The Country of the Knife/Chapter V

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The Country of the Knife by Robert E. Howard
Chapter V: Swords in the "Suk"

DAWN STREAMING GRAYLY through the barred window awakened Brent. He reflected that it might be the last dawn he would see as a free man. He laughed wryly at the thought. Free? Yet at least he was still a captive, not a slave. There was a vast difference between a captive and a slave-a revolting gulf, in which, crossing, a man or woman's self-respect must be forever lost.

Presently black slaves came with a jug of cheap sour wine, and food-chupatties, rice cakes, dried dates. Royal fare compared with his supper the night before. A Tajik barber shaved him and trimmed his hair, and he was allowed the luxury of scrubbing himself pink in the prison bath.

He was grateful for the opportunity, but the whole proceeding was disgusting. He felt like a prize animal being curried and groomed for display. Some whim prompted him to ask the barber where the proceeds of his sale would go, and the man answered into the city treasury, to keep the walls repaired. A singularly unromantic usage for the price of a human being, but typical of the hard practicality of the East. Brent thought fleetingly of Shirkuh, then shrugged his shoulders. Apparently the Kurd had abandoned him to his fate.

Clad only in a loin cloth and sandals, he was led from the prison by the one-eyed Sudozai and a huge black slave. Horses were waiting for them at the gate, and he was ordered to mount. Between the slave masters he clattered up the street before the sun was up. But already the crowd was gathering in the square. The auctioning of a white man was an event, and there was, furthermore, a feeling of expectancy in the air, sharpened by the fight of the day before.

In the midst of the square there stood a thick platform built solidly of stone blocks; it was perhaps four feet high and thirty feet across. On this platform the Sudozai took his stand, grasping a piece of rope which was tied loosely about Brent's neck. Behind them stood the stolid Soudanese with a drawn scimitar on his shoulder.

Before, and to one side of the block the crowd had left a space clear, and there Abd el Khafid sat his horse, amid a troop of Black Tigers, bizarre in their ceremonial armor. Ceremonial it must be, reflected Brent; it might turn a sword blade, but it would afford no protection against a bullet. But it was one of the many fantastic customs of the city, where tradition took the place of written law. The bodyguard of the emir had always worn black armor. Therefore, they would always wear it. Muhammad ez Zahir commanded them. Brent did not see Ali Shah.

Another custom was responsible for the presence of Abd el Khafid, instead of sending a servant to buy the American for him; not even the emir could bid by proxy.

As he climbed upon the block, Brent heard a cheer, and saw Alafdal Khan and Shirkuh pushing through the throng on their horses. Behind them came thirty-five warriors, well armed and well mounted. The Waziri chief was plainly nervous, but Shirkuh strutted like a peacock, even on horseback, before the admiring gaze of the throng.

At the ringing ovation given them, annoyance flitted across Abd el Khafid's broad, pale face, and that expression was followed by a more sinister darkening that boded ill for the Waziri and his ally.

The auction began abruptly and undramatically. The Sudozai began in a singsong voice to narrate the desirable physical points of the prisoner, when Abd el Khafid cut him short and offered fifty rupees.

"A hundred!" instantly yelled Shirkuh.

Abd el Khafid turned an irritated and menacing glare on him. Shirkuh grinned insolently, and the crowd hugged itself, sensing a conflict of the sort it loved.

"Three hundred!" snarled the emir, meaning to squelch this irreverent vagabond without delay.

"Four hundred!" shouted Shirkuh.

"A thousand!" cried Adb el Khafid in a passion.

"Eleven hundred!"

And Shirkuh deliberately laughed in the emir's face, and the crowd laughed with him. Abd el Khafid appeared at a disadvantage, for he was a bit confused at this unexpected opposition, and had lost his temper too easily. The fierce eyes of the crowd missed nothing of this, for it is on such points the wolf pack ceaselessly and pitilessly judges its leader. Their sympathies swung to the laughing, youthful stranger, sitting his horse with careless ease.

Brent's heart had leaped into his throat at the first sound of Shirkuh's voice. If the man meant to aid him, this was the most obvious way to take. Then his heart sank again at the determination in Abd el Khafid's angry face. The emir would never let his captive slip between his fingers. And though the Gift of Shaitan was not yet in the Russian's possession, yet doubtless his private resources were too great for Shirkuh. In a contest of finances Shirkuh was foredoomed to lose.

Brent's conclusions were not those of Abd el Khafid. The emir shot a glance at Alafdal Khan, shifting uneasily in his saddle. He saw the beads of moisture gathered on the Waziri's broad brow, and realized a collusion between the men. New anger blazed in the emir's eyes.

In his way Abd el Khafid was miserly. He was willing to squander gold like water on a main objective, but it irked him exceedingly to pay an exorbitant price to attain a minor goal. He knew-every man in the crowd knew now-that Alafdal Khan was backing Shirkuh. And all men knew that the Waziri was one of the wealthiest men in the city, and a prodigal spender. Abd el Khafid's nostrils pinched in with wrath as he realized the heights of extravagance to which he might be forced, did Shirkuh persist in this impertinent opposition to his wishes. The Gift of Shaitan was not yet in his hands, and his private funds were drained constantly by the expenses of his spy system and his various intrigues. He raised the bid in a harsh, anger-edged voice.

Brent, studying the drama with the keen, understanding eyes of a gambler, realized that Abd el Khafid had got off on the wrong foot. Shirkuh's bearing appealed to the crowd. They laughed at his sallies, which were salty and sparkling with all the age-old ribaldry of the East, and they hissed covertly at the emir, under cover of their neighbors.

The bidding mounted to unexpected heights. Abd el Khafid, white about the nostrils as he sensed the growing hostility of the crowd, did not speak except to snarl his offers. Shirkuh rolled in his saddle, slapped his thighs, yelled his bids, and defiantly brandished a leathern bag which gave out a musical tinkling.

The excitement of the crowd was at white heat. Ferocity began to edge their yells. Brent, looking down at the heaving mass, had a confused impression of dark, convulsed faces, blazing eyes, and strident voices. Alafdal Khan was sweating, but he did not interfere, not even when the bidding rose above fifty thousand rupees.

It was more than a bidding contest; it was the subtle play of two opposing wills, as hard and supple as tempered steel. Abd el Khafid realized that if he withdrew now, his prestige would never recover from the blow. In his rage he made his first mistake.

He rose suddenly in his stirrups, clapping his hands.

"Let there be an end to this madness!" he roared. "No white slave is worth this much! I declare the auction closed! I buy this dog for sixty thousand rupees! Take him to my house, slave master!"

A roar of protest rose from the throng, and Shirkuh drove his horses alongside the block and leaped off to it, tossing his rein to a Waziri.

"Is this justice?" he shouted. "Is this done according to custom? Men of Rub el Harami, I demand justice! I bid sixty-one thousand rupees. I stand ready to bid more, if necessary! When has an emir been allowed to use his authority to rob a citizen, and cheat the people? Nay, we be thieves-but shall we rob one another? Who is Abd el Khafid, to trample the customs of the city! If the customs are broken, what shall hold you together? Rub el Harami lives only so long as the ancient traditions are observed. Will you let Abd el Khafid destroy them-and you?"

A cataract of straining human voices answered him. The crowd had become a myriad-fanged, flashing-eyed mass of hate.

"Obey the customs!" yelled Shirkuh, and the crowd took up the yell.

"Obey the customs!" It was the thunder of unreined seas, the roar of a storm wind ripping through icy passes. Blindly men seized the slogan, yowling it under a forest of lean arms and clenched fists. Men go mad on a slogan; conquerors have swept to empire, prophets to new world religions on a shouted phrase. All the men in the square were screaming it like a ritual now, rocking and tossing on their feet, fists clenched, froth on their lips. They no longer reasoned; they were a forest of blind human emotions, swayed by the storm wind of a shouted phrase that embodied passion and the urge to action.

Abd el Khafid lost his head. He drew his sword and cut a man who was clawing at his stirrup mouthing: "Obey the customs, emir!" and the spurt of blood edged the yells with murder lust. But as yet the mob was only a blind, raging monster without a head.

"Clear the suk!" shouted Abd el Khafid.

The lances dipped, and the Black Tigers moved forward uncertainly. A hail of stones greeted them.

Shirkuh leaped to the edge of the block, lifting his arms, shouting, cutting the volume of sound by the knifing intensity of his yell.

"Down with Abd el Khafid! Hail, Alafdal Khan, emir of Rub el Harami!"

"Hail, Alafdal Khan!" came back from the crowd like a thunderclap.

Abd el Khafid rose in his stirrups, livid.

"Fools! Are you utterly mad? Shall I call my riders to sweep the streets clear of you?"

Shirkuh threw back his head and laughed like a wolf howling.

"Call them!" he yelled. "Before you can gather them from the taverns and dens, we will stain the square with your blood! Prove your right to rule! You have violated one custom-redeem yourself by another! Men of Rub el Harami, is it not a tradition that an emir must be able to defend his title with the sword?"

"Aye!" roared back the mob.

"Then let Abd el Khafid fight Alafdal Khan!" shouted Shirkuh.

"Let them fight!" bellowed the mob.

Abd el Khafid's eyes turned red. He was sure of his prowess with the sword, but this revolt against his authority enraged him to the point of insanity. This was the very center of his power; here like a spider he had spun his webs, expecting attack on the fringes, but never here. Now he was caught off-guard. Too many trusted henchmen were far afield. Others were scattered throughout the city, useless to him at the moment. His bodyguard was too small to defy the crowd. Mentally he promised himself a feast of hangings and beheadings when he could bring back a sufficient force of men to Rub el Harami. In the meantime he would settle Alafdal's ambitions permanently.

"Kingmaker, eh?" he snarled in Shirkuh's face, as he leaped off his horse to the block. He whipped out his tulwar and swung it around his head, a sheen of silver in the sun. "I'll nail your head to the Herati Gate when I've finished with this ox-eyed fool!"

Shirkuh laughed at him and stepped back, herding the slave masters and their captive to the back of the block. Alafdal Khan was scrambling to the platform, his tulwar in his hand.

He was not fully straightened on the block when Abd el Khafid was on him with the fury of a tornado. The crowd cried out, fearing that the emir's whirlwind speed would envelop the powerful but slower chief. But it was this very swiftness that undid the Russian. In his wild fury to kill, Abd el Khafid forgot judgment. The stroke he aimed at Alafdal's head would have decapitated an ox; but he began it in mid-stride, and its violence threw his descending foot out of line. He stumbled, his blade cut thin air as Alafdal dodged-and then the Waziri's sword was through him.

It was over in a flash. Abd el Khafid had practically impaled himself on the Waziri's blade. The rush, the stroke, the counter-thrust, and the emir kicking his life out on the stone like a spitted rat-it all happened in a mere tick of time that left the mob speechless.

Shirkuh sprang forward like a panther in the instant of silence while the crowd held its breath and Alafdal gaped stupidly from the red tulwar in his hand to the dead man at his feet.

"Hail to Alafdal Khan, emir of Rub el Harami!" yelled Shirkuh, and the crowd thundered its response.

"On your horse, man, quick!" Shirkuh snarled in Alafdal's ear, thrusting him toward his steed, while seeming to bow him toward it.

The crowd was going mad with the senseless joy of a mob that sees its favorite elevated above them. As Alafdal, still dazed by the rapidity of events, clambered on his horse, Shirkuh turned on the stunned Black Tiger riders.

"Dogs!" he thundered. "Form ranks! Escort your new master to the palace, for his title to be confirmed by the council of imams!"

They were moving unwillingly forward, afraid of the crowd, when a commotion interrupted the flow of events. Ali Shah and forty armed horsemen came pushing their way through the crowd and halted beside the armored riders. The crowd bared its teeth, remembering the Ghilzai's feud with their new emir. Yet there was iron in Ali Shah. He did not flinch, but the old indecision wavered in Alafdal's eyes at the sight of his foe.

Shirkuh turned on Ali Shah with the swift suspicion of a tiger, but before anyone could speak, a wild figure dashed from among the Ghilzais and leaped on the block. It was the Shinwari Shirkuh had ridden down the day before. The man threw a lean arm out toward Shirkuh.

"He is an impostor, brothers!" he screamed. "I thought I knew him yesterday! An hour ago I remembered! He is no Kurd! He is-"

Shirkuh shot the man through the body. He staggered to a rolling fall that carried him to the edge of the block. There he lifted himself on an elbow, and pointed at Shirkuh. Blood spattered the Shinwari's beard as he croaked in the sudden silence:

"I swear by the beard of the Prophet, he is no Moslem!"

"He is El Borak!"

A shudder passed over the crowd.

"Obey the customs!" came Ali Shah's sardonic voice in the unnatural stillness. "You killed your emir because of a small custom. There stands a man who has violated the greatest one-your enemy, El Borak!"

There was conviction in his voice, yet no one had really doubted the accusation of the dying Shinwari. The amazing revelation had struck them all dumb, Brent included. But only for an instant.

The blind reaction of the crowd was as instantaneous as it had been before. The tense stillness snapped like a banjo string to a flood of sound:

"Down with the infidels! Death to El Borak! Death to Alafdal Khan!"

To Brent it seemed that the crowd suddenly rose like a foaming torrent and flowed over the edge of the block. Above the deafening clamor he heard the crashing of the big automatic in El Borak's hand. Blood spattered, and in an instant the edge of the block was littered by writhing bodies over which the living tripped and stumbled.

El Borak sprang to Brent, knocked his guards sprawling with the pistol barrel, and seized the dazed captive, dragged him toward the black stallion to which the Waziri still clung. The mob was swarming like wolves about Alafdal and his warriors, and the Black Tigers and Ali Shah were trying to get at them through the press. Alafdal bawled something desperate and incoherent to El Borak as he laid lustily about him with his tulwar. The Waziri chief was almost crazed with bewilderment. A moment ago he had been emir of Rub el Harami, with the crowd applauding him. Now the same crowd was trying to take him out of his saddle.

"Make for your house, Alafdal!" yelled El Borak.

He leaped into the saddle just as the man holding the horse went down with his head shattered by a cobblestone. The wild figure who had killed him leaped forward, gibbering, clawing at the rider's leg. El Borak drove a sharp silver heel into his eye, stretching him bleeding and screaming on the ground. He ruthlessly slashed off a hand that grasped at his rein, and beat back a ring of snarling faces with another swing of his saber.

"Get on behind me, Brent!" he ordered, holding the frantic horse close to the block.

It was only when he heard the English words, with their Southwestern accent, that Brent realized that this was no dream, and he had at last actually encountered the man he had sought.

Men were grasping at Brent. He beat them off with clenched fists, leaped on the stallion behind the saddle. He grasped the cantle, resisting the natural impulse to hold onto the man in front of him. El Borak would need the free use of his body if they won through that seething mass of frantic humanity which packed the square from edge to edge. It was a frothing, dark-waved sea, swirling about islands of horsemen.

But the stallion gathered itself and lunged terribly, knocking over screaming figures like tenpins. Bones snapped under its hoofs. Over the heads of the crowd Brent saw Ali Shah and his riders beating savagely at the mob with their swords, trying to reach Alafdal Khan. Ali Shah was cool no longer; his dark face was convulsed.

The stallion waded through that sea of humanity, its rider slashing right and left, clearing a red road. Brent felt hands clawing at them as they went by, felt the inexorable hoofs grinding over writhing bodies. Ahead of them the Waziris, in a compact formation, were cutting their way toward the west side of the square. Already a dozen of them had been dragged from their saddles and torn to pieces.

El Borak dragged his rifle out of its boot, and it banged redly in the snarling faces, blasting a lane through them. Along that lane the black stallion thundered, to smite with irresistible impact the mass hemming in Alafdal Khan. It burst asunder, and the black horse sped on, while its rider yelled:

"Fall in behind me! We'll make a stand at your house!"

The Waziris closed in behind him. They might have abandoned El Borak if they had had the choice. But the people included them all in their blind rage against the breakers of tradition. As they broke through the press, behind them the Black Tigers brought their rifles into play for the first time. A hail of bullets swept the square, emptying half the Waziri saddles. The survivors dashed into a narrow street.

A mass of snarling figures blocked their way. Men swarmed from the houses to cut them off. Men were surging into the alley behind them. A thrown stone numbed Brent's shoulder. El Borak was using the empty rifle like a mace. In a rush they smote the men massed in the street.

The great black stallion reared and lashed down with mallet-like hoofs, and its rider flailed with a rifle stock now splintered and smeared with blood. But behind them Alafdal's steed stumbled and fell. Alafdal's disordered turban and his dripping tulwar appeared for an instant above a sea of heads and tossing arms. His men plunged madly in to rescue him and were hemmed in by a solid mass of humanity as more men surged down the street from the square. Hamstrung horses went down, screaming. El Borak wheeled his stallion back toward the melee, and as he did so, a swarm of men burst from a narrow alleyway. One seized Brent's leg and dragged him from the horse. As they rolled in the dust, the Afghan heaved Brent below him, mouthing like an ape, and lifted a crooked knife. Brent saw it glint in the sunlight, had an instant's numb realization of doom-then El Borak, reining the rearing stallion around, leaned from the saddle and smashed the Afghan's skull with his rifle butt.

The man fell across Brent, and then from an arched doorway an ancient blunderbuss banged, and the stallion reared and fell sprawling, half its head shot away. El Borak leaped clear, hit on his feet like a cat, and hurled the broken rifle in the faces of the swarm bearing down on him. He leaped back, tearing his saber clear. It flickered like lightning, and three men fell with cleft heads. But the mob was blood-mad, heedless of death. Brainlessly they rushed against him, flailing with staves and bludgeons, bearing him by their very weight back into an arched doorway. The panels splintered inward under the impact of the hurtling bodies, and El Borak vanished from Brent's sight. The mob poured in after him.

Brent cast off the limp body that lay across him and rose. He had a brief glimpse of a dark writhing mass where the fight swirled about the fallen chief, of Ali Shah and his riders beating at the crowd with their swords-then a bludgeon, wielded from behind, fell glancingly on his head, and he fell blind and senseless into the trampled dust.

Slowly consciousness returned to Stuart Brent. His head ached dully, and his hair was stiff with clotted blood. He struggled to his elbows, though the effort made his head swim sickeningly, and stared about him.

He was lying on a stone floor littered with moldy straw. Light came in from a high-barred window. There was a door with a broad barred wicket. Other figures lay near him and one sat cross-legged, staring at him blankly. It was Alafdal Khan.

The Waziri's beard was torn, his turban gone. His features were swollen, and bruised, and skinned, one ear mangled. Three of his men lay near, one groaning. All had been frightfully beaten, and the man who groaned seemed to have a broken arm.

"They didn't kill us!" marveled Brent.

Alafdal Khan swung his great head like an ox in pain and groaned: "Cursed be the day I laid eyes on El Borak!"

One of the men crept painfully to Brent's side.

"I am Achmet, sahib," he said, spitting blood from a broken tooth. "There lie Hassan and Suleiman. Ali Shah and his men beat the dogs off us, but they had mauled us so that all were dead save these you see. Our lord is like one touched by Allah."

"Are we in the Abode of the Damned?" asked Brent.

"Nay, sahib. We are in the common jail which lies near the west wall."

"Why did they save us from the mob?"

"For a more exquisite end!" Achmet shuddered. "Does the sahib know the death the Black Tigers reserve for traitors?"

"No!" Brent's lips were suddenly dry.

"We will be flayed to-morrow night in the square. It is an old pagan custom. Rub El Harami is a city of customs."

"So I have learned!" agreed Brent grimly. "What of El Borak?"

"I do not know. He vanished into a house, with many men in pursuit. They must have overtaken and slain him."