The Tiger and the Cauldron(38)

Chapter 38

They remained in Qazvin for a week while the war turned around them. General Mohammed Sabbah reinforced the city with a new garrison of sixteen hundred men and took command of them himself while Zanjani went north to the mountains to seek and wipe out any resistance groups of the enemy who had taken refuge there.

Two of Baidu’s divisions were already destroyed or put to flight, their war machinery, wagons, mangonels and tents broken and fired. Another had retreated south and was sandwiched between General Akhtar’s cavalry and three regiments of Zanjani’s supporters. A number of other Muslim emirs, learning of Ghazan’s conversion, joined forces in support of his cause and trapped half a tumen of the Il-khan’s best troops between Rasht and the Caspian Sea. Oljeitu with five thousand at his back was reported to have engaged and defeated the enemy near Soltaniya. Ghazan, at the head of half the army, was now driving west, sweeping aside everything that stood in his path. Taghachar, having made a pact and changed sides once again, had joined him.

After a night’s sleep, Doquz still did not feel quite herself. For several days she had eaten and drunk sparingly, and she supposed her faint had been due to a lack of nourishment coupled with the stress of the recent battles. However, she was too proud to acknowledge any weakness and stubbornly refused both Hassan’s and Ahmed’s pleas that she rest.

The news of the victories, brought continually in despatches, were of less interest to her than the whereabouts of Baidu himself. He had been last seen with a remnant of his elite guard and a regiment of Chagatai mercenaries travelling west towards Zanjan. Some of his household was with him. Nauruz was said to be in pursuit.

On the fifth day, Kamal arrived at the citadel. His pony was lame and, without a second, he had been obliged to walk seven parasangs of the ten that separated them from Ghazan’s last camp. He was welcomed heartily as much for his knowledge of stewardship and commerce as for his cooking skills as, with both dewan and governor dead, Qazvin was without an administration.

‘You may have the post until Ghazan decrees otherwise,’ General Mohammed told him, ‘and if you do well, it may be he will confirm you in it.’

‘It will be an honour, sir,’ said Kamal, ‘and it will please my father greatly.’

‘Your father?’ Doquz enquired. ‘You have never spoken of him before.’

‘He is Rashid ad-Din, one of His Highness’s most trusted advisors, and when this war is done he will write its history.’

‘Then he will write it soon,’ said Doquz, ‘though, until Baidu is captured, Ghazan cannot declare himself victor.’

Though four days of relative inactivity had given her the respite she needed, Doquz was beset by the growing fear that Baidu might still escape Nauruz and rally support. An even more disturbing picture, that the Il-khan’ might escape retribution altogether by dying at the hands of his pursuer, was gnawing at her mind. Moreover, the inactivity made her restless and, now that her wounded were nearly all recovered, she was eager to be gone from the place where she had seen so much death.

General Sabbah did his best to dissuade her from leaving.

‘His Highness would wish that you stay out of harm’s way,’ he said. ‘What more can you do to help him? And it can only be a matter of days before Baidu is caught.’

‘I know Baidu, General,’ Doquz replied. ‘He values his own skin too much to risk it in a battle with his remnant army. If he smells total defeat he will abandon it and seek asylum west of Lake Van or in Armenia.’

  ‘Surely that is beyond you to prevent, Princess,’ said the General. ‘Be content with what you have accomplished and stay in Qazvin.’

‘At any other time I would value your advice, General Sabbah, but I will not stay. Your brother knows my stubborn streak and that I will have my way. And I don’t think you would prevent me by force. With three hundred men I could occupy Tabriz. In the castle and city garrisons some will remain loyal to Baidu perhaps, but neither castle nor city was heavily guarded when we were last there.’

‘It’s certainly a number I can spare, however …’

‘Then it’s settled,’ she said, giving him no chance to finish, and was pleased to see him shrug in vexation. ‘I have Hassan’s word we can reach Tabriz in five days. We shall leave in two.’

On the morning of their sixth day at Qazvin, she sent two scouts ahead to gather intelligence as to the disposition of the armies and, if possible, to bring fresh news of Baidu’s whereabouts.

 On the seventh day, she and the remnants of the rebel band left the city and took the main highway west. Of those who had camped on Shir Kuh twenty-four remained. With them went twenty-three survivors from Fakhr’s party. Mohammed Sabbah had made up the numbers to the requested three hundred.

Fakhr, though his condition was improving, was unfit to travel and would be too weak to bear weapons for several weeks. ‘You can be sure of my men’s loyalty,’ he said when Doquz took her farewell of him. He was propped up on a pillow and swathed in bandages. ‘Allah strengthen your hand, Captain Doquz. I forgive you the spilt broth, and if by chance you come to Ardabil, tell Semanthea and my other wives that I am well enough and will return home soon.’

***

Mounts were plentiful and with three to each rider they made good speed, covering three quarters of the seventy parasang journey to Tabriz in three nights and four days. By then, the green and gold standard had attracted deserters from Baidu’s broken divisions and their numbers had grown to nearly four hundred.

The scouts met them as they left Zanjan province with the news that Baidu had turned south, and that Nauruz was closing in on him. Doquz’s conviction was growing that the Il-khan’ would not wait to be caught in a trap, but would make a break for it, taking only a few followers and perhaps a woman or two with him. But where would he go first? Daquqa was the obvious destination, then Baghdad, but would Baidu follow the obvious? Mamluk eyes were still on the Fertile Crescent and, without the backing of his tumens, Baidu could not hold it if they chose to attack. She still fancied that Van or Arran would be his destination, there to beg hospitality of the Turks, or of his kin among the Mongols of the Golden Horde.

‘‘Tis a ploy,’ she said to Sabbah. ‘I think he will go to Tabriz first. He will need gold, and there is enough of that in the treasury! If I’m wrong, there is no harm. Baidu will be taken by Nauruz and the city of Tabriz will fall in any case. If I am right, we shall beat Nauruz to his prey and trap the Il-khan’ there.’

‘As I have no better idea, let us follow your instincts,’ Sabbah said. He drew a map from his saddle bag and studied it thoughtfully. ‘He draws his pursuers towards as-Suleimaniya perhaps, but if I were Baidu I would lay false trails in the foothills as we did once, Princess; I would turn back north to Lake Urmia. By all means send more scouts to watch the road south of Maragha, but let us continue by this route all the way to Tabriz.’

But Doquz was still unsure. Would Baidu make for Tabriz? He had been Il-khan’ for four months, whilst for nearly ten years before that he had been lord of Baghdad. His wealth would still be secreted in that city and he would not have left it undefended. A whole division or more might be holding the Fertile Crescent for him.

Hassan seemed to anticipate her thoughts. ‘Why not send a company after him?’ he ventured. ‘Let me take sixty men.’ He traced a line on the map with his finger, due south from their present position towards the shaded oblong that represented the High Zagros. ‘We can travel faster than a whole army. If Baidu makes a break for Tabriz, we can head him off. On the other hand, if he is making for Baghdad and reaches the mountains before us, we join with Nauruz in pursuit.’

Doquz drew him aside. She did not wish to be parted from him again so soon.  At Qazvin she had watched him throw off the last traces of his boyhood and now, more than ever, she was overcome by emotions that only two months ago she had not thought to feel again. How could she allow him to risk his life once more when he need not, and when she was not there to share the risk with him?

‘Let another lead the expedition,’ she said. ‘We should go together to Tabriz.’

‘You are commander and have the right to forbid me,’ said Hassan, ‘yet who else has a better right to lead if you cannot? You have sworn to occupy Tabriz in your brother’s name while Sabbah has sworn not to leave your side. If we take Baidu, you have my word to spare him until he can be judged by the law.’

‘While the woman in me sees only heartache in your proposal,’ Doquz replied, ‘the commander sees reason. The second will not forbid you, nor will the first beg you to stay, though every day of our separation will seem like a year.’

‘It will be like that for me too,’ said Hassan and, out of sight of the others, he took her hand and kissed it, ‘and so I pray that some good will come of it in the end.’

They camped in the open for the fourth time. In the grey morning of their fifth day from Qazvin, Hassan, with Sayyid and six troops recruited mainly from the Tigers and from Fakhr’s archers, took the road south, while the rest of the company rode on into the rolling foothills of Sahand and, just past noon, down into the plain of Tabriz.

The sprawling suburbs were quiet. On the eastern approaches to the city, beside the Silk Highway, a group of merchant travellers, their horses and camels fully laden for a journey to the orient, waited in their tents for the midday heat to abate. The gates had only a token guard.

The city commander offered no resistance. The months of uncertainty had already weakened his lukewarm commitment to Baidu’s cause, and news that the tide was probably turning in Ghazan’s favour had only increased the flow of desertions from his ranks. He gladly surrendered his command to Sabbah in return for a promise that his life would be spared. The captain of the castle would have shown a more spirited defence; however, his food supplies were dwindling and, faced with the prospect of a siege by a force many times his strength, he surrendered and allowed Doquz and forty of her followers to take possession.

 She issued orders for the standard of Ghazan to be flown over the postern and, in accordance with a promise made to General Mohammed, for two red pennons bearing Zanjani’s white scimitar and crescent moon emblem to be unfurled and raised over the main gate. These executed, she climbed to the highest point of the castle to survey her new domain.

Behind the city, like a portent of bloodshed or other evil still to come, the mountain glowed red in the high summer light.

****

[to be continued]

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