Doquz crept along in the darkness, her companions a few paces behind. Hampered by the bags of coins fastened to their sword belts, their progress was slow. The atmosphere was stifling and the air seemed more unwholesome than before.
They had almost reached the junction where the funnel led upwards to the garden when Sayyid tripped and fell.
‘Take care,’ Doquz cautioned. ‘If you break a leg, you will die here. You’re too heavy to carry even if there were room enough for three abreast.’
Sayyid muttered an oath. ‘That wasn’t here earlier,’ he said, indicating the object that had caused him to stumble, a piece from a broken block just visible in the grey light.
‘Of course it was here,’ said Ali. ‘If you were less clumsy, you wouldn’t have fallen over it.’ He bent down and reached out a hand to help Sayyid to rise, leaning against the side wall as he did so. A shower of debris fell on them from the ceiling of the tunnel.
‘No, wait,’ said Doquz anxiously. ‘Sayyid is right! These passageways are centuries old and crumbling.’
She had no sooner spoken than the ground beneath their feet shivered. Several small stones and some dried mortar descended on their heads and shoulders. The still air filled with dust. Doquz could hear a low rumbling above the sound of her companion’s quickened breathing.
‘Shades of the Prophet!’ cried Sayyid. ‘We’ll be buried alive.’
He shook himself free of Ali’s hand and broke into a run, crouching low to protect his head and blundering over the fallen debris. His gold and silver clanked noisily. However, instead of taking the route they had come by, which twisted past the six redundant steps, he began to veer off to the left.
‘Come back,’ Doquz hissed. ‘You’re going the wrong way.’
She set off after him, seized one of the coin sacks and pulled him to his knees. There was more rumbling, closer this time. The ground shivered again and there was another fall of debris, then everything was still.
‘It’s nothing – a small earth tremor,’ said Doquz, trying to sound confident despite the pounding of her heart. ‘I believe it’s over. We should go now.’
They took the passage towards the second junction with Ali leading the way. Sayyid, who seemed to have got over his momentary panic, was a pace or two behind, and Doquz brought up the rear. Her throat was raw from breathing the dust. As they came to the double staircase, the youths stopped suddenly and she collided with them. Both were coughing and spluttering.
For a moment, Doquz wondered if she had made an error in her direction as, to her surprise, she could see their faces quite clearly. Then, with mounting consternation, she saw they were indeed at the head of the steps leading to the old dungeons but whereas, an hour ago, the shaft above had permitted virtually no daylight to filter into the cavern, there was now a hole larger than a man’s head. Through it could be seen a patch of blue sky. The upper flight of stairs was strewn with bricks and earth dislodged from the sealed-up exit. Worst of all, part of the original ceiling of the passageway ahead had collapsed and their way to the castle wall was now blocked.
The light from above caught the clouds of dust and the tiny particles seemed to glisten under its inspection. However, the surface seemed a long way off and there was no way for them to reach it. The steps did not extend even half way.
They were choking on the dust. Doquz could sense her companions’ resurging fear but before she could reassure them she had to quell her own.
There had been no major tremors in Tabriz within living memory. Its older citizens spoke with awe of times when the plain opened up to swallow half the city – when Mount Sahand split open and rained fire and rocks upon the ruins – but the younger and more sceptical dismissed their stories as myth or allegory. Nevertheless, minor quakes were common, and were enough to instil fear in even the better educated.
Once in her childhood Doquz had experienced one such and it had frightened her beyond all reason. Small fissures had opened up in the ground and, on the lower slopes of Sahand, trees had been uprooted. The mountain had rumbled as if there were a giant imprisoned inside. Repairs were needed to the royal apartments, however the castle itself had withstood nature’s anger and its underground passages had remained open.
Much later, Shirazi had explained the phenomenon to her and, in understanding it, she had lost her terror of facing a quake again. Once in the past, he had said, Tabriz was totally destroyed, but that had been over two centuries ago and the city had been rebuilt stronger than before. Most incidents were little more than a loud bang.
Beneath the maze of courtyards, gardens and corridors, however, even a minor episode took on new terrors. The passages that had withstood time and nature were crumbling, and she and her two companions might be crushed beneath the falling rubble and stones.
‘Back to the last junction,’ Doquz cried. ‘This way. To the kitchens!’
It was by far the safest option. The exit from the armoury was visible from both the keep and the leisure quarters of the military but, with the Il-khan away on campaign, the kitchens would not be guarded. It was more likely that they would find a royal servant or two pilfering from the supplies.
They scrambled back, still coughing. Doquz led the way, followed by Sayyid. Ali panted in their wake. Despite his orders, he had overfilled his sacks with coins and the extra weight was beginning to tell on his slight frame. From the junction beneath the garden, the passage on their left rose sharply after about four paces then levelled off. Doquz was now able to stand upright. They were inside a section of broken culvert and there was an exit hole in its arched ceiling. She gave her moneybags to Sayyid, clambered on to some stones, took hold of the edge of this hole and pulled herself up into the channel above. There was barely space to crawl, but the air was fresh and daylight played on the smooth walls.
Two such channels with inlets in the castle courtyard had once supplied the draught for cooking fires. The fires were no longer used and the old hearths had gone, but the channels remained. One had collapsed at its point of greatest curvature into the tunnelling below. The outlet into the kitchens was through a grating at the end of a short incline.
Doquz reached down for the coin bags, retrieved all six from Sayyid, and offered her hand to help both companions into the channel beside her. She put her fingers to her lips as a sign for silence and began to drag herself along towards the lower opening. When she reached the grating she listened for sounds that would betray the presence of guards. She could hear nothing.
She manoeuvred the grating until it loosened, removed it and lowered it silently to the floor below. Her view was obstructed by the wall of an oven so she pulled herself through and, resisting the impulse to sneeze, peered round the corner of the wall. A mixture of smells, pleasant and unpleasant, wafted into her nostrils – of curing meat, of odour-eating herbs and spices and of raw flesh that had been allowed to hang for too long. The only sign of life was a white and gold striped cat curled up underneath a table. Doquz smiled to herself at the irony. It must surely be the same, the third of a litter of six she had fondled as kittens, the only one to be born with these markings.
She beckoned to Sayyid and Ali and they joined her. The light was not strong but it was enough to reveal the state of their faces and clothing. Both were covered in a film of grey dust. Their breeches were torn and Sayyid was bleeding from a cut on his knee.
They edged their way cautiously round the side of the oven. The stone was cold. The royal kitchens were constructed as a series of chambers connected together by open archways, and they were now in one of the largest. To their left were two salt beds, one empty, the other containing the carcass of a small animal, a deer or sheep. The table in the centre was stained, worn and criss-crossed by countless knife and axe cuts. The kitchen implements hung on the right hand wall or were embedded in the table itself. At the far end, two unplucked birds, neither of them fresh, were suspended from hooks beneath the first archway.
They were half way across the room. The cat had uncurled itself and was sniffing suspiciously at one of their sacks. Doquz crouched down and ruffled the fur of its neck. She stiffened suddenly. From beyond the next archway came the sound of voices.
Sabbah was tense. After six tosses, it was three games all. In the seventh game, he had correctly called two khans and needed only one more lucky guess to be sure of the contest. He took a deep breath and blew once more on his fist. The sentries whispered together before making their call.
From Sabbah’s point of view it was the least satisfactory call they could have made. If he called three or none, the advantage was with his opponents. That much he knew. But two khans had turned up twice in the seven throws. Did that alter the probability of two turning up again? Sabbah was unsure, yet he reasoned there was only one call open to him.
He glanced at his royal piece, which lay where he had tossed it, and swallowed hard. ‘I call two khans!’
The dirhams were already in the air. Sabbah watched them spin towards their apogee, turn, and begin gaining speed as they fell back to the earth. Without waiting any longer, he threw his dinar.
The dirhams landed, one with its blank side uppermost, while from the other the stamped representation of the face of Kublai Khan stared back at him, leering and ominous. His own coin seemed to have slowed and his eyes never left it until it struck the ground, rolled a little way then fell over to reveal its plain side marked only with the value. The sentry who had been the least eager to accept the wager jumped to his feet, his face lit by a broad grin.
‘I hoped almost that we would lose, Mujir,’ the other said, ‘but I shall not complain of a half share in that gold piece.’
‘Spend it well. It’s yours,’ said Sabbah. He sighed and gestured towards the royal. His dismay had lasted only seconds and his brain was already working hard on another scheme for getting them away from the gate. Even if security within the castle was lax, the sight of three spectres emerging from a hole under the walls would be enough to trigger an alarm signal.
Mujir picked up the coin. ‘Nor will you hear any complaint from me, Abul. But we should find a money-changer. Gold is too conspicuous and I do not wish to flash our new found wealth in front of Captain Jirjis.’
‘I’ve no intention of ever seeing Jirjis again,’ said Abul. ‘You are too set in your ways, Mujir. There’s no reason why we should not have the gold and a change of commander. Master Sabbah has offered us employment and I for one am happy to take it despite the result of our wager.’
Mujir looked doubtful. ‘You mean to desert?’
‘Desert? You were ready enough to do it a few moments ago,’ Abul scolded him. ‘We’re the ones left behind, Mujir. Baidu has gone off to war against his cousin, they say, probably never to come back, and we’re stuck here in this shell. Even the Grand Wazir has gone. What is there left to guard – a minister or two, a few scribes and some empty vaults?’
‘They say there’s a full treasury underneath the council chamber.’
‘If there’s treasure, Baidu will have taken it with him,’ Abul said indiscreetly, ‘along with his concubines and all the liquor he can lay his hands on. I’m ready to search for my fortune elsewhere. Are you with me or not?’
‘I’m with you,’ said Mujir with a glance in Sabbah’s direction. ‘But maybe you should bite your tongue once in a while.’
The Commander smiled to himself. It was going to be easier than he had feared. However, his ears had pricked up at the name of the captain of the castle. There had been a Jirjis serving with him in the south and it was not a common name. He was on the point of asking a question but was denied the opportunity.
He heard a crack like distant thunder and the ground shuddered suddenly. Their small piles of coins tinkled as if shaken by an invisible hand. The faces of Abul and Mujir grew pale. Both glanced up as some loose stones and dust fell on them from the castle wall. The two ponies whinnied and stamped their hooves. Sabbah grabbed the loose end of their tether.
The tremor died away but within seconds a stronger one followed. Sabbah sidled up to his animals and patted both on the muzzle, trying to soothe their fright. Abul and Mujir had gone over to the postern. It lay half open and one of their fellow conscripts was beckoning to them from within.
‘You fellows had better come inside.’
From where he stood, Sabbah could tell that the quakes, mild though they were, had caused panic among the militia. To the right of the gate were steps leading to the top of the wall, and on them stood two petrified soldiers, neither much more than a boy, their knuckles taut over their sword hilts. Others were running aimlessly around the small rear courtyard. Though they carried swords, they had clearly just been wakened and had not taken time to dress.
Sabbah took all this in, then his eye travelled to the metal grating that marked the entrance to the underground tunnels. He felt an icy chill shoot through his body. The gap was still there, but it seemed to have shrunk in size as if the earth had risen up to embrace the stone. The metal lay buckled between them and there was no longer space for even a child to squeeze through.
Trying to deny the sinking feeling in his belly and the weakness in his knees, Sabbah hitched the ponies’ tethers over his shoulder and followed Abul and Mujir into the castle.
He counted seven men altogether. None seemed to have noticed him. One of them, an officer and pure bred Mongol, was barking orders. The man who had opened the postern shut and barred it again.
Sabbah needed a plan of action. Clad as he was in military fashion, he thought it unlikely he would be recognised as an intruder for the time being. Guards patrolled in shifts and there was little contact between them. New postings both within the castle and in the city itself were made continually. The band’s intelligence forays had put the military complement at forty, but half would have been withdrawn to accompany Baidu. As he had encountered nine including Abul and Mujir, Sabbah was hopeful that no more than eleven remained to be accounted for. Even so, once order was restored there was every chance he would be stopped and questioned.
He knew the castle layout. Twice, he had heard, in the years following the Arab conquest, and again during the last days of the Abbasid Caliphate, it had been an impregnable fortress. Twice it had been reduced to ruins by violent earthquakes. Thousands had died. Twice the castle had been rebuilt and the city had grown around it. Of its underground tunnels, probably what remained of the old fortresses, he had known nothing until a few days ago.
But the castle was a fortress no longer. Easily defended against a population weakened by conquest, it had no defence against a determined enemy. It was no more than a haphazard group of buildings, a complex of squares and quadrangles, some enclosing bare ground where soldiers exercised or children played, others overlooking tended gardens and neat, tiled terraces. The perimeter walls were scalable, but nobody attempted to scale them and face the wrath of the elite Mongol guard with its tiny army of Persian and mixed blood conscripts. Yet the castle’s greatest defence was inside. Within its maze of corridors where every square and quadrangle looked the same, an intruder might easily get lost and be unable to find his way out.
Sabbah tried to dismiss from his mind the thought that Doquz might have been crushed beneath the castle. The tremors had been slight, enough to dislodge some earth and rubble but surely insufficient to destroy structures that had stood the test of centuries. There had been much worse, even in his lifetime, yet the buried passageways had remained.
He had to weigh the probabilities. Denied an exit through the opening she had used as an entrance, what would Doquz do? She had told him of three other exits. He discounted the treasury itself, for unless she had lied to him and had keys to the doors at both ends of the council chamber as well as to the treasury itself, she could not escape that way, even if the guards had left their posts.
There was no cover for him in the courtyard but the place where he stood was only a short distance from the tall, stark building that served as the castle keep. Here the garrison was billeted. This formidable structure was bisected by an archway and gallery that ran beneath the upper storey and separated the stables on the left from the armoury on the right. Casually, Sabbah headed for the opening. Once in the shadow of the building, he tethered the ponies to a post outside the stables and stopped to consider his next move.
At the far end of the gallery was a quadrangle used for training in swordsmanship. From there, paths led off to the main apartments of the royal residence, to the gardens and to the maze of interlacing corridors and verandas. Central to all, and overlooking the main courtyard at the front of the castle, were the apartments of the Il-khan himself. The council chamber and treasury were adjacent to his sleeping quarters. Somewhere on the right side were the kitchens.
For a moment or two Sabbah stood contemplating the armoury door. No, he decided; Doquz would not choose to go there. It had to be the kitchens. They were part of the residential quarters rather than the military. With the Il-khan and his women away, and with so many rooms empty, she would be able to hide out in a private apartment until she found an opportunity to leave.
Sabbah emerged from the gallery into the training square, turned right and vaulted a wall into a garden. It was full of shrubbery that had begun to blossom in the spring sunshine. The air was thick with perfume and he clamped a hand over his mouth to stifle a bout of sneezing. He pushed his way past the sprawling branches, crossed to a veranda on the other side, and continued along a corridor to his left. Two servants passed him incuriously. If they had been apprehensive at the sound of the earth shocks it was no longer apparent.
The kitchens were built into a fortified portion of the outer wall and reached from the present corridor down a short flight of steps. With Baidu in residence, they would have been guarded; the kitchen was sacred in a Mongol household and the Il-khans were ever afraid of poisoning. Now, the entrance was deserted except for a plump tomcat that sat calmly on the threshold chewing the corpse of an equally plump mouse. It bounded indoors as Sabbah approached, the entrails of its prey hanging from its jaws.
He went inside and found himself in a narrow chamber, a kind of ante-room to the kitchens proper. Its walls were hung with serving plates, its floor stacked with pots and other containers. The tremors seemed to have had no major effect. A few plates only had been dislodged and two stoneware jugs were broken.
The next apartment was larger, and in its centre was a huge roasting spit beneath which the coals of the fire were grey and dead. Light came from two small windows and penetrated only as far as a double archway on the right, beyond which was darkness. Seated at a table on stools were three men, two of the militia and the third a civilian. In front of them were a large jug and three beakers.
With not a little consternation, Sabbah recognised the officer who had once served with him in the army of Teguder Khan, and who was now apparently Captain of Tabriz Castle. He wore body armour but his head was bare. His complexion was swarthy. A drooping black moustache accentuated his hollow cheeks and the sharpness of his jaw line. His hair had receded from both forehead and temples, and on the crown of his head only a few wisps remained. Unlike his moustache, it was grey.
The other soldier was a fresh-faced youth who seemed almost European by contrast. The third man was dressed like a minor official of the civil service.
‘Ahmed Sabbah, by the gods! I had no idea you were in Tabriz.’ Despite the familiar mode of address, there was more than a hint of coldness in the voice.
‘I have been in the city less than a day, so it’s no less a surprise for me to find you here, Jirjis,’ Sabbah said with forced joviality, his mind searching for a credible excuse for his presence. ‘It must be nearly ten years since we last met.’
‘It is eleven,’ the other replied, ‘and we both know it well enough.’
‘In any event, it’s long enough to heal our differences,’ said Sabbah. He eyed Jirjis up and down, hoping that his own appearance had not been withered quite as much by the passage of time. Once they had been officers in the garrison of Hormuz, defending the southernmost city of Persia and its chief trading post against brigands who harried it from north and east. Jirjis had been a gaunt man then but now he was more like a wraith.
Sabbah had resented his posting. He was unused to the climate, which was unbearably hot for a large part of the year, and to the sea, which he felt hemmed him in. Though nominally under the control of the Il-khan, the city of Hormuz and the province in which it stood had retained a large measure of independence. Its Arab governor, Hajib Malik, had only reluctantly requested additional troops to keep the marauders at bay. He did not attempt to hide his distaste for the habits of his new allies, not only the Mongols who denied the message of Mahommet but the Persian Muslims who had thrown their lot in with the conquerors.
Sabbah had learned to be liberal in his interpretation of the Faith. Perhaps Allah had indeed revealed his will for mankind to Mahommet, but there were many of the tenets of Islam that the Commander found impossible to accept. He acknowledged the wisdom of the Book without seeing the need to take it literally. Islam was a faith of peace and brotherhood, of fair judgement and mercy, not one of perpetual jihad against non-believers or harsh punishments against transgressors.
Hajib was a slave to Islam and her laws. Petty thieves had their hands cut off, bandits were executed along with their women and children, and maidens were stoned to death when their only crime was being in love. However, while rigid interpretation of the Sharia was to Hajib his duty, to Jirjis, the unbeliever by both nurture and choice, punishment was a pleasure to be savoured. He smiled as the executioner’s sword fell, and was often the first to hurl a stone.
Now, after eleven years, all Sabbah’s unpleasant memories of that posting came flooding back. He and Jirjis had clashed more than once. Now he could feel the man’s eyes on him, suspicious and questioning. He could see his jaw tighten.
‘Do you have business with me?’
‘I’m riding east from Van with my squadron. By the Il-khan’s command we go to join his armies,’ Sabbah said as plausibly as he could. ‘But travellers need supplies. I’m in Tabriz of necessity, and in the castle because of an accident of nature.’
The muscles of Jirjis’s face began to relax.
‘It’s three months since I was made Captain,’ he said. ‘Though I’d served Gaikatu, the new Il-khan did not see fit to replace me. Now that he’s gone off and taken his entourage with him, I find myself captain of nothing at all. Two arbans, no more, remain under my command. Nothing would please me more than to join you on your journey, but His Majesty has decreed otherwise.’
‘Still, a captaincy is not to be sneezed at,’ said Sabbah. He doubted that Jirjis would be willing to sacrifice his privileges for a place at the front.
‘Join us, Sabbah,’ Jirjis barked. He reached for the jug and pushed it in Sabbah’s direction. ‘These tremors were enough to shatter the strongest nerves. Drink with us!’
Sabbah could smell the nauseating odour of mares’ milk liquor. ‘You know I do not.’
‘Of course, I forgot!’ Jirjis drained his own beaker and refilled it. His gaze drifted suddenly to a point behind Sabbah’s shoulder. ‘Yes, what is it?’
Sabbah turned round. He realised to his surprise that Abul and Mujir had followed him, and were standing in the doorway, looking very apprehensive. Yet they were spared a reprimand or the need to explain themselves. Just at that moment, three more newcomers covered in grey dust stepped from the shadows into the room. Each carried two bulging bags, tied by cords to their sword belts.