Dawn came too quickly for Hassan. He had hardly slept but his body felt warm and alive. Doquz lay close to him beneath the double blanket, her wounded arm still wrapped round his chest, one knee pressing against his belly and her cheek nuzzling his chin. Over the last fortnight the growth of his beard had both roughened and accelerated, but she appeared to find no discomfort in it.
A single sunbeam formed a triangular shape on the far wall of the room and there was enough light for him to distinguish her features. With her eyes closed she was less the Tiger Princess and more the carefree child he remembered from long ago. Her unruly hair fell over her forehead as two elflocks and a narrow strand that curled round one eyebrow. Her lashes flickered.
Hassan wondered at her modest denials of beauty, as it seemed to him at that moment that she was the single most beautiful thing in the universe. He had enjoyed watching her before, but now nothing mattered except that he hold her close and keep guard over her until she wakened.
Their clothing and weapons lay untidily to one side of the makeshift bed along with the residue of three spent candles, giving the lie to the possibility that it had all been a dream. Hassan glanced towards the triangular beam. He wanted to know where the light was coming from but could not turn round sufficiently without disturbing Doquz. Instead he watched the shape widen at its base and round gradually until, at length, it split into two arched doorways of light. The brightness surprised him as it seemed there had been scarcely any night at all; then he remembered not only that it was just past midsummer, but that they were high in the mountains.
After they had taken pleasure together, he had listened in silence as Doquz told her story – of her desire to learn swordplay, of her stay at Maragha under Shirazi’s tutelage and of her affair with Ibrahim. She had spared him no detail of her violation at the hands of Baidu’s henchmen, of the terror of the prison at Daquqa, of Gaikatu’s brutalising of her former lover, and of her revenge.
‘We agreed there should be no secrets between us,’ she said. ‘It is these things that have made me what I am, even if you are to hate me for it. And you cannot hate me more than I hate myself for the vileness of thought and deed to which my soul could sink.’
‘How can I hate you?’ Hassan asked. The words came to him more easily now. ‘How can I hate you knowing I would have been less merciful? And knowing what you and, before you, my mother suffered?’
He put his arms around her and she clung to him trembling. They made love for a second and a third time, hungrily and helplessly, each exploring the other and finding ever new ways of bringing arousal and fulfilment. At length Doquz, with a sigh of contentment, rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes while Hassan, having wrapped the two blankets tightly round them both, lay awake watching the flame of the last candle shrink and die.
Doquz opened her eyes and yawned. The brightness in the room had intensified and now that Hassan was able to move freely he saw that there was a cleft in the roof, low down, and through it the morning light was streaming. He could see the gateway through which they had entered the fortress, and framed between its broken pillars was the golden orb of the early midsummer sun. The image on the far wall had dissolved.
‘Good morning!’ Doquz pushed back her elflocks and rubbed the sleep from the corner of her eyes.
‘Salaam-e-lekum,’ said Hassan. He kissed her.
‘‘Tis already day,’ she exclaimed, sitting up and throwing the blankets aside. She reached towards her clothing. ‘You should have wakened me.’
‘It’s still early,’ Hassan said. He seized her wrist and tried to pull her back into the warmth of the blanket. Already goose pimples were forming on her arm. The redness around her wound had gone and a scar had formed.
Doquz giggled. She snuggled up to him and Hassan felt his desire stirring.
‘No,’ she said after a moment’s hesitation. ‘The others will be abroad soon if they are not already. Would you have us discovered in this condition?’
‘Let them discover us,’ said Hassan. ‘I am not ashamed of what I feel for you, and if any of the band objects let him beware.’
‘If you feel anything for me at all, Hassan, you will allow me to dress,’ said Doquz. She pouted mischievously. ‘‘Tis not a matter of shame or otherwise, but Sabbah is too much the moralist in these matters. You are at a disadvantage in your birthday suit and I would not have you face him so.’
Hassan seized his jerkin and sword belt as a cry from the battlements alerted him to the first signs of movement in the river valley. He had been dressed for almost an hour but Doquz had left him to consult with Sabbah and he had fallen to daydreaming.
He rushed from the room. Doquz and Sabbah were already on the upper terrace, with them Mujir, Kamal and some others. Khumar was also there.
‘A body of men is approaching, Hassan,’ said the Commander. ‘Khumar spotted them from one of the lookout forts and has ridden to report it. We do not yet know their numbers.’
‘Or if they’re friendly,’ said Mujir. ‘Who’s to say the Il-khan doesn’t have a squadron or two prowling in the hills.’
‘That is something I’ve been thinking about,’ Sabbah said. ‘News of our attack on Maragha must have reached Tabriz and there are still many loyal to Baidu in the city and its suburbs. And there’s always Captain Jirjis. Whatever happened to him after he lost his command, he’ll not have forgotten the bloody nose I gave him.’
‘The first of them are coming through the pass, Commander.’ Khumar interrupted him sharply and gestured towards the west.
Hassan looked over the battlements in the direction of his outstretched arm. The entrance to the gorge was just visible and he could see the irregular mass of men and horses wending its way along the river valley. At this distance, he thought, they were like an army of foraging ants or a huge globule of viscous liquid, black and grey but scintillating red and orange as the tips of a hundred lances were caught by the rays of the early sun.
‘Till we’re certain it’s Zanjani who approaches, we should prepare for all possibilities,’ said Doquz. ‘Twenty arrows to each quiver and, if we have to fight, make sure every one counts. Ten bowmen on the upper path and the rest behind the walls will hold off anything they can throw at us. They can attack no more than two or three at a time. Make sure we are ready, Khumar!’
‘Yes, Captain.’ Khumar went to execute her wishes and in a few minutes some forty of the band had formed up on the battlements, at the gatehouse and on its turrets. Ten archers ran to guard the upper path and the water cisterns.
The human globule drew closer as they watched. Hassan could now distinguish individuals; some rode, others ran. The force carried three standards – on the left flank, a plain blue pennon, on the right, one of black and yellow and, in the van, a broader flag that was bright red with white symbols woven into it. However, it was not until the leaders neared the village that he recognised what they were – a scimitar surmounted by a crescent moon.
‘It’s the Emir,’ Kamal exclaimed. ‘There can be no doubt. That is his emblem.’
‘How should we greet them, Sabbah?’ asked Doquz. ‘They will see our horses and know we are here, but may suppose we are an enemy.’
‘They will see nothing,’ Khumar said. ‘I ordered the ponies to be hidden.’
The Emir’s force had reached the village and halted. Hassan was unable to guess its size but when set against the numbers of his companions on the rock it seemed very formidable indeed.
‘I’ll go down,’ said Sabbah. ‘With Hassan, if he is willing. Hassan?’
‘It’ll be an honour to accompany you,’ Hassan slid his sword in and out of its sheath, tested the tension of his bow and looked towards Mujir who was now distributing arrows to the outlaws behind the buttresses. He was glad of the opportunity of some action.
‘Keep your sword, Hassan, but otherwise unarmed, I think,’ said the Commander. He made off towards the broken gateway. ‘It’s not an enemy that we go to meet!’
Chastened, Hassan handed his bow and quiver to Kamal. They left the fortress and made their way downwards. Four riders were coming along a cleft on the western side. Hassan wondered if they were just curious or if, despite Khumar’s assurances, they had seen some sign that the fortress was occupied.
When they were nearly half way down, Sabbah sat on an outcrop and calmly proceeded to toss a single dagger. The sun was now behind Shir Kuh and its craggy outline was cast as a sharp shadow across the way in front of them. They were hidden by shadow but for thirty paces or so the path was lit such that anyone emerging from the overhanging walls of the cleft would be dazzled by the sudden glare.
They waited patiently until all four riders emerged from the cleft. Sabbah hailed them. Startled, the leading rider drew his sword. His pony reared. The three men with him reached for their bows and retreated again out of the sunlight.
‘Do you know him?’ Hassan whispered.
‘It isn’t Zanjani,’ Sabbah said, ‘though he seems harmless enough. ‘We are friends,’ he called. ‘Allah akhbar!’
‘Allah akhbar!’ the other repeated, shading his eyes and peering through the glare. ‘Who are you, friends, and why do you hide yourself in the darkness?’
‘As soon as I deem it safe from the arrows of your companions I will tell you,’ rejoined Sabbah. ‘We are two men only and have a sword and a dagger between us.’
The horseman made a signal and his three followers emerged again into the light. They held the reins with one hand and carried their bows loose at their sides.
‘That should satisfy you,’ said their leader. His voice was crisp, his tone impatient, Hassan thought. ‘I am Fakhr ad-Din, Malik of Ardabil.’
‘Ahmed Sabbah, at your service,’ said Sabbah, slipping from his perch on the outcrop and taking a few steps in the direction of the speaker. ‘And my young comrade is Mahmoud Hassan. You are part of Zanjani’s force?’
‘You are well informed,’ said Fakhr. ‘What is your unit, how many are they, and who commands you?’
‘As to numbers, enough to hold this mountain,’ Sabbah said lightly. ‘As to command, I acknowledge no man as my master, unless it be Ghazan himself.’
‘It seems we are on the same side at any rate,’ said Fakhr. He dismounted. ‘May we come up and discuss an alliance?’
Sabbah seemed to consider the request. He tossed his dagger twice, the second time catching the blade flat between his palms, and returned it to his belt.
‘You may come up, Fakhr, and two of the three,’ he said at length. ‘But send the fourth back to Emir Zanjani. Say that my captain wishes to speak with him.’
‘Captain?’ exclaimed Fakhr. ‘When you said you had none?’
‘No man was what I said,’ Sabbah replied. ‘Yet a masterless man may have a mistress. And mine is one I fancy Zanjani will acknowledge or there will be no alliance.’
‘The Emir has no time for mysteries, nor have I,’ Fakhr said irritably. ‘Nor for mistresses! Who is this captain of yours?’
A crunch of boots on the gravel of the path made Hassan turn round. Doquz had joined them. She was in full armour, but she carried her plumed helmet under her arm. Her raven hair fell loosely over her shoulders. Hassan had never seen her look so splendid.
‘If you do as you are bid, you may both discover it, Fakhr Malik!’ cried she, stepping forward into the light. ‘And for a man who, as I remember, keeps four wives, your disavowal of womankind has the sound of a contradiction.’
Fakhr peered at her through narrowed eyes, but with no sign of recognition.
‘ ‘Tis no surprise you do not know me,’ Doquz went on, ‘yet one clue should suffice to stir your memory. At the feast to celebrate my father’s fifth year as ruler, I spilt a broth in the lap of one of those wives of yours. Her name was Semanthea, or some such.’
‘I too recall that incident,’ cried Hassan. He laughed. ‘Indeed, the fault may have been mine, since I jogged your arm. The woman would have struck you, I think, but for Ghazan’s attention.’
‘Or of one of his eyes, at any rate,’ said Doquz, laughing too. ‘The larger and higher of the two! Come, Fakhr, you can’t have forgotten.’
‘Princess Doquz!’ Fakhr stared in disbelief and confusion. His crisp, military bearing and voice dissolved. ‘Indeed I have not … but to find you here … grown … indeed a woman …. and Prince Hassan, surely … the stepson of whose skill with the bow Arghun was so proud.’
‘Spare your embarrassment, Fakhr ad-Din,’ said Doquz. ‘Come up, and send to Sadr Zanjani to join us. We’ll talk of the war, and you can share our company and our food!’
The Emir was a man of about Sabbah’s age with bland features and the arrogant air of one used to deference and flattery from those under his satrapy. His force was smaller than they had been led to expect, no more than nine hundred, almost half their original number having gone south to rally support in the neighbouring provinces, but Zanjani himself was able to confirm that two full regiments from Hamadan, each one thousand men, were already riding north towards Qazvin.
However, there was a more important matter to occupy their attention. The Emir’s spies had reported a large enemy force camped less than two days’ march to the south, and probably heading eastwards to reinforce Baidu’s main army. ‘We cannot pass them,’ he asserted, ‘but if we continue on this route through the mountains, we may reach Rayy in three or four days.’
‘Rayy?’ Sabbah enquired. ‘Ghazan will not choose to give battle there. He will advance west and attack the enemy position at Talaqan. In any case, the eastern end of this valley is impassable.’
‘I do not share your opinion,’ said Zanjani. ‘On the second issue, my map shows a road. On the first, Baidu will have had time to entrench. He has three or four divisions now. If Ghazan attacks him too soon he will lose.’
‘My brother has had four years to plan,’ said Doquz. ‘Even with three divisions of loyal followers he will drive Baidu back.’
‘With respect, Your Highness, it’s your heart that speaks,’ said the Emir. ‘The heart of a woman and sister. Two years of strife in Khorasan have weakened your brother’s strength if not his will.’
Hassan saw Doquz’s jaw tighten and sensed her displeasure at being treated with condescension. The atmosphere grew noticeably more tense.
‘Then my woman’s heart will guide me,’ she replied, glaring at Zanjani fiercely, ‘and I shall back Sabbah’s judgement against all others. If he advises against Rayy, my company will not go there.’
‘I caution you to reconsider, Princess,’ Zanjani said, glaring back. ‘You surely cannot engage a regiment, far less an army, with fifty raw apprentices. And if Ghazan scatters the enemy as you confidently predict, your band will be trampled under foot and hoof.’
Sabbah, sitting on a broken wall and polishing his scimitar blade, appeared to have preserved his calm, but at the sound of raised voices he looked up.
Doquz’s eyes blazed with anger.
‘Do you think me a fool, Sadr ad-Din?’ she cried. ‘In a year, and with fewer of those raw apprentices, I have done more to unnerve Baidu than the regiments of Ardabil in four. Where were they when I struck his supply lines along the Silk Road, when I worsted his garrisons at Urmia, Arbil and Zanjan, when I broke open his prison at Daquqa? Where were they when I took five hundred royals from the Tabriz treasury? And when you, in your new-found zeal, decide in the name of God to take up arms in my brother’s cause, you expect me to ignore the judgement of the man who has led me to those triumphs.’
Clearly, Zanjani was unused to being challenged and was taken aback by this outburst. He rose to his feet bristling with annoyance but, seeing that Sabbah had finished his polishing and was practising a few gentle swings with the scimitar, he seemed to think better of arguing and sat down again.
‘I have offended you, Your Highness, though I do not know how,’ he said with dignity. ‘For that I am sorry. But in war it is usual for the weaker force to join with the stronger.’
‘And it shall be so, Sadr ad-Din,’ said Doquz, pouting her lips in a very determined way, ‘though the command will be mine until my brother decrees otherwise. And as Commander, I will choose whose advice I accept and whose I reject.’
‘I will not give up my command to you!’
‘Then you must go your own way and do as you like,’ said Doquz.
Zanjani rose abruptly and stalked off towards the gate. Fakhr, who had said very little since arriving in the fortress, hesitated a moment before following.
[The next instalment will follow in a day or two.]