The Tiger and the Cauldron(28)

Chapter 28

THE VALLEY OF THE ASSASSINS

The rock on which the once impregnable fortress of Alamut stood lay in the heart of the Alburz Mountains. There were many such rocks and many such fortresses in the region, but three had earned a place in popular myth, Lamasar, Maymun-Diz and Alamut itself – last bastions of Ismaili defiance against the might of the Mongols.

Built high above the surrounding land, these castles, bleak and desolate in all seasons, commanded views over rivers and fertile valleys. Maymun-Diz had been the first to fall and Lamasar the last, but it was the name of Alamut that had come to represent the power and influence of the heretical Nizari sect and the ruthlessness of its assassins.

Four years ago, with Giovanni as his companion, Hassan had travelled through these mountains at the onset of spring, a journey he remembered as cold and unpleasantly damp. He was scarcely prepared for the change. The peaks were russet, the valleys between the ridges were green and the rivers sparkled in the sunshine. Unfamiliar flowers lent tiny patches of colour to stony hillsides. For three days, the only signs of  habitation were half-deserted hilltop villages and a few isolated farms. Much of the population, converted to the Ismaili faith during the centuries of domination by its Grand Masters, had been dispersed during Hulegu’s wars and their property razed.

The people were gradually returning to their homeland, however, and had begun rebuilding their small communities. Harassed sometimes by Mongol patrols, they were suspicious of all travellers, but hospitable once reassured that the strangers’ intentions were friendly. These mountain dwellers were hardy, the men wiry, the women robust, both having skin the colour of tanned leather and gnarled like the trunks of ancient trees. Some – the goatherd with his meagre flocks, the lone rider on his mule or the wood-hewer bent under his load – seemed ageless. They might have been thirty or seventy; it was impossible to tell.

In the eight days since leaving Maragha, the band’s numbers had grown to more than fifty. On the Silk Road, just east of Tabriz, they attacked a Mongol outpost and set the building on fire. One officer and five swordsmen offered Doquz their allegiance and the rest were put to flight leaving behind their ponies and weapons. Thus strengthened, they destroyed an arms store at Miyana guarded by a troop of Golden Horde Mongols who were put to the sword. That too was fired but not before they had rescued a few extra scimitars and a plentiful supply of arrows. Three of Doquz’s followers, left some weeks previously to gather intelligence in Zanjan, joined them at the deserted township they called al-Qisma. At Zanjan itself they fired yet another depot.

Thereafter, shunning the main routes, they encountered several groups of deserters from the Il-khan’s armies. Travelling in twos and threes for company, but already tired from a long march, some were unwilling to reverse their steps even on the promise of food and drink. Others, half-starved and deprived of wages, were only too eager for the chance to strike a blow against their former captains.

Once in the mountains, their pace became slower. Twice during the ride they stopped to consult one of Shirazi’s maps, but it was more to decide a choice of route than to correct direction and retrace to a missed turning. Throughout, Sabbah seemed to know, either from previous study or instinctively, exactly where they were headed. He gave names to the rivers, streams and mountain peaks by day and, when they chose to avoid the intense midday heat and travel by night, he was able to identify the clusters of stars and use them to navigate their path. Hassan knew the planets and could explain the phases of the moon. He recognised other celestial shapes too but, without the benefit of a fixed landmark, was confused by their changing positions, and he marvelled how it was that a man, whom he supposed had had no formal education in the sciences, could be so knowledgeable in matters he had assumed to be the preserve of great scholars.

***

From their present position on the crest of a hill overlooking the Shah River, Hassan could see no castles, and the vista before him seemed to deny the very history on which he had been brought up. There were no fortresses and never had been any. Juvaini’s tale was a fiction that his grandfather had lied to protect.

‘They are there, Hassan.’ Sabbah, who had been riding at his side, appeared to read his mind. ‘They are there, and there is only one way to reach them.’ He pointed. ‘The light is deceptive, but if you look carefully you will see it.’

Hassan shaded his eyes against the sun. Ahead and just below them, but nearly invisible in the shadow of the mountains, was the entrance to a deep gorge, overhung on both sides by dark and forbidding walls of stone. Guarding it were two hilltop forts.

‘Our way lies there,’ said Sabbah. ‘At the gorge, the river divides; to the north, it becomes the Alamut, to the south, the Talaqan. Once through it, we should come to a village, then, on the Alamut’s southern bank, to the castle of Shir Kuh.’

Shir Kuh,’ mused Doquz. ‘The Tiger Mountain! ‘Tis appropriate, don’t you think?’

‘Appropriate or not, it should be our goal,’ said Sabbah. ‘From there, we can command a view of both river valleys. Any regiment approaching from the west, or through the mountain pass from Qazvin or Talaqan in the south will be easily seen.’

‘Have you been here before?’ Hassan asked him.

‘Once. Beyond Shir Kuh is the plateau where Hulegu’s army encamped during the siege.’ Sabbah gestured eastwards. ‘A parasang further, on the north bank, is Alamut rock. Directly east of that are only more mountains, rocks and castles. The river valley continues for two parasangs or more after that, a secret place that many will pass but few will see. It abounds in legends …’

‘Legends?’

Sabbah laughed. ‘Of paradise gardens, golden palaces and beautiful maidens.’

‘Do not believe him, Hassan,’ said Doquz pouting. ‘Sabbah the poet wishes to lighten our mood with barrack fables. In truth, the gardens were fields of hemp while the palaces and houris were nothing more than hashish dreams. Only the dark fortresses are real. How shall we know if any are occupied, Ahmed … and whether their people are hostile?’

The Commander grew serious again. ‘There are no longer Assassins in Alamut, Princess. And if the castles were occupied at all, we would have seen evidence of it by now.’

‘‘Tis the absence of life that alarms me, Sabbah,’ said Doquz. ‘There has been no sign of the Emirs’ force.’

‘Nor of any military activity, Captain. Neither hoof prints nor discarded weapons … nor slain combatants. Their absence is a reason for hope and confidence.’

‘So we wait?’

‘Yes. If the Emirs are indeed heading for Talaqan, they will come from the north, then west along the Shah Valley,’ said Sabbah. ‘And from Shir Kuh we will see them.’

‘Then, as you are confident, let us continue,’ said Doquz. ‘Let us climb the Tiger Mountain and take possession of the kingdom of the great Hasan-i-Sabbah, the Assassin whose name is shared by my two dearest friends!’

***

They descended towards the gorge with Sabbah leading. The path was gentle at first, then dropped steeply towards the river. As they approached the overhanging rocks, the roar of water grew louder and made conversation difficult. They formed a column, two abreast.

Hassan watched the Commander’s bulky figure merge into the shadows; then a patch of white that was the left rump of Doquz’s pony was also gone. Before long he too was in the gorge. Beyond the dim entrance, shafts of sunlight played through fissures and funnels on the rock face and, sometimes, with dazzling brilliance on the surface of the water. By contrast, long stretches of the way were in deep shade, and the occasional green, muddy pool lay in the angle of the cliff where neither light nor warmth could penetrate.

His first sight of Shir Kuh made Hassan gasp in amazement. It stood like a sentinel at the head of the valley with ridges on either side. It seemed unscalable from almost every angle. Near the summit, stony outcrops, with steep slopes beneath, created a barrier that would have daunted the most skilful climber, whether man or mountain goat. At its eastern end were sheer cliffs. From both sides of the rock on which the castle was built ran lively streams that poured across a narrow, fertile plateau into the main Alamut River. Nestling at its base was a tiny settlement of mud-brick houses.

‘We should split our force,’ said Sabbah, ‘… Khumar and five to camp near the village. There’ll be no grazing in the castle, I fancy, and it will be best to leave the surplus ponies here. The village is nearly deserted and I do not think they will be stolen.’

‘Why not leave them all?’ Hassan asked. ‘I cannot see a way to the top.’

‘If we are to spend the night in the fortress we shall need food, blankets and lamps,’ said Sabbah, ‘and we cannot carry them ourselves. There is a path. It’s a difficult climb, but not impossible.’

Having divided the party according to Sabbah’s recommendation, they passed through the village and pressed on towards the castle rock. They emerged from a cleft at the foot of a narrow winding path that seemed to lead into the bowels of Shir Kuh itself. The cliffs were less sheer than they had appeared, but the slope was peppered with jagged rocks sunk in a treacherous scree. Even the sure-footed ponies could not avoid slithering and sending loose stones into the crevices below.

At first, it was cool in the shadow of the hill. However, as they climbed higher, it became very hot. There was no shelter on the rock. Sabbah removed his jerkin and slung it over his pony’s saddle. He wore a sleeveless tabard and perspiration glistened on his bare arms and neck.

Lizards eyed them with momentary curiosity as they approached and, in a flash, scuttled for the safety of the nearest crevice. Once, a viper slithered across the path, causing Sabbah’s pony to rear and almost miss its footing. Eagles circled watchfully overhead.

Hassan had long since dispensed with his borrowed armour and had entrusted it to one of the animals. He had taken off his shirt and tied it over his brow with a piece of rope cut from one of the tethers, and this modification protected his neck and back from the burning sun. Even Doquz, whom he had rarely seen in the company of others without her corslet and helmet, had disrobed to her shift and wore a plain scarf over her head and shoulders.

Together, they forged ahead but soon found it desirable to dismount and lead their mounts by the halter. Like eager children in search of adventure, they clambered and stumbled towards each turn, hoping it was the last but finding only another segment of the route, and yet another corner, ahead of them.

Hassan had almost forgotten their perilous purpose. From time to time, he would glance over the cliff edge to inspect the spreading vista of the secret valley, or over his shoulder to see Sabbah or another of the party come round the last twist of the path. He had been wondering how they were to replenish their water supplies. It was, after all, high summer. However, the dilemma was solved for him before they had gone much further. As they neared the top, they came upon a bank of water cisterns cut into the rock and fed from mountain streams that the Assassins had diverted into a channel. It must therefore be possible, he concluded, to draw water from inside the fortress, either through a well or by means of some machinery. Otherwise, the castle’s occupants could never have endured a siege.

They came to the top without warning. In front of them was the curtain wall of the castle and an open arch with shapely turrets on either side. Here had once been a gate as could be deduced from the hinges that remained. The stonework was blackened by fire. The gateway opened into a courtyard at the far side of which were the walls of the inner fortress. Stairs led from the turrets to a platform beneath the battlements.

Hassan bounded ahead. Some of the castle’s rooms seemed little more than caves, formed in part by nature as well as by the tools and labour of men. He counted four large ones, but there were more, many bearing the signs of destruction wrought by the engines of men and by their anger. He climbed to the northern battlements, looked over and stood breathless at the sight which met his eyes. The hidden valley – the mysterious garden of the Assassins, surrounded on all sides by rugged mountains, ran from the base of the gorge and extended into the foothills of two giant peaks to the east. Whether it was an earthly paradise or no was impossible to tell, so small did everything seem, but there were trees, meadows, and glistening waters. On the distant horizons lay more peaks, pale in the summer heat, that seemed tiny and insignificant compared to the island on which he stood. In a north-easterly direction, clearly visible on its own rock, stood another ruined castle which he decided was the fortress of Alamut itself.

Doquz joined him on the battlements and she too gasped at what she saw.

‘I cannot think of war here,’ Hassan said.

‘I too would like to forget,’ she replied. Her eyes were bright. ‘Yet can you not feel the castle’s power. Here we might conquer, and be master and mistress of the world.’

‘Or of the universe,’ Hassan declared. He ran from her, bounded down to the lower level and inspected some of the smaller rooms. Everywhere was evidence of the work of picks and crowbars, and of flame. Much of the brickwork was broken, the rock walls blackened and the beams and panels reduced to charcoal and ash. The structure had been reinforced in places with metal, yet other parts were open to the sky. He found an inner staircase and a broad corridor leading out of the sunlight into a spacious but dim cavern. Both walls and ground had been dug out to form alcoves and pits that he guessed had been used for the storage of food and liquids. The alcoves were empty. He bent down and peered into one of the pits but it was too dark to see the bottom. The musty air from beyond the rim was tinged with a sickly sweetness that made him choke and draw back quickly.

He retraced his steps back to the sunlight. By now, most of the company had unsaddled their mounts and encamped round the main courtyard. The last stragglers were just trudging in through the archway.

Sabbah had gone to the western end of the terrace and was looking out over a ravine in the direction from which they had come. Doquz was by his side.

‘What do you make of it, Ahmed?’

‘Perhaps nothing,’ Sabbah replied cautiously. ‘The glint of sun on water. Here in the mountains there are many lakes and streams. On the other hand …’

‘ … a column of riders with lances?’ Doquz suggested. ‘Kamal!’

The former cook was slumped against a rock in the shade. Clearly he was unused to climbing. He scrambled to his feet and hastily joined them at the battlements.

‘Do you know Zanjani’s colours, Kamal?’

‘He flies a white crescent moon on red, Captain. The symbol of his faith.’

‘Of course,’ said Doquz. ‘I should have known. But let us wait. If it is a column of men, we should know within an hour.’

‘But if men, it’s unlikely they will reach here before nightfall,’ said Sabbah. ‘Meantime I recommend the company rests. We will post a watch on the battlements.’

***

[to be continued]

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