The Tiger and the Cauldron(25)

Chapter 25

The next hours were almost a blank. They rode hard, not stopping, leaving Tabriz far behind. Doquz remembered only darkness and the glint of moonlight on water. Then there were grey skies and drizzle. She did not remark the changes in the terrain. The swordsman had not spoken again and she followed him blindly.

Night and day seemed to merge. Twice they rested; she remembered an overwhelming need to urinate. She supposed she must have slept too, but as there was little difference between the nightmares of disturbed sleep and the dreamlike terror of wakefulness, she could hardly distinguish between them. Then she was in the saddle again, listening to the wind and the pounding of the horses’ hooves.

The chill of mountain air brought her fully to her senses. It was early morning, but whether the second or third since her ordeal she could not tell. The northern fringes of the Zagros loomed over her like the black wings of some dreadful bird. Their pace slowed. Doquz roused herself and drew a long icy breath into her lungs. She had been dozing, yet, remarkably, she remained astride her mount’s back. Her head rested in the long, coarse hair of its mane and her hands were wrapped tightly around its neck. It was only when she tried sitting erect and found she could not that she realised her hands had been fastened in position with the reins. Her feet were tied together under the animal’s belly and a tether connected her saddle with that of her companion.

An instant of panic gripped her and she called out to him to release her. The swordsman reined in, dismounted and untied her hands and feet.

‘Thank you,’ said Doquz feeling foolish and grateful at the same time.

‘The way will be easier now, Princess,’ said the swordsman softly, ‘and you will be better for these forty winks.’

They took a well-worn path through the mountains and on down towards the plains of Mesopotamia. At times, Doquz felt she could almost touch the clouds. She recognised some landmarks. They were in the province of as-Suleimaniya. When the ground began to level out, her rescuer halted again. The sky was now clear.

‘Where are you taking me?’ she asked.

‘To Daquqa.’

Doquz felt her terror renewed.

‘Daquqa!’ she breathed. ‘That is Baidu’s  …’

‘Yes.’ Her companion smiled grimly. ‘The Governor’s residence. And since he is in Tabriz looking for you, what better time for a raid? But we go first to Kirkuk to meet a few comrades. I cannot fight Baidu’s rabble alone.’

‘I will come with you.’ Her fears and suspicions died.  In the daylight her rescuer seemed younger than before. He was a handsome man with a classic Persian profile and dark complexion. His hair and two-pronged beard contained a few strands of grey. ‘I can use a sword and a bow.’

‘And use them well, I know, Princess,’ said her rescuer. He smiled again, this time broadly. ‘But this is war, not exercise, and you cannot fight it in that clothing.’

Doquz peered at him closely. The smile was reassuring.

‘Who are these comrades you would take me to meet,’ she demanded. ‘… and how is it you know so much about me? To my knowledge, I have never seen you before.’

‘You have once, Doquz Khatun, though it was an age ago,’ the Persian answered. ‘For the moment, I ask only that you trust me. Will you do so?’

‘You were my father’s friend?’

‘Truly. I served him.’

‘And Baidu’s enemy.’

‘Yes.’

‘Then I will trust you, Master Outlaw,’ said Doquz simply. She knew she had little choice. ‘Tell me your name.’

‘It is one you may not have heard,’ said her rescuer. ‘I am Ahmed Sabbah.’

***

They remained in Kirkuk for nearly three days. Doquz’s greatest fear was that they would be pursued, but Sabbah reassured her.

‘They will find you gone but will not know which direction you have taken, nor with whom,’ he said. ‘They will search. As likely as not Gaikatu and Baidu will argue, but neither will suspect that Daquqa is your destination. Baidu will return there in time since both Tabriz and Baghdad are unpleasant in summer. However, it’ll be a week or more before he thinks of doing so.’

Doquz accepted his assurance because to deny it would have meant intensifying her nightmare. As it was, there were times when she imagined Jahan’s clawing hands on her breasts and neck and could hear the cold indifference in Baidu’s voice as he abandoned her to his henchmen’s mercy. Then the horror would pass and she became rational again.

The house where they stayed belonged to the family of an Arab woman called Laila. Doquz took her at first for Sabbah’s wife, only to discover later that she was the widow of a Baghdad dewan who had dared to speak out against Baidu’s intemperance. The Commander’s other comrades were three in number, men from families who had suffered under Gaikatu’s regime, either ruined by his experiment with Chinese paper money or deprived of land rightfully theirs for no reason other than the whim of their ruler.

‘What strange madness are you planning, Master Sabbah?’ Doquz enquired. ‘I had not expected to meet a regiment, but I find you preparing to engage Baidu with not so much as an arban of trained militia.’

Sabbah rubbed his beard.

‘It’s a beginning,’ he rejoined. ‘Before the week is over, our number could be doubled at least. Do not underestimate our little army. Khumar is adequate as a swordsman while Laila, like yourself, can use a bow. And Nazim and Husain can throw ropes and grappling hooks as well as the next person.’

Doquz glanced up at him quizzically and he gave her one of his broadest smiles, which quickly faded to a grimace of anger.

‘Baidu’s residence at Daquqa is unique,’ he said in a voice that made her shiver. ‘It cannot be easily taken with brute force. But there’s something within its walls I want, Doquz Khatun.’

Doquz wanted to press him for an explanation of his words but felt that in his present mood it would be unwise to do so.

‘His mood will pass,’ Laila confided later. ‘Ahmed is a man who hates and loves with equal intensity.’

‘Then you are lovers?’

‘Sometimes I wish it were so, and so may you when you are better acquainted with him. But Ahmed’s love is of a fatherly kind. He has taken a vow of chastity until he has rid the world of his two greatest enemies – the Il-khan and his cousin.’

‘Have you known him long?’

‘It seems a lifetime, Princess,’ said Laila with a sigh, ‘though it is no more than half a year. When my husband was seized and executed, they would have stoned me to death. Commander Sabbah saved me. He claims to have known me as a child though I have no memory of him.’

‘He claimed a similar acquaintance with me,’ Doquz said. ‘It seems we are sisters in adversity, owing our lives to a man who does not value his own highly enough.’

‘Be assured, he will not throw it away needlessly,’ Laila answered, ‘nor endanger ours if it can be helped. He will have a plan, though he keeps it to himself.’

***

On the third afternoon, and the sixth day after her escape from Tabriz, the whole party departed for Daquqa, a ride of less than two hours away. Doquz was determined to go with them despite Sabbah’s reservations. The thought of exacting revenge for her humiliation helped free her from the nightmares.

The jerkin and leggings they found for her fitted quite well and were easily concealed beneath a kaftan from Laila’s wardrobe, as was a sword and scabbard. A yashmak covered the lower half of her face. However, being taller than the other woman, her feet, ankles and lower calves were visible, and for this reason Sabbah recommended she wear sandals instead of riding boots.

Laila wore similar attire while the four men dressed in merchants’ jubbahs and turbans over their protective armour.

They rode most of the way in silence and came to Daquqa two hours before sunset. Baidu’s residence was one of the ugliest buildings Doquz had ever seen. The facade it presented to the highway on the northern side was of grey brick, three storeys high, with bars on all the windows. Its plainness was interrupted only by an iron gate set in the ground floor, slightly to one side of the centre. Hung on a chain beside it was a huge iron bell.

They kept watch from the shadow of the houses opposite. The road was deserted of townspeople and there were no visible sentries.

‘It’s like a prison,’ Doquz said, ‘and could have so easily been mine.’ She shuddered as she was overcome again by the nausea that had afflicted her more than once in the past few days.

‘The aspect from the inside is no better,’ Sabbah said with a cold malice she had heard from him previously only once, ‘though the southern view is more favourable. A prison it is! And will remain so unless we act.’

‘Surely the place will be guarded from inside, if not by men then by wild beasts. It is so at three of Gaikatu’s villas.’

‘And it is so here,’ said Laila. ‘Four men and two leopards.’

‘The animals occupy a cage to the left of the gate,’ Sabbah said, ‘but are allowed to prowl at ground level. The guards’ quarters are on the upper floor where they patrol a terrace overlooking the compound below. There is a second, inner gate, connected over pulleys by a chain to the bars of the cage so that when that gate is opened, the cage closes, and vice versa. The mechanism is worked from the terrace, so that no one can enter the residence except with the approval of those inside. The leopards are encouraged into their cage by food dropped through a grating from above. Then the bars are lowered.’

‘But it needs the strength of two men to turn the wheel and raise the iron,’ Laila added.

‘Then entry is impossible.’ Doquz said flatly. ‘And pointless too, for the sake of despatching four guards and two fierce cats.’

‘A prison has prisoners,’ said Khumar gruffly.

‘Prisoners?’

‘Baidu’s appetites, like Gaikatu’s, are different from those of most men,’ barked Sabbah. ‘This building you see houses a harem, but it is a harem without women. The Governor gratifies himself with children – boys and girls who have not reached maturity. When he is done with them, the youths are killed, the maidens sold for bride-price or into whoredom, which amounts to the same thing.’

‘Can no one pass the gate?’

‘No one but Baidu himself and his guests,’ Laila said. ‘Once it was open to tradesmen carrying supplies, and to artisans, but even these are forbidden now until they are searched for weapons, and then only under double guard. Once too, women of the street were permitted for the officers’ pleasures. That is no longer necessary.  Beyond the leopard compound is yet another gate beyond which there is a building with a pleasant view over the countryside. There the courtesans are housed in Baidu’s personal quarters. He has a separate entrance on the southern side. It is more carefully guarded when he is in residence. Ten or twelve men day and night.’

‘So,’ said Doquz, ‘fourteen or sixteen will be engaged by six, and two of them women. But how?’

‘The outer patrol will be drunk or careless,’ said Nazim.   ‘I ought to know since I was once one of them.’

‘And deserted!’ Husain said. ‘Anyway, half the patrol will have gone with Baidu to Tabriz. There will be no more than five and these will be no trouble.’

‘Enough!’ Sabbah admonished. ‘We waste time. To answer the Princess’s question: to the west is a high wall with a platform on the other side; that is the safest entry point; we take the outer guards with arrows; we climb; we despatch the four inner guards silently and either kill or lock the animals away while we release the prisoners.’

‘How many prisoners are there?’

‘Possibly as many as five children. Two maidens certainly. And there are at least two youths capable of bearing arms.’

‘You said they would be killed.’

‘Baidu’s perversity knows no limit,’ Sabbah said. ‘He will have them slain only in his presence and in the most horrific manner. They are fed live to the leopards. Today there are two. In a week there will be none! That is the crux of the matter, and it is for their sake we must act now.’

‘And for mine,’ Laila said bitterly. ‘One maiden is my daughter and of the youths, one is my son, Ali.’

‘There’s a better way!’ Doquz spoke on impulse and almost immediately regretted having done so. Again she saw Melik’s erupting corpse and experienced the horror of Jahan’s fingers as they explored her body. Yet there was no escaping the logic of her idea.

Five pairs of eyes turned on her, surprised and doubting.

‘They will let me in, Master Sabbah, but you must tell your men to remove those jubbahs and turbans.’

‘Remove them, when they conceal our true purpose?’

‘I am Baidu’s affianced bride. That I should travel with one maidservant is credible. That Gaikatu should trust me to four merchants is not.’ She saw a glimmer of understanding pass across Sabbah’s brow and pursued her argument. ‘Allow me to play this one and only time the role Fate chose for me and that I so recently escaped with your help.’

‘These guardians of Daquqa – those inside the prison – are no feckless conscripts, Princess,’ Sabbah cautioned. ‘They are officers in Baidu’s personal militia, possibly even kinsmen. They will not be readily fooled. Do not be ready to risk your modesty and virtue again so soon.’

‘Modesty is not a quality I claim, Sabbah,’ she replied and forced a laugh, though the terror was taking hold of her again. ‘As to virtue, what little I had I left behind in Tabriz. The risk can be no greater than what we face on top of the wall. If these guards are alert, they will pick us off one by one as we climb over the parapet. At close quarters, a dagger is more effective than a bow, and you know how well I can use one.’

The outer gate was of solid metal except for a barred doorway in its centre, just high and wide enough to admit one person, mounted, at a time. Through it, Doquz could see a portcullis of closely set vertical railings with three plain crossbars at top, middle and foot. She rang the bell and waited. For a few moments nothing happened, then a man appeared at an opening in the inner wall separating the two gates. He wore a plumed helmet and was armed with bow and sword. He made no move to open the doorway.

‘Are you going to keep me waiting all night, Captain?’ demanded Doquz trying desperately to keep her voice steady.

The man drew his sword, approached the gate and peered through the bars. ‘What do you want?’

‘Your prince will take it amiss if you treat his bride-to-be as a beggar,’ Doquz retorted. ‘Will you open up!’

There was a gasp from behind the gate. ‘Bride-to-be?’

‘Princess Doquz, once daughter of Arghun. Soon to be married to Prince Baidu, Governor of Baghdad,’ Doquz said. The response had encouraged her and she managed to sustain her tone of authority. ‘Is this not his residence?’

Doquz Khatun.’ There was suspicion in the voice, Doquz thought, but it was tinged with genuine surprise. ‘That was not the arrangement.’

‘Arrangement?’ rejoined Doquz with feigned anger. ‘The only arrangement I know was the one that brought me here – the order of the Il-khan that I should marry.’

‘If you are truly the Princess Doquz …’

‘I grant you may not know me,’ said Doquz, lowering her yashmak. ‘Why would I lie however, Captain?’

‘His Highness has gone to Tabriz. The marriage was to take place there.’

‘Then he will soon discover the mistake and return, or send for me. Meantime would you have me camp on the highway?’

‘The main entrance to the villa is on the south side. I cannot admit you here.’

‘I’ve come too far and am too hungry to be sent on a chase round Daquqa, and my attendant is half asleep in the saddle,’ said Doquz. ‘Now will you open the gate and let me in, or should I report back to His Majesty how his Governor’s servants treat their princess?’

‘How many in your escort?’

‘Four only.’

‘I’ll open for you and your attendant, but have them stand back’

‘Am I to be denied my protectors?’

‘No one will harm you here, Princess. They cannot enter by His Highness’s command. There is a sentry billet by the east wall where they can find food and shelter.’

Doquz heard the sound of a heavy bolt being withdrawn, then another. The small doorway swung back on its hinge with a creak and she had a proper view of the guard for the first time. He was a big man, broad at the shoulder with bulging arms. He had deep-set, animal eyes that seemed devoid of any humanity, thick black eyebrows and a luxuriant moustache that was disfigured close to his nose by a white scar. So close did his chin come to his chest that he seemed to have no neck at all.

Doquz fought down an impulse to flee. It had been a forlorn hope that the four men would be admitted, and now that it was gone she was faced with the reality of what she might have to do. She felt for the hilt of the dagger beneath her kaftan and urged her pony through the gap. Laila followed. As the guard turned to replace the bolts, Doquz measured with her eye the impossibly narrow band of flesh between his ear and the collar of his lorica. She would have only the one chance.

The bars clanged behind them.

‘You’ll wait here, Princess,’ the guard said with slightly more respect than hitherto. ‘The beasts must be shut away.’

‘Beasts?’ Doquz pretended astonishment.

‘Spotted cats from India.’ The guard exposed his teeth and gums in a cruel grin. ‘Prince Baidu’s little pets.’ He pointed through the portcullis. Beyond it Doquz could see what had once been a garden. There were two trees, and sprawled lazily among the spreading branches of one were the creatures of which Sabbah had spoken. She had seen one before, in Tabriz, through the gate of one of Gaikatu’s  unoccupied properties, a deterrent to looters.

The opening in the wall led to a narrow staircase to the upper floor. The guard went through and Doquz heard him shout some orders in the Mongol language. She translated to herself.

‘Two men to work the pulleys,’ she whispered to Laila, ‘and one at the gate. Where is the fourth?’

Laila clasped her hands and placed them against her ear to indicate slumber.

Some muffled sounds above their heads were followed by a hollow thud as of a soft, heavy object falling to earth. The leopards leapt from their perch and disappeared from view. There followed a cranking and grinding, and the portcullis began to rise. Doquz counted slowly to twenty-three, long enough for Sabbah and the others to reach the base of the west wall. She wondered if there would be time for them to deal with the outer sentries.

The guard captain reappeared.

Doquz fingered her dagger again and glanced at Laila questioningly, but the latter shook her head and pointed across the wasted garden to the gate opposite.

‘You may go across now, Your Highness,’ the guard captain said. He laughed. ‘The other gate is unlocked; there is no need.’

Doquz dismounted and signed to Laila she should do likewise. She took a few steps into the arena. The ponies snorted nervously.

‘I would be happier with an escort,’ she said, looking back at the caged animals and frowning.

‘It’s no part of my duty,’ the guard objected. ‘I can’t leave my post.’

Doquz reached into her saddle bag and grasped one of the coins she had secreted there. Again she glanced towards the cage, this time allowing her gaze to drift upwards to the terrace. It ran along two legs of the building, the section they had just passed through and that on the east side. Several doors opened onto it. At the west corner, on her right, were six or seven steps leading from it to a platform just below the parapet of the wall. There appeared to be no point of access from the ground.

The portcullis was held in place by two chains, each slung over a pulley fastened to the topmost part of the wall and joined by means of this arrangement to wheels or rollers. These latter were in turn connected over two further pulleys at terrace level to the upper bar of the cage. The apparatus was turned by a winch manned by two men.

Doquz took out her coin and fixed the guard with an appealing look. ‘Not even for a gold royal, Captain? I am over-nervous of those beasts, even when caged. No blame will fall on you, I promise, and Baidu may be equally grateful that you protected me.’

The guard’s eyes became slits as he glanced at the gold and back at Doquz. He shrugged his massive shoulders.

‘To the gate, and no farther,’ he said, reaching out his hand to take the coin. ‘Once in the villa courtyard, you must call the steward to find you a room and care for your ponies.’

Doquz slid the royal back inside her saddle bag, gathered up her pony’s reins and patted its neck to calm its fear.

‘When we reach the other side,’ she said, and allowed him to take the lead.

The far gate seemed to recede with each step. Doquz counted again. She took no further notice of her surroundings but concentrated her attention on the small section of neck below the guard’s helmet on the right. His quiver of arrows and the cusp of his bow obstructed her view of the left side. She loosened her dagger in the sheath wondering at the same time whether she could use it. Whatever barbaric horrors he had presided over, the man had not molested her in any way.

Forty-eight. Forty-nine. Fifty. If the guards outside had made a challenge they would have known by now.

Doquz increased her pace and reached the gate first. Glancing up at the wall to her right she saw Sabbah’s head appear above the parapet. She reached for her coin, turned, and tossed it towards the captain of guards but just out of the grasp of his outstretched palm. As he bent to retrieve it, Sabbah’s arrow struck him just below the left shoulder-blade. He grunted and staggered to one knee. Doquz snatched the dagger from the folds of her kaftan, leapt on his back and sank the blade with all her strength into the base of his neck. Blood welled from the wound, but still he did not fall. He threw her off like a doll, shouting a warning to the men above the portcullis. Clutching at his throat, he tried to rise, but Laila was on him in an instant, driving her dagger through the flap of his helmet into his brain.

Sabbah, Khumar and Nazim were already on the platform and running towards the steps. The light was fading, but the other guards, alerted by the captain’s warning, had seen them. One reached for his bow and released an arrow which clattered harmlessly against stone. Nazim and Khumar reached the foot of the steps. Husain was beside Sabbah on the parapet. Doquz heard the sound of bolts withdrawing and, looking up, saw doors fly open. Several human figures, small in comparison with the men, came out onto the terrace. There were seven or eight altogether, all lightly built. Even the tallest did not reach Khumar’s shoulder. Doquz could not tell whether it was a boy or a girl.

A second shot from Sabbah felled one of the men by the wheel just as the fourth guard, alerted by the clamour, emerged onto the terrace from a door in the east wing. He bent his bow and Doquz’s heart sank as she saw Husain clutch his chest and plunge over into the compound below. His slayer was in turn brought down by Khumar who had halted his run just long enough to loose a single telling arrow.

The leading prisoner had almost reached the exit above the portcullis. The second man by the wheel rose and ran to block off the exit.

It was then that Doquz realised to her horror the full barbarity of the pulley mechanism. The guards had not chocked the wheel, but had been holding the winch in anticipation of being allowed to release it as soon as she and Laila were safely behind the gate and the captain had returned to his post. Held down even by one pair of hands, the winch, and thus the wheel, was secure, but without an operator, it was no longer so. The portcullis was heavier than the gate of the cage and had begun to move slowly downwards. The bars of the cage, though sunk well into the ground, had begun to rise.

Laila had started back across the compound. ‘Sara! Ali!’

‘Mother!’ An answering cry from the terrace indicated that the prisoners had seen her.

But the leopards had seen her too. The cage was not yet open but, distracted from their meal by the hubbub outside, the beasts were clawing furiously at the lowest bars. The ponies whinnied and stamped their feet in fright. One of them reared and set off at a canter round the compound. The second cringed against the gate, shivering with terror. Doquz got to her feet, tore off her kaftan and wrenched the captain’s bow from his prostrate form. He had fallen on his side trapping his quiver beneath his corpse, but fortunately some arrows had fallen loose. Doquz snatched one and fitted it to the string. The first leopard’s head was just free of the cage when she shot the arrow straight and true into its snarling jaws. Her fingers closed round the shaft of another just as the second leopard squirmed out beneath the bars.

Laila tripped and fell sprawling. The leopard halted, crouching, seemingly undecided between the panicked equine and its prostrate, easier prey. Doquz realised that neither she nor the second pony were yet in its sights and acted instinctively. She began running backwards to the west wall, yelling at the creature as she did so.

‘Kolokol!’ It was the Mongol battle cry she had learned as a child.

The leopard turned at the sound, baring its fangs in a roar of fury, then it was on its feet, padding menacingly towards her. It ignored Laila completely and she, seizing her opportunity, scrambled to her feet, covered the remaining distance to the portcullis and slipped through the closing gap just before the iron crashed down behind her.

Again the leopard crouched, turning its head this way and that to snarl indifferently at the ponies, shivering but otherwise motionless against the walls of the compound. It poised for a spring. Doquz’s fingers trembled as she fitted the arrow and drew back the bowstring. She had never hit a moving target, far less one that was savage and unpredictable. It was now too late to go back. She was too far from the gate. There would be one chance and one chance only to bring the animal down.

‘Princess!’ It was Sabbah’s voice, but she dared not look up. ‘The throat, Princess. Aim for the throat!’

The leopard sprang and she released the bowstring, heard it twang. The creature was in the air over her. Doquz was on her knees. She closed her eyes. She had missed. Any moment she would feel the tearing claws and razor-sharp teeth sink into her flesh, and it would be over.

Nothing happened for what seemed an eternity. She opened her eyes. There was no sign of the leopard. At first she did not dare move, then, looking over her shoulder, she saw the beast lying on its side motionless not ten paces away from where she knelt. She had not appreciated how huge it was, yet in death it was not its size that impressed her, but the beauty of the pale golden skin bearing the marks of a hundred hoof-prints, all different. Then she noticed that an arrow protruded from its side behind the shoulder. Overwhelmed by a sense of relief and of gratitude, she looked up towards the terrace where the Commander stood with his two remaining companions.

‘Sabbah!’ She swallowed to hold back the tears that were beginning to choke her. ‘I missed, Sabbah, and you …’

‘You did not miss, Princess.’ Sabbah sounded triumphant. ‘Mine was but insurance. Look again!’ Doquz crawled over to the dead leopard. Its jaw lay open and she measured its incisors against her fist. A small but spreading patch of red on the earth close to the carcase drew her attention to the outstretched paws. She raised one and pulled it aside. The beautiful spotted coat between its forelegs was stained and wet with blood. Her arrow had struck the animal in mid chest and had pierced it through the heart.

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