APOLOGY: To readers of my story, I want to apologise for the lengthy Chapter 25 posted a few days ago. I had meant to divide it into two smaller chapters but have only just realised that didn’t happen. I shall try to be more careful in future
THE SILK ROAD
Fatima was panting from the exertion of the ride. By travelling twice during the hours of darkness they had gained a day, but she was sure that unless they rested soon she would fall from the saddle with exhaustion. Thanks to their forged documents, they had passed two check points unchallenged, changing horses at the second. However, since leaving Maragha, they had slept for no more than two or three hours. Their quarry, they had learned, was still some way ahead of them and making for Qazvin, but even if they were to sight him Fatima doubted she had the strength left to draw a bowstring.
The sky was bright with stars, and features of the landscape could be seen clearly. Ahead, the silhouette of the Alburz ridges, still far away, filled her field of vision. There was no light and shade to alleviate their blackness but below, in the middle distance, a softer hue of deep purple identified a range of lesser hills. Nearer still, broken threads of silver marked the winding courses of two rivers. On their right side, the desert sparkled white in starshine like a sea of a million diamonds.
Above the line of mountains and to her left, Fatima could see the North Star that guided their way towards the dawn. She knew it from the pattern formed by its neighbours, six fainter stars that hung from it like a celestial ladle.
She called weakly on Ali to stop.
‘We cannot go much longer without sleep,’ she said when at length he slowed to a walk by her side.
‘The Captain is relying on us, Fatima,’ Ali replied. ‘We should go on. Baidu’s messenger must still be several hours in front, and if he reaches Qazvin before we catch him, we shall have lost.’
‘He will not ride through the night as we are doing,’ Fatima objected. ‘And we can ride faster if we are fresh.’
‘We will carry on until the first signs of daybreak,’ said Ali firmly. ‘We are not far from Zanjan and can rest for an hour or two in the old tower at al-Qisma.’
Fatima made no attempt to dissuade him. It was not much of a compromise, but she was too tired to argue. She patted her pony’s neck, gathered the reins and, raising her eyes in supplication to Fate, slapped it once more into the canter.
Another day and night passed. They changed horses again and travelled thirty more parasangs. Fatima snapped out of her daydream and pulled her mount up sharply. She ran her hand over its sweating neck and turned to Ali who was riding so closely behind he almost collided with her.
‘Where are we?’ she asked breathlessly. ‘We left Zanjan an age ago and are still travelling south east. We should have turned north.’
‘Since our quarry has turned south, we must follow him,’ said Ali.
Fatima dismounted. ‘Yet we haven’t overtaken him, though at the last station we learned he was no more than two or three hours in front.’ She stroked her horse’s forehead and wiped the foam from around its muzzle. ‘By avoiding the main road we could have passed him without knowing it.’
‘The road has hardly been out of our sight,’ said Ali grumpily.
‘Unless the information was false. Have you considered that? If Baidu is at Talaqan, why would his messenger head away from it? We’re lost and you know it, Ali.’
‘We’re not lost! Why should the Il-khan be at Talaqan, or Qazvin, or anywhere else, just because his armies are camped there? And I don’t think we can have passed our quarry.’
‘At any rate, we cannot continue at this pace,’ said Fatima with a gesture of despair. ‘This poor beast is near the end of his strength. His eye is dim and he looks at me so piteously.’
‘We’re not lost,’ insisted Ali. ‘The mountain range is on our left and the main highway must lie on the other side of that ridge ahead. It runs south east for about six parasangs more before bending southwards to Qom. So says the map. It is there we are headed – not Qazvin.’
He galloped on, reached the rise and called back to her. ‘See! I’m right. There is a main road, and unless I’m very mistaken, there must be a post not far from here. We can change our mounts. Do you have the warrant?’
‘We’ve used it four times already. Dare we risk it again? Sooner or later someone will recognise the seal as Arghun’s.’
‘These fellows on the express routes read no better than I. A royal pass is a royal pass. The time for caution is past. Besides, as you say, we need horses. We can’t walk!’
They halted just long enough to drink from their water bottles and allow the animals to cool before riding on. The post was reached within a half hour. It lay on the edge of a village that most of the native population had long deserted, and whose main purpose now was to provide rest, comfort and a change of horses to servants of the Il-khan, passing to and fro between west and east. These stations lay at intervals along all the main travellers’ routes, many of them near towns, others like the present one in the semi-wilderness but close to grazing and an adequate supply of water. Temuchin’s armies had established them seven decades ago, as an aid to conquest, and the network had been expanded in more peaceful times by Hulegu and his successors. They were also sources of information, about wars, battles and the movement of armies.
Though the services of the post could always be procured for silver coins in sufficient quantity, to servants of the generals they were free on production of a warrant signed by the Il-khan himself. The young outlaws carried a single royal each hidden in their boots but, since a Mongol post was not the place to flaunt it, the first option was closed to them. The second depended on less than careful scrutiny by the post commander of their credentials, the worn tablet bearing the seal of Doquz’s father.
They approached on foot, leading the horses and with their hands clearly visible. Ali hailed the nearest sentry.
‘We’re on the Il-khan’s business with a message for His Majesty.’
Fatima pulled Arghun’s warrant from beneath her jerkin, praying that Ali was right and that, again, the sentry would be unable to distinguish one seal from another.
‘You’ve come from Tabriz?’
‘From Maragha,’ said Ali truthfully.
‘That’s a woman with you,’ the sentry remarked. Two of his companions had come across and were examining Fatima’s person critically. One, a senior officer, reached for the pass.
‘Let me see that!’
Fatima held her breath, but the man seemed satisfied. He returned the document to the sentry.
‘Truly, she is a woman, as you can see,’ Ali was saying cheerfully. ‘My wife! She travels with me everywhere.’
‘She wears a man’s armour and sword,’ the second sentry observed.
‘These are dangerous times, Friend,’ said Ali. ‘Ghazan’s agents are everywhere. Would you deny us both protection?’
The first sentry, a man of about thirty years, handed back the warrant. ‘How does a young snapper like you afford a wife?’ he asked.
‘I steal!’ said Ali and laughed uproariously. The two sentries and their officer joined in.
Fatima lowered her eyes modestly and covered her mouth with her hand to stifle a hoot of amusement. The sound she emitted was no more than a squeak but the officer turned towards it. He eyed her from top to toe and frowned, but he said nothing.
‘There’s some who’d call it blasphemy,’ remarked the second sentry dryly. ‘Me, I like to see a woman’s face, and other parts. An’ there’s one service you won’t be wanting. The ponies are over there.’ He pointed to a dull building of dry stone and wood that lay some distance from the other houses of the village. It was surrounded by a low stockade. ‘Any but the black mare. She’s been here a day only and needs resting.’
‘Another message from Maragha,’ added his comrade. ‘What’s going on there that’s so important?’
A day, Fatima thought, and her heart sank. How could they have lost so much time? Their informant at the last station must have lied or been mistaken. In a day a messenger could easily have reached Baidu and a force would already be on the way to the Rudbar. How could they have miscalculated so badly? They were too late. By going to Alamut, the Captain and her comrades might be riding into a trap.
‘What shall we do, Ali?’
Fatima manoeuvred herself out of earshot of the sentry at the door. She was trying to ignore her rapidly beating heart as she fastened the girth of her new mount. There were six ponies in the stable and she had selected a sleek grey with a single patch of brown on its right shoulder.
‘It can’t be him,’ Ali whispered. ‘He can’t be so far ahead of us.’
‘More than a day, the officer said. Why would he lie?’
Ali was lingering beside the black mare and he casually ran a hand over its muzzle. As he moved nonchalantly away he stroked its neck.
‘I don’t know, Fatima,’ he said. ‘This animal has been ridden, and ridden hard, recently.’
‘It makes no sense,’ said Fatima. ‘I’ll grant the officer looked long and hard at our pass, but if he had detected the forgery he would have stopped us.’
‘I think our quarry has been here only an hour or two since,’ said Ali, ‘and they don’t want us to know it. Let us keep our scimitars loose and be prepared to run.’ He heaved his saddle onto the back of one of the fresh beasts chosen at random and adjusted the straps.
Fatima nodded. Keeping her eye on the stable entrance, she introduced her pony to the bit, which it accepted with a weak snort. Then she moved round the animal, checking all her fastenings and letting down the stirrups.
The next stall was empty but as she bent to hook her hand through the girth strap, the heel of her boot made contact with a solid object that lay hidden in a heap of damp straw that spilled across to her side beneath the dividing rail. Fatima looked down. She pushed some of the straw aside, stifled a gasp of consternation and drew her scimitar from its sheath.
‘What is it?’
‘I think our quarry has not evaded us after all,’ said Fatima. She brushed some more straw away so that Ali could see what she had uncovered.
It was a human leg.
She heard his warning cry just in time. She ducked back under the pony’s belly as the two sentries came through the stable door with scimitars drawn. They were followed by the officer who had inspected her pass.
Ali engaged the first two men but Fatima doubted he had the skill to withstand them for long. Neither had seen her yet. However, though her bow was slung over her shoulder, she had left her quiver looped over the stall rail out of reach.
She drew her own sword and leapt to Ali’s aid. She lunged at the officer but the latter blocked her with ease and forced the weapon from her hand. He seized her round the waist with one arm and lifted her clear of the ground. She struggled but he was a large man and very strong.
‘I’ll only hurt you, girl, if you resist,’ he said gruffly. ‘Tell the boy to throw down his weapon. We mean you no harm.’
Fatima stopped struggling and looked up into the man’s face. It was stern without being merciless and, indeed, his features reminded her of someone she had once known, though she could not remember who. She guessed his age at near fifty.
‘Take me if you want, but do not kill him,’ she begged.
‘I’m neither adulterer nor savage, by the Prophet,’ growled the officer. ‘Tell him to put up his toy! You fellows, give him space.’
Fatima could see she had little choice. Ali was defending valiantly but was losing ground.
‘Ali!’ she cried.
Ali lowered his scimitar. The two sentries made no further offensive moves but held their weapons ready for a resumption of hostilities. The officer released Fatima and she, without taking her eyes from him, backed away towards her supply of arrows. However, she found that a fourth man had entered the stables unnoticed and stood between her and the rail.
‘You will not need those,’ said the officer. ‘I’ve promised not to harm you, and I always keep my word.’
‘And did you mean no harm to him?’ Fatima demanded, with a glance at the partly uncovered body in the straw.
‘He was Baidu’s man to the end,’ the other replied. ‘He and the others who defended the post against us. You are children!’ He kicked away the remainder of the straw and Fatima saw not one corpse but three. ‘There are another three in the next stall but one. It was necessary to hide them since we did not know who would come next.’
Fatima looked up at him, puzzled.
‘Who are you then, if not Baidu’s man? And where is the messenger we followed?’
‘He has gone on to Baidu with our blessing,’ the officer growled. ‘To feed him false news! Now you will tell me why you were following, and how it is you come to be carrying Arghun’s seal.’
It was clear to Fatima that these were not the Il-khan’’s men, however her bitter experience of life had taught her to trust no one who was unknown to her.
‘Who are you?’ she muttered.
‘I ask the questions, girl,’ the officer said impatiently. ‘Now tell me about the seal or I’ll put you across my knee.’
‘Leave her alone,’ said Ali gallantly. ‘I will tell you what you want to know.’
‘Ali!’ Fatima eyed her fallen sword, wondering if she could reach it. She had no wish to die at the hands of their questioner or his men but knew she would do so rather than betray Doquz to an unknown enemy.
‘It’s all right, Fatima,’ Ali said. ‘If they are Baidu’s enemies, they are not ours, whoever they serve.’ He turned towards the officer. ‘We come from Arghun’s daughter, Princess Doquz. It was she who gave us the pass we carry.’
‘Doquz!’ echoed their captor. ‘That explains a great deal. She was a naughty child when I saw her last.’
‘Say no more, Ali,’ Fatima warned.
‘Such touching loyalty,’ said the officer. ‘No matter. At least I have your names.’ His stern features relaxed and he laughed. ‘It seems, Fatima and Ali, that you have after all fallen among friends, for we serve Prince Ghazan. All the land south and east of here is now under his jurisdiction.’
Fatima gasped. ‘Then Baidu is defeated?’
‘Not yet, nor by a long chalk, but we make progress.’ The officer laughed again. ‘Fatima and Ali, by the Holy Prophet …. while I am Mohammed! His Highness will be most interested. I have no doubt he will twist the rest of your story out of you, if I cannot.’
Fatima went over to the stall where the three dead men lay and turned one of the bodies over onto its back. Her captor made no effort to stop her. The man had been killed with a single arrow in the centre of his chest. The two others’ throats had been cut from ear to ear.
‘If you are with Ghazan, show us some token,’ she said. ‘For then our story will be willingly told. And we would be glad of rest.’
‘So be it,’ said their captor. He reached inside his jerkin and withdrew a document which he held out to her. ‘You can read, Fatima, I suppose?’
Fatima took the pass and inspected it. It was almost identical with the one she herself carried, even to the seal affixed near the bottom which she saw, to her astonishment, bore Arghun’s royal mark. The only difference was that some writing in a different hand had been appended below the wax. She looked up to see that the officer was smiling broadly.
‘You can see how easily your game was discovered,’ he said. ‘It is one I have played many times. Now, read!’
Fatima studied the writing. Her father had taught her letters at the age of ten but she had had little practice in the art since then. However, as she painstakingly deciphered the words, her heart began to beat very fast and she felt a thrill of excitement creep through all four of her limbs.
The bearer, she read, General Mohammed Sabbah, acts in the name of Allah and His Holy Prophet, and with my full authority. Ghazan.
‘Sabbah,’ exclaimed Fatima. She now knew why her captor had seemed so familiar. ‘Your name is Sabbah!’
‘What of it, girl?’ asked the officer. ‘It’s as good a name as any other.’
‘But you had a brother …?’
‘Ahmed. But he is dead. Taken by the Egyptians. Again, what of it?’
‘Taken once, perhaps,’ said Fatima breathlessly. ‘I do not know. Dead, I think not. For, with the blessing of Fate, it could be that your brother stands this very moment with Captain Doquz at the entrance to the Vale of Alamut!’
[To be continued]