The Tiger and the Cauldron(22)

Chapter 22

Having performed her grisly deed, Fatima dropped her scimitar, sank to her knees beside it and burst into a flood of tears. Ali took her gently by the shoulders and led her away. A wave of nausea swept over Hassan. Though ashamed of his weakness, he could barely control it and suppressed his urge to retch only with difficulty. What made matters worse, he was sure that Doquz sensed his discomfort, and to be the object of her condescension and pity was something he could not bear.

However, he was saved from further embarrassment.

‘The day is becoming rather hot out here,’ Doquz said casually, looking at him meaningfully, ‘and I am both hungry and thirsty. Let us go indoors.’ She turned to Khumar. ‘We should place two lookouts on the roof and another two on the approaches from the town. Let no one remain in the sun too long. See that all have water and rest.’

The outlaws began to disperse, but as they did so, Doquz caught the arm of one of the civilians, a man in a jubbah and turban who was very pale and clearly distressed by what had occurred. She stared at him long and hard then, to Hassan’s surprise, her face creased in a mischievous smile.

‘Fate is on your side today, Kamal,’ she said in a tone of reprimand. The smile was gone as quickly as it had appeared. ‘Not only did you escape Ali’s arrows, but you were lucky to meet Commander Sabbah on the stairs and not my brother Hassan at the door, otherwise …’ She indicated the grim remains of the former governor. ‘Maybe the fate of that reptile will have taught you some manners. A year has passed, Kamal, and I find you among my enemies.’

The man fixed his gaze on Doquz’s feet.

‘I deserve your reproach, Princess,’ he said humbly, ‘but a man is in the hands of Fate. When you disappeared …’

‘Later, Kamal. Later!’ Doquz snapped. ‘You find me less the princess and more the rebel than when we saw one another last.’ She released his arm. ‘We have a more pressing need, Kamal,’ she said more gently. ‘Is there any food and wine in this house? Neither Hassan nor I have tasted any in more than twelve hours.’

‘The Il-khan’s garrisons are always fed well, Captain, even when the wages are poor,’ said Kamal. ‘There are ample supplies, if I can only remember the way to the larder.’

‘You have your first commission, Kamal,’ said Doquz. ‘When you have recovered your memory and found these supplies, see that the whole band has breakfast. Have some yourself. And after that bring enough for my brother and me.’

She led the way into the spacious atrium. In its centre was a well with a pitcher and metal ladle attached to a rope on its head. There was a broad staircase leading to the upper floors, a narrower one to the cellar, and four inner doors.

Hassan followed her, glad of the chance to be away from the gaze of the other outlaws. A second wave of nausea washed over him and a cold, clammy sweat broke out on his forehead. He leant against the wellhead for support. Without saying a word, Doquz unwound the rope, lowered the pitcher and withdrew it filled to the brim with water. She scooped some into the ladle and gave it to him. Hassan gulped it down. When he had finished, she filled the ladle for herself. After she had drunk, she strode across to one of the doors and threw it open to reveal a room with two divans, a bare side table and a tallboy.

‘Yes, this one will do,’ she said. ‘We’ll rest here until the food is ready.’

*

The villa, despite recent lack of attention, promised comforts that Hassan had almost forgotten existed. In two months he had spent only seven nights under a roof, two in Constantinople, two in Anatolia, one in the simple home of the Tabriz candlemaker and two in a bare room in Maragha Observatory. After weeks at sea in a cramped cabin, when the rolling and pitching of the ship sometimes made it impossible to sleep at all, he had slept mostly in tents, caves and on the open hillside. To be able to stretch out his limbs on a proper bed was luxury itself.

He removed his armour, unfastened his sword belt and threw both on the floor. He yawned and lay back on the divan.

Doquz stood over him, hands on hips, regarding him with an amused look.

‘Your boots!’ She giggled, the first time he had heard her do so in several days. ‘We should not forget the simple manners of the court. The prince should always remove his boots before going to bed.’

‘I’m no prince,’ said Hassan and surprised himself by laughing. He reached down and began tugging at his left boot.

‘And I’m no longer a princess, though some call me one,’ said Doquz. She sat on the edge of the other divan and flexed her left arm. ‘And you may keep your boots on, Brother. It was worth teasing you a little to see colour back in your cheeks and a smile on your face again. You think our justice harsh, perhaps, but you are wrong. The world is harsh, Hassan. ‘Tis full of hatred and oppression, of enslavement and misery. Against that our justice is clean and merciful.’

‘Surely there’s good in the world too,’ said Hassan, blushing slightly, ‘… pleasure as well as pain, friendship as well as enmity, love as well as hate.’

‘Yes, there are those things, and ‘tis to restore them that we fight. There is hardly a single one of our band who has not suffered at the hands of monsters like Sharif-al-Mulk … or Baidu Khan. Some have lost fathers, mothers, or brothers. Others have lost all three, or have had their childhood torn from them prematurely by the actions of evil, lustful men. Fatima we found with relations at Arbil, crazed and speechless! She had been so for more than a year until Ali smiled at her.’ She pouted. ‘A few of my Tigers have even known slavery. ‘Tis for their sakes that I am an outlaw. Do you imagine I was not sickened to the stomach, as you were, by what we had to do today, that part of my soul, if indeed I possess such a thing, did not fly off into the darkness? Pity the victims, Hassan, and not the transgressors.’

‘I have no pity for al-Mulk,’ Hassan protested. ‘Nor will I hold it against you that you deceived me about your strategy – that you wished to take the villa for Fatima’s sake rather than for mine. In the face of such terrors, I applaud her courage.’

‘When it comes to deception, you are more than my equal, I think,’ rejoined Doquz. ‘Did you not speak to Sabbah after you had given your word? Who appointed you my guardian and physician that you should abuse my trust and hospitality by sneaking off in the grey dawn? And now I’m grateful that you did, for this arm is already healing. It still throbs, but it does not burn.

‘But you do me injustice, Hassan, because I did not know al-Mulk was governor here until Shirazi spoke his name yesterday in our presence. Your impudence alone was enough to bring me to Maragha.’ She plumped a cushion and, without making any attempt to divest herself of armour or weapons, arranged herself comfortably on the divan. ‘Now I have a pressing need to sleep again, even if only briefly. Make sure I am awake when breakfast comes!’

*

The much-needed meal was brought within the hour. Kamal had taken some trouble in not only providing nearly fresh bread and fruit, but in preparing a succulent stew of rice, vegetables and spices since, as he explained, the oven was scarcely cool from the previous evening and was easily heated. Hassan tasted a spoonful and nodded approvingly.

‘It’s good!’ he exclaimed.

Doquz sampled the stew. ‘‘Tis truly, but then, Kamal was once a cook in Gaikatu’s kitchen. That is how I know him!’

They both began to eat. Hassan’s nausea had gone and left him with a voracious appetite. Doquz too tackled her bowl hungrily.

Kamal looked pleased. He touched his brow to Hassan and bowed deferentially. ‘I was indeed a cook, Your Excellency … though more than a cook, indeed Master of Supplies …’

‘ … and will be so again, I have no doubt,’ said Doquz between mouthfuls. She waved to indicate he should remain. ‘But it is perhaps time you tell us your tale, and give us any information your talents might have discovered.’

‘My tale is a simple one, Princess. I remained in the service of Gaikatu for three months after you had gone. I was then arrested.’

‘Arrested? For what crime?’ Doquz bolted the last portion of stew and wiped round the bowl with her bread.

‘I was not told, Princess, though later I surmised it was because I was your friend. You always showed me kindness and took an interest in my domain and craft. They may have suspected me of aiding your flight.’

‘Go on, Kamal.’

‘Others were seized too. One of your attendants, a groom, and the sword-master.’

‘Ibrahim!’ A stifled cry escaped Doquz’s lips. She had not laid down her bowl and she suddenly gripped it tightly. Hassan saw her knuckles go very white. Then her fingers relaxed and the bowl fell, smashing to pieces on the hard floor.

Kamal was startled. ‘Then you know his fate?’

‘I know,’ Doquz hissed, barely audibly.

‘Ibrahim?’ Hassan echoed the name. ‘What happened …?’

‘Not now, Hassan!’ Doquz checked him, almost savagely. ‘Go on, Kamal!’

‘I was more fortunate,’ went on the former cook after a short, embarrassing silence. ‘After a week I was released. But I was not allowed to return to my kitchens. I feared they would send me to some military outpost, but instead I was given to al-Mulk as a servant. He sensed I was no soldier and used me as a steward, a demeaning post when one’s employer is of such unpleasant character. Allah curse him! He was then Deputy at Miyana. We came to Maragha just a month ago. But when the servant is thought less than human, Princess, he may sometimes use his faculties to advantage.’

‘Meaning?’ enquired Doquz.

‘Meaning the strength of garrisons, and their weaknesses: the movements of Baidu’s regiments; the whereabouts of others of your friends.’

‘You speak of enemies and friends,’ said Doquz severely. ‘Are you a seer that you have divined why and whom I fight … and who my allies might be?’

‘I beg your pardon humbly, Doquz Khatun,’ the cook responded, fidgeting uncomfortably. ‘Perhaps you think me too bold, but my former employer was in the princes’ favour. There has been much talk of the Tiger Princess, childish rumours, it’s true, but I had guessed the truth. And I have heard your name mentioned more than once. Baidu knows you are no myth!’

‘Mmm …’ Doquz wrinkled her forehead. ‘Then tell me what you know, Kamal. I can offer no reward, but you’ll have my gratitude if the intelligence is of value.’

‘I expect nothing more. Baidu is worried, Princess, and he cannot hide it from his most trusted generals. Thousands are deserting and they cannot stem the flood. There are many who support Ghazan here in the west …’

‘But these thousands melt into the countryside, or so I’m told,’ interrupted Doquz, ‘and my brother grows no stronger.’

The former cook was still fidgeting. ‘These deserters are Muslims, Princess,’ he said, ‘and hesitate to exchange one heathen ruler for another. Moreover, it is already Ramadan and they refuse to fight or eat with non-believers. Forgive me if I cause offence; I can see many of your band observe the Salat.’

Doquz fixed the speaker with an impenetrable stare. ‘There is no offence in truth, Kamal. That Ghazan is a Buddhist, I am well aware. And that does not commend him to the people of this province.’

‘Your pardon, Princess, but that is no longer the case. Ghazan has converted!’

‘Converted!’ exclaimed Doquz. She looked at Kamal angrily. ‘My Buddhist brother! I do not believe it.’

‘It is true. The news came yesterday … no, the day before.’

‘From Tabriz? Yet I have heard nothing.’

‘Not from Tabriz, Princess. In a secret despatch from Ardabil!’

‘Ardabil?’

‘The story travelled from Rayy along the southern Caspian. Imams are already preaching treason in the mosques and have been forced into hiding. And there is more. Malik Fakhr and Emir Sadr Zanjani, both long in favour of a coup, have joined forces. They left Ardabil four days ago and are heading into the mountains.’

‘Into the Alburz? To what end?’ asked Doquz. ‘The north-to-south highway from the Caspian leads only to Rasht and Qazvin.’

‘I do not know their objective, Princess. However, Qazvin is held by Baidu and his main armies are camped at Talaqan.’

‘And my brother?’

‘Ghazan holds Rayy and is advancing west. There has been some fighting already, it seems. Nothing decisive, but your brother is outnumbered. He might welcome reinforcements from any source.’

‘The game has changed,’ Doquz said. ‘I’m no great believer in religion; it seems to divide rather than unite mankind. But it is a powerful weapon, one we can use perhaps. Are the emirs’ forces significant, Kamal?’

‘Nearly two thousand, according to the Il-khan’s spies. Hardly an army, but enough to hold off a division if they reach Alamut.’

Hassan jolted back to attention, his interest in the fortunes of Ghazan awakened. He was tired from the morning’s fighting and, warmed by the stew, he had felt himself become drowsy.

‘Alamut!’ he interposed. ‘Surely that was destroyed.’

‘A common misunderstanding,’ replied Kamal. ‘Alamut Castle was fired and some of its walls broken, Excellency, but much of it still stands. Anyway, there is more to Alamut than a single castle; it is a valley of castles – a whole kingdom.’

Doquz nodded. ‘Indeed. And my sources say they are undefended. The population is scattered and there is no need.’

‘That is it exactly,’ said Kamal, ‘but small in numbers though they are, the people hate the Mongols. Your pardon, Princess, no insult is intended.’

‘And none is taken, Kamal,’ said Doquz. ‘So a Persian emir, a Muslim, might draw support where Ghazan could not?’

‘That is what al-Mulk believed,’ said Kamal, ‘and he sent a messenger to the Il-khan by way of Qazvin. Baidu cannot afford to do nothing. When the news of Zanjani’s rebellion reaches him he will send three or four minghans to head him off.’

‘I wonder,’ said Doquz thoughtfully. ‘Surely Baidu will not weaken his position at Talaqan. He’ll pull men from the fortresses and towns along the Silk Route. That could be to our advantage. When did al-Mulk’s messenger leave?’

‘It was yesterday afternoon, Princess. He rested a full day.’

‘What sort of man is he? His age and build?’

Kamal looked puzzled. He measured Hassan with his eye. ‘About Your Excellency’s height but much thicker in the limbs. And older. Twenty-five. Thirty, maybe, and solid looking.’

‘And his mount?’ Doquz demanded excitedly.

‘A steppes pony. Why do you ask?’

‘No matter,’ Doquz said. ‘However, you will oblige me in one other respect. You know the girl Fatima?’

‘Of course, Princess.’

‘Then find her as quickly as you can … and the youth named Ali. Send them to me. And thank you. Your intelligence has given me new hope.’

When the cook was gone, Doquz began muttering to herself. Hassan could only guess what was on her mind. She sat alert on the edge of the divan with her eyes fixed on some random point of space just behind his head. It occurred to him that if the messenger could be intercepted the emirs might have a chance to further build their army, but he wondered to what advantage. Two thousand men, or even four, against five or six tumens seemed hopeless odds.

Yet Doquz’s interest, like his own, had been sparked at the mention of Alamut, once the headquarters of the Nizaris, the renegade sect of Islam whose reputation was built on terror, and their talent as assassins, rather than on tolerance and piety. His mother had often thrilled him with the tale of how Hulegu had besieged Alamut Castle, and how his grandfather, Kartir Ahmed, had played a significant part in that siege.

He was startled to attention when Doquz slapped him playfully on the thigh.

‘Pull on your boots again, Hassan,’ she directed him. ‘Your leisure is over, that is, if you wish to continue serving my cause. Two hours ago I was undecided, but no longer. ‘Tis time to go.’

‘To go?’

‘Alamut is symbolic, Hassan,’ mused Doquz. ‘Did you ever read Juvaini’s History?’

‘Of course,’ Hassan admitted. ‘It was prescribed by Shirazi.’

‘‘Tis part of my heritage,’ said Doquz. Her face wrinkled in a smile. ‘From Alamut, the Ismaili leader Hasan-i-Sabbah and his successors ruled the whole province of Rudbar and far beyond. It is difficult country, abounding in dangerous passes and secret valleys, and I have always had an irresistible desire to see it.’

Hassan stared at her. ‘You mean to go there?’

‘Why not?’ she demanded. ‘Don’t you see, Hassan? ‘Tis the only answer. Hulegu conquered the Assassins with difficulty, and he had the might of the Great Khan behind him – one fifth of all the Mongol armies, if Juvaini is to be believed. He did not have a bitter enemy on his eastern flank. And he took the castles only when the Grand Master of the Ismaelis surrendered.

‘You were right. We cannot hold this position if Tabriz moves against us. Nor will our camp on Sahand be safe much longer. What I have accomplished from there, raiding Baidu’s garrisons, disrupting his supplies and stealing his conscripts, you and I together can accomplish tenfold from Alamut. The route along the Silk Road to Qazvin is likely to be weakened. With a proper plan and Sabbah’s help, we can be the fleas that bring down the giant, or drive him into the boiling cauldron.

‘Five days to Qazvin, you told me? With the best horses and a pass with my father’s seal, Fatima and Ali, who are the smallest and lightest among us, can reach it in four, ahead of a solid man on a Mongol pony. And if they cannot prevent Al-Mulk’s despatches reaching Baidu they must go all the way to Ghazan himself.

‘Meantime, we shall head for Zanjan by way of al-Qisma. Some of my followers remained there when we came to Tabriz. ‘Tis more than fifty parasangs by the easiest route but, with a change of horses, we can be there in three days time … and in the Rudbar in a week. Zanjani will not hurry if he’s building an army, and we’ll be in the Valley of the Assassins before him.

‘What do you say, Hassan? You are also Arghun’s son, even if you are not of his blood. Will you come with me on this adventure and help our brother to his kingdom?’

[the next chapter of The Tiger and the Cauldron will follow shortly]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s