The Tiger and the Cauldron(32)

Chapter 32

TALAQAN

Ghazan’s forces had twice driven a wedge into the centre of Baidu’s army and twice they had been driven back. Twice his regiments of picked archers had closed on the enemy flanks like the claws of a gigantic eagle, releasing hail after hail of arrows into their midst, and twice they had been forced to retreat. Both sides had sustained heavy casualties but, for the present at least, the Il-khan’ was resisting everything Ghazan could throw at him.

Rashid peered through the summer haze at the scene below him. He could see without being seen. Shadowed by the mightier peaks and crags of the Alburz, the hill on which he stood seemed scarcely more than a furrow, one of two such that cut across the valley, but its wooded summit provided good cover for a small party of men and their mounts.

The plain seethed with men and horses. Baidu’s divisions were drawn up in crab formation, a central body two hundred and fifty across in the front rank and two wings shaped like elongated pincers. The tips of the claws and the belly consisted entirely of mounted archers, equipped not only with bows but with hooked lances that, at close quarters, could unseat an opponent or just as easily rip him apart. Behind the archers were the squadrons of swordsmen. And though he could not distinguish them, Rashid knew that yet more bowmen, perhaps as many as two thousand, would be bringing up the rear.

Ghazan’s regiments were strung out across the valley, out of arrow range. A few half-hearted enemy volleys fell just short of the front rank commanders, but they did not respond. It was already a week into the campaign, which the prince had begun with typical ebullience, declaring that, since he was now a Muslim, Allah would surely carve a way through the mountains and drive his enemies into the Caspian Sea. However, it had been a week of setbacks. Baidu had not forgotten how to fight and was not going to give up his throne easily.

It had been one of the most exciting and fulfilling months of Rashid’s life. Ever since his own conversion, from Judaism, many years ago, he had dreamed of such a day, when the conquerors of his land would abandon their heathen practices and accept the Prophet, his words and his laws as the true way. And it had been his patience that had brought about Ghazan’s change of heart. Rashid was too humble in matters of religion to expect any earthly reward but he hoped that Allah would have noted his sacrifice and have prepared a small corner of Paradise where he might enjoy the riches of eternity.

To crown his success, he had in that same month completed two further chapters of his History, the one on the reign of Gaikatu, which he decided could be altered when further facts came to light, and a second on Ghazan’s historic journey to Mount Damavand. For twenty-eight days, until now, he had been able to forget about war and concentrate on his patron’s soul and on the message of the Qur’an.

Rashid had not known whether to take the Prince’s conversion seriously. It was true that, since the resumption of his friendship with Nauruz, Ghazan had proved receptive to the Prophet’s teaching. He had spoken with sincerity and had recited the Shahada in full view of the towering mountain. Yet he was still the Mongol at heart and, like all Mongols, surely still the pragmatist. Perhaps, if it had suited his purpose, he would have pledged his allegiance to Jehovah or Christ with equal fervour.

That did not matter, Rashid decided. What mattered was that Ghazan, the Mongol, had finally acknowledged the true nature of Persia, the country his ancestors had conquered: that only a Muslim ruler could ever hold its Muslim people together; that only the Sharia could ever serve as its law. Teguder Khan had pretended but had secretly despised everything Islam represented; Arghun had tolerated but not understood it; Gaikatu and Baidu, recognising its power, had desired only its extinction. Ghazan had drawn round him Muslim advisers, Muslim emirs and Muslim generals and once he became Il-khan would be unable to turn back from the course he had set.

These past weeks had also been among the most difficult Rashid could remember. The hours between dawn and dusk were long, and obedience to the Sawm – the rules of fasting during the holy month of Ramadan – tested his own faith to the limits. The weather was at its hottest and the temptation to break the Fast and quench his burning thirst had several times been almost too strong to bear. But for the sake of the nation and its future ruler he could not yield.

The war had begun again. As soon as Ramadan was over, they had ridden west to overthrow the usurper. Rashid had known there would be trying weeks ahead, though he had no doubts the Prince would triumph in the end, and that Baidu would be crushed. It pained him only that so many of the faithful would have to die to bring that triumph about. Still, one could not cook eggs without breaking them. Their places in Paradise would be assured.

And after the victory, what? The old order would have to be swept away, humanely but firmly. There could be only one law; the Christians, Jews and Buddhists had flaunted their freedoms for too long and could be permitted to do so no longer; and, in time, their churches, synagogues and temples would have to be demolished.

There would have to be new building too – mosques, schools, hospitals and houses. Though it had been more than five years since he was in Tabriz, or Zanjan, or Hamadan, Rashid knew the fabric of those cities was crumbling. The small boost given to the economy by Arghun had done nothing to reverse the decline of generations, and the lawless years that followed his death could only have made the situation worse.

Persia was stagnating. It would need a pair of strong hands to rescue her from the brink of ruin, to make peace with her Muslim neighbours to the west, to stimulate trade and to introduce fair and proper taxation. Who better than himself, Rashid thought? As Grand Wazir, he could realise his life’s ambition and help his country to new greatness. Together with his completed histories, that would be his legacy to the world.

His eyes were beginning to hurt from the glare and he turned away from the spectacle below. A short distance to his rear, Ghazan and three of his generals, Nauruz among them, were holding a council of war. A large map of the province was spread out on the ground in front of them.

‘This is not going to be easy,’ Rashid heard the Prince say. ‘I had not expected such stubbornness.’

‘Many fight because they know little else,’ Nauruz replied. ‘It’s a reaction. Once they realise we’re determined they will break. Another sortie should be enough.’

‘I’m not so sure,’ said another voice. ‘For the present they have the advantage of numbers and will continue to resist us out of mistaken loyalty. A third attack could lose us another thousand men. Can we afford such carelessness, Your Highness?’

Ghazan paced for a few minutes, staring at his scimitar blade and muttering to himself. Rashid was no soldier himself but could not help feeling that both generals were right to an extent. It was not bravery that inspired their opponents, but fear of the unknown. They might easily be panicked into fleeing by another three-pronged sortie, especially the conscripts.

However, Rashid had studied enough similar engagements to understand Baidu’s tactics for maintaining the discipline of the line – his personal regiment, paid in gold and in favours, who guarded the rear and prodded the unwilling forward to victory or death at the point of raised lance and charged bow. Any who wavered would be cut down mercilessly by their own side.

Ghazan must know that too. His division from Khorasan had not arrived and without it there was only a slim chance that his strike and withdraw policy could drive the opposing army back. Only by taking Baidu from behind, it seemed to Rashid, could his patron win the day. He wondered if he ought to speak unasked. Surely this was a critical point in the battle where the danger of waiting might outweigh the risks of positive action. Sensing his superiority in numbers, Baidu might decide to attack with the sun behind him.

 ‘Rashid!’ The Prince had stopped pacing.

‘Your Highness?’ Rashid turned.

‘You have been observing our situation for the last half hour, Rashid. What would you do in my position, eh?’

‘You know I’m no general, Your Highness,’ said Rashid, ‘but I suspect a hundred bows in the hills are worth a regiment in the plain.’ He joined the four men and looked down at their map thoughtfully. ‘Qazvin is there,’ he mused, and prodded the parchment with a stray twig, ‘and to the north of it are three or four of the old Assassin fortresses.’

‘They are of no value,’ Nauruz objected.

‘Normally I would agree, General. But from any of them a well-equipped force of a few dozen could harass an enemy for days. If we could divert Baidu’s attention and send such a force into the Rudbar …’

‘Yes, it could be done, Nauruz,’ Ghazan interrupted enthusiastically. ‘But why not two regiments? They would have to head south to avoid Baidu’s outposts, then west and north again towards the Alburz. Four days perhaps, but it could be done. And once there they might take Qazvin, Zanjan and Soltaniya, break my cousin’s supply lines and open a road back to Tabriz.’

‘Is there time, Your Highness?’ another general asked. ‘Until the division from Khorasan arrives we are under strength. If Baidu realises our weakness he will attack.’

‘We must pray he does not, Akhtar,’ said Ghazan. ‘Is that not what this new faith of ours is about? Eh, Rashid?’

‘Prayer and abstinence, Your Highness,’ said Rashid.

‘Thank you for reminding me,’ said Ghazan shortly.  ‘We shall observe the Salat. But I think we can spare two minghans for an expedition …’

A steward, having hurried up the hill from the direction of the rearmost camp, was hovering just out of earshot. Rashid had been aware of his presence for several minutes but it appeared Ghazan had just noticed him. He broke off his sentence.

‘Yes, what do you want?’

‘Your pardon, Excellency,’ the man said, ‘but a large force bearing your colours is approaching along the Silk Road from the east.’

Ghazan was triumphant. He faced Rashid with one of his most grotesque smiles.

‘You see, my prayer is already answered,’ he said devoutly as if to dispel any lingering doubts as to his sincerity. ‘Our reinforcements have arrived just in time.’

The steward seemed anxious to speak again. He coughed nervously. ‘Your Excellency …’

‘What is it now?’ demanded the Prince.

‘Forgive me, Excellency, but there is another message from below. The Commander from Qom has arrived and has brought two prisoners with him.’

***

Fatima had never seen Ghazan, and her first impressions of him were contrary to everything she had imagined. Princes were tall and handsome, she had always supposed. Hassan, though not truly a prince, fitted that description, and she had been prepared to find in Doquz’s brother a paragon of male stature and beauty. However, not only was Ghazan small, he was unbelievably repulsive in looks. Their captors had treated them with dignity but had given them no chance of escape. Though there had been five men only at the staging post, General Sabbah had two whole regiments camped nearby, and it was in their company that they had travelled across country to rendezvous with Ghazan’s army.

Sabbah and the Prince seemed to be on the best of terms. They embraced and exchanged a few words. Ghazan flashed a glance in their direction before beckoning to both her and Ali to approach. He gave a formidable squint.

‘So you’ve come from my sister, eh?’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Ali.

‘And how is little Doquz?’ enquired Ghazan. ‘She must be nearly fourteen by now.’

Fatima bit her lip hard to stifle her amusement. She herself was as tall as the Prince while Doquz was a head taller. And she was quite certain the Captain was at least a year her senior. Ghazan looked at her sharply and she bowed solemnly to hide the lines of laughter she was sure were present on her face.

‘She is well, Your Highness. A week ago we took Maragha and at this very moment she is riding with three dozen horsemen to take Alamut in your name. That is, if she has not already done so.’

‘Maragha, eh?’ The Prince turned to the tall man in a scholarly jubbah who stood at his side. ‘What d’you think of that, Rashid? Instead of marrying, my little sister has taken to the field of battle. Why have I never heard of this before?’

‘There were rumours, Your Highness,’ said Rashid. He coughed. ‘Perhaps your prayers are answered twofold. An expedition to the Rudbar …’

‘Yes, Rashid, perhaps they are,’ said Ghazan. He squinted again, and Fatima thought the squint less forbidding and more benevolent than his first. ‘Indeed they are! That is, if Doquz’s friends here are willing to risk their lives again to take a message to her. But a day or two will make no difference to your plan, Rashid. I’d first like to hear some more about my sister’s escapades.’

*****

[to be continued]

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