The Tiger and the Cauldron(ch15)

Chapter 15

Mujir drew his sabre and stroked the curved blade with his finger. It was one third as long again as the short sword and twice its width. The blade glinted in the sunshine.

Hassan tried to calm his racing heart and temper his indignation with reason. Negative emotions had no place in such contests, Giovanni had always told him, and cool science would always prevail over hot anger.

Suddenly Mujir lunged. Hassan leapt back.

Mujir lunged again. This time, Hassan met steel with steel and deflected the sabre to one side. He made a calculated swing left to right, hip high, but Mujir recovered well and went on the counter-attack. Hassan watched his eyes as well as the blade, trying to anticipate the next thrust or swing. Scimitar and short sword clashed a second time. The young outlaw was strong and agile. Hassan judged that in a skirmish he would be invaluable, but as lone swordsman he had little art. He was over-confident and his movements were rash. Clearly his objective was to go for an early wounding.

Several times their weapons clashed; several times one or other of the combatants dodged a deadly swing. But Mujir’s inability to penetrate Hassan’s guard made him angry and he used his sabre with less and less finesse. Failing to strike his target for the fifth or sixth time, and finding his lunges either blocked or evaded completely, he swung his blade with increasing savagery. Hassan dodged or parried with increasing ease. The end came quickly. A wild upward sweep from left to right exposed Mujir’s body to the short sword. Instead of thrusting fatally at a vital organ, Hassan moved fractionally to his left, seized his opponent’s right wrist with his left hand and levelled the point of his sword steadily at the outlaw’s throat, just pricking the skin.

Mujir dropped his scimitar. There were some gasps from the spectators. Fatima applauded loudly.

‘Would anyone else care to test me?’ cried Hassan with bravado.

‘I will,’ challenged Ali, springing to his feet. ‘Too much guard duty has made my cousin soft!’

Fatima stopped applauding and tried to hold him back, but Ali avoided her outstretched arm. He drew his sabre, drove it into the earth and peeled off his outer garment. Underneath the brown jubbah he was wearing body armour. He took Mujir’s cap and shield.

Hassan stood his guard and waited sportingly until his new opponent had retrieved his weapon. Ali began with a determined cut at Hassan’s flank followed by another to his chest. Hassan parried both and attacked Ali’s sword arm. The young outlaw retreated. He was not as tall as his cousin but he was slimmer and much lighter on his feet, and he used the shield well. Not only that but he was more relaxed and less prone to irritation. Still, he was no swordsman. Always mindful of Sabbah’s warning, Hassan looked for a way to finish the bout without bloodshed. He did not think Ali could hurt him but he did not wish to inflict serious injury either. Of all the outlaws he had met, Ali was the one nearest to his own age and, despite the grim circumstances, he rather liked him.

The ring of spectators moved to give them space. They circled one another warily. Ali tried another cut, then a swing. Hassan retreated, his back to the edge of the clearing. He leaned to one side as Ali’s blade passed within a finger’s breadth of his thigh. He went on the attack, his knees bent, his shoulder forward to present a narrow target, his short sword jabbing at the sabre tip as Ali tried to recover his poise. Then another retreat, drawing them closer to the rocks. Ali attacked him furiously with sabre and shield together and he saw confidence in the young outlaw’s face, sensed expectation of victory.

Hassan waited for the right moment. He blocked two strokes to his body and parried another to the hips. In frustration, Ali swung head high. As the sabre blade loomed large, Hassan danced nimbly to one side and brought the flat of the short sword down on Ali’s back, just below the shoulder blades. Following through with his swing, Ali lost his balance and fell. His sabre smashed against the rocks and was torn from his hand.

He grinned ruefully as Hassan swept up the weapon and helped him to his feet.

‘Traveller or spy, Man of the West,’ he said breathlessly, ‘I would not choose to have you as my enemy.’

‘This is most entertaining,’ Sabbah grunted. He nodded towards Sayyid who was sitting silently beside Fatima among the spectators. ‘Would you care to match yourself against our guest?’

Sayyid got slowly to his feet. He had removed his toga. Like Ali, he wore body armour beneath it. He donned a helmet and fitted a shield to his arm.

Hassan waited for him to make the first move. Clearly mindful of his companions’ early defeat, Sayyid paced the arena warily, taunting with his shield just out of range of Hassan’s short sword. He was older than the others, eighteen or nineteen perhaps. Hassan prodded at the shield, testing him, then leapt aside to evade a sudden swing to the left.

Sayyid resumed his defensive position. Again Hassan prodded, searching for the weakness in his opponent’s guard. Again Sayyid swung, this time in the opposite direction, towards Hassan’s sword arm. The scimitar struck the rim of Hassan’s shield and he forced it away. Hassan went on the offensive, forcing the outlaw back. He had seen the gap he wanted, a significant area of belly and hip exposed during the rightwards swing, and he needed only to anticipate another identical move. He gave way, watching Sayyid’s eyes for the flicker that would signal his intention. However, the outlaw was not caught so easily. He thrust and cut with menace, forcing Hassan to defend with all his cunning.

But the opportunity came at last. Hassan saw Sayyid’s grip change, saw his pupils dart upwards and to the left. He adjusted the position of his feet and when the swing came he met it with the flat of his shield, absorbing the blow before it had reached full momentum and hindering further movement. In the same instant he thrust his short sword under Sayyid’s guard and drew blood from a cut in his upper thigh.

Fatima and Ali both applauded enthusiastically and even Mujir joined in the murmurs of approbation from the spectators. Sayyid himself acknowledged defeat with a touch of his sabre to his chin. He examined his thigh, grimaced and stalked off to have the wound dressed.

Hassan looked around for yet another opponent, one who would provide a greater challenge to his skill. Despite the uncertainty of his position, he was beginning to enjoy himself. Perhaps none of this assorted band of brigands had any training in weapon science, whereas he had benefited from the teaching of masters in both Persia and Italy.

Sabbah was rubbing his chin thoughtfully. He glanced through the ring of onlookers to the boulder where Khumar sat with the youth in the plumed helmet.

‘What about you, Khumar? You still think him a spy?’

‘Spy or not, he will not befool me with his tricks,’ said Khumar, getting to his feet. He was still glowering and Hassan wondered if his face was capable of any other expression. ‘But let him have a scimitar. He should owe me some respect.’

‘No, Sabbah!’ It was a voice Hassan had not heard previously, one that had not acquired the timbre of full manhood but nevertheless rang with authority. The youth with the plume jumped lightly from the boulder and came towards them. He was not quite Hassan’s height and was slightly built. The straps of his helmet hid his chin and upper jaw, but the face was fresh and boyish.

‘No, Sabbah,’ he repeated. ‘Let us end this entertainment. I will match myself against this young sword-master.’

‘Take care, Captain,’  said Sabbah. ‘This is no cowering spy of the Il-khan nor a raw conscript from his raggle-taggle army. He has real skill with the blade, as much as I have seen in any his age.’

‘And have I not some skill myself?’ the youth answered. ‘And let it indeed be with scimitar. I would not wish to take advantage. Give our guest your own, Sabbah, and let us see how he uses it.’

Hassan glanced at Sabbah in surprise.

‘You are not captain here?’ he exclaimed.

‘As you can see, I defer to one other.’ The Commander laughed and drew his scimitar from his belt. ‘But do not underestimate him. For all his youth, he will not underestimate you.’

Hassan took the proffered weapon, weighed it and tested its balance. It was much lighter than he had expected. He flexed his wrist and took guard.

His new opponent was in no hurry. He swung his sabre from side to side several times, casually and with short strokes, before advancing with right arm extended and shield held close to his chest and neck. They circled one another cautiously, neither allowing the other more than the narrowest target. Hassan could already tell his height was of little advantage because the other had long sinewy arms. His left to right cut was easily parried, then an answering swing almost caught him unawares. They closed and their blades connected.

Hassan realised immediately that this boy – surely he could be no older than fifteen – was every bit his equal. Swordplay was an ancient art, he had learned, practised in the days of empire, of Cyrus the Great, of Darius and Xerxes. Nowadays few had the skill. Battles were fought on horseback. Persian and Mongol soldiers relied more on bow and lance and would generally use a sword only to despatch enemies whom they had already unhorsed. Only the nobility had time for swordplay as a sport. His stepfather had employed a Persian Jew from an ancient family to teach his sons the art. Hassan could still recall his first lesson. It is not always the sturdy body and strong arm, but often the quick eye and nimble feet that win a contest, Ibrahim had told him. He who is easily provoked is lost.

The youth whom Sabbah had called Captain was no ordinary horse-soldier. He fought with energy and purpose, trading blow for blow, parry for parry – thrusting, grappling, blocking and feinting with the ease of an expert. He used the shield too as a weapon, turning Hassan’s blade aside with deft movements of wrist and forearm. His action was at once graceful and menacing, and Hassan did not dare divert his attention for one instant from the supple limbs and darting eyes.

The fight hung in the balance. Attack from either side was followed promptly by counter-attack, both defended ably. The encouragement and banter from the onlookers had died down and Hassan imagined apprehension and hostility in their silence. He was ever aware too of Sabbah’s vigilant and protective presence, which hung like an ominous cloud over the already deadly proceedings. He sensed that the longer the contest raged, the more likely it would end in the grave wounding or death of either himself or his adversary, and the thought even of the latter gave him no comfort as he reasoned that, in that event, he was likely to die anyway at the hands of Sabbah. Moreover, he did not wish for his skilful adversary’s death any more than he wished for his own. It was an inexplicable mystery that he should discover such princely artistry among a band of brigands, and an even greater wonder that someone so young should be acknowledged as their leader.

Less confident now but still determined to finish the bout without serious bloodshed, Hassan began a new assault on his opponent’s shield. The youth retreated then countered with a like attack. Hassan gritted his teeth and tried again and again, searching for the weakness, for the opening, that would allow him to deal the disabling or disarming blow. However, it was almost as if he faced his own image in a glass. Whatever move he tried, his opponent seemed to anticipate.

He was beginning to tire. The muscles of his arms ached and his right palm was raw and stinging from contact with the sabre hilt. His bruised left elbow was stiff and it throbbed with pain. His breathing was faster and his movements more laboured than when he had begun. His brow was hot and damp. The sweat dripped from his eyelids hampering his vision. His feet were less willing to move in the direction he willed them and the scimitar felt much heavier.

But he noticed too a change come over the features of his opponent. Always boyish, though grimly set in concentration, his face glowed with effort. In the watchful, darting eyes were signs of weariness that Hassan knew must be apparent in his own.

‘We are indeed well matched,’ said the other youth suddenly, stepping back well out of range, planting the point of his scimitar in the earth and wiping his forehead with the sleeve of his lorica, ‘but that only proves what Commander Sabbah expected. There is a great deal more to you than your garb suggests.’

‘You are right, Captain of Bandits,’ panted Hassan, wiping his face in turn. ‘I willingly acknowledge your skill.’

‘Then you will yield to me.’

‘I will yield to no one. If Master Sabbah wishes to have his sword back, you will have to take it by force.’

‘And I might well do so,’ rejoined the young captain. He gathered up his sabre and cut so quickly he almost caught Hassan off guard.

At the last moment, Hassan deflected the intended blow away from his flank. Then, as his gaze flitted to the right he saw the gap he was seeking, a narrow wedge of arm and shoulder just peeping out beyond the rim of his opponent’s shield. He lunged, his blade flicking out with delicate precision towards its target, and withdrew.

Nimble as he was, he was not nimble enough. The outlaw youth recovered from his momentary disadvantage. His scimitar flashed upwards and Hassan caught just a gleam of the steel as with split-second timing it descended again in an unerring sweep across his breast. At first, he felt only the shock of humiliation and the pervading fear of death. These emotions were followed by a burning pain in his abdomen and the overwhelming desire to vomit.

The outlaw captain was on his knees a few paces away. Though he still grasped the hilt of his sabre, he had let his shield fall. His left arm hung loose and bright red blood ran freely from the sleeve of his corslet, through his fingers into the dry stony ground.

‘Finish!’ Sabbah stepped between them. In each hand he held a lance that seemed to have come from nowhere and he levelled their hooked points at the former combatants. ‘That is enough. Spill no more blood in anger!’

Hassan wiped the perspiration from his eyes, looked down and saw that the scimitar had scythed clean through the material of both tunic and undershirt from collar to hem, and had opened a wound extending from his right rib cage to his left hip bone. Tiny rivulets of red trickled over his belly and were soaked up in the fabric of his breeches. Where his chest was open, his gammadion hung, glinting in the sun.

Sabbah was staring.

‘How came you by that talisman, Man of the West?’ he demanded hoarsely. He lowered the lances. ‘Who are you?’

‘It was a gift,’ said Hassan weakly. He no longer cared if his true identity was uncovered. His legs gave under him and he stumbled towards his late opponent. ‘ … a gift from my mother.’

‘Your mother!’ Sabbah knelt beside them both, reached for the gammadion and held it up close to his face. ‘By the Holy Prophet!’ he exclaimed. ‘It’s impossible, yet I saw this ornament too often round her neck to doubt. There cannot be two so alike. Allah forgive me, that I could have brought about the deaths of a brother and sister.’

The bandit captain had pulled off the plumed helmet, letting fall a tangled mass of raven hair and revealing fully the features beneath. It was Hassan’s turn to stare, perplexed and disbelieving at first, then with pounding heart and growing recognition, at the face of his former adversary. The skin was too smooth for a boy’s, the chin too soft, the lips too sensuous. The shape of the face had changed with time and maturity as his own must have changed, the eyes had become brighter and more ardent, but now that the cheeks and brows were no longer hidden by the protective trappings of the helmet, the whole was unmistakeable.

‘Doquz?’

‘Hassan?’ She dropped the scimitar, threw her arms round his neck and clasped her head against his wounded chest.

Hassan could feel her warm blood course down his back. He saw that his aim had not erred and that her lorica was rent from the shoulder, exposing an ugly gash in her arm.

‘How could I not have known?’ she breathed. ‘Even without the necklace, how could I not have known? Who else would have faced me with such spirit and matched me stroke by stroke? And without body armour. To think I might have killed you – or you me!’

***

‘Why are you crying, little girl?’

She was crouched at the base of a decorative column in a shady corner of the garden. He had seemed to tower over her, a boy not much older than her own six years, though as she later discovered, more than a year younger. He had curly black hair and a rather large nose. She had only been in the castle a week, whereas he seemed to belong.

‘I don’t like it here,’ she managed to blurt out between sobs.

The boy did what, to Doquz, seemed an incredible thing. He sat on the paving beside her, put his arm around her shoulder and laid his head against hers. It was a long time since anyone had embraced her. Certainly Oljeitu had never done so.

‘Have you no mother?’ he asked.

Doquz wiped her tears away with the back of her hand. She disengaged herself from the embrace and looked at the boy with suspicion. His nose dominated his face leaving little room for a mouth or a smile, but his dark eyes were friendly. His skin was golden brown.

‘Of course I have a mother,’ she retorted. ‘Everyone has a mother! And I have a sister and two brothers.’

The boy seemed in no way upset by her pettishness. He shrugged in a very adult way. ‘There is only my mother,’ he said. ‘But you can be my sister – if you like.’

Doquz was losing her suspicion. In this strange castle she had no friends and, since arriving there, neither her mother nor older sister Oljei seemed to have any time for her at all. She had not seen Oljeitu for three days and Ghazan, who had always made a fuss of her, had been left behind in Khorasan.

The boy held out his hand to her and she took it gingerly.

‘What’s your name, little girl?’ he asked.

‘Doquz. What’s yours?’

He stuck out his chest. ‘Mahmoud Hassan.’

She had gone with him then and for three years they had been inseparable. There was scarcely a corner of the castle that Hassan had not explored, and he had taken great pride in showing every one to her. There were long corridors decorated with coloured tiles, inner gardens with verandas all round, and pergola-covered walkways. Some of the corridors were guarded, but the gruff sentries rarely hindered their journeys of discovery. In any case, there were always new ways of distracting them so that they could slip past unobserved. Even when, having tricked the men into leaving their posts, they were spotted and pursued, there were always places to hide until eventually the guards gave up looking for them.

One of Doquz’s favourite haunts had been the stables. She loved to stroke the ponies, to feed them their hay and to feel them nuzzle her with their warm snouts. The place had its own distinctive smells which she found unpleasant in the beginning – the acrid fumes of fresh urine, the stench of animal faeces, the sickly-sweet aroma of horse sweat – but she became accustomed to them and in a while they were scarcely noticed.

She was fascinated too by the armoury where freshly sharpened and burnished sabres hung alongside others that had grown dull and rusted through disuse. When he wished to tease her, Hassan would point to some residue on these older weapons and describe in gruesome detail its significance – whose arm the blade had sliced or whose skull it had cleaved – but then, to reassure her his tales were pure invention he would laugh in his very grown-up way and put his arm round her shoulders. Spare armour was stored in a wooden trunk and she and Hassan often passed the time by dressing in it, much to the amusement of the off-duty guards. The equipment was heavy. The loricae covered them from head to toe and the helms fell over their eyes, blinding them so that they could walk only a pace or two before tripping over their own feet.

Her favourite place above all was the kitchens, which were forbidden to most of the castle population but in which she and Hassan, and sometimes Oljeitu, were tolerated because of their age. Doquz loved the smells of newly-baked bread and roasting meat. And it was on a visit to the kitchens that she had first learned of the hidden maze within the walls and beneath the floors.

‘I know a secret,’ said Hassan one day.

‘What kind of secret?’

‘Promise you won’t tell?’

‘I won’t,’ she said emphatically. But Hassan had made her swear on the grave of her ancestors, something she had often heard her father do without understanding what it meant.

He had led her into the disused ventilation shaft and down into the ancient corridor beneath it. It was dark and cobwebs brushed her face, but she was determined not to give in to her fears and show Hassan the face of cowardice. They had crept that day to the first junction, no farther, but in time had explored the routes to both armoury and treasury, and had discovered the half-buried exit in the outer wall. Finding the door to the treasury room locked had been a blow, but the setback was only temporary. They had plagued Arghun to show them the gold and silver until he relented and took them together to see it. By this stratagem they had discovered where he kept his keys. When one key went missing, the Il-khan’ had raged for a week before ordering the dewan to have another made. He had never discovered that the loss was a childish conspiracy on their part to steal it for their own purposes. Though they took no coins from the chests, they never tired of looking at the hundreds of royals and dinars, or of running their fingers through them.

These were wonderful days for Doquz, filled with fun and adventure, of shared secrets and pleasures, of laughter and mischief, and when Hassan was taken from her to train as warrior and scholar, she had wept continuously for three days.

Looking at him now, Doquz wondered how she had failed to recognise him, even after the passage of four years. Though his face was broader and his chin more manly, his nose still dominated, while his eyes were lit with the same earnest intensity that made him seem much older and wiser than he could possibly be. Yet it was a face that had not lost all its innocence, she thought, and for a moment she envied the comfortable life he must have led since she had seen him last.

She shivered slightly despite the warmth of the fire and pulled her blanket more tightly round her shoulders. Her arm throbbed with pain and burned mercilessly. When Sabbah had cauterised it with the blade of his dagger she had only just managed to stifle a scream. The wound was not too deep and would begin to knit in two or three days, she told herself, but it would be a week until she could remove the bandage, longer still until she could again bear a shield.

Opposite her, the firelight played on the faces of her companions, bursting with youthful animation as they relived in words the happenings of the afternoon. Even Sayyid, his thigh bound with strips of flannel torn from his undershirt, joined in. Neither he, Ali nor Mujir would bear a grudge, she was sure, and each had learned a valuable lesson. Hassan himself sat cross-legged next to Sabbah, watching her. He had not removed his torn tunic and the garment lay open exposing the light dressing of linen that Fatima had wound round his chest. Doquz wondered what he was thinking. Was he happy to have found her again? Would he be willing to embrace her cause? And did he regret the hurt he had caused her, even if it had been much less than what he could have inflicted?

Would he remember the previous occasion when they had fought together? She had been nine at the time and Hassan had just begun his formal training in swordsmanship. Oljeitu had been under Ibrahim’s tutelage for half a year and, asserting his supposed manliness, had already made clear his aversion to girl companions. When she had dared to seek his company, he had beaten her savagely about the legs and arms with the flat of his wooden sword. For three months they had not even spoken. Determined not to lose her second playmate, she had followed Hassan to a lesson and, wishing to take no risks, had armed herself with a toy sabre and shield. His lesson over, she had confronted him.

‘Let me be a warrior too, Hassan’ she had pleaded.

‘I cannot fight with you, Doquz,’ he replied gravely. ‘You have no armour.’

‘Then I will fight without,’ she said, irked by what she took as a refusal, and laid about him with the little sword. Hassan’s strategy was to defend, which he did ably so that not a single one of her wild blows fell on his person. Having reduced her to helpless tears, he removed his padded corslet and cap, gave them to her to wear and then patiently showed her how to hold the weapon and balance her feet for ease of advance and retreat. When, still mystified by the complexity of the movements, she lowered her guard too far, he had merely tapped her gently on the forearm to signify that the bout was over – the same arm, she thought wryly, that he had just opened with such self-controlled precision.

***

Sated after an ample supper, Hassan had expected to be overcome by weariness, but instead, his mind reeling from the day’s events, he wondered if sleep would ever come. The outlaws had lost no time in attending to Doquz’s wound and his own. Once that was done, they had brought food and wine and the company had settled round the fire to eat. Though the meat on the spit was succulent, the bread was coarse and stale, the cheese strongly fermented and sweating, and the wine acid. However, Hassan was hungry enough to refuse nothing. Indeed, despite his unusual surroundings, he found the whole meal unexpectedly appetising.

As they ate, he and Doquz shared a few memories. However, it was soon clear that she was not in the mood for lengthy conversation and, though he plied her with questions, she only shook her head and bade him keep them until morning. For a while she sat by herself with a blanket round her shoulders but at length she retired to one of the caves.

The sun went down on the mountain and most of the outlaws finished eating. Their incessant chattering died down. A few fetched prayer mats and knelt reverently on them, their bowed heads half turned towards the departing glow of the day. Others, eschewing observance of the Salat, brought horse blankets and, wrapping themselves in them, settled down by the embers of the fire to sleep. Sabbah was among the former, but his devotions were cursory as of someone who questions the value of ritual yet is bound to it by duty or habit, and he returned to the meat with seemingly renewed appetite.

‘You’re fortunate it did not end more tragically,’ he said, turning the fire with his scimitar blade so that it flamed up anew. He cut a wedge of flesh from the remains of the roasted sheep and gnawed it with relish whilst wagging the tip of his dagger at Hassan like an impatient tutor. ‘Make no mistake. These good-natured swashbucklers, now so eager to be your friends, would have cut you to pieces if she had died.’

 ‘I’m sorry to have harmed her at all,’ Hassan rejoined, with a rueful glance at his bandage, ‘though I have not escaped scot-free from our reunion.’

‘Maybe you are doubly fortunate,’ the Commander went on between mouthfuls. ‘That scratch of yours will have healed by the day after tomorrow and in a week there will be no scar to remind you of it.’ He pulled up the hem of his shirt and in the fire’s glow Hassan saw plainly that two pale furrows were carved diagonally through the hairs of his chest, beginning at a single point at his right collar bone and ending on the other side in the soft flesh below his ribs. ‘Twice in training she cut me with that exact stroke and, as you can see, I will bear both marks to the grave.’

‘She has skill I never thought to see in a woman,’ said Hassan. ‘The hand that dealt this blow moved faster than my eye could follow.’

‘So it was with me!’ Sabbah sighed.’ … though I never managed to touch her as you did. She fights with a man’s courage and a woman’s guile. She has a reckless and stubborn streak too, that has more than once put us in danger.’

‘But you follow her?’

‘In truth, it’s more a partnership, where each needs the other.’ His eyes softened. ‘Yet I love her too! She is my princess.’

‘It is strange, sir. You speak as someone who has known her from childhood. Yet why is it I have never seen you before?’

‘I served Arghun when he was governor in Khorasan and remembered Doquz as a babe in arms, but I did not follow him to Tabriz.’

‘But you also served in Kerman … and knew my mother … and my grandfather? How else would you have recognised my gammadion?’

‘It was round your mother’s neck that I remember it. It was such a large object for a child. Someday, I’ll tell you about it.’ He kicked the smouldering embers. ‘Now it’s time we both rested. Over there is a cave with some bedding. It is not luxurious, but it is comfortable. Tonight you will share with Ali and Mujir – and I believe you will find they have already retrieved your box and replaced your belongings in it.’

‘I thank them for that, and will take your advice,’ said Hassan with a yawn. He felt suddenly overcome with exhaustion. Apart from Sabbah and himself all the outlaws had now retired. ‘But first will you permit me one further question? Do you have a brother? The commander of militia at Baghcha was also called Sabbah.’

‘It’s a common enough name. But you are correct. Mohammed Sabbah was indeed my brother.’

‘Was? He is dead?’

Sabbah’s face was lost in the gathering darkness and there was a new timbre in his voice, no longer that of a father or tutor, but of a bitter and angry man.

‘That too we will speak of one day, Master Hassan,’ he said, ‘but not now. I recommend you find your cave.’

***

Sabbah’s posting to Kerman as squadron commander had coincided with his twenty-fifth birthday. He had disliked the move at first. The province was regarded as something of a backwater by the Il-khan’’s generals, a desert of sand, salt and barren mountains with a dry, dusty climate and a population consisting of carpet weavers, heretics and domesticated camels. It had no enemies, no strategic importance as a military outpost and no distractions for a young officer. Its roads led nowhere except deeper into the wilderness.

The reality was very different. There were a few camels, it was true, and a significant proportion of the inhabitants followed the religion of Zoroaster. However, the climate was pleasant for three quarters of the year, and the people were hospitable. There were many Persians, Sabbah had found, who resented what still amounted to an occupation by a foreign power, but the Kermanis seemed less bitter than most. This was due in the most part to their somewhat austere civilian governor who was held in respect throughout the province for his just and tolerant administration.

Kartir Ahmed was a man of striking appearance, but it was his pretty daughter who made the greater impression on Sabbah’s young mind. Fey, the mystics would have called her. Her soft, deep brown eyes had a way of piercing to his very soul as if she knew his fate and was sharing its sorrow and pain with him. At other times, she was gaiety itself and Sabbah, who had not married and had no children of his own, had prayed that, if he ever had a daughter she would be as graceful and charming as Nadia. He was of too inferior a rank to be admitted inside the residency, but he often saw her, playing alone in its courtyard, or with her father, hurrying after him on her short legs as he strode to business through the city streets.

He had been in Kerman several months before he saw the gold talisman. The girl had accosted him at his post and had proudly held it up for him to inspect. Recalling the incident after the space of twenty years sent a shiver down his spine. Close to, she had seemed more fey than ever, more the daeva or sylvan nymph, and, without knowing why, he had felt the meeting was more than an accident of Fate. He wondered now whether she had deliberately chosen the time and place to draw his attention to the symbol that would one day save her son’s life.

He had remained two years in Kerman before being summoned to join Arghun in Khorasan, but after eight months had returned to be Arghun’s eyes and ears in the South. The province may have been a backwater in Mongol eyes but it was not long before Sabbah realised it was not free of the intrigue and subversion that plagued the capital. There were even rumours of a plot against Abaqa’s rule, at the centre of it the man he had come to respect as a fellow human being, Kartir Ahmed. Sabbah had believed the accusations to be lies, however the captain of the city garrison, an ineffectual commander, had been unwilling to take the risk. He called for two jaguns of troops from Tabriz to put down the rebellion.

Sabbah had appealed to Arghun himself, but too late to prevent some innocent lives being lost. Kartir’s daughter was sent to Tabriz as a hostage and, despite Arghun’s intervention, forced into marriage with his uncle Teguder. Abaqa had not long survived the event and there had followed Sabbah’s forced exile to Hormuz. By the time he returned to Tabriz, Nadia was already Arghun’s bride.

[to be continued]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s