The Making of the Morning Star/Chapter 6

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CHAPTER VI

THE WORD ON THE ROCKS

{{di|R|4.75em}OBERT frequently pondered the warning of the khan as they made their way at a rapid pace through the wooded uplands that lay beyond the river. And he had other things to think about.

To Will's chagrin there was no sign of the maid or the priest in the raiding-party; nor would Abdullah give them any word of the fate of the captives. The minstrel fell into a moody silence, broken only by his harsh songs sometimes at evening when they lay at ease in the tent openings and listened to the gambling and gossip of the Kankalis.

Abdullah became impatient at any delay—though these were few, because each day brought Inalzig fresh tidings of impending warfare and the chief was anxious to reach his destination, Bokhara, as quickly as possible.

“The maid and the monk live yet,” he assured Robert, “and it may fortune that you will see them again. But who can foretell what the turn in the road will bring? By the host of the dead! Only fools prophesy before the event!”

He studied the face of the young warrior as a wise man might read a book, sheet by sheet. And the finely wrought lips and candid gray eyes made him shake his head.

“Nay, you pray as a Moslem, and you walk as one—a little slowly—and you sit the saddle like a Seljuk and an ameer, but your eyes and mouth say otherwise. Why, by the white horse of Kaidu, do your thoughts dwell on a Christian child, scarce a woman?”

Robert merely nodded at Will Bunsley, who jogged ahead on his nag, heedless of the inevitable dust-cloud and the midges that swarmed about his eyes.

“Ha, the redbeard!” Abdullah smiled. “A skilled bowman and a man without fear. Yet he rides on a vain quest with room in his skull for no more than the idea that brought him forth. Allah, do we draw rein again!”

He shaded his eyes to gaze where Inalzig had halted the head of the column to let a string of camels pass. They were racing Bactrians, and the riders jeered at the weary ponies of the Kankalis. Robert, who had an eye for weapons and the men who bore them, observed that the camel-riders wore splendid, silvered mail under black khalats, that their targets were bossed with gold and their voluminous turbans crested with peacock feathers.

“Warriors of the Caliphs of Bagdad,” muttered Abdullah under his mustache. “Mark the white camel of the leader. Ha, it will be a great war if the caliphs are sending men to the Shah. Verily the Moslems are gathering their might, like a leopard crouching to spring.”

On other days they sighted detachments of furtive hillmen, who kept well away from Inalzig's standard, and horsemen mounted on splendid Arabs, who raised the shrill ululation of the Saracens at sight of friends. These were heading through the villages, tending in the same direction as Inalzig, which was toward a line of blue summits that rose each day a little higher upon the horizon, with one great peak bearing a snow cap standing upon the travelers' right hand.[1]

“To the Iron Gates,” Abdullah nodded. “All who ride to Khar from the west must pass the Gates and give surety to the warders of their purpose. These arrays are no more than the outlying detachments, bound for the main armies at the great cities.”

“I had thought them a mighty force,” observed Robert.

Abdullah smiled.

“The puppy thought the jackal was a wolf! Nay, the master of the Throne of Gold hath five times a hundred thousand riders to his command.”

This, Robert fancied a jest, for such numbers were incredible: In Palestine the host of the crusaders amounted to no more than fifteen thousand.

“If the red archer,” quoth Abdullah, his eyes gleaming, “would see vengeance at work, he has come in good time. Aye, he shall see what will fill his eyes. And you, O young warrior, will taste the mead of a man.” With that he urged his horse up close to the heels of a pair of Kankalis until the dust nearly choked them and hid the rest of the detachment somewhat from view. Thrusting out his hand suddenly, the minstrel gripped Robert's fingers and when he drew away something hard and cold was in the knight's hand. Realizing that he was not to attract attention to himself, Robert did not look down for a moment. When he did so, he recognized within his fingers the chain of rubies that Abdullah had carried; carved in the semblance of roses.

“Place it within thy girdle,” whispered the minstrel, “and show it only at the Sialah. The talsmin will pass you through."

He glanced about and reined closer.

“You will have need of all your wit if you live to reach Bokhara. Remember that no Kharesmian has proof against you, and you are fairly safe if you do not betray yourself—so beware of tricks. Remember, too, that it is ever best to face forward and to shun no risk. The Moslems are a folk cf many tribes and quarrels—and that is their bane. If a man mocks you, cut him down; if a spy is sent, laugh at him. By all the gods, I have not brought you so far, to find you a weakling!”

Robert reflected that a good Moslem does not swear by more than one god.

“And you?” he asked.

“Whatever happens, I will seek you out in Bokhara. Ya bunnayi—O little son, tomorrow we climb the Sialak.”

In the minstrel's dark eyes was something like concern for the youth who, towering half a head above him, he addressed as his little son. Yet when these words had passed he withdrew into his cloak of silence and sat for hours on his saddle cloth without turning hand to his lute or lifting his voice in song. And that night the heat of the plains was tempered just a bit by a long breeze from the north.

Robert sniffed it as he lay outstretched on his cloak, studying the canopy of stars, and though he thought surely it must be fancy, the breeze seemed to bear with it the tang of the salt sea and wet rocks.

They made a long stretch the next day, and Bunsley complained that the Moslems hemmed him in as if he were part of the treasure of loot they were guarding. Other caravans made way for Inalzig's standard, and all through the day they drew nearer to a line of peaks that had lifted from the skyline two sunrises before.

The wind whipped and buffeted them as they ate their rice and dates and mutton that evening in the very shadow of bare slopes that flung back the red glory of the sunset. Robert had studied the line of mountains carefully, to pick out the pass that might let them through; he had seen cavalcades of hurrying riders sweep up to one point in the foot-hills and immediately pass from view.

When the last shaft of red light vanished from the tallest of the peaks—the one streaked with tiny spots of something that gave back the glitter of the sun—darkness settled like a cloak upon the serais where the caravans had baited for the night. The smoke of the dung fires was not to be seen, and the glow of the flames spread upon bearded faces and lines of picketed beasts.

This was the signal for Inalzig to order his men to saddle again, and four of them came and grinned at the two Franks before ranging themselves on either side. They went forward at a trot until a line of camels, grunting protest at the night march, slowed them to a hand pace.

So strong was the illusion of darkness that Robert felt that they were entering the breast of the hills. High rock walls closed in on them presently. By the echo of the hoofs on stones he judged that the cliffs were sheer and immense. When torches appeared ahead of him, he found that he could not begin to see the top of the cañon walls.

At places great boulders encroached on the narrow pass, leaving no more than a bridle way. The muffled voices and the uproar of the camels ahead sent the echoes leaping from side to side, to diminish to whispers drowned by the gusts of wind.

“Master Robert,” quoth Will, “did the minstrel say that we would fall in with a company of dead lords, and ride with King Cæsar and roguish Alexander—ha, St. Dunstan aid us!”

The echoes caught up his words and shouted them to the sky—

“Alexander—Alexander—aid us—aid!”

“Methinks this is the place.”

Will lowered his voice to a whisper. And—

“Methinks this is—the place—the place!”

The wind-borne whisper passed overhead. Will fell to pattering what prayers he could muster on the moment, mixed with lusty curses on the paynims who had led him into such a stronghold of demons. The cliffs repeated back his mutterings. and garbled the curses with the prayers so that presently he fell into a gloomy silence. The way twisted interminably, and they had to edge past the camels, which had been halted at one side while their riders, apparently, went forward. The ponies shied at the smell of the gaunt beasts, and presently the word came back to dismount.

As he pressed after the torches that flared and smoked in the gusts of air, Robert noticed that he was splashing through cold water. Reaching down one hand, he discovered that a cut on his forefinger smarted keenly; and, tasting the water, he found it salt.

Will merely shook his head when this was called to his attention.

“Aye, tall brother,” he pointed out, “where water is salt, there a sea must be. What sea lies within the desert—save the Styx? Nay, we will sup wi' Satan and bed down wi' the ghosts this night. Seest thou yonder writing? How reads it?”

Glancing where the yeoman's finger pointed, Robert noticed first the portion of a ruined wall stretching athwart the pass, then a row of characters carved in the side of the cliff some distance over his head. The words were not Latin or Arabic, and he could make nothing of them, but a stalwart Kankali at his heels noticed his interest and enlightened him.

“'Tis but one word, O Cairene and that is—

“'Victory.'”

“How old is the word?”

“Am I a prophet, that I should know? Some say it was carved so by the men of the hero Iskander in the elder days, when news came to him of the death of his foe the lord of Parthia.[2] But now leave your horse and climb, for these are the Gates.”

Robert looked ahead and found that Will was already scrambling up what seemed to be a solid wall of rock, in reality a mass of boulders, up which the Kankalis were swarming. Whether the rocks had been piled there or had fallen from above, Robert cared little. So steep was the ascent that he was forced to use hands and knees, and water trickled down on his shoulders as he pulled himself up to where a line of men were standing with torches.

This proved to be the crest of the natural rampart, and the knight saw that a score of bowmen placed here could hold back an army. The wind smote him full force and staggered him. A spearman reached out an arm and steadied him, thrusting him beside Will, facing the leader of the guards.

On the other side the boulders fell away to the dark surface of water, and Robert suspected that the stream flowing down the gorge had been penned back by the wall of rocks, forming a pool on the upper side. He was surprized to observe a number of women ranged beside the defenders of the pass—veiled women, variously garbed, but all slender and long-haired, unmistakably youthful. He noticed, too, that the Kankalis had passed on save for Inalzig, who stood beside the captain of the warders.

Abdullah was not to be seen, although Will stared about hopefully.

“Would I had a good yew staff at hand!” the archer sighed. “Aye, to make the sign of the cross, and so— Ha, look below!”

Near the surface of the water they saw a white face surrounded by a mesh of dark hair, and—in the glow of the torches—the silk clad limbs of a woman moving gently with the currents of the pool. A moment more and she sank out of sight, but Will stared wide-eyed at the spot.

“You are from Egypt?” a courteous voice questioned the knight. “And alone—yet sent by the lords of Cairo? Verily, riders are coming from the far ends of the earth to the Throne of Gold. A strange sword!”

The speaker was a handsome Moslem, who made a respectful salaam and studied Robert with unwilling admiration.

“I had it from an unbeliever—who died,” responded the knight quietly.

“And from the lords who sent you, O ameer—have you a token or a written word?”

“The word is—victory. The swords of the faithful have scattered the host of the Franks, and the day of the unbeliever in Jerusalem is at an end.”

“Mashallah! So, too, will the Protector of the Faith, the King of the Age, of Time and the Tide, smite the other infidels who dared to mount for war upon the northern border. And your token, O captain of men?”

Robert drew the chain of rubies from his girdle, and the chief of the guards glanced at Inalzig curiously. Others craned their heads to look at the miniature roses threaded on gold.

“Where had you that?” demanded the Kankali, frowning.

“From one who brooks no questioning of his messengers, and who has a whip for a churlish slave,” hazarded the knight, aware that this was a reasonably good characterisation of any Moslem noble.

“Upon whom be peace,” assented the officer. “Well do I know the ruby chain that is a token given by the King of kings, the Shah of shahs, the favored of Allah, the sword arm of the faithful, Alai ud-deen Mohammad, master of Khar. Aye, this token he gives to the anis-al-jalis, the favorites, the cup companions of his hours of pleasure.

He bowed profoundly.

“And the ruby chain admits whoever bears it to the Gates, but no more than one. Yet it is passing strange, O favored of the Shah, that you, who have not passed this way going from Bokhara, should have the chain when you enter the inner country of Khar.”

Robert glanced at the chain with some interest and returned it to his girdle. Then he turned suddenly on the Moslem.

“O brother to a parrot, O pack-saddle of an ass——

He had learned a fair flood of forcible insults during his captivity, and he called upon his memory for a full minute while the spearmen gaped, and the officer began to look doubtful.

“Another question,” he ended, “and I will open thy breast to see if water or blood be in thy veins.”

So indeed might a noble of Cairo have spoken to one who stood in his way, and it was clear to the warders that the Ameer Arslan would like nothing better than to make good his words with sword-strokes. Inalzig's eyes blazed, and unseen by Robert he made a sign to men who stood back by the cliff.

“If the Caliphs themselves rode out of Bagdad to join the Shah,” he snarled, “the keeper of the Gate would cast them into the pool if they gave not a good account of themselves as Moslems. Look yonder!”

Robert did not turn, but Will Bunsley yelped like a hound viewing its quarry.

“Now praise be to all the saints and martyrs! Here be the demoiselle of Ibelin and Father Evagrius!”

Running to the ledge of rock that served as a pathway back from the buttress on which they stood, he tried to cast himself on his knees and seize the edge of the girl's robe to kiss. A spear-butt planted in his ribs by an alert guard sent him sprawling.

Ellen d'Ibelin stood between two warriors with drawn swords. Her torn hood and bedraggled smock had been replaced with rich silks and white cotton, bound about her waist by a velvet vest. A circlet of silver held in her black locks above the ears, and a transparent veil covered her face below the eyes. But eyes and hair and the poise of her young head were unmistakable.

Her glance showed that she knew Robert, but she did not break silence to make an appeal for help. Evidently she and the priest had been among the riders of the camels, and she must have seen all that passed on the edge of the pool.

“Aid, tall brother, for the maid!” cried Will hoarsely. “Draw and smite—bows and bills! See, the dogs would cast her into the water.”

Then Robert realized that Ellen's arms were chained and her ankles bound together with a girdle. With the priest and the two Moslems she stood on the brink of the ledge, swaying in the wind. The other women who had screened the captives until then had been herded ahead along the narrow path. This path, no more than two paces wide, ran between the wall of the cliff and the dark space of the abyss.

As he watched, Inalzig made another sign, and one of the guards seized the girl's long tresses, twisting them tight in his grasp. Her eyes widened in horror as the warrior, grinning, forced her to the very edge of the rock.

“Yonder maid,” observed the keeper of the Gate reflectively, “was taken from among the Franks. We have other women, from Armenia and the Bedawan villages, and they are kept for the pleasure of the Shah. Such is the custom of the forays beyond the border—yet, O ameer, the redbeard may have touched her, and the touch of a dog of an unbeliever is defilement. So—thrust her over,” he ordered the warrior who held her fast.

And Inalzig's white teeth flashed under his thin mustache.

“Ha! Would a Cairene act thus?”

Robert had leaped the space between the dam and the ledge. The warrior who stood over the girl released his prey and lifted shield and simitar as he strode to meet the knight.

“Ah no, my lord!” Ellen cried, raising her chained arms eagerly. “Keep to your guise and your own purpose. No man's aid will serve to abate our misfortune, and you would be lost!”

She covered her eyes.

“The sweet Mother in Heaven give strength!”

The Moslem who opposed Robert took time for a swift glance at the two chiefs, who shouted an order at him, and the knight drew his sword. The guard's lips lifted in a snarl as he braced his legs for a leap forward. Then he flung up his shield.

In a gleaming arc the heavy blade of the crusader flashed, and the Moslem's simitar was knocked down. His shield of hide and wood crumpled, and the blade hewed through his left arm, deep into his side. The man was swept over the ledge, and Robert freed his blade with a jerk as the body dropped out of sight.

“Well struck, O Nazarene!” applauded Inalzig. “Said I not you would be put to a test at the Gates? Ha, no guise will veil your heart hereafter. Like your follower, I had a devil from the first day, and the devil was doubt.”

The second guard rushed low at Robert, to be met with the point of the sword and slain in his tracks. Will Bunsley scrambled to his feet, wrenching the simitar from the hand of the falling slave.

“Let us show them our heels, brother,” he muttered excitedly. “Do thou take up the maid and run along the path.”

Robert, however, knew that this was just what the Moslems must desire him to do. Moreover the blind priest could not run, and there was no time to release the girl's bonds. He had been tricked and well tricked.

And fierce exultation warmed his heart. No need, now, of racking his brain for the words of deceit. He had jumped to aid the maid instinctively, and even now he might have explained his cutting down of the guards—if Inalzig and the captain of the warders would listen. But he had no desire to try them and for their part they prepared readily to make an end of him. There was the gleam of steel, red in the torchlight, before him and the feel of his sword-haft in his fists.

“Stand clear,” he growled at the archer, and stepped to meet the first two spearmen who crossed from the dam to the pathway.

Ellen had slipped to her knees, and was moving toward Father Evagrius, who was trying to draw her back to the cliff, his face upturned in the patient questioning of those who can not see what goes on about them.

As Will pushed forward stubbornly beside him Robert swept him back with his left arm and slashed at the nearest spear-head. The steel point flew humming through the air, and the crusader dodged the thrust of the second. The Moslems crouched and reached for their long knives. They had not yet learned that the round targets of bull's hide were no protection against the long weapon of their foe. Robert cut through one shield and the skull of the man behind it.

The other warrior shouted and leaped, and Robert missed catching his dagger arm as it came down. But he stepped forward, and the man's knife snapped on the chain mail of his back.

Robert caught hold with his free hand on the man's shoulder blade and—sensing Will's presence behind—jerked him back, to be dealt with by the yeoman's sword. A snarling grunt that changed to a scream sounded from the path, and presently a splash in the water below.

“Sa-ha!” chanted Will. “Another knave a-swim in the Styx. Guard thee, tall brother—so! Pretty work—yeomanly struck.”

A third Moslem had followed close upon the other two and raised his simitar. Robert, caught with his blade down, jammed the heavy hilt into the man's beard and took the simitar stroke on his helmet. The blow sent flames flying before his eyes, and the light steel cap spun from his head. But the Moslem was down, choking, and the knight took another pace forward, leaving Will to dispose of the injured warrior.

A spear splintered against the mail on his chest, and he reeled, coughing, for the point had lodged in his breast-bone. The man who had flung it shouted and whirled up his simitar. The knight parried one cut that would have hacked a knee in half and staggered again, when another spear tore into his left shoulder. The guard—a big-boned Turk—pressed forward too hastily and was dashed down when his legs were cut out from under him by a slash of the long blade.

“By the ninety and nine holy names!” swore Inalzig, who had followed the fighting with glittering eyes. “Here is one who should be brought alive to Bokhara, for he is not as common men. See, he strides forward again.”

“Then do you take him alive, O khan,” snarled the captain.

Will was feverish with exultation. Only three men beside the two chiefs stood on the dam, and these held the torches. Behind them the Kankalis had vanished from sight and hearing. If the strength of the knight could crush these five as well as the six who had died, they would be free, for the moment, in the gorge. But he did not mark how the two wounds had bitten into the thews of his companion.

Inalzig Khan rushed as a falcon stoops—warily, quick of eye, and with his long cloak sweeping about him. His simitar glittered above his shield. Some one behind him hurled a torch at the knight.

Bending low, Robert moved to meet the Moslem, and the two swords grated. The simitar bent nearly double and whipped clear—whipped down on the crusader's sword-arm, cutting to the bone. Robert stumbled forward, threw himself against Inalzig and felt for the Moslem's knife-hilt, while Inalzig felt for his throat and found it.

Jerking the curved dagger free, Robert thrust with failing strength at his foe's thighs under the mail. Inalzig's eyes glared into his, blood-seared and protruding. The knife-blade slipped upward on the Moslem's thigh-bone, and the curved point caught within his ribs.

His grip on Robert's throat fell away, and the knight gasped for air and felt himself drop through space. Instantly the torch-light faded, and he crashed into water, still locked with his adversary. Blackness grew denser, and then red flames shot up before his eyes and his nostrils stung. Blood flooded his throat.

He coughed—found that he could gulp in air—and moved his limbs feebly to keep afloat. For what seemed an interminable time he swam in a gigantic chasm, conscious of lights above him and—once—of Abdullah, the minstrel, looking down at him calmly. Then water splashed over his face, and the blackness was complete.

  1. The route taken by the crusader and his companions was not known to Europeans in that age. From the few landmarks observed, they must have crossed the Euphrates near Aleppo and the Tigris a little south of what is now Mosul, entering modern Persia within the next few days by the Highlands of Kurdistan. The snow mountain must have been Demavend, some two days' ride northeast of Teheran. The Sialak Pass is today just as it was then—or as it was in Alexander's day, for that matter.
  2. Darius.