Note: the parasang is an old Persian measure of distance, equal to about 5.5 kilometres
The mechanism built by the Assassins for drawing water had long been dismantled, however a search of the caves uncovered some urns and wine casks abandoned by later occupiers of the fortress. Most were damaged or wasted beyond use, the clay cracked or the wood rotted, but two pitchers and a half barrel proved serviceable. And, as the rebels had their own supply of kettles and ropes, they were able to raise more than enough water for drinking, cooking and ablutions.
Several newer recruits, reluctant to avail themselves of the opportunity to wash from their bodies the grime and sweat of days of travel, were at Doquz’s instigation and by Sabbah’s hand subjected to a forced bathing to the accompaniment of jeering by their male comrades and hoots of laughter from the women.
As night fell the air grew cool and, judging the fortress to be safe from attack, Sabbah ordered fires to be lit. Once the devout had performed the Salat, supplies were unloaded and with Kamal supervising, the evening meal was prepared. That over, one by one the rebels retired to the shelter of the inner rooms or fell asleep beside the glow of the dying fires.
Hassan found himself alone with Sabbah on the watchtower overlooking the Alamut valley. Here at last was an opportunity to have his questions answered.
Away from the shadow of the crumbling buildings, it was bright. Even though the sun had set, the sky was not completely black, and a glow of pale red spread across the northern horizon, lighting the peaks of the mountains.
They sat against the warmth of the keep, Hassan with his knees drawn up to his chest, Sabbah cross-legged with his scimitar laid across his lap.
The Commander told of his posting to Kerman and how he had first seen the gammadion.
‘Did you never see her again?’ Hassan enquired. ‘My mother?’
‘Yes, I saw her, but we never spoke,’ said Sabbah. ‘During Teguder’s reign I was exiled to Hormuz. After Arghun’s accession, I was in Tabriz less than half a year. Nadia had a child, but it was not my place to enquire whether boy or girl. You would have been about four or five years old at the time. Doquz was newly six. I had seen her only once before, as a babe in arms.’
‘What happened? Why did you leave Tabriz?’
Sabbah seemed reluctant to continue. He inspected the blade of his scimitar in the half light and, apparently satisfied, rested the weapon against the wall. He took out his daggers and began tossing them.
‘Arghun was determined to engage the Mamluks,’ he said at length. ‘For twenty years they had been masters of Syria. I was given a minghan – a thousand men – to command. Arghun would have entrusted me with more but he knew the princes would not consent to give command of the division to one whose blood was mixed as mine was.
‘We marched against the Egyptians, but it was a foolish expedition. They were too strong and we were driven back into Mesopotamia. My regiment sustained heavy casualties and I was taken prisoner.’
‘Four years I spent in a Damascus gaol,’ Sabbah answered grimly. ‘Though they did not torture me, conditions were harsh. I was thrown into a cell and near forgotten. Some days I got neither food nor water. But my captors were curious about me, Hassan. Neither pure Persian nor pure Mongol, I did not conform to their picture of the enemy. And they couldn’t understand why a Muslim would make war on another Muslim.
‘But they are different from us, Hassan. As different as the ant from the grasshopper.’ Sabbah laughed bitterly. ‘I think we are all conquerors at heart. The Dar al-Islam is a fantasy, for though the world is divided into Muslim and Christian, into Buddhist and Jew, it is also divided into Egyptian and Greek, Chinaman and Arab. And I defy those who say the first division is more important than the second.’
‘But you escaped,’ Hassan prompted. The Commander’s argument seemed to have little to do with his story.
‘I was released … and it was due to Sultan al-Ashraf himself. His head was soon turned from Persia towards the Crusader fortresses, and he needed warriors. I was given a simple choice: join the Sultan’s jihad, or remain in prison for life. For a man who has been a soldier – who is half-starved, crawling in pests and living in his own filth – it was no choice at all. Though it was not in my heart to hate Christians, I went to war against them and thereby bought my freedom.
‘I returned home. Arghun was dead and Persia again in turmoil. Gaikatu had been enthroned …’ He caught both daggers and Hassan saw his knuckles grow taut round the hilts. ‘… and was leading the country even deeper into chaos by his incompetent interference in the economy. What had happened to my family under Teguder happened again. Our estates were seized. My elderly parents sought refuge with distant cousins in Arbil. I went there only to discover that their property too was forfeit and that my mother and father had been driven further south. In the hope of better treatment in Baghdad province, they had taken a small villa just south of Kirkuk.’
The Commander’s eyes closed and his jaw tightened. For a moment he was silent. Then, he gave an anguished cry and drove his two dagger blades into the ground.
‘Better treatment!’ he snarled. ‘I will spare you the grim details, but I found them dead and their villa burned to the ground. It was only one of many homes destroyed … and a deed with no purpose. Gangs of wild youths, Baidu’s Law Patrols, were terrorising the countryside, seizing women and children for his brothels. And it was Baidu himself who led them!’
Slowly, the muscles of his face relaxed. ‘In Kirkuk I had once known a woman, Hassan, but the years had passed so quickly. She had married and had died in childbirth. This I learned from her younger sister, Laila. I also found out the full extent of Baidu’s cruelty and his perversions – how he murdered without reason and kidnapped children for his carnal pleasure, for Laila told me her husband had been slain and her children taken by Baidu’s men.
‘Determined to avenge them all, I went to look for my brother. Mohammed had been Commander at Baghcha, in Arran Province, as you know, so I travelled there. The town was under a new command. They did not know where Mohammed had gone, but he had deserted, they said.’
‘Deserted!’ Hassan was on his feet. ‘Your brother did not desert …’
Sabbah did not allow him to finish. ‘No, he would not,’ he growled. ‘I could not believe that of him.’
‘You were right. He did not! Your brother went with us … with Giovanni and me … into the Alburz Mountains!’
Sabbah too leapt to his feet and Hassan winced as he was seized violently by the shoulders and shaken. The Commander was scowling ferociously.
‘Why did you not tell me this before?’
‘I assumed you knew. When I asked after Mohammed, you made me believe him dead.’
Sabbah’s scowl vanished. A weight of care seemed to drop from his face. Hassan felt himself gripped even more tightly and before he could prevent it, the Commander kissed him enthusiastically on both cheeks.
‘Forgive me!’ He was more animated than Hassan had ever seen him. ‘Would that I had stopped to think instead of glowering when you first spoke his name. Tell me more.’
‘There is little to tell,’ said Hassan. ‘Mohammed was certainly alive when I saw him last. We were at Qazvin, and he was on his way to join Ghazan at Rayy.’
‘Allah is truly all-merciful. I had given up hope, Hassan. Now I will pray we both live to meet when this war is over.’
‘I feel sure you will,’ Hassan said. ‘Yet I would hear the rest of your story. When you were told he had deserted – what then?’
‘I returned south to Tabriz to seek news of Arghun’s children,’ said Sabbah. ‘Oljei had married, Oljeitu had been given a command, and Doquz …’
‘The rest the Princess will tell you herself,’ said Sabbah. He sounded weary. ‘On reflection, I have talked enough for one night.’
Hassan was unable to sleep and, though it was hardly necessary, offered to keep the second watch until the Dog Star sank below the southern horizon. It grew quite chill and he wrapped his horse blanket round his shoulders. He walked up and down briskly, occasionally slapping his arms to keep warm. Below, at the far edge of the rock, another sentry – Mujir, he thought – guarded the gateway.
He had become used to the sound of water surging through the channels in the rock and now scarcely noticed even the muted roar as it descended again riverwards. Time passed slowly. He amused himself by studying the myriad of individual twinkling lights and the band of tiny stars that spread across the heavens like a luminescent cloud. As he looked out westwards, it seemed to him that the Dog Star, blinding in its splendour, hovered over the Alburz peaks without getting any closer to them. Higher in the sky, another star caught his attention, shining almost as brightly but with no flickering – one of the five that were destined to wander for ever through the constellations, but belonged to none. Jupiter, Shirazi had called it, named after the god of the Romans.
Two figures detached themselves from the shadows of the lower terrace and climbed the steps towards him.
‘Hassan.’ It was Sayyid’s voice. ‘The Captain has commanded me to relieve you.’
‘An hour, no more, Sayyid,’ said Doquz who accompanied him. She too wore a horse blanket round her shoulders. ‘Another should take your place. It’s too cold for extended watches when we have fifty able to undertake the duty. Come with me,’ she said to Hassan. She led him down the steps and across the courtyard, stopping and bending down to rub her hands together by one of the dying fires. ‘You are in need of some warmth.’
She unsheathed her scimitar and hooked it through the handle of a kettle that lay in the embers. Then, taking him by the arm, she drew him into the shelter of one of the rooms, which was empty save for a burning candle and yet another blanket that had been laid as a bed. There she set down the kettle. She took off her helmet and gave it to him. With the blanket edge protecting her hand she lifted the kettle again and poured its contents into the helmet.
‘Drink,’ she ordered.
Hassan raised the helmet to his lips. The aroma of warm wine mixed with spices drifted into his nostrils and he sipped the liquid gratefully. His chill abated.
‘That was good,’ he said, giving Doquz back the helmet.
‘In the Zagros winter, it was a most welcome beverage,’ said she. ‘Who would have thought it would prove equally so in the Alburz summer?’
She drank what remained of the wine, threw the helmet aside and sat down on the horse blanket. She undraped the one that covered her shoulders, loosened her corslet and extended both her arms towards him. The candle flickered.
Hassan knelt and took her hands in his. ‘Doquz …’
She pulled him down beside her. ‘I cannot pretend you were the first, Hassan,’ she said. ‘Does that trouble you?’
‘That, no,’ he replied. ‘It troubles me only that I could not please you.’
‘Then I was the first for you, as I thought. Truly you did not bed your Luciana?’
‘Not my Luciana!’ Hassan felt his cheeks burn, but if she had not guessed the whole truth he was not now going to confess it. ‘I could not love her as she wished.’
‘Yet with me you were gentleness itself.’
‘I beg you do not tease me.’
‘I do not tease, Hassan. You are young, but there is more to manhood than most men learn in a lifetime. With you …’ She did not finish the sentence but reached up and kissed him full on the mouth.
Hassan allowed his lips to linger on hers before breaking free to pose the question that had haunted him since Maragha.
‘Then I did not displease you?’
‘How could you think that? My life had become so grim and, before that night, I had not thought to find such love again.’ She paused to kiss him again, this time fiercely, her mouth open and her tongue seeking his. When it seemed to Hassan that neither could any longer draw breath, she released him. Her lips found the lobe of his ear. ‘No, indeed, it was more, Hassan,’ she whispered. ‘The other was a childish fancy. I know that now. It excited and thrilled, but did not satisfy.’
Once more Hassan was gripped by a fever of excitement. He felt he ought to respond in some way but found he could not speak without stumbling over the words.
‘The last few nights,’ he began. ‘… when we camped in the hills … I would have come to you. I wanted to come to you … when you cried out in your sleep. Yet you sent me away …’
‘It would not have been proper. You must know that.’
She bit the lobe of his ear, very gently, and encircled his neck with her arm – the left – and only then did Hassan notice she no longer wore the bandage.
‘Then let us lie together now while we have the time, my Hassan,’ said Doquz. She pulled him even closer, then down beside her on the blanket. The ground beneath his elbow was hard but he scarcely noticed.
‘My breasts are warm,’ she breathed. ‘Feel my heart; ‘tis beating so fast. Come to me again. In case there are soon to be no more tomorrows for us, I want to know your love one more time.’
[another instalment will follow in a day or two]