LITTLE Khlit suspected how true his chance word was to be. The sun had dropped behind the furthest mountain summit, and the night cold of the high elevation had wrapped around the two watchers when they saw a sight that made their blood stir.
The Cossack had stretched on the ground a little distance from Toctamish, who had subsided into snores. He watched the last light melt from the ruins on the summit of the cliff, and as he watched he thought he heard echoes from across the river, as from far off. Straining his ears, he could catch bursts of music and shouting. Remembering his experience with the horses the previous night, he wondered if the mountains were playing tricks with his ears.
The sounds would come in bursts as though a gate had been opened to let them out, followed by silence. Khlit was not at home in the hills, and he did not recognize the peculiar resonance of echoes. What he thought he heard were songs and shouts repeated from mouth to mouth, as by giants, in the heart of the rock opposite him.
Lighting his pipe and cursing himself for a dreaming fool, Khlit sat up and scanned the darkness over the river. As if to mock him, the burst of shouting became clearer. And then the skin moved along Khlit's back of its own accord and his jaw dropped. He shook his head angrily, to make sure he was still awake.
Out of the rock across the river a multitude of lights were flickering. The lights came toward him rapidly, and the shouting grew. There were torches, moving out on the river, and by their glare he could see a mass of moving men armed with spears and bows. Splashing through the water, they were fording the shallow river.
Khlit could see that they were men of varied race, turbaned and cloaked, armed for the most part with bow and arrows, much like those who had robbed the caravan. As the throng came nearer, he shook Toctamish and stood up.
"Loosen your sword, Father of Swine," he grunted, "here are men who are not triflers."
Several of the leaders, who had caught sight of the two, closed around them. The torchlight was thrown in their faces, and for a moment the shouting of the band was silenced as they surveyed Khlit and his companion. One, very lean and dark of face, dressed in a white coat bossed with gold, and wearing a tufted turban of the same colors, spoke in a tongue Khlit did not understand.
"Hey, brothers," swore Khlit genially, laughing, for the presence of danger pleased him, "have you any who speak like Christians? Khlit, called the Wolf, would speak with you."
After some delay, a dirty tribesman was thrust beside the man of white and gold.
"Wherefore are you here?" the tribesman, who seemed to be a Kurd, asked in broken Russian, "and what is your purpose? Be brief, for the Dais are impatient to march. Are you a Christian, Cossack?"
"Say that you are not," whispered Toctamish, who had caught what was said, "for none with a god can go into the mountain."
"A dog will give up his faith," snarled Khlit, "but a Cossack does not deny God and the Orthodox Church. Aye," he responded to the Kurd, "I am a Christian. I have come to Rudbar, or to Alamut, whatever you call the place, to seek him who is called the Old Man of the Mountain. What is your name and faith?"
A peculiar look of fear crossed the face of the Kurd.
"Seek you the Master of the Mountain, Sheik Halen ibn Shaddah, Cossack? My name is Iba Kabash, and I was once a Christian. What is your mission with the Lord of Alamut?"
"Tell the unbeliever we have come to join the Refik, where there is no law—" began Toctamish, but Khlit motioned him to silence.
"Take us to Sheik Halen ibn Shaddah, and we will tell him our mission, Iba Kabash," he retorted. "We are not men to parley with slaves."
The man of white and gold had grown impatient, and spoke a few angry words to Iba Kabash, who cringed. Several of the bowmen ranged themselves beside them, and the throng pushed past, leaving a single torch with the Kurd, who motioned to Khlit to follow him. Leaving their horses with an attendant, Khlit and Toctamish made their way after Iba Kabash to the river. The current was not overswift, and the water came barely to their knees.
"It is the wish of the Dai, Cossack, that you shall enter Alamut. What is your mission? Tell me and I shall be a true friend. I swear it. Surely you have a strong reason for your coming," the Kurd's greasy head was thrust close to the Cossack's. "Let me hear but a word."
"If the Dai named you guide, Iba Kabash, of the mangy beard, lead us, and talk not."
In his heart Khlit distrusted the offered friendship of the Kurd. And he watched closely where they went, across the Shahrud, into the shadows of the further bank. And he saw how it was the Dai's followers had come from the mountain.
Concealed by the shadows, were grottoes, where the water had eaten into the rock, grottoes which ran deep into the mountain. The torch reflected from the dark surface of the water, as they splashed forward, with the river becoming shallower. Presently they stood on dry rock. Here they were in a cave, of which Khlit could not see the top.
Iba Kabash pulled impatiently at his arm and they went forward, and up. Khlit saw that now they were on rock which was the handiwork of man. They were ascending broad steps, each one a pace in width, and so broad that the torch barely showed rows of stone pillars on either side.
Khlit had counted fifty steps when Iba Kabash came to a halt, grinning. Lifting the torch overhead, he pointed to a square stone, set in the rocky roof of the stairs. On this rock were lines of writing strange to Khlit, and blackened with age and the dampness of the place.
"The gateway of Alamut, oh, Cossack," laughed the Kurd. "And the writing of one who was as great as Mohammed, prophet of Allah. And the message:
"With the help of God
The ruler of the world
Loosened the bands of the law,
Blessed be his name."
Khlit was silent. He had not expected to find himself in a cave in the heart of a mountain. The darkness and damp, rising from the river, chilled him. Glancing ahead, he saw a rocky passage, wide and lofty. The passage had been made by the river, perhaps in a former age, when it had risen to that level. But the hands of men had widened it and smoothed the walls. Toctamish, he saw, was scrutinizing his surroundings, his slant eyes staring from a lined, yellow face.
"Come," said Iba Kabash, who seemed to enjoy the silence of his visitors, "this was not the gateway of Alamut always, in the days of the first Master of the Mountain. And Alamut has changed. It has sunk into the mountain. Men say the old Alamut was destroyed."
"Aye," said Toctamish suddenly, "by Hulagu Khan."
The Kurd stared at him curiously.
"Come," he muttered, and led the way up the winding rock passage.
Khlit followed closely. Other passages joined the one they were in. At times, sounds came down these passages—distant rumblings, and strains of music. Occasionally a figure armed with a spear stepped from them and scanned the group. Always a wind whipped around them, cold, in spite of the heat of the air outside.
After a time, Khlit saw that they were no longer in the passage. The torch did not reveal walls, and the footing was regular, of stone slabs. They had entered a chamber of some kind. Other torches made their appearance suddenly. The sound of voices came to them clearly.
They approached a fire around which lay several armed men. Khlit guessed from their dress that they were Khirghiz men; furthermore, that they appeared drunk. Only one or two looked up, without interest. Iba Kabash led them past many fires and men until they came to narrow stone stairs which led away from the rock chambers. Here, a giant Turk spoke with Iba Kabash before letting them pass.
"We will speak with Rashideddin," whispered the Kurd, "the astrologer of Halen ibn Shaddah. Tell me now your mission? I can help you."
Toctamish would have spoken, fingering a money pouch at his belt on which the Kurd's gaze fastened greedily, but Khlit shook his head. With a sneer, their guide stepped on the stairway. Khlit climbed after him, and noted that the stairs wound up still further. He guessed that they had ascended several hundred feet since leaving the bed of the river.
Then, leaving the stair, he found himself in a round chamber, hung with tapestries and rugs of great beauty. Several oil lamps, suspended from the ceiling lighted the place. A warm breath of air caused him to look up. A circular opening formed the center of the ceiling, and through this he could see the stars and the velvet vault of the sky.
Two of the dark-faced men, strange to Khlit, like the Dai of white and gold, stood by the wall, wearing mail and resting on spears. A small ebony table was loaded with parchments and instruments which the Cossack had never seen before. In the center of the floor was a chess-board, and sitting on either side of the chess-board were two men.
One, Khlit recognized by his tufted turban and brilliant white coat, to be of the kind Iba Kabash had called Dai. The other wore a close-fitting skullcap and a gray cloak without a sash. He looked at Khlit and the latter saw a lean face, gray, almost as the cloak, with close-set black eyes, and a loose-lipped mouth, very pale.
"Oh, Rashideddin," said Iba Kabash, "here are the two who have just come, of whom I have sent word. The Cossack is a Christian and insolent. The other is altogether a fool."