The Tiger and the Cauldron(37)

Chapter 37

The skulls and other remains were removed from the square and buried in the public garden. The ash was brushed away and the paving cleaned. Sabbah undertook to supervise the gathering up of all serviceable weapons, which were brought to the citadel, while Khumar attended to the task of digging pits to receive the dead.

Hassan wandered among the corpses and mutilated horseflesh in a daze. In truth, his experience of life had already hardened him against the sight of death, yet nothing had prepared him for death on such a scale. He had even viewed the ring of skulls and the smoking debris in front of the citadel with some degree of impersonal detachment, but the carnage of the battleground was wholly different. Broken skulls, severed limbs and open breasts, infested with flies and already pecked by the carrion that scurried or flew away as the men approached, were bad enough, but to see among them faces he knew, comrades he had eaten with though he had not even learnt their names, was more like a waking nightmare.

To make matters worse, there were among the fallen a few that were hurt beyond hope, but not yet dead. His arm froze and he could only watch in horror as Sabbah and Khumar mercifully put an end to their agonies. The nausea he had felt at Maragha returned tenfold, threatening to send him running from the scene like a frightened child, but in the presence of others seemingly less affected he fought it down. He was determined especially that Khumar should not notice his weakness until, coming by chance on the Mongol youth kneeling beside a dead comrade with tears in his eyes, he realised that human feelings were not above the most formidable of warriors. The insolent bravado of youth had been destroyed in his supposed rival just as it had been in himself by the realities of war. Neither of them spoke in that moment, but Hassan felt there was now a bond between them he had never thought possible.

Most of the young men of Qazvin had been conscripted, and there were few of military age left in the city. The older men and the women came only reluctantly from their homes. Since few were willing to venture outside the city walls, the burials were still incomplete when dusk fell. Two hundred and fifty serviceable bows were salvaged from the battlefield together with four hundred other weapons and these were distributed among the more daring citizens in case of another attack.

A final count of the survivors of the battle came to one hundred and fourteen of which eleven, including Fakhr, were resting under the mullah’s care in the nearby mosque. The remainder, men and women, spent the night in the citadel. Quarters were cramped and they huddled together in their blankets in three rooms and a corridor with no thoughts beyond companionship. A small watch was maintained on the walls.

Hassan’s nightmares faded only as dawn approached. Many of those around him had been restless too and when he awoke he judged from the wan faces and bleary eyes that half the company had slept no better than he. If even a scouting patrol of the enemy were to come instead of General Sabbah’s regiments they would be unable to defend Qazvin against it.

The day was cooler than any in the past week. A fresh breeze was blowing in from the Talaqan range and the sun seemed to have lost some of its power, thus labour in the open was less strenuous. They had cleared the western approaches to the city of dead by mid morning. The stray ponies were rounded up and stockaded with the Chagatai herd in the pasture by the north-eastern gate. Many were found to have strayed quite some distance and it required a troop of Fakhr’s men working in harmony to catch them. The final numbers were just over two hundred and it was estimated that another hundred had escaped into the mountains.

On Sabbah’s advice, watches were posted only to the south and west of the city. Sabbah himself took up position above the southernmost gate and spent hours gazing into the distance, occasionally cocking his ear to listen to the breeze or stooping to lay it against the stone. It was there Hassan joined him towards noon, curious to learn what importance was attached to this position and to these activities.

‘Why have we left the northern and eastern approaches unguarded, Commander?’ he asked.

‘There is no danger from that side,’ Sabbah declared. ‘In any case, this tower commands the best view in all the city.’

‘But no one watches the mountains,’ Hassan protested. He glanced to the north and east where the peaks of the Alburz and the ridges of Talaqan embraced the Qazvin plateau, then turned to scan the horizon from east to west. Close to the city were the signs of farming, crop fields and the furrowed meadows that had given them their advantage less than a day ago and where sheep were again grazing peacefully on their crests and in their folds. Beyond these limits the plain flattened until, to the west, it was lost in the haze of a lesser range of mountains. To the south was a sweep of flat land broken by the occasional small hill or clump of trees.

‘If you wish to learn generalship, Hassan, you must sharpen all your senses,’ Sabbah grunted. ‘It is a science like any other. I have no understanding of physic or mathematics but I know that only a few arbans can move secretly. A larger force cannot. It may hide behind a hill, but an army breathes on the march and its breath is carried on the wind. The earth shakes from the feet of man and beast. The sand of the desert … the dust of the road … these are disturbed.’ He laughed. ‘Know too that sleeplessness is not an excuse for idleness. It was Allah who created the great lights in the sky, but in the east after dusk and in the west before dawn, it is man who makes them. And while you tossed and turned in your blanket I was reading the signs, Hassan. The war is already moving towards the west and it is from that direction that my brother will come.’

‘What signs can you see there?’ enquired Hassan. ‘To me, there is nothing but mountains blocking our horizon.’

‘But look this way!’ The Commander pointed to the left of the line of mountains.

Hassan followed the line of his arm. Above the plain was what to him appeared as a tiny dust cloud.

‘Then General Sabbah is coming already,’ he exclaimed excitedly. ‘Either he or another enemy!’

‘Indeed,’ said Sabbah, ‘and I’ve been watching that cloud for some minutes. How many do you think?’

‘How can I tell? They are too far away.’

‘You have come just in time for your lesson, Hassan! And I hope it will not be your last. They are more than one regiment, less than two, and they move fast. Not as a force which strikes and retreats, rather one that scatters and flees. Now, be so good as to alert Doquz and collect as many arrows as you can carry. My years tell me this is not good news!’

The riders and unencumbered ponies streamed across the plateau, furiously and without any sign of discipline. They formed two waves, some distance apart, the foremost a living claw that threatened to pounce on the city and tear it to pieces. They were still half a parasang from the walls, but Hassan could see already that what Sabbah had said was true, that their flight was too disordered to be the withdrawal from a carefully planned attack. It was rather the panic of men taken by surprise. Like swarms of unreasoning insects or a host of blinded rats escaping from a flood, each cluster seemed intent on outdistancing itself from its nearest neighbour and from an as yet unseen pursuer.

As this first wave drew closer he began to distinguish detail. Many of the horsemen had five or six spare ponies in tow that were continually colliding and thereby pulling the rider from his intended course. Those thus hindered were swept into the path of the riders and beasts behind, and two or three were even torn from the saddle and trampled under hoof.

Still Hassan could see no colours. However, were they to be an enemy rather than a friend, he and his comrades had no defence against them. He knew that Sabbah’s estimate could not be far from the truth, and that there might be as many as fifteen or sixteen hundred warriors leading the onslaught. In their wake trailed men with carriages bearing rams and trebuchets and, beyond that, minutes away, rode the second phalanx.

Hassan’s heart was racing and he thought it was about to burst. He was aware of Doquz beside him. She wore her plumed captain’s helmet but for once she seemed overcome, lacking the will to act or command. Not far away on the wall he saw Sayyid and Ali, and beside them Fatima. Her head was uncovered and her hair blew wild and free round her cheeks. Panic was taking him; what had a day ago been a risk was now a certainty. They were all going to die.

A voice in his ear brought him to his senses.

‘Close all the gates!’ Sabbah was yelling instructions.

‘Close the gates!’ His cry was echoed from a bastion to their right then rang round the walls. It was no small task, one that in a place the size of Qazvin would have needed a thousand defenders manning the perimeter rather than a hundred on the southern approaches alone, one that had no chance of being completed before the first wave of approaching riders struck.

Yet Sabbah’s voice carried authority. The order was being taken up not only by the battle-weary of yesterday but by the native population. In the avenue below, willing if tired feet ran to obey. The southern gate was slammed shut.

‘Hassan! Take the west! Go with him, Princess. You, Sayyid – you are promoted! Find Khumar and see that the eastern approaches are sealed. Stay out of sight, all of you. Whoever they are they cannot know we hold the city. Where there are pursued there must be pursuers, so help will be on the way.’

They ran along the wall. The passage was not continuous, being blocked in places by reinforcing buttresses, and they had to climb over stone blocks and twice descend to a road and ascend again on the other side. Here they encountered small bands of citizens, ready armed but lacking leadership, whom Hassan encouraged to join them.

By the time they reached the westernmost gate and closed it, the front riders had reached the fringes of the meadowland. What few standards Hassan could discern were broken and the pennons, red and black, that hung from them torn. He knew the colours. This then was part of Baidu’s army – a defeated part. Somehow General Mohammed had been prevented from retreating as he planned but he had at least succeeded in his objective and the rout of the Il-khan’’s forces had begun. Ghazan was about to triumph.

Hassan felt a sense of elation, overcast almost immediately by a deep gloom, regret that it was a triumph he would not enjoy, bitterness at the loss of the years he had supposed stretched out before him. Wrestling with these emotions as he was, he barely noticed that Doquz had clutched his arm. She was trembling, but no more so than he was himself.

‘Why am I so afraid, Hassan?’ she breathed. ‘It is what I wished – that we should be together at the end, but how could I have known … ?’

‘No!’ With sudden determination he grasped her hand so tightly that she broke off with a cry of pain. Quite why the words came to him he did not know, but it was as if there was something in his nature and inheritance that had slept for fifteen years awaiting only the stimulus of true danger to awaken it. Either that or it was a sign from the deity whose existence he had often questioned in the silence of his mind. Whatever the reason, he found a new courage.

‘It’s not the end yet!’ he exclaimed. ‘Not as long as you and I, and these others with us can use a weapon. They do not know that it is Prince Hassan and Princess Doquz that they deal with. We fight!’

He pulled his helmet down over his ears, unslung his bow and crouched behind the protection of a stone turret. A full quiver hung over his left shoulder and beside him lay their surplus arrows in three heaps. Enough for a spirited gesture if nothing more.

The wave of men and horses was fanning out now, some to the right, others to the left. They carried the usual arms and equipment of a mobilised army but none had drawn sword or fitted arrow. They were not prepared for an assault but merely sought refuge in the city they believed was already theirs.

The first riders, a troop of ten, had almost reached the west gate. They halted their furious charge then, puzzled that it should be barred against them, turned their mounts and galloped on towards the northern end of the city. The next group to arrive were about forty in number, with them a burly officer bearing one of the damaged standards. He approached the gate and hit it repeatedly with the broken shaft. Hassan shot him in the chest. Almost simultaneously, Doquz felled his nearest neighbour.

This signalled a flurry of activity from the Qazvinis who sent a random shower of arrows into the midst of the besiegers. Baidu’s men returned fire but their missiles fell into the street below. Several riders dismounted and tried to force the gate using the weight of their bodies but it was too stoutly built. Hassan shot another two arrows at the retreating backs and each found its target.

‘The gates will hold them for now,’ said Hassan. ‘Let us make what we can of the time before they can use the machines.’

The riders milled around, still uncertain who and how strong their enemy might be. They had pulled back, and those who had shields were protecting themselves with them against the hail of arrows. Along the length of the wall, Hassan could see that the south-western gate too was being defended successfully, and the north-western. But time was running out. The animals hauling the rams and trebuchets were coming up fast and it would not be long before they would be put to use to smash a way into the city.

Some of Baidu’s archers found their range and a few Qazvinis were hit. Yet Hassan continued to draw his bow, nimbly and with unerring accuracy. Crouched at his side, Doquz was no less skilful. They were joined by a dozen of Fakhr’s bowmen who kept up the barrage of arrows. Several score of the enemy fell; at this range, their shields were of little use, while the defenders had the protection of the parapet.

But the nearest trebuchet had been loaded. A heavy rock struck the rim of the wall and glanced off it sending a shower of debris into their faces. Another flew past Doquz’s head, narrowly missing her plume and almost causing her to drop her bow. One of the ramming machines was manned and poised for an assault on the gate.

Hassan wiped the dust from his eyes and raised his bow again. He would fight on though it seemed the last slender hope was gone. The gates, this one and the others, were about to be broken, leaving them at the mercy of foes many times their strength.

Just as despair was beginning to overcome him, relief came. With his attention focussed on their desperate situation he had not thought to look beyond the first wave of assault. He did so now. More riders were surging over the meadows. They formed two pincers, one heading straight for the western gate, the second swinging left towards the southern buttress. And they were close enough now for Hassan to be able to distinguish the leaders. One of those held aloft a red standard bearing a white emblem while dotted to left and right of him were others bearing pennons and plumes of green and gold. The first wave had been the pursued, the second was the pursuer, the awaited regiments of Mohammed Sabbah and Emir Zanjani.

The ranks of their attackers broke. The ram and the trebuchet were abandoned as Baidu’s archers turned to face the threat from behind. Some, already bewildered by the unexpected resistance, scattered in all directions. The majority, trapped now by the very walls they had expected to welcome them, were seized in the advancing claws of Ghazan’s allies and cut down. To add to the rout, a few Qazvinis had brought cauldrons of boiling water and were pouring it down on the heads of the besiegers nearest the gate.

There was still a small heap of arrows left and Hassan snatched them, launched them blindly until the fleeing enemy was out of range. His eyes smarted from the dust. He rubbed them again but succeeded only in causing more irritation. Then he saw that Doquz was lying sprawled against the parapet. Her helmet had come off and rolled out of reach along the footway. Hassan gave a cry of anguish and knelt over her, searching desperately for any injury. There was a red weal on her forehead from where it must have fallen against the stone but he could see no other wound. He touched her cheek and she opened her eyes.

‘Are you hurt?’

She tousled her damp, matted hair.

‘I do not think so,’ she said. ‘Such a thing has never happened to me before. I begin to think at last that this body was not made for war.’ She smiled weakly. ‘Still, Hassan, it would be best to pretend to the others I was struck by one of those rocks.’

***

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