Alamut/Chapter 5

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V

BERCA had disappeared; and when Khlit strode through the crowd of the caravan seeking her, his horse at his elbow, he met Toctamish. The Tatar was mounted and leading the pack-mule.

"Mount," he said gruffly, "and follow."

"And what of the girl!" queried Khlit, who was unwilling to take orders from Toctamish.

"She has told us to go on, as you know, caphar," snarled the Tatar, who disliked to talk. "Later, she will send word to us. Come."

"We are both fools. You, to be the slave of a painted girl, and I to seek for an empire which is not to be found, to slay a man who is hidden."

Khlit's words were silenced by a sudden uproar in the caravan. Men sprang to their feet and hauled at the camels who had kneeled in weariness. Traders who had been eating gave shouts of lamentation. Laden slaves ran together in confusion.

Toctamish stared at the uproar, until Khlit touched his shoulder.

"Look!" he said.

From the south, over the salt desert a cloud of dust was threading in and out among the rocks. It was advancing swiftly toward them, and the Cossack could see that it was made by mounted men riding very fast. He made out turbans and spear-points in the dust. The horsemen were headed directly toward the caravan.

"Robbers," said Toctamish briefly; "there will be a fight."

"A poor one, it seems," growled Khlit. "The Kurds are leaving us as fast as their horses can take them and your countrymen like the looks of things little—they have not drawn sword or bow."

In truth, the Tatars who were acting as guard, sat their horses stolidly, while the dismayed traders added to the confusion by rushing about frantically, trying to assemble their goods. Khlit turned his attention, in disgust to the oncoming horsemen, and counted a bare two score. In numbers, the caravan was three times as strong; yet no attempt at defense was made.

Instead the traders were anxiously spreading out their bales of goods, so that all were displayed. Camels and donkeys were stripped and their burden placed on the ground. In the meantime the horsemen who had come up were trampling recklessly through the confusion.

A fat Greek merchant held out an armful of rugs to one of the riders who stared at it insolently and pointed to the heavy packs behind the merchant. Other riders jerked out the contents of these packs, and ranged them in nine piles.

Khlit, watching them, saw that they were men of varied race. He guessed at Persian, Kurd, Circassian, Turk and others with whom he was not familiar—dark-skinned, and heavily-cloaked who sat their horses as a swallow rides the wind. Also, the Khirghiz men of the caravan had joined the newcomers.

The first rider flung some words at the Greek who was cowering on the ground and Khlit thought he caught the phrase "Alamut." Then the horsemen picked up three of the nine piles of goods, and flung them over pack-horses. Other riders who had been similarly occupied joined them. All the while the Tatar guardians of the caravan watched without interest, as men who had seen the like before.

It was not until the horsemen were well away over the salt plain that Khlit recovered from his astonishment at the sight of few robbing many.

"Better the mountain-folk than these," he growled, spitting in the direction of the merchants who were putting their goods away amid lamentations.

So it came to pass that a Cossack rode into the foothills of Rudbar where, in the words of the historian Abulghazi, none set foot who held Allah or Christ for their true God, and with him rode a Tatar who, under other circumstances would gladly have slain him.

They rode in silence, as rapidly as the pack animal could move, and by nightfall had gained the edge of the salt deposits that made that part of Persia like a frozen lake.

Each made camp after his fashion. And two fires were lighted instead of one. Khlit produced some barley cakes and wine and made a good meal. Toctamish took some raw meat from under his saddle where he had placed it for seasoning and washed it down with his favorite arak. Both kindled pipes and sat in silence in the darkness.

Toctamish's pipe went out first, and Khlit knew that the Tatar had swallowed the smoke until with the burning arak he had lost consciousness. The Cossack was soon asleep.

His sleep was unbroken, except that, near dawn, he thought he heard the trampling of many horses' feet, which sounded until the rays of the sun, slipping into his eyes, awoke him. He made out at some distance the track of a cavalcade in the dust, and considered that it might have been a caravan. Yet it was out of the path of caravans. Moreover, he was reasonably sure the track had not been there the night before. Toctamish, when wakened, yawned in bad spirits and told Khlit he was an old woman, of great fear and unmentionable descent.

When they resumed their path, it led upward through the foothills of Rudbar. A few date trees and some thorn bushes lined the way, but for the most part there was little foliage and many rocks. The grass, however, was good, and this was, perhaps, the reason why groups of horses were met with under the care of single, mounted horsemen who watched Khlit and his companion with curiosity.

They rode apart and silently, as before. Khlit's thoughts dwelt on Berca's last words. The girl had spoken as one having authority. She was no ordinary sheik's daughter, living out of sight of men, he thought. She was daring, and he wondered if she came from one of the hill-tribes where the women ride with men.

Berca had told him they were in the land of Halen ibn Shaddah, in the territory of the Refik folk, yet Khlit saw no signs of a town or city. He did see the tracks of multitudes of horses in the mountains where caravans were unknown. And the horses themselves puzzled him. For he could see nothing of their riders.

Toctamish, apparently, wasted no thought on his surroundings. He rode warily, but kept his thoughts to himself and pressed onward rapidly. Thus it was that the two came to a wide, shallow river, and followed the bank along a valley that seemed to sink further into the hills as they advanced.

Until sunset they rode, making detours to avoid waterfalls and fording the river where it curved—for it was very shallow—and then Khlit who was in the lead came to a halt as they rounded a bend.

"By the bones of Satan," he swore, "here is the place Berca told us of. Devil take me, if it does not look like a dog with his front paws in the river."

Like an arched bow the river curved, with the two riders standing at the end of the bow looking inward. Across from them rose a high point of rock, serried and overgrown with bushes, several hundred feet. No trees were on the summit of the rock. Instead, Khlit could make out masses of stones tumbling together and overgrown. A few pillars stood up through the débris.

Around the summit ran the semblance of a wall. So great was the waste of stone that it was hard to see any semblance of order in it, but Khlit judged that a citadel as big as a good-sized town had once crowned the dog-promontory. The rock jutted out to make the massive head of the beast, and ridges suggested paws.

"Here is no Alamut, Toctamish," growled Khlit in disgust. "Truly, we are fools—the little sparrow, Berca, has made game of us."

"Wait, caphar," retorted Toctamish, dismounting. "She said we would find the dog sitting in the river, thus, and we have found it. We will wait here and see what happens."

"Well, we will wait," laughed Khlit, "and see if the dog will give birth to a tribe."