Sabbah and his party turned the corner into the square. His face, already bloody and grim, puckered in an expression that seemed to mix rage with revulsion. Fakhr ad-Din, who had been leaning on his shoulder for support, sank to his knees with a groan.
‘What in the name of Satan and all his dark angels has happened here?’
Two men came over the threshold of the citadel into the daylight. Both were dressed as clerics. They were living skeletons of men. Their robes and turbans, ash-grey and streaked with rust-brown stains, hung on their emaciated forms like rags. Their beards were dirty and matted. They peered at the new arrivals over blackened and bony cheeks.
The shorter mullah of the two, if that was indeed his profession, shuffled forward and stopped in front of Doquz. He scrutinised her body armour, then her face. It was only when he reached out his hand to touch her cheek and hair that she remembered she had lost her headgear.
‘Mongol,’ said the cleric. It was not a question, rather a statement of fact.
‘Yes,’ said Doquz.
‘I am Imam Masud.’ He indicated Fakhr. ‘You have other wounded?’
‘Some. Embedded arrow heads and scimitar cuts. This one is the most serious.’
The Imam leant over Fakhr who was sat on the paving and breathing heavily. ‘My colleague has some knowledge of physic,’ he said. He beckoned to the second cleric who came over hesitantly. The latter crouched down beside the Malik and prised his fingers away.
‘No major vessel is torn, or he would not have lived so long,’ he pronounced unemotionally, hitching up his robe. ‘But the injury must be cleaned, sewn up and dressed. Bring him and I will see to it.’
He pointed to the mosque at the end of the avenue and shuffled off towards it. Two of Fakhr’s men lifted the Malik and, carrying him between them, followed. They disappeared through a narrow door in the wall.
‘Are there many of your people in the citadel, Imam Masud?’ Doquz asked.
Masud stared at her long and hard without replying. He then turned to Sabbah as if to question her right to speak.
‘She is our captain,’ Sabbah said, answering for them both.
‘And you?’ the Imam went on. ‘You are not Mongol.’
‘I am of mixed blood,’ said Sabbah. ‘Mongol and Persian.’
The Imam turned back to Doquz and stared at her again, bleakly she thought. Again he reached out his hand to touch her but at the last moment withdrew it.
‘How are you named, Mongol maiden?’ he enquired.
‘I am named Doquz.’
The Imam seemed to be savouring her answer.
‘A woman as commander,’ he said at length. ‘So it was betimes in the days of the Prophet – peace be upon his name! You fight for Ghazan?’
‘He is my brother.’
‘When was that ever a guarantee of harmony and friendship? The bloodlust and depravity of mankind is not easy to comprehend.’ Masud sighed and shook his head. ‘Then you are the one of whom the others spoke?’
‘Others?’ enquired Doquz. She glanced towards the door of the citadel in expectation. More people were coming out, at least twenty men, women and girls. They blinked in the sunshine. Like the clerics, most were dirty and gaunt as if they had been starved. Then she noticed they were being shepherded by two figures in light armour carrying bows, and her heart leapt as she recognised them.
‘We are glad to see you, Captain,’ said Fatima and Ali together.
Doquz was overcome with a sense of relief. She rushed forward and embraced them both, something she had never done before in all the months of her leadership.
‘And Hassan?’ she breathed.
‘Inside,’ said Fatima. ‘It was his idea that we should take this place.’ She indicated the corpses that lay at the foot of the walls and by the door. ‘Five more lie inside, and four at the north-eastern gate. It was no great battle like yours, I fear, Captain. Sixteen Chagatai were no opposition at all.
‘And this?’ enquired Doquz, indicating the skulls and the remains of the fire. ‘In truth, something hellish has taken place here.’
‘The remains of the true garrison,’ said Ali. ‘There has been no time to learn more.’
‘Then I think we should learn it later,’ said Doquz. ‘For the moment I shall be satisfied if I see Hassan is unhurt.’
Hassan could not be certain that his plan had worked. Cut off from the main force with no hope of joining the attack, and pursued by enemy horsemen, he had only his native wit and intuition to guide him. He knew that ten against three were bad odds and that he would have to devise some strategy to improve them.
He glanced over his shoulder without slacking pace. Four of their pursuers were lightly-clad archers, the other six carried swords and lances. All their mounts were fresh so he could not rely entirely on speed to escape. The Chagatai were competent bowmen and, if the four came within range, the small shields that he, Ali and Sayyid carried would be insufficient protection. The ponies were an even easier target and he could not count on the reputed Mongol love of horses to save them.
On the other hand, the swordsmen wore metal-reinforced armour and would therefore soon fall behind in the chase. The archers were the priority. Hassan tried to remember his lessons with Arghun. Retreat is only a ploy, he remembered his stepfather saying once. He decided that their best chance lay in taking down the Chagatai before they could take proper aim. Their bows were out, ready strung, and hung over their shoulders. What he had done as a child with inanimate targets he could do now.
‘Hassan?’ Sayyid was panting at his side.
‘We fight! Can you turn … and shoot … from the saddle?’
‘I’ve had no practice!’
‘Then draw some of them off when I give the word. Head for the south of the city. Ali?’
‘I’m with you,’ breathed Ali. His bow was already in his hand, and he pulled an arrow from his quiver.
‘On my signal then,’ said Hassan. He hooked the reins round the pommel, unslung his bow and fitted a long shaft to the string. ‘Now!’
With a surge of energy, Sayyid veered his pony off towards the south-east. In the same moment, Hassan and Ali turned. One archer and two swordsmen had broken away from the enemy group. The other four swordsmen were already well to the rear. The three archers that remained were strung out in a line, about a hundred and fifty paces away. Only now they were raising their bows to attack. Hassan and Ali drew and shot.
Their shafts struck home and two of the enemy fell. The arrows they released in their final moments flew harmlessly overhead. A third arrow, from the surviving Chagatai, struck Ali in the shoulder. Hassan shot again and missed. The Chagatai’s second arrow whistled past his helmet just above the ear and he imagined he felt the brush of the fletching against the metal.
Ali broke off the arrow shaft in his shoulder without slacking pace.
‘A scratch only,’ he gasped and, grinning fiercely, raised his bow. ‘Merciful Allah! The leather and silk took the barb.’
His second shot found its mark. The Chagatai clutched his chest and slumped over his horse’s neck. The nearest of the swordsmen had just come within range and Hassan’s third shaft pierced him just above the breastbone. The others retreated.
Hassan turned his pony with the knee and sped after Sayyid’s pursuers, Ali on his tail. They were gaining ground. One swordsman looked round, saw him and yelled something to his comrade. Hassan shot but failed to penetrate the man’s cuirass. Ali’s effort was no more successful.
The swordsmen broke off the chase, halted their mounts and prepared to give battle with scimitars and lances. They were clear targets now but too close and too well protected by their metal armour for an easy kill. Hassan reined in. Instinct drove him. The enemy would not throw their lances unless they were sure of a hit, he decided. They would be more likely to use them to stab or hook, and at close range and in the right hands they could be deadly.
Ali swung wide and loosed another long shaft which clattered harmlessly off a swordsman’s breastplate. Hassan drew a short thick arrow from his quiver.
The swordsmen hesitated. They were going to charge – to try and put him off his aim – relying on their superior armour and their momentum for advantage.
Meantime Sayyid was being harassed by the surviving Chagatai. Weaving to left and right to avoid his pursuers arrows, he was losing ground and there was nowhere for him to take cover.
‘Go, Ali,’ Hassan yelled. ‘Help him!’ He slid from the saddle and knelt, crouching, his bow at the ready. The two enemy soldiers had begun their charge, their lances held, balanced, by left hand and elbow, their swords unsheathed and raised above their heads for a strike. Hassan could see their faces, determined and confident, as they moved in for the kill. They were a hundred paces from him. He took careful aim. Seventy. Forty.
Hassan released the bowstring and the foremost swordsman screamed as the barb pierced his left eye. Hassan leapt to one side to avoid the sweeping lance of his second assailant. The hook caught his right boot and ripped it to the heel but did not touch the flesh.
The man skidded to a halt, not thirty paces away, turned and threw the weapon as a spear.
Hassan dodged. Again he raised his bow, fitted another heavy arrow and as his attacker spurred forward shot it into the unprotected space between the man’s uplifted arm and the fastenings of his cuirass. The man pitched forward, and Hassan had no time to dodge again before the limp corpse struck him full in the chest and pinned him underneath its weight.
He heaved the dead man aside and got to his knees. Ali and Sayyid reined in beside him.
‘We are all in one piece at any rate,’ said the former lightly. ‘And it is all due to General Hassan.’
‘I pray, do not give me a rank to which I’m not entitled,’ Hassan reprimanded. ‘Luck had its part to play in our victory and we should not expect her to favour us a second time. If the other swordsmen had not suspected an ambush and retreated, it would have gone badly for us.’
‘I shall not doubt Allah’s mercy again,’ said Ali. ‘When this war is over I shall pray for a week. But, Hassan, if you will not be our general, let me at least call you brother.’
‘That is one title I will not refuse from you, Ali … nor from you, Sayyid,’ Hassan said, rising to his feet embracing them both.
‘Your brother I will be, Hassan,’ said Sayyid unhappily, ‘though I do not deserve your affection. I fear I played no part in your victory.’
‘You will get a chance to redeem yourself, Sayyid,’ said Hassan. ‘… when we take the citadel.’ He was filled suddenly with confidence. They were close to the southernmost gate of Qazvin and there was no sign of a sentry. Doquz and Sabbah had drawn the enemy to the western gates and would be certain to prevail. ‘Because that is what we are going to do!’
They circled Qazvin towards the east, warily but in good spirits. They encountered no opposition. None of the three gates they passed had Chagatai encampments, nor were they guarded from the walls. Ahead was the easternmost bastion of the city and in the middle distance were the peaks of the Talaqan range overhung with light cloud. Somewhere beneath its ridges and to the west was the route they had so recently followed from the Valley of Alamut.
Between city and mountains, as far as their eyes could see, the rolling meadows were well-grazed by both sheep and horses. Out of the shadow of the tower and penned in a stockade, a herd of Steppes ponies nuzzled the earth as if trying to suck from it the last vestige of nourishment.
They rounded the bastion and came within sight of the north-east gate. Nothing barred their way except an abandoned cart covered with a canvas awning. They drew closer, still wary. Hassan signalled the others to stop and reached for his bow. This gate was manned. Above it, on a platform, were two armoured guards, whilst keeping watch on either side was a sentry wearing a black Chagatai jerkin. One of the latter was small of stature and slimly built.
Ali gave a loud whoop of joy and urged his pony forward.
Fatima’s story was quickly told. On reaching the gate and finding it guarded by four men they nevertheless drove their cart forward. Fatima, with Talitha beside her, took the reins. Mariam and the three men were hidden under the awning.
The guards would have delayed them to search the wagon but hearing the sound of battle-cries they made to close the gate. Fatima and Talitha took the two on the ground from behind with their daggers while the others leapt out of the wagon and brought down the two on the platform with arrows.
They dragged the bodies out of sight, stripped them of their jerkins and took their places at the gate.
‘We wait for the Captain,’ Fatima had insisted.
The horns and battle-cries announcing the second charge had already sounded. Fatima remained reluctant to abandon the gate, but Hassan convinced her the citadel must be taken.
‘If it is heavily guarded, we wait,’ he said, ‘but if they have all left to defend the west wall as I suspect, we attack.’
In the event, all went well. They found the doors of the citadel open and the building defended by twelve Chagatai and mixed-blood Persians who offered no serious resistance.
Doquz’s first duty was to the wounded who were given into the care of the mullah. Except for Fakhr, none had critical injuries and indeed, after cleaning off the blood, many found they had sustained only scratches. The Malik was very weak from the cut in his side, however the mullah expressed confidence that after a week’s rest he would recover.
There were twenty-eight prisoners in the citadel. Starved, beaten, and held in dungeons, they had given up hope of ever seeing the daylight again. The clerics, perceived as leaders of the people, had fared worse than the others.
Imam Masud was clearly sick and was reluctant to relive his experience by talking of it at length, but Sabbah persuaded him to give at least an outline of the calamity that had befallen the city.
‘Life had never been easy in Qazvin,’ he told them, ‘but at least Ghazan left us alone. His wars were being fought in Khorasan and on the plains of Semnan. We believed the Mongol succession was something that affected only the western provinces.
‘We were wrong. Near two months ago, three of Baidu’s regiments invaded the province. The city was occupied and the killing began. The small garrison, once Gaikatu’s men but now loyal to Ghazan, was slaughtered. The chief administrator and the dewan were executed in front of the mosque, their bodies burned.’
‘For what crimes?’ Sabbah asked.
‘They were guilty of none save that they were Ghazan’s people. A hundred citizens were commanded to watch the executions. Any who showed unwillingness or weakness were bound and added to the bonfire alive.’
Hassan shuddered. Many times he had heard stories of the supposed atrocities committed by Temuchin’s troops but had never believed them. He had known conspiracy, betrayal and murder and, in the past month, had seen war. However, nothing in his life had prepared him for the grisly horror of human remains and spent fires in a public square.
He glanced at Doquz, wondering what her thoughts were at that moment. Her face was expressionless and seemed to be carved out of stone.
‘What kind of god is your Allah, Sabbah, that he permits such barbarity?’ she demanded. ‘Why must my heritage always be a curse?’
Sabbah made no reply.
‘Do not blame the Eternal for the evils of mankind,’ said the Imam, ‘for he gives men free will. But He is the Avenger too, and will not allow these deeds to go unpunished.’
‘Nor shall I,’ cried Doquz. Her voice rose while her face remained impassive. ‘An eye for an eye; a death for a death, I read once in an old scripture. Go on with your story, Imam Masud.’
‘Ten more lost their lives that first day,’ said the Imam. ‘Thus terror is born and spread. At the end of a week of occupation, five of the comeliest maidens of the city were seized. Rumours were that they were to be made harlots for the entertainment of the enemy officers. They were taken to the mosque … ‘ He gestured towards the south. ‘…the larger one that you would pass on the way here. The next week, another five. We teachers – myself and others of my calling were ashamed of our cowardice and protested at the blasphemy.
‘People barricaded their homes. Though they knew there were two or three regiments within a few hours’ march, some took up weapons. They succeeded only in killing a handful of Chagatai and sealing their own fate. The foreigners took reprisals. Two mullahs and another five citizens were seized and put to the sword. The ten maidens were publicly raped, then throttled. All were burned, some before life was extinct.
‘And so it has been in the weeks since. We have lost count of the dead though it must be nearing one hundred. Why I was spared until now only Allah knows. Myself and the others you saved were to be next month’s victims.’
A cold tingle ran down Hassan’s spine. His fist tightened round the hilt of his scimitar. Doquz’s face had turned ashen grey.
‘Baidu and his kind will pay tenfold for what his mercenaries have done here,’ she vowed through clenched teeth.
To be continued shortly