The Tiger and the Cauldron(29)

Chapter 29

The heat had abated and beneath the wall it was pleasantly warm.   Hassan was excited by the discoveries he had made in the old fortress, but puzzled by the turn of events over the past week.

Ever since their last night at Maragha he had looked forward to the delight of holding Doquz again. Yet since leaving the villa they had hardly been alone together. It was as if she was punishing him for being a poor and inexperienced lover. He gained the impression at times that she was using conversation with him as a means to ward off his amorous attentions. Moreover, during their raids, he had seen in her a steely coldness that made him question whether she could be the same person who had laughed with him on Sahand, and who had once held him in her arms.

For seven nights, she had slept on her own, away from the rest of the company. With Sabbah, Khumar and others of the original band, he had taken his turn at keeping watch in the camp and on each occasion had taken up his post as close to Doquz as he dared without drawing attention to himself.

For the most part, she had slept soundly. Even with no moon, Hassan could see her features clearly, her face pale in the starlight, her raven hair spread out over the folded lorica she used as a pillow. Recalling the thrill of her embrace, he had wanted to touch her, to smooth the lines of care in her forehead and cheeks, to nestle his head against her breasts and listen to the pounding of her heart against his ear. On two nights, towards dawn, she was restless and had cried out. He had run to her then but she had dismissed him and had quickly gone back to sleep.

They were together and nearly alone now, Hassan thought. Most of the company were resting in crevices formed between rock and brickworks or had gone to explore the castle’s network of cave-like rooms. Only Ahmed Sabbah, pacing to and fro on the watchtower above the battlements, occasionally turned in their direction to fix them with his protective eye.

‘They will not come now,’ said Doquz. ‘What we saw was a trick of the light.’

‘It is midsummer, and the sun will not set for another three hours,’ Hassan rejoined. ‘They may yet be here.’

‘Ahmed does not think so, and he is usually right about such things. We should enjoy at least one night in our kingdom.’

‘He is forever pacing and glancing north as well as east and south. Why does he so diligently reinforce the sentries’ watch?’

‘He looks for a sign of occupation of the other castles, perhaps,’ said Doquz. ‘You have seen Alamut, and Maymun-Diz is no more than a parasang to its north-west, though invisible from here. There are some other fortresses to the east of us.’ She giggled. ‘Or else ‘tis a ploy, Hassan, and he watches us.’

‘I’m sure of it,’ cried Hassan. ‘And it isn’t my fancy. I have caught him several times looking at me oddly over the last few days – as if there was something he wished to say, but could not decide if it was right to do so. He knew my mother, he said, but he has never said how they became acquainted. And I once knew his brother Mohammed.’

‘Ahmed can be very mysterious.’ She made a face and Hassan laughed despite himself. ‘Like the good-natured jinn who grants three wishes then disappears in a puff of smoke. He speaks to me as if he has known me all my life. Yet he has his secrets.’

‘Secrets?’

‘Like you, my noble Hassan. Those you hide in that gold talisman with the sun’s engraving.’

‘This hides only cunning workmanship,’ said Hassan. He unhooked the gammadion from his neck and gave it to her. ‘Look!’

‘I saw it many times when I was a child, but never to hold. It is much heavier than it looks.’

‘But heavier still if it were solid. The arms are hollow and, if you hold it by the centre and twist, they will unscrew. Like this.’ He closed her left hand over three arms of the cross; then, taking her right thumb and forefinger in his he pressed them against the fourth and turned it a full circle. The arm came apart at the elbow. ‘It’s empty as you can see.’

‘Yet it has powers beyond this earth, I have heard.’

‘From whom did you hear that?’

‘Your mother perhaps?’

‘You did not hear it from her.’

‘Or Sabbah. I do not remember. Maybe I dreamt it.’

‘The followers of the old religion have legends about it, but it’s all nonsense. This is a simple ornament. It has no secrets … unlike Commander Sabbah … or you!’

‘Me?’

‘You speak of a quest, of terrible deeds, and of a world filled with hatred, but you do not tell how it came about – how it was you exchanged the life of a princess for that of an outlaw and rebel. I cannot believe you any more capable of terrible deeds than I – a boy who had learned to kill before he reached his twelfth year. Yet your dreams hide a dark terror. When I held you in love that night in Maragha I felt it, and twice I have seen it since, yet you continue to pretend and do not tell me.

‘I have already shown myself willing to share that quest with you, and you understand my reasons. Make me understand yours. Because, even when I disappoint as a man, I would still be your simple friend and confidant.’

‘Some hurts are better buried in the depths of the mind until time or death causes them to wither and decay,’ said Doquz. ‘Still, ‘twas not my intent to deceive you, Hassan, and if secrets there be we will share them.’ She touched him on the cheek and Hassan felt a thrill pervade his whole being. ‘I had a mind to tell you all at Maragha … until you distracted me. But for the moment, Sabbah is looking very purposeful. I fear he wishes to remind me that a captain has duties.’

***

Ahmed Sabbah was not a superstitious man. However, in his long experience of life, he had found that for every favourable cast of the die, Fate usually dealt a twofold measure of adversity. And in the months spent with Doquz he had enjoyed an unusual run of good fortune.

It was true there had been casualties in their private war with Baidu, and Sabbah regretted every one of them. However, all had known the risks, and was it not better to die in a cause in which one believed than be an unwilling pawn in the deadly games of chess played by the Mongol generals? Though Sabbah sometimes doubted his faith, and often neglected it, he had the notion that Allah would not overlook hardship and sacrifice in this life, and would doubly reward His martyrs in the next. It was such a hope that sustained him in times of difficulty. Yet the past year had not been too difficult, and Sabbah wondered whether history was about to repeat itself.

He looked over the battlements, at the same time squashing a botfly that had landed on his bare arm. The hour had passed and the flashes of reflected sunlight he had seen earlier had not occurred again, yet he hesitated to dismiss entirely the possibility that a squadron of men was hidden by the nearest ridge and would emerge before the sun was set.

Doquz and Hassan were sitting in the shade at the foot of one of the crumbling walls, their faces animated like children as they talked or argued, apparently unconcerned at what perils the future might hold for them. It was a cruel trick that Fate played in bringing them together if her only intention was to separate them again. By the Prophet’s beard, they were children, Sabbah reflected in a moment of savage self-hatred, and they might fight and die together before they had truly tasted life.

And if they did, he would be to blame. He had always loved Doquz, it seemed, though he had known her for barely a year, but it was he who, by rescuing her, had condemned her to this harsh existence. Though she had proved much stronger than he could ever have expected, she was still a woman, with a woman’s needs, needs she could never fully satisfy as captain of a rebel band. As for Hassan, the boy he had known for two short weeks, he was surely being guided by a mistaken sense of adventure, or by loyalty to his childhood memories, rather than dedication to a cause.

Yet another image was forming in the Commander’s mind, one he had recalled only once in twenty years, and that recently on the Mount of the Chalice – the image of a bewitching girl child and a gold talisman shaped like a cross with bent arms – and all at once the recollection made him stop and wonder whether it was he, Ahmed Sabbah, who was mistaken, and that this untested boy might be one in whose hands the destiny of Persia might lie.

***

[to be continued]

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