IN THE YEAR of the lion, there was a drouth around the Sea of Khozar, and the salt fields of its south shore whitened in the sun. Where the caravan route from Samarkand to Bagdad crossed the salt fields, the watering-places were dry, all save a very few.
The sun was reflected in burning waves from the crusted salt, from which a rock cropped out occasionally, and the wind from the sea did not serve to cool the air. In the annals of Abulghazi, it is written that men and camels of the caravans thirsted in this year, the year in which the waters of Shahrud, by the citadel of Alamut, were to be red with blood.
At one of the few watering-places near the shore, Berca's party of three, with a pack-donkey came to a halt, at the same time that a caravan, coming from the east stopped to refresh the animals.
The Persian girl watched the Kurdish camel-drivers lead their beasts to kneel by the well silently. Khlit, beside her, gazed attentively, although with apparent indifference at the mixed throng of white-and-brown-robed traders with their escort of mounted Kurds. Many looked at Berca, who was heavily veiled, but kept their distance at sight of Khlit.
"It is written, Abulfetah Harb Issa, Father of Battles," spoke the girl softly, "that a man must be crafty and wise when peril is 'round his road; else is his labor vain, he follows a luck that flees. Truly there is no luck, for Allah has traced our lives in the divining sands, and we follow our paths as water follows its course. Are you as wise as the masters of evil, oh, Cossack?"
The words were mocking, and Khlit laughed.
"Little Sparrow," he said, "I have seen ever so much evil, and there was none that did not fade when a good sword was waved in front of it. Yet never have I followed a woman."
"You will not follow me much further, Cossack. I will leave you at the foothills to go among my people, the hillmen, where I shall be safe. You and Toctamish will go alone the rest of the way. My face is known to the people of Alamut, who suppose that I am dead or a slave. In time they shall see me, but not yet. Meanwhile it is my wish that you and Toctamish seek the citadel of Alamut, which lies a two-days' journey into the interior."
Khlit shaded his eyes with a lean hand and gazed inland. Above the plain of salt levels he could see a nest of barren foothills which surrounded mountains of great size and height.
"Where lies the path to this Alamut—" he had begun, when Berca shook his arm angrily.
"Not so loud, fool of the steppe! Do you think we are still by the Volga? We are already in the territory of the Old Man of the Mountain. Listen, to what I have already told Toctamish. Two days' travel to the south will bring you to the district of Rudbar. You will find yourself near the River Shahrud which flows from the mountains. There will be hillmen about who do not love the Old Man of the Mountain.
"So do not speak his name, until you come to a bend in the Shahrud where the river doubles on itself, so, like a twisted snake. Across the river will be a mountain of rock which will appear to be a dog kneeling, facing you. Remain there until armed men ride up and question you. Then say you are come to join the ranks of Sheik Halen ibn Shaddah, who is the Old Man of the Mountain."
Khlit shook his head and tapped his sword thoughtfully.
"Nay, little Berca," he said reproachfully, "you have told me lies. You said it was your wish to slay one who had slain your father. And because it was a just quarrel and I was hungry for sight of the world below the Salt Sea, I came to aid you. Are you one, oh, Sparrow, to fight alone against a powerful chief? Where are your men that you told Toctamish of. Devil take me, if I'll put my head in the strong-hold of any sheik, as you call him."
Berca bent nearer, rising on tiptoe so her breath was warm in his ear.
"My men are hillmen who will not attack until they see an enemy flee. Also, they have seen men who opposed Halen ibn Shaddah set over a fire, with the skin of their feet torn off. The master of Alamut is all powerful here. Are you afraid, whom they call the Wolf?"
"Nay, little Sparrow, how should I be afraid of women's tales and a mysterious name? Tell me your plan, and I will consider it. How can this sheik be reached?"
"Halen ibn Shaddah is safe from the swords of his enemies. Yet there is a way to reach him, in Alamut. The time will come when you and Toctamish will find yourselves at the head of many swords. How can I tell you, who are a fool in our way of fighting, and know not Alamut, what is in my mind? I swear that soon Halen ibn Shaddah will be attacked. Do you believe my word?"
"Wherefore should I?"
Khlit tugged at his mustache moodily. He was accustomed to settle his quarrels alone, and he liked little to move in the dark. Yet the woman spoke as one having authority, and Toctamish believed in her blindly.
"If this Sheik Halen is powerful and crafty——"
"Still, I am a woman, and wronged by a great wrong. I was sent to offer myself unveiled to a man who had not sought me; and at the same time my father was murdered, so that the hillmen, of whom he was sheik, might come under the shadow of Alamut." The girl's voice was low, but the words trembled with passion and the dark eyes that peered at the Cossack over her veil were dry as with fever, and burning.
"Halen ibn Shaddah shall pay for his evil; for he is cursed in the sight of Allah. Wicked—wicked beyond telling is Alamut and therefore cursed."
"Chirp shrilly, little Sparrow," laughed Khlit, "while your white throat is still unslit. This Sheik Halen has no love for you, for one of his men on the bark placed two daggers, one on each side of your black head. Devil take me, if I did not think you would never chirp again. It was the Syrian who took you in for so little pay at Astrakan——"
"Fool! Stupid Cossack!" Berca's eyes suddenly swam with laughter, "did you think I was asleep when you tiptoed in like a bear treading nettles. Or that I did not see the dirty Syrian, who thought to catch me asleep? Look among the men of the caravan, and tell me if you see the Syrian?"
Cautiously, Khlit scanned the groups about the well. Among the Kurdish riders and Tatars who were brown with the dust of the desert trail from Samarkand, he recognized a bent figure in a long gray cloak and black kollah. As he watched the figure, it bent still further over a box of goods, and lifted some silks to view. It was the Syrian, without doubt. Khlit felt a thrill, as of one who is hunted and hears the cry of the chase. He stepped forward with an oath, when Berca's grasp tightened on his arm.
"That is a fedavie of Alamut," she whispered. "I saw the curved daggers, and they are the weapons of the Refik folk of Halen ibn Shaddah. He must have overheard us in his shop at Astrakan, and has followed to slay, as is the law of Alamut. Probably there are more of the fedavie among the men of the caravan."
"Then we must deal with the Syrian before he can speak to them," muttered Khlit, but again Berca tugged him back.
"Did I not say you were a fool among my people, oh, Wolf," she whispered. "Watch. The Syrian shall have his reward. Your folly is very great, yet I need a man who is blunt and brave and knows not my plans. It is written that none knows where his grave is dug, yet the Syrian's grave is here. Watch, and do not move."
Khlit waited? The fedavie had stooped over his box. One or two Kurds gathered to look at its contents. Among the group Khlit noticed Toctamish who had come up quietly. The Tatar pushed past the others, heedless of their muttered curses until he stood directly in front of the trader. The Syrian looked up, and, seeing Toctamish, was motionless.
Khlit saw the Kurds stare and draw back as if they sensed trouble. The Syrian, still watching Toctamish, rose with a swift, cat-like movement, his hand hidden in the silks. Toctamish grunted something and spat upon the silks.
"See," whispered Berca softly, "his grave is dug, and the nameless one sees it."
Toctamish thrust his yellow, scarred face near the Syrian's. Around him a crowd pressed, watching with attention. With a cry, the Syrian, who seemed to have found the suspense too much for him, drew a pistol from the silks in which it had been concealed.
Instantly two giant arms were flung 'round him. Toctamish was on him with a speed that baffled him, and the Tatar's huge bulk pressed the Syrian backward to the ground. Writhing impotently, the Syrian saw Toctamish draw a dagger from his girdle. And Khlit grunted as he noted that it was the one he had seen with blade like a curved flame. While he held the smaller man powerless with one arm, Toctamish lifted the dagger and thrust it carefully into his foe's body, into stomach and chest.
Then, rising, he wiped the curved dagger on a handful of the trader's silks. For a moment the arms and legs of the unhappy Syrian stirred on the ground. And Khlit saw a strange thing. For, before life had gone from the body, several men of the caravan, Khirghiz warriors by their dress, pushed through the throng with daggers like that of Toctamish and struck at the Syrian. Not until the body was still did they cease to strike.
Then the Khirghiz men looked around for Toctamish, but the stocky Tatar had disappeared in the throng. Khlit, who had missed nothing of what happened, thought to himself that it was well that the dagger had been in the hand of Toctamish, not of the Syrian. Plainly, he thought, the Khirghiz murderers had been fellows, without knowing, to the Syrian. And he wondered how men of many races came to be banded together, not knowing that he was to wonder soon, and very greatly, at other things.