IT WAS the year of the lion at the very end of the sixteenth century when Khlit guided his horse into Astrakan. No sentries challenged him in the streets of Astrakan, for the Cossacks were masters here and no Cossack would dishonor himself by taking precautions against danger. There were many Mohammedans in the streets of Astrakan, but it was evening and the followers of Allah were repeating the last of their prayers, facing, as was the law, toward the city of Mecca.
Sitting his steppe pony carelessly, Khlit allowed the beast to take its own course. The night, in Midsummer, was warm and his heavy svitza was thrown back on his high shoulders. A woolen cap covered one side of his gray head, and his new pair of costly red Morocco boots were smudged with tar to show his contempt for appearances. Under his shaggy mustache a pipe glowed and by his side hung the strangely shaped saber which had earned the Cossack the name of "Khlit of the Curved Saber."
Khlit rode alone, as he had done since he left the Siech, where Cossack leaders had said that he was too old to march with the army of the Ukraine. He paid no attention to the sprawling, drunken figures of Cossacks that his horse stepped over in the street. Clouds of flies from fish houses, odorous along the river front, buzzed around him. Donkeys driven by naked Tatar urchins passed him in the shadows. Occasionally the glow from the open front of an Ispahan rug dealer's shop showed him cloaked Tatars who swaggered and swore at him.
Being weary Khlit paid no heed to these. A dusty armorer's shop under an archway promised a resting-place for the night, and here he dismounted. Pushing aside the rug that served as a door he cursed as he stumbled over the proprietor of the shop, a Syrian who was bowing a yellow face over a purple shawl in prayer.
"Lailat el kadr," the Syrian muttered, casting a swift side glance at the tall Cossack.
Khlit did not know the words; but that night thousands of lips were repeating them—lailat el kadr, night of power. This was the night which was potent for the followers of the true faith, when the dhinns smiled upon Mohammed, and Marduk was hung by his heels in Babylon. It is so written in the book of Abulghazi, called by some Abulfarajii, historian of dynasties.
It was on such a night of power, say the annals of Abulghazi, that Hulagu Khan, nephew of Ghengis Khan and leader of the Golden Horde overcame the citadel of Alamut, the place of strange wickedness, by the river Shahrud, in the province of Rudbar. It was on that night the power of Hagen ben Sabbah was broken.
But the power of Hagen ben Sabbah was evil. Evil, says Abulghazi, is slow to die. The wickedness of Alamut lived, and around it clung the shadow of the power that had belonged to Hagen ben Sabbah—a power not of god or man—who was called by some sheik, by others the Old Man of the Mountain, and by himself the prophet of God.
It was also written in the book of Abulghazi that there was a prophecy that the waters of the Shahrud would be red with blood, and that the evil would be hunted through the hidden places of Alamut. A strange prophecy. And never had Khlit, the Cossack of the Curved Saber, shared in such a hunt. It was not of his own seeking—the hunt that disclosed the secret of Alamut. It was chance that made him a hunter, the chance that brought him to the shop of the Syrian armorer, seeking rest.
So it happened that Khlit saw the prophecy of Abulghazi, who was wise with an ancient wisdom, come to pass—saw the river stair flash with sword blades, and the banquet-place, and the treasure of Alamut under the paradise of the Shadna.
"Lailat el kadr," chanted the Syrian, his eye on the curved blade of Khlit, "Allah is mighty and there is no god but he."
"Spawn of Islam," grunted Khlit who disliked prayer, "lift your bones and find for me a place to spend the night. And food."
The Cossack spoke in Tatar, with which language he was on familiar terms. The response was not slow in coming, although from an unexpected quarter. A cloaked figure rose from the shadows behind the one lamp which lighted the shop and confronted him. The cloak fell to the floor and disclosed a sturdy form clad in a fur-tipped tunic under which gleamed a coat of mail, heavy pantaloons, and a peaked helmet. A pair of slant, bloodshot eyes stared at Khlit from a round face.
Khlit recognized the newcomer as a Tatar warrior of rank, and noted that while the other was short, his shoulders were wide and arms long as his knees. Simultaneously Khlit's curved saber flashed into view, with the Tatar's scimitar.
As quickly, the Syrian merchant darted into a corner. Cossack and Tatar, enemies by instinct and choice, measured each other cautiously. Neither moved, waiting for the other to act. Khlit's pipe fell to the floor and he did not stoop to pick it up.
It was a woman's voice, shrill and angry that broke the silence. Khlit did not shift his gaze. The Tatar scowled sullenly, and growled something beneath his breath.
"Toctamish! Fool watch dog! Is there no end to your quarreling? Do your fingers itch for a sword until you forget my orders?"
The curtains were pushed aside from a recess in the shop, and out of the corner of his eye Khlit saw a slender woman dart forward and seize the Tatar by his squat shoulders. Toctamish tried in vain to throw off the grip that pinned his arms to his side.
"One without understanding," the Tatar growled, "here is a dog of a Cossack who would rather slay than eat. This is the Khlit I told of, the one with the curved sword. Are you a child at play?"
"Nay, you are the child, Toctamish," shrilled the woman, "for you would fight when the Cossack would eat. He means no harm. Allah keep you further from the wine cask! Put up your sword. Have you forgotten you are man and I am mistress?"
To Khlit's amusement Toctamish, who whether by virtue of wine or his natural foolhardiness was eager to match swords, dropped his weapon to his side. Whereupon Khlit lowered his sword and confronted the woman.
Beside the square form of Toctamish, she looked scarcely bigger than a reed of the river. A pale-blue reed, with a flower-face of delicate olive. Above the blue garment which covered her from foot to throat, her black hair hung around a face which arrested Khlit's attention. Too narrow to be a Tatar, yet too dark for a Georgian, her head was poised gracefully on slender shoulders. Her mouth was small, and her cheeks tinted from olive to pink. The eyes were wide and dark. Under Khlit's gaze she scowled. Abruptly she stepped to his side and watched him with frank curiosity.
"Do you leave courtesy outside when you enter a dwelling, Cossack?" she demanded. "You come unbidden, with dirty boots, and you flourish your curved sword in front of Toctamish who would have killed you because he is crafty as a Kurdish farsang, and feared you. I do not fear you. You have a soiled coat and you carry a foul stick in your mouth."
Khlit grunted in distaste. He had small liking for women. This one was neither Tatar nor Circassian nor Georgian, yet she spoke fair Tatar.
"Devil take me," he said, "I had not come had I known you were here, oh, loud voiced one. I came for food and a place to sleep."
"You deserve neither," she retorted, following her own thoughts. "Is it true that you are Khlit, who fought with the Tatars of Tal Taulai Khan? Toctamish is the man of Kiragai Khan who follows the banners of Tal Taulai Khan and he has seen you before. It seems he does not like you. Yet you have gray hair."
The Cossack was not anxious to stay, yet he did not like to go, with Toctamish at his back. While he hesitated, the girl watched him, her lips curved in mockery.
"Is this the Wolf you told me of?" said she to Toctamish. "I do not think he is the one the Tatar fold fear. See, he blinks like an owl in the light. An old, gray owl."
Toctamish made no reply, eying Khlit sullenly. Khlit was fast recovering from his surprise at the daring of this woman, of a race he had not seen before, and very beautiful, who seemed without fear. The daughter of a chieftain, he meditated; surely she was one brought up among many slaves.
"Aye, daughter," he responded moodily. "Gray, and therefore forbidden to ride with the free Cossacks, my brothers of the Siech. Wherefore am I alone, and my sword at the service of one who asks it. I am no longer a Cossack of Cossacks but one alone."
"I have heard tales of you." The black-eyed woman stared at him boldly, head on one side. "Did you truly enter here in peace, seeking only food?"
"Aye," said Khlit.
"Wait, then," said she, "and the nameless one whose house this is will prepare it for you. Meanwhile, sheath the sword you are playing with. I shall not hurt you."
Motioning Toctamish to her side, the woman of the blue cloak withdrew into a corner of the curtained armorer's shop. The Cossack, who had keen eyes, noted that the Syrian was bending his black-capped head over a bowl of stew which he was stirring in another corner. No others, he decided, were in the shop.
Toctamish seemed to like his companion's words little. He muttered angrily, at which the girl retorted sharply. Khlit could not catch their words, but he guessed that an argument was taking place, at which the Tatar was faring ill. The argument seemed to be about himself. Also, he heard the name Berca repeated.
Although Khlit was not of a curious nature, the identity of the girl puzzled him. With the beauty of a high-priced slave, and the manner of a king's daughter, she went unveiled in a land where women covered their faces from men. Moreover she was young, being scarce eighteen, and of delicate stature.
Khlit bethought him, and it crossed his memory that he had heard of dark-haired and fair-skinned women of unsurpassed beauty whose land was at the far end of the Sea of Khozar, the inland, salt sea. They were Persians, of the province of Rudbar. Yet, fair as they were in the sight of men, none were bought as slaves. Berca, if that were her name, might well be one of these. If that was the case, what was she doing in Astrakan, alone save for one Tatar, who while he was a man of rank and courage, was not her equal?