The Mongol army was made up in units of ten:
arban: a troop of ten men
jagun: a squadron of ten arbans
minghan: a regiment of ten jaguns
tumen: a division of ten minghans
It was a grey sultry afternoon, more like the sleepy days of summer than the pleasurably warm ones of spring. From beneath the branches of a sprawling cedar, Doquz contemplated the long, bare wall of Tabriz Castle. She could feel the perspiration trickling down her neck and arms. The coarse leather of her corslet irritated her skin, but she knew she could not have chosen a better time for her expedition.
She and her two youthful companions, wearing white caftans over their body shields, and turbans instead of helmets, had skirted the main gate without drawing any undue attention from the bored guards on duty there. The streets were quiet and, in the bazaars, trade was reduced to a trickle as many of the merchants and their customers waited for the cool of early evening to begin their bartering.
Sabbah followed them at a discreet distance. He had made no attempt at disguise but displayed his armour and weapons openly as any officer of the army. He led by the bridle two lightly-accoutred ponies, each sturdy enough to carry two riders.
Doquz licked the sweat from her upper lip. At the secondary gate, set three quarters of the way along the rear wall, were two more sentries. They squatted lazily in the heat, gambling their meagre wealth on the toss of two-dirham coins. The game was a distraction, but it was not distraction enough.
At the foot of the wall, between the nearest corner and the gate, was a barred opening leading to the maze of passages under the castle, and she had to reach it and penetrate the stonework without being seen. And that was only the first step. Once inside, she would have to rely on her instincts and her memory. She knew the risks – that one false turning might take her straight into the hands of the militia.
She had chosen the two youths for their build and agility rather than their strength. Not only were the underground passageways dark, but they were narrow, with many sharp bends. A fully-grown, heavily-built man would have less chance of negotiating them successfully. Doquz knew of course that an advantage in one respect was a disadvantage in another; her present companions would be less useful than Sabbah or Khumar if they were caught and had to fight their way out. However, she had no intention of being caught. What she had already done twice, to enlist the weaknesses in the treasury’s security to breach it from inside, she could easily do again.
It was Hassan who had introduced her to these ancient secrets – the damp, dingy corridors, the long-sealed dungeons and the hidden trapdoors. Despite her tension, Doquz smiled to herself. Hassan had the knack of knowing things. She had only been eight the first time she followed him blindly into the dark, and scrambled with him over dislodged stones and broken mortar into these channels cut by the Persian engineers of old.
It was unlikely, Doquz thought, that any of the present occupants of the castle knew of their existence. She had certainly never told anyone, and she had never heard anyone speak of them. Unless Baidu had taken a sudden unexpected interest in the metal gratings, half hidden by earth and clay at the base of the wall, it was equally unlikely that the garrison had taken the trouble to check their fastness.
The centuries had taken their toll. Though the iron bars were thick, the wall had long since begun to crumble where they were sunk into it. Provided the guards’ attention could be diverted for long enough, it would be a simple matter to create a gap and slip through it into the subterranean corridors.
Sabbah had reached the corner of the wall. He moved forward to talk to the sentries, at the same time leading the ponies into a position where they blocked the view back to the tree where Doquz waited. She crossed quickly to the grating, knelt by it and grasped the bars with both hands.
She thought at first it must have been replaced, because it refused to come loose. Her young companions watched anxiously from the distance. Snatches of conversation came to her from the men not twenty paces away.
‘Those dirhams are poor recompense for such hot work,’ Sabbah was saying.
‘Hot work, but easy, when there’s nothing left to guard,’ one of the sentries replied.
Sabbah tossed a silver dinar in the air and let it fall to the ground. This coin, like the dirhams, had the insignia of Kublai Khan on one face.
‘It might be bettered!’
‘How?’ The guards spoke almost as one. Their curiosity had been aroused.
‘Will you wager against me in a different game?’ Sabbah gave a deep-throated laugh as he flipped another coin, this time a gold royal. The sentries were fully distracted.
Doquz went to work on the grating. She tried shaking it free but succeeded only in moving it a fraction from side to side. Then she remembered; the horizontal rails to which the ends of the bars were fastened were extended so as to rest in grooves in the stonework on either side. Both were loose, but only the upper one was free enough to be lifted away, and the whole had to be raised slightly before this could happen. She sighed with relief and tried again, applying upward pressure to the bars. The top rail came out of its grooves and the grating swung outwards, leaving just enough space for them to slip through into the tunnel beneath.
She took one swift final glance towards Sabbah and the sentries before signing to the two youths that she was ready.
‘Quickly now,’ she whispered as they joined her at the foot of the wall. ‘And stay close. I will follow and replace the grating.’
One by one they dropped into the gloom below. The air was musty and there was just enough light to illuminate the tunnel for ten paces.
Doquz grasped the metal bars and pulled them back so that the top bar rested again in the grooves. ‘Leave the robes here,’ she instructed. ‘They will be a hindrance in the castle, and we can collect them on our return.’ She took off her caftan, folded it and laid it on a loose stone. The others followed her example.
They made their way along slowly. The walls were damp, but underfoot it was dry. At first, the darkness seemed total but, as their eyes became used to it, they saw the outlines of one another and the derelict arch of stonework that formed the tunnel. Such ventilation as there was came from the entrance hole, and the air became stuffier as they progressed.
About thirty paces on they reached a junction where a stone staircase, its steps worn in the centre by the centuries, led up to and ended in a bricked ceiling, solid except for a narrow shaft that allowed a faint grey light and a tiny current of air to filter through from the castle interior. A further set of steps disappeared downwards into the darkness. From it came a vague smell of decay.
One of the youths touched Doquz’s arm and gestured towards the sealed staircase.
‘That is not our way,’ she assured him. ‘The stairs once led from the central courtyard above us to a dungeon, but they have long since been bricked up. Who knows what we would find were we to follow the steps down. The left fork leads to below the armoury. We will take the right.’
‘That leads to the treasury?’ asked the youth, incredulous.
‘Not yet, Ali. Be patient.’
At the entrance to the right fork, the ground again sloped downwards. Here, there was no light at all and they had to feel their way along. The air was staler than ever and Doquz could hear the anxious breathing of her companions. The passageway bent this way and that. It was narrow, and their hands were cut by the sharp edges of the stone.
It was cooler than in the open, but Doquz was still perspiring. She could feel the others’ nervousness. Ali, the younger of the two, was only fifteen. Even the elder, Sayyid, was subdued. Doquz guessed they were afraid of the darkness and of the imagined terrors that might lurk, but were even more afraid to speak of their fear.
The tunnel bent again and began to ascend. All of a sudden, they were confronted by a second junction and the beginnings of another staircase. The steps, of which only six remained, led into a long chimney, lit at the top by a sunbeam that cast the silhouette of a barred opening on the stones. The air was fresher here and Doquz could now see the youths’ faces, pale and ghostly in the grey light.
‘Which way now?’ breathed Sayyid. He looked up and frowned.
Doquz stooped to examine an object that lay on the edge of the shadow, a long-flight arrow she had once placed there as an aid to her memory.
‘We go left,’ she said. ‘We are almost there. Above us is the Il-khan’s garden. On the surface, that conduit has the appearance of a well. Perhaps there may once have been one there, before the Seljuks came. What purpose the stairs served, I do not know.’
She plunged into the darkness once again and the others followed. The passageway was strewn with rubble and they had to clamber over it to reach the next junction. Here, Doquz paused to get her bearings and to confirm that a second arrow still marked the way she was to take. From inside the castle, entry to the maze was accessed through three trapdoors, one near the armoury, one inside the present kitchens and the third in the anteroom leading to the treasury, and she was certain now that the last of these was situated no more than a dozen paces from where she stood.
Doquz held her breath and plunged on over yet more rubble. The passage narrowed suddenly and ended in another short flight of stairs. Her heart was racing. She dropped on her knees and felt in the darkness to make absolutely sure. Her hand encountered a smooth disc of metal, one of three gold royals she had laid on the bottom step below the trapdoor. This was the place. Sayyid and Ali were clambering over the broken stones, grumbling aloud as the rough edges scratched their legs and arms. She signalled to them to be silent and listened for any sounds coming from above. There were none.
Doquz pushed upwards against the ceiling of the tunnel. There was a grinding noise and dust and more small stones fell on her head. Checking her impulse to cough, she pushed the small trapdoor aside and clambered up into the tiny secret cell above.
Cautiously, she slid back a stone panel and squeezed her shoulders through the gap. Her hips wedged uncomfortably against the sides. She wriggled to free them and, breathing a sigh of relief, crawled out onto the floor of a small chamber.
The room had two doors, one at either end. That to the left was of plain oak while the other was made of solid metal and seemingly impenetrable. The secret opening was concealed by a plinth that ran along the base of one of the longer walls. The stone was decorated with geometric carvings designed to hide the cracks between the moveable panel and its more solid neighbours. Daylight flooded in through two barred windows near the ceiling, illuminating the upper part of the room and casting silhouettes of the iron on bare yellowed walls. The floor and the entire plinth were in shadow.
Doquz rose to her feet, took a heavy key from the pouch at her belt and inserted it in the lock of the metal door. Somewhere inside, the mechanism clanked. She heaved at the handle, aware that Ali was already at her shoulder breathing fast with excitement. Sayyid was struggling to free himself from the gap in the plinth.
‘Stay behind the wall, Sayyid,’ she ordered. ‘You have the bags? And the cords?’
‘Toss them through to Ali. When we have filled the bags and fastened them tightly, he’ll pass them back to you. Our retreat will be all the faster.’
She dragged the door of the treasury open and went inside. Ali retrieved the bags and followed. Three chests, the topmost half-filled with gold royals, were piled up in one corner. Smaller boxes and leather bags containing silver were scattered around the room. To the right of the door was another open chest stuffed full of paper documents.
Ali’s face brightened in astonishment.
‘I’ve never seen so much gold and silver,’ he exclaimed.
‘Nor will you again!’ Doquz seized a bundle of documents, studied them and threw them down again. The promissory notes introduced by Gaikatu to replace coinage, his Chinese Paper as he called them, had been a dismal failure. ‘Now, fill the bags, but not so full they are awkward to carry,’ she said. ‘And hurry. We should not tempt fate by remaining here too long.’
‘If the dewan comes unexpectedly, Captain, we’ll kill him,’ grinned Ali. He had already begun to cram handfuls of royals into one of the moneybags and he paused to draw one finger across his throat in an unmistakeable gesture.
‘And if he comes with a patrol before we are again in the tunnels, we shall not leave the castle alive,’ Doquz said grimly. ‘Anyway, I have no desire to have the dewan’s blood on my hands.’
They half-filled six bags and passed them to Sayyid through the opening in the plinth. This done, Doquz locked the treasury. She crossed to the oak door and listened for any sounds that would herald the approach of the militia or a court official. Satisfied that no inspection was imminent, she drew her dagger and carved in the wood the shallow outline of a catlike animal with a serpent for a tail and a crown upon its head. She stood back to briefly admire her artistry and, pleased with the effect, smiled to herself as she followed Ali into the secret cell behind the panel.
Sabbah had lost three dinars but they were well spent. The two sentries were wholly absorbed in the game, one which had the semblance of luck but in which luck played only a part. The outcome would depend, or so the Commander hoped, on his ability to manipulate the laws of chance to his advantage.
He ignored the disturbing prick of conscience. Verses of the Qur’an flashed through his mind – its proscription against gambling. It was the penalty he paid for his upbringing in the faith of Islam, that he could not defy her laws without feeling guilt. But he told himself for the hundredth time that this was war, and that the greater evil was to do nothing.
It was Doquz who had devised the game. Before the toss, each player called the outcome, and the one who correctly anticipated the result took the stakes. When there was no winner, the stakes were increased. Sabbah’s logic told him there were four outcomes if three coins were thrown: three khans could be uppermost or, failing that, two, one or none at all. And there was an equal chance of each. He had been incredulous of Doquz’s assertion to the contrary. Her mathematics seemed to defy good sense, and it was only after painstaking tutoring and many hours of experimentation that he had acknowledged, albeit reluctantly, that she could be right. The odds against three khans or none at all were each eight to one, while chance dictated that either one or two would show in six out of every eight games.
It was in apparent violation of this rule that three khans had shown four times in succession. Sabbah had sacrificed his dinars and had only a few dirhams to show for it. The two sentries had gained more than a month’s wages and were jubilant.
‘Shall we continue the game?’ Sabbah challenged. He took another dinar from his pouch, flipped it in the air and caught it in his left hand. His opponents followed its trajectory. ‘At least permit me to try and win back the amount I have lost.’
‘Since fortune is with us, we cannot refuse,’ one youth remarked. ‘Yet three silver coins already is no small sum.’
‘I do not wager more than I can afford,’ said Sabbah with a smile. He blew into his fist. ‘Are you ready to call?’
His initial objective was simple in theory – to distract the sentries while Doquz accomplished the first phase of her mission, luring them as far as possible from the grating in the wall. The first stage had been overcome and she was inside the castle. However, Sabbah had no idea how long the adventure would take. He wondered if he needed more than a game of chance to hold the two youths’ attention.
At any stage, they might decide to pocket their gains or cut their losses and resume their patrol of the gate. They would want to eat, and Sabbah could see no sign of any food, only the plain water bottles that lay in the dust beside them. It was therefore possible that others from the castle garrison would come to relieve them or bring them a meal. Furthermore, as the day wore on and became cooler, the Tabriz citizens would return to their daily business and, though the lane behind the castle was not a main thoroughfare, an increase in the numbers of passers-by might alert them to their duties.
As the game and his conversation with the youths progressed, however, Sabbah began to see another end in view, one which might solve the problem for him. He might not understand mathematics, but he understood men and could inspire their confidence and loyalty. From their talk as they played, the young sentries’ dissatisfaction with their duties and remuneration was only too apparent, and their obvious disaffection towards their superior officer led Sabbah to hope he might recruit them to the band. It was a tactic he had used on previous occasions.
In the next seven throws of the game he lost two more dinars before successfully levelling the play. Then by again sportingly wagering his dinars against his opponents’ dirhams he reversed their good fortune. The two guards looked disconsolate and hesitated to continue.
‘I applaud your caution,’ laughed Sabbah. He took his single royal from his pouch and laid it on the ground in front of them. These gold coins, current in the days before the Conquest, were much sought after for their beauty as well as their value. ‘Perhaps just a few more games?’
‘We must eat,’ said one sentry ruefully, ‘and I think it best we stop or your new luck will take the food from our mouths. In any case, your gold against our tin is madness, unless you are a magician.’
‘I’m no magician.’ The Commander laughed again. ‘Yet my captain is always on the lookout for honest men. I will continue to throw dinars against your dirhams, but I will also lay the gold royal against your two swords in the best of nine tosses. If you win, the gold is yours to share. Lose, and you will join my troop.’
‘That’s a tempting offer,’ said the youth. ‘You have the air of an officer, but I will not enlist with a man whose name I do not know, nor pledge myself to a captain who is a stranger.’
‘My name is Ahmed Sabbah. For the present you need know no more than that.’
‘It’s enough for me,’ the other sentry said to his companion. They were taking the bait. ‘I’ve had my fill of this castle and these plain walls. Service with Commander Sabbah can be no worse. On the other hand, that gold piece is worth more dinars than we’re ever likely to see.’
In reply, the first youth whispered something that Sabbah did not hear. For a moment, the Commander wondered if he had been too generous in his offer and if the young militiamen had made up their minds to rob him. He was more than a match for two conscripts, but the sound of a fight would attract spectators. However, after a moment or two both grinned and each took a two-dirham piece from the dwindling pile of coins at their sides.
Sabbah changed his sitting position. He knew very well that by enticing the young men from their duties, he was committing a heinous crime in Mongol eyes. If his plan misfired or if they, having lost, decided to report him to the captain of the castle, his life would be worth less than the dirhams the men wagered. However, he had repeated such an exercise more than once and, anyway, was he not already an accessory to a crime to cap all crimes – the slaying of Persia’s Mongol ruler. Moreover, by acquiescing to his proposal, the two sentries were equally guilty of treason against their commander.
Sabbah sighed inwardly. He rubbed his left leg to relieve a bout of cramp, blew once more in his hands and prepared to gamble his gold for the body and soul of his new acquaintances.
[to be continued]