Leaving the caravan far behind, Hassan rode into the foothills of Mount Sahand. It was a route he had followed many times in the past, one which would eventually lead across the lower ridges of the mountain to Maragha. Passing through the richer suburbs, he came to a region sparsely inhabited where most of the houses were poorly constructed of clay and timber. Some were without roofs and a few were no more than ruins, though whether this was the result of tremors or due to human intervention he could not tell. The people here had once been friendly to passing travellers, but such people as he saw hastened for the shelter of their dwellings when he approached. Many here followed the old religion of Persia and he wondered if a new campaign of persecution and outrage had begun that they should be so fearful of strangers.
He began to climb. The land, still fertile, followed the gentle contours of the hills, rising to crests where the sun felt hot on his neck and dipping again into furrows where still hung the dawn cool. The tedious repetition of open, unproductive meadow and scrub was broken only rarely by an oasis of human habitation, scattered hamlets with gardens of ripening maize and melons, tiny farm orchards of pears and apples or cramped animal pens containing a few goats and sheep. Peasants were already at work, hoeing, milking, mulching their trees or thinning their fruit crops, but none showed the inclination to exchange a greeting.
Above and to his left, the nearest peak of Sahand was black against the sky while the more distant was bathed in sunlight. A solitary eagle hovered overhead, silent and watchful, while all around him, smaller birds chattered incessantly in the grass and thickets. Hassan quickened his pace. He passed through two villages before coming to a third that showed signs of greater prosperity, a group of single storey grey villas set round three sides of an olive grove. The plantation tapered towards its western border and gave way there to uncultivated fields with a few trees and wild shrubs. These meadows were tucked south, facing into a fold in the hill from which gushed a stream. On the water’s far side was shadow.
Hassan was surprised how different the place seemed. The houses were smaller, he imagined, than they had once been, and the gardens more crowded. The road that separated them from the plantation was just a narrow, dusty track, rutted by the passage of time and a thousand farm carts.
He dismounted, led his ponies to the grassy borders of the plantation and tethered them to a stake that had been driven into the earth for that very purpose. He glanced over at the houses. The one he wanted would have been larger than the rest, fifth on the northern side, set back from the others and opposite one corner of the grove. Hassan counted from the left – one, two, three – then stopped. The house and garden he remembered were no longer there. On the right corner of the space where it had once stood was a half-demolished wall, blackened by fire. The wall supported the remains of an archway from which a charred and warped door hung askew on a single hinge. The rest of the structure was a heap of rubble.
He left the ponies, crossed the lane and clambered over the rough stones and plaster. The villa had been built on two floors, he recalled, one of which was below present ground level. Now, in the midst of the ruins there was a deep crater, fringed with more debris, broken tiles and burnt timbers. The sharp edges of the tiles cut into the leather of his boots. He peered down but it was dark at the bottom and he could see nothing at all. He sniffed the air. Surely his imagination was playing tricks. There had undoubtedly been a fire, but it had long been extinguished, yet from out of the pit he caught the reek of stale smoke and damp soot, faint but distinctive. Carried with it was something else – something that filled him with a sense of horror and revulsion – the odour of death and putrefaction.
He swayed, nauseous, on the edge of the pit, held there by an invisible cord to the past and by a memory that was not his own. The vision lasted only an instant, yet it was more vivid than any nightmare he had ever experienced. He stood in a long room, its walls hung with rugs and tapestries. At one end was a burnished metal panel below which, on a raised brick hearth, burnt a small fire with a bright orange flame. Around him were the ghostly outlines of men, screaming obscenities and striking in a wild frenzy at an object that lay on the ground at their feet, a rolled-up carpet of the finest Persian weave, but blood-soaked and squirming like a living thing.
Nadia had often spoken to him about her strange visions, and he had wondered if they were one day to be part of his inheritance, but this was the first time in his life he had been cursed by one. He came to his senses, steadied himself and stumbled back over the ruins towards the road. The blood was pounding in his temples and his knees felt weak.
In the olive grove, the green fruit already hung on the branches, but it was not yet ready for picking. Some men and women were working there, drably-clad peasants trimming dead wood and tidying the pathways between the trees. A few stopped what they were doing and Hassan could feel their curious eyes following him. Others seemed to consider his presence a threat for they trundled their handcarts off to a more distant corner of the plantation. One couple, whose curiosity appeared to be greater than their fear of strangers, crossed the lane and stood at the edge of the property, watching him closely. They were not richly dressed, but neither were they mere labourers. The man was about fifty years old. The woman’s head and lower face were covered so it was impossible to judge her age.
‘What happened here?’ Hassan called out to them breathlessly.
The pair shook their heads and toyed nervously with their tools. The woman turned to the man and said something in a low voice. Her accent was thick and her veil further muffled the sound. The man looked puzzled for a moment then shook his head.
‘He’s not one of them.’ His accent was the same but he spoke more clearly. He crossed his arms over his chest and inclined his head in a gesture of greeting.
Hassan repeated his question.
‘The place has been so for three years and more,’ the man said cautiously.
‘A year before that there was a house and garden here,’ said Hassan. He clambered over the last pile of rubble towards them. ‘An old man lived there. His name was Gobras – a patriarch of the old religion.’
The couple backed away a few paces. ‘The old man is dead. No one speaks of him now and few will come near the ruin.’
‘Why is that?’
‘It’s bad luck, they say.’
‘But you all work the plantation. Is it a good living?’
‘Good enough. We are farmers, not labourers for hire. The plantation is a co-operative. We work and we sell the olives to a wholesaler in the city. Some other fruit too. It enables us to eat, though we have few luxuries. And the military leaves us alone.’
‘A woman lived here too at the time I speak of,’ said Hassan, trying another approach. ‘She was called Djamila.’
‘Who are you? What do you want with Djamila?’ The farmer frowned.
‘I mean no harm to you or to her,’ Hassan said hastily. ‘Please tell me where I can find her.’
‘He has an honest face, Father,’ the woman said. She pressed the farmer’s arm. The sleeve of her dress slipped back and Hassan saw that her hand and wrist were badly scarred by burning. ‘And he’s no more than a boy.’
‘Those who came before were scarcely men,’ the farmer said bitterly, making no effort to lower his voice. ‘How do we know he will not bring Baidu’s ruffians on us again?’
‘Look at his clothes, Father, and at his boots,’ the woman said. She took a step or two forward and her eye fell on Hassan’s sword belt. ‘And none of the Il-khan’s spies ever carried a weapon like that. See the decoration on the hilt and how short and narrow the blade is. I’m sure we have nothing to fear from him, Father, and we mountain people always used to welcome strangers.’ She took another step forward and lowered her veil. ‘I am Djamila, young sir. How can I be of service to you?’
Hassan stared at the face thus exposed to him and it was several moments before recognition dawned. It was a young face, much younger than he remembered, handsome rather than beautiful, with high cheekbones, a straight, narrow nose and a small chin. The Djamila of his childhood had seemed a mature matron, but this was a woman of no more than thirty years of age. ‘Djamila?’
The woman stared back, her eyes puzzled, searching.
‘Don’t you know me, Djamila? It’s Hassan.’ He groped for the chain round his neck and drew from beneath his tunic the ornament he kept concealed there, the heavy gold gammadion with an engraving in its centre of the radiant sun. He held it out. ‘Hassan. You remember?’
The woman reached out to touch the talisman. She traced a finger along its bent arms then withdrew it as if the object were red hot.
‘Jemshid’s Cross …’ she breathed. Tears ran unchecked down the hollow of her cheeks. ‘Master Hassan … the Patriarch always said you would come back. Father, this is Hassan, Lady Nadia’s son. I know him now, but I should have seen it straight away. He has his grandfather’s look about the nose, and his mother’s eyes.’
The man looked at Hassan suspiciously. He remained tight-lipped.
‘Have you come alone, Hassan?’ Djamila asked.
‘Yes, I’m alone, Djamila. My mother is in Venice. I have a brother and sister now for her to look after.’
‘The carpet merchant came once …’
‘Yes. He said you were safe, but I never expected to see you again.’
‘Tell me what happened, Djamila. Why is the villa a ruin?’
The farmer broke his silence. ‘You should not have come here. My daughter has suffered too much already, and now you will make her relive her agony.’
‘It’s all right, Father. The memories are painful, and it’s time I let them out. To whom better should I tell it all?’
The farmer glanced from Hassan to his daughter and back again. Some of the suspicion in his eyes melted but there was still caution. He was staring at the gammadion.
‘We should not dally here,’ he said at length. ‘If you would hear Djamila’s tale, you must come to our house. But there are two conditions. First, let no one else in our village see that gold cross you wear, and second, once you have heard the story, you must leave here and never return. I demand it as much for your safety as for ours.’
‘I accept your conditions,’ said Hassan. He replaced the gammadion beneath his tunic, ‘but I am in no danger here.’
‘I know who you are, Mahmoud Hassan, and what that ornament round your neck represents to some. So does Il-khan Baidu! Believe me, if any of his spies were to see it, your life could be worth less than a dirham coin.’
The farmer’s house was simple and rustic. It consisted of two main rooms, plainly decorated and having minimal furniture. There was also a small kitchen with a fireplace and chimney, and a larder. Built on the outer wall was a stone structure that served as a privy. In the tiny garden was a well.
Hassan was led into the largest room which had a divan covered with a dyed Astrakhan, a table, and a single chair. Out of politeness to his hosts, he would have remained standing but Djamila motioned to him to sit down. She fetched a cup of water and presented it to him with a curtsey.
‘What can you remember of us, Hassan?’ she asked.
‘In truth, very little,’ he said. ‘I remember Gobras … and the panel behind the hearth. The day we fled there was an earthquake. The ground of the orchard opened up and as we crossed the mountains we were hit by flying rocks and stones. Some of Gaikatu’s men who had waited for us in a pass were killed and buried in the rocks.’
‘It was just as the Patriarch had predicted,’ said Djamila. ‘But he was sure you would be safe. Though he was blind, he would often see things in the sacred fire. He even foresaw his own death.’
‘Tell me what happened.’
Djamila joined her father on the edge of the divan. ‘Two days after you left, there were more tremors. The damage was slight and we repaired it. That same afternoon, the Patriarch had a vision. He said I was in danger, that Baidu’s men were coming and if they found me in the house they would kill me. He told me to go to the secret room behind the altar panel. When the coast was clear I was to leave by the rear entrance. One sacrifice would be enough, he said.
‘I heard them coming – Baidu and his horsemen. Five altogether – four youths and one older man. I could tell by their voices.
‘I went into the secret room and hid there, waiting and listening. Perhaps I could help him, I thought, though I did not know what I could do against armed men. Maybe Ormazd would send me a sign.
‘I heard loud swearing and the banging of fists and swords on the panel. They discovered it was hollow but could not find the spring that would open it. They had brought their horses indoors too and I heard the crashing of hooves on the tiles. I crouched behind the altar, terrified lest they find their way in … even more terrified that they were hurting the old man.’
She began to weep silently and pulled up her veil to hide her face. ‘Then there were screams … more drunken swearing … the noises of splintering wood and tearing fabrics. And muffled thuds … like bodies falling on stone. One voice was distinctive above all the others. I knew it was Baidu, and my blood froze.
‘At last the sounds died away. They’d gone. But I could smell smoke. Fumes began to filter through the cracks at the bottom of the panel. I waited as long as I could before touching the spring and letting myself out.
‘It was broad daylight outside, but in the temple it was dark. The place was full of smoke and the carpets were ablaze. The Mongols had piled rolled-up carpets and bedding as well as furniture on the hearth and that did not burn well. Then I saw at the foot of the stairs the body of a man. I crawled across the floor. Pieces of burning wood fell on my arm as I passed the hearth. You can see I still bear the marks.’
She raised the sleeve of her dress to above the elbow and Hassan saw that not only was her hand scarred but that the flesh of her forearm was wrinkled and transparent.
‘But it wasn’t Gobras! The man by the stairs was unknown to me. He was no Mongol, but a Persian of more than fifty years – a fat, ugly man wearing a stained yellow turban. His throat had been torn out and beside him lay the Patriarch’s dog. The poor beast had been hacked to pieces and its organs spilled out on the floor. I couldn’t see the Patriarch, and my eyes were smarting from the smoke. My lungs were bursting from inhaling the fumes.’
Djamila wheezed as if reliving the horror. ‘Then, one of the carpets on the hearth moved. I nearly died of fright. One end of it was almost totally consumed but the rest was only singed. I hauled it away from the fire and stamped on the burning end to extinguish the flames. I unrolled it.
‘Gobras was inside. The sight of him was something I shall remember until the Tower of Silence calls me. His face was black and his eye sockets white. His arms were broken, his toga was burning on his beaten and bloody body, and his hair and beard were singed from his head.’
‘Beaten and burned alive!’ Hassan was unable to stifle a cry.
‘Beaten and burned, yes,’ said Djamila, ‘but his spirit had not left him. I stifled the rest of the flames with my dress and tried to lift him, but could not. His lips moved. He was trying to speak. I bent closer.
‘Tell the boy,’ he whispered, ‘… and he meant you, Master Hassan. Tell the boy Baidu knows. That was all. Then his soul went to the Tower of Silence.’
‘What did he mean?’ demanded Hassan. He sat restlessly, playing with his empty cup.
‘Truly, I do not know, Hassan. Not for sure.’
‘But you guessed. That is why you are still afraid?’
Djamila nodded. ‘I guessed later, but I had no time to think then. The flames had hold of the tapestries and curtains. I was choking and just managed to crawl to the top of the stairs into the daylight. My father and some others had come already with water … all the containers they could find … but they were too late. The heat was too great. The building was alight, the timbers and ceilings already beginning to twist and crumble. Then the floor separating the upper storey from the temple below collapsed. We could do nothing but watch.’
She sighed. ‘The house burnt for the rest of that day. When the fires eventually went out, all that remained was what you see now. Except that the walls on the left side and at the rear were left half standing. We deemed them unsafe and took them down, stone by stone. The secret room was almost untouched. We saved what we could from it … a bed and some books.’
Hassan could sit still no longer. The horror of his recent vision, now confirmed as a reality, returned. He rose and began pacing the room. ‘And it was from these books that …?’
‘No, Hassan!’ said Djamila. ‘Though I spent eight years in the Patriarch’s service, I cannot read. But many months afterwards, when I recovered from my injuries, my father told me the legend of your gammadion … the fylfot as he calls it.’
‘Fylfot! That is my mother’s name for it.’
‘The Patriarch too. Yes … the legend … how, of old, King Jemshid had possessed one such, and how it had been prophesied that after a thousand years his heir would return to rule. And the bent cross would be the token of his right.’
‘But you say I’m in danger,’ Hassan protested. ‘My talisman might be of great value to a poor man, but to a ruler it would be a trifle.’
‘There are secrets the Patriarch would never share with me,’ said Djamila. She folded her arms so that the scarred hand was hidden in the folds of her sleeve. ‘But this I do know, Hassan; your mother is a high-born lady!
‘Your grandfather, Kartir, is descended on his mother’s side from the princes of old Iran. The Emir of Kerman deposed by Hulegu was a distant cousin. Four generations back on his father’s, the family were of my religion and indeed one of his forebears was a priest of Zoroaster. Gobras’s teacher and mentor had known him as a old man. He told how your family forsook the old faith and embraced Islam.
‘Of your birth, Gobras would say nothing to me, Hassan. He had given his sacred word, he said once, and it was best the past was buried. That way, you would be safe.’
‘My birth? Why is that important?’
‘Only Ormazd knows. But I’ll tell you what I overheard. Your mother visited Gobras often. They talked and, one time, to my shame, I listened. You have heard of Jalal al-Din?’
‘Jalal? Of course. The great hero of the wars with Temuchin.’
‘Then you will know the history better than I. However, one thing you may not know. Jalal’s sons were supposedly put to death by the invaders and his daughters taken for their harems. But one son and one daughter were rescued from death or slavery by the priests of Zoroaster … that is what I heard Gobras say … and that one or both left descendants. And that one of these was the man your mother was contracted to marry!’
‘I knew none of that,’ said Hassan. ‘My mother has rarely spoken of the man who fathered me, and I have never asked her …’ He paused to wonder why he had never done so. Was it because he thought the memory might be painful?
‘But even if all you say were true, Djamila, of what importance is it?’ he went on. ‘A new dynasty rules Persia. What if Baidu has discovered I have the blood of the Shahs in my veins? He will care nothing for that.’
‘The Patriarch would never betray a secret to a monster like Baidu,’ Djamila said, ‘so his dying words must have meant something else. What Baidu had discovered, I feel sure, and what he will not have forgotten, is the legend of Jemshid’s Cross.’
‘I’ve heard the legend, Djamila. Once I read something of it in an old history book. My tutor made me translate it into Greek. I can even remember the exact words. Then the priests of Zoroaster foresaw the end of the empire after a thousand years and prophesied it might be saved only by a true son of Kartir bearing the Cross of Jemshid. It’s a myth, Djamila. A fantasy!’
‘Myth or not, I heard what I heard. Some words Baidu spoke that day. Find them. Give the woman to Gaikatu, but bring the boy and the gold talisman to me!’
[to be continued in a few days]