The Tiger and the Cauldron[43]

Chapter 43

From the watchtower on the main gate of Tabriz Castle, Doquz looked out over the darkening city. Somewhere in the distance, the cry of a muezzin sounded, echoed across the rooftops, and faded away in the distance. It was followed by a second, then a third. It was the final call to prayer she had heard thousands of times before without paying it any attention but now, in the stillness of evening, it seemed intrusive, almost threatening.

There had been nothing to break the tedium of the days since Hassan and Sabbah had gone and, having lived for so long a life of action, being compelled to do nothing but wait made every waking minute seem like an hour, and every hour an eternity. She had supposed that, her quest all but over, she would derive some contentment, some ease of mind, from its fulfilment. But the triumph was hollow; it was not the victory, the new beginning, she had promised herself. Tabriz was not only Baidu’s prison, it could again be hers.

Nor was she able to take refuge in sleep. Her dreams no longer held terror for her, however neither owl-light nor the hours of darkness that followed brought calm or resolution of the questions that played over continuously in her mind. Was Hassan indeed the true brother she had once wanted him to be, and would their kinship, if proved, be the wedge that would drive them apart? For five nights she had tried resting in her room but, on each occasion, finding the loneliness hard to bear, had taken to walking the courtyards and parapets, conversing with the sentries posted there. Even the presence of other human beings brought a certain amount of consolation.

Now, on the sixth evening of Sabbah’s absence, the fifth since Hassan had taken his final leave of her, she had not even troubled to go indoors, but had climbed the castle wall with the intention of passing the whole night there. The shadows of dusk fell over the inner courtyard as the sun disappeared behind the dome of the Great Mosque. Why, Doquz found herself thinking, did the red disc of sunset always seem larger than the orange ball of a cloudy noon; did the sun grow in the cool of evening and shrink by the heat of day, or did earth and sun draw together for comfort as night approached?

It became cooler and a fresh wind sprang up. Two stars appeared above the peaks of Sahand. In the keep and in houses across the city a few lamps flickered. A bat swooped past her in the half light and she felt a current of air brush her ear. Were these creatures truly blind, she wondered, and did they find their way by some mystic sense that only their kind possessed?

Doquz squatted on the walkway with her back against the parapet. She took off her helmet and laid it on the stone beside her. It was out of the wind here and the stone was warm. The two stars were still visible and she watched them grow in brightness. More appeared in the darkening heavens. She tried counting the most prominent, reached ninety, and abandoned the task with the realisation that she had covered only a small fraction of the sky. How many stars altogether, she asked herself? Had they truly come into being all by themselves or could it be that, after all, divine hands were guiding the universe and all it contained? If there were such, did they belong to god or goddess, for surely there could not be one without the other. And was Hassan looking up at that very moment, at those same stars, wondering at them, trying to fathom the same mysteries … thinking of her as she was of him?

She closed her eyes to recall his image. For one brief moment he was there, his fresh, eager face poised over her as it had been that night at Alamut, the next her ears were being assailed again by the cry of the muezzin. The voice, she imagined, was that of Imam Masud, and it was wrong, she thought, that he should be there, especially when night had already fallen and evening prayers were long past. It was wrong too that her body should be cold and stiff, wrapped as it was inside two blankets, that the Imam should be shining a bright light in her face, or that her eyelids should be stitched together with invisible thread.

In the sudden awareness that it was part dream, she forced her eyes open and saw to her surprise that it was no longer dark, and that she was curled up on the walkway with a single saddle-cloth laid over her body. Her back and shoulders hurt, and there was an ache in her side. A rim of the sun was peeping out from a ridge of white cloud which hung over the eastern horizon. The muezzins’ calls were indeed ringing out over the city, but it was the call of early morning to the first prayers of the day.

As her full senses returned, she realised that not only had she fallen asleep in her armour – the first real sleep she had enjoyed in a week – but that the hilt of her sword had wedged itself uncomfortably between her hip bone and lower ribs. She sat up slowly.  She was not alone on the walkway. Beside her, fully awake and with his drawn sword laid across his lap, sat Khumar. Doquz had been rather wary of him since he had expressed his feelings for her openly, and so startled was she by his presence that she drew away and scrambled to her knees.

‘Do not be alarmed, Captain,’ he said gruffly and rose to his feet. ‘I’ve been on watch since well before dawn.’

Doquz regained her composure. ‘This saddle-cloth … was it you?’ she enquired. The smell of equine sweat was strong.

‘Talitha found you asleep and did not want to wake you. It was she who laid the blanket over you. She had stood sentry for four hours when I came and sent her below. We were afraid some of those other fellows might take advantage.’

But not you, thought Doquz and was immediately sorry she had allowed doubt to creep into her mind. Despite her rejection of him, Khumar had been one of the most loyal members of the band, to her and, above all, to Sabbah. Aloud she said, ‘I have not always treated you as well as I might, Khumar. Thank you.’

‘You have treated me as well as I deserve, Captain,’ said Khumar. ‘Neither your apology nor your thanks are necessary. It was my duty.’

‘Duty or not, I thank you,’ said Doquz. She stood up and glanced to right and left along the main road that passed by the gate. ‘Oblige me again and bring me something to eat. And have someone see to our prisoner. Then ‘twill be your turn to rest and mine to watch. This is the seventh day since Sabbah left on his mysterious mission, and I’m anxious to discover if he will fulfil his promise by returning.’

‘I’ve never known the Commander break a promise,’ Khumar said. ‘If he told you seven days, he’ll be here.’

 Doquz followed him with her eyes as he descended the steps to the courtyard, trying to hold onto his words in the hope that believing them to be sincere would be enough to make them come true. When he was out of sight, she stretched to relieve her cramped muscles – first her arms, then her legs – and when she felt the blood flow once more, she picked up her helmet and set off on the short walk along the parapet.

On other parts of the wall her bowmen patrolled diligently, while below by the gate, which she had allowed to be kept open, four swordsmen stood sentry. People had taken to the streets and, as on every morning since her arrival in Tabriz, a group had gathered in front of the castle hoping to catch a glimpse of its new commander. Although the fiction of General Dokhan had been spread among the population as a whole, there were inevitable rumours that the new occupying force had women warriors in its ranks, and that its leader might be one of the rebel Tigers who had so fired the popular imagination throughout Baidu’s short and dissolute rule.

She had only just reached the end of the walkway when a carriage turned into the road leading from the north gate of the city. Doquz had not seen one such for a long time, the kind sometimes used by men of wealth and importance – maliks, emirs or provincial governors – when they travelled with their families. Though news of the fall of Baidu must have travelled to several of the neighbouring provinces by now, she wondered who could be paying a visit so soon, before Ghazan had been confirmed as the new ruler.

The vehicle, pulled by a spirited Arabian mare, had almost drawn level with the farthest bastion when Doquz recognised the driver as Ahmed Sabbah. There was one other occupant, a person dressed in a jellaba, the hooded cloak that was common attire among the wives of Persian dignitaries.

The small crowd of castle-watchers parted hastily to let them pass. Sabbah swung the mare round skilfully and without slacking pace turned her head in through the gateway. Once inside, he pulled up animal and carriage to an abrupt halt. He slipped from his perch and gallantly assisted his passenger to alight. The inquisitive citizens, sensing the arrival of some important personage, surged unhindered into the courtyard.

‘Ahmed!’ Doquz had already reached the steps and begun to descend.

Both Sabbah and the stranger turned at the sound of her voice. The woman’s brow was hidden by her hood, and her face by a veil, but Doquz knew her mother at once. Her heart missed a beat and she felt a rush of indignation and displeasure, both dispelled by the sudden realisation of danger.

She had no time to shout a warning, and the men at the gate were too hampered by the spectators to intervene. From the midst of the crowd rushed a gaunt figure carrying a curved dagger. Sabbah released Tolaghan’s arm and reached for his weapon, but she leapt in front of him with a scream of terror. The attacker’s blade rose and descended and the blow destined for Sabbah’s vitals pierced her in the left side. She slumped to the ground clutching the Commander’s sword arm.

The would-be assassin raised his blade again and Doquz saw him clearly. It was her former adversary and Sabbah’s one time comrade-in-arms, Captain Jirjis. His cheeks were more hollowed than ever and his swarthy face was twisted with savage hatred. His head was bare and instead of armour he wore a clerical robe.

‘Ahmed! Mother!’

Jirjis’s second blow never fell. His body froze. He dropped the dagger and his hands flew to his chest as an arrow delivered by one of the sentries on the walls struck him between the shoulder blades and pierced his emaciated body. He collapsed against a wheel of the carriage and hung there for a moment before sliding lifelessly to the ground.

Doquz reached the courtyard and with Khumar, Talitha and Qadir in support drove the onlookers back through the gateway. Khumar had been carrying a platter, but he had dropped it, and what Doquz supposed was her breakfast was scattered and trampled under the feet of the retreating crowd. Once the courtyard was cleared and the gate barred she ran back to her mother, who was alive but bleeding profusely through a rent in the jellaba.

‘Take her to my quarters,’ Doquz had no longer any thoughts of eating. ‘There will already be water there, and fresh linen to staunch the blood flow. Qadir, find a physician!’

Sabbah was kneeling at Tolaghan’s side. ‘I fear it’s too late for a physician, Princess.’

‘Go anyway, Qadir! Talitha, help us carry her.’

‘I will bring her alone,’ said Sabbah. He picked Tolaghan up in his arms as if she were a child. ‘You prepare the bed and see to the water and bandages. We should make her as comfortable as we can.’

Sabbah carried his burden indoors and laid her on Doquz’s divan. ‘Allah curse me,’ he said savagely. ‘I should have prevented this, Doquz.’

‘‘Tis not your fault, Ahmed.’ She tried to console him knowing it was hers for not being more vigilant. ‘You could not know Jirjis would be in the crowd – even that he was still in the city.’

‘He was always a vengeful man. I should have killed him when I had the chance.’

‘You could not know, Ahmed,’ Doquz persisted. She bent over her mother, pitying her, but feeling even now no strong bond of affection.

Tolaghan’s face, always pallid, was drawn with pain, but her eyes were open and she was struggling to speak. ‘Doquz?’ Her eyes closed again. Her lips continued to move, yet they emitted no sound.

Doquz bent even closer. ‘What is it, Mother?’

Talitha brought the linen and a pitcher of water, half full, then withdrew silently from the room. Sabbah made a pad of cloth and held it against Tolaghan’s wound while he carefully bound it in place. That done, he dipped his finger in the pitcher and moistened her mouth with the water.

Tolaghan’s lips formed new words. ‘Forgive me, Doquz,’ she gasped and fell immediately into a swoon.

Doquz felt the pulse in her neck. It beat faintly.

‘She is dying, Princess,’ said Sabbah. ‘My dressing will slow her bleeding, but it is not enough.’

‘What would she have me forgive,’ Doquz asked reproachfully, ‘- that she bore me, or that she would have made me harlot? Oh, why did you bring her here, Ahmed? I know I should love her, yet I cannot, and I feel guilt because of it.’

‘She came of her own free will, Princess, though I did nothing to hinder her,’ said the Commander. His features softened and Doquz saw in his eyes an expression she could not quite recognise. ‘She was once a woman who could love … and only a mother can explain a mother’s actions?’

‘What do you mean, Ahmed?’

He avoided her question to pose one of his own, one that seemed to her to have no relevance in the current crisis. ‘Do you have any wine?’

‘Wine?’

On the divan beside them, Tolaghan stirred. Her eyelids flickered and her eyes opened once more.

Sabbah touched her damp forehead. ‘Wine,’ he repeated. ‘It will revive her and may give her strength for the minutes ahead … for what needs to be told.’

‘There’s a jug on the table. I think some remains, but it has been there for a week and will be sour.’

‘No matter, bring it, if you please – and the goblet.’

She brought him the wine. No more than a mouthful or two was left. Sabbah poured it. He raised Tolaghan’s head from the bed and encouraged her to drink.

Tolaghan coughed and struggled to rise on one elbow. ‘Doquz?’

‘I’m here. What is it you wish to tell me?’

‘Lie still, Lady,’ Sabbah said. He tried to make her take another sip of wine but almost all the liquid spilled over her jellaba.

‘Forgive me,’ begged Tolaghan again, even more weakly than before.

‘I forgive you.’ As yet Doquz did not know what she was supposed to forgive, but she could not refuse such a plea from a dying woman.

‘What choice did I have?’ Tolaghan went on. ‘To beat you or let him have his way.’

‘Gaikatu? When I was twelve?’

‘I knew what he was capable of … even then. Of the children he had molested … brutalised.’

Doquz could think of only one other question, and she asked it. ‘The marriage contract – why did you agree to that? Was giving me to Baidu part of the plan?’

‘What choice did I have?’ Tolaghan repeated. She coughed again and this time a sliver of blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. ‘To pretend. To hope you would find a way to escape it. Gaikatu threatened to make you concubine if I did not agree. To wed was the lesser evil.’

‘‘Tis over and done with, Mother,’ Doquz said. ‘I forgive you. Save your strength.’

‘For what? Let me say … what I came to say.’ Again the dying woman struggled to rise, but she emitted a gurgling cry and fell back. ‘Ahmed! Are you there, Ahmed?’

‘I am here, Lady.’

Doquz stared at Sabbah in wonder. The man who had been her friend and protector for so long, and whom she had always thought above such emotion, was weeping. In unexpected embarrassment, she allowed her gaze to fall on his bloodstained corslet and breeches. She saw that the stain, which she had taken to be her mother’s blood alone, was spreading and realised that he too had been injured by Jirjis’s dagger thrust. The blade must have gone clean through Tolaghan’s side and pierced his skin.

‘You’re hurt, Ahmed!’

‘It’s nothing, Princess, and will keep. Please just listen!’

 ‘The room is dark,’ Tolaghan gasped. ‘You tell her, Ahmed. I release you from your promise.’

‘How can I, Lady?’ Sabbah asked. ‘After so long, how can I?’

‘You must,’ breathed Tolaghan. She sighed deeply. ‘I always loved you, Doquz,’ she said. ‘How could I not when …?’ Her voice, already faint, died away in a strangulated whisper. Another trickle of blood, more pronounced, came from her mouth, her head sank back against Sabbah’s encircling arm, and all the light went from her eyes.

****

[to be concluded]

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