Gaikatu opened his eyes feeling dazed and nauseous. The dawn light was creeping through the single window of the homestead. He was cold and his hands and feet were numb. He tried to remember how the night had ended, but all was a jumble of dreamlike images. The sound of breathing coming from a point to his left and a little above the level of the mattress made him turn his head. It ached.
Doquz stood not five paces away, naked apart from her boots and silk drawers. Her tunic, body armour and leggings were draped over a stool along with her saddlebags. An unstrung bow and quiver lay on the table beside the empty dishes and beakers, and her sabre was sheathed in the narrow gap between two of its slats. She had placed a pitcher on the table and was bent over it, splashing water over her face and body. She dried herself with a lint towel taken from a saddle bag, then took up a comb and began teasing out the knots in her hair.
Gaikatu lay still, watching her keenly, admiring the firmness of her small breasts and the litheness of her limbs. If she was aware of him, she gave no sign. In the morning light she seemed more womanly than he had thought her previously though, perversely, he decided he preferred the warrior princess of yesterday to the comely maiden who now calmly performed her toilet in his full gaze.
He tried to sit up and found he could not. What he had supposed in the darkness of one of his nightmares, that he was tied to the bed, was a reality. His hands were bound behind his back with light but strong cords. His knees and feet too were tied together, and an extra cord was looped through the bonds to connect wrist with ankle. Gaikatu recognised the texture of bowstring. He moved his fingers and felt it cut into his flesh.
‘What new game is this, Doquz?’ he cried, more amused than angry. As an adept in the art of carnal perversion, he would have hoped for something more original from her.
Doquz did not respond immediately. She finished with her hair and put on her tunic and studded leather jerkin before turning round.
‘Are you thirsty?’ she asked unemotionally. Without waiting for his reply, she ladled some water into a beaker and held it to his lips. Gaikatu drained it.
‘And a little mares’ milk? Perhaps there is some remaining.’
Her voice held a new timbre and suddenly it dawned on Gaikatu that the stupor of the night before had not been a natural one. The liquor of which he was so fond and which he had swallowed so greedily had been poisoned. Mildly alarmed, he struggled again with his bonds but they remained secure and painful.
‘I want no more of your devil’s brew,’ he hissed. ‘Release me at once!’
Doquz went back to the table and appeared to search for something. When she turned again, she held a dagger in her right hand. Thinking that she was about to obey him, Gaikatu turned his back on her and extended his wrists as far as they would go. Doquz made no move to cut the string.
‘Well, what are you waiting for?’ the Il-khan demanded, squirming onto his other side and facing her once more. ‘Release me!’
‘All in good time,’ Doquz replied. Gaikatu had the impression she was talking more to herself than to him. She looked down at the dagger and tested its point on her left forefinger. A few drops of blood fell on the floor.
Gaikatu’s mild alarm was turning to fear. He had faced death in battle undaunted, but now he was to die helpless at the hands of a woman, moreover one whom he fancied he had just bedded. The nightmare made no sense. Twice already he had been at her mercy, surrounded by her warriors and comatose from the poison she had fed him, yet he still lived. The only explanation was that she was out of her mind. Perhaps if he handled her gently she would relent.
‘What do you want from me, Doquz?’ he asked, repeating the question he had put to her the night before. ‘I have never sought to be your enemy. If you want half the kingdom, I will give it to you. If your desire is to be queen I will marry you.’
‘‘Tis too late for that,’ said Doquz coldly. ‘Once I might have married you. We are both young. I could have borne you a son – or a daughter perhaps – who, when we are gone, would lead this empire to greatness; greatness that my father with all his unifying plans could never dream of. Where Temuchin failed, we could have succeeded.’
‘It could still be so.’
‘‘Tis too late,’ Doquz repeated fiercely. With a sudden spring she was on top of him, one knee pressed against his throat and her dagger poised above his breastbone.
‘This is madness, Doquz,’ screeched Gaikatu. ‘You can gain nothing by killing me.’
‘Kill you?’ echoed Doquz. ‘If I had wished your death, you would have been dead long since. Your life has been in my hands since you rode into my trap, and I had only to whistle to bring a dozen of my followers to the door.’
‘Before they reached it you would have been throttled.’
‘Perhaps, but I do not fear death the way you seem to, Uncle Gaikatu. I wonder why that is. Is it the dying you dread? Is it the sight of your own blood emptying on the sand, or is it the hell that awaits you in the mythical after-life?’ She drew the tip of the dagger lightly across his belly and Gaikatu felt it prick the skin of his groin. ‘Do you think I would have let you near me if it had been your death I desired? No. I wish a long life for you, Gaikatu, a life lived in the hell you have made for others, a life dreaming of the paradise you might have enjoyed nightly between my sheets but can enjoy no longer. I wanted you to taste desire, Gaikatu; I wanted you to taste it before your manhood is lost forever.’
Gaikatu stared at the dagger in terror. Her intention was now clear and he did not dare struggle too much in case he hastened the act of mutilation she threatened. Keeping his torso as still as he could, he heaved again, desperately, at the cords binding his wrists. They gave a little. He needed more time.
‘I do not deny I have hurt others,’ he said, trying to divert her with conversation. ‘Yes, and I plotted against your father. You may hate me for that but, believe me, I would have prevented his death if I could.’
‘It was not I who murdered him.’ The pressure on Gaikatu’s wrists had eased and he wriggled his fingers to restore the circulation. He picked silently at the knot in the cord.
‘Yet I might have forgiven you even that,’ breathed Doquz. ‘In some ways I hardly knew my father. His thoughts were ever on Ghazan, and on Oljei: the son who did not come to Baghcha when he was most needed; the daughter who made him into a fool and now sits in Khorasan in piety and contemplation.’
‘There was not a youth in the guard but had tasted her.’
With a sudden burst of energy, Gaikatu tore one hand free. He twisted to one side, away from the menacing dagger, and lashed at Doquz with his fist. It struck her on the shoulder and the force of blow threw her to the floor. Her right hand struck the edge of the bench and the dagger was sent spinning out of reach. For a second Gaikatu savoured the look of surprise in her face then, though still hampered by the cord around his knees and ankles, and the other tying his other hand to it, he leapt, pinning her down by the arms.
He had underestimated her strength and agility. Doquz moved and he grunted as she brought up one knee into his face, then howled in agony as the toe of a boot sank into the flesh of his testicles. She wriggled from his grasp and backed towards the table. Her eyes blazed with fury.
Gaikatu was faced with an impossible choice. The dagger lay where it had fallen, near the door and more than an arm’s length from his outstretched hand. Unless he retrieved it and cut the ties round his ankles he could not hope to escape. However, if he went for it, Doquz would have time to reach her sabre and call for help. Already she was on her knees with her fingers raised to her mouth to give the whistle that could bring her bowmen to her aid.
The Il-khan did the only thing he could. Ignoring the pain that was spreading across his belly, he seized her by the arm and hair, pulled her towards him and kissed her full on the mouth. Doquz bit his lip, but he did not care. He was stronger than she and would not underestimate her a third time. His free hand reached for the scimitar. The full weight of his body pressed down on her legs preventing her from using them against him.
Gaikatu had never intentionally killed a woman and now that Doquz was at his mercy, the thought of doing so made him sick. Anyway, she was of more value alive, as a hostage to ensure his escape. He relaxed the pressure but kept his mouth over hers to prevent her crying out.
However, his hesitation had given Doquz the ability to counter-attack. His act of seizing her scimitar had also pulled her bow to the floor. Doquz freed her mouth and bit him again. Gaikatu felt her incisor teeth cut through the muscles of his face. Through his pain, he was aware that she had taken hold of the bow and had twisted the loose string round his throat.
She bit him a third time. Her teeth clamped together firmly through his cheek. Gaikatu had no more chance of loosing himself than a deer in the grip of a tiger. He swung the sabre but they were much too close together to give him a clean stroke. The blade sheared the table.
Gaikatu clutched at the bowstring. She was tightening it and he could not breathe. Bright lights danced in front of him. He could not focus properly. There seemed to be two of her, each one more menacing than the other. Two strings were twisting in two pairs of slender hands.
Doquz was panting. ‘Yes, I could have forgiven you even my father, Gaikatu, just as I would have ignored your other excesses, your debaucheries, your Greek and African whores, your boy concubines …’
Gaikatu’s throat was closing, but he made a last effort at speech, asking the one question that gnawed away at his brain. ‘Then why?’
She was on top of him, twisting mercilessly, and she spat the words in his ear. ‘Ibrahim …’ Gaikatu heard her say. ‘… what you did to him. That I could never forgive!’
‘The sword-master?’ the Il-khan gasped. ‘I don’t understand … a slave … and you … a princess of Genghis’s line …’
‘I loved him,’ said Doquz coldly. ‘I loved him and you had him castrated.’
She jerked his head violently to one side and the Il-khan gave a gurgle of despair as the breath was forced from his body. The last sound he heard was the snap of his own neck before he fell back stone dead on the floor.
Doquz allowed the bowstring to fall from her grasp and rose slowly to her feet. She stood as if paralysed. There had been no time to feel remorse for what she had done, but the rigidity of the corpse, its lifeless eyes still bulging in fear and incomprehension, caused her stomach to heave.
The Il-khan lay on his back. His legs, still bound together at the knees and ankles, were twisted to one side exposing genitals that now seemed obscene in their limpness. His hands were at his throat, the fingers half-clenched as if trying, even in death, to fasten round the fatal cords.
Doquz had killed before, but it had been mostly in the heat of a skirmish or raid, her skill and that of her band pitted against the skill of the enemy. Afterwards, there had never been time to moralise. Now, though she had acted in defence of her own life and the deed was done, it sickened her. The anger against Gaikatu’s savagery that she had bottled up for so long was cooling and she began to feel empty. She had been so sure of herself and it had almost ended fatally for her.
She bent down to touch the Il-khan’s body. There was no doubt he was dead. There was no pulse and he had already begun to grow cold, the flesh unresponsive like that of a wild fowl plucked ready for the pot. Doquz picked up her dagger, fingering its blade lightly before leaning across to place it against the skin of Gaikatu’s groin. She stopped, revolted by what she contemplated. What kind of monster had she become, she wondered? And what kind of evil jinn would she become before it was all over?
Tears welled up in Doquz’s eyes. Her cheeks burned and acid vomit rose in her throat. She retched, rose unsteadily again to her feet and, with the dagger still in her hand, stumbled to the door of the tiny house and out into the desert air.
‘Are you all right, Captain?’
Doquz raised her head, the taste of vomit in her mouth. She was sitting hunched up against the wall of the homestead. Her dagger was lying in the dust beside her. Two of her followers were bending over her with concern written on their faces. One, a middle-aged Persian with a fatherly expression, helped her to her feet.
‘I’m well enough now, Sabbah,’ she replied, rubbing her cramped limbs.
‘We heard your whistle.’ Sabbah frowned. ‘What happened?’
‘He is dead. I should have listened to you, Sabbah, and instead he is dead.’
The second man, a Mongol youth, picked up her dagger and inspected the blade.
‘No more, Khumar,’ said Doquz in answer to his questioning look. ‘He is dead and that is enough.’
‘Yes, Captain.’ The youth went towards the door of the homestead, peered inside and returned to her side. ‘What’s to be done now?’
‘What we always intended, I think,’ said Doquz. ‘Send him to Baidu as a warning. Sabbah?’
‘We would have to accompany him,’ said the Persian, ‘and I do not think we are ready to face Baidu yet. Besides, the body will decompose quickly in this climate…’
‘Are Arpa and Noyan still trailing us?’
‘They will be here within the day by my reckoning, and Jahan will be only a few hours behind. The trail is clear.’
‘Then we should leave Gaikatu here,’ said Doquz. ‘Or close by so the villagers are not involved. Put him on his own pony. The generals will find him. They can take credit or blame as they choose.’
‘Let it be so then, Princess,’ said Sabbah. ‘Dead, he can serve no less a purpose than alive.’ He cast a glance at the dagger, which Doquz had taken from Khumar and tucked in her belt. ‘And you are wise, I think, to leave things as they are. The mutilation of corpses is work for barbarians.’
‘You are right as usual,’ said Doquz quietly. ‘Now, see that he is dressed and made ready to receive his pursuers. And, Khumar, fetch my bow, sword and saddlebags from the shack. I will tell you both later how I almost paid for my childish arrogance.’
Sabbah whistled and several armed men appeared from behind the nearby farmhouse. ‘The boy and the woman wish to join us,’ he said, ‘but we cannot hide from them what has happened.’
‘And the children?’
‘They are no threat,’ said Sabbah. ‘All night they huddled in a corner, too frightened to speak.’
‘Reassure them, then see they are returned to their homes,’ said Doquz. ‘Enlist the volunteers. When that is done, join me again with the ponies. We’ll go north, to al-Qisma. The rest of the band are waiting for us there and, anyway, I want to put as many days as we can manage between ourselves and Baidu before the generals reach him with the news!’
Khumar returned with the items she had requested. By now the village had come alive. A dozen or more of its inhabitants had emerged from the primitive mosque and were loading donkeys and hitching carts in preparation for a day’s toil in the Zagros foothills. Doquz knew they scratched only a meagre living from quarrying the stone they found there. She reached into a saddle bag and drew out a purse from which she took two silver coins.
‘Give these dinars to the head man of the village,’ she said, ‘and make sure there are no traces left of our presence here.’
Doquz watched both men go. She restrung her bow, strapped on her quiver and gave one final glance towards the door of the peasant homestead.
‘North. To al-Qisma,’ she repeated quietly to herself. ‘To Destiny! But what I shall find there, the gods only know. That is, if they exist!’
[There will be more. Please don’t go away!]