by the cold. One smacked Nasan on the forehead, knocking her hat to one side.

She pushed the sheepskin cap into place and aimed another snowball at Girei, who yelped when it broke over his neck. While he scooped ice from inside his coat, she leaped in celebration, bending her legs almost double behind her and shouting, “Ura!

Her moment of exultation cost her. Girei hurtled forward, grabbed her round the waist, and tossed her into a drift.

The impact jarred loose an entire branch’s load, covering her in snow. “Yow! I’m going to get you for that!”

Girei grinned. “You didn’t hear me coming, though.”

Nasan shook her head, giggling. “No, I didn’t. Truce?”

He nodded. Nasan kept a wary eye on him as she wriggled free of her drift. A few months ago, he couldn’t have thrown her that way. But these days he seemed to grow taller with each passing minute; for him manhood lay just around the corner. Sha’ban led into Ramadan, and the ending of the fast marked his fifteenth birthday. Within weeks, he would ride off to join the army with their father and older brother. He couldn’t wait to go.

Leaving her with their mother and the women. Wives, aunts, cousins, half-sisters, servants: a bevy of females determined to mold Nasan into a replica of themselves—preoccupied with her place among the hierarchy of her eventual husband’s pretty playthings. At sixteen, Nasan knew better than to resist marriage and motherhood. Women existed for no other purpose. But while she slept, the grandmother spirits whispered their promise: life offered so much more than that.

A pair of fingers snapped before her face. “Are you dreaming?” Girei asked. “Possessed? Wake up!”

She rubbed her gloved fist against his forehead, where the unruly hair refused to accept the confinement of his hat. “A nightmare, more like. You off to the army, and I to supervise the kitchens. Is that justice?”

“Oh, sister,” he said, “if only you could join me!”

How she would miss him. No one else understood her as well.

But she could not hold onto him forever. Already a faint mustache showed on his upper lip; his face increasingly resembled the portraits of their ancestor, Genghis Khan. Genghis lay hidden in the eastern steppe, long buried in a sacred precinct marked only by the spirit banners where his soul perched between flights, but his illustrious lineage survived in the rulers of Khankirmän, which the Russians called Kasimov. Girei had grown up compact and muscular, short and sturdy like his father, with dark hair and black eyes. His quilted winter trousers and overcoat, the sable hat pulled low over his forehead, only heightened his resemblance to the Mongol warriors of old.

To slip past her mother, Nasan had borrowed clothes from Girei’s servant. For these few stolen hours, she reveled in the liberty the garments gave her. She didn’t want to be a boy, but she loved the freedom to move, to choose, and to explore that boys took for granted.

Embarrassed by the thought, she brushed snow off her jacket. Pointless to long for the days—only two years in the past!—when she and Girei had raced their ponies across the steppe, ululating their joy into the wind that ruffled the feather grass. The image of her mother appeared before her: an older version of Nasan—slim but indomitable, black hair hidden beneath a cap, dark eyes flashing with annoyance at her daughter’s defiance. “Princesses stay in the palace,” Nasan remembered her mother saying in a tone that brooked no disagreement.

Nasan would pay for her disobedience when she got home. But the brilliant sunshine had beckoned from outside her window, Girei’s departure drew ever closer, and the winter woods lured her with mystery and silence. A scolding seemed a small price for a morning’s release from duty.

A flurry of snowballs snapped her back to the present. “Truce over,” Girei cried. He bombarded Nasan with what remained of his hoard, then raced for his pony, vaulting into the saddle. “Bet you can’t catch me.”

Traitor! Snow covered her from nose to hips. Set on revenge, she shook herself off and leaped for her horse’s back. Girei had a good head start, but she rode better than he did. Her sure-footed steppe pony dashed along the flattened snow that formed the road—the frozen Oka River on one side, unbroken forest on the other. The horses rode nose to tail when a dozen men burst from among the trees and grabbed the Tatars’ reins.

Russians.

No doubt about that. Many Tatars had European features, but none looked like the leader of this group. A platinum-haired giant, he towered over his men, his face creased in a scowl.

Too late, Nasan remembered her mother’s warning that more lurked in the woods than screech owls and lynxes.

A man with brown hair and rotting teeth dragged her off her pony as if she weighed no more than the last snowball she’d tossed at Girei. His grip on her waist stopped her breath.

But Nasan had spent much of her childhood wrestling her way into boys’ games. Small as she was, she had learned a few tricks. She drummed her heels against her captor’s shins until, swearing, he released her and grabbed his leg.

As she pulled away, she felt hard fingers clamp down on her shoulder. Another soldier materialized in front of her. Although shorter than his comrade, he made up for it in girth, and the slap he dealt her hurt. The man she’d kicked clenched his fists. She cowered, hoping to prevent a beating.

It worked. He grabbed her above the elbow. With both arms secured, Nasan faked acquiescence. Nothing to do but pray that the grandmothers would show her an exit. Pray and watch: the more she learned about their captors, the better her chances of saving herself and her brother.

Meanwhile, Girei tried to fight off the two men who held him. He spat curses in Tatar that portrayed his captors as the offspring of rabid dogs and whores. The soldiers stood, stolid as the trees around them, immune to insults delivered in a foreign tongue. After a while, the leader walked over, tipped back Girei’s head, and looked at him. “Bulat’s son, I vow. Boy’s the spitting image of him.”

He said the words in Russian. Nasan puzzled them out, one by one, wishing she had paid more attention to the alien language. She had learned Arabic and Persian, but her Russian came from eavesdropping on her brothers’ lessons. Custom required her to marry a Muslim; she didn’t need Russian. Everyone said so.

But she had a Russian servant. She could have ordered Tanya to teach her.

Too late for regrets. Today she would manage as best she could. But tomorrow she would insist on learning the language. Tomorrow, after she freed herself and Girei.

The leader examined Nasan as he had her brother. Determined not to show fear, she glared into his frosty eyes and tugged at the unyielding arms that held her. Branches encased in ice refracted the sun’s glare in sparkling patterns and cast shadows that shifted with each passing breeze. Bleached by the effect of sunshine on snow, the Russian looked like an ice man. His pale brows met in the center, like the tufts of a screech owl. A scar, pale with age, bracketed tight, cruel lips.

“Not so clear with this one,” he said. “We can’t afford a mistake.” He cocked his head to one side, considering. Sunshine danced across his face, highlighting an eyebrow, his hooked nose, the whorls of his ear. Then the hollows of his cheeks fell into shadow, draining his face of life.

Nasan tried to figure out what he wanted with her, with Girei. The Russian had nothing to gain from robbery or murder. Even in these troubled times, the khans of Kasimov protected their own.

The leader waved his free hand. “One blood feud is enough.”

She gasped. Blood feud?

Three months ago, a Russian had killed one of her cousins in a drunken brawl. The victim’s brothers slew the killer and left his companions unscathed—as honor required. Even Russians understood the code of the steppe: a life for a life, and there the matter ended.

Not this Russian, though. What the Tatars viewed as justice, he called vendetta.

The blood drained from her face, leaving her light-headed. This Russian meant death.

They had to get away. On their own, because no one would search for them at this early hour. Her mother had ordered them not to leave the palace. Her mother did not expect defiance.

But how could Nasan have guessed Russians were hiding in the woods today? She had rubbed the spirit dolls’ lips with grease and asked for their blessing, as she did every morning. No hint of regret or warning had crossed her mind.

She must not have listened carefully. Remorse burned her throat.

Ice Man studied her, more monster than man. Nasan shuddered. He liked that, she saw—that he inspired fear. He held her chin a moment longer, then turned back to Girei.

Plans darted through her brain, never settling. In her book of epic tales every heroine, sooner or later, stood alone against the foe. She could not submit. She would not.

The ancestors were testing her. Here, when she least expected it. Spirits often prodded and teased, forcing growth as farmers force a plant. But they helped, too, if asked.

Grandmothers, show me the way!

Her mind cleared, as if an outside force had swept uncertainty away. She saw what she must do, laid out before her in miniatures like those that adorned her book. Princess Chichek drawing her bow, her arrow whistling toward the target. Princess Saljan, wielding her saber against six hundred soldiers.

The two men gripped her arms. Obedient to the images in her head, she went limp. Her collapse caught her captors off-guard. Using a move she’d learned from her older brother, Nasan kicked the man on her right in the groin and dragged her arm away from him as he doubled over.

The man on her left stumbled. She fell backward, dragging him with her and using his greater weight against him, then twisted away and ran into the forest, shouting, “To me, Girei, to me!” To help him free himself, she dragged a pair of rocks from beneath the snow and hurled one at each of his captors. They staggered, cursing.

“The horses!” Girei raced toward her.

Nasan spun on the balls of her feet. Frightened animals surrounded her, bucking and weaving, upset by her shouting. Their hooves trampled the snow. She yelled louder and waved her arms, smacking a few on the rump to increase their frenzy. They spread into an incomplete circle, knocking into one another and their owners.

She hesitated. Horses she understood, but these beasts had not learned her voice or her smell. Did she have the skills to capture and mount one, let alone keep her seat if she did?

Girei shouted her name in warning. Feet crashing through shrubbery pushed her into a decision. Better to risk a throw from a panicked horse than whatever the Russians planned for her. Amid floundering men and distracted beasts, Nasan vaulted into the nearest saddle. The animal reared. She clung to its mane with both hands and whispered in its ear until it stopped bucking.

A quick glance over her shoulder revealed Girei heading her way—still on foot, but close enough that she could see him reach for a dangling rein. He raised an arm, and with a wave of acknowledgment she sent the gelding hurtling toward the river road, sure he was right behind her. In the pandemonium they’d left behind, she doubted anyone would see which direction they took.

At the edge of the trees, she pulled up. No sounds of pursuit disturbed the wintry scene. Exultant, she punched the air. Success, despite the odds! She had overcome the fears of a panicked animal, then ridden it to safety. A few more yards, and she and Girei would find their ponies. They would free the horses they rode and head for home.

Her horse skittered, its hooves slipping on the packed snow, its ears pricked. Swiftly she leaned over its neck, murmuring soothing words and offering a carrot from her pocket. Silence surrounded her.

Then the truth hit home, and she pulled herself upright in the saddle. Her eyes fixed on the woods, and she held her breath, listening for the smallest noise.

No one had followed her—including Girei.

What happened? He was inches from escaping!

The forest remained silent: no horses, no people. She waited, hardly daring to breathe in case the Russians heard her, but Girei did not appear. Closer to the palace stood their ponies, digging grass from beneath the packed snow and chewing it. She nudged the captured Russian gelding with her knees, walking it toward the ponies. Her otherworldly calm vanished, leaving her cramped and lost, horrified that her clever plan had saved herself but not her brother.

She wondered what to do. Help waited at home, but by the time she rode there, found someone, and persuaded that person to stop scolding her long enough to hear about Girei’s predicament, assistance would arrive too late. She had to stay and free him.

But it would be stupid to go back into the woods without sending word. Even more reckless than sneaking out in the first place.

The steppe ponies grazed a few feet away. Nasan slid off the Russian horse, tying it to a tree a safe distance from the road. Girei would need it later. She tiptoed through the snow, then darted at her brother’s gelding, slapped its flank with one hand, and grabbed her mare’s mane with the other.

Girei’s horse ran for its stable without looking back. Nasan exhaled and calmed her mare. When the pony arrived riderless, someone would investigate. Meanwhile, Girei depended on her.

She surveyed the two horses that remained. If she left them in plain sight, the Russians might find them. But if she hid them, her family would not know where to look. And if she chased them off, she and Girei would have no way to reach home before their enemy recaptured them.

She decided to compromise. “Stay, Sorkhokhtani,” she whispered in the mare’s ear. Then she checked that the trees hid the gelding and slipped back into the woods.

Escaping, waiting, sending for help, returning—essential tasks that gobbled time. The sun hovered high in the sky. Nasan willed the opportunity not lost, begged the grandmothers for aid.

Her heart smashed against her chest. Every creature in the forest must hear it. But her felt boots glided noiselessly as cat paws across the snow. Fear reined her in, whipped her forward, restrained her once more. She concentrated on her boots: toe, heel, toe, heel, sliding in endless progression across the icy waste. Once her feet found their rhythm, she scoured the woods for Girei, desperate to discover what had kept him from following her. He must be injured, or worse.

No. Across the clearing she glimpsed him tied to a birch tree, thrashing against his bonds. Soldiers surrounded him. The more he fought, the harder they laughed, as if his pain amused them. Nasan’s ready temper went from simmer to full boil.

If only she’d brought her bow. If you must break the rules, go armed! Her older brother had said that more than once. Her parents, too.

She must improvise, and quickly.

But first, reconnoiter. So the men always told her. Stop, Nasan. Think. Take the lay of the land before you rush in.

Her breath sounded loud in the stillness. As she ducked behind a hillock to consider her options, she focused on slowing it. In, hold, out, in, hold, out—another ritual, like the one that pushed her boots across the snow.

She had spent less time away than she’d thought. The soldiers not guarding Girei were still restoring order. From her perilous refuge, she watched them soothe horses. The two from whom she had escaped stood in the center of the clearing, staring at the ground while their leader rebuked them as a pair of blunderers hoodwinked by a child. Nasan allowed herself to grin.

“I’ll hunt the boy down,” the shorter man offered. “He can’t have gone far.”

Even her limited Russian revealed that her clothes had deceived them. They believed her a boy, not a girl. One point in her favor. Could she use it somehow?

The leader shook his head. “He’s not worth the trouble.”

“Lord, please. Let me show—” The soldier stopped in mid-sentence, cuffed into silence.

“I said let him go. The brat stole a horse. He’ll bring half of Kasimov down on our tails. You grabbed the other one. He’ll serve.”

Serve for what? But Nasan feared she knew.

“Get out of my way,” the leader said. “I’ll finish this business.” The men scurried across the clearing toward Nasan.

To avoid their notice, she sank into the snow. Ice Man shouted, and the men pivoted. Good, they hadn’t seen her. She straightened, peering over the hillock for a better view. She had to do something. A few minutes’ distraction, and Girei could escape.

Although the two soldiers faced away from her, they stood close enough that she could hear them muttering about it not being natural for a boy to cause so much trouble, upending grown soldiers and spooking a herd of warhorses. “Not even a Tatar,” the taller man told his fellow. “These woods give me the creeps. I’ll wager there’s something out there, right now. In the trees. A tiger, a bear.”

He shook his head in its rabbit-fur cap. Nasan, noting the reddening in his ears, guessed he was the type who wouldn’t lower the flaps no matter how the wind blew. Not manly, he’d think.

Her hands tingled with cold, and she rubbed them together, uncertain how long she could last in her frigid cocoon.

“Bear, my ass,” the other soldier scoffed. “In a tree? You’d notice a bear in a tree, you great lunk. And no tigers here, only lynxes. They won’t hurt you. You don’t like being bested by a stripling and dressed down by his lordship, that’s your trouble!”

Nasan studied the trees. No bears, although a lynx tail dangled at the far edge of her vision.

Odd. The forest animals mostly kept their distance from people.

A spirit animal, perhaps—the assistance she’d prayed for.

The lynx observed. The two men moved away. Shallow breaths of icy air restored Nasan’s sense of suspension in an eternal forest occupied by enemies as schematic as chess pieces on a board. The world turned black and white: snow and branches, ashen sky and leather uniforms, the gray-furred hats of the men, the leader’s sable coat and white-blond hair. Only her brother—ropes biting into his chest, hands pinioned behind him—seemed real, alive, in color.

Potential moves drifted past, presented themselves, withdrew. She had her eating knife, secured by habit to her belt. If she tossed it at the leader…

She would reveal her position. And, hit or miss, she had to incapacitate the other men, too, to free Girei.

A stick or a rock, then? No, same problem.

She surveyed the clearing once more. The tree behind Girei drooped snow-laden branches over his guards. Like the ones that had inundated her when her brother dumped her into the drift.

She searched for rocks small enough to throw but heavy enough to knock the snow off the branches and into the Russians’ eyes. Blind the men, dart in with her knife, cut Girei’s bonds. Steal a weapon, if possible. Rescue her brother. Even if she died, she would live in her parents’ hearts. The ancestors would welcome her, the clan honor her sacrifice during their rituals for the dead.

Better to live, though. Grandmothers, preserve us!

The area behind the hillock yielded no stones. Nasan had stretched her arm to its fullest extent when the leader snarled at the men who had mumbled about lynxes, “Watch and learn.” She stopped, transfixed.

He stalked toward Girei and ripped open the boy’s jacket. The delicate chasing on the man’s scabbard glinted in the sunlight, a terrible beauty reflected in the dull steel of his chain mail. Girei stood on tiptoe, straining against the ropes.

From the sheath at his belt Ice Man pulled a dagger. It glittered—wicked, unrelenting, shooting sun sparks as the light shifted against the blade. Girei shouted his defiance, “Allahu ak—,” cut off when the blade slashed across his neck and the cry ended in a gurgle. He slumped in his bonds. His head lolled. Blood sprayed from his throat.

Nasan almost gave herself away then. If she’d had her bow, she would have slammed an arrow into Ice Man’s back, whatever the threat of retribution. But she had no weapon worth the name. Shocked beyond thought, she stared at the clearing.

Ice Man’s frigid voice focused her attention. Even Russians, it appeared, recognized the Arabic phrase “God is supreme.”

“Not supreme after all, heathen. Not your god, at any rate.” The blond leader kicked snow over Girei’s dangling legs while Nasan watched, stunned by the man’s disrespect.

Why had the grandmothers not intervened? This Russian had shed the blood of a Tatar prince. Girei’s life fluid spilled against the ground. The ultimate taboo, violated.

“Untie the ropes,” the leader said. “Leave him for his kin to find. And let’s get out of here before they do.”

No bolt of lightning sizzled the sky. No pillar of fire descended from above. No lynx raked claws across the villain’s shoulders. While the ancestors did nothing to avenge their slain kinsman, Nasan keened silently, her quilted sleeve stuffed in her mouth. Time swirled around her.

All rights reserved.  Copyright reverts to author upon publication.

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About Sandi Sonnenfeld

Sandi Sonnenfeld is a fiction writer and essayist. Her memoir, This Is How I Speak (2002: Impassio Press), which recounts how her views about what it means to be a woman in contemporary America changed after suffering a dangerous sexual assault, was a Booksense 76 finalist. With the memoir’s publication, she was named a 2002 Celebration Author by the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, which recognizes writers whose work merits special notice. Sandi has published more than two-dozen short stories and essays in Sojourner, Voices West, Hayden’s Ferry Review, ACM, Raven Chronicles, Necessary Fiction, Perigee, Revolution House and The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review among others. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Sandi holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from the University of Washington, where she won the Loren D. Milliman Writing Fellowship. She currently resides in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and the world’s most perfect cat.