The Tiger and the Cauldron(18)

Chapter 18

Hassan was wakened by Sabbah. The Commander had already saddled a pony and Hassan was pleased to find that it was one whose temperament and sleek coat he had much admired. His bow and a quiver full of arrows hung on the saddle horn. The arrows had been trimmed in length and re-feathered.

‘It’s the best I can do, Hassan,’ Sabbah said. ‘These arrows will feel heavy, but they should be good for a hundred paces or more. I can give you a full-size bow if you prefer.’

‘My own will do very well,’ said Hassan. ‘I am unused to the larger one and might find it cumbersome.’

‘And you may take a scimitar from our store.’

Hassan considered. The bow and quiver could be concealed beneath a blanket whereas a scimitar would be conspicuous. Though he did not expect to be hindered in his mission, it was as well to be careful.

‘My short sword will suffice,’ he said. ‘Remember, sir, I’m a peaceful traveller from the West.’

As he mounted, Hassan glanced in the direction of Doquz’s cave. The curtain was still drawn across it. He felt guilty at leaving her, yet relieved she was not there to argue against his going. Unusually, she had remained apart from most of the previous evening’s festivities. Twice she had assured him the wound was better for its new bandage, however he could see the arm hurt her as much as ever.

A layer of cloud was below him and for an hour or more he travelled slowly, feeling the cool dampness on his face. Sabbah had directed him to the mouth of the high pass and from there he picked his way carefully down a steep incline strewn with rocks. He did not wish to risk his mount’s footing and, by crippling it, threaten his mission before it had begun.

Gradually the path broadened out, though it seemed to Hassan that it led as often back up into the mountain as down into the valley. The slopes became more gentle. He increased his pace and broke through the cloud. He passed through fields of pumpkins and onions, and small plantations of olives. From time to time, as he ascended a crest, he could see the water of Lake Urmia glistening in the distance, only to lose sight of it again as he descended into the next trough. He reached a cave village. A few of the inhabitants, already at work among their crops, waved or greeted him with a friendly Salaam-e-lekum.

The sun was hot on his head and there was no breeze. The mountain still slept. One moment his spirits were lifted by the joy of freedom, the next they sank into the depths as he remembered Doquz’s hurt and Sabbah’s grim warning. He had never given dying much thought before but he wondered now, if death was to be his reward, how he would meet it. He began to imagine the most terrifying ways in which a man could meet his end, and these fantasies drew perspiration from his pores.

The silence was punctuated by the occasional call of a bird, by the chirping of insects and by the sound of the pony’s hooves. Once or twice, Hassan thought he caught another noise behind him and turned to see if he was being followed. However, he was quite alone. He decided it was his imagination and that the noise was made by a small animal or a snake dislodging a few small stones.

As noon approached he was still a long way from the rich gardens and orchards of Maragha. However, he soon began to catch scents of blossom and ripening fruit. The earth was already dark and fertile and he spied a small farm or two nestling in the valley. A few clouds wafted across the sun giving him some respite from the heat. He took a long drink from his water bottle and tried to cheer himself by whistling.

Doquz was never far from his thoughts. Memories of their childhood together flashed through his mind – how they had scrambled through the hidden passages below Tabriz Castle and how, with Oljeitu, they had once spent a night on its walls trying to count the stars. Then he would be jolted back into the present by the vision of her arm and her broken flesh. He relived his contest with her, imagining how the outcome might have been very different. He recalled too their mornings at the mountain top, picturing her as she emerged from the water. It was becoming impossible to think of her features or the curve of her body without experiencing a thrill of delight and a tightening in his loins. He tried telling himself he should not be having such feelings, but he could not dismiss them from his mind.

Beset by these fantasies of love, warfare and childhood, he became less aware of the passing time or of the changing terrain. Suddenly, he realised the pony was trotting on near level ground and that ahead of him in the middle distance were the three Turkish towers of Maragha, shimmering in the heat haze. And, on a slight rise, beyond a long avenue lined with fruit trees and within an easy few minutes canter, were the walls and gates of the Observatory.

He pulled up abruptly, sensing danger, and shaded his eyes against the sunlight. At the nearest end of the avenue stood a Mongol soldier, armed with scimitar and lance. A little way behind him, unattended, were two mounts. They were battle-ready with lassos and kettles hung by the saddle bags. Each had a strung bow and quiver looped over the pommel. Hassan scanned the road for the second man but could see no one. However, one or two, it made no difference. There was no way to reach his objective without being challenged.

The sentry had seen him and stepped into the road brandishing his lance. He was about thirty years old, a man of the Steppes or possibly a Mongol of the Golden Horde from the mountains north of Armenia. He was taller than Hassan by half a head, and strongly built.

‘In the name of the Khan, approach and dismount!’

Hassan fingered his short sword, but decided he was no match for the strength and superior weaponry of the sentry, whatever his own skill. He pulled his blanket further over his bow and quiver, covering them completely, and slipped from the pony’s back.

‘What’s your business here?’

‘My business is with Master Shirazi of Maragha.’

‘Master Shirazi trades only in astrology and potions,’ said the Mongol. ‘An’ you’re no scholar if I’ve an eye in my head.’

‘Still, I was once a scholar here,’ said Hassan. He was aware of the man’s scrutiny, and could feel the suspicion oozing from him.

The Mongol walked round him and patted the pony on the neck. ‘You look and sound like a foreigner,’ he grunted.

‘I have travelled lately in the West,’ said Hassan. ‘That may account for my speech. My intentions are peaceful.’

The man was not easily satisfied. He continued his slow walk.

‘That’s a good Persian saddle,’ he said. ‘An’ the animal’s one of the finest I’ve seen – luxuries too great for a boy scholar. What if I were to relieve you of them?’

‘That would be theft,’ said Hassan boldly. He had begun to feel very nervous. ‘For whether I am a boy, or a scholar, or neither, makes no difference. Both pony and saddle belong to me.’

The second sentry emerged from behind a tree. He carried his sword belt and was hitching up his breeches.

‘Let the boy through,’ he called. ‘He’s harmless. If you must have the pony and saddle, trade him yours.’

‘I do not wish to trade,’ said Hassan, now sizing up both men. Their speech and movements were slow and, though they were far from being intoxicated, he guessed they had been drinking. The lance was his biggest threat. If it came to a contest, his only chance would be to strike quickly and unexpectedly.

The first sentry prodded his blanket. He lifted it up to expose the small bow. ‘An’ what’s this?’

‘It is a toy.’

‘The arrows are real enough.’

Hassan had formed no plans to deal with close questioning and his only recourse was to improvisation. ‘A lone traveller, even a scholar, must defend himself, and he must also eat,’ he said. ‘I use the bow as a hunting weapon, to bring down small game.’

‘It may be you’re peaceful as you claim,’ said the other, ‘but then, maybe not. I think our commander should decide.’ He made to take Hassan by the shoulder.

Hassan backed away, at the same time dropping his hand to the hilt of his short sword. He had as yet no conscious intention of fighting and the movement was instinctive, but the sentry saw it as a challenge. He levelled the lance and with his right hand reached for his scimitar. The second man was still having trouble fastening his breeches, but he stopped what he was doing. He too unsheathed his sabre.

Hassan was faced with two choices, to fight or to run, and neither seemed wise. To flee would be to betray his guilt. It was very likely he would be brought down with an arrow in his back. He knew only too well that a Mongol horseman could bring down an enemy from more than two hundred paces, and if these were Baidu’s picked men, they would not miss. His only hope was to disable his nearest opponent and somehow delay the other. That might allow him to reach the cover of the hills where he could plan another route.

He stepped to one side suddenly, drew his short sword and swung it at the hand holding the lance, half severing it from the forearm. The blood spurted from the sentry’s wound. The lance fell to the ground, broken into two pieces. Hassan snatched up the piece bearing the point and barb, and threw it with all his strength at the advancing second sentry, catching him in the right shoulder. The man stumbled but did not fall.

His first blow too had failed to halt the first sentry who, his face contorted with pain and rage, sliced at him with his scimitar. Hassan parried at the last moment, but he was still crouching in the position from which he had launched the lance, and was badly placed to foil another stroke. He raised his blade knowing it was both too short for a stabbing thrust, and too light to withstand the powerful swing of his adversary. The Mongol raised his scimitar for the second time, poised for the kill.

The blow never struck. Hassan heard the twang of a nearby bowstring and felt himself sprayed with sticky fluid as the scimitar fell from the Mongol’s hand, his eyes glazed over, and he crumpled to the ground with a short arrow embedded in his chest. The second sentry too was down, another arrow penetrating his neck from the rear. As he rose to his full height, Hassan saw three well-armed newcomers emerge from the trees and he recognised Mujir, Ali and Fatima. Ali was grinning broadly.

‘In truth, I’m glad to see you,’ said Hassan.

‘And I you,’ said the youthful bandit. ‘In one piece at any rate.’

‘But how were you able to come to my assistance so quickly? When I reached this grove, I’ll swear there was no one behind me.’

‘There is more than one way down a mountain,’ Fatima laughed, ‘and we were sent to anticipate you.’

‘By Commander Sabbah?’

‘By the Captain herself,’ said Mujir. ‘We saw you go and were curious. We would have followed you, but then the Captain awoke.’

‘And I with her,’ said Fatima. ‘She flew at Commander Sabbah in a great rage. For a while they argued, then she calmed down and asked for intelligence of Maragha. We three were here less than a week ago, but had not reported fully.’

‘The Il-khan’’s governor is reinforcing the garrison,’ Ali explained. ‘Both Fatima and I counted an arban, she by the Turkish tower – the one with the writing – and I on the south side. Mujir was near the observatory but he cannot count beyond the number of his fingers.’

‘But there were no guards on this road, such as these fellows,’ said the latter sheepishly, pointing at the two dead bodies. ‘I’m ashamed of my lack of scholarship, and the Captain berated me for it.’

‘Then Captain Doquz told us to be sure no harm came to you,’ said Ali. ‘That is, until she arrives.’

‘She is coming here?’

‘Within the hour, I would guess. And when she comes …’ The young bandit grinned again, ‘…she will open up your chest again for your impertinence. These are her words, Hassan, not mine.’

‘But her arm is not yet fully healed,’ said Hassan in dismay, now caring little for his promise of silence, but worrying only that Doquz herself was riding into danger.

‘Well then, the Captain’s journey will serve a double purpose,’ Fatima finished. ‘For, after the physician has worked his magic on her, we are to take Maragha.’

Hassan stared at them in disbelief.

‘Take Maragha?’ he exclaimed. ‘Three youths and two maidens, and one of these wounded?’

All three rebels laughed uproariously. Mujir held up one hand with the fingers spread and shook it.

‘More,’ he said.

‘The Captain brings the whole band,’ said Ali. ‘Or near enough. With four left to guard the caves, we will be twenty-three altogether if you fight with us. Good odds indeed if there are only three or four arbans here as we suspect. But meantime,’ he added, ‘there is another hurdle to leap. Twice in the mornings and twice in the afternoons, the militia exercises in the square in front of the Observatory. They are due any moment now and will be suspicious if they do not see the sentries. Help us strip these bodies. We will dispose of them where they will never be found. Mujir and I will take their place until you return.’

‘While I do not have the shape or stature for a Mongol guard,’ said Fatima with a sigh. ‘Yet mine was one of the arrows that saved your life!’

[to be continued]

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