The Tiger and the Cauldron(16)

Chapter 16

A dawn mist crept into the cave and Hassan was awakened by the dampness of his blanket. He raised himself onto his elbows, let out an involuntary gasp and fell back on his makeshift mattress, a second blanket with its edges stitched together and filled with horse hair. It seemed as if his whole body had ceased to function. His left arm was badly bruised and swollen, the muscles of his right were cramped and sore and his back was numb. His throbbing chest felt like it was being pulled apart by the action of his breathing.

For a moment he lay still. It was barely light, but he could see that the two rebels who shared his accommodation were still sound asleep. Ali was curled up beside a saddle that had begun the night as a pillow. His face was a mask of innocence like that of a child whose mother watches over him as he slumbers. Mujir lay on his back across the cave entrance, snoring contentedly.

Hassan pushed aside the blanket and made a determined effort to get up. He turned onto his right side and slowly and painfully manoeuvred himself onto his knees. Once upright, he flexed his arms and circled his head on his shoulders to relieve the stiffness. Then, with his hands pressed against his bandaged ribs, he rose to his feet.

They must be higher in the mountain than he had believed. The air was quite chill and the mist irritated his throat. He coughed as gently as possible so as not to aggravate his wound. The sound seemed to echo round the cave but the two outlaws did not stir. Though Hassan knew that guards had been posted in two watches at both ends of the pass, he marvelled at their calm. Hunted no doubt by Baidu’s patrols, neither seemed to have a care in the world.

As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, he saw that his box had indeed been brought into the cave and lay against a back wall. It was open but seemed to be undamaged and, as far as he could tell, all his clothing had been replaced in it, even if rather untidily. On top lay his sword and bow.

He found a shirt, dressed in it and having put on his sandals stepped over Mujir’s prostrate form into the open. Now that he was mobile, his injuries were less troublesome. His chest still hurt and he was conscious of a tugging of the flesh as he walked, but suppleness was returning to his legs and his back was no longer numb. He blinked in the unexpected brightness. The mist was already clearing from Sahand. It hugged the rocks and the lower caves, but overhead the sky was clear. Far to his left, the tip of the sun peeked above the white clouds that lay across the eastern valley. Only three members of the band were about. Khumar and a youth whose name Hassan had not learned crouched over a newly-kindled fire on which they had set a pot of broth. The unnamed youth stirred it hopefully.

At the mouth of the cave into which Hassan had seen Doquz retire sat Ahmed Sabbah. He had a dagger in each hand and was tossing both repeatedly and catching them by the haft just before they reached the ground. The suspicion formed in Hassan’s mind that Doquz and the Commander might have shared a bed and the thought made him uncomfortable. He could not explain his feelings and tried to put them aside as he returned Sabbah’s friendly wave of greeting.

Sabbah drove the blade of one dagger into the earth and rose to meet him. ‘Good morning, Hassan – if that is indeed what I am to call you.’

‘Good morning, sir.’ Hassan glanced expectantly towards the cave mouth.

Sabbah seemed to anticipate his question. ‘Your sister has been abroad an hour or more but she bade me give you a message,’ he said, waving his second dagger at the two men at the fire. ‘As you can see, it may be another hour before breakfast is cooked.’

‘We are no true brother and sister, sir, though we grew up together.’

‘Be that as it may,’ said Sabbah nonchalantly. ‘Close ties of kinship prolong life. You are familiar with the sayings of the Prophet?’

‘That is not one I recollect.’

‘Reflect upon it, Hassan. It is a principle that guides our little band. We are all brothers and sisters here.’ He laughed suddenly. ‘But as I was saying, the Captain left a message. That you join her on the summit of the mountain.’

‘On the summit?’ echoed Hassan.

‘If it pleases you to see the sun come up.’ Sabbah waved the dagger again towards a path that wound its way between the two nearest caves and disappeared over the rocky ridge. ‘Not the very pinnacle, but as close as man or woman is likely to go. It is not far.’

‘She is about … and alone?’

‘A bloody arm has not hindered her, though I would have it otherwise,’ Sabbah said. ‘It’s her habit in the mornings to exercise, and she prefers her own company as a rule. No doubt there are other womanly tasks she performs. I do not ask.’

‘If that is the case, I should not disturb her,’ said Hassan.

‘You will learn to avoid Venetian niceties here,’ Sabbah growled. ‘That message I spoke of was more in the nature of a command. Now, go to Doquz or I will get the sharp edge of her tongue for detaining you.’

The path was steep in places and twisted upon itself. As he approached the ridge, Hassan was breathing quite heavily and his heart was pounding. His wound stung painfully and it was only with extra effort that he scrambled over the remaining rocks and fell on his knees at the summit. He took a few gulps of the thin air and gasped in astonishment at the sight which met his eyes.

To both left and right of him were further ridges and, dead ahead, another peak played upon by wisps of cloud. The sun was an orange ball in the eastern sky while, below him, in a basin formed in the mountain top, from which not all the shadows had yet flown, was a lake of the blackest water. There was sparse vegetation and, not far from where he knelt, on the west side, a stream cascaded over the rim of the basin and on downwards into the Vale of Urmia. Often as he had journeyed across the mountain to Maragha, he had never dreamed of such a wonder at its top.

Recovering his breath, he descended towards the lakeside. There was no sign of Doquz, but some footprints, recently made in the softer earth, led in the direction of the mountain river exit. He followed the trail and came to an outcrop of rock. Here the footprints ended where the lake lapped the shore.

Avoiding the water, Hassan skirted the rock and came upon an inlet, fully lit by the morning sun. There on the tiny beach, a primitive tent had been erected and beneath it was a bundle of clothing.

‘What delayed you so long, Brother?’

The sound of her voice startled him as he could still see no one. Though it was still early, the sun blinded him. Then he became used to the glare and saw the lake rippling a dozen or more paces from the shoreline. Doquz’s head bobbed above the water.

‘Where is your courage now, Hassan?’ she called. ‘Are you afraid of getting wet?’

Hassan removed his shirt, kicked off his sandals and tested the water with his feet. It was not as cold as he had expected. He waded in, lost his footing as the beach shelved steeply, and plunged into the depths. He rose to the surface spluttering and coughing. The water had a strange odour and unpalatable taste but was unusually buoyant. There seemed to be a powerful current pressing on his body from some bottomless chasm.

Doquz was only a few arms’ lengths away, pulling away from him towards the centre of the lake.

‘I hope you can swim,’ she giggled, ‘for I’m in no mood to rescue you.’

‘I can swim well enough, as you should know,’ said Hassan ungraciously.

‘Then we should race to yon rock and back again,’ Doquz challenged, pointing to the opposite side of the bay. ‘We are equally handicapped, so it should be an interesting test of our agility. And they say the lake’s waters have healing properties.’

She set off, swimming slowly and awkwardly. Her bound left arm swept the water away with a hesitant action and she had frequently to adjust her direction to compensate for the power of her right. Even so, Hassan was hard pressed to catch her. He was unused to the rarefied mountain atmosphere and had difficulty with his breathing. His wound hurt with every stroke. By the time they reached the tip of the bay they were just level.

‘I think we’ve come far enough,’ panted Doquz. Her nostrils were flared from exertion. ‘Neither of us is at our best. We will walk back to the tent.’

Hassan readily concurred, but he was pleased she had made the suggestion. It would have been unmanly of him to admit defeat so readily. Doquz made for the shore and reached it slightly ahead of him. As she stood up in the shallows, Hassan saw that she was naked apart from silk drawers and the bandage on her arm. His memory of her as a child, and of their recent encounter, when he had so easily been fooled as to her sex, made him quite unprepared for the sight of her near-unclothed body.

She was unlike Lucy in every way, slim and muscular with small, pert breasts and buttocks only slightly curved. Her shoulders were straight, her abdomen was flat like an athlete’s and her hip and pelvic bones jutted out sharply at the tops of her thighs. Hassan’s eyes lingered on the triangle of dark hair, dripping with water and visible through the silk, at the apex of her thighs. He followed her onto the beach, embarrassed but quite unable to avert his gaze.

She caught his stare.

‘Am I to your taste?’ she asked, frostily he thought.

‘Forgive me,’ Hassan began. ‘I did not mean …’

Doquz interrupted him with a peal of girlish laughter.

‘As you know me for a woman, there is little point in me concealing it,’ she said. ‘As to forgiveness, what should I be forgiving – that your eyes fix so impertinently on my parts, or …’ She indicated the bandaged arm. ‘… that only yesterday your sword deprived me of a half basin of blood?’

‘I ask your pardon for both offences.’

‘Then I forgive you for both,’ said Doquz, ‘as you must forgive me for that bloody weal across your chest.’

She gave him no opportunity to reply but strode out along the narrow, stony shore, squeezing the water from her wet hair as she went. Hassan, still not free of his embarrassment, followed, uncertain whether to be excited by the easy swaying of her limbs or repelled by her forthright manner. He felt sure she was playing a subtle maidenly game with him and, though he did not wish her to get the better of him in an exchange of words, he did not have the wit or desire to match her in it. When they were children in Tabriz, he had always been the leader, both in knowledge and in daring. Now she was his equal in the first while surpassing him in the second. Perhaps he had led a life of comfort too long to exchange it again for one of pursuit and counter-pursuit.

By the time they reached the tent the sun had dried them. Hassan checked that his bandage was secure before putting on his shirt and slipping on his sandals. Doquz dressed herself in a silk tunic, lorica and breeches and strapped her sword belt round her midriff. She took a glass from her saddlebag and inspected her features in it. Then she took out a comb and he watched as she drew it through her damp hair. It was the first real sign of femininity he had seen in her since their reunion and it drew him back to her as the sister he had once loved and had lost.

Again, Doquz realised he was watching her.

‘You did not answer my question, Hassan,’ she said, and some of the mischief had gone from her voice. ‘Whether my face and figure is pleasing to your taste? Though many men find me appealing, I’m no great beauty like your mother Nadia. If you think me plain, oblige me by saying so. You and I should have no secrets.’

Not since before that winter in Baghcha, more than four years ago, had he looked directly into her face. As he did so now, it seemed to Hassan that it had changed very little superficially. He had always thought it a pretty face, so unlike his own both in colour and in the shape of the features. Though paler than most native Persians, her skin was a shade darker than that of the pure Mongol women he had known. Whereas his own nose was prominent, hers was small and flat. Her ears were delicate and lay close to her head. But it was her eyes and mouth that gave the face its character. Together, they were a clear measure of her feelings. Hassan had always known when she was pleased because the eyes lit up. And when she was annoyed, her full lips pouted and were pressed so closely together that her cheeks wrinkled above the bone.

Her lips were parted now and there was warmth in her smile.

‘I do not think you plain, Doquz,’ he answered her simply. ‘Why should you believe otherwise?’

‘Perhaps because after so many years, we are strangers. I need to discover if you are the same Hassan who once hid with me for two days in an empty room of Tabriz Castle.’

‘I’m the same. We played husbands and wives and came out only when it was dark to steal food from the kitchens.’

‘You remember!’ laughed Doquz. She was finished with her hair and had squatted cross-legged under the awning. ‘Then there was that time on the lake, near my father’s winter residence. It was my tenth birthday and we went fishing.’

‘And I leaned too far out and fell in the water,’ Hassan acknowledged, sitting beside her. His embarrassment faded as the memories of these happy times flooded back. Venice seemed far away.

‘That was how I learned you could swim,’ Doquz said.

‘And you made fun of me, and I tried to pull you in after me.’

‘And failed! But in that last year or more you neglected me, Hassan.’ She pouted. ‘You were forever with Oljeitu. I hated him for taking you away from me.’

‘Then I also beg forgiveness for causing you that hurt. It was not meant. I was a boy then.’

She turned towards him and Hassan was aware of her close scrutiny. Her eyes travelled downwards from the crown of his head to the tips of his toes and back again. Quite suddenly, she seized him by the shoulders with her good arm, pulled him against her and kissed him on the cheek. He felt the warmth of her body.

‘And you are a boy still!’ she said, releasing him. ‘And a hungry boy at that. We should return to the camp before Khumar burns the soup. Later, I’ll send Ahmed and the others to bring news from the city. There will be time over the next two days for us to converse while we recover our full strength.’

[to be continued]

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