The Tiger and the Cauldron(21)

Chapter 21

Eighteen of the enemy had fallen in the raid, fourteen dead and four mortally wounded. Of these, four were entirely due to Ali’s skill with the bow, while Sabbah’s group had despatched six. Hassan’s command had accounted for a further four, Khumar’s three and Doquz herself one. There were twelve prisoners, four of whom had received disabling sword cuts and who, being guilty of no crime other than defence of their own lives, were permitted to bind their wounds and to go free.

The other eight comprised three civilians, four conscripts and one officer. The conscripts had surrendered their weapons and they and the three non-combatants readily pledged their allegiance to the victors. The officer was placed under guard.

It was almost daylight. So as not to lose the element of surprise, Sabbah took a party of twelve to secure the other villa as on Shirazi’s estimates ten more of the Il-khan’s troops remained unaccounted for. The wounded outlaws were found a comfortable bedroom in which to rest while Hassan and a few volunteers attended to the task of restoring to the villa some semblance of order. The corpses that lay on the stairs, roof and round the portico were removed and buried outside the walls except for the two dead outlaws who, on Hassan’s insistence, were laid to rest in graves dug among the trees of the neglected orchard. Whether by accident or design, he did not see the prisoner, but learned he had been bound and shut in an upper room with Khumar guarding the door.

It was nearly two hours before the work was completed. On returning to the house, Hassan found Doquz alone under the shade of the portico, curled up and fast asleep on an upholstered couch that had been dragged from inside the villa. She still wore her armour, but had taken off her helmet, and her hair fell uncombed on her shoulders. Hassan decided not to wake her. However, she seemed suddenly aware of his presence. She opened her eyes, sat up and beckoned him to sit beside her.

‘What will you do now that the house is yours again?’ she enquired. ‘For ‘tis surely to be preferred as a residence to a cave on the hillside.’

‘I have little right to it,’ he said. ‘Even if it did not belong to you by right of conquest, it would be the property of my mother and Giovanni.’

‘But they are in Venice and will not return to Persia, or so you told me,’ said Doquz. ‘It is you who is here, and you who must decide. As to right of conquest, I assign that to you. For me it is enough that I have struck a blow against Baidu.’

Hassan studied the four elegant columns that supported the upper floor of the villa. He looked round the trampled garden then allowed his eyes to drift across the plain. The land was shimmering in the heat of the morning. Beyond the wall to his right and stretching away towards the city lay orchards and cultivated fields. To his left were rolling hills and rich woodland.

‘It’s a pleasant spot here,’ he said at length. He unfastened his corslet. ‘But I wonder how we are to defend it if Baidu retaliates. A garrison is one thing, a minghan of the Il-khan’’s best troops quite another.’

‘Baidu’s army is in the hills beyond Qazvin, I hear, at least a fortnight away. He will not come.’

‘It’s a journey I once made in five days.’

‘For a marching army with tents and equipment it is more, my hasty stepbrother,’ smiled Doquz, ‘but even at your pace that gives us ten days to make our plans. Five for the news to reach him and five more for his horsemen to cover the same distance.’ She grew more serious. ‘Yet I almost wish he would come if it meant I could see his anger.’

‘Even if he does not, the Tabriz city commander may decide to take revenge for today. Without counting the castle guard, there must be a hundred or more men at his disposal. We would be outnumbered by three or four to one. And there are other towns with other garrisons.’

‘The Tabriz complement is three or four jaguns now, and that is certainly a consideration,’ said Doquz. ‘When Sabbah returns we shall ask his advice. Meantime, as you were kind enough to waken me, will you do me another small favour? Find Khumar and ask him to bring the prisoner. After that, I beg you take again this seat beside me. There is a long overdue judgement to which I desire you bear witness.’

*

When Hassan returned, Doquz had gathered the remaining rebels and the new recruits around the portico. Mujir’s lower leg was bandaged and he was hobbling. Fatima, though apparently unhurt, seemed paler than usual.

The captive, a man of about thirty-five with an arrogant bearing, was goaded forward at sabre point, his hands still bound. His armour had been removed and he wore only a shirt and breeches. He glared long and hard at Doquz who defied his look with amused indifference.

‘Arghun’s daughter,’ he voiced contemptuously. ‘So the once princess returns as a warrior. Enjoy your triumph while you can, My Lady, for it will not last.’

To Hassan, Doquz seemed suddenly very regal and appealing.

‘Sharif-al-Mulk of Rasht,’ she replied in a subdued tone devoid of any emotion, ‘lately governor of this fine city! At least you offer me a title though I hear no respect in it.’

‘And what respect should I show to the whore of rebels?’ the other retorted.

Khumar, who was prodding his prisoner in the back with a very bloody sword, shifted his blade and drew it very steadily and lightly across his neck. A trickle of red fell on al-Mulk’s collar.

‘Leave him, Khumar!’ Doquz’s eyes flashed and for an instant her face creased with anger, but she regained her poise. ‘Names cannot hurt, al-Mulk,’ she continued. ‘But if that is indeed what I am, at least I am so by choice, and not forced into prostitution as others have been by the deeds of your kind. Those who claim a faith yet mock its laws, and follow the degenerate who calls himself a sovereign.’

Al-Mulk wiped the blood from his collar.

‘It is you who breaks the law, Mistress Doquz,’ he sneered. ‘Of what crimes am I accused?’

Doquz ignored him and turned to Hassan.

‘Tell me, Brother,’ she said. ‘You are more knowledgeable than I in the way of Christians. What does their faith have to say about murder?’

Thou shalt not kill,’ Hassan rejoined promptly. ‘So their scriptures read.’

‘As you well know, Hassan, that is a commandment of Moses, and common to most faiths. But what is the penalty in Venice for such a crime?’

Hassan, not wishing to deliver a judgement before a case had been heard, answered her reluctantly.

‘Murder is a capital offence. The penalty is death.’

‘And as you are familiar with the Sharia, and the Yasa of Temuchin, just as I am, Hassan, will you tell me this? Do these laws not respond in the same manner?’

Hassan nodded. ‘They do,’ he answered grimly.

‘Who accuses me of murder?’ demanded al-Mulk defiantly. ‘Does the law not demand both accuser and witness before sentence is pronounced?’

‘You shall have both, Sharif-al-Mulk,’ said Doquz. ‘Did you not on the sixth day of the first month of Jumada, in year 692 of the Muslim calendar, two years since, kill Badr ad-Din, an emir of this province?’

As al-Mulk remained silent, she continued.

‘The same day, in the evening, you also ravished and killed Zeena, his wife and because he witnessed both deaths their fourteen-year-old son.’

‘Even if that were true, you have no right to judge me.’

‘That is so,’ said Doquz quietly. ‘Still, as I am a whore of rebels, perhaps I take that right on myself. However, let us proceed. Your crimes did not end there, because the Emir also had a daughter. She was thirteen, not yet grown to womanhood, yet you violated her as you had her mother.’

‘I deny it,’ said al-Mulk. There was a first touch of desperation in his tone. The small scratch Khumar had inflicted was already drying, but he rubbed it with a sweaty hand. ‘You have accused me, but you still have to bring your witness.’

‘She is already here!’

Hassan, with his eye still on the prisoner, turned at the sound of a voice so trembling with emotion he scarcely recognised it. Fatima stepped forward from the ring of silent onlookers, no longer the pert maiden who had gently bound his wound or even the fierce warrior who had so recently battled at his side, but pale as death, the spectre of a cold and pitiless justice.

‘Yes, Sharif-al-Mulk.’ Again it was Doquz who spoke, and her voice too Hassan scarcely recognised, so icy and heartless it had become. ‘‘Tis your last victim herself who accuses you and bears witness to your crimes – Fatima, the daughter of Emir Badr ad-Din!’

‘It’s a lie!’ spat al-Mulk. ‘This woman cannot be the daughter of the Emir.’

‘Cannot?’ hissed Doquz. ‘And why is that, I wonder? Is it because, like me, she is a whore of rebels? Or is it rather because, having taken your pleasure of her, you left her for dead like you did her mother? But she left her mark on you, al-Mulk, and if any evidence is needed of your vile deed, it will be found on your right shoulder where her teeth bit into your flesh.’

She rose abruptly from the couch, drew her dagger and cut the thongs that bound the captive. Al-Mulk cried out as the blade sliced into his hand.

‘Now we shall see. Hold him, Khumar!’

Khumar seized al-Mulk by the arms and held him helplessly while Doquz tore the shirt from his body. Just above the muscles of his right upper arm, a piece of flesh had been gouged from the shoulder leaving a hollow wound over which had formed white scar tissue. Below this mark were the clear impressions of four teeth.

‘The case is proved,’ Doquz said. ‘Only the sentence remains to be carried out.’

Hassan saw that real fear had come into al-Mulk’s eyes. They darted from one woman to the other searching, it seemed, for signs that their judgement would be tempered by mercy. Though revolted by the description of the man’s crimes, Hassan had never before witnessed an execution in cold blood and was quite unprepared for one carried out by a woman. He could see Doquz toying with her dagger and wondered if he dared intervene, to beg to be the executioner himself or to ask for the prisoner a trial by combat.

Doquz appeared to be weighing her own doubts.

‘It is for the family of the dead to demand vengeance or to forgive,’ she said, stepping back from the prisoner. She turned away and returned the dagger to her belt. ‘That was once the law of this land.’

Al-Mulk licked his lips. Relief showed on his face.

‘Some crimes can never be forgiven!’

Fatima, for so long rigid as a statue, moved. Her scimitar was suddenly in her hand and cleaving through the air. Khumar moved too. He released his prisoner and thrust him forward. Fatima’s scimitar struck him mid-torso, opening his belly from rib to hip and releasing a fountain of bright red blood which sprayed over her body armour. As al-Mulk stared open-mouthed at this gaping wound through which his life was escaping, Fatima swung the scimitar again, two-handed, with unerring aim at his drooping neck. His body crumpled to the earth. For an instant, the severed head seemed to hang unsupported in mid air, then it too fell, rolled into a depression in the ground and lay face uppermost, its eyes fixed in their final look of horror, and its tongue protruding grotesquely from bloodless lips.

[to be continued]

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