The Tiger and the Cauldron(20)

Chapter 20

‘Taking this villa could be costly,’ said Sabbah. He prodded the parchment in front of him with his forefinger then circled the plan of the house that Shirazi had drawn for them. He frowned. ‘It has a southern aspect with the mountain slope behind. Do the main rooms look out over the plain?’

The Master nodded. They were bent over the library table. Beside the drawing were pens and fresh ink. Hassan was pleased to note that some of the pain had gone from Doquz’s face under the influence of one of Shirazi’s more powerful medicines.

‘Then it becomes a formidable challenge from the south,’ Sabbah said. ‘The ground is open for at least three hundred paces, and it is fifty across the front of the villa. And it cannot be done from the north. Outside the wall, the land is cultivated and there are a few trees to hide us for a time but, once inside, bowmen on the roof could pick us off like doves in an empty market place. Against that, the other house will be easy provided the Maragha garrison does not get wind of an attack.’

‘Then we shall take the other first,’ said Doquz. She leaned her right elbow on the table. Her newly-bandaged left arm was hidden beneath a scholar’s robe the Master had provided for her. ‘No more than forty men are quartered in the city, the fifteen to twenty of the original garrison, and possibly another two arbans. Many will be conscript foot-soldiers. If we assume ten are true bowmen, and that would be unusual, it would mean five for each house that could pick us off at a distance.’

‘There may be more,’ Sabbah said. ‘Can we risk it?’

‘Master Shirazi seems confident that forty is the maximum,’ said Doquz. ‘Let us capture the smaller villa and thereby increase our own numbers. No doubt there will be a handful there who will trade a sentry’s drudgery for a life of freedom and adventure.’

‘But it is the wedding gift to my mother that we must capture above all,’ said Hassan hotly. Since learning that his family’s property had been occupied by Baidu’s men, his blood had been stirred to action. Scholarly ambitions were forgotten. ‘And if we cannot take it in the daylight, we must act at night.’

‘Hold on, my young would-be general,’ Sabbah admonished. ‘In darkness, it would be impossible. And will you throw away ten lives to save your pride? For that is the number we might lose in a rash attack by day.’

‘But there is a moon …’

‘A moon gives the same advantage to both sides,’ said Sabbah. ‘We cannot see without being seen.’

‘Then we need to provide a distraction,’ Hassan said excitedly. He pointed to the drawing. ‘I remember this villa, though at the time I did not know it belonged to my grandfather. Is there not a small grove on the east side, Master Shirazi? Inside the perimeter?’

‘It is no longer there, Hassan. The trees were cut down.’

‘But there was also a ditch on the near side of it. In winter, it carried a stream from the hill. In summer it was dry.’

‘It is still there, Hassan, but I have not drawn it.’

‘Then we should do so,’ said Hassan, conscious that the others were watching him keenly. An idea was crystallising in his head. ‘It may be of importance.’ He took a pen, dipped it in the ink and drew a double curve to the right of the house. He followed that with a rectangle to represent the open space at the front, and finished by bisecting it with a diagonal.

‘You say it is three hundred paces from the entrance to the nearest point of cover, Commander Sabbah,’ he said, pursuing his argument. ‘And fifty across the front? Then, by simple geometry, it is little more than three hundred along my diagonal from this ridge here to the ditch.’ He tapped the bottom left corner of the parchment. ‘A horseman at fast gallop could cover the distance in a count of twenty. Little enough time for a bowman to release more than one arrow.’

‘Only one is needed,’ Sabbah said, wrinkling his brow sceptically.

‘A shield will protect the head and vitals,’ Hassan said. ‘I’m willing to lead if others will follow.’

‘And once in the ditch?’ Doquz pouted her lips in the manner Hassan had often seen her do when undecided. ‘With the enemy alerted?’

‘On the left of the villa is an outside stair to the roof,’ said Hassan. ‘Am I not right, Uncle? You have not drawn it.’

‘There is indeed,’ Shirazi said. ‘Forgive me. I’m no military strategist.’

‘Our purpose is to divert attention only,’ Hassan went on. He drew some neat lines on the plan to represent a stair then stabbed the pen point into the parchment at the lower left corner of his rectangle. ‘The main attack will come from here!’

‘A little knowledge is sometimes invaluable.’ Sabbah had become suddenly more attentive. ‘I do believe Hassan has given us the makings of a plan. But one thing concerns me. If this stair offers access to the house, it will be guarded. And that means further division of our force. If we are to attack the other house first, Captain, as you suggest, and to hold it, we will already be weakened. And it is in this property belonging to Master Hassan’s family that the greater number of our enemy is billeted.’

‘Then I withdraw my earlier proposal,’ said Doquz and when she turned towards Hassan he saw a gleam in her eye. ‘It is the house of your grandfather we must capture first. Especially if the military governor is quartered there.’

‘There is still the drawback of numbers,’ Sabbah objected. ‘With Hassan, we are twenty-three. If we send seven to divert attention, that leaves sixteen only to attack the stairway and the front entrance, eight to each. I fear it may not be enough. You must not risk further injury by coming with us, Captain.’

Doquz did not question this interdiction, but merely pouted again. ‘We should make some dolls,’ she said. ‘I do not doubt we can find the materials in Maragha. Fatima can go to the market.’

‘Dolls?’ Hassan was curious.

‘‘Tis a tactic that has worked in the past,’ Doquz explained. ‘Men of straw and sacking, life-size, with pumpkins for heads, mounted on ponies to dupe the enemy as to the size of our force. In the pale light of early morning or late evening, they will be indistinguishable from real warriors.’

‘So be it then,’ Sabbah said. ‘Let us make six puppets. And if we spare Hassan and Ali to drive them towards the ditch, and from there to pepper the rooftop with arrows, I will take the stair with nine swordsmen and force entry, while Khumar with the same number leads an assault on the front door, ready to engage the enemy when they emerge. For I do not think there’s a garrison in the world that would choose to fight in a dark billet rather than in the open air.’

Doquz made no response. She left the table, crossed to the library window and stared out of it silently. As far as Hassan could remember, nothing was to be seen from there but the courtyard, the walls, the main gate and the hills beyond, and he wondered what it was that drew her attention. Sabbah seemed content to give her time for reflection. He perched on a stool that was much too small for his bulk and drew his scimitar. Having examined it and having apparently found some mark to his distaste, he proceeded to polish it with a rag he carried in his belt for that purpose.

When Doquz turned, Hassan tried to read her expression but could not. She was looking directly at him and for a few moments he suspected she was about to reject him as a member of the expedition. Eager as he was to prove himself in her eyes, she was not about to trust him to perform even a simple ruse, far less play a leading role in recapturing the villa. Though he knew he was untested in a skirmish, indignation burned inside him and he was about to challenge her silent judgement when she spoke.

‘I accept the plan, but with two changes,’ she said. ‘For the diversion, one bowman will suffice. It should be Ali, and I will go with him. Even if my left arm is useless, I can still ride.

‘You indeed should capture the stair, Sabbah, but Hassan shall have the honour of taking the front entrance, if he is willing. He and Khumar will lead jointly, one from the left, the other from the right.’

‘Is that wise, Captain?’ Sabbah asked.

‘I will ride whether ‘tis wise or no, Sabbah,’ said Doquz and her eyes flashed. ‘And Hassan has my full confidence, as you all do. Moreover, it is my wish!’

*

The villa lay on the east side of Maragha. It stood on rising ground and commanded an almost uninterrupted view of the country to the south. The wall surrounding it at some hundred paces to the sides and rear, and three hundred to the front, with the four carved wooden gates, were designed to mark out the property rather than keep out intruders. They were no more than waist high and enclosed a flat meadow of grasses, plantain and wild flowers. To the rear of the house and on its left side were some neglected fruit trees. On the right were the remains of a copse of young birch. The trees had been cut down to stumps and their trunks and branches left to rot amongst a humus of leaves and other vegetation. The ditch that ran alongside and almost the full length of the garden was just deep enough to hide a crouching man. At the north and south sides it disappeared into culverts dug beneath the wall to prevent their erosion by spring waters from the mountain.

Rather than being built to a level height, the wall followed the contours of the ground and on the southern side fell into a gentle furrow so that from this lower boundary only the turrets of the roof could be seen. Beyond the wall, the ground continued to fall away before rising again to the plain, and from the bottom of this hollow the villa was completely out of sight.

It was an hour before dawn. A waning moon hovering above the Turkish towers to the west provided the expedition with just enough light to see its way across the deserted farmland.

Planning had occupied a full day. The outlaws had camped safely with the horses in a wood on the northern fringes of Maragha. There the puppets had been put together and waited, ready strapped to the saddles of the most biddable ponies. There were six in all, draped in studded corslets, with their pumpkin heads covered by leather helmets.

As dusk fell on the second evening, Sabbah had gone alone to oversee final preparations for the attack and to divide their forces. At Shirazi’s suggestion, Doquz and Hassan remained in the Observatory. Though Hassan knew the Master was eager to hear more of their adventures as well as to receive news of Nadia and her Italian family, he suspected also an excuse to make Doquz rest her arm for as long as possible. After darkness fell, they went to sleep on divans Shirazi had brought to the library.

They left the Observatory at moonrise and made their way on foot through the empty lanes to the eastern end of the city where they were to meet Sabbah and the others. A mail shirt, lorica and leggings to fit Hassan had been found among the supplies. Doquz too was in full armour and carried a shield on her right arm. The shadows gave them safety but they moved slowly to avoid stumbling. Here and there a lamp was lit but the glow was scarcely enough to penetrate the suffocating blackness that covered their footsteps. Once clear of the houses, however, they were exposed, had there been any human being to observe them.

The moonlight played eerily in the orchards of apple and citrus, turning the leaves white and enveloping them in a silvery brilliance. As a precaution they did not speak, but occasionally each would glance at the other’s pale, ghostly countenance as a scurrying rodent caused their hearts to beat faster and the air to be drawn sharply into their lungs.

Once reunited with the band, they skirted the villa perimeter on the northern side, and pressed on into the uncultivated foothills of Sahand, before turning south and west to bring them into the furrow beneath the front wall of the property. In the moonlight they could see clearly four sentries who patrolled behind the roof parapet. A lamp was set on the stairway to the left of the house and nearby were seated two more, armed with bows and lances.

Sabbah opened the gate. It creaked as it swung back against the wall, but the guards on the house showed no sign that they had heard it. Ali manoeuvred the ponies bearing the puppets into position in the left corner of the garden. He had tethered them together in two groups of three, each with a fourth animal saddled and ready for its human rider. The crescent moon was sinking over the plain as a faint glow in the eastern sky heralded the approach of the sun.

‘It’s time,’ Sabbah whispered. He drew his scimitar and motioned his chosen followers inside the gate. Sayyid was with him, and Talitha. As he spoke, Ali spurred his pony up the slope and into the open. He crouched low in the saddle, his right hand manipulating the reins while simultaneously hauling the tether, his left arm supporting the shield to protect his head and body. Doquz and her three puppets followed. She had dispensed with reins and guided her animal with her knees alone. Her bandaged arm hung uselessly by her side and she used her right instead to hold the shield in position at her left shoulder. Her plumed helmet with its metal reinforcement protected her head and neck.

Hassan could see no sign of the pain he was sure she must still be suffering. He gripped his sword hilt with a moist hand. Despite the morning cool, he was sweating. In the past hour he had come to understand the cruel realities of the coming battle and now, at the vital moment he found his boldness evaporating. Once already in his life he had experienced war in earnest but it had been as a child embarking on an adventure. His latest adventure was no game. He could be killed, though it was not so much the fear of death that haunted him as the fear of failure – of letting Doquz down and showing himself up as a fraud in the eyes of those he had been trusted to lead.

The eight ponies fanned out in a random pattern across the meadow. There was a cry from the roof. The lamps moved. One of the sentries on the stairs got to his feet, pulled an arrow from its quiver and fitted it to his bow. Somewhere a gong clanged.

Hassan wiped the sweat from his hand and adjusted his grip on the sword hilt. He could hear behind him the hastened breathing of Mujir, Fatima and the other two he had chosen to be with him. He turned to look at Khumar, waiting expectantly beside him. The Mongol youth was as tight-lipped as usual and the eyes that glanced back were friendless and unemotional.

The sentry on the stairs shot his arrow and it flew wildly over the rump of Ali’s mount. Another two flew from the parapet and found their target in the straw torsos of the dolls. A third rebounded from Doquz’s shield. Another puppet was hit, then one of Ali’s ponies.

Sabbah and his group were halfway to the staircase when from an unseen doorway, more men emerged onto the roof and advanced down the steps to meet them. The two original sentries abandoned their bows and levelled their lances. Sayyid brought one down with an arrow. The second threw the lance and reached for his scimitar but in a few more strides Sabbah was on him, his blade darting out to pierce his antagonist below the ribcage. Then the Commander and his companions were almost lost in a melee of attackers and defenders.

Khumar waved his party forward and almost simultaneously Hassan did likewise. He could see that Doquz and Ali had reached the safety of the ditch and that Sabbah’s force, despite an initial disadvantage, was driving the enemy back up the staircase.

There was no longer time for hesitation or fear. The front door of the villa opened and the remainder of its occupants spilled out from beneath the portico. It was now clear to Hassan that this villa housed the majority of the picked garrison because he and Khumar were assailed by some dozen swordsmen. He feinted as the leader swung viciously at him with his scimitar and stabbed the man in the heart. A second man lunged, missed, and Hassan drew blood from his thigh. Fatima fell on a third with unbelievable ferocity and cut his throat. Mujir was wounded in the leg but succeeded in killing one opponent and disabling a second. Meantime Ali had been busy with his bow and two defenders of the roof were toppled from the parapet.

Hassan pressed on towards the door, ignorant of how Khumar was faring. His chest pounded with exertion and with the thrill of victory. Two conscripts barred his way but he wounded one in the side and easily disarmed the second. He looked round to assess the strength of the remaining opposition and was startled to see Doquz at his shoulder. She stepped over a fallen adversary and joined him on the threshold. She had discarded her shield and her scimitar was stained red.

‘It’s over,’ she breathed. ‘Sabbah has taken the roof and five of the enemy are his prisoners. Khumar is rounding up the rest that remain alive. But I could not leave my brother to fight alone.’

‘What of Mujir?’ Hassan gasped. ‘He was hurt. And Fatima … and the others?’

‘Mujir is bleeding, but he’ll live. We have lost two dead –  Nazim and Abdul –  and two others wounded. As for Fatima … ‘ She puckered her face like a sulky child. ‘ … she fights like a Tatar, though she has no Mongol blood. She is more tiger than I, and is no woman for you.’ She laughed suddenly. ‘But you deserve your victory, my valiant Hassan, and may choose whom you will!’

***

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