The Tiger and the Cauldron(26)

Chapter 26

Sabbah and Nazim raised the portcullis. Khumar, having despatched the one remaining guard with his sword, descended to ground level and went to calm the terrified ponies. The commotion had drawn some servants from the villa and they watched these proceedings from the inner gate, perplexed and reluctant to intervene.

Doquz got to her feet. She picked up the guard captain’s helmet which lay beside his body, tore out its plume and placed it inside her jerkin. She took the man’s sword belt and fastened it round her waist above the one she already wore. Then, having slung the bow across her back, she went over to where Husain’s body lay. In addition to the spreading stain on his chest, his neck had been broken by the fall. She had known him for less than a week but she owed him a debt she would never repay. He seemed so young and innocent and she wondered whether he had parents or a sweetheart to mourn him. His dead hand still clutched his bow, though his quiver had become detached from his shoulder and the remaining arrows were scattered across the compound. His sword was still in its sheath. Doquz unfastened his fingers from around the bow and picked it up. She would have taken the sword and gathered up the arrows too but she was already overburdened.

‘Hurry!’ Sabbah called to her from the portcullis.

‘We cannot leave him.’

‘We must. Hurry, Princess. Khumar will bring his weapons.’

As she made her way to the exit, Doquz felt her arms and legs begin to shake and was glad that Khumar had already brought the ponies under control and was leading them at her side. She stumbled against the flank of one and gripped its mane. Her vision clouded momentarily.

At the outer gate stood Laila, her arms thrown round two pale children, one a girl of about ten, the other a slightly-built boy who looked no more than thirteen. There was another grim-faced youth of fifteen or sixteen who had clearly been beaten severely as one eye was swollen and his clothes were streaked with blood. A third youth seemed to have been starved and could hardly walk. His clothes too were bloodstained. Beside them was a maiden of Doquz’s own age. Two smaller girls whom Sabbah held by the hand brought the number of released prisoners to seven. Neither of these had yet reached puberty, but the light of childhood was gone forever from their eyes.

As she approached, the smallest youth detached himself from his mother’s embrace and ran to meet her. He knelt at her feet and kissed the earth.

Salaam, Shir-Farzin,’ he cried. ‘I thank you for my mother’s life. If you will be my captain, I shall forever be your slave!’

***

In the days that followed, Doquz rediscovered some of the freedoms of her childhood.

The house at Kirkuk was abandoned lest their return there might put others in Laila’s family in danger. Laila herself was escorted with her daughter Sara and the two younger girls to the relative safety of Mosul.

The outlaw band, having lost Husain, gained Ali, the two older youths and the maiden, whose name was Mariam. Thus they were now eight in number. They led a rough life, sleeping in the open, eating seldom, never staying more than two or three nights in the same place. They hunted for food or begged it from sympathetic villagers who suffered hardship under the stringent tax measures introduced by Gaikatu, but were nevertheless willing to share their meagre resources with anyone who defied him.

It was the kind of life Doquz had never known, lacking all the comforts she had become used to as daughter of a ruler, and she began to understand the true meaning of poverty, something she had previously observed only from afar. She did not immediately declare the extent of her wealth, supposing that thirty-three gold royals was a fortune beyond the dreams of her new companions, and fearing it would be stolen from her. However, it did not take her long to learn of the honesty that is born of shared peril and adversity.

The outlaw life imposed none of the restrictions of the court and none of its duties. It was free of the deceit and pretence, the petty scheming and trade in secrets that were rife in the world she had left behind. Just as the members of Sabbah’s band shared food, excitement and danger, they shared their deepest feelings, darkest fears and fondest hopes. Doquz’s gold opened doors that would have remained closed to swords alone. It bought information as well as supplies, and, whilst the band was no mercenary force, its generosity readily found friends.

It was this sharing that helped Doquz wash away the horrors of her recent experience, heal the wounds in her pride, and focus her hatred. The attack on Daquqa consolidated her position and elevated her status in the band in a wholly unexpected way. In the raids they mounted on isolated Mongol outposts west of the Zagros, she found that news of her exploits had gone before her, though based mostly on distorted and exaggerated truths. She was never named. However, within a matter of weeks rumours of a mysterious woman fighter circulated almost as if by magic. They attracted new volunteers from the small towns of Mesopotamia as well as encouraging desertions from the demoralised ranks of the Il-khan’’s army.

Sabbah did nothing to discourage the gossip. Doquz supposed it suited his purpose to allow the myth of the Shir-Farzin, the Tiger Princess, as she became known, to become a symbol in what had been his, and had now become her private war. Still she had not learned what his quarrel with the Il-khan’ nor his cousin might be.

By the time the full heat of summer descended on the plains of Mesopotamia, the group’s numbers had grown to fifteen. Sabbah took charge of training all the recruits in weaponry. With Khumar they learned swordplay and under Nazim, archery. Ali, who had by then grown half a head, showed great talent as a bowman, though none of the others developed more than an adequate ability. Doquz’s own skills were honed in contests with Sabbah himself. To her astonishment, she discovered not only was she every bit his equal in the use of the bow, but could hold her own with both scimitar and short sword, making up by agility what she lacked in power of attack.

They took the campaign to Arbil, then crossed the mountains to Urmia, Tabriz and as far east as Van, striking and firing garrisons, and harassing mule and camel trains carrying weapons and military supplies. They gained more followers. Some were disillusioned conscripts of the army, others opponents of Gaikatu’s rule with whom they sought shelter. A few were rescued from serfdom, either by force or by trading gold in the northern slave markets.

It was autumn before Doquz learned details of the feud that had resulted from her flight. Enraged by the loss of his bride and the death of three of his followers, Baidu had demanded compensation – the heads of those who had assisted her escape and an impossible sum in gold royals.

Gaikatu had refused the gold but, angered too by Doquz’s disappearance and the collapse of his plans, promised a rigorous search for the traitors. Having failed in his efforts to elicit information from either her mother or from the servants assigned to her, he would have allowed the matter to drop had it not been for Baidu’s persistence. The news of the mayhem at his summer villa only infuriated the Prince even more and strengthened his resolve either to find a scapegoat or to punish Gaikatu for both insults. The cousins quarrelled violently and in the course of a drunken brawl the Il-khan’ came off the worse.

In retaliation, Gaikatu had Baidu beaten up, but not before the latter had bribed the guards to release some prisoners in Tabriz Castle, supporters of his earlier bid for the throne. Fearing for his life, Baidu fled back to Baghdad where he vowed to have his revenge.

Meantime, Gaikatu pursued his own enquiries into Doquz’s disappearance and by distributing a few silver dinars, learned of her prolonged absence from Tabriz – when she had been at Maragha – and of Ibrahim’s hand in training her in weaponry. Spies confessed to having seen them exercising with scimitar and shield and in full battle armour. Ibrahim was seized. Had the full extent of their relationship been known, the sword-master would have faced instant death. As it was, Gaikatu had reasoned there was another punishment that would serve as a lesson to others. Consorting innocently with one of the royal women, even for the purpose of weapons training, was enough for him to order the next most severe penalty.

The band wintered in Arran but when they returned to Tabriz at the onset of spring Doquz discovered the full horror of her former lover’s treatment. Shut up without the services of a proper physician, his wounds had poisoned. Released after a month and thrown on the streets, he was reduced to begging and died a grisly death on the steps of the Great Mosque.

***

A week before the equinox and a year since Doquz’s escape from her enforced betrothal, they again rode south.

It had taken Baidu several months to raise a sufficiently large army to risk a serious challenge to Gaikatu’s power base. When he finally moved, he took the Il-khan’ by surprise. Gaikatu had thought to subdue Baghdad with superior forces, but his commander-in-chief, Taghachar, changed sides, followed by a number of his regiments, and the Il-khan’ fled.

Sabbah had wanted Gaikatu’s death, but Doquz opposed him.

‘There will never be a better opportunity.’ The Commander was at his fiercest. ‘He has left his regiments to fight a senseless battle. A dozen supporters at most are with him and the five emirs pursue him. The rest of his army is outside Tabriz and we can cut him off before he reaches it.’

‘Cut him off, yes,’ said Doquz. ‘Kill him, no! Death is too easy a punishment for what he has done – to you and to me.’

The indifference she had once felt had turned to cool hatred. For too long she had lived her life in a cocoon, shielded from the harsher realities of the world by her own naivety. The corruption, the summary imprisonments and executions, the beatings and castrations, had been all around her. The evidence of Gaikatu’s carnal appetite too had been there for her to see: the painted whores with their tawdry jewellery; the alluring maidens passing to and fro in the corridors leading to his apartments; the strange, frightened children attending him as he feasted or held audience with his emirs. And it was still going on.

She recognised now that there had been fear in her mother’s compliance and in her love of fine Persian silks and fragrant spices, though, instead of feeling pity for Tolaghan, she despised her for her weaknesses.

Almost as strong as her hatred of Gaikatu was her hatred of herself as a woman. Ibrahim’s punishment and the injustice of it had left her feeling empty. His death had crushed all desire. It was she who had sought him out for his skill, she who had encouraged him as a lover knowing full well the risks. She had used him and was thus to blame for his emasculation. But it was as a woman that she would avenge him and, that done, she would renounce carnal pleasures forever.

‘His offences deserve only death,’ said Sabbah. ‘Anything less is a reprieve.’

‘I would have it otherwise, Sabbah,’ said Doquz, frowning. ‘To lose his manhood will be no reprieve, and to lose it after he has had his pleasure of me …’

‘I cannot allow it,’ Sabbah interrupted. It was the first time she had defied him and Doquz could see anger in his face.

‘Then I will do it without your permission!’ she rejoined petulantly. ‘You may kill him if you wish, but only after I have finished.’

‘This is madness, Princess,’ said Sabbah, less fiercely. Now there was only hurt in his expression.

‘Let it be madness then,’ said Doquz. ‘I was once a woman and you have made me a warrior. I will never love as a woman again, Ahmed. What use is this body of mine if not as a weapon to entice, trap and avenge?’

‘It is against the Qur’an and all its laws, Princess. You risk much more than your life.’

‘I do not share your beliefs, Ahmed. You know that. But was it not you who told me that, in war, a warrior must use all his weapons? That Allah would suspend His wrath if the cause was just. That night in Tabriz, when Jahan took me by force, something died inside me. My childhood, I think, and my capacity to love. Can you understand that, Ahmed? I ceased being a woman and became the man I had always wanted to be. This hand that holds a sword so well … these arms that draw a bow … these are the realities.

‘But now I feel … I feel none of these other parts are mine. My face, smooth and soft but lacking beauty, belongs to someone else. My breasts that I hide so well beneath this leather are another’s … a princess’s, I think, from the tales of Shahrazade. And my sex, Ahmed – this channel to the womb, from which one day new life might have sprung, is but a vestige of what he lost.’

‘You are wrong, Doquz,’ said Sabbah. ‘You are still a woman, and one day you will find love again.’

He opened his arms to her and she fell into them, feeling the need to weep but unable to do so. For several moments he held her, neither speaking, until, her anger returning, Doquz broke free.

‘It will be done my way,’ she said. ‘Perhaps through the madness I will find sanity again, or death.’

Sabbah took her head between his massive hands and kissed her gently on the brow.

‘For you, while I live, it will not be the last of these,’ he said.

‘You will no longer oppose it?’

‘It will be done your way, Princess,’ said Sabbah. ‘Allah forgive me. I will not oppose it.’

[to be continued]

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