Chapter 24 – Spring 1294 CE
Doquz had buried her terrors in the darkest corners of her mind and they were recalled only in her worst nightmares. Then she would awake, screaming and bathed from head to toe in perspiration.
She had supposed her screams were always part of the dream and therefore silent, but she learned after one episode, which brought Sabbah running to her side with drawn sword, that they were sometimes reality. However, she was sure that not even the Commander, to whom until now she had confided more than to any other human being, and who knew what it was that haunted her, could appreciate the full extent of her humiliation.
The freedom she enjoyed as a child and adolescent had been gradually eroded. She realised she was being watched. The training sessions with sword and bow and, more especially, her other assignations with Ibrahim became more difficult to arrange. She was obliged to find ever more inventive excuses for her absences from gatherings of the extended court family. Officers of the militia leered or tormented her with audible asides to their subordinates; visiting princes and emirs eyed her up and down like a piece of merchandise in a Tabriz bazaar.
Gaikatu, who had paid little attention to her before, was now surprisingly polite on the few occasions when she was unable to avoid meeting him. Doquz had never warmed to him as an uncle and certainly never as a stepfather but, though she was aware that he had been involved somehow in Arghun’s downfall, she had never actively disliked him as a man. She tolerated him as she might have tolerated a beggar at the door of the mosque, but without the sympathy, while he it seemed remained indifferent to her as unwelcome trappings of his extended family.
As for Tolaghan, her mother, twice impregnated before the age of seventeen and thrice miscarried since, she was a woman who lacked the warmth of maternal feeling that Doquz so craved. Always Khatun – a princess of royal blood – but never Queen, she appeared to have no ambitions for her daughter save that she cease being a dependent child and, by becoming a bride, help swell the depleted coffers of the Il-khanate and thereby augment a mother’s comforts and pleasures. Youthful still at a year or two over thirty, but with her once delicate beauty fading, she was obliged to devote her whole mind as well as her body to retaining the favour of a new husband a decade her junior.
Doquz had shrugged off Tolaghan’s early hints that she be found a bridegroom, that she owed a duty to the Il-khanate and to the greater Mongol Empire to produce children. She had no wish to marry, to become the chattel of some provincial ruler, a bargaining tool in the ever-fractious politics of the state, or to be sent at the behest of Kublai Khan to some outpost in Turkestan, or even to China itself. She had watched older maidens of the court undergo preparation for such ordeals, dragged off under escort to meet, usually for the first time, the bridegroom chosen for them. Eventually, her sister Oljei too had become a victim, bound as a chattel to some son or grandson of the Emperor Ogodei whose name Doquz could not even remember and, worse, to remain the property of his sons and heirs in perpetuity.
Her mother’s hints became more frequent and more insistent, and began to point increasingly in one direction. Gaikatu and Baidu had continued to quarrel and only a grand gesture by the Il-khan could stave off the prospect of civil war. A few days after her fifteenth birthday, Doquz was informed that in the interests of the realm she was to be sacrificed to the lord of Baghdad – Baidu, grandson of Hulegu Khan and her own distant cousin.
She remembered him from the last years of her father’s reign and had detested him from the first. His narrow eyes, too often glazed with liquor, would always avoid contact with the person with whom he was conversing, and would wander shiftily as if seeking some inanimate object on which to vent their displeasure. Morose and argumentative, he would wait until a speaker’s back was turned before fastening on it a stare of intense malevolence. He had followers who relied on his patronage but, as far as Doquz could tell, no friends. It was whispered in Tabriz Castle that he kept boys as concubines, whilst there circulated round the city bazaars rumours too as to the size and number of his private parts.
Neither impression nor gossip would have impacted on Doquz to any degree had he not touched her. It had been the barest contact, a brush of his hand along her outer thigh, but it had filled her with revulsion. Even as a ten-year-old child she had sensed its bestial nature and lurking carnality. Much later, when it was rumoured that agents of Baidu had poisoned her father, she experienced relief that the Mongol princes had raised Gaikatu to the throne of Persia rather than his cousin.
At the announcement of the intended betrothal, her relief turned to alarm. Doquz was determined to marry no one, least of all a molester of children and probable murderer. However, to openly refuse would have been futile, while to confide her childish prejudice would have been dismissed with laughter. She could only wait and hope for an opportunity to escape from the marriage. She decided to go east to Khorasan to beg sanctuary of her elder brother. Ghazan had always spoiled her as a child and she was sure he would not refuse her now.
And she would go alone, or with Ibrahim. There was no one else she could trust; officers loyal to Arghun in both the castle garrison and the city guard had been replaced, and her personal servants could not be relied upon to keep their tongues still and their mouths closed.
The marriage contract was drawn up; the ceremony was to take place in Tabriz at the spring equinox. The bridegroom would arrive in the city three or four days in advance. Afterwards the whole household would attend celebrations at his residence in Daquqa, a week’s journey away on the western side of the Zagros Mountains. Tolaghan was charged with the arrangements as Gaikatu was absent. Doquz had not seen him for several weeks.
That gave her the winter to plan and prepare for her escape. However, as a valuable commodity, she was rarely left alone. Her own servants were dismissed. On her mother’s instructions, she was surrounded by attendants who pampered and preened her and by guards from the Il-khan’s personal militia. She knew her chance would have to come during the hours of darkness when the sentries were at their laxest. Then she would find it easiest to pass unseen along the quiet corridors to the deserted armoury, where she would steal a scimitar and dagger. All the ponies would be stabled too and she could take her pick of the best. She paid particular attention to the night skies. Whilst travel in the pitch darkness of an overcast night would be impossible, a full or gibbous moon would make detection of her flight more likely.
At last her plans were completed. She had to make her bid for freedom before Baidu’s arrival and had chosen the very day and hour. Six nights before the equinox the moon would be in its second quarter. The weather had been cloudy and was not expected to change, which would give her just enough light for a safe journey. Messengers had arrived announcing that Gaikatu would return the day following so that he would be in Tabriz to greet his cousin.
Doquz had known that the less she resisted her mother’s plans the less likely Tolaghan was to suspect her intentions, and it was not too difficult to feign interest in the preparations being made on her behalf. One triumph had been to conceal in her travelling clothes the gold coins left to her from her last visit to the treasury. Eight were stitched round a bodice, which made it doubly uncomfortable to wear, while a further fifteen were hidden in the hem of a full skirt. Her three woman attendants were too full of admiration for the bridal garments themselves and too excited by the prospect of a wedding – any wedding – to notice anything untoward. The remaining ten royals she would carry in her purse and saddlebags.
She decided not to divulge her intentions to Ibrahim. If their flight were discovered and they were caught, she would be no worse off, whereas he would face death merely for being in her company. Though her passion for him was cooling, he still exhibited the utmost adoration and tenderness, and she did not wish him harm.
Doquz was almost ready when her hopes were shattered. The day before her intended flight, Gaikatu returned unexpectedly, Baidu and his household with him. The garrison doubled at a stroke and the castle was filled with strangers; the Il-khan ordered the marriage ceremony to be brought forward. Unless she found a way out that night, she was trapped.
The dining hall was full to capacity for the feasting and carousing to celebrate the renewal of friendship between the Il-khan and his cousin. However, neither had yet taken their places at the table of honour. Several of Baidu’s followers had already been drinking heavily and carried flagons that by all the signs were empty or very nearly so. They leered red-eyed at the women as they entered.
Doquz glanced at them in disgust. The mares’ milk liquor that was their staple diet had always revolted her and much of it had been splashed on the floor and spilled on their clothes. Their whole persons reeked of it. Their speech was slurred. Further supplies of the drink had been placed on the tables along with platters of bread and fruit and the stone jugs containing the wine. That had given Doquz her idea. What would the effect be, she wondered, of a whole flagon drunk after a long fast? Neither Gaikatu nor her mother would readily excuse her from the meal, but if she were to be truly ill …?
Tolaghan had turned away and was conversing with a guest on her left. Doquz seized a flagon of koumis, tilted back her head and, without taking a breath, drained it to the bottom. One of the men, a stranger, whom she took to be an emir or other dignitary in Baidu’s service, and who was less inebriated than those around him, appeared to signal his approval for her action by nodding his head solemnly twice.
At first she felt nothing but a burning in her throat and chest. Then, as the liquid reached her stomach, she belched loudly. Suddenly, she felt as if her belly was gripped in a red-hot vice. Her senses swam and everything around her went black. Her whole body heaved. She could taste the acid vomit in her mouth. She could smell its bitter fumes in her nostrils, could feel the evil mixture of sour milk, alcohol and digestive juices trickle down her chin and over her neck. She lay on the floor gasping for breath, all around her a confusing buzz of conversation.
When she came to herself, she was being ushered from the hall, most of her weight supported by two of her three attendants. Her knees were weak and her eyesight only partly recovered. She had not dropped the stone flagon and was clutching it unbroken in her right hand. The early evening air in the courtyard revived her slightly and she realised that by the kindness of Fate the first part of her stratagem had worked. She hoped her body had not absorbed too much of the alcohol.
‘I can walk,’ she said but found her legs would not fully support her.
‘It’s all right, Your Highness,’ said one girl soothingly. Doquz focussed her attention on her plain black headscarf. ‘Everyone has wedding nerves.’
‘Wedding nerves,’ Doquz repeated. She pushed her finger down her throat and retched again. Her vision cleared. She said nothing more but words formed inside her still sluggish brain to the rhythm of her pounding heart. I will not marry. I shall not marry.
‘Leave me now,’ she said as firmly as she could.
‘Her Highness, your mother, ordered that we help you to your apartment,’ replied the girl.
‘Very well,’ Doquz said impatiently, ‘but if you wish to help, fetch me some water so I can wash this vomit from my face … no, wait!’ She turned to the second attendant, who was bareheaded. ‘You … if you please.’
The girl obligingly departed. Doquz tested her legs again and found they were more willing to respond to her wishes, nevertheless she allowed herself to be supported on her remaining companion’s arm until they reached her quarters. Once in the apartment she sank with a weary sigh into a chair, clutching the empty flagon to her breast.
‘Find me a change of clothing,’ she ordered, pointing towards a closet separated from the main room by a curtain. ‘In the chest. Behind the screen. And when the water comes help me undress.’
The girl went towards the curtain and drew it back. She bent down, unsuspecting, to unfasten the chest. Doquz sprang from the chair and in two strides was behind her. She swung the flagon, regretting in that very instant what she must do. The stone vessel struck the girl on the temple and she slumped to the floor.
Ignoring the buzzing in her head, Doquz opened the chest. Inside were the skirt and bodice in which she had secreted the gold coins. There was also a leather purse, a braided cord girdle and an ornamental dagger in a silver sheath. She tore off her soiled garments and dressed herself hastily in the clean ones. With trembling fingers she tied her purse to the girdle and fastened it round her waist beneath the skirt. She slid the sheathed dagger under the bodice between her breasts. The girl on the floor had not stirred.
‘Forgive me,’ said Doquz quietly to the senseless form, ‘but I will not marry. I shall not marry.’ She took the girl’s black headscarf and wound it round her head. Finally, she picked up the stone flagon. The servant groaned.
Doquz dived towards the door and peered into the corridor. It had grown dark. Beyond the nearest curtained archway, two sentries patrolled with lamps. She swung the flagon once more and with all her strength threw it in the opposite direction. It shattered on the flagstones. The sentries halted, turned and, muttering oaths, raced past her room towards the inner apartments.
She slipped into the corridor. Only the faint glow from the night sky beyond the archway guided her steps. Round the inner quadrangle lamps were being lit and hung on the walls of the veranda. There was a moon but it had not yet risen above the level of the roofs. Doquz pulled one end of the scarf over her mouth and, with her head down and disguising her usual gait as best she could, crossed the quadrangle from corner to corner.
She made her way to the armoury. Most of the castle’s inhabitants were at the feasting and she passed only the lamplighters and two revellers who clearly mistook her for the anonymous veiled servant she was pretending to be.
Lamps were hooked to the stonework on both sides of the gallery under the keep. The postern was closed but unguarded. The door of the armoury was ajar, the interior unlit. Doquz unhooked a lamp and went inside. For the second time she thanked Fate for its kindness to her. The surplus scimitars were usually blunted and coated with a layer of rust, but now serviceable weapons were plentiful. The newer blades glinted in the lamplight. Fearing that under the influence of alcohol old quarrels might be renewed and bring rival factions to blows, Gaikatu had probably left orders that guests’ weapons, other than knives required for eating, were to be forbidden in the dining hall. Only the on-duty castle guards would be permitted arms.
Doquz selected a sword at random, tested its sharpness and laid it on a bench while she rummaged in the pile of armoured corslets and jerkins for one that would fit her. She found one and slung it over her arm. She picked up the sword and had almost reached the open door when she heard footsteps approaching along the gallery. She extinguished her light, flattened herself against the wall and held her breath.
The black silhouette of a man loomed in the doorway, then another.
‘You must have imagined it, Jahan,’ a voice rasped. ‘There’s no one here. Stick to goats’ milk, that’s my advice if you can’t hold the other!’
‘I’d sooner drink my own piss, Melik,’ another rejoined. ‘And I’m not so drunk I can’t recognise a wench’s shape, even in the dark. Where did she go, that’s the question?’
Doquz heard the sounds of a bolt being withdrawn and a creaking hinge.
‘The armoury or the stable,’ said a third man from the other side of the gallery. ‘There’s nowhere else. And since both are empty, let’s get to the banquet before all the meat’s taken.’
‘Or Baidu’ll eat our balls for dinner!’ laughed Melik. ‘Come on, Jahan.’
To Doquz’s relief the black shapes disappeared from view. Slowly and gently she exhaled.
‘I saw her, I tell you,’ persisted Jahan. He moved over to the stable side and stood under a lamp. Doquz could see him clearly now, a Mongol face with wide nostrils, his long silky hair fastened in knotted pigtails.
‘Who did you see?’
The fourth voice rang with displeasure. An involuntary shiver coursed through Doquz’s limbs. It was Baidu without any doubt.
‘A wench, Your Highness,’ the third man replied. ‘Jahan saw a wench or thought he did.’
‘Jahan thinks with his cock,’ Baidu sneered. ‘It’s easily settled. A light, Bekter!’
There was a clanking sound and a pale yellow beam traversed the opposite wall of the passage. One of the men had unhooked a lamp. Again Doquz shrank against the wall of the armoury and held her breath. Two figures appeared in the doorway, Jahan and one other, not Baidu. From behind them, a bright light was shone in her face.
‘By all the gods, Jahan was right,’ the man with the lamp exclaimed. He pushed past the others and entered the armoury. ‘There is a wench here. And a tasty one.’
For the first time in her life Doquz felt real fear. If they recognised her, or delayed her, all hope of escape was gone; if they took her for a servant, alone in a part of the castle that women frequented for one reason alone, she knew too well how they would treat her. She picked up her scimitar and held it in front of her.
Jahan and Melik came through the door, their shadows cast on the far wall by Bekter’s lamp. Baidu himself appeared, armed and carrying a liquor flagon. He did not look at her face but fixed his eyes on her blade.
‘Spirited too!’ he said and laughed. ‘Take care, you fools, or she’ll stick you.’
His three men fanned out along the walls. They were half-breed Mongol, dark-skinned with Arab or Indian blood. Doquz watched them warily. None carried a weapon, either because Baidu had forbidden it, or perhaps because they had misplaced them in their drunken carousing. However it was clear that none felt the need of one. They faced a mere woman, a girl who could not distinguish blade from hilt.
Doquz considered her position. She had never killed anyone, but she saw lust in these men’s faces and knew she could expect no courtesy at their hands if they seized her. On the other hand, though she was confident she could bring down one and possibly maim a second, she could not expect to overcome three, inebriated or no. Her best chance lay in disguising her skill until she could strike quickly and run. She balanced the scimitar in her hand and swung it like a novice in the direction of Melik who was nearest to her. He jumped back with an oath.
‘The wench is serious,’ he cried.
‘All the sweeter when we catch her,’ Bekter growled, laying his lamp on a bench.
‘She’s mine,’ Jahan warned. ‘I saw her first, though I fancy there’ll be plenty to spare when I’ve finished with her.’
The men were trying to circle her, taunting her with coarse insults, tempting her to attack. Doquz continued her ploy, swinging wildly with the scimitar but using her feet carefully, awaiting her opportunity. Bekter was closest when she lunged and cut. It was a precise stroke she had learned early in her training, designed to disable rather than kill an opponent. Her blade sliced through the legging covering Bekter’s left thigh. He sank to his knees howling with pain.
It was her first ever blow in earnest and she had not reckoned on the quantity of blood. For an instant she froze. Jahan, not too drunk to notice her hesitation, closed on her and fastened a vice-like grip on her wrist. She dropped the sword. Ignoring Bekter, who lay wailing piteously and clutching his wounded leg with reddened hands, Melik sprang forward inside her guard and, seizing her by the left arm, began to drag her across the armoury floor. Baidu had not moved from his position at the door. He was laughing.
Doquz lashed out with her foot, aiming at Melik’s groin, but he dodged the kick. Her headscarf slipped.
From the doorway, Baidu shouted an obscenity. ‘If it isn’t the Princess, by Temuchin,’ he rasped. ‘My bride to be. Bring her here!’
Doquz, held tightly by the arms, was hauled struggling to the door.
‘Yes, the Princess,’ Baidu repeated, emphasising the title. He gave a baleful laugh, swayed back on his heels and made an obscene gesture with his clenched fist. Clearly, he had drunk as much liquor as his followers, or more. ‘Yet I would have her less tall … and plumper, like the maids in yon whorehouse.’
Doquz glared at him and he avoided her look.
‘Am I to be insulted in front of drunken servants, and by the man I’m to marry?’ she asked in a low voice shaking with helpless anger and revulsion. She tried to ignore the icy chill that was paralysing her limbs.
Baidu took a drink from his flagon and licked his lips, then bowed with mock courtesy.
‘Marry indeed, Doquz Khatun,’ he said. ‘But finding you here in the dead of night makes me think you plan otherwise, or that one final assignation with some soft lover takes you away from the feasting. Still, you’ll be mine tomorrow, never doubt, and that’s what matters.’
To her surprise, he turned away and began to walk unsteadily along the gallery towards the postern gate. It was a temporary reprieve. Melik called after him.
‘The Princess, Your Highness?’
Baidu halted his stride at the gate, staggered, and planted his feet firmly to right himself. He swung one arm backwards with abandon, and looked over his shoulder.
‘Do I have sots and eunuchs for servants?’ he snarled. ‘She should be taught a lesson. Prepare her for me! Draw lots or take turns, by the gods, but do not mark her.’
Terror gripped Doquz. Melik and Jahan held her so tightly she could hardly move. They dragged her to the stables, kicked the door open and threw her down roughly, forcing the breath from her lungs. Before she could crawl away, Melik seized her legs, pulled her towards him and forced her skirt up over her hips.
Her ordeal lasted minutes, but it seemed like hours. Jahan was partly undressed already. He pushed Melik away and straddled her back. Doquz could feel his hands pawing at her buttocks as he struggled to push her legs apart. She tried to scramble away but his weight held her firmly, forcing her head down into the hay of the stall. Only her left hand was free. Doquz twisted towards him and felt a savage pain shoot through her shoulder as his knee pressed on a nerve. She moved her free hand towards her dagger and touched its hilt. It was too deeply wedged between bodice and skin for her to grasp it in her palm so she tried to pull it free by gripping it between her thumb and forefinger.
Less than five paces away, on a bale of hay, sat Melik, his ugly face twisted in a lecherous grin as he awaited his turn of her. His mouth was agape, his nostrils flared and beads of sweat ran down his brow.
Jahan was bent over her now, his head nuzzling the right side of her neck. Doquz could smell his vile breath and the stink of his armpits. Her fingers closed on the dagger hilt but she had managed to withdraw it just a fraction when her attacker penetrated her from behind. Doquz felt like her body was being split in two. She closed her eyes, certain she was going to die.
However, she had scarcely done so when she was struck in the face by a jet of warm fluid. She opened her eyes again to see the world through a curtain of red. It seemed that half of Melik’s body had disappeared. The legs extended towards her and quivered like bowstrings that have just delivered their arrows, but the head, one shoulder and an arm were missing. In their place was a torrent of blood that washed over the man’s corslet, soaking the straw on which his stiffening trunk yet sat. Beside this obscenity with gory sword raised high was the stranger whom Doquz had noticed in the dining hall as she drained the liquor flagon.
Doquz had seen death and violence before but never had it filled her with such horror. Though Jahan had relaxed his hold, she was for a moment helpless to move. Then something snapped inside her brain. Instead of fear and disgust, she was filled with a terrible rage. She wrenched herself free of her persecutor, rolled onto her side and drew the little dagger fully from its sheathe. She slashed upwards, connecting with flesh.
Doquz could see his face now, all bloody. The blade had gone into his cheek, close to his ear. She swung her arm and slashed again, cutting into the sinews of his throat. He screamed again and fell backwards. Doquz leapt on him in a blind fury, cutting and stabbing until his body was a mass of wounds and all cries and movement had ceased.
‘He is dead, Princess.’ The stranger pulled her away.
Doquz was shaking all over. She sat up and stared at her rescuer. He was not a young man but he had the physique of a youth.
‘There is one other …’ she gasped, ‘ …injured … in the armoury.’
‘He will trouble no one,’ said the swordsman. ‘I’m only sorry I did not come sooner. Though I guessed what was in your mind when I saw you drink the mares’ milk and followed you, your disguise confused me.’ He gestured with his hands. ‘The scarf!’
Doquz, still trembling and aching in every muscle, scrambled to her feet, pushed her skirt back into place and wiped the residue of Jahan’s blood from her eyes. ‘Baidu was here. He …’ She pointed in the direction he had taken.
‘Then I’m doubly sorry,’ the swordsman growled. ‘But he’ll keep, Doquz Khatun.’ He gestured again, towards the nails where hung the saddles. ‘There is no time now; we must be gone from here before the garrison is alerted.’
‘Who are you? How did you know …?’
‘People call me an outlaw and rebel but, once, I was your father’s friend, Princess,’ the swordsman answered. ‘Even if you had been willing, I would not have permitted you to wed his assassin!’
[to be continued]