The Tiger and the Cauldron(ch14)

Chapter 14

It was almost noon when Hassan said goodbye to Djamila and her father. His mood had changed to one of anger. He had nursed a boyish contempt of Baidu ever since the Prince, then Governor of Baghdad, had in a drunken outburst, and in front of the whole of Arghun’s court, insulted his mother. That contempt had grown more intense and had turned to hatred when it became clear that not only was Baidu plotting Arghun’s overthrow but had employed assassins to poison him. It was Arghun’s death and the subsequent accusation by the poisoners that Nadia was responsible that had led to their exile.

During the years in Venice, happy in his new life, he had gradually forgotten the unpleasantness of his departure from Persia. He loved his mother, Giovanni, and his new sister and brother too much to hate anyone. Now the old emotion returned, hate mingled with a powerless rage that caused him to grind his teeth, tighten and shorten his grip on the reins and drive the pony mercilessly across the stream that ran past the lower end of the plantation. Fate had already caught up with Gaikatu, co-plotter in Arghun’s downfall, but Baidu was free and powerful. Hassan did not know how or when, but he vowed that he would make the Il-khan’ pay for the brutal torture and murder of a helpless old man.

He rode so furiously that the animal carrying his box, following behind on a tether, was hard pressed to keep pace. The sun was at its hottest and there was scarcely a whisper of breeze. The sky was a deep blue and the rock formations outlined against it glowed a pale orange. Some featherlike clouds had formed round the peaks.

Gradually his fury abated. He was sweating and needed a drink, so he slowed to a trot and reached for the water flask that hung from his saddle. The ponies were soaked in perspiration and frothing at the mouth but for the present he had no means of quenching their thirst.

His head began to throb as he reflected on Djamila’s mystical tale concerning his origins. He already knew that, way back in time, there had been Magians among his ancestors, but he did not know whether to believe the rest or not. That he should be descended from Jalal seemed too incredible. Perhaps at Maragha, in the same library where he had first read the history of Ardashir and his powerful Grand Wazir, he would find something that would disprove or confirm the story. Would Shirazi be able to help, he wondered? Surely the Master of Maragha must know something of his family history.

He entered the pass that would take him to the southern side of the mountain. Here, the road divided into three steep tracks, each at a different level but all leading to the same ridge. Hassan chose the middle route, which was also the lowest and seemed to provide the most shade. He slowed to a walking pace and reached again for the flask. As he raised his head to take another drink, he caught a movement above him on the track to his right. Since leaving the olive plantation he had met no travellers and had seen no life apart from some black birds, a single wild goat and a few green and orange lizards. He had never heard of bandits roaming Sahand, but that did not mean there were none. He stayed absolutely still and strained his eyes against the light but nothing stirred. Whatever had been there, animal, bird or human, it had now hidden itself in the rocks.

Hassan continued on his way more warily and with a keen sense of approaching danger. He had gone only a few more steps when some pebbles rolled down the slope to his left. Glancing up sharply, he caught the glimpse of a white garment and the swishing tail of a pony as it and its rider dived for cover behind an overhang of rock and dried vegetation. He was being followed, and by more than one person. Whoever they were, they had taken both upper paths and were shadowing his every step.

Despite the heat of the sun and the sweat on the back of his neck, Hassan now felt ice cold. He would bravely face one enemy, perhaps even two in the open, but this game of hide and seek was something else.

‘I know you’re there,’ he shouted and drew his short sword from its scabbard. He made his voice as deep and fierce as he could. ‘Show yourselves!’

The sound echoed across the valley. Then there was silence. He threw out another challenge. ‘Show yourselves! Are you afraid?’

There was another movement on the right. Two horsemen broke cover and galloped ahead along the track. One was dressed in a brown jubbah, the other in a jacket and wide trousers. The latter had a bright red scarf wound round his head and knotted at the back. Hassan swung round looking for an escape to the rear but saw that his way was now blocked by a third rider. This man too wore a jubbah, a white one, the mark of a scholar or cleric, though it seemed clear to Hassan that he was neither. They were the same three youths who had cantered past as he left the city, and two of them he had seen the evening before at a crossroads as he walked with the old candlemaker. Each had a sabre slung across his saddle horn and the white-clad rider to the rear seemed to be daring him to pass.

Hassan decided quickly. He could not outfight three, so there was nothing to do but run for his life. The route on the left was now the shortest to the ridge. He re-sheathed his sword, gripped both reins and tether firmly, drove his heels hard into his mount’s ribs and scampered up the slope hauling the second pony after him. He was halfway to the upper track, slithering on the loose stones and scree when the youths in the brown jubbah and the red scarf moved to intercept him. Still neither had raised a weapon. They were playing games with him, Hassan told himself. Why did they not attack?

After four years his recollection of the route was imperfect, but he decided if only he could outrun them and reach the ridge first, he would have a chance of escaping them. It was still a considerable distance to the Maragha valley but before he reached that there were the caves. He was sure there were some large enough for a man and two horses to hide.

His pony had reached the top of the slope. Its fore-hooves gained the track and it planted them there resolutely while it dragged its slithering hind legs up over the edge. The pack animal was less fortunate. A lifetime of sloth and overfeeding had taken its toll. Additionally hampered by the weight of the box, it had neither the strength nor the agility to cover the whole distance. Barely half way, it lost its footing, whinnied pitiably and fell over backwards, spilling the contents of the box over the scree. Hassan, still gripping its tether, was torn from his saddle and plunged helplessly after it down the incline.

***

Hassan awoke from a delicious dream. He was back in Venice in the attic of the Polo’s villa, or so he imagined. The low beams were there, and the small window overlooking the lagoon, but the floor was no longer bare and dusty. Instead, it had been transformed into a field of corn and he was lying there naked amid the stalks. Lucy was bathing his face with a wet towel. The neck of her bodice was pulled down to expose her breasts, perfectly round and smooth like marble shaped by a sculptor’s hand. Little Nico and Yasmina were there too, and seemed in no way out of place as they danced around laughing happily. He heard his mother calling to him from a distance, pleading with him to come back.

Then he saw that Lucy was crying and that the liquid with which she had dampened his brow was her tears. She had taken up the towel and was twisting it in her hands so that the warm fluid fell on him, drop by drop. The voice calling him became more insistent, each teardrop became a flood, and slowly came the realisation that it was all false. The dream vanished and he opened his eyes.

He was lying on a horse blanket, and under an awning to protect him from the sun’s rays. A stranger was bending over him, wetting his face from an inverted water sack. As the other’s features came into focus, Hassan saw that he was a boy about his own age, or slightly older, dressed in battle armour – a lorica or leather corslet studded with metal, a leather apron, leggings and calf-length boots. Standing behind him were his three tormentors from the mountain pass. To his astonishment, he saw that the one with the red scarf was a girl. She was quite attractive, with deep brown eyes and delicate brows. With them was a much older man, clad in military gear and carrying a helmet with an officer’s plume attached.

‘He’s waking,’ said the first youth in the Persian language.

‘And he’s pretty!’ The girl laughed. ‘He will be my slave, I think. You are all such clods.’

‘Not all, Fatima. At least you didn’t think so two nights ago,’ said the youth wearing the white toga. ‘You were panting and moaning so loudly, they might have heard you in Tabriz.’

‘You at any rate are a clod, Sayyid,’ said Fatima. ‘As if it was your business, I’ll pant and moan as loudly as I choose!’ She attacked him furiously with her fists, beating him hard about the face and chest, and he escaped the onslaught only with difficulty.

Hassan raised his head and looked about him. He was not restrained in any way, but his neck was stiff and his left shoulder and arm numb. The left sleeve of his tunic was torn. The arm was scratched raw and there was a large weal near his elbow where he must have fallen. He had a mild headache.

He tried to recollect what had happened. One of the ponies had stumbled and he had been thrown. He had tumbled down the slope and must have struck his head on a rock. But how long had he been unconscious and where was he now?

Beyond the awning it was still full daylight. He could see clear bright sky and mountains, could hear the sound of water running through a gorge. The ground on which he lay was hard and loose stones dug into his back. Somewhere nearby, food was being cooked. He could smell smoke and the aroma of roasting game. The thought of eating brought saliva to his dry, dust-covered tongue.

He heaved himself onto his right elbow and stared defiantly at his captors. The younger ones stared back. The older man eased the youth to one side and crouched beside him on the blanket. His sun-darkened face was classic Persian and he wore a forked beard which, like his close-cropped hair, was tinged with grey.

‘Where am I?’ muttered Hassan through his cracked lips. ‘Who are you?’

The first youth’s mouth opened wide with surprise. He had the high cheekbones, lighter skin and narrow eyes of a pure Mongol. ‘He speaks our tongue!’

‘It would certainly seem so, Khumar,’ said the older man. ‘But then, if he is a trader, as we suspect, that would not be so unusual.’

‘Except he’s so young, Commander, no older than any of us,’ said another youth, the one who had been addressed as Sayyid.

‘Not as old as Ali,’ added Fatima with a hasty glance at the youngest of the group, the youth who wore the brown jubbah. She grinned in a manner that Hassan thought not unfriendly. ‘And much prettier. You understand me, Man of the West?’

‘I understand you,’ affirmed Hassan. Some water had trickled onto his upper lip and he licked it off. His eye travelled towards Khumar’s water sack. ‘May I be allowed to drink?’

The girl came forward, took the sack and gave it to him. Hassan drank thirstily. The warm liquid ran down his throat refreshing and emboldening him.

‘Yes, I understand your language,’ he repeated. ‘But you have not answered my questions.’

‘You are forward enough for a boy,’ growled the Persian whom they had addressed as Commander. ‘Perhaps not a good beginning for one in your position. Still, I will answer your questions. As to the first, this is Fate, but you will find us on no map, for so we name all the places that give us shelter. As to your second, we are outlaws.’

‘Outlaws?’

‘Outlaws, bandits, rebels, call us what you will,’ said Ali, ‘though I fancy his high and mighty majesty Baidu will call us worse.’

‘I am no friend of Prince Baidu,’ scowled Hassan.

‘Prince, by the Prophet,’ cried Sayyid. ‘That’s rich! You’ll learn to be less respectful in our company, Man of the West.’

At this, all five rolled with laughter.

‘Now, perhaps you will answer our questions in return,’ said the Commander, holding up his hand for silence. ‘Then we’ll consider what to do with you. Your name?’

‘I am called Assano di Montecervino, but I have very little money, if that is your purpose in seizing me. And if you are going to kill me, it will be a waste of a good blade when I like you am no friend of the Il-khan.’

‘We do not kill children, Man of the West,’ said Khumar with a slight sneer. ‘As for money, that remains to be seen.’

‘Only let me pick up that sword,’ said Hassan angrily, pointing at his weapon, which he could see leaning against a heap of broken stones not five paces away. ‘Then I will show you whether I am a child.’

‘Whenever you wish, Man of the West,’ Khumar retorted. He half drew the scimitar at his side but the older man restrained him.

‘Do not provoke him, Khumar. We have few enough friends and can’t afford to make enemies needlessly. When did you last eat, Assano of the long name?’

‘It seems like days,’ Hassan replied ruefully. ‘In truth, I’m half starved.’

‘Then you will eat with us,’ said the Commander. ‘When the sheep is roasted, you may have a share. There may also be a little wine left over from yesterday. We’re not so assiduous here in our observance of the Sawm. Anyway, we are a mixed company and respect one another’s beliefs. We eat or abstain with no compulsion either way. But you’ll find no luxuries in our band. My name is Ahmed Sabbah. Perhaps in return for our hospitality you will tell us something about yourself and why you are riding alone in this wilderness.’

Hassan sat up and slowly moved his head from side to side. He circled his shoulders to relieve the stiffness and gingerly flexed his left elbow. Feeling gradually returned to it. He could see now that he was in a flat clearing surrounded by misshapen rocks, above which and not too distant loomed the pale blue of the mountain peaks. Close by there were at least three cave openings and a number of other awnings like the one under which he presently lay. Directly ahead, on the farthest edge of this encampment, where the stony ground shimmered in the heat, the rocks were formed into an archway, providing the enclosure with a natural entrance. Fate it might be, but he was still on Sahand.

He counted another eight outlaws, six of them men, two women. Two sat by a fire, one turning a makeshift spit on which hung the half-cooked carcase of a wild animal while the other laboriously stirred a huge steaming iron pot. Three were engaged in other tasks around the camp, sharpening and oiling weapons, polishing saddles and mending clothing, and the remainder, with nothing to do, were stretched out lazily in the sun.

Four of his captors, Sabbah, Ali, Sayyid and Fatima squatted beside him under the awning. Khumar seemed to disdain their company and withdrew glowering to sit some distance away with his back against a smooth boulder.

‘I am a simple traveller recently arrived from Anatolia, on his way to Maragha,’ began Hassan, as yet unable to decide whether he was among friends or enemies.

Sayyid frowned. ‘Why did you run from us, Man of the West?’

‘When one is beset by three, it’s no fair contest,’ Hassan retorted. ‘And when a peaceful traveller finds himself in an ambush, what is he to do?’

‘Perhaps we should discuss who is peaceful and who is not,’ countered Sayyid. ‘We only wished to talk. It was you who drew the sword.’

‘To talk?’ said Hassan. ‘If your intentions were friendly, we could have ridden in one another’s company, instead of you shadowing me from behind the rocks.’

‘Can you blame us when you act so suspiciously?’ enquired Ali.

‘What is so suspicious? To travel … to see new peoples … to visit a famous city. Perhaps to trade …’

‘There is the real mystery,’ Sayyid interrupted. ‘Western travellers do not behave as you have done. And for a trader, you carry some strange merchandise. In your luggage we find a bow and some live arrows.’

‘That is a toy. A gift …’

‘Spies on the other hand …’

‘I’m no spy.’

‘We shall see,’ said Sayyid. He leaned closer, more threatening, but the Commander put a restraining hand on his shoulder.

‘Wait,’ said he, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. ‘I do not believe he is a spy. This young man has a clear eye and looks directly at us when he speaks.’

‘Spies are shifty,’ Fatima added. ‘And never so pretty.’

‘But then I do not believe he has told us the whole truth either,’ said Sabbah. He went on, addressing Hassan in the tone of a stern father. ‘When you are outlaws like us, Assano, every stranger is a potential enemy. And when one comes so close to our encampment, we are doubly suspicious.’

‘I had no prior knowledge of your camp,’ said Hassan. ‘Why do you doubt me?’

‘There is more than one route over Sahand, and most travellers take the longer, less arduous way,’ Sabbah replied.

‘I merely wished to reach Maragha before evening, and this route is the more direct.’

‘A traveller would not know that, unless he were familiar with the mountains. And you should know that we monitor all new arrivals in Tabriz.’

‘So?’

‘We saw you arrive yesterday,’ Ali said. ‘Fatima and I were by the gate. You were with three others, yet you left them and wandered alone in the city. We could tell you were no stranger. You took lanes and by-ways that no stranger would know.’

‘I did not say I was a stranger,’ said Hassan, ‘only a traveller. May one not visit a city for a second time?’

‘Do not play word games with us,’ Sabbah said sharply. He looked at Hassan through narrowed eyes. ‘We are not fools.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Hassan, ‘but I am telling you the plain truth. That I am well acquainted with Tabriz and with these mountain paths I do not deny.’

The Commander went on rubbing his chin. ‘How old are you, Assano?’

‘Fifteen.’

‘Mmm. Then it’s even more of a puzzle. That you are familiar with the city was clear, yet you risked your life by loitering in front of the castle. Even a boy would not do that unless he were known to the garrison. The bowmen have orders to shoot anyone who approaches too closely.’

‘I was fortunate then,’ said Hassan, ‘as I was rescued by someone more knowledgeable than I.’

‘Yes, we saw you with the candlemaker,’ Fatima said. ‘So we told Sayyid. He is Mohammed’s nephew, though he tries to keep out of his way. The old man would take him as apprentice.’

‘Then old Mohammed will vouch for me,’ said Hassan. He glanced beyond his interrogators and saw through the gap in the awning that two more outlaws had just passed through the archway, crossed the clearing and joined Khumar by his boulder. Both wore body armour and their heads were covered. One helmet, like Sabbah’s, was plumed. The three conferred briefly then the youth with the plume climbed on top of the boulder and sat there with his feet dangling over the edge. The other newcomer came over towards the awning. He removed his helmet and embraced Ali enthusiastically. Hassan could see a similarity in their features and guessed they were related.

‘And how will he do that?’ Sayyid asked.

‘By remaining alive! He talked enough treason between dusk and dawn to send any spy straight to the city commander.’

Sabbah stood up and laughed. ‘I’m inclined to believe that part of his tale. It’s the rest that confuses me. What do you say, Mujir?’

‘I’m no judge,’ said the youth who had just come over. He stood with his arms akimbo. ‘But if he’s a spy in Baidu’s pay, as Khumar thinks, we should kill him.’

‘Perhaps we should recruit him to the band,’ said Ali nonchalantly. ‘Fatima likes him and will be upset if he dies.’

 ‘I don’t want to become a bandit,’ cried Hassan. He got to his feet and glared defiantly at his captors, but inside his chest his heart was beating fast and in his belly was a cold empty fear. His predicament was dire and for the moment he could see no way out.

‘He can talk,’ said Mujir, ignoring him, ‘but can he fight?’

‘You may be the judge of that,’ said Hassan, eyeing his sword. He was sure he was a match for any of the younger outlaws in a one to one contest. However, he could not outfight or outrun them all. Perhaps Ali’s proposal was his only chance after all. If he could prove his daring by defeating two or three opponents, he could ask to join the group and await his opportunity to escape. If his confidence in his skill was ill-judged, escape would no longer matter.

‘We have an interesting prospect here,’ said Sabbah who appeared to have followed his thoughts. ‘Trial by combat. It’s an old custom – and may Allah decide the outcome.’

Others of the band were now crowding round, sensing some crisis or confrontation. Hassan could see that a dozen or more had now gathered. Only Khumar and the youth with the plumed helmet remained aloof.

Mujir fingered the hilt of his scimitar. ‘Then let’s begin,’ he taunted. ‘The sooner he’s dead, the sooner we can have supper.’

‘Wait,’ said Sabbah. ‘We play by the Captain’s rules, Mujir. The contest is to first blood and no farther. We kill only proven enemies.’

Hassan reached for his short sword.  ‘It seems Mujir at least considers me one,’ he said. ‘If that is so, let him kill me if he can!’

‘Brave words, Master Assano,’ the Commander said with a grim smile. ‘But you too are bound by the rules of the game. I warn you both. Fight only until your opponent is disarmed or until first blood is drawn. The violator will answer to my sabre.’ He gestured with his arm at the other outlaws who had formed a circle round the awning. ‘Now, stand back and let them into the open. Give the stranger headgear and a shield.’ He picked up Hassan’s weapon, examined it, then threw it to him.

Hassan caught it deftly by its decorated hilt. One of the outlaws handed him a shield while another pushed a helmet onto his head. Hassan fitted the shield strap over his left arm, retreated a few paces and turned to face his opponent.

There was no turning back now.

[to be continued]

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