And what shoulder, and what art could twist the sinews of thy heart? (William Blake)
With a flourish of his pen, Rashid ad-Din Fadl Allah Hamadani wrote his name at the end of a completed folio of his History. The sound of voices in the room below reached him through the open window. He took up another blank sheet, stared at it for several moments, then pushed both paper and pen aside.
Since his arrival with Prince Ghazan in Rayy three days ago, Rashid had found concentration difficult. He was wearied of travelling, tired of the skirmishes between the forces of his patron and those of the Il-khan’’s, and sickened by the years of bloodshed. Rashid could hardly remember a time when there was no fighting. The wars with Gaikatu and Baidu had been preceded by a rebellion led by Nauruz, the Prince’s deputy governor. A quarrel between them had simmered for a year before breaking into hostilities that had lasted two. Before that Ghazan had had to beat off an invasion by the Chagatai Mongols, descendants of Temuchin who ruled the lands beyond the eastern frontier of Khorasan.
The dispute with Nauruz had been patched up. Both men had apologised and their old friendship was renewed. However, no sooner was peace restored than it was disturbed by the threat of a new war. Il-khan’ Gaikatu, seeing that Ghazan was no longer distracted and might try to take the throne, had disposed two divisions on the borders of Ghazan’s lands. Full-scale hostilities had been avoided, but it had been an uneasy time of raids and dog-fights. Now, with Gaikatu gone, the game had begun again.
But it was not only war and politics that stemmed the flow of pen and ink. Rashid had reached a point in his narrative where facts were hidden in rumour and innuendo. Rashid had a mathematician’s approach to history – methodical and ordered. Facts were paramount, and for the next chapter in his work, dealing with the last days of Gaikatu’s reign, he was short on facts.
The previous Il-khan had certainly died by strangulation as his body testified. However, Rashid did not believe the official version of events, any more than he believed the official version of the death of Arghun. At least the latter had been credible. Arghun, already sick with a lingering chill and from a liver complaint brought about by an excess of alcohol, had been poisoned by two Buddhist monks. Whether he had died accidentally by the over-prescription of a remedy, or had been murdered, had never been proved. Rashid had heard testimony from an Italian envoy and from an officer in Arghun’s guard to the effect that the deed had Baidu’s hand behind it, but neither was able to produce evidence to support his claims.
The account of Gaikatu’s death lacked credibility in any of its varieties. Supporters of Baidu, so the story went, implicated in the fall of Arghun’s regime and imprisoned by Gaikatu in Tabriz, had escaped, pursued the Il-khan, ambushed and murdered him. Some had even accused Baidu himself of the deed.
It was true that, the previous summer, after three relatively peaceful years, the cousins had quarrelled, presumably under the influence of liquor. Baidu was beaten up by Gaikatu’s thugs and vowed to be avenged. He raised his forces and marched against Taghachar, the Il-khan’s commander-in-chief. Taghachar, who seemingly had had enough of Gaikatu’s excesses and whose sympathies were clearly with Baidu, changed sides – surprising, thought Rashid, since one cousin was as dissolute as the other. Anyway, the Il-khan, his forces now outnumbered, had retreated.
That much was common knowledge. However, for Rashid, there were several problems with the rest. Baidu’s ambition to take the throne was well known and it was true he had rewarded the supposed executioners with deputy governorships or military promotions. But he had denied vehemently any responsibility for his cousin’s death and, whilst denial did not imply innocence, Rashid was persuaded that, given the man’s character, silence would have been a more likely indicator of guilt. Taghachar too had denied complicity and his denial had a ring of truth.
Moreover, prisoners did not usually escape unless they had help from their gaolers. Gaikatu’s support in the north far outweighed that for his cousin, and Rashid was not convinced that either the captain of Tabriz Castle or the city commander, even if in Baidu’s pay, would have taken the risk of the scheme backfiring. Perhaps most significantly, two witnesses in Ghazan’s employ claimed to have seen Gaikatu’s dead body several days before the reported ambush was supposed to have taken place.
The voices in the room below continued. Rashid could imagine Ghazan pacing the floor, pausing from time to time to rise on his toes as he vented his displeasure. The Prince was a small man who often gave audiences standing while his subordinates were commanded to sit.
‘So, what does Baidu really want, eh? Tell me that, Nauruz.’ Ghazan must have reached the window as the words floating upwards were clear and unmistakeable.
The reply was less audible and Rashid had to listen hard to catch it. Nauruz, now Ghazan’s commander-in-chief, though able as a general and formidable as an opponent, was a quiet-spoken man.
‘He wants your head.’
‘And you obligingly offered it to him?’ Ghazan growled. ‘Is that the meaning of our newly-restored friendship, eh?’
‘Far from it, Highness,’ Nauruz said defensively. ‘I narrowly escaped with my life.’
Rashid rose and crossed to his window. He rested his elbows on the sill and went on listening. Almost a month had passed since the first serious engagement of the war, which had decided nothing. The two leaders had met and the Il-khan had tried to buy Ghazan off with an offer of six provinces. Ghazan could never hide his hatred of Baidu nor his disgust at the latter’s debauchery. He distrusted Baidu’s motives and broke off the dialogue, sending Nauruz to negotiate with Baidu’s functionaries.
‘As you suspected, the negotiations were a ploy,’ Nauruz went on. He too must have risen and approached the window as Rashid could now hear him clearly. ‘It’s fortunate I had a few old friends in the enemy camp, or I would be in chains now. Or worse.’
‘So you escaped. That’s what matters, eh?’
‘I was released,’ said Nauruz solemnly. ‘In truth, that’s a more accurate description. My friends know my history. That I was once your enemy and might still be. They convinced Baidu my loyalty to you was a pretence and that I might be better employed as a spy …’
‘… and, in serving Baidu in that capacity, bring about my death?’ The Prince laughed half-heartedly. ‘But you’re back now and we’re no longer enemies. In fact I forget what argument it was that broke our friendship in the first place, and led to three years of stupid civil war.’
‘Nevertheless, Highness …’ Nauruz hesitated.
‘Come on, Nauruz, speak plainly. As one friend to another.’
Both men were now pacing as Rashid could judge from the way the sound of their voices fluctuated. He leant out over the window sill to improve his reception. In contrast with the coolness of his room the outside air was warm on his face.
Away to his left, the peaks and gorges of the Alburz Mountains, clear and sharp in the mid morning sun, reared against a cloudless northern sky. Damavand, the greatest peak of all, was out of sight, but Rashid was aware of its presence, standing sentinel over the valleys of the mountain range.
For a few moments there was silence from below, then Nauruz spoke again. ‘Yes, we are friends, Ghazan, and it should never have been otherwise. Yet, since you allow me to speak frankly, I will do so. Unlike you, I do remember the reason for our quarrel. It was about religion, and it’s that same religion that places me under conflicting obligations – to you, as my friend, and to the other who has usurped what is rightfully yours.’
‘Spit it out, Nauruz,’ urged the Prince. ‘What is it you’re not telling me, eh?’
‘The price of my freedom, Highness, was a promise, a promise that within a week I would deliver you, bound hand and foot, to Baidu. And for that promise, my other friends stand guarantee. It’s a promise I cannot keep, for I am no Nizari assassin to worm my way into your confidence then strike unawares. Yet brothers in the Faith might die because of it, and that burdens my conscience.’
Ghazan exhaled audibly. ‘This Allah of yours is a strange god, Nauruz, that he expects the impossible from his adherents. Yet I grow attached to some of these Muslim ideas. I have been studying this book …’ There was the sound of leather striking wood. ‘… the Qur’an. Peace, justice and a greater brotherhood! When you’ve known nothing but war and enmity for five years, such concepts are very appealing. What’s your answer to the dilemma, Nauruz, eh?’
‘I do not have one, Highness.’
‘Then we must consult Rashid, if he can tear himself away from that history of his for long enough to say ‘Good Morning’. He is a Muslim too. In fact, this book belongs to him …’
Rashid returned to his manuscripts, sat down and picked up his pen. He tried to look studious. If Ghazan decided to climb the stair in search of him, as he often did, he did not wish to be caught eavesdropping. However, on this occasion, the Prince seemed disinclined to expend any unnecessary energy. He simply went to his own window and bellowed.
With a sense of the inevitable, Rashid descended, the wood of the stairs creaking under his weight. Nominally the Prince’s chief adviser, his opinion was often sought but rarely followed. Ghazan had always been wilful and now, at the age of twenty-four, his wilfulness had become obstinacy with a touch of recklessness, a failing, it had to be said, in many of the descendants of Temuchin. Rashid had warned him against engaging Baidu’s three tumens – some thirty thousand horsemen and infantry – with only two of his own, but he had thrown himself regardless into the attack, arguing that boldness and surprise would make up for a lack of numbers.
It was fortunate that the Il-khan had not realised how weak his enemy was. With one of his divisions holding back the aggressive Chagatai, and his remaining forces still dispersed across three provinces, Ghazan did not yet have the strength for a prolonged fight. As it was, Baidu with only half his army had repulsed the attack and, cautious, had pulled back. Afterwards, Rashid had conceded to himself that the Prince’s tactics were sound. However, it did not make him feel any better that his advice was ignored.
The room he entered was no more comfortable than his own. In the centre stood a polished oak table on which lay his copy of the Holy Book and, the one concession to opulence, an urn of Rayy ceramic, matt blue and finely decorated on the handles and round the rim. There were three chairs, a couch and a plain closet. On one wall hung two portraits, a likeness of Temuchin and one of Ghazan himself in full battle-dress, while on another was suspended a vicious-looking Mongol lance. Less pleasing to Rashid’s eye was a flagon of liquor that sat on the window ledge and which he guessed from the sickly odour of the Prince’s breath was koumis. Despite a declared aversion to its taste, Ghazan consumed it continually when under stress.
‘You were listening, Master Historian, I suppose, eh?’ The young Mongol was a half a head shorter than Rashid. He had a round, rather benign countenance that was distorted by a grotesque squint, giving him an ogrish appearance.
‘The windows are open, Your Highness,’ Rashid said apologetically. ‘I could not fail to hear part …’
Ghazan interrupted him with a laugh that made his squint seem even more grotesque. ‘It does not signify, Rashid. What matters is that Nauruz here is placed in a dilemma due to the faith that you and he share. We would value your opinion.’
‘And the nature of this dilemma,’ Rashid began slowly, ‘has to do with Baidu and Your Highness’s recent confrontation?’
‘Nauruz has promised him my head,’ Ghazan said with ebullience. He slapped the table with the palm of his hand. ‘What d’you think of that, eh?’
‘That by returning here, he places his own at the greater risk,’ answered Rashid soberly. ‘Yet I see no weapon raised.’
‘Nauruz has brought me valuable intelligence of Baidu’s strength and the disposition of his forces,’ said Ghazan. He gestured towards one of the chairs and Rashid obediently sat down. ‘Still, he feels obligated to those who by their counsel helped him escape the enemy camp.’
Rashid stroked his beard. He was not sure he understood the problem. This was war, and in war men die, even one’s friends.
The Prince strode over to the window, lifted the liquor flagon and took a long draught from it. Having done so, he began pacing. At length, he stopped at Rashid’s chair and stood glowering down at him, his feet planted wide and his arms akimbo.
‘Well?’ he prompted.
‘Let us philosophise for a moment, Your Highness,’ said Rashid. ‘First, a promise made under duress is no promise at all. And if we assume General Nauruz has already made his choice, to be your ally, we must also assume that his other friends, if I may call them that, have made theirs, to remain allies of Baidu. Their meat is already roasted, so to speak.
‘That being the case,’ he went on deliberately, turning to Nauruz, ‘their intercession on your behalf was no act of altruism, General, but was made in the hope of gaining their prince’s favour. It was a calculated risk.’
‘By my ancestor’s tomb, Rashid’s right,’ cried Ghazan with enthusiasm.
‘Now let us look at the matter from Baidu’s point of view, General,’ continued Rashid, encouraged by his patron’s reaction. ‘His choices were threefold – to torture and kill you, to drag you back to Tabriz in chains, or to let you go. The first might give him temporary satisfaction, but he would gain no benefit.
‘The second would serve him no better. He would have a hostage, but to what end? Even Baidu could not think His Highness would offer himself in exchange. I mean no disrespect, General, but commanders can be replaced.
‘The third option offered him the chance of victory. Were you to bring him His Highness’s head, Baidu would be master of the field. The war would be over. If you do not return he is no worse off. Moreover,’ he added with a meaningful glance in Ghazan’s direction, ‘he has little to gain by killing his advisers.’
‘He would need no reason if he’s mad, as they say,’ interjected Nauruz.
‘If he is mad, he might kill them regardless,’ Rashid replied. ‘In any event, you are in no position to help them.’
Ghazan had begun pacing again. His features were set in a frown of concentration. His squint left eye, set slightly higher in his face than the right, was shrunk to a slit which made the latter seem all the larger and brighter.
Rashid watched him with mixed emotions. He despised his patron’s irreverence, his appetite for strong drink and his fondness of fleshly pleasure. Ghazan had inherited his forebear’s fickle nature, their restlessness and, though he usually hid it behind a good-natured facade, their ruthlessness.
On the other hand, he had the intellect of a scholar and the curiosity of a scientist. He was fluent in six languages and could hold his own, Rashid had discovered, in any debate on astronomy, medicine or politics. He had the eye of an artist, the hands of an artisan and, despite his small stature, the courage of a giant. It was Rashid’s view that with proper guidance and by embracing the jihad, he might become the greatest of his dynasty.
Rashid was startled suddenly from his daydream. The Prince was standing over him with his thumbs tucked inside his sword belt.
‘So, what do you recommend, Rashid, eh?’
‘I recommend that we first examine the General’s intelligence,’ Rashid said. ‘Where are the enemy’s other divisions stationed? Are his supply lines secured or not? Is there any news of your brother?’
‘At least twenty thousand men are encamped at Talaqan. That much I saw for myself. Another ten thousand horse soldiers are skulking in the hills south of Qazvin and along the River Sefid, while a few minghans guard the road to Zanjan and beyond.
‘The good news is that there have been desertions from Baidu’s ranks, at least half a division, and with the damage our sortie inflicted, he is hard pressed to maintain four tumens, least of all the six he inherited on his accession.
‘The bad is that I have not heard from Oljeitu since he sent despatches from Kermanshah. In any case, his five thousand conscripts will not win me the war.’
‘They might cut off the way to Tabriz,’ Rashid suggested tentatively. ‘Baidu may be forced to send more troops back to defend it. And if you were to raise the flag of Islam, I know of a dozen emirs who would rally to your cause.’
‘That is true, Highness,’ Nauruz added. ‘Furthermore, if Taghachar could be persuaded to change sides again, there are a dozen captains who will follow him, Muslim or no.’
‘Your preaching has become tiresome,’ the Prince cried petulantly. ‘Both of you!’ He returned to his liquor flagon, took a mouthful and immediately spat it out on the floor. This action was followed by another, equally dramatic if less explosive. He seized the flagon by its neck, inverted it out of the window and deliberately poured the remaining contents into the courtyard below.
‘By the gods, that’s a vile liquid,’ he grunted and wiped the moisture from his lips with a sleeve. ‘You’re both right of course, and I have been thinking a lot about it lately. If by becoming a Muslim I can rescue the throne of my father and grandfather, then I shall become one. And you, Rashid, will aid me.’
‘If you accept the Prophet’s Way in all humility, the process itself is simple enough,’ Rashid said, swallowing surprise at this outburst, ‘and I shall be happy to be your instructor in that respect.’
‘In good time,’ said the Prince. ‘In good time. For now, I’m of a mind to send a message to Baidu that will save Nauruz’s conscience.’
‘As to that, I have an idea,’ said Rashid. ‘Can you still recall the nature of your promise, General?’
Nauruz wrinkled his brows. ‘The Il-khan’’ did most of the talking. As near as I can remember, I said I will do as you ask, or as you command. What does it matter since I cannot fulfil the promise?’
‘And Baidu? What did he say? His exact words, if you can.’
‘Those I recall clearly. I will have the traitor’s head, he said, and he was looking past me to where the two stood who had vouched for my loyalty. If you wish to serve my realm, you will bring me Ghazan, bound hand and foot, else his head wrapped in a sack. Give me your undertaking and you will be free.’
‘Mmm.’ Rashid stroked his beard. His heart and mind were filled with hope that the next days would bring a change in his Prince’s fortune and in his own. The burden of his forty-eight years no longer seemed so heavy. ‘In that case, I believe we have the answer,’ he said. ‘That is, if someone will bring me the largest cooking pot to be found in the city!’
[to be continued – there will be another chapter in a day or two]