This is a story of Mathurin Kerbochard, in early 12th century Europe. Those were interesting times in Europe, with the Moslem Moors ruling the Spain, Christianity on the rise across Europe, with pockets of paganism still alive. The pagan Kerbochard himself was a descendant of a line of Druids. He’s the son of a famous corsair, Kerbochard, and carries his family name proudly. The story starts of in his home, along the Armorican coast, where he hears stories of his father being captured (and perhaps dead) in the East, and his home is destroyed by the Baron Tourmaline, who long held a grudge against his father. And from this first chapter, we are lifted in to a world of non-stop action and fascination.
He escapes, only to be enslaved by pirates. All he has with himself are his wits, and a keen desire for knowledge. We then follow him through his adventures (with many an encounter with mysterious and beautiful women), as he escapes, makes a fortune, and goes to Spain. Spain under the Al Mohads had lost a little bit of the glory of the earlier Ummayad Caliphate but was undoubtedly the center of learning, arts and science in medieval Europe. Here scholars (not only Islamic) gathered, in the magnificent city of Cordoba, and the libraries of Cordoba alone had more books than the rest of Europe together. Europe was still years from awakening to the renaissance, and learning was stilled viewed with suspicion. Cordoba had Islamic scholars, as well as Jews and Christians, and was wealthy beyond the imagination of much of the rest of Europe. Here Kerbochard embarks on a mission of learning, mastering Latin and Arabic, and even learning Persian and some Sanskrit, while mastering swordplay and horsemanship, and mastering navigation, some medicine, science, and alchemy. He plunges in to one adventure after another, encountering nobles, rouges, solders and of course, mesmerizing women, making valuble friends and dangerous enemies. He then is forced to leave Spain, as he hears of his father’s possible captivity in the East, and moves on to France, towards his own native Armorica, where he joins a band of merchants.
L’amour describes the rise of the new power, the merchants, beautifully, as Kerbochard travels with the band, which traveled with merchandise, and hundreds of armed men, veritable private armies. He avenges his family’s destruction by destroying the Baron Tourmaline, as L’amour beautifully describes the rise of “nobility” and blue blood in Europe (with the difference between a knave warlord and a noble being just one generation). The merchant army walks east, under the beat of a drum (the walking drum) as they cross Europe, rescue a countess, and make their way to Kiev. From there, the army moves on to the Steppes, where they encounter the famed horsemen of the steppes, a prelude to what would soon sweep across the world under the hordes of Genghis and other Khans. Great battles follow, and Kerbochard loses his fortune and almost forfeits his life.
His destination is now Constantinople, still under the Byzantine empire, and Christianity’s greatest city, clouded under the threat of the rising power of the mighty Arabs. He enters the city as a beggar, but a wise and learned one. He leaves, as a friend of the Emperor Manuel. For he has to go farther east, as he hears his father is still alive, but captured at the impregnable fortress of the Ismaili Alamut Hashashins. The Hashashins (who gave the world the word assassins) terrorized the Abbasid elite with politically motivated assassinations for strategic gain. Their fortress was impregnable, and here, drugged warriors were promised paradise upon fulfillment of their assassination duties. Kerbochard, in the guise of an Islamic scholar infiltrates the great fortress, and in a fitting climax rescues his father. L’amour was a master of close one-on-one action, which he experienced as a professional boxer, and perfected in numerous fisticuffs and gunfights in the Wild West. Sword duels and galloping horses flow naturally and rivet the reader here.
There is a fascinating twist as well, at the end of the tale. L’amour wanted to write three historical novels with the hero Kerbochard. The first would take mesmerized readers to Europe and the middle east, through the Walking drum, but the next two were more ambitious, as Kerbochard would head to the land of Hind (yes) and mysterious Cathay.
It’s a pity that L’amour died a couple of years after writing this (perhaps his finest) book, and could not write these sequels.
“Yol Bolsun”. May there be a road always.