Alamut/Chapter 3

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III

KHLIT and Toctamish did not make the best of bed-fellows. Berca, however, was careful to see that no serious quarrel broke out between the two. In a bark that went from Astrakan, the day after their meeting, to the south shore of the Sea of Khozar, the two warriors of different races occupied a small cupboard which adjoined the cabin of the sheik's daughter.

Khlit had embarked not altogether willingly. When the fumes of arak had cleared from his head the next morning, he had half-repented of his bargain. Curiosity to see the other side of the salt sea, which he had known as the Caspian, rather than the pleadings of Berca, finally brought him aboard the bark with his horse from which he refused to be separated.

The girl had bought their passage with the last of her pearls, and some gold of Toctamish's, and had remained in her cabin since, to which Toctamish brought food. The Cossack, after a survey of the small vessel which disclosed his fellow-voyagers as some few Syrian silk-merchants, with the Tatar crew, took possession of a nook in the high poop deck, and kept a keen lookout for the islands and other vessels they passed, and for Bab-al-abuab, the lofty gate of gates as the ship made its way southward. Toctamish, who had not set foot on a ship before, was very ill, to Khlit's silent satisfaction.

One day, when the wind was too high for comfort on deck, the Cossack sought Toctamish in the cupboard where the latter lay, ill at ease on some skins.

"Hey, Flat-Face," Khlit greeted him, sitting opposite against the side of the dark recess, "you look as if the devil himself was chewing at your entrails. Can you speak as well as you grunt? I have a word for you. Where is the little Berca?"

"In her cabin, oh, dog without breeding," snarled the Tatar, who was less disposed to speak, even, than usual, "looking at silks of a Syrian robber. This sickness of the sea is a great sickness, for I am not accustomed."

"You will not die." Khlit stroked his saber thoughtfully across his boots. "Toctamish, gully-jackal, and dog of an unbelieving race, you have been a fool. Perhaps a greater one than I. How did it happen that you became the follower of the little Berca? Has she bewitched you with her smooth skin and dark eyes?"

"Nay, that is not so," Toctamish growled. "She has told you her story. It is true that Kiragai Khan, my master, did not know of her coming. Her attendant and slaves ran away and she felt great shame. Yet she did not lose courage. When her shame was the greatest she begged me to take her to Astrakan, saying that I should be head of her army. She did not say her army was beyond the Salt Sea. Then she made me promise to take her to her people. As you know, her tongue is golden."

"Aye," said Khlit. "Then you are even a greater fool than I had thought. Have you heard of this emperor she is taking us to?"

Toctamish rolled his eyes, and shook his head vaguely.

"His name is not known in our countries. Mongol Tatars say that their great-grand-fathers who followed the banners of Hulagu Khan made war on one calling himself the Old Man of the Mountain and slew many thousands with much booty, beside burning the citadel of Alamut, which was his strong-hold. They gave me a dagger which came from Alamut. It is a strange shape."

"If the power of the Old Man of the Mountain was broken in the time of Hulagu Khan," said Khlit idly, "how can it exist now? Have you the dagger?"

The Tatar motioned to his belt with a groan, and Khlit drew from it a long blade with heavy handle. The dagger was of tempered steel, curved like a tongue of fire. On it were inscribed some characters which were meaningless to Khlit. He balanced it curiously in his bony hand.

"I have seen the like, Flat-Face," he meditated idly. "It could strike a good blow. Hey, I remember where I have seen others like it. In the shop of the Syrian armorer, at Astrakan. Who brought you to the shop?"

"We came, dog of a Cossack. The Syrian bade us stay, charging nothing for our beds, only for food."

"Does he understand Tatar language?"

"Nay, Berca spoke with him in her own tongue."

"Aye. Did she speak with you of this Old Man of the Mountain?"

"Once. She said that her people had come under the power of the Old Man of the Mountain. Also that her home was near to Alamut." Toctamish hesitated. "One thing more she said."

"Well, God has given you a tongue to speak."

"She said that your curved sword was useless against him who is called the Old Man of the Mountain."

With this the Tatar rolled over in his skins and kept silence. Wearying of questioning him, Khlit rose and went to the door of Berca's cabin. Toctamish, he meditated, was not one who could invent answers to questions out of his own wit. Either he spoke the truth, or he had been carefully taught what to say. Khlit was half-satisfied that the girl's and the Tatar's story was true in all its details, strange as it seemed. Yet he was wise, with the wisdom of years, and certain things troubled him.

It was not customary for a Tatar of rank to follow the leadership of a woman. Also, it was not clear why Berca should have been so eager for the services of Khlit, the Wolf. Again, she had declared that the Old Man of the Mountain was not to be met with, yet, apparently, she sought him.

Pondering these things, Khlit tapped lightly on the door of the girl's cabin. There was no response and he listened. From within he could hear the quiet breathing of a person in sleep.

He had come to speak with Berca, and he was loath to turn back. Pushing open the door he was about to step inside, when he paused.

Full length on the floor lay Berca, on the blue cloak she always wore. Her black curls flowed over a silk pillow on which her head rested. Her eyes were closed and her face so white that Khlit wondered it had ever been pink.

What drew the Cossack's gaze were two objects on the floor beside her. Khlit saw, so close that some of the dark hairs were caught in them, two daggers sticking upright on either side of the girl's head. The daggers were curved, like a tongue of fire.

Khlit's glance, roaming quickly about the cabin, told him that no one else was there. Berca had not carried two weapons of such size. Another had placed them there. As he noticed the silk cushion, he remembered the Syrian silk-merchant who had been with Berca.

With a muttered curse of surprise, Khlit stepped forward, treading lightly in his heavy boots. Leaning over the girl he scanned her closely. Her breathing was quiet and regular, and her clothing undisturbed. Seeing that she was asleep, the Cossack turned his attention to the weapons.

Drawing the latter softly from the wood, he retreated to the door. Closing this, he climbed to the deck and scanned it for the Syrian merchant. Almost within reach he saw the one he sought, in a group of several ragged traders, squatting by the rail of the ship. No one noticed him, their black sheepskin hats bent together in earnest conversation.

With the daggers under his arm, Khlit swaggered over to the group, the men looking up silently at his approach.

"Hey, infidel dogs," he greeted them, "Here is a pair of good daggers I found lying by the steps. Who owns them? Speak!"

His eye traveled swiftly over the brown faces. None of the group showed interest beyond a curl of the hps at his words. If he had expected the owner to claim his property, he was disappointed. The Syrians resumed their talk together.

"So be it," said Khlit loudly. "They are useless to me. Away with them."

Balancing the weapons, he hurled them along the deck. As he did so, he glanced at the traders. Their conversation was uninterrupted. Yet Khlit saw one of the group look hastily after the flying daggers. It was only a flash of white eyeballs in a lean face, but Khlit stared closer at the fellow, who avoided his eye.

Something in the man's face was familiar to the Cossack. Khlit searched his memory and smiled to himself. The man who had watched the fate of the daggers Khlit had seen in Astrakan. The man had changed his style of garments, but Khlit was reasonably sure that he was no other than the Syrian armorer who had offered his shop to Berca and Toctamish.

Fingering his sword, the Cossack hesitated. It was in his mind to ask at the sword's point what the other had been doing in Berca's cabin. Yet, if the fellow admitted he had left the daggers by the girl, and Khlit did not kill him, the Syrian would be free to work other mischief. And Khlit, careless as he was of life, could see no just reason for killing the Syrian. Better to let the man go, he thought, unaware that he was suspected, and watch.

As an afterthought, Khlit went to where the twisted daggers lay on the deck and threw them over the side.