The Tiger and the Cauldron(ch8)

Chapter 8

There were four men in the room. Doquz recognised Sabbah’s voice. Though the man to whom he was speaking had his back towards her, she guessed he was the castle’s senior officer. A helmet with a captain’s plume lay on the table beside a jug of liquor. On his left sat a younger officer of the garrison, one of the many who was just as likely to be serving by compulsion, rather than loyalty to any cause. She fancied she knew him, at least by sight, but could not be sure whether he would prove enemy or friend. The fourth man too was known to her. His plain jubbah and turban marked him out as an administrator and, indeed, she remembered him as serving under her father’s Grand Wazir, Sa’d al-Daulah, as a collector of the province’s taxes.

Encouraged that they might at least take command of the kitchens, she untied her coin sacks, laid them in the shadow of the wall and stepped silently into the open. Ali and Sayyid followed her. Only then did she notice the two men in the outer doorway.

Sabbah acted quickly. His left arm seized the captain by the throat. He drew his dagger and pressed it against the flesh immediately below the man’s ear. The captain was forced to his knees. His pale, gaunt face was now turned towards Doquz and she saw in it not only surprise and anger, but recognition. He stared at her as if unable to believe his eyes. She knew him now; he had been with Taghachar at Baghcha and had later become deputy to the Tabriz city commander.

Sabbah did not relax his hold. ‘I do not wish to kill you, Captain Jirjis,’ he said icily, ‘but I will do so without hesitating if you don’t do exactly as I say. Draw your weapons slowly and slide them along the floor to my comrades there – any of the three will do!’

Reluctantly and silently, Jirjis did as he was ordered. Doquz picked up the sword.

‘Now your flunkey will do the same,’ Sabbah went on, ‘or by the Prophet I will slit your throat. And you two at the door – Mujir! Abul! Do we have a pact or not? Make up your minds. Join me and we’ll leave together, or watch your captain bleed to death.’

Doquz’s attention did not waver from the two youths on the threshold. They were in shadow and she could not see their faces clearly, but she sensed their hesitation. As they came uncertainly down the steps into the kitchen, she waited, holding Jirjis’s weapon at the ready. Sayyid had retrieved the second sword and had fallen in beside her. No one else moved.

It was Ali who broke the tension. As the two militiamen came into the light, his face creased in a broad smile. Before Doquz could intervene or say a word, he rushed forward, threw his arms round one of them and embraced him heartily.

‘Mujir!’

‘Cousin Ali! I thought you were dead.’

‘Not yet, Cousin,’ said Ali hastily relaxing his embrace. ‘But all of us may well be soon if we do not get out of this castle.’

‘Then we should do so,’ said Mujir. ‘Commander Sabbah has offered us employment and I think we now have double reason to accept. Abul!’

‘I’m with you,’ cried Abul. He drew his weapon and raised it.

‘And I!’ Jirjis’s companion, the younger officer, hesitated only a moment then leapt to his feet. ‘My name is Qadir.’

‘Then you will need this, Qadir,’ Doquz cried. She threw him Jirjis’s sword and drew her own.

Sabbah’s arm was still wrapped tightly round Jirjis’s throat. The captain’s face was a mask of hatred and fury.

‘You cannot pass the garrison,’ he spat. ‘You’ll be hacked to pieces. Give up now and …’

Sabbah withdrew his arm and swung it, hitting Jirjis hard on the jaw and pushing him unconscious to the floor.

‘We are seven now, and that will be enough!’ he shouted. ‘Go!’

Doquz had already sprung into action. She seized her moneybags. Though she could feel their weight pull her back she was first to reach the exit. She was almost blinded by the sunlight. Abul and Mujir were on her tail, Ali and Sayyid behind them, and Qadir and Sabbah bringing up the rear.

‘This way,’ she gasped as she sprinted along the open veranda and ducked under a decorated arch into a tree-lined walkway.

‘The ponies!’ She heard Sabbah’s sharp protest. They were heading away from the stables and towards the Il-khan’s apartments and the front gate.

‘Trust me, Ahmed. This is our only chance!’

She halted for only a moment to catch her breath and take her bearings. Somewhere behind them someone yelled, then a gong was banged repeatedly. Already the garrison was being summoned to repulse a supposed attack. Doquz took comfort from the fact that they could not yet see their enemy or know they were so few in number. She urged the others forward.

Where the trees and path ended there was a door and she led them inside, across an empty hall and through a door at the other side. Another gong banged.

They were in the open now and she could see the main gate ahead, wide and beckoning. Two guards ran to close it and three more moved in from the left. Doquz slashed with her scimitar at the nearest and he fell clutching a shoulder wound. Sabbah engaged the others, forcing them back.

The gap ahead was closing slowly but out in the road she could see signs of renewed activity. A small caravan of traders had halted in front of the castle entrance and were staring incuriously it seemed towards the scene of commotion. Six men altogether, they had three wagons drawn by sleek Mongol ponies. Extra animals were tethered to the rear.

Some arrows released by men on top of the walls flew over her head. With a quick glance behind she saw Sayyid, Qadir, Ali and Mujir were still on her heels. Sabbah had killed one of their pursuers and Qadir had wounded the other. Abul had been hit and was sprawled on the ground holding his side with bloody fingers. Doquz felt a pang of conscience.

‘Through the gate, or we’ll all be killed,’ she cried. She lunged fiercely at one of the guards and pierced his abdomen. The second stopped heaving at the gate to defend himself against Ali’s dagger but was too late to prevent it penetrating his arm and pinning him to the wood. Another arrow missed Doquz by a fraction and opened a tear in one of her sacks, spilling silver coins in the dust.

Outside, the traders had unhitched their wagons and thrown off their jubbahs. Underneath they wore body armour. They carried bows.

Doquz could see they were all through now except Sabbah. He had turned back to fell two of their pursuers before rushing to Abul’s aid. But Doquz could tell the youth was dead already or on the point of death, and she watched the Commander pause only briefly before resuming his flight. More men of the militia were spilling out of the buildings on both sides of the courtyard. She barked an order.

‘Khumar!’

In the trader wagons, six bows were raised simultaneously and six short-flight arrows flew towards the gate. Six found their marks. Three pursuing men of the castle garrison and three from atop the wall fell. Miraculously, Sabbah escaped injury.

Doquz leapt onto the bare back of the nearest pony.

‘There are enough for all,’ she shouted urgently. ‘Ali, you can share with your cousin!’

Sabbah was at her side as they slapped their mounts into a gallop. He was smiling grimly. ‘My teaching has not been entirely wasted,’ he said through half-clenched teeth. ‘Perhaps not,’ she breathed and turned her pony’s head in the direction of the east port of the city. Though they had taken enough gold and silver for a year’s campaign, she had again to swallow the bitter taste of a sacrifice – the life of someone she had scarcely known. ‘… but I would it had ended differently, Ahmed.’

[to be continued]

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