The Tiger and the Cauldron(17)

Chapter 17

There were nineteen in the camp; four were women, Doquz herself, Fatima, and two others – Talitha and Mariam. However there were no divisions according to gender. Men and women alike shared duties – guarding the pass, preparing and cooking the food, and taking part in expeditions.

The lower caves of the mountain, Hassan learned, were occupied by whole families who preferred life in the open to the crowdedness and poverty of city living. They were a hardy people too, and they had to be, for in winter they were often imprisoned in their homes until the snows melted.

Not far from these primitive dwellings, the slopes were fertile and cultivated, and the mountain people were able to feed themselves simply, though adequately, in all four seasons. They farmed sheep and goats for milk, meat and clothing. Doquz made no demands on them, but freely distributed silver from the Il-khan’’s treasury in return for their produce and the extra supplies they purchased in the Tabriz bazaars. Thus Sahand was the ideal hiding place, sheltered by friends and guarded by an inhospitable terrain.

Most of the rebels departed after breakfast and did not return until the hour before sunset. Sayyid, nursing the cut in his thigh, was sent off to pacify his uncle, the candlemaker. Hassan and Doquz remained behind in the company of two others only, who left them alone to reminisce of their childhood escapades.

They talked until noon. At Doquz’s request, Hassan told her about his life and new family in Italy, and of his longing to return to Persia. She seemed to know very little about the circumstances of her father’s death and questioned him closely about his mother and Giovanni, and about their flight from Gaikatu’s anger. When he described how Giovanni had fought with Gaikatu and wounded him, she pouted severely and remarked that it was a pity it was his shoulder and not his throat that had been cut. He asked her to explain her hatred but she shook her head and refused to answer.

During the heat of the day they rested in the cool of Doquz’s cave, and when the sun began to go down in the west, they returned to the mountain top and swam again in the lake. Hampered by their wounds, they did not venture too far from the shore.

The communal meal at sunset was the occasion for excited conversation and boisterous jesting. Hassan came quickly to understand the different dialects. Fermented mares’ milk – koumis – was forbidden and wine was drunk only in moderation. Under Sabbah’s watchful eye, none were allowed to become senseless. Even so, there were arguments and several challenges were issued. The disputants were permitted to have at one another with thick staves until either one or other had been knocked to the ground, or until Doquz called a halt to their exercise to prevent serious injury.

The next day there was no dawn mist and Hassan was awakened by the sunlight. The camp seemed deserted. Outside Doquz’s cave, where Sabbah had sat the previous morning, lay an empty water bottle. The cave entrance was covered by a makeshift curtain, reinforcing Hassan’s suspicions that the relationship between the Commander and his stepsister was more than that of one between captain and subordinate.

He clambered to the top of the ridge and hurried towards the little bay, half hoping that he was wrong and that Doquz would be already enjoying her swim, but though the awning still stood she was not there. He stripped to his breeches and plunged into the cool  lake, swimming farther out than he had done previously. He found breathing easier and even grew accustomed to the odour. However, the greater his distance from the shore, the more powerful the underwater current became. Then it vanished altogether and the water turned quite icy, so he reversed course and allowed the current to carry him back towards the rim of the crater.

As he stepped ashore, he saw Doquz coming round the outcrop of rock. She was still clothed and wore her sword belt, but carried her sandals as she paddled in the shallows. She called his name and he ran along the beach towards her.

‘Am I to swim alone,’ she scolded him, ‘and are you already tired of my company that you did not wake me?’

‘The cave was closed over. I did not think it proper.’ As he spoke his cheeks burned.

‘The curtain is not a barrier to friendship, but merely a shield to keep the dawn sun from my eyes,’ said Doquz. She unstrapped the sword belt and threw it under the awning. ‘You at any rate have only to speak my name and enter.’

Hassan’s cheeks were now burning so fiercely he was sure she would notice. He averted his eyes instinctively as she drew off her tunic.

‘But Sabbah was not at his post.’

Doquz stopped undressing and looked at him intently for a moment. Then her face lit up with amusement and she put her hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle.

‘When I am with you I sometimes forget I am the Khan’s sworn enemy,’ she said soberly. ‘Truly, is that what you think, Hassan, that we are bedfellows as well as comrades in arms?’

As Hassan could think of no suitable reply, she went on. ‘I’m no Lady Chastity that I have not dreamed of him. He is a man and a good example of one. But Ahmed has taken an oath to protect me like a father, and he does no more than that. Now, are we to swim together or no?’

Hassan had already found an appetite, nevertheless he agreed to join her in the water. They raced as before and he was pleased to find that he easily beat her. Afterwards, he sat with her under the awning.

‘How old is she, this granddaughter of the jewel merchant?’ Doquz asked suddenly.

‘Fourteen only.’

‘Not quite a woman,’ said Doquz slyly. ‘Yet there is more to this Luciana Polo than meets the eye, I fancy. You are contracted in marriage?’

‘I have no wish to marry Lucy,’ Hassan said hotly. He hoped she would not continue her questioning as he had no wish to relive his embarrassment or confess his inexperience as a lover.

Doquz, however, only pouted.

‘Truly?’ she asked.

‘Truly,’ answered Hassan, relieved.

*

His second morning and afternoon on the mountain passed in the same way as his first. He and Doquz found much to talk about, though she was still reticent about her recent life, relenting only to describe in detail how she and the two youths had raided the Tabriz treasury. Her tale evoked other memories of their childhood adventures in the underground passages, and the pranks they had played on the guards by popping up in unexpected places.

Most of their conversations were personal reminiscence of this nature and when Hassan tried to steer the conversation round to her quarrel with Baidu or her future plans, she became evasive and tight-lipped. Sabbah, who joined them at dusk, was no more forthcoming, nor did he show any  inclination to talk further about his brother.

However, Hassan learned something of the current activities of the group. He had noticed that though the total number of outlaws did not seem to increase, new faces were continually appearing, and he began to realise that Doquz commanded more followers than he had at first believed. This was confirmed by Doquz herself who told him simply that the base on Mount Sahand was only one of several the band had used. It seemed that its members, like the merchant fraternity of Umid Malikshah, penetrated everywhere. In the guise of imams, artisans or simple farmers they brought back news not only from Tabriz but from towns as far away as Zanjan or Arbil. As carriers of tablets bearing a royal seal, they travelled freely. It was no matter that the passes themselves were stolen and that the seal on them was Arghun’s rather than Baidu’s.

But he was also able to surmise a more deadly purpose to their excursions when the outlaws returned for their meal on that second evening. There appeared to be no casualties, but several of the youths’ faces were blackened with soot from a fire and the clothing of others smeared with dried blood. They did not discuss the events of their day in Hassan’s hearing but there was no mistaking their excited chatter when they settled in their groups at supper.

When he awoke on his third morning, Sabbah was once again at the mouth of Doquz’s cave. The curtain was drawn aside and the cave was empty.

‘She has already gone to the lake, Hassan,’ said Sabbah, ‘but I welcome this opportunity to speak to you privately. Soon we must leave. Some of us begin to look anxiously around. It happens when we’ve been too long in one place. And, yesterday, we burned a military outpost to the south of Urmia. It’s our third raid in under a month and may draw attention to this location.’

‘I suspected something of the kind,’ said Hassan.

‘Do not take it badly that we have not confided in you. Trust does not come easily to people like us. But the time has come to ask you if you’ll stay with us? I know you came to Persia with other plans, but we can use your sword when we move against Baidu himself. And I have reason to think you may also have some skill with a bow.’ He grinned. ‘Did we not repack your luggage?’

Hassan smiled in his turn.

‘Without more arrows, I fear the little bow is only half a weapon,’ he said.

‘Not for nothing do we raid Baidu’s weapons stores,’ said Sabbah. ‘Arrows are plentiful. And there are craftsmen among us who can adapt some to your needs. But that was not my question!’

‘My plans seem to have been changed for me,’ rejoined Hassan. ‘Family visits can wait for the present. Still, if I may say so, it seems to me foolhardy that such a small band should move against an army.’

‘An insect may bother a giant, Hassan. That is what we have done for twelve months and more.’ Sabbah’s grin became broader and he laughed heartily. ‘What do you say, Man of the West?’

‘I’ve not forgotten my quarrel with Baidu, even if I do not understand yours,’ said Hassan. ‘May I have time to consider, at least until our wounds have healed? Then I will give you my decision.  I admit to feeling almost at home here and only Khumar appears to resent my presence. The others I beat in swordplay do not seem to dislike me as he does.’

‘The Captain said you were still a boy!’ The Commander laughed again. ‘And she was right. Are Venetian youths so backward that they do not recognise green jealously?’

‘Jealousy?’

‘Have you not noticed his ass’s eyes as he gazes at her. He has long hoped for Doquz’s favour but she spurns him. Now she spends her time with you.’

‘But it is friendship only. We grew up together. We are like the close kin that you have mentioned more than once.’

‘Khumar sees what he wants to see. He loves her, Hassan.’

‘It does not signify, if she does not love him. And as she sees me only as a brother, it cannot be that I am his rival.’

‘I wonder,’ said the Commander sternly. ‘Do you deny that you would bed her?’

Hassan felt the flush in his face as Sabbah looked straight at him. He dared not lie.

‘I cannot deny it but, again, that does not signify if I am too much a brother, and she too much a sister for us to be lovers.’

‘Alas, you are still a boy at heart, Hassan, though you have a man’s stature,’ said Sabbah. ‘Can you not see that she hurts – that her natural desires are stifled? Yet she is healing, and when our war with Baidu is over, she will need a man to guide her and treat her as the woman she is. Even the Tiger Princess needs a mate!’

*

Doquz was waiting for him when he reached the lakeside and together they plunged into the cool water. Again they swam as far as the tip of the bay. Hassan could see that her arm action was still hampered by her injury and suggested they return to their starting point on their backs using only their legs and feet for propulsion. Doquz readily agreed and to his embarrassment she proved more than a match for him in this exercise.

After breakfast they talked as before, recalling childhood escapades. He told her of his meeting with Djamila and how the old priest had died. He reiterated his commitment to Sabbah to remain with the band at least until their wounds were healed. Once again, most of the outlaws appeared to have gone on intelligence forays and apart from Sayyid and two others who kept watch over the valley, they were alone in the camp. Hassan had not forgotten Sabbah’s parting words that morning and he dwelt on them, wondering what was meant, but did not dare ask Doquz to explain what he felt had been said to him in confidence.

From noon until mid afternoon they sheltered together in Doquz’s cave. Hassan lay with his eyes closed and his hands clasped beneath his head, his thoughts drifting back to Venice and his family there. What would his mother and Giovanni think if they could see him now, he wondered, and would they understand the decision he had almost made – to stay and fight against Baidu as part of a rebel force? His separation from little Yasmina and Nico had proved to be the greatest hurt attending his journey. He had tried not to think of them too often but it proved impossible, and his great fear was that by the time he returned to Venice they would have forgotten him. That apart, he felt in a sense that he had come home.

Doquz was on his left. After a time, he realised that not only was she asleep but that she had moved perceptibly closer to him. Her head rested a finger’s breadth away from his shoulder and some strands of her hair touched his neck. The even, steady pattern of her breathing had changed to long, almost inaudible inhalation followed by quick sighs of exhalation, and he could feel the warm caress of air against his skin.

For a while Hassan remained motionless, hardly daring to breathe himself for fear of disturbing her. Then he slid cautiously away and sat watching her slumbering countenance and the rise and fall of her breasts. Once or twice her eyelids flickered but she did not waken. At length, afraid of his own thoughts, he crept silently out into the sunshine and went to sit alone on the hillside overlooking the Vale of Urmia.

The distant hills were hazy blue. A slight breeze from the mountain top cooled the fierce midsummer heat. In the depression below the main camp, where a streamlet from the summit trickled and some sparse vegetation grew, he could see the spare ponies tethered. A short distance away, one of the outlaws squatted on a rock keeping outlook over the pass. He waved a greeting. A deep sense of contentment washed over him.

His chest had begun to itch, so he removed his shirt and the bandage and inspected the flesh beneath. To his surprise, his wound was healing well and a scar had was already formng. He traced the darkening line with his finger. Realisation of his own good fortune made him think again of Doquz’s injury. Perhaps it was true that the mountain lake’s water had healing properties, he reflected, but it was clear they could not be relied upon to effect any magic cure.

When they swam again later, he noticed that her action was more awkward than ever. As they dried themselves in the late sun, he fancied there was pain in her expression.

‘Will you let me see it?’ he asked, indicating the damp bandage.

Doquz shook her head, but as she reached for her bag she winced. She turned away from him, took up her comb and began teasing the remaining moisture from her hair. Given her lack of prudery or shyness in their relationship, Hassan was puzzled by her reluctance to unbind the wound. His guilt at having been the cause of it drove him to repeat his request.

‘Will you … please? I have learned some physic from my mother.’

 Without being fully conscious of doing so he had taken hold of her good hand, the one holding the comb. She avoided his face, but Hassan fancied there were tears forming in her eyes. As a child, he had only once seen her cry and now in this assertive maiden it was unexpected.

‘Please,’ he said again.

Doquz began to slowly unwrap her bandage.

‘I would never confess it to another, Hassan,’ she said, ‘but the arm is most painful. I fancy I struck my elbow yesterday on a rock.’

Hassan studied the long gash. From shoulder to elbow it was knitting and showed a drying scar, but in the forearm where the sword had cut deeper, the wound was open. The flesh was red and inflamed.

‘I do not think it is infected,’ said Hassan, ‘but we should take precautions. There is a flower that grows everywhere in Italy – yellow star my mother calls it. Its leaves  make a soothing and healing poultice. Perhaps it can be found in the valley of Maragha.’ He had already put on his shirt, but he removed it again. ‘For now, with your permission, I should re-bandage the arm with a dry cloth. You have a dagger. Lend it me, if you will.’

He took her blade, tore the shirt from neckline to waist and cut three strips from the flannel, one wide and two narrow. Leaving her upper arm free, he bound her lower with the wider cloth, beginning at the elbow and ending at the wrist, then fastened it securely at both ends though not so tightly as to restrict the blood flow.

‘Thank you,’ said Doquz simply when he had finished. ‘The pain has almost gone.’

‘Nevertheless, tomorrow, I should try to find some of the yellow flower.’

‘Perhaps,’ said Doquz. ‘We shall see. But not a word, even to Ahmed!’

Hassan had abandoned his intention to make for Maragha; his uncle could not know he was an afternoon’s ride from the Observatory. However, concern that Doquz’s wound might worsen gnawed at his mind throughout the evening feast and made him reconsider the possibility of a visit. He did not know whether the yellow flowers grew in the valley, nor could he be certain he would recognise them in all seasons, but Shirazi was a skilled physician and would not deny his plea for help. And the Observatory could be reached in a few short hours.

His only problem was to persuade Doquz to ride with him. She had been reluctant to show him the wound and he felt she was likely to prove stubborn in seeking treatment for it. Sabbah was the only one whose advice she was prone to take, yet he was constrained by a promise to keep her distress a secret.

However, the Commander’s sharp eyes had already noticed that something was wrong. When the meal was finished he joined Hassan at the dying fire.

‘Have you noticed how the Captain is not herself?’ he remarked. ‘That sword cut of yours must be deeper than we thought.’

‘The wound is healing well enough,’ Hassan replied.

‘You lie for the best motives, Master Hassan,’ retorted Sabbah. ‘But against your promise to be silent, if that is your reason, you must weigh your own fate if she dies. I will ensure your end is a most painful one, if these young cubs do not get to you first.’

‘Then I shall get no more than I deserve,’ said Hassan, trying to sound braver than he felt.

‘Your courage does you credit,’ said Sabbah. ‘I can see your mother has taught you duty and honour. But ask yourself this, Hassan, which is the greater duty – your sister’s life, or your foolish promises to her?’

Hassan could no longer remain silent under the Commander’s stern, threatening gaze. In the gathering dusk and by the light of the fire he seemed much taller and fiercer than the mild man who had sat that morning at the cave mouth. Somehow he knew he was no match for him in any kind of real contest.

‘The wound is worse,’ he blurted out. ‘I tried to sound unconcerned when she showed it to me, but it is more serious than I would admit. If it does not knit soon, I fear it may become poisoned.’ He told Sabbah about the yellow flower, also about his plan to seek Shirazi’s advice.

‘I have seen no yellow flowers hereabouts,’ said Sabbah, ‘but if this Shirazi is a physician, we must take Doquz to him.’

‘She will know I have broken my promise and refuse.’

‘Then we must bring Shirazi here!’

‘Suppose he declines.’

‘At the point of my sabre he will not decline, Hassan.’

‘He is my mother’s uncle and helped her once. He is less likely to refuse if I go alone.’

‘Then go, Hassan … at first light. The All-seeing go with you. Take your pick of the ponies. But remember what I have promised. If for any reason you do not return and Doquz dies, you will not escape my dagger, hide as you will in Venice or in China!’

‘I will return. As I value my life, I value hers too. But am I to go without speaking to her?’

‘It’s better you do not. Doquz has a way of extracting promises and might hinder you!’

*

Doquz sat by her cave. Hassan and Sabbah were deeply immersed in their conversation. She wondered what they were discussing and if she should interrupt. For the past two days she had felt that her life was changing. More and more she was feeling emotions she had thought were dead and gone forever, and this was only since Hassan had come back into her life. It was as if in his company she was shut off from her recent past.

Her left arm throbbed and she held it close to her body with the right. Despite the pain, she treasured her injury because Hassan had inflicted it. She knew she wanted him, both as the brother he had always been, and as the comrade in arms she hoped desperately he would become. But she wondered if indeed there was more. It had not been her intention to entice him at the mountain lake; they had often played together naked as children, out of sight of others. However, there had been an unexpected tingling of her skin as she saw him watching her dress, and she had taken pleasure in the fantasy of his embrace, not as a sister but as a woman and lover. She was beginning to hate Luciana Polo with all her strength.

It was almost dark when she came to herself and realised that the camp was still. The fire was now only a few embers. Hassan sat beside it alone, his head in his hands as if wrestling with a ponderous problem. The moon was just rising over the peak and bathed him in its light. He stirred once from his reverie and looked up, his face warmed by the glow.

If only now, Doquz said to herself, but she made no move towards him. The ground that separated them was in deep shadow and seemed like an unbridgeable gulf. She turned into the cave, found her blanket, lay down and wrapped herself in it. Only then did she realise she was weeping.

[more episodes in a few days]

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