Doquz squatted in the shade of the battlements and covered her face with her hands.
‘Was that very foolish, Sabbah?’ she asked. ‘The man’s attitude infuriated me but I should not have reacted as I did.’
‘Foolish or not, they have gone, or will have gone soon,’ Hassan said. ‘Zanjani had only contempt for us, I think. From the moment of his arrival he was looking through his nose at everything around him.’
‘It’s not decided yet,’ Sabbah said. He had wandered across to the rim of the rock and beckoned to them.
Hassan went to join him. He looked over the edge at their departing guests who had gone scarcely any distance beyond the cleft on the western side. They had stopped and appeared to be arguing. Zanjani stood motionless. Fakhr was waving his arms excitedly, gesturing back at the summit, then at their regiment camped by the village, and finally pointing towards the south east. Hassan followed the direction of the Malik’s arm but a jagged rock shooting skywards on the left obscured his view. He could see below nothing but a swathe of green vegetation, darkening as it merged into the empty hills of the southern Alburz.
‘What are they saying, do you think?’ he enquired.
‘I cannot guess,’ said Sabbah. ‘It’s clear Zanjani is not used to being challenged, and here he’s being challenged for the second time this morning. I also think Fakhr was sympathetic to my point of view … and now I fancy something has caught his attention, something we cannot see from this position.’
‘The enemy force the Emir spoke of?’
‘I think not. He said two days away.’
‘He could be mistaken.’ Doquz got to her feet, wedged her toe in a crack in the obstructing rock and heaved herself up. ‘Riders are approaching from the river.’
‘How many?’ Sabbah turned.
‘Hardly a regiment, but they are in a hurry. Twice or thrice our own numbers, perhaps.’
‘A scouting expedition?’
Hassan could see them now. They were indeed a small party and they carried no pennons or identifying colours. Three riders rode in the van, the one in the centre much taller and broader than the others, and indeed the flanking riders on their long-limbed, sleek mounts seemed almost like children beside him. They drew closer, reached a fold in the hill and vanished from Hassan’s view.
From somewhere in the Emir’s encampment below a horn blared, then another. A gong clanged. Then silence hung over the rock. Hassan returned to Sabbah’s side. Zanjani and Fakhr too were out of sight and the road from the gorge was desolate.
The sun rose in the sky. The bowmen on the battlements relaxed but did not lay down their weapons. As it was the only measure of passing time at his disposal, Hassan watched the shadow of the jagged rock as it shrank in length and moved a few degrees to the left. No more than half an hour passed by his calculation, though it seemed much longer. Neither he nor Doquz had spoken. Sabbah had contented himself with an occasional grunt of impatience.
Suddenly, to the east of the village, the light flickered. Four riders emerged, two abreast, and cantered towards the cleft. They reached it and dismounted. With a surge of pleasure and surprise, Hassan recognised the two foremost as Ali and Fatima. They waved a greeting. Behind them came Fakhr ad-Din, and with him was a strongly built man wearing a general’s helmet and plume. The four disappeared into the cleft.
Hassan saw a change had come over Sabbah. The man whom he had seen only once before display any real emotion gave a great cry of joy, rushed to the gateway and disappeared over the edge of the rock. Minutes later, Hassan saw him, sometimes stumbling, sometimes running down the path.
Far below, Ali and Fatima emerged again into the sunlight, the general behind them and Fakhr now bringing up the rear. Sabbah reached them, and in a moment had seized the general by the shoulders. Then the two were hugging each other like reunited lovers.
‘Indeed, I remember you,’ said Doquz. She leaned back against the wall of the room they had chosen for its combination of light and cool. ‘Two or three winters you spent with us in Arran. But you have since been promoted, it seems … and my Buddhist brother has become a Muslim. ‘Tis a strange world!’
‘Prince Ghazan has honoured me,’ said Mohammed Sabbah, ‘and for what was a small service. And of course I remember you, Princess, though you have grown somewhat since then. Master Hassan too; I never expected to see you again this side of Paradise. When time permits I shall be happy to hear all your news – but that will have to wait as His Highness has a pressing need of your assistance if we are to break Baidu’s lines and his spirit.’
‘I fear we are in no position to take on Baidu’s army,’ said Doquz. ‘We had planned to join with Sadr Zanjani but I have offended him by refusing his leadership.’
‘Zanjani will do as he’s told,’ growled the General. ‘As for you, a regiment is too many for what is required. Daring, stealth, and speed – and you have those, it seems. Baidu holds Qazvin and we must take it from him. What do you say, Princess? What do you say, Brother?’
The Commander screwed up his face. ‘How many in the garrison?’
‘Two or three regiments are stationed there, but they have been called up and are camped a few parasangs south of the city. Still, Qazvin is not Maragha! Maybe five or six hundred still guard it. It is those we must destroy, and do it quickly. They must not be allowed to send for reinforcements.’
‘We have already inflicted damage on Baidu’s outposts along the Silk Route,’ said Sabbah, ‘and had thought to continue with the process. But we are in no position to take a well defended city, Mohammed.’
‘A strategy of attack and flee such as your band has perfected is exactly what is needed,’ replied the General. ‘Anyway, you will not be alone. I have a hundred and twenty men with me now. You can have them, and can take another fifty from the followers of Fakhr ad-Din. He has already agreed.
‘It will be dangerous,’ he went on, eyeing Doquz meaningfully. ‘But then you have lived by danger for a year and more if those two young snappers, Ali and Fatima, are to be believed.
‘Baidu’s main army is less than three days from here in a south easterly direction. The Alburz and Qazvin are behind him. He fancies himself safe since he holds the town, and no large army can negotiate the mountains without being spotted by his scouts. Thus he concentrates his efforts on the Prince’s divisions in front of him. If a small force can make him believe he’s threatened from behind and draw off his rearguard, it will allow Ghazan to strike where it matters – at his front line.’
‘Then we leave Alamut within the hour …’ cried Doquz, fired it seemed by the prospect of some action. She leapt to her feet. ‘ … as soon as our ponies are watered. They have already rested a day out of the sun. Are you agreed, Ahmed? Hassan?’
‘With two hundred we can do it,’ the Commander said. ‘A three or four-pronged attack from the cover of the hills. Random sorties to confuse the enemy and draw them out of the city gates. If they think us a weaker force, they will not retreat to the citadel.’
‘There is one flaw in the plan, if you’ll forgive me saying it, General,’ said Hassan. ‘Suppose we take this town – how are we to hold it? Emir Zanjani was right in one respect: if Baidu’s forces are turned we will be trampled underfoot.’
‘You are right, Master Hassan,’ laughed Mohammed. He made an expansive gesture towards the south east. ‘But if your eyes were able to see through turf and rock, you would know that behind that hill some two thousand men of Qom await my return. In three days, with Zanjani in support, we will strike first the Qazvin regiments, then Baidu’s rear guard.
‘I suggest you spare twenty men to hold the nearest pass and cut down any who flee north from the city. We’ll deal with any who escape to the south.
‘One thing more!’ he warned. ‘Timing is everything. Ghazan must know when we plan to attack.’
‘We’ll send Kamal to him, General,’ said Doquz. ‘He is a cook and of little value as a combatant.’
‘Send him now! If he rides hard he can be with His Highness by tomorrow afternoon. Say that the following day you will strike at Qazvin City. In three days time, I would like to have friends behind me when I retreat!’
‘You will have them,’ said Doquz. ‘And I only hope we shall find Baidu himself lurking behind Qazvin’s walls!’
[to be continued]