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Mostrando entradas con la etiqueta Harold Lamb. Mostrar todas las entradas
Mostrando entradas con la etiqueta Harold Lamb. Mostrar todas las entradas

miércoles, 1 de julio de 2015

Swords From the West - 3/3 (English) (Harold Lamb)


Swords From the West - 2/3 (English) (Harold Lamb)

Swords From the West - 2/3 (English) (Harold Lamb)


Chapter I
The Gate of Shadows
It was evening on the plain of Angora in the Year of Our Lord 1394. The sun was a glimmering ball of red, peering through a haze of dust at the caravan of Bayezid the Great, surnamed the Thunderbolt, Sultan of the Osmanli and Seljuk Turks, master of the Caliphate and overlord of the mamelukes of Egypt.
Bayezid reined in his white Arab.
"We will sleep the night here," he announced, "for this is an auspicious spot."
At Angora a decade ago, as leader of the hard-fighting Osmanlis, Bayezid had won his first pitched battle. He had been acclaimed sultan and straightaway had slain his brother with his own hand. From that moment Fate had been kind to the man called the Thunderbolt.
"To hear is to obey," cried his followers. "Hail to the Mighty, the Merciful, the All-Dispensing One!"
Bayezid glanced around through the dust haze and saw the quivering shapes of silk pavilions rising from the baked clay floor of the plateau as his camp-followers scurried about. A line of grunting baggage-camels stalked into the nest of tents that marked the quarters of his grandees. Attended by Negro slaves, the several litters of his women halted beside the khanates that separated his household from the small army that attended him.
A slow smile crossed his broad, swart face.
A powerful hand caressed the pearls at the throat of his tunic. Fate had indeed exalted him. He had been called the spiritual effigy of the formerly great khalifs of Damascus and Baghdad. He knew himself to be the su preme monarch of Asia, and in that age the courts of Asia were the rendezvous of the world.
True, on the outskirts of the sultan's empire, to the east, was Tamerlane the Tatar and his horde. But had not Tamerlane said that Bayezid, given the men to follow him, was the wisest of living generals?
As for Europe, Bayezid had advanced the border of his empire into Hungary; Constantinople, glittering with the last splendor of the Byzantines, was tottering; Venice and Genoa paid tribute for permission to use the trade routes into the Orient.
Bayezid glanced curiously at the group of Frankish* slaves whose duty it was to run beside his horse. They were panting, and sweat streaked the sand that coated their blackened faces. Fragments of cloth were wrapped about their bleeding feet.
Five of the six captives bent their heads in the salaam that had been taught them. The sixth remained erect, meeting the sultan's eye.
Bayezid half frowned at this boldness which broke the thread of his thoughts. His hand rested on the gold trappings of his splendid horse. To the side of this horse slaves were dragging a cloth of silver carpet that stretched to the opening of the imperial khanates.
This done, the hawk-faced Sheik of Rum, through whose territory midway in Asia Minor the sultan's caravan had been journeying from Constantinople to Aleppo-the lord of Rum approached his master respectfully.
"0 Light of the Faith," the old man observed gravely, "it is the hour of the namaz gar, the evening prayer."
"True." Bayezid started and his glance went once more to the white man who stared at him. "I will dismount. Bid yonder Frank kneel by my horse that I may step upon his back."
All around Bayezid the grandees were kneeling in their heavy robes upon clean prayer carpets, washing their hands and faces in fresh water brought by slaves from the springs that marked the site of the camp. The sheik bowed and gave a curt command to the master of the slaves, ElArjuk, a stalwart, white-capped janissary, whip in hand.
"The body of the Frank will be honored by the foot of the Great, the Merciful."
At this the captive stepped forward before the janissary could touch him. Bayezid reflected that the white man understood Turki, which was the case.
And then to the surprise of the onlookers, the captive folded his arms and shook his head.
"Kneel," hissed the sheik. "Dog of a caphar-unbeliever-"
"I hear," said the captive. "I will not obey."
The janissary reached for his whip and the old Moslem for his scimitar. The sultan checked them, springing easily from his peaked saddle to the cloth of silver carpet. From his six feet of muscular height he looked down at the white man. His beaked nose seemed to curl into his bearded mouth and his black eyes snapped.
Then the sultan knelt, facing toward the southern skyline beyond which was Mecca, and repeated the Allah akbar in his clear, deep voice. When the last of his followers had completed the evening worship Bayezid arose, his smile cold as the glitter of steel, his nervous fingers playing with the jeweled sword hilt at his girdle. He noted the wide brown eyes of the captive who still stood quietly at his side, and with the interest of a born leader of men he scrutinized the square high shoulders, the long chin and the wide, delicate mouth upturned in a half-smile.
The man's face was burned by the sun to the hue of leather; his ragged tunic fell away from a heavily thewed pair of arms. His body had the lines of youth, but his eyes and mouth were hard with fatigue.
"You know my speech," observed the deep voice of the Thunderbolt. "And your eyes tell me that you are not mad. What is your name and rank?"
"Michael Bearn," responded the Christian.
"Mishael Bi-orn. Your rank?"
"None, my lord." The man's smile broadened slowly.
"In what army did you serve?"
"None, my lord."
The patrician sheik, whose fathers had been warriors, spat upon the ground and assured his master the sultan that this dog and the other Franks had been taken when a Christian galley was shipwrecked on the Anatolian shore a year ago. The Turks who took them had said that this dog was khan of the galley, that he was a caphar magician who steered his craft by a bedeviled needle that pointed always to the north.
"What is your country?" demanded Bayezid.
"I have no country. The sea is my home."
Michael Bearn had been born on the cliffs of Brittany. His mother, an Irish gentlewoman, had landed from his father's ship for the birth of the boy. When his father, a taciturn Breton, had died, Michael had left his mother in a tower on the Brittany coast and had taken to the sea.
There had been talk of a crusade against the Turk who was master of the Holy Land. Michael's mother had pleaded with the boy to wait and join one of the bands of warrior-pilgrims to Rome. But Michael had no yearning for the cassocked priests. The sea called him and his father's blood urged him to strange coasts.
It was the way of women, he had told the Irish mother, in his young intolerance of belief, to seek comfort of priests and to covet the insignia of the Cross. His mother had hid her tears and Michael did not know how he had hurt her.
Following the bent of that time, a few years had brought him to the Levant and the glamour of trade with the Orient. He had been master mariner of the galley wrecked on the Anatolian coast while it was being pursued by Turkish pirates.
"And so," mused Bayezid, "a slave without rank, without race, and an unbeliever dares to disobey a command of mine? So be it. You have strength in your arms and pride. It pleases me to put both to the test."
It was part of the secret of the Thunderbolt's achievement that he enforced cruel discipline among his followers. Michael Bearn's eye lighted and he lifted his head.
"Set a scimitar in my hand," he said quickly. "My lord, choose one of your skilled swordsmen and let him wear his mail. With a scimitar-his weapon, not mine-I will stand against him in my shirt."
The stubborn pride of the Breton that had not let him prostrate himself under the foot of a Turk flared at the chance to strike a blow with a weapon. He had endured captivity doggedly, seeking for a chance to escape to the hills to the east where were tribesmen who did not owe allegiance to the sultan.
But he had not been willing to demean himself, to gain time for a further chance at liberty with his five comrades. Like all seamen of the age, he was experienced in the use of sword and mace.
A swift death was better than months of running beside the horse or litter of a Turkish master.
"Shall a dog be given a sword?" growled the aged sheik, quenching Michael's new hope. This time Bayezid glanced at his follower approvingly.
"Bring this man," he ordered, "with the five caphars, his comrades, before my tent. Bring a sword, and"-he nodded thoughtfully-"the iron sleeve."
At mention of this instrument of torture which broke the bones of a man's arm as easily as glass, the slaves who understood Bayezid's words shivered and stared at Michael. They followed, however, after the white cap of the swaggering janissary, to see the torment inflicted.
The dark face of the Thunderbolt softened in pleasant expectancy as he knelt on a priceless carpet under the open portico of his tent and scanned the six Christians. He was accustomed to play with his victims. Disdaining further to address the captives openly he whispered to the Sheik of Rum, who stood in the half-circle of courtiers behind the sultan.
"Know, 0 ill-omened ones," translated the old Moslem in bastard Greek, "that your leader has offended against the Majesty, the Splendor. Torture will be the lot of your khan unless-"
With an eye to dramatic effect he paused, nodding to the master of the slaves, who advanced from the group of watching janissaries, a spear's cast away. The warrior carried a misshapen thing of iron resting on a wooden table. The rusty metal was formed in the semblance of a lion with an enormous mouth, lying prone on the table. Twin bars projected on either side from the ribs of the beast.
"-unless," resumed the sheik, "one of you five caphars will offer to fight in defense of the body of your friend."
Michael Bearn looked up quickly, intending to warn his mates not to accept the offer of the Moslems. But they did not meet his eye. They were Portuguese and Italians, wasted by sickness and misery.
"It is not fitting, verily," the spokesman went on, interpreting the low words of Bayezid, "that a good weapon should be given to the hand of one who is accursed. Yet a lion may slay a dog, and the sight of an infidel's blood is a blessing to a true believer. So, one of you may take up the quarrel of your comrade and fight with swords against one of the champions of the janissaries. Whether your champion conquers or not, the man named Bearn will be spared the torture."
Whereupon the sheik drew his own scimitar and held out its hilt.
Michael Bearn would have taken it, but the wily Moslem shook his head.
"Not you," he explained in Arabic. "The Most Wise will presently make a test of your strength. Now he tries out the Christian hearts of your comrades."
As none of the others volunteered for the duel, the sultan made a further concession. The man who offered to fight would be set free-if he lived-with Bearn.
But the five men would not hazard their lives on a chance of liberty. They cast sidelong glances at the glittering scimitar and at a stalwart warrior who stood forth from the guards, his shield dressed ready for the conflict.
It gave keen pleasure to Bayezid to see these men refuse the issue. He smiled to think that they clung to the ignoble life of slavery. His own men were trained to value their lives lightly in battle and to die for their faith.
It pleased Bayezid, also, to deny Bearn the chance of the fight, for he knew that the young seaman would have welcomed it.
"So be it," he nodded. "The torture."
The expectant master of the slaves summoned the waiting warrior and set the table before Michael Bearn.
"Hold forth your arm," he commanded.
Michael paled and set his lips as he extended his left hand.
"The right one," objected Bayezid, following all that passed with the eye of a connoisseur.
A moment later Michael's right arm had been thrust up to the elbow into the iron gullet of the lion and strapped into place.
The Breton stiffened as he felt the cold touch of the vise, concealed within the form of the lion, grip his bare forearm. Bayezid nodded, leaning back on his pillows, under the sweep of a peacock fan in the hands of a slave.
The two janissaries threw their weight on the projecting levers and there came to the ears of the spectators a dull crack as if an arrow had been snapped in half.
But Michael did not cry out. Sweat started on his face and blood dripped from his lip where his teeth had set upon it. This did not suit Bayezid, who had expected screams and a prayer for mercy.
"Again," he snarled.
The two torturers altered the position of Michael's broken arm slightly and clamped the levers into place a second time.
This time Michael groaned softly and swayed on his feet, sinking to his knees.
"Now the caphar's pride is broken because his strength has passed from him," thought Bayezid, watching keenly. To the attentive sheik he whispered:
"The broken ends of the bone of the arm have been ground together and he will whine for mercy-like the other dogs who have no stomach for pain."
The janissaries released Michael's arm from the instrument of torture at a glance, from the sultan. On the back of the forearm the skin had been broken by a bloodied fragment of bone.
Supporting himself by his left hand on the table, Michael rose slowly to his feet, wincing and setting his lips as he did so.
His eyes were dark with agony as they sought Bayezid's face.
The youthful pride and humor had vanished from Michael's countenance, leaving a grim mask of purpose. The abundant vitality of his powerful body had been sapped by the ordeal. But there was a new vigor in his poise, the strength of an unalterable determination.
So the captive faced his tormentor.
"I shall not forget this, my lord sultan." He indicated his maimed limb. "I shall be avenged-" His voice choked.
The Sheik of Rum, who had been studying the eyes of the injured man, now drew his weapon again and salaamed before Bayezid.
"0 Most Wise, it would be best to slay this one. An injured snake is quick to strike."
The Thunderbolt shook his head coldly. He had not yet tasted the delight of the torture to the fullest.
"Nay. I would watch the caphar run beside my litter on the morrow, and see how he bears his pain."
The Sheik of Rum was very wise.
It was a week later that the six captives made their attempt to escape from the caravan of the Osmanli. During the week they had been ascending to the cooler plateau of Lake Van, where the summits of the Caucasus were visible far to the north.
Yet it was to the east that the six had decided to flee. They had seen that the outriders of the Turks who pillaged supplies in the villages of lesser Armenia had kept a vigilant outlook in that direction.
To the east lay a pass called the Gate of Shadows, leading into the lands of Tatary. Michael and his mates did not then know why the Turks shunned this pass. But they believed that once in the Gate of Shadows they would be safe from pursuit owing to this superstition of the Turks.
The night on which they made their venture was clear. The stars shone brilliantly through the colder air of the height by the lake. Men and beasts of the caravan were weary after a long march. Bayezid was never sparing of his followers.
Two things had decided the Christians upon this night. They were at the point of the march from Constantinople to Aleppo which was nearest the Gate of Shadows. And the Moslems had fasted for three days. That night was the feast of Miriam, when the long fast was broken and warriors and courtiers alike satiated themselves with meat and wine.
Bayezid, although calling himself head of the faith, always allowed his men their fill of debauchery, knowing that it drew soldiers to his ranks.
Consequently the janissaries who watched the aul where the Christian captives were kept apart from the slaves of other races were a little drunk and more than a little sleepy.
Michael, by tacit consent, had been chosen the leader of the six. Memory of the torture to which he had been subjected had made the Portuguese and Italians eager to flee. Cowards at heart, the nearer peril of the "iron sleeve" made them willing to risk the death that was penalty for an attempt to flee their bondage.
And Michael, who yearned for the freedom that would afford him a chance to strike back at Bayezid, had formed a plan readily.
The aul was a rough square shelter of rocks resembling very much a large hut without a roof. The stone walls were as high as a man. The two yawning spearmen who acted as guards had built a fire just within the entrance.
As usual the prisoners gobbled down the evil-tasting pilau-broth of rotting sheep's flesh-that was set before them in a kettle. The evening prayers of the Moslems had been completed long since and soft radiance coming from the silk pavilions of the nobles indicated that the feast was well along.
A heavy guard of wakeful mamelukes stood about the enclosure where Bayezid was quartered, and other mounted sentries paced about the circuit of the fires around which warriors and slaves alike drank, sang, and slept.
It was the first watch of the night when one of the Portuguese rose and tossed a double armful of dried tamarisk branches on the fire that had sunk to embers. A crackling blaze climbed skyward barely three paces inside the aul entrance.
For a moment the interior of the walled space would be concealed from the glance of passersby. One of the janissaries growled and spat, motioning the Portuguese back to his place. The other sentry leaned on his battle-ax half-asleep.
Making signs that he wished to communicate something, the captive moved nearer the first sentry, while one of the Italians arose stealthily and, keeping within the large shadow cast by the three men near the fire, slipped to the rear of the janissary.
Michael appeared to be asleep. In spite of his crippled arm-the bones had been rudely set by a hakim of the sheik who, in obedience to the pleasure of his master, intended Michael to live-in spite of his weakness and the fever that had set upon him for several days, the guards always kept vigilant watch upon him, knowing that the Breton was more dangerous than his mates.
Through his half-closed eyes Michael could see the Italian detach a stone from the top of the wall behind the three men silently. The arms of the captives had been left free although their ankles were secured at night by heavy leather thongs that would not yield to their fingers. Naturally none of them had a weapon of any kind.
The sentries had no reason to expect an attempt to escape. Even if the two janissaries could be disposed of, the captives would have to pass through the camp and pierce the cordon of riders in the outer darkness in order to gain the plain.
Even clear of the camp they would be pursued by well-mounted warriors and the odds against them in a hostile country were very great.
The first sentry was staring mockingly at the Portuguese who cringed beside him, gesturing futilely. And then the Italian cast his heavy stone with both arms.
It struck the janissary at the base of the skull and pitched him forward a dozen feet. He fell, stunned, with his face within the edge of the fire.
The second warrior started out of his doze and his lips parted for a cry. But the Portuguese, frenzied by peril and hope of escape, clutched his throat. The Italian had leaped after the stone and caught up the spear of the man he had slain.
This spear he thrust into the clothing over the stomach of the choking sentry.
"Hearken." Michael had run to them and addressed the struggling Moslem. "Be silent and do as I bid ye or your body will lie in the fire."
A stringent odor of burning flesh and cloth came to the nostrils of the sentry and he ceased struggling, waiting for the blow that would slay him. But Michael with his left arm dragged the smoking corpse from the flames and swiftly directed two of his men to conceal it under some of their robes in a corner. Before doing so, he saw that they took a dagger and scimitar from the dead janissary and stowed the weapons under their own clothing.
"Now," Michael commanded the watching sentry, "your life will be spared if you do this; call twice for El-Arjuk, master of the slaves who is in command of the aul this night. He gorges himself at a nearby fire. Do not cry for aid, but call his name."
The man winced as the spear in the hands of the Italian pricked his belly. He did not believe that he would be permitted to live, yet he had smelled the burning flesh of his comrade.
"El-Arjuk!" He lifted a long, wailing cry while Michael listened closely. "Ohai-El-Arjuk!"
"Again," whispered the Breton and the call for the master of the slaves was repeated.
This time a harsh voice made answer. Michael's eyes narrowed and he ordered the fidgeting captives back to their sleeping robes with the exception of one man who stood against the wall, drawing the sentry back with him and pressing a dagger's point from behind into his flesh.
Michael caught up the long battle-ax that had supported the janissary in his ill-timed doze. He hefted it in his left hand, found its length unwieldy, and broke the wooden shaft in two under his foot.
Taking up the shortened weapon, he held it close to his side, away from the fire.
"Keep back," he hissed at the others, "for this is my fight."
They mumbled and straightaway fell to staring in fear as a burly form strode through the entrance of the aul and came around the diminishing blaze of the fire.
"Who called?" growled El-Arjuk, glancing at Michael and the one sentry swiftly.
He was flushed from drinking, although his step was steady. In feasting he had laid aside his armor, but held a small target of bull's hide and a scimitar. Noticing the absence of the other janissary and the strange quietude of the one sentry, he started.
"Blood of Shaitan-"
"I summoned you," said Michael grimly. "To your reckoning. Guard yourself! "
With that he leaped, swinging his haft of the battle-ax. With one motion El-Arjuk flung up his shield and slashed forward under it with his sword.
The blade met nothing but air. Michael's jump had carried him over the low sweep of the Turk's scimitar, while the hastily raised target momentarily obstructed the vision of his adversary.
The Breton's broad chest struck the shield, bearing it down, and his shortened ax fell once, the full weight of his powerful body behind it. ElArjuk had started to cry for aid when the blade of the ax crashed into his forehead and the cry ended in a quavering groan. Michael fell to the sand with his enemy, but he rose alone, listening intently.
From somewhere outside the aul a question was shouted idly, for the thud of the two bodies and the moan of the master of the slaves had been heard.
"Reply," snarled Michael at the staring janissary who was going through the motions of ablution, kneeling in the sand. The Moslem wished to die with this rite performed. "Reply with the words I put into your mouth or we will fill your throat with the unclean flesh of the dead."
The warrior hesitated, then bowed his head.
"It is naught," he called back over the stone wall as Michael prompted him, "but the death of a dog, upon whom be the curse of Allah for his sins."
A satisfied laugh from the listeners without, who believed that a Christian slave had been killed, came to the ears of the captives. Wasting no time, Michael had green tamarisk branches cast on the fire causing smoke to fill the aul entrance.
Behind this makeshift curtain he ordered El-Arjuk stripped of his brilliant yellow coat and insignia and instructed the nervous captives how to rewind the white turban so as to conceal the blotches of blood.
This done, the Portuguese who was like the master of the slaves in build was clad in the garments and given the shield and scimitar. Meanwhile the excited men would have slain the stolid sentry had not Michael intervened.
"I made a pledge," he said coldly. "You want blood, methinks, and you will find plenty before long."
So the surprised sentry was bound and wrapped around with the clothing of the Portuguese until he was helpless either to move or cry out. Then, with the two bodies, he was laid in a corner of the enclosure and covered with sheepskin robes.
"Say to Bayezid," smiled Michael, "that I bid him not farewell-for I shall seek him again."
When the fire died down presently and passing soldiers glanced idly into the aul, a group of men issued forth without torches. At their head was the familiar uniform of the master of the slaves, and their feet were bound with leather thongs, permitting them to walk only slowly.
It was entirely natural that El-Arjuk should have work for the caphar slaves to do that night, so the revelers paid scant heed to the group. It was whispered, moreover, that one of the infidels had been slain, so it was entirely to be expected that the others would be used to dig a grave.
At the outskirts of the tents where darkness concealed them Michael called a halt. Passing near the fires, the garments of El-Arjuk had been their safeguard; in the dark they would be challenged at once by the mounted riders who patrolled the camp.
So Michael waited, kneeling on the ground in order to raise passing figures on the sky-line. He ordered his comrades to cut off with the weapons they had concealed under their clothes their bonds and to carry the cords until they could be concealed at a distance from the camp. Not until he was satisfied that a patrol of horsemen had passed the ridge in front of him did he give the word to advance.
An hour later they were beyond the outer guards and running due east, under the stars that guided them, toward the Gate of Shadows.
On the second night they took their ease. Michael had gone among the hill villages at twilight. He had worn the dress of El-Arjuk and when he returned to the men waiting in the thicket up the mountain-slope he said:
"The Darband-i-Ghil, the Spirit Gate, lies six hours' march above us. Come."
The six had run before now-too swiftly at first for long endurance-by the north shore of Van. Michael had steadied them to a slow trot and had taken pains to pass through such rocky ravines as offered, in order to wipe out traces of their passage. They had seen no pursuers, even after leaving the lake.
"Nay," growled a Genoese. "Par Dex, our bones ache and our feet bleed. We must sleep."
"Sleep!" cried Michael. "With mamelukes riding in our tracks who have orders not to return alive without us. I'm thinking that Bayezid made short work of the janissary guard whose life we spared. Will his horsemen yearn for a like fate?"
He himself was near the point of exhaustion, for his arm was scarcely knit and fever had weakened him. But the men would not move from the spot where they had been watching the lights of the Kurd village and talking among themselves.
Realizing that they must rest, Michael sat down against a tree for a brief sleep. The half-light of dawn was flooding the thicket and the sky over the black hills to the east was crimson when he woke at the sound of approaching footsteps.
It was his own band and they were coming up from the village. Some of them were reeling, though not from fatigue, and their breath was heavy with olives and wine. They looked back over their shoulders and grinned uneasily when they met his eye.
"We've taken the Moors' food," boasted one fellow. "It's their own law, methinks. An eye for an eye. They'll remember us."
Michael glared. These were common men, very different from the belted knights who had sometimes visited his mother's home in Brittany. She had hoped that he would be a knight. Instead, he had led a rough life and had toiled against hardships until-this.
11 what fools! That was a Kurdish village, and the men have good eyes and horseflesh. Well, I must bide with you, for you have named me leader. Come."
They ran sturdily through the dawn. Months of trotting beside the nobles of the Osmanli had schooled them to this. By midday they were above the fields in a place of gray rocks and red clay. In front of them a half-dozen bowshots away a great gully between mountain-shoulders showed the blue of the sky.
"The Gate of Shadows," they cried.
And with the words riders came out of the woods behind them.
Michael measured the distance to the gully, glanced back at the shouting mamelukes, and shook his head. He pointed to a mound of rocks nearby and led his five men there.
"'Tis the gate of heaven you will see," he grunted. "No other, and not that, if you cannot die like Christians."
And the five, to give them their due, fought desperately, using the few weapons they had carried from the Turkish camp, and eking these out with stones.
The mamelukes, reinforced by Kurds from the hill village, tried at first to make them yield themselves prisoners. But the captives knew what manner of death awaited them at Bayezid's tent and hurled their stones. The big Portuguese went down with an arrow in his throat. The Genoese leaped among the horses, knife in hand, and struggled weakly even when his skull was split with a mace.
The rearing horses stirred up a cloud of dust that covered the mound. Into this cloud Michael strode, swinging his half-ax. The first rider that met him was dragged from the saddle and slain. Michael went down with a mameluke on top of him and neither rose, for Michael's left hand had sought and found the other's dagger in his girdle.
When the last Christian had been shot down with arrows, the Turks dismounted and proceeded to pound the skulls and vital parts of the bodies of their victims with rocks. If any of the men of El-Arjuk had been in the party Michael would have suffered the fate of his comrades.
But the mamelukes had neglected to give him the coup de grace owing to the body of their warrior that lay upon his. When they lifted up their dead they saw only a prostrate Frank besmeared with blood-not his own-and with a swollen, bruised right arm that looked as if it had been crushed with a stone.
The senses had been battered out of Michael by the mace of the dead mameluke and it was a fortunate thing for him. Because by the time he crawled to his feet there were no Turks within view.
Instead, black-winged birds casting a foul scent in the air hovered over his head. The vultures had been descending on the bodies of the five men when Michael Bearn stood up.
Now they circled slowly in the air or perched on the rocks nearby patiently. Michael looked at them long, and then at the bodies of his comrades.
The five had not been brave men, but they had died bravely.
Michael walked slowly away from the knoll toward a rivulet issuing between rocks in the mountainside that rose mightily above him. He knelt and drank deeply. Then he dipped his head in the stream, wiping away the dried blood. The flapping wings of the vultures impelled him to look up.
His glance penetrated straight down the ravine that was called the Gate of Shadows, and he studied thoughtfully the vista of brown plain that lay beyond. Once within the pass he knew that he would see no more of the Turks. The evening before he had been told when he visited the Kurd village that the rock plateau in front of the pass had been the scene of a massacre by the Turks.
The skeletons of the dead were in the pass, and a superstition had arisen that the souls of the slain had not left the place. The voices of ghils had been heard in the darkness. So the Moslems considered the place not only unclean but accursed.
"'Fore God," he sighed, "we were at the Gate, the very Gate. Well, here must they wait for me-my five mates that were."
So saying, he went back to the knoll, driving away the birds, and dug with his battle-ax a broad shallow grave in the loose sand. Dragging the bodies into this with his one useful arm, he covered them up first with sand, then with large rocks that he rolled down with his bare feet from the knoll.
From a wisp-like tamarisk thicket clinging between the boulders of the plateau, he cut two stout staffs with his ax. These he bound roughly together at the middle with a strip of leather cut from his jerkin. The longer staff of the two he imbedded in the sand at the head of the grave.
He had fashioned a cross.
"Rest ye," he said gravely and extended his left arm over his head. "Vin- dica eos, Domine."
Now as he said this he glanced again at the ravine and the plain beyond, where he could find food and a tent among the Tatar villages. Then he turned to the northwest where beyond the hills lay the Mormaior, or Black Sea, and beyond there the great cities of Europe.
To the northwest, if he could penetrate thither, were his countrymen, and theirs, he thought, was the power that might some day strike at the Thunderbolt.
It was to the northwest that he began to walk, away from the grave and the Gate of Shadows. Greater than the will to live was the will to seek again the man who had crippled him.
When darkness came and covered his movements he pressed forward more rapidly, swinging his short ax in his left hand. As he went he munched dates and olives that he had plucked from trees near the mountain villages. He found no men to accost him in these orchards, for the fields were scarred by hoofs of many horses and the huts were charred walls of clay.
Bayezid's riders had been pillaging the villages of Lesser Armenia.
Once, walking barefoot, he came upon a young wild sheep and killed it with his thrown ax. By now the villages had been left behind and below and the moon stared at him steadily from above the pillars of huge pines as he entered the forest belt.
Another thought came to Michael. He remembered that, in the tower of ill-fitting stones on the sea cliffs of Brittany where the grass was short because of the ceaseless winds, a black-haired woman waited, sitting by her weaving. He had vowed that he would come back to sit at his mother's table and tell of the voyages to the East. And this, she would know, he would do. A lawless boy, with his father's hot blood in him, he always kept his word.
From time to time he was forced to beat off the attacks of wild dogs with his ax as he worked through the passes of the Caucasian foothills. His bloodshot eyes closed to slits under the lash of the cold wind, and he swayed as his heavily thewed limbs carried him down toward the place where he had seen a glimmer of water in the distance.
It was bodily weakness that drew his thoughts home to the tower and the coast where he had played as a child. For a space he forgot Bayezid and the torture. He had been hale and strong as a boy. Was he to go through life a cripple? Was that the will of God of which his mother had spoken, saying-
"The ways of God are beyond our knowing."
Thirst had been his invisible companion, and the watercourses that he crossed were dry. They led him down to a plain of gray rocks and white salt, where the salt particles in the air dried up the moisture in his throat and brought blood to his lips.
The smell of water coming toward him from the wide shore fired him with longing. He went forward in a staggering run and knelt to dash up some of the water in his hand.
It was thick with salt and dull green in color.
"The Sarai Sea," he reflected, "the sea of salt. Eh, a rare jest to a thirsty man."
He knew then that he had come out on the border of the sea now called the Caspian and not the Mormaior (Black) Sea. But, rising, he saw some dull-faced Karabagh fishermen staring at him from a skiff in an adjoining inlet and he laughed exultantly, lifting his hand to the sunset in the west.
The skiff would fetch him to a Muscovite trading galley, and in time Astrakhan, then Constantinople. He had heard at the court of Bayezid that the Franks were mustering a crusade, to assemble at that city. The chivalry of Europe was taking up arms against the Turk.
"There will be a battle," he whispered to himself, "and I shall have a share in it, God willing."
Chapter II
The River of Death
Another sunset, and a war galleass was feeling its way with a double bank of oars against the sluggish current of a broad river. There was no wind and the heavy red pennon emblazoned with a winged lion hung nearly to the water between the steering oars of the high stern castle.
The dark figures of men-at-arms pressed close to the rail of the benches that ran along each side of the waist of the vessel, above the moving gray shapes that were the rowers' backs.
"Give way, to the shore," called a voice from the stern platform.
As the heavy-timbered galleass drew in, fully manned for action, toward the rushes of the bank, the speaker cupped his left hand to his eyes and stared at the ruddy light of countless fires. His right arm hung stiffly at his side.
A year had not availed to restore the use of his injured arm to the man who had been a Turk's slave. Now by infinite pains he could manage with his left. Unlike the men-at-arms and the mailed Venetian archers clustered upon the stern, he wore no weapon.
Michael Bearn had reached the Venetian fleet in the Black Sea at an opportune moment. Experienced ship-masters were needed to take command of the new galleys that were to cooperate under the Venetian flag with the Christian army on the mainland.
The body of the Venetian fleet lay off the mouth of the Danube, waiting to convey the victorious army of the Christian allies to Asia Minor and Jerusalem.
It was a great array that had come against the Ottoman. Besides the Venetian war-craft, Sigismund of Hungary was up the river, and the cohorts of Slavs, Magyars, and the Serbs. With these were the pick of the chivalry of France, the forces of the Elector Palatine and the Knights of Saint John.
They had struck down through the mountains of the Serbs and besieged Nicopolis, on the river. Warnings of the approach of the conqueror Bayezid had reached them, and the French knights who had brought shiploads of women and wine down the Danube had laughed, saying that if the sky were to fall, they would hold it up with their spears.
Verily it was a goodly array of Christendom before Nicopolis-an army blessed by the Pope and dispatched against the Ottoman, who had swept over Arabia, Egypt, Asia Minor-far into Greece, now impotent, and the rugged mainland behind Constantinople.
The Moslems held Gallipoli and a khadi held court beside the marble and gold palace of Paleologus. Bayezid the Conqueror, surnamed the Thunderbolt, had never met defeat.
Bayezid had advanced to the relief of the Moslem governor of Nicopolis, and Emperor Sigismund and Count Nevers, commander of the French, had given battle.
For days, hearing of the coming struggle, Michael Bearn had chafed upon the narrow afterdeck of his galleass. He had urged the Venetian commander to make his way up the river, to assist in the struggle if possible.
Bearn had been told by the proveditore that the fleet of the Signory of Venice had promised to convey the army only to Asia Minor. It was not the policy of the Maritime Council to risk the loss of good ships-but Bearn was allowed to go, to bring news.
It had been a dangerous path up the Danube, for small Turkish craft thronged the shore and bodies of janissaries were to be seen from time to time in openings in the dense forests.
Now, conning the darkened galleass close to the bank, Michael Bearn strained his ears to read the meaning of the tumult on shore. He could see horsemen riding past the glow of burning huts, and the clash of weapons drifted out over the quiet waters.
"Sigismund pursues the Saracen!" exulted a man among the archers on deck.
Wild hope leaped into the heart of Michael Bearn. Was the issue of the battle so soon decided? Had the armed chivalry of France outmatched the power and skill of Bayezid? He yearned for the first glimpse of victorious French standards. Yet, knowing the discipline and power of the veteran Moslem army, he doubted the evidence of his eyes that the emperor and the French could have pursued their foe so far.
"What ship is that?" cried a high voice, and the splash of hoofs sounded in the rushes as a man rode out toward the galleass.
"Venetian," answered Michael promptly. "Is the battle won?"
The men on the vessel held their breath as the rider, before answering, swam his horse out to them and, grasping at ropes lowered over the stern where the oar-banks permitted him to gain the side of the galleass, climbed heavily upon the deck.
"If you area Venetian-fly!" he cried, staggering against Michael. "Never have the eyes of God seen such a defeat. Bayezid has sworn he will stable his horse in Saint Peter's. I am alone, of a company of knights who followed the Constable of France."
Michael Bearn gripped the knight by the shoulder fiercely.
"The Constable of France-defeated-"
"Slain."
The wounded man was too weary to be surprised at the fire in the eyes that burned into his. Michael drew a long breath. He was too late. And his countrymen had fallen before Bayezid.
The knight was removing his mail hood with shaking hands.
"We thought the Saracen was shattered," he said hopelessly. "Our camp was surprised, yet the French mounted and rode to the attack, through the skirmishers and the cavalry with white woolen hats-"
"The janissaries," nodded Michael.
"-and past them, into the ranks of the horse-guards that are called sipahis, of Bayezid. Our lances, forsooth, had broken them asunder. We had lost many and our ranks were ill-formed when we gained the summit of the hill where we found not a rabble of defeated soldiery, but a forest of forty thousand lances. Ali, Saint Denis!"
"Bayezid ever keeps his best troops till the last."
"He has ordered slain ten thousand Christian captives, sparing only the Count of Nevers and twenty knights. I escaped."
"And the emperor?"
"Floats down the river in a boat. He made a brave stand, 'tis said, until the Serbs joined the Moslems and struck his flank-"
"'Tis done. Rest you and sleep." Michael spoke curtly, what with the hurt of the news. "There are wounded to be brought off from shore."
Urging his vessel almost upon the shore, he formed his men-at-arms into lines to pass up what of the injured they could find, while he made his way inland to turn aside the fugitives he met into the galleass.
He saw only haggard and dusty men, weaponless and exhausted. On mules and purloined horses camp followers dashed past along the highway, striking aside those who got in their path. Semblance of order or discipline there was none.
Wounded foot soldiers who had cast aside their heavier armor limped into the light of the burning houses nearby, silent and grim-lipped. Mi chael was mustering a group of these at the water's edge when a mailed horseman spurred up and grasped at his shoulder.
"For the love of -! Is't true there is a ship at hand?"
Michael looked up under drawn brows and saw a handsome Italian cavalier, his velvet finery besmirched and his jeweled cap awry.
"A hundred ducats, sailor, if you will take me on your ship at once," the horseman cried, fingering at a heavy purse with a quivering hand.
"Spare your purse-strings and wait your turn," responded Michael shortly.
But the cavalier, befuddled by fear, was pushing aside the watchful foot soldiers, to leap at the ropes that had been lowered from the vessel, when Michael's left arm, thrust across his chest, stayed him.
"You are a captain, signor," he observed quietly. "Help me to get these wounded to safety."
The Italian glanced back and saw that a fresh route of fugitives had come into the light at the shore. A tall bazaar trader with his servants was striking down those who sought to climb into a muddy cart drawn by nearly exhausted horses. Michael could read the fear in the red-bearded face of the trader. A woman, her skirt dragging about her knees, ran screaming into the path of the cart, holding out imploring arms.
The servants, under the oaths of their bearded master, lashed the horses on and the woman, in all her sad finery, was cast to earth under the hoofs of the beasts. The cart disappeared into the darkness but she lay where she had fallen.
"You see!" cried the Italian. "Death is upon us unless we fly. Out of my way, dogs-"
Drawing back his arm, Michael struck the man, sending him headlong into the water. Heedless of the blow, the other rose and fought his way to the ropes that offered a way to safety.
"Wo!" His cry came back to Michael. "Death is upon us. Fly!"
"Fly!" echoed the wounded, struggling toward the ropes. "The Turks are at our heels."
Those who could not stand unsupported were thrust down into the water. Men, striking at one another's heads and tearing at the surcoats which bore a crimson cross-the stronger among the fugitives, up to their necks in water, fought for the ropes.
When Michael at last-seeing that the galleass was crowded to capacity-clambered up the gilded woodwork of the stern and gave the signal to get under weigh, the tumult on shore took on a fiercer note.
Looking back, he could see the flash of scimitars among the huddle of the fleeing. Lean, turbaned horsemen wheeled and charged through the burning houses. A shrill shout pierced the wails of the injured.
"Yah, Allah! Hai-Allah -hai!"
Michael Bearn, hearing this familiar cry of triumph of the Moslems, saw again in his mind's eye the ruined villages of Armenia, the tortured slaves, and-most clearly of all-the grave in the sand before the Gate of Shadows.
He looked at the two men beside him, the sleeping French knight whose valor had been fruitless, and the sullen Italian officer who regarded him askance, fingering his bruised face.
The army of crusaders that he had journeyed for a year to join was no more. And Bayezid, angered by the loss of so many of his men, had doomed ten thousand captives to death. Was there no power on earth that could match the Thunderbolt?
"I wonder," thought Michael. He knew that of one place Bayezid was afraid, or at least that the Thunderbolt shunned that place.
It was the Gate of Shadows.
Chapter III
The Blow in the Dark
It was an hour after vespers and the lights of Saint Mark's were glowing softly against the vault of the sky over the great city of Venice. Along the narrow streets, however, and the winding canals, the square houses with their grilled doors and carved stonework showed only slits of light from barred windows.
At that hour worthy citizens of the City of the Lagoons went abroad attended only by linkmen and with armed retainers to guard their backs. Those who were more cautious, or who had more powerful enemies, paid bra vi to watch the retainers.
A stranger wandering from the lagoons and the main canals would soon have lost his way. In the poorer quarters where the high buildings seemed to lean together against the sky, men looked closely into the faces of those they met and turned the corners wide.
Near the Piazza where the walled palaces of the nobles lined the canals the alleys were filled with refuse and ended more often than not in a blind wall. Servants stood whispering in the shadows of the postern doors and often a soft laugh came from an invisible balcony overhead.
"A pox on these castles," said Michael Bearn heartily. "Is there never a place where a body can see before and behind him at the same time?"
He glanced up, trying fruitlessly to guess his direction by the few stars visible between the buildings. All that he could make out was that he seemed to be standing in a space where two alleys crossed. Listening, he could hear the music of fiddles and flutes somewhere near at hand.
A fete, he knew, was going on in a nearby palace and he had promised himself a sight of it. It was exasperating to hear the sound of the festivity and still be unable to reach it. Michael laughed, realizing that he had lost his way completely.
There had been no lack of offers of a guide. For only that day Michael had received a gold chain and a key of the same precious metal from the Consoli di Mercanti-the Maritime Council-as reward for his services in bringing back a galley with the survivors of the army of the Count of Nevers from the ill-fated field of Nicopolis.
It had been a stormy passage, beset by Turkish pirates in the Levant, and Bearn, thanks to his skill as mariner and his knack of handling men, had been one of the few captains to return without loss.
But in spite of this honor Michael's purse was light and he could not afford to pay a retainer, or even to take up his quarters at a good inn.
"Faith," he thought, "'twould have availed more if the worthy council had given gold ducats instead of this chain, and as for the freedom of the city that they said went with the key-I cannot find my way to yonder music."
He had heard mention of the fete at the council, and also of a renowned voyager who was to be present. Two things had drawn Michael to the festivity: the hope of good meat and wine-he had not wanted to confess to the ceremonious members of the great council that he was penniless-and curiosity. Voyagers from the East were few in that age and Michael wondered whether he would find at the palace Fra Odoric, the priest who had built a church in Tatary, or Carlo Zeno, the sea captain.
Either one would have information that would serve Michael in his plans.
His reflections were interrupted by a light rounding the corner of a building and gliding toward him under his feet. He was surprised to see that he was standing on a wooden bridge. The light was in a gondola passing beneath him.
"Ho, my friends," he called cheerfully, "in what quarter lies the palazzo or whatever it is called of my lord Contarini? I can find it not."
If Michael had dwelt longer in Venice he would not have hailed an occupied gondola in the dark. His shout only caused the rower at the stern to glance up warily and thrust the long craft forward at greater speed. A shutter in the hooded seat was lowered briefly and a face looked out of the aperture.
Then the gondola passed under the bridge.
Michael grimaced, bowed, and was passing on when he hesitated. The light on the gondola had been put out.
This was not altogether strange, if the people on the vessel had believed that footpads, as personified by Michael, were on the bridge. But the keen eyes of the seaman caught a white swirl in the water. He fancied that the gondolier had checked his craft sharply and that it had halted a short distance beyond the bridge.
If the occupants of the gondola had been alarmed by his hail, they would not have chosen to remain in the vicinity. So Michael thought and was ready to smile at his own suspicion, when he heard a footfall and the clink of steel upon stones. From the direction in which he imagined the gondola had halted a man was coming toward him, feeling his way with drawn sword.
Michael planted his feet wide, with his back against a blank wall. Presently he could discern the grayish blur of a face moving toward him over the bridge. There was no sound and Michael knew that the newcomer was taking pains to be silent.
This quietude and the rapidity of the other's approach from the canal were ominous.
Then Michael stepped aside. He had heard rather than seen a swift movement toward him in the gloom.
Steel clashed against the wall beside him and sparks flew. An oath came to his ears as he snatched out his own sword, hung by its baldric on his right side. Long practice had accustomed Michael to the use of his left arm-had given to that limb the unusual strength possessed by onearmed men.
In the darkness he sought the other's blade, found it, thrust and when the thrust was parried, lunged again.
"By the Pope's head!" snarled the stranger.
"Amen," said Michael, drawing back alertly.
His weapon had bent against mail on the other's chest and Michael, who wore no such protection, was fain to risk a leap and come to hand-grips.
But even as he tensed his muscles for the spring he heard footsteps and the darkness was dissipated by the light of a lanthorn which rounded a corner behind him.
For the first time he saw his antagonist, a tall man, very fashionable in the short mantle and wide velvet sleeves and cloth-of-gold cap that were the fashion of the day in Venice. The man's olive face was handsome and composed, his eyes restless, his beard smartly curled.
His right hand held the broken half of a sword, his left a long poniard. Michael was rather glad that, after all, he had not made that leap.
Whereupon Michael frowned, for the other's face, although not his bearing, had a familiar aspect. Sheathing his own sword, the Breton smiled and took his dagger in his left hand.
"Good morrow, signor," he said from hard lips. "The light is better now than when you traitorously set upon me. Shall we resume with our poniards?"
The other hesitated, measuring Michael, noting the width of shoulder and length of arm of the Breton, whose featherless cap was thrust well back, disclosing black curls a little gray about the brows. Under the curls gray eyes, alight and whimsical, met the stranger's stare.
"You ponder, signor," prompted Michael politely. "Perhaps it surprises you that I who bore no weapon on shipboard have now mastered the use of blade and poniard with my one hand. Or perchance your sense of honor and the high courage you display in a crisis prompt you to refrain from matching daggers with a man in a leathern shirt when you wear a mail jerkin."
At this an exclamation sounded behind him. Michael had not failed to glance over his shoulder at the first appearance of the light and had seen only a fox-faced merchant in a long ermine cloak and attended by a brace of servitors who looked as if they would have liked to flee at sight of bare steel.
Now he perceived that the merchant was staring at him round-eyed as if Michael had uttered blasphemy or madness.
"By the rood!" swore the tall stranger.
"By whatever you wish," assented Michael, "so long as you fight like a man. Come, the sight of a coward spoils my appetite for dinner."
He waited for the other's rush. Michael had recognized in his assailant the Italian captain of mercenaries who had struck down his wounded countrymen in the effort to force himself aboard Michael's galley at Nicopolis. The other must have recognized him from the gondola and had sought the revenge he had sworn for Michael's blow.
Instead of resuming the duel, the Italian smiled coldly and stepped back, pointing to his chest where the doublet was slashed over the mail.
"I do not fight with cutthroats, Messer Soranzi," the Italian said to the merchant, who was staring at them, excusing his action. "This sailor beset me on the bridge after hailing my gondola under pretext of asking his way. You can see where he struck me."
The shrewd eyes of the merchant went from one to the other and he fingered his own stout belly tenderly.
"A lie," remarked the Breton promptly, "and a base one, forsooth. This fellow's blade is snapped and you can see on the stones behind me where it broke off."
Soranzi stared at him curiously and uneasily.
"You must be mad, good sir," he observed, "to wish to encounter further Pietro Rudolfo, the famous swordsman and condottiere."
"Faith," grinned Michael. "Is it madness to face the famous Rudolfo, instead of waiting to receive his knife in your back?"
He marked in his memory the name of his enemy. Rudolfo in spite of the open insult did not renew the fight. Instead he muttered that he had no time for night prowlers when he had already been delayed too long on his way to the house of a friend.
The merchant was sidling past Michael, holding up his long skirts, and shot a sharp question at the Breton, once he had gained the Italian's side, accompanied by his men.
"Your name and state, signor?"
Michael nodded at Rudolfo to indicate that the condottiere knew both, but Rudolfo was silent.
"You have an excellent memory, Ser Pietro," the Breton commented, "for it impelled you to let out my blood. Yet must I salve it myself."
To Soranzi he said-
"I am called Michael Bearn, the master mariner."
At this the merchant glanced at Rudolfo in some surprise for it was known from the Rialto to Saint Mark's that the young Breton had been honored that day by the all-powerful council. The interests of Venice and its merchants lay upon the sea, and the dictates of the Maritime Council were law.
Moreover Michael's bearing was hardly that of a cutthroat. Soranzi murmured diplomatically:
"Now that you two worthy captains have reached an understanding it behooves me to press upon my way. I am in haste to hear a most wonderful tale of a voyager who has found a new road to the riches of the East, more vast than those narrated by Ser Marco Polo himself."
Michael bowed, realizing that Rudolfo would not fight now.
"Will you direct me," he asked, "to the fete of my lord Contarini, the leader of the great council? I have lost my way."
Soranzi's lips parted to respond, but Rudolfo nudged him.
"Follow this alley," the condottiere directed curtly, "in the direction Messer Soranzi came for some distance."
With that he turned on his heel, took the arm of Soranzi, and with a backward glance walked away across the bridge. The lanthorn was soon lost to sight around a bend in the street where Michael had been wandering.
Sheathing his dagger, the Breton listened to the retreating footsteps, and laughed heartily but silently in the darkness.
"'Tis a rare jest," he thought. "Soranzi perchance would have directed me aright, but the excellent Rudolfo saw fit to send me mum-chance in the wrong course. Aye, make no doubt they are bound to the Palazzo Contarini themselves."
The reflection that Rudolfo had been at pains to keep him away from the fete caused Michael to wonder whether the condottiere had not had a stronger motive than the desire for revenge in attacking him.
Rudolfo had known from Michael's own words that he was bound for the Contarini Palace.
Of course it would not be particularly pleasing to Rudolfo to have Michael appear at the palace where they would, perhaps, meet. But surely if the captain of mercenaries had merely wished the killing of Michael, his wish could better have been fulfilled by sending bra vi after the Breton when the latter left the palace.
Michael felt sure that Rudolfo had good reason for wanting at some cost to keep him from the palace.
By now Michael was conscious again that he was very hungry. Opposition served to whet his desire to go to the fete. Following the retreat ing footsteps by ear, he passed over the bridge again, into a dark passage he had not noticed before that led him presently out upon a wide terrace overlooking a brightly lighted court.
Chapter IV
Michael Is Admitted
Soranzi and Rudolfo were just disappearing within the gate of the Contarini house. A throng of gondoliers and servitors grouped on the steps that led from the tiles of the court to the door gave back with low bows. Just as ceremoniously a chamberlain, standing within the entrance, greeted them-as Michael observed.
He cast a swift glance around the court. It fronted a canal by which the guests were coming to the fete. In one corner some fiddlers and fluteplayers assisted by a bedraggled dancing bear were amusing the waiting servants and helping to empty a huge table of its meat and wine.
It was this music he had heard from the alleys in the rear of the establishment.
Near at hand a fat Turkish gymnast in a soiled silk khalat was making the commoners gape by balancing two swords, one above the other, on his forehead and squealing shrilly as if to call attention to his prowess.
From a window of the palace the low sound of a woman's laugh floated out over the court. It was not a pleasant laugh, holding as it did a veiled note of discontent.
"That would be the new donna, my lord Contarini's choice of a mistress," observed one lackey in the throng about the sword-juggler to another.
"A redheaded she-fox," mumbled a second who had had his share of red wine.
"Grant I stumble not over her train-"
"Or spill aught on her finery. 'Tis said she craves jewels as ye thirst for the flagon. She it was that coaxed my lord-who is made o' drier stuff, -wot-to have the voyager tell his tale."
"Nay." The lackey nodded solemnly over a tankard. "All Venice repeats that the riches of Cathay are found at last. Hide o' the , 'twill do us no good, but Messer Rat-Face Soranzi has come running holding up his skirts like a woman-"
Both laughed and Michael smiled at the description of the stout merchant with the thin face. He was ascending the steps confidently when the chamberlain stopped him at the door.
"I know not your face, signor. Were you bidden to the palace this evening?"
Michael halted, his foot on the top step.
Looking down the long hall within, he could see groups of the guests, young men in short cloaks of every hue, wearing under these tight tunics of crimson velvet and gold cloth, elderly men in long fur mantles, women in the jeweled exuberance of dress and with the red-dyed hair that was a fad of the time.
The splendor of it caused him to gasp. Meanwhile the chamberlain was insolently eyeing Michael's boots of soft leather and his ragged mantle.
"I have the freedom of the city," murmured Michael, still intent on the spectacle within.
It was the turn of the worthy chamberlain to gape and seize his long staff in righteous wrath. A commoner sought entrance to the fete at the Palazzo Contarini!
In another moment the guardian of the gate would have shouted for the servitors to fling Michael into the canal. It was well, perhaps, for all concerned that a diversion occurred at this point.
A group of lackeys approached the door from within, hauling along a shrinking, stumbling figure in grotesquely striped attire. It was the figure of a hunchback wearing a jester's cap.
Behind the lackeys and their captive strolled several courtiers, smiling expectantly.
"Give him to the bear to play with!" cried a servitor.
"Nay, set the dogs on him."
"Aye-the dogs, the dogs! " cried the courtiers. "'Twill be better sport than bear-baiting itself."
Michael saw that the craggy face of the jester was pale and that he winced at mention of the dogs. The anxious glance of the hunchback met his and then circled away as if vainly seeking some avenue of escape.
"Hold," spoke up the chamberlain irresolutely, addressing the courtiers and ignoring Michael in the more pressing matter at hand. "This is good Bembo, my lord's fool and favorite. Would you slay him, signori?"
"Verily is he a fool," answered one of the young nobles carelessly, "and so must pay for his folly."
"Not so. He is no man's fool," corrected another, "and so the dogs will have his limbs for their sport. 'Tis an ill-shapen thing, by the archangel!"
"Bembo," whispered a lackey, "had the cursed luck to spill a dish of syrup of figs on the train of the Donna, who is in a rage thereby. To appease her my lord has cast off the ill-begotten fool and my lady has bidden us make sport of him. The dogs-ho, the dogs!"
While one varlet ran eagerly out of the hall, evidently to fetch the dogs of the household, the courtiers dragged Bembo to the door and called the crowd below in the court to witness the coming spectacle.
A joyful shout went up and the servitors deserted both table and Turk to enjoy the more attractive spectacle of a human being worried by the teeth of animals. Michael had a swift recollection of his own torture at the hands of Bayezid's men and the way in which the slaves thronged to watch his suffering.
His back stiffened and he swung his right arm gently at his side-the only movement of which it was capable. And he stood his ground at the head of the stairs, although the courtiers were pushing against him.
"Strip him," counseled a rough voice from below-the same lackey who had commented upon the fiery temper of his mistress a moment ago. "The dogs will bite the fool more toothsomely if he be naked."
"Aye, aye, strip him!" the cry went up.
"Stay," said Michael gravely to the courtiers. "The man is a cripple, wherefore would it be small honor to you, messires, to make game of him."
"Blood of the saints!" A young fellow with a face like a woman made response. "By the splendor of heaven, what have we here?"
The chamberlain saw an opportunity to please the nobles.
"A man, my lord of Mocenigo," he informed loudly, "who claims the freedom of the city and so the liberty to attend the fete of my lord Contarini."
The jester's lined face had brightened at Michael's words, but now he appeared hopeless once more. Not so Mocenigo, who scented a finer jest, even, than the tormenting of Bembo.
"He does not look like a lack-wit, this burgher-sailor," he vouchsafed, wrinkling his nose, "but-phah-methinks he is foul of the sea."
They stared at Michael, the crowd below pushing and elbowing to gain a better view. A gentleman laughed and the lackeys guffawed. That a common sailor, or so they thought, should have construed the freedom of the city as an invitation to the fete!
A distant snarling and barking sounded from within the palace, plainly to be heard now that the fiddlers had ceased playing in order to watch the spectacle.
"Throw them both to the dogs; strip them both," called a lackey from the rear of the throng.
But Michael's glance had sought out the courtier who had laughed, and his gray eyes were very hard. Seeing his set face, those nearest him, with the exception of the slightly intoxicated Mocenigo, gave back slightly.
"No need to fetch the dogs, my good cur," Michael smiled at the man who had laughed. "The pack is here and-till now-in full cry."
There was an exclamation at this and a rustling of feet. The servitors sensed a quarrel and realized from the way Michael spoke that he was a Frenchman of good blood. Whereupon they discreetly waited for the quarrel to be taken up by their betters.
"'Od's death!" swore the courtier who had laughed, making however no move forward. "Seize him, ye varlets, and hale him into the lagoon."
The lackeys nearest Michael advanced obediently, but without enthusiasm. Baiting a victim lost its savor when the prey showed fight. Then one of them cried out shrilly:
"Ho, this is Master Bearn who conquered the Turks in the Orient. Not an hour since he overcame Pietro Rudolfo in the street with his sword."
A silence fell on the group at the head of the stairs. The servants remembered that they were unarmed and retreated promptly. Bembo looked up again with hope in his wavering eyes.
Michael, standing his ground with his left hand at his belt, reflected that Rudolfo must have a reputation here.
Muttering something about looking to the dogs, the man who had laughed slipped away, accompanied by his fellows. Mocenigo swore roundly after them and clutched uncertainly at his sword.
At once Michael stepped forward, gripping the other's wrist and wrenching downward as the young noble started to free his blade from its scabbard. The weapon clattered to the tiled floor and Mocenigo's right hand was helpless in Michael's left.
Now the courtier was no younger than the seaman, but his smooth face made a strong contrast with Michael's brown countenance wherein the skin was drawn taut over jutting bones and deep lines ran from nose to mouth.
Mocenigo, flushed, made no struggle, knowing that his strength was overmatched; instead he waited with a dangerous quiet for Michael to strike or taunt or reach for a weapon. He did not know that the Breton had but one useful arm.
"You are no coward," grunted Michael, "but you carry your wine badly, my lord. The cups make a man quarrelsome."
With that he released Mocenigo, picked up the latter's weapon, handed it to him and turned his back. The courtier handled his blade irresolutely, staring at the seaman's back.
"Close the door," Michael was instructing the chamberlain, who-seeing that Mocenigo made no move-obeyed, thus shutting out the curious throng in the court.
"You were best away from here, Bembo," said Michael quickly to the jester. "Some side postern; this is your chance."
When Bembo had vanished from the hall he wheeled on the gazing Mocenigo. "This mocking of a fool ill beseems your chivalry my lord."
At this the young courtier flushed more deeply than before, and sheathed his sword covertly. "'Od's blood, signor, you are a strange man and a ready one. I was in the wrong and I apologize." He bowed gracefully. "Surely you are of gentle blood in France?"
"Nay, signor-my mother was of gentlefolk, but I am a commoner, without land or till."
Michael nodded affably to the perplexed chamberlain.
"Now that I am here, announce me to your master. In the haste of the moment I forgot to say that he bade me come to the fete."
But when the three sought Contarini they found him and the circle of his friends seated, listening to the tale of the voyager. Only one of the listeners noticed Michael's entry into the audience chamber in the rear of the assemblage, and that one was Pietro Rudolfo.
Chapter V
Cathay
"Great lords, counts, knights, burgesses, and ladies! Attend ye, dispose yourselves to listen. Never have your ears been greeted by such a tale as this. Never have soldiers, priests, sailors, or astrologers breathed such a romance as this true recital.
"Signori, ladies; no man bath so much knowledge and experience of the divers parts of the world-and especially that of Cathay-as hath Messer Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo!"
The speaker, broad as he was tall, black-bearded and mellow of voice, bowed very low, sweeping the heron plume of his cap across the floor of the library of the Contarini Palace. His enormous cloak of Armenian velvet vied in color with his scarlet doublet of Persian silk.
"I am Messer Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo," he concluded.
In the library were gathered the leading spirits among the guests. Contarini with his mistress beside him sat directly before the speaker. Close behind him the pale face of Soranzi, the merchant, gleamed in the candlelight.
A hundred years ago Marco Polo had completed his book. Discredited at first, it had been confirmed to great extent by wandering Franciscan monks. It was known in Europe that Cathay existed somewhere at the eastern end of the world-this side of the Sea of Darkness.
Venetian galleys were engaged in trade with Persia and Arabia, at Ormuz. Continued tidings of the vast resources of silk, spices, and gems in China and India came in. The door of the farther East had been half-opened. Venice was agog with rumors of the riches of the Indies, and the Pope had more than once sent emissaries to find the land of Prester John.
"Consider, my lord-" Clavijo bowed to Contarini-"the marvel that I have seen. It is no less than a city of brazen walls, in the desert where a hundred caravan routes meet. It lies behind the lofty mountains which are a natural wall beyond the last of the three seas-Aegean, Mormaior, and the Dead Sea that is of salt, as you know."
The listeners nodded. Venetians to the heart, they knew the geography of the Black Sea and something of the Caspian. Clavijo, the Spaniard, went on.
"Seven years ago, my lord, did Ser Clavijo set out humbly from Constantinople over the perilous waters of Mormaior where no ships may have iron in them, lest the devil's loadstone that is at the bottom of the sea should draw out nails and braces and every soul perish."
Contarini shrugged. He did not set much store by the superstitions of the sea. Clavijo pointed to the map on the silver globe beside him.
"It was not the least of the marvels, my lord, that Ser Clavijo attained to the farther shore of this sea where the spirits of the waste are said to lie in wait for travelers. Aye, he heard their mutterings at night, on the desert floor, and in the morning his servant was dead. The natives say that this muttering comes from the sands-the reg ruwan, talking sands. Yet Clavijo makes no doubt that demons are to be met in the waste places.
"But beyond here exists a rich and fertile valley. My lord, it may well be that this is no less than the Eden of the Bible. Forasmuch as the Bible relates that the three strange kings came to the birth of Christ, hearing rich gifts of incense and myrrh, it is reasonable to suppose that this legend relates to Cathay, which may well be the kingdom of Prester John."
He glanced mildly at his intent audience. A dozen times within the last fortnight had the Spaniard been called upon to tell his story, and by now he well knew the phrases that best appealed to the religiously inclined. As for the ladies-
"The way to this valley is most difficult to encompass; forty bands of Moorish horsemen do swoop upon the unwary. It was one of these bands that came on Clavijo, alone in the desert, and guided him, a prisoner, through the storms of sand that are more fearful than the tempest of the sea. In this way he was taken to the gate in the brazen wall.
"Inside that gate he perceived the trees of gold and silver, of which you have heard, and the fountains that run with wine more delicious than the famous Chian.
"Great jewels are the fruit in these gardens of the brazen city. The inhabitants are fair of face and speak a Moorish tongue. Alas, your servant Clavijo has not the gift of words to describe all that he saw. Moreover, he was a prisoner, kept for the pleasure of the Grand Cham who is the king of this place."
Clavijo's broad face turned toward the stately red-haired woman who was the mistress of his host.
"My lady, it came to his ears in the city of the Grand Cham that all who entered the valley never got any older. There is no time in this city of Cathay, and people do as they please. It is a most pleasant spot. Many marvels Clavijo heard there-of the cameleopard and the taurelephus that gives most rare milk. But concerning this, Clavijo cannot know the truth. The gardens and the Cathayans he saw with his own eyes. Some of the silk of the place he had made into a doublet and this you yourselves may see-"
Clavijo tapped his broad chest with a smile.
"This is but a poor specimen. The robes of the slaves of the Grand Cham are of the sheerest gossamer, my ladies. The emeralds on his fingers are large as hens' eggs. The perfumes of the palace are finer than the dried roses of Persia."
The women who had been listening sleepily until now looked up with interest.
"Living unto themselves as they do, the Cathayans have no knowledge of the value of gold in the other world. It comes, Clavijo heard, from the mines of Ectag, sometimes called the Golden Mountains. Here there be slaves who labor in the mines, and but for the grace of God Clavijo would be such a slave."
The small eyes of Guistani Soranzi widened and he plucked at the edge of his fur robe.
"Did you bring back some of the gold, Messer Clavijo?" he asked.
"Alas, some I took with me when I fled from the city, but necessity compelled me to cast it away when I crossed the desert." Clavijo stepped back and bowed. "My escape was due to one of the servants of the Cham who was a Christian at heart. Otherwise, it would not have been possible to surmount the brazen walls."
"And the Grand Cham?" put in Rudolfo curiously. "What was he?"
"Some called him Cham, some Khan. Perchance the two words be the same. He is like to the Emperor of the Chin, because Persian and Turk and other pagan sultans render him tribute. Also, of all the caravans that pass by the valley he takes tribute. Some say he has the powers of a potent magician, yet this must be because he has the wisdom of a hundred years."
Clavijo ceased his tale with a low bow. Contarini studied him with green, fathomless eyes, but the mistress of Contarini was aquiver with eagerness and whispered to him of the gems of Cathay that might adorn her beauty.
Rudolfo's elegant figure advanced to exchange greetings with the voyager, as did the other guests, with the exception of Michael, who remained leaning against the wall, rubbing his chin reflectively as if something puzzled him greatly.
He saw that Clavijo presently left the throng. Straightaway Michael followed him down the narrow hall that led to an alcove where a table loaded with fruits, wines, and sweetmeats awaited the guests who had not yet arrived.
Somewhat to Michael's surprise the portly Spaniard dug his fingers into a fine dish-peacock pie. From the pie his hands went to his mouth. His bearded chin worked voraciously and the pie diminished apace.
Michael's hunger came upon him anew and he joined the man on the other side of the table.
"By your leave, Messer Voyager."
His left hand began to make havoc with the remnant of the pastry.
Clavijo glanced at him from small black eyes, as if disturbed by the interruption.
"It irks me to eat alone," smiled Michael invitingly. "Come, good sir, I see you looked at yonder Sicilian grapes desirefully. Proceed. Consume. Your long suffering in the Orient must have given you a rare stomach for such fare. See, I join you."
The Spaniard wiped his beard with the back of his hand and with the other covertly fastened upon some brandied figs. He seemed to have an unlimited appetite.
"Verily, I see that you are a man of parts," said Michael again. "Let me call to your notice this excellent Chian wine. A toast, Messer Clavijo-a toast."
"Ah."
The Spaniard nodded approvingly and poured out two cups of the fine wine. Michael, who had had enough of the food, lifted his politely.
"To Cathay," he announced, bowing.
"To Cathay," responded the other heartily.
"Sir, I know you not, but you are good company and a man of rare discernment-"
Clavijo fell silent and his mouth opened wide, while he did not raise his cup. Michael, glancing quickly over his shoulder, saw that two men in uniform had entered the alcove.
They wore dark cloaks and carried only stilettos at their belts. Both wore black masks that concealed the whole of their faces with the exception of the eyes.
"Madre de dios!" swore Clavijo.
The two masked servitors or officials-Michael could not decide whichadvanced to the table.
"Signori," said one, "which of you is the renowned voyager from the Orient? "
It was politely said and Michael set down his cup reflectively, seeing that Clavijo's eyes had widened at the words. Under the circumstances the newcomers might be seeking either the Spaniard or the Breton. Evidently, if they desired Clavijo, they had not been in the audience-chamber when the latter was telling his tale.
This inclined Michael to the belief that he was the man wanted. He wondered briefly if these were agents of Rudolf o, but remembered that the condottiere would hardly resume his quarrel in the home of Contarini, unless imperatively urged.
It was hardly likely, furthermore, that Mocenigo would choose this way of punishing Michael for the scene at the door. Michael, unfamiliar with the customs of Venice, hazarded a guess that these were servants of Contarini sent to summon either him or Clavijo in this curious fashion.
"I am from the East," he responded, as the Spaniard was silent. "I am called Michael Bearn, of Brittany."
"Aye," put in Clavijo promptly, glancing involuntarily toward the hall down which the two had come; "this is the gentleman you seek."
Plainly he did not desire to go with the masked men. They, however, looked at each other questioningly and asked Clavijo's name, which was reluctantly given.
"Signori," decided the one who had first spoken, "we were sent for the voyager from the Orient by one whom you both know. Since we cannot be certain of your identity, will you both have the great kindness to come with us?"
Clavijo looked as if he would have liked to refuse, but the masked men ushered them down another hall and flight of steps. They passed out of the house into the darkness of an alley. The loom of the buildings against the stars, the smells, and the distant echo of a flute assured Michael that they were now near the bridge where he had met Rudolf o.
It was his turn to be reluctant, yet Michael strode ahead, whistling between his teeth. He felt morally certain that the two attendants had come for Clavijo and that Clavijo did not want to go with them. And Michael wanted very much to see where Clavijo was being taken-where the Spaniard did not want to go.
A second stairway took them to a gondola, a torch at its bow. Michael recognized the Contarini crest on the gondola hood as he scrambled inside, followed by his companion, breathing heavily.
The two masked attendants took their stand fore and aft by the rowers. In the darkness of the small cabin Michael sat down on what he first thought to be a cushion and then made out to be the form of a man.
He said nothing, wondering if the man were dead, until a whisper came up to him:
"Signor Michael, a service for a service given. Pietro Rudolfo plots against you. I heard it whispered as I fled the palace."
It was Bembo. A moment's reflection showed that he must have hidden himself away in one of the Contarini gondolas, expecting to leave the palace unseen in this way. Michael eased his weight off the other.
"Do not yield me up, signor," went on the whisper. "Soon we shall be far off from the redheaded donna and the dogs and servants."
"Faith, I will not, Bembo. Are these masks Rudolfo's doing?"
"Nay, generous sir. They are servants of Contarini."
A slight hesitation before the name did not escape the Breton's notice. "Whither are we bound? Have they business with me or Clavijo?"
"Clavijo." Bembo chose to answer the last question. "We-you and I-will be released at the Con-at the gate we are coming to-"
"Who in the fiend's name are you talking to?" demanded the Spaniard, who had been unable to understand the low whispers.
"A fiend-if it likes you, Messer Voyager," murmured Michael. "He says the devil and all the hellish brood have seized upon you."
"Madre de dios!"
Clavijo, it appeared, was superstitious and more than a little credulous. Then the boat stopped and the three-for Bembo joined them-stood before an iron-studded door in which a small square slid back, to cast a stream of light on their faces.
Michael saw a masked face staring at them through the aperture. Meanwhile the gondola and its men drew away from the landing and disappeared in the darkness.
Clavijo's olive countenance went a shade paler when he made out the stunted form of the hunchback. He had not seen Bembo at the fete and Michael's careless words had aroused his apprehensions.
Before he could speak the door opened wide and the figure within reached forth to pluck the Spaniard inside. The door was slammed in the faces of Bembo and his friend.
Through the square peephole Michael could make out the two men inside withdrawing down a hall. A second glance showed him that they stood on a narrow stone landing with the black surface of the canal at their feet. The door presented the only means of leaving the steps.
"Bembo," whispered Michael, "unravel me this coil. Where are we, and why are we left like varlets on the threshold of this hospitable place?"
"Because, signor comrade," the jester grinned up at him in the dim light from the opening, "we are varlets-or at least the gatekeeper believes we look like such attendants of the great Spaniard. Your cloak is-"
Bembo hesitated, fearing to offend, but Michael answered readily.
"Zounds, 'tis shabby enow! "
"This is the entrance to the Consoli di Mercanti. So many masks mean that the council is in secret session. We had best content ourselves with hailing a passing gondola and making off with a whole hide, for we are both here by mistake."
Michael wondered why Bembo's presence had been taken for granted until the hunchback explained that he had often come here in attendance on Contarini and the guardians of the place could not know that he was no longer the servant of the great Contarini.
"Good," he said thoughtfully and pressed against the door, thrusting his left arm within the opening. Bembo plucked his sleeve in sudden anxiety.
"What would you, signor?"
"Why, entrance, before yonder masked fellow returns to his post. I must hear what the council has to say to the voyager."
In spite of Bembo's protest that the night session was secret and that they both might end the evening in the damp cells of San Giorgio Maggiore prison, Michael worked away at the door until he had drawn back the bolts and pushed it open.
This done, he pulled the shivering hunchback into the stone passageway, closed the heavy portal and whispered:
"Now, good Bembo, you are verily a lost fool if you lead us not into a safe hiding place where we may hear what is said in the council. You say that you know the intestines of this place of masks-"
Michael's words received sudden point by the sound of footsteps returning toward the passage. Bembo fled with a crab-like motion down the narrow hall and slipped aside into the shadows of another passage opening into it, and Michael ran after him silently.
Taking the Breton's hand in his, the jester led his new friend through the darkness down a winding flight of steps until the dampness indicated to Michael that they were under the canal.
Here they were in a confined space where the air, however, was not stale and two gleams of light pierced the gloom from one wall. Michael was somewhat taken aback to hear voices echoing clearly in the stone chamber, although they were plainly the only occupants.
"'Tis the whispering gallery," explained Bembo so softly that the words were barely discernible, "that gives upon the council chamber. My lord Contarini was wont at times to spy here upon the testimony of prisoners before the judges. Speak not, for the gallery runs overhead to an opening behind the councilors."
As the Council of Ten ruled political Venice, stamping out conspiracies and punishing any man it listed mercilessly and secretly, the Consoli di Mercanti ruled commercial Venice with an iron hand.
The prosperity of the Signory was linked indissolubly with the expansion of its trade, the crushing of its rivals, and the mastery of new routes into the East, such as gave to Venice the monopoly of the great salt industry. The methods of the council were secretive and cruel, but Venetian judges winked at this, so long as the trade routes were held, concessions secured, and enemies weakened.
Of these enemies Genoa was then the most pressing. A few years before, the army and fleet of Genoa had almost crushed the city of the lagoons-Venice being freed only by the dogged courage of Pisani and the intrepidity of Carlo Zeno. Since then Genoa had used every means to extend its trade to the eastward, away from the immediate power of the Venetian galleys.
Both cities had vied in making agreements with the on-sweeping Osmanli Empire which was even then extending from Anatolia into the mainland of Europe. But behind the armies of Bayezid were the spices, silks, and jewels of India, Persia, and China-veritable Golcondas to the trading cities which paid fat tribute for the privilege of plying the Black Sea and tapping the Damascus and Aleppo caravan routes.
So much Michael Bearn knew.
Standing close to the wall of the whispering chamber, he found that the two holes fitted his eyes and that he could see a long table covered with papers and globe-maps behind which sat a dozen masked men and before which stood the carefully groomed form of Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo.
The council was in secret session. A masked attendant clad in the manner of those who had ushered Bembo and Michael to the place stood by the closed door. Michael, studying the forms of the men behind the long table, singled out one in the center as Contarini and at the first words knew that he was right.
The voices rang clearly in his ear, conducted by a cleverly contrived gallery that ran from the shadows over the table to the wall above Michael's head.
"Signor," began the man in the center of the councilors. "You were summoned to speak the truth. Do not fail."
Clavijo glanced at the speaker swiftly, and measured the ring of masked faces. His brow was moist and his plump cheeks were flushed.
"This evening-" he responded.
"This evening," Contarini took him up, "you babbled much nonsense and some news. Signor, we are concerned now with the trade of Venice. Frequently we have heard of a Tatar or Cathayan potentate beyond the Sarai Sea. We wish to learn if it was his court you visited."
At this Clavijo nodded understandingly. He looked serious, now that he had weighed the mood of these men.
"Aye, signor. Last night, I was about to remark, I spoke mainly of fabulous gems and garments and such like, for the pleasuring of the ladies. But now I place the poor fruits of my journey at your service. Question me, therefore, at your will."
"Exactly where lies this city?"
"As you have said, beyond the Sarai Sea, a journey of a week by horse, until you come to the foot of the Ectag* Mountains, called by the natives the Golden Mountains. The way lies over the desert floor and is perilous indeed."
"So, one may go by sea to Trebizond, where we have a bailio and thence-" Contarini consulted a map-"by caravan across the land of the tribes. Karabak, it is written here?"
"Aye, my lord. Marvelous it is to know that in that land there is a pillar of everlasting fire, rising from the ground with a blue flame-"
"Naphtha!" broke in a councilor. "Near to Batum. No miracle about that."
Michael studied the eyes of the questioners, greatly interested, much to Bembo's surprise.
"Not in the least," assented Clavijo gravely. "Yet there also I beheld the holy mountain of Ararat where first the blessed ark came to land after the Flood. And beyond there, my lords-beyond there lie the fields of solid salt, at the foot of the Sarai Sea, which signifies in Cathayan-Sea of Salt."
The councilors looked up at this, for the monopoly of the salt trade was one of the greatest avenues of profit to Venice.
"That is good!" Contarini made a note and Clavijo smiled. "Now, what of your statement that this Cham of Cathay is aged beyond human years and a magician?"
"My lord, does he not dwell in this paradise of Cathay, and was not the holy garden of Eden also a paradise? Have we not the testimony of the Bible itself that therein is no such thing as human age? Was not the holy garden itself in the paradise of Asia?"
"How do you know the Grand Cham is a magician?"
Clavijo smiled, shrugged and hesitated, but one of the councilors spoke up.
"The good Fra Odoric of Pordenone himself visited these regions con pelegrino-as a pilgrim. Did he not see great piles of human skulls raised to the sky and the horns of beasts stuck upright upon mountaintops? Also divers wonders such as a city upon the sand which vanished as he walked toward it? Aye, and he mentioned that the sand spoke with a human voice."
Hereupon Clavijo drew a long breath of satisfaction and twiddled his curled beard.
"As I myself have said," he reminded Contarini, who alone among the councilors seemed to weigh his testimony doubtfully. The punishment by the Maritime Council of one who gave false testimony before it was no light thing.
"These miracles have my eyes beheld. Lo, I sat upon such a pile of human skulls, reaching a thousand lance-lengths toward the sky-the bones of those who aforetime sought the earthly paradise and failed."
"The Grand Cham must be a potent monarch," mused Contarini. "Aye, I mind me Fra Odoric spoke of a great khan of Tatary who was the most merciless warrior upon the face of the earth-"
Michael strained his ears to catch the rest of the sentence, but Contarini had bent over a globe-map and was silent.
"'Khan' signifies 'Cham' in the pagan tongue," put in Clavijo, who seemed to he better pleased with the way things were going now.
Maps were produced and it was found that Ptolemy had outlined a kingdom beyond the Sarai Sea, under the star Taurus, and named it Chin, or Chinae.
"Which is verily the Chitae of Fra Odoric and my Cathay," pointed out the Spaniard. Sweeping his hand across the table in an eloquent gesture, he raised his voice.
"Here lies the power and magic of the East, signori. Alone, my comrades dead, I crawled from the brazen walls to bear this message to you. Others, like the good fra, have heard of the Grand Cham-or seen the city at a distance. But I-I have walked under the gold trees and heard the song of the slaves of a hundred races laboring in the mines in the bowels of the earth. I have looked upon the riches of pearls, emeralds, topazes set into the walls of houses. Beside the city of the Grand Cham Constantinople is a rook's nest and Venice-pardon, but Venice is no more than a village."
Perceiving that his voice fell into ready ears, he folded his arms, his uneasiness vanished.
"I have spoken of jewels. My lords, upon the person of the Grand Cham and his radiant women there are solid plaques of emeralds and rubies, greater than those that you have brought in your galleys from Persia. And these jewels the Cathayans value not, save as handsome ornaments."
"What do the Cathayan folk value-in trade?"
"Perchance weapons, rare steel, cunning inventions such as the sand clock and musical organs."
Bembo, who was still shivering from apprehension, now noticed that Michael's shoulders were quivering as if the Breton were stricken with the ague and that his hand was pressed against his mouth.
Within the council hall Contarini rose as if satisfied.
"Messer Clavijo," he said gravely, "if your tale had proved a lie you would have had a taste of the iron beds of San Giorgio Maggiore. But we are well content with the news you bring, and it is now fitting that we announce to you the result of our deliberations before your examination. This morning I had speech with a French mariner of the name of Bearn who warned me that the Turkish power threatens the safety of the great city of Constantinople and Venice. That is idle talk and the council is concerned only with trade, not politics. Yet this foe of the Turks confessed that somewhere beyond the Sarai Sea is a khan of Tatary who must be a potent monarch."
He paused and Bembo saw again that Michael grimaced strangely.
"The council has planned an expedition into the terra incognita," went on Contarini. "A jealous merchant will be sent with proper escort. By fair means or foul-mark me-he must win us wealth from the Cham. Our galleys will bear the voyagers safely through the Turkish pirates. You will be the leader of the expedition."
Clavijo was a graven figure of amazement.
„IZ„
"Verily. Venice will honor fittingly the discoverer of the new trade route-when you return. But return successful, for we have no clemency for one who fails."
A flush mounted to the Spaniard's brow which had become moist again.
"I? My lord, the way is perilous. Scarce I es-"
"By your own words you would fain visit again this city that is an earthly paradise. You know the way. Have no fear that you will not be rewarded."
Clavijo started to speak again, hesitated, and bowed low. Then he jumped and swore roundly. A roaring, mighty laugh broke the silence of the council chamber. Yet none of the councilors had uttered a sound and certainly Clavijo and the attendant had not presumed to laugh.
Contarini it was who broke the spell of stupefaction by starting up and looking angrily at the wall behind which, in the whispering gallery, Michael Bearn was doubled up with mirth, laughing until he coughed.
The sound, magnified by the hidden gallery, had burst upon the councilors like a thunderclap and not a few crossed themselves in awe.
"By the blessed Saint Lawrence and his gridiron!" Bembo pulled at his companion in a frenzy of alarm. "Are you mad? They will be here in a minute with drawn swords. Come, or you will end your laugh in a dungeon-"
Fairly skipping with anxiety, he guided the still chuckling Michael up the steps, and listened a moment alertly. Michael seemed indifferent to the peril that was real enough to Bembo.
Hearing the sound of pikes striking the floor in the direction of the council chamber, Bembo turned the other way at the head of the stairs. He knew that there was a warder at the postern door by which they had entered.
So, instead of retracing his steps, he ran up another flight of stairs, slowing down as he emerged with Michael into a tapestried hall where several attendants without masks lounged.
"The council has broken up," Bembo announced when the servants glanced at him inquiringly. At the foot of the stair behind them Michael could see Contarini pass hastily toward the listening chamber with a group of halberdiers.
Following Bembo's lead he walked quietly toward the entrance at the end of the hall that was the main gate of the council house. The hunch back had reasoned quickly that the guards at the door, not having seen him enter, would take him and the Breton for Contarini's followers. Likewise, he knew that the aroused councilors would not be aware of the identity of the men who had been in the listening chamber.
So, playing both ends against the middle, he went to the gate, nodded to the pikeman on guard, and emerged under the stars. As they did so they heard a distant shout from below and saw the servitors run to the head of the stairs up which they had come.
"They will bar the gate," whispered Bembo. "But, praise be to Saint Mark, we are outside the bars."
Michael noted with disgust that they were again on a landing with the canal in front of them. While they waited anxiously for a gondola to pass, a flurried councilor rushed through the door, glanced hastily at Bembo, and, recognizing him, glared at the dark canal.
"Did you see a man flee here hence, Bembo?" he questioned.
"Not yet, my lord," replied the hunchback truthfully. "But, if it please you, I will watch to observe when a man leaves the building."
When the councilor had re-entered the hall, the great door was closed and barred. The two could hear the sounds of a hurried search within. They hailed the first empty craft that came abreast of the landing, and when they were fairly out of sight along the canal Bembo, who was curious by nature, turned to his new friend.
"What made you laugh, signor?"
Michael smiled reminiscently. "A splendid jest, my Bembo."
As he had listened to Clavijo's tale at the fete he had been struck by grave doubts as to its truth. The flowery descriptions of the Spaniard did not conform to Michael's knowledge of the Salt Sea and its tribes.
Furthermore, the man's face was vaguely familiar. Michael had a keen memory, but he could not place the man at first. Not until the testimony had been given before the council and Clavijo had been plainly disturbed did Michael remember him.
Then he recalled another frightened man. The scene on the shore at Nicopolis flashed before him, and he visioned a tall, stalwart camp-follower of the Christian army driving a loaded cart headlong through the fugitives.
Clavijo had been that man. And the year of the battle of Nicopolis had been the year that Clavijo claimed to have been at the court of the Grand Cham of Tatary. Michael knew then what he suspected before, that the Spaniard had not been in the East. His tale had been a lie.
It was the decision of the council in taking Clavijo at his word that had struck Michael's grim sense of humor. It was, as he told Bembo, a rare jest.
Chapter VI
The Venture
Safe, for the nonce, in an odorous tavern hight the Sign of the Sturgeon, on the docks of Rialto, Michael reflected the next day on what he had learned and fell to questioning Bembo, for there was much that puzzled him.
Bembo wondered somewhat, as he squatted on the table where their breakfast platter still lay, how Michael could obtain the money to pay for their quarters because it was becoming apparent to him that they did not have a silver soldi between them. When he mentioned respectfully that the landlord was chalking up their score behind the door and was growling for payment on account, Michael assured him that something would turn up to yield them gold.
Skeptical, but willing to believe in the good fortune of his new mas- ter-Bembo had attached himself to the Breton-the hunchback answered the questions.
"My lord Contarini must have money," he asserted, following the trend of his own thoughts. "His large establishments have impoverished him sorely and he is deep in debt to Rudolfo, the leader of his soldiers, who has waged Contarini's battles on the mainland. Methinks my lord cannot pay-"
"And so has caught at the chance of riches wrung from Cathay," mused Michael. Egged on by his spendthrift mistress and his creditors, Contarini was planning to use his post as head of the Maritime Council to his own advantage.
This was more than probable because, while Contarini had aided Clavijo in spreading the tidings of a mythical kingdom beyond the Sarai Sea, he had been careful to have the council hear in secret the Spaniard's testimony as to the possible spoil to be gleaned from the Cathayans. So Contarini must believe the tale of Clavijo.
The Spaniard himself was merely posing as a voyager-an honorable figure in that age-and thriving on the gifts and hospitality of the Venetians. What of Rudolfo?
The condottiere had sought at all costs to keep Michael from hearing the tale of Clavijo. Why? Rudolf o must know of the coming venture into the East if he was in Contarini's confidence. He knew, too, that Michael had been on the border of the terra incognita.
What did Rudolfo fear that the Breton would disclose? Rudolfo's cowardice at the field of Nicopolis?
Michael shrugged, and dismissed the problem. It did not matter, he thought-and wrongly.
What interested him was Clavijo's magnificent lie. Michael knew that there was truth in the well from which the self-styled voyager had drawn his tales. Fra Odoric had spoken truly of a powerful khan of Tatary.
But would the khan of Tatary, of whom Michael had heard in the camp of Bayezid, prove to be actually the Cham of Cathay? Michael would have given much to know. For this khan was the one man Bayezid respected on the face of the earth.
"If I could know," he began, and looked at Bembo. "Fool o' mine, and withal, wise man, we must have more news. Go you to the plaza of the city and learn what you may of preparations being made for a ship to the East.
"Look you, wise fool," the Breton continued thoughtfully. "Is it not true that the natures of men will seek their proper end? Give a thief rope and he will halter himself; a miser will bleed others till there remains no blood in his own veins; a boaster will trip o'er his own tongue. I, being a wayfarer voyaging on behalf of five dead men, will see-the day of judgment, Bembo."
"And a fool, master?"
"Will be happy, God knows."
Now in saying this, Michael Bearn voiced the destiny that was to shape his own life and the fate of several others in one of the strangest adventures that was ever recorded in the annals of Venice.
Bembo found his master a queer mixture of moodiness and cheer. Michael had astonished the jester by forcing him to share their meals in common. Bembo had always fared, before this, with the hunting dogs of Contarini.
"'Tis said," he ventured, thinking of the gold they must have to pay for their food, "that you have seen the battles of the pagans in the East. Could not you gain a place and honor as condottiere with one of the noble lords of Venice?"
"Would one of the noble lords employ a slave, Bembo?" Michael smiled at his companion's surprise. "Nay, there is no man's work in these mock wars of Italy where the condottieri bleed-their masters."
He looked out moodily at the forests of galley masts and emptied his flagon of wine.
"Being idlers, good Bembo, an enterprise must come to us. Go you into the city and learn if this venture is to be had-one wherein we may sharpen our wits and laugh mightily."
Bembo went. It was evening when he returned.
"So you have come back to me?" remarked Michael. "Are you not afraid of poverty and the dagger of Rudolfo? Bembo, if you had favor with a magician, what would you wish to be?"
The hunchback looked seriously at his torn finery.
"Saving my present service to you, my master, I would like to be the Grand Cham who wears a ruby on every toe and scatters gold as the monks scatter indulgences."
"So, has the Spaniard's gossip stirred your blood?"
"Master, it is truth. The council has commissioned Rudolfo to command the soldiery of the expedition to the land of the Grand Cham."
So suddenly did Michael Bearn spring up from his chair that wine and table were upset on Bembo, who fell back in alarm.
"No!" the Breton cried.
"Aye. They only await the selection of a proper mariner to go with Clavijo and those already chosen. Fifteen thousand ducats have been granted Messer Clavijo for funds. 'Tis said, despite his zeal to set eyes again upon the earthly paradise, he balked at taking the money for a space."
"Clavijo-Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo-goes verily to the Grand Cham!" Michael sat down on the bed and rocked with laughter. "'Twould make the devil laugh. And who else goes?"
"A certain young count of the Mocenigo family-a rare gallant. Soranzi-I heard the thrifty merchant consulted his astrologer and found that his horoscope foretold rare things of him in Tatary. Verbum sat sapienti-a word to the wise is enough."
"Soranzi! Who else?"
"Nearly the whole of Venice has begged for the chance. Nevertheless, the wise council knows that the company must be limited to a few; five gentlemen and the men-at-arms."
"Perhaps the Chain would give him the freedom of the city-of Cathay, in the desert-the sandy desert!" Michael remarked seriously.
Bembo gaped and retreated to a corner of the room, fearing that his master might be afflicted with madness, until the reassuring thought came to him that Michael Bearn was only drunk.
"Aye, sir," he grinned amiably, "there is sand i' the desert-"
"Clavijo vouches for it, wise Bembo, and for the saltiness of the sea."
"The salt-verily, sir-ha-ho!"
"Bembo." Michael shook his dark head gravely. "Hark me, man; never will you behold such a voyager as Ruy Clavijo again. We will look no further, wait no longer. The wind is up, my fool, and we will sail with the tide. No quest could be more suited to our hearts than this."
He caught up his cloak, hat, and sword and bowed ceremoniously to the jester.
"Behold, the new master mariner of Messer Clavijo and his party. I go to the council, or, better, to Contarini, for my commission."
Hereupon Bembo scratched his head and cast a tentative glance at the water jar. He had been eager to inform his master that Rudolfo was in the expedition, hoping to turn Michael from thought of meddling with Contarini's plans, and now Michael had said he would join the party.
"Let me bathe your head, master, before you go."
Michael laughed.
"Water, upon such a night as this! Nay, we will drink to our commission and to the Grand Cham. Come, most wise oracle, a toast!"
"To the Grand Cham." Bembo filled a cup reluctantly.
"To the Grand Sham!" Michael emptied the cup.
It was late that night when he returned, but the jester was sitting up, wrapped in his tattered mantle, solemnly eyeing the diminishing candle on the table. He looked up fearfully when Michael pushed in the door, for Bembo had entertained grave apprehensions as to the reception of his slightly intoxicated master-for such he considered Michael-by the members of the council.
To his surprise Michael's step was regular and his glance steady.
"'Tis done, Bembo," he smiled. "Rudolfo being luckily absent, Contarini passed readily upon the merits of our claim. We sail the day after the morrow."
Michael flung himself into his chair and clapped Bembo on the knee.
"'Twas not wine that stirred my brain, Bembo. Knowing Clavijo, I had a grave fear that he would lead his expedition anywhere but to the terra incognita. Knowing Rudolfo, I am assured that the venture will verily seek spoil. And since our worthy friends would fain despoil the Cham, why, you and I must go with them. Because, forsooth, the Cham is of all men the man I most desire to clap eyes upon."
Taking some gold coins from a new pouch at his girdle, he bade Bembo settle their score at the Sign of the Sturgeon on the morrow. The pouch itself he detached and handed to Bembo, who was scratching his head, deeply puzzled by his master's speech.
"What is that, master?"
"For you. I drew an advance upon my pay. We part when the ship sails. This voyage is not for you, Bembo."
The jester pushed the money away and the corners of his lips drew down.
"Wherefore, master? Am I not your man?"
But Michael, glancing at the low partition that separated their room from the other chambers of the inn, shook his head thoughtfully.
"I have good reason for bidding you stay here. This voyage is not like other voyages."
Bembo pricked up his ears and protested, but Michael would say no more. Long after the sea captain had retired to his cloak and bed of boards, the jester remained awake, watching the candle flame moodily and glancing from time to time angrily at the purse.
He was hurt and his curiosity was stirred-two strong emotions with the hunchback. As the candle spluttered and subsided into grease, Bembo reached out a claw-like hand and pouched the money.
In the annals of the Maritime Council, in the pages devoted to the voyages into terra incognita, it is recorded that of Messer Clavijo and his company only one man returned to Venice.
Chapter VII
The Castle without Doors
Clavijo, in choosing the Nauplia, had selected the most comfortable means of travel to be had in those days. The pilgrim galliot was broad of beam and fitted with extra cabins in the stern castle. A dozen great sweeps aided the lateen sail. The sides of the vessel were high, and sloped well inboard-affording good protection against the waves.
The pilgrim galleys were designed to provide some ease for passengers. Live fowls were carried. The master of the ship could not remain at any given port for purposes of trade more than three days. He was also obliged to put in at any port they might fancy.
Clavijo, Mocenigo, and Rudolfo had all quartered themselves aft; Soranzi had made shift with sleeping-space below decks. But Bearn, who had discovered for himself the unattractiveness of quarters under the deck where the passengers camped all over each other, appropriated space for his mantle and bundle on the main deck under the overhang of the bow.
He was somewhat surprised to see that the ship's captain was hugging the shore, keeping a course well within sight of land. "Coasting" it was called in those days. Since this was the popular route, favored by the passengers, it was more liable to attack by Moslem pirates than the more direct course out into the Aegean.
Pirate galleys frequented the sea lanes to the East, off Greece, and Michael had observed at a glance that the Nauplia was poorly equipped for defense. Moreover he wondered that Clavijo was not afraid of encountering thieves. The Spaniard had been entrusted with a treasure of some fifteen thousand Venetian ducats and valuable goods.
It was the second night out and a full moon hung in a clear sky; the man at the steering oar guided the Nauplia within sight of the shadows of land.
Near Michael groups of Armenian and Muscovite traders slept, men and women together, heedless of the clamor of voyagers at dice and wine, or the quarreling and singing below decks, where torches of pine-pitch made sleep difficult, if not perilous.
Michael found that he missed Bembo's light tongue and deeper philosophy. The jester would have been in his element on such a night. But Bembo had left him without farewell the day before the galliot sailed.
The tumult and lights of the pilgrim ship formed a great contrast to the silence and speed of a smaller galley that swept out of an inlet with oars plying on either side and spray flashing in the moonlight.
For a second Michael studied it, then took up his sword and ran aft to where the captain slept by the helmsman.
"Look at yonder craft," observed the Breton, shaking the slumbering seaman, "and then dream if you can."
The Venetian stumbled to his feet, gazed, and swore roundly.
"Saint Anthony of Padua! I like it not."
He strode to the break of the stern castle.
"Ho, there! Cressets! Women into the stern! Out with your swords, messers. There be pirates at hand or I am a blind man! "
The gamesters sprang up. Men of the crew ran to fix torches in place at the ship's side; fagots contained in steel baskets were kindled at bow and stern. The women, wailing and crying, were driven below decks.
"Captain," suggested Michael, "it would be well to man the sweeps and get the galliot well under weigh. Your sloping sides are comfortably devised for boarders. Our safety lies in ramming the galley with our wooden beak, such as it is."
The Venetian, experienced in such matters, saw the wisdom of this and was giving orders for the rowers to push out the great oars, when a tall figure appeared on the balcony below the steering -platform and silenced him.
"Nay. No time for that. Summon up your oarsmen to fight on deck."
Michael, leaning down, saw that it was Rudolfo who spoke. The condottiere had drawn his sword and was giving swift instructions to his own men who tumbled up, pulling mail hoods about their heads and stringing their bows.
"You hear me, fool!" Rudolfo cried at the Venetian. "I am in command of the armed forces of this cursed galliot. By the rood-"
The captain shrugged, glanced at the oncoming galley-now not a dozen ships' lengths away-and complied. The crew hurried to the danger point at the ship's side, shepherded by Rudolfo, while the Nauplia barely moved through the water, for the wind was light.
Young Mocenigo reeled upon deck, more than a little the worse for wine. Michael saw Soranzi peer from a cabin and straightaway vanish.
The brazen sound of the ship's bell voiced a warning to all who still slept. From the dark huddle of Muscovites and Armenians emerged men with bows-oriental traders, well able to fight in a crisis. On the waist of the Nauplia tumult reigned.
Glancing up at the sail, the Venetian skipper whispered to Michael: "Let the gallants do as they please. By Saint Anthony, I'll keep our bow against the other craft."
Michael took his stand beside Rudolfo. The condottiere was a brilliant figure in the ruddy light of the torches, his silver-inlaid helmet glittering, his crimson mantle flung back from his mailed chest. He ceased his directions to his men long enough to look swiftly at the Breton and his teeth shone at his beard.
"By the rood, messer, you stand behind me? I see you love not the front line of battle."
Now Michael wore no armor under his jerkin and mere prudence had dictated that he shelter himself behind the high rail as long as possible to escape the first arrow flights of the pirates, until they should board.
"As you wish, signor."
He pulled himself up into one of the platforms fashioned for archers to stand on. Rudolfo moved slightly away and Michael smiled at the inbred suspicion that took the condottiere beyond his reach.
But the arrows from the galley rattled high against the mast and tore through the great square of the sail that bellied and flapped as the Venetian skipper came about to present his bow to the pirate craft.
Rudolfo's half-dozen archers plied their long bows with disciplined precision.
"Saint Mark and Rudolfo!" Their shout went over the water to the galley. Answering cries identified the attackers as Turks and Greeks.
"Dogs!" snarled young Mocenigo. "The Lion of Saint Mark! Ha-do you like his claws?"
He seized one of the cressets by its supports and cast it out upon the deck of the galley as that craft moved past-the maneuver of the Venetian skipper having kept the galley from striking the side of the pilgrim ship with its bow.
For a moment there was a pandemonium of shouts, cries of anger and pain, and the flicker of javelins and arrows. The archers of Rudolfo, bearing long leather shields in front of them on their left arms, escaped injury, but Michael saw a pilgrim or two fall writhing to the deck.
Then the galley was past its prey and turning slowly-one bank of oars plying.
"Pando!" called the Nauplia's skipper. "About!" He pushed the two steering sweeps over and the galliot swung slowly into the offshore tack on which it had been when the pirates were sighted.
Only one more attempt the galley made to close, and the motley defenders of the pilgrim ship were lining the other rail when something whizzed past Michael from behind and stuck into the wooden planking between him and Rudolfo.
The Breton glanced around and saw only the confusion of undisciplined men taking up new positions. Then he drew the knife from the rail.
"A pretty present," laughed the condottiere. "For you or me?"
The knife was a long, heavy blade, its bronze hilt richly inlaid with silver. Michael thrust it into his belt and observed that the galley was drawing off, followed by the taunting shouts of the Venetians.
"They have small stomach for a fight," he muttered.
"Thanks to God and our good friend Pietro Rudolfo." Clavijo's bull voice filled the ship. "Come, Master Bearn, I do not see that you were any too forward in the affray. Doubtless your skin is tender and you hang back lest it be pricked."
Now Michael had not seen Clavijo at all along the embattled rail of the galliot and he strongly suspected that the man had remained in his cabin until the pirates had drawn off. Then a stronger suspicion assailed him, and he touched the knife in his girdle.
"Aye," he assented seriously, "the skin is very tender-upon my back, and this poniard is both heavy and sharp. It was cast at me from behind."
He held it up by the point before the eyes of the Spaniard, who blinked and pulled at his long beard. Rudolfo took it, glanced it over, looked searchingly at Clavijo from under his thick brows, and tossed it over the side of the vessel.
"Some sailor's blade," he shrugged, "and doubtless meant for my kidneys. I am not over popular with the seamen of the Nauplia, because, verily, I enforce discipline upon occasion."
It was a long speech for the taciturn condottiere to make. Michael would have chosen to keep the dagger, in hopes of learning who its owner was. Yet, as Rudolfo said, it might well have been intended for him.
"Hark ye, Messer Clavijo." The Breton folded his arms. "Neither master of this vessel nor leader of your men-at-arms am I. The Maritime Council engaged me to aid you to navigate unknown waters if need be, and to arrange transport upon land. This will I do, so well as I may. Methinks the time may come when you will have need of my services."
He was looking at Clavijo, but Rudolfo spoke.
"As a slave, Master Bearn? It is said that you sleep alone in your cloak, so that no other may see the marks of a whip upon your shoulders."
So saying, he stepped back, laying hand lightly on the hilt of his sword. Michael Bearn drew a long breath, but his left hand-that Rudolfo, hav ing learned his lesson once, was watching-reached up to the clasp of his mantle instead of to his weapon.
The cloak fell to the deck, and Michael's muscular fingers ripped open the collar of his jerkin, drawing it down over his bare shoulder. Both Clavijo and Rudolfo saw the deep red welt of scars.
"Aye," nodded Michael, "there be the marks of a Turkish scourge."
At this Clavijo started and a curiously intent frown passed over his smooth brow. He eyed the Breton's square, hard face and wiry, gray-black hair as if seeing him for the first time.
"Moreover," went on Michael tranquilly, "signori, you will note that my right arm hangs useless. It was broken by those same servants of the sultan. Perhaps this is why I have no longer any love for fighting when there is no need-"
"But surely, Master Bearn," smiled Clavijo ironically, "there was need to repel these pirates, who would have made short matter of us otherwise."
Michael laughed. The attack by the small galley had had in it more bark than bite, and once it was clear to their enemies that the pilgrim ship was not to be surprised, the Turks and Greeks seemed to lose heart. Such an affair bore little resemblance to the grim struggles Michael Bearn had shared in, along the frontier of the Orient.
"You laugh, signor?" Rudolfo's voice was heavy with insult. "Perhaps you would relish another scourging?"
The dark blood flooded into the young Breton's face. Around the three a circle of Rudolfo's men and sailors had gathered, scenting a quarrel. The gleam of torches lighted the scene. He wondered if the others had expected the condottiere to challenge him.
Rudolfo was not the man to be forced into a fight that he had not anticipated beforehand.
And then Michael heard an exclamation from one of the seamen. A strange whirring filled the air. Shrill squawking resounded on all sides.
One of the torches was knocked to the deck by a fluttering, animated ball that leaped and bounded among the men. The deck of the Nauplia in a moment was full of poultry. Hens, roosters, ducks and guinea fowl dashed about underfoot and overhead.
"Ten thousand devils!" Rudolfo struck viciously at a fat pullet that collided with his face. The spectators, the tensity of the quarrel broken in a flash, started running about, clutching at the flying meat.
It was each man for himself and the best dinner to the quickest. The torches were soon darting into every quarter of the deck, leaving Michael in semidarkness. Clavijo was leading the angry Rudolfo away.
A grotesque figure rose from the deck at Michael's elbow-a misshapen, stained, and grimacing form clad in striped raiment.
"Master," cried Bembo, "the field is mine. My light cavalry, released by a purloined key from their storage prison, have scattered our foes. Come, good master, let us make good our retreat! "
In the shadows of the bow Michael sat down on his bundle and laughed, more than a little provoked.
"A fair night, cousin mine," chattered the jester, taking this as a good omen. "Give me thanks for carrying you bodily away from the demons o' the sea. Black Rudolfo would ha' cast you overside as easily as I could suck an egg. Marry-the sight of eggs turns my belly for I lived upon them, hidden in the hold with the fowls for three days and two nights. Then, not an hour since I was awakened by a shouting as of the foul fiend, whereupon the roosters crowed, thinking it was day. Master, a soldier crawled into my castle, in the dark, and I thought the pirates held the ship and I was to be ripped open without the services of a confessor. Pompa mortis! Oh, the trappings of death!"
Bembo shivered and looked around anxiously at the tranquil moonlit sea.
"But, forsooth, the big soldier thrust his thatch through the window of the hold and bawled to the other vessel to stand off, that the plan had been changed, and it was useless to attack the galliot. A brave lad, thought I, to bid the pirates mend their ways and be gone. Verily he was a potent bully, for the miscreants gave back and left us in peace. So I-being sorely athirst from fear and hen's feathers and bad eggs-I climbed to the roof o' this house and saw Rudolfo about to spit you, whereupon I ran back for my winged allies."
"Was the man you saw in armor?"
"Armor, quoth'a, verily so. When his face was i' the window I saw a steel cap as big as a bucket. Master, chide me not for coming. Nay, no voyage that was ever brewed could make me leave the good man who shared his wine and meat wi' me; nor would my curiosity leave me in peace until I learned wherein this voyage differed from other voyages, as you said."
Michael arranged his pack for a pillow and laid his sword close to his left hand. The jester blinked at him from shrewd little eyes, the great head turned to one side, like a dog's, questioningly.
"A ship, Bembo," murmured the Breton, his eyes closed, "a harmless pilgrim galliot, beats off an attack by well-armed raiders because-a soldier calls secretly to the foe from below decks. One of Rudolfo's men. A dagger is thrown from behind the mast. Feed your curiosity with that and let me sleep."
It was a leaner and dirtier throng that lined the rail of the Nauplia when that good galliot entered the dark waters of the Golden Horn and anchored off the crowded shore of Constantinople after the storms of the Aegean that followed the attack by the pirates.
And when Clavijo and his party re-embarked for Pera and the Black Sea in a small Venetian trading galley, Mocenigo was no longer with them. The young count, Clavijo explained to Bearn, had found paradise enough in the Hippodrome and palaces of the emperor, and women to his liking. The departure of the others had been hurried by the insults of Moslem warriors who thronged the waterfront.
Michael said nothing but sought out Bembo, who was sitting on a chest on the jetty, eyeing the preparations for departure.
"The first of us has fallen by the wayside, Bembo," he observed gravely. He had been apprehensive about the jester since Bembo bobbed up as a stowaway, but had not reproved him. "Will you not follow his example and remain here?"
"I would see the Grand Cham."
Michael looked at him and laughed.
"You will never see the Grand Cham."
"Well-" Bembo was surprised-"you must know, master, for you have traveled near Cathay. I would see the city and the gold palaces-"
"There is no city."
"Master? You have heard Clav-"
"Clavijo-" Michael's smile broadened into a wide grin-"Messer Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo is the greatest liar in Christendom."
Bembo gaped and glanced from the ship to the stores on the jetty and at the Breton as if doubting his senses.
"Clavijo, my good Bembo, is a man with one talent. Aye-a tongue. The sun never shone upon a greater liar. What he did not pick up at the waterfront of Genoa and Venice he heard related of the traveling monks. When that failed him he had his tongue, and wit to match. It made his fortune in Venice. Until the council took him at his own value, forsooth, and sent him to find the city that is a lie."
Michael chuckled at the memory. "When Clavijo by his own testimony was in Cathay I saw him among a throng of camp followers, fleeing along the Danube."
At this Bembo scratched his head vigorously. Then his eyes lighted and he leaped from the chest.
"Aye, master. Well, then, since this is a quest of folly, who should be the leader but a fool?"
When the galley cleared the Horn, Bembo stood beside the helmsman, a wooden sword stuck in his ragged girdle, his twisted legs planted wide, and his bearing as important as that of an admiral of the Venetian fleet.
And when, a month later, the party of explorers rode inland from Trebizond, Bembo took his place at the head of the column, mounted on a caparisoned mule.
"On, into terra incognita!" he cried, waving his wooden sword valiantly.
In fact Trebizond was the boundary of what we now call Europe. It was the eastern door of the fading Byzantine Empire, the last trade port of the Serene Republic of Venice, which had its bailio stationed in an arsenal on shore. The walled city, rising on rocks from this shore, was the home of Manuel the Second, almost the last of the Comneni-line emperors of Trebizond for generations.
Now they were bound, as Bembo had stated, into unknown territory-into blank spaces on Venetian maps. No one in Trebizond had been anxious to accompany them for it was known that the mountains to the south and east as far as the Salt Sea were occupied by tribes who paid tribute to a monarch of Tatary.
Soranzi and others of the party had taken this information as a good augury and were in high spirits. So also was Bembo.
"Come, my flock!" He jangled the bells on his hood. "Follow your bellwether. Ply your spurs, sound the timbrels! A fool is your leader, and folly your guide. Ride, my cousins in folly, and take him who first draws rein!"
Journeying to the southeast, they entered bare brown plains and passes that wound among stunted, rocky hills where the valleys were yet snowcoated and the air was chill. For the first time the voyagers were alone in a strange land. And stranger than the aspect of the country where isolated shepherds ran away at their approach and the inns were no more than walled spaces, where the animals could be picketed and fires lighted-stranger than this was the castle without doors.
The highway they had been following was no more than a trail from valley to valley. The castle overlooked this path from a barren cliffside up which wound a well-defined way cut in the rock.
Halfway up the ramp, as the travelers termed the road, they were halted by a ragged man on a shaggy pony who called to them harshly. Clavijo appeared to meditate on the meaning of the horseman's words, then shook his head. Michael, however, interpreted.
"The man is an Armenian. He says we are in the land of his lord and must pay the customary tribute. It would be best to do so."
Soranzi, who handled the expenditures of the expedition, demurred, and the rider retired, bidding them stay where they were. Presently a thin man clad in leathers and furs appeared in the roadway, followed by thirty or more even more ragged horsemen armed with bows.
At this Rudolfo swore and began to muster his mailed men-at-arms to the front of the column, when Michael checked him.
"This rider declares that he is lord of the castle, although he does not dare occupy it owing to the attacks of the Turks who are in the habit of raiding the country from the sultanate to the south. He says that he is very poor and a Christian-which, forsooth, is but half true-and needs money to carry on his fighting. What will you give him, Messer Soranzi?"
The merchant scowled, for besides the presents destined for the Grand Cham the only other goods in the caravan were his own large stock in trade from which he expected a profit of several hundred percent at the least.
"Tell the Moor," he commanded, "that we be merchants seeking the court of the Grand Cham. Travelers do not pay tribute at castles of the Grand Cham."
Michael grinned and spoke with the Armenian chief, who frowned in turn and responded testily.
"He says," announced the Breton, "that he knows naught of any Grand Chaco or khan except himself and the Turkish sultans and that if we are to travel in his land we must make him a present."
Clavijo and Soranzi argued the matter hotly and finally produced a piece of scarlet cloth and a silver cup. These the Armenian refused angrily, saying that he must have more.
Darkness was falling and a thin rain pierced the garments of the travelers uncomfortably. Soranzi shook his thin fists and chewed at his beard.
"And this dog calls himself a Christian! Well, give him a roll of Phrygian purple velvet from the lot we carry for the great Cham-"
"And a handful of gold from your own fat pouch, Messer Merchant," snarled Rudolfo, who was both cold and hungry. "A pox on your bartering!"
This brought a wail from Soranzi, but mollified the Armenian, who withdrew up the hillside with his motley army and his spoils. But the Venetians found that the horsemen had not remained at the castle. It was quite empty; moreover every door had been removed from its hinges.
When the beasts had been quartered in the courtyard and Michael with some of the soldiers had succeeded in lighting a fire in the great hall-not without difficulty-and after they had dined on cold mutton, cold bread-cakes, and wine, Clavijo, who had been very thoughtful for some time, spoke up-
"My friends, look yonder."
Rudolfo started nervously and they all stared at a sign on the stone wall of the hall, a cross, obscured by smoke, chiseled into the granite.
"That is a potent symbol of the Cathayans," nodded Clavijo, "one of the talismans of their alchemists. Aye, this castle bears evidence of their magic. Why is there no castellan? Where be the doors?"
As the men were silent, the snarling cry of a jackal came to their ears from the darkness and rain outside and Soranzi paled.

"Where vanished the knavish riders that we met?" continued Clavijo.
"To their tents, elsewhere," broke in Michael. "As for the cross, it is Christian in sooth. The doors were doubtless removed by the Turks who, the Armenian said, recently sacked the place and left orders that it was not to be defended again."
Clavijo shrugged, with a dubious smile. Since learning that Bearn had been a captive of the Moors, as he chose to call them, he had been careful to avoid discussion with the Breton.
"As you wish. But soon we will come upon the piles of human skulls. I suppose you would say there is no danger there." He shook his head in gentle reproof. "Now, sirs, I have a plan. Messer Soranzi seeks to avoid robbery. Methinks you all would fain live longer. So be it. I, who have mastered the dangers of the mountains and the sands and the Cathayans, I will go ahead from here alone."
Michael glanced at him searchingly and was silent.
"You will be safe here, sirs," continued the Spaniard, "under the potent protection of Rudolfo and his men. I have no fear. What I have done once can be accomplished again. Even though I may never return, I would prefer to press on from here alone. A score of swords and halberds will avail us little against the Cathayans. Better one should die than all."
"If I am not back by the first of winter, sirs, you can retrace your steps easily to Trebizond. By tying the mules, head to tail, in a fashion I wot well of, I can make shift to bear with me the gifts for the Grand Cham, placed in packs upon the mules."
Rudolfo, however, voiced a blunt negative.
"By the rood, sir, we have made a bond between us. We will go in a body or not at all."
This view was shared by Soranzi, who, despite privations and plundering, had hugged to his bosom the dream of fabulous profits promised him by his astrologer in Venice.
"Aye," put in Bembo seriously; "we will go in our bodies or not at all."
"I would fain see the bull-stag that you say is to be met with in Cathay," insisted Michael.
"A most curious beast, Master Bearn," observed Clavijo mechanically. "It has more hairs on its tail than a lion in its mane.* The pagans in Cathay entrap the beast by setting a snare artfully between two trees so that when the taurus-which is the name bestowed upon it by Herodotus-passes between the trees, its tail is caught fast. So tender is the beast of its fine tail that it remains passive lest a hair be pulled out, when the Cathayans may easily make it prisoner."
"Yet, signor," added Michael, "they must take care in freeing it, for if they should sever the tail from the body by stroke of sword, the bull-stag would perceive that its valued member was lost beyond repair and would no longer feel constrained to quietude. I fear that many imprudent Cathayans have died unshriven because they cut off the tail of a taurus."
Clavijo pulled at his beard-a habit when he was dubious.
"Most true, Master Bearn. Only one such as I who have knowledge of the wiles of the Cathayan beasts may cope with them. I remember a mighty serpent that I set out to slay. I found the serpent engaged in a monstrous struggle with a dragon before its cave."
"Saint Bacchus preserve us!" Bembo glanced fearfully at the shadows in the corners of the damp, leaf-strewn hall. Several of the men-at-arms who were listening from their fire drew nearer and gaped.
"The dragon is the mightiest monster of Cathay," resumed Clavijo more readily. "It has a lance at the end of its armored tail that can strike through the stoutest mail. Signori, I carefully avoided the sweep of the deadly tail and waited. As God willed, the dragon seized the serpent by the head. Both pulled mightily, and when their necks were taut I stepped nearer and smote with my sword, severing the Medusa-like head of the dragon from its shoulders."
"Well struck!" approved Michael. "And the serpent?"
"Alas, that was a most fearsome beast. For days I awaited an opportunity to slay it. Before long it transpired that the foul beast came from its lair to attack a passing lion. Verily, signori, it twined about the king of beasts and swallowed its victim hindquarters first. Forsooth, that was my chance. Rushing forward, I swung my sword upon its neck as it lay sluggish. When the head of the serpent fell to earth the head of the lion fell off with that of its conqueror, and I rode back with double booty to the city of the Cham."
Michael was rolling himself in his cloak on a table for the night when Bembo approached.
"Master," whispered the jester, "verily just now I looked without the castle and saw two spirits."
"Bah! Your own fears you saw."
"Nay, they had two great heads. Gian, the big lieutenant of Rudolfo, was with me and we both said a paternoster. Then Gian, being a braver man than I and somewhat the better for wine, crept closer and cast his knife at one of the two. Whereupon they disappeared."
This incident Michael did not permit to disturb his slumbers. He, as well as Clavijo, had noticed that the Armenians-the chief of Cabasica, the castle without doors-had left riders to spy upon them. The turbans of the watchers had served, doubtless, to make Bembo exaggerate the size of their heads.
He was well aware that the Spaniard was caught between two fires. Beheading was the penalty that the Maritime Council would inflict on Clavijo if his deceit were discovered and Venetian officials should lay hand on him. So, Michael reasoned, Clavijo, possibly through Rudolfo's agency, had arranged for the mock attack by the pirates on the Nauplia, hoping to be taken prisoner and robbed by friendly hands.
But the galliot, owing to Michael's warning and the skill of the Venetian captain, had been able to offer unexpected resistance. Clavijo, if he had thought to have himself and his companions captured by a convenient foe, had been disappointed.
Mocenigo, a well-known Venetian and hence dangerous to Clavijo, had been persuaded, not with great difficulty, to fall behind at Constantinople. And the life of Michael-another dangerous member-had been attempted during the sham attack on the galliot. This puzzled the Breton more than a little, because he did not think that Clavijo was the type to turn so quickly to assassination.
Thinking over the situation drowsily, Michael remembered that Bembo had just said something about a man who cast a knife. What knife? Rudolfo had thrown the silver-chased weapon into the sea! Rudolfo-a knife ...
Hereupon Michael slumbered fitfully, dreaming that Clavijo had taken the form of a dragon with a man's head and that flames and smoke were spouting from his nostrils. He imagined that he was bound and helpless and the monster that was Clavijo came nearer until the flames touched his face ...
At this point Michael jerked into wakefulness and perceived that Bembo had heaped fresh brush on the fire which had blazed up nearby. Soranzi, his cloak wrapped closely about him, sat hunched by the flames, shivering and grunting in his sleep, looking for all the world like an old and dingy vulture with an overlarge belly and bald head.
Rudolfo and Gian were standing, fully clad, in a corner of the hall and both were looking at him.
Sleep had refreshed Michael's brain. It struck him that Gian had been the man who cast the knife at him.
For the remainder of the night Michael kept awake.
Chapter VIII
The Sitting-Down Beast
Messer Ruy de Gonzales Clavijo was a man of many cares. His expedition made slow and weary progress among the mountain passes, guides could not be hired, food was scanty, hardships many. Yet they advanced to the south all too quickly for him.
For he could not turn back. Soranzi and Rudolfo and Michael Bearn would not hear of it. Nor could he confess that he did not know where he was going.
Once he tried losing his way. But Michael promptly rode ahead through the rain and found a fresh trail of many horses going in their direction. This new route took them out of the rocky hillocks down into more fertile fields.
"A fairer country," announced Michael, as the rain cleared, "with vineyards and date groves. On, to the Grand Cham! "
Looking back, Clavijo beheld a majestic summit, snow-crowned, with bare slopes rising to the height of the Alps.
"The Holy Mount Ararat," he said bravely, and crossed himself. "Forward, signori-if you have heart to face the dangers that beset that other mountain of skulls."
Their followers were not overeager. Some of the few servants were sick. Rudolfo's men-at-arms, accustomed to the machine-like wars of Italy, where an army marched but a league a day and where every hillside had its village and food and women, and the peasants had to bear the burden of both armies-Rudolfo's men muttered and sulked, except the lieutenant Gian.
Some whispered that the party was followed, that the spirits of the castle kept at their heels. Others pointed to distant bands of horsemen on the plain, bands that Clavijo declared were Moors and pagans and Michael asserted to be Turks.
One night Gian and several men stole away, to rifle houses in a village. They returned with poor spoil but many tales. Bembo, who had slipped off to accompany them, stoutly asserted that he had beheld a monster walking among the houses of the Moors or Saracens or whatever the heathens might be.
He thought at first the animal had been sitting down, until it had moved off at the approach of the men.
"Signori," he protested, "it was still sitting down, yet it ran. It had the body of a horse, spotted like a snake, the legs of a deer and the head of a stag. And its neck! Beshrew me, signori, may I never eat pudding again if its neck did not rise up from its body like Gian's spear when he lances an apple from a peasant's tree. Nay, it was as tall as the mast of a ship, for the monster stopped and smelled of fruit over a garden wall that was too high for us to climb."
Bembo had seen a giraffe.
This interested Michael, for he had never heard of such animals in Asia Minor.
After this inroad upon the inhabitants, the Venetians were shunned more than ever. A hot sun beat upon their heavy garments. The road they followed was no more than a track of deep mud.
Clavijo was very unhappy. For, in spite of his brave tale, he had never before been farther east than Constantinople. And the last thing he wished was to return, a prisoner, into the Venetian power that stretched even to Trebizond.
And then came the night when, encamped at a short distance from the road, they were awakened during the last hour of darkness by the rushing sound of horses' hoofs passing by along the road.
They saw nothing of the riders, only heard the horses sweeping past with incredible speed. Clavijo wondered fearfully what kind of men could ride at that pace in the darkness.
Dawn revealed the bodies of three of his servants, their throats cut, lying by the ashes of the campfire.
"It was the spirits of the waste!" cried Soranzi. "We must hasten; we are near the city in the sands."
The merchant pointed to thin traces of sand in the earth. But when they looked for footprints of the assassins approaching their camp they found nothing. Nothing, that is, except the hoof-marks that were quite fresh in the road nearby. Michael, however, knew that Cian's excursion into the village had brought the pursuers upon their tracks.
Clavijo was more than a little superstitious. He fancied that the phantoms he had summoned up by his words had pursued their steps. The spirits that he had invoked had taken form. In his tale he had said that his servants met death.
"Hasten!" he cried. "Away from here!"
The three bodies were buried in a shallow grave. There were now only eight attendants-Bembo, a sick servant of Clavijo who was carried in a litter, Gian and his four men, and Soranzi's servant.
When the pack animals were loaded and trudging forward, Michael reined his horse in beside the Spaniard.
"Signor Clavijo," he said softly. "You have left the path that we were following. By the sun, unless I am blind, you are taking us in a circle. Wherefore?"
The Spaniard pointed toward the site of the distant camp.
"Death is upon us. We are in the land of Gog and Magog, where djins pursue Christian travelers. Oh, it is an evil day!"
"Do djins cast a dagger, a heavy poniard, with bronze hilt overlaid in silver, at a Christian's back? On shipboard?"
The black eyes of Clavijo widened.
"Nay, forsooth! You describe the dagger once owned by Gian. I have not seen it since-"
"Rudolfo, your friend, threw it into the sea. Come, signor, here is need of truth."
"As God is my witness, I have spoken the truth."
"About Cathay? And the Grand Cham?"
Clavijo was silent, sullen almost.
"Signor, the death of your men ends all buffoonery. You were their master-"
"Por dios!" Clavijo's full face went livid. "Do you suspect me of that? I did not do it. Nor do I know aught of the dagger cast at you."
Michael glanced at him thoughtfully. "Then confess to me, signor, that you never saw the court of the Grand Cham."
"Master Bearn-" Clavijo started, and drew a long breath. "You heard what I told the council. Have you not believed?
"Have you not seen the holy Mount Ararat and heard Bembo relate the aspect of the strange beast of-" he lifted his head stubbornly"Cathay?"
Michael laughed shortly. "Faith, signor, it would take a magician of Cathay himself to tell what is true and what is false." He checked the other's exclamation. "Nay, listen. I have sounded the bottom of your tale. You were in Constantinople, not Cathay. Your wonders were garbled stories of travelers picked up on the jetties and in the markets. Your city-an illusion of the sands that some call by a strange name-a mirage. Your tower of skulls-a heap of stones."
"The Grand Cham-"
"Of him will we soon learn."
Clavijo shrugged.
"You heard the emperor at Trebizond speak of a great Tatar king."
At this Michael smiled.
"Man, you are wonderful. You pulled wool over the sharp eyes of the Signory, and beguiled two emperors. It has been a rare jest, this voyage. I could love you for that. Nay, I cannot think that you wished to stick me in the back, or to slay those poor fools."
He nodded thoughtfully.
"If a man's child could tell when you lied and when not, I would be your friend, Gonzales. This much I will do for you. You cannot turn back. Soranzi's greed is fired by the strange sights he has seen and yearns for his promised profits. Rudolfo will not give in to you, unless he is in your confidence-"
"God forbid!"
"That had the ring of truth. Well, by my reckoning we are near the Tatar tribes. Now that death dogs our steps we cannot push on blindly. We are followed, without doubt. I shall strike back along our track and seek to take captive one of the riders, whether Armenian or djin, and make him tell us where we are and what is in store for us and why we are followed. Do you, call a halt to rest the beasts and await my coming. Do you agree?"
Clavijo chewed his beard, and flushed.
"As you will, Master Bearn. We will wait."
It is more than possible if Michael Bearn could have had his way that Clavijo and those with him, who were yet alive and well, might have returned in safety to Trebizond.
The Breton was barely gone, however, when events took another turn. Rudolf o had been more silent than his wont that morning and now he dismounted, nodded to Gian, and strode to Clavijo's side.
"Signor, your sword and dagger."
The Spaniard drew back, surprised. Whereupon Rudolfo reached out and secured the weapons for himself without trouble. Gian and another soldier took spear and poniard from Soranzi's servant. Seeing this, Rudolfo turned to the merchant, who was armed only with a knife.
"Messer Soranzi, an unpleasant duty has fallen upon me. Since leaving Venice I have suspected this Spaniard of deceit. By the rood, it is plain that he knows not the way he follows. Just now he has doubled on his tracks. I think his tale was but a pretext to get money from the honorable council."
Soranzi's little eyes narrowed and his thin face darkened. He cast a venomous look at the unhappy Spaniard.
"Witness, Messer Soranzi," continued the condottiere, "that this deceiver cannot speak the language of the country he claims to have trav eled. He would have left us at Cabasica and taken the Cham's presents with him."
Conviction leaped into the twisted face of the merchant and he shook with rage.
"The man's face declares you have the right of it," he hissed. "What can we do?"
"This. I am the leader of the men-at-arms. I take command, forsooth! Every man except the five troopers and myself must give up arms. You, Soranzi, assume charge of the money, articles of trade, and gifts. Take an inventory of the goods, and keep it. The -himself knows in what quarter this liar has led us. We will strike back to Trebizond and consult further-Ha, dog! Would you do that?"
The roving eye of the condottiere had fallen upon Bembo as the hunchback was stealing away quietly in the direction Michael had taken along the back track. Rudolfo spurred after him and struck the jester into the mud with his mailed fist, leaning down from the saddle to glare at him.
Bembo rose, drew his wooden sword from his girdle with a flourish and handed it to Rudolfo.
"You have overcome me, vi et armis. Take my sword."
Rudolfo's answer was to cast the thing away contemptuously; nevertheless he kept a wary glance on the jester.
"We will wait for Master Bearn," he said shortly. "When he returns he must answer on the spot for the death of the three varlets."
Now Bembo would have given a leg to be able to run off and acquaint his friend with what had happened. The fool, like most unfortunates who are crippled in body, was sensitive to impressions.
He was afraid of Rudolfo, and more afraid of Gian. He looked upon Michael as his sole protector and Michael would presently walk back, armed only with a sword, to where his enemy waited with a half-dozen men-at-arms.
These same men were alert and eager, pleased at the chance of reaching Trebizond again. Bembo noticed that they did not seem surprised at the turn in affairs, and that Gian was a-grin.
"Saint Bacchus aid me and keep good Cousin Michael away," he prayed. "Or our guts are in the saucepan!"
They had not long to wait. Michael stepped from between two trees against which the men-at-arms were sitting at the road's edge. He had come through the dense thorn thicket without a sound.
Rudolf o and Soranzi were not a little disturbed by this sudden apparition in their midst of the man for whom they were looking down the road. The captain of mercenaries glanced at the thicket and saw that half-hidden within it was a queer kind of native shrine-a mere heap of stones with rags stuck upon sticks hanging over it.
Soranzi tried to read the Breton's harsh face-a task that was no longer easy. Michael's brown eyes were half-closed and the merchant noted that he worked the fingers of his right hand slowly as if testing long unused muscles.
"Signor," said Michael to Rudolfo, "I heard, while I was coming through yonder thicket, some words of yours. You made bold, methinks, to say that I slew the three varlets. Is it not so?"
Michael glanced around the ring of faces that had gathered close to him. The men-at-arms were gaping, fingering their weapons, intent on Rudolfo. It was significant of the natures of the leaders that Michael seemed, for the moment at least, to enjoy the mastery of the situation.
His dark face was lighted by a kind of inward amusement, while Rudolfo was pulling at his mustache with lowered eyes. The watching attendants ignored Soranzi and Clavijo, knowing that the test of leadership lay between the Breton and their own captain.
"And reason enow!" said the latter curtly. "Fore , masters, here have we a lowborn churl who stinks of the sea and who bears the scars of slavery on his wrists and back. Since our landing he has held intercourse with the pagans of the countryside. Aye, did he not interfere on behalf of the knavish robbers of Cabasica? And warn my good Gian from his excursion into the native village some time since? What more of reason would you have?"
This arraignment, although it satisfied the servitors, raised grave doubts in the keen mind of Soranzi-doubts which were heightened when Michael responded gravely that he had slept in a tent with Clavijo the night before and that the Spaniard could testify that he had not left the tent until aroused by the others.
"Yet," growled Rudolfo, who was gaining confidence, "you can walk out of a wood without a sound. Why can you not move even more silently in the hours of darkness when the evil powers are strong? There is black magic in the air, by the rood! How else could riders gallop like the wind-as those we heard anon-when an honest Christian cannot see where to put his foot to earth?"
"Master Bearn speaks the truth," broke in Clavijo bluntly, "and-my head on it-he is an honest Christian."
"You are not lacking in lies," growled Rudolfo. "We may no longer believe you. Moreover, by the mouth of his friend Bembo, the Breton stands accused."
Michael glanced at the hunchback keenly. He would have staked his life on the fool's faith. The tie between the two had been strengthened by the hardships of the journey.
In fact it was pity for the hunchback that had impelled Michael to join the party again. He had been approaching them through the thicket, moving silently as was his custom, when Rudolfo's loudly spoken threats arrested him.
Understanding that the condottiere had taken the leadership of the party from Clavijo, and that the Italian's first blow would be against himself, Michael had been strongly inclined to part company with the others and strike for the Tatar country that he knew could not be far from here.
Thus far the course of the voyagers had fitted in with the plans of Michael, who was anxious to appear before the khan as an accredited representative of a European power, with the gifts that experience had taught him were needful in gaining the friendship of an Oriental monarch.
More than once he had steered Clavijo to the west, away from the south where bands of Turkish irregulars were thick. Michael had no desire to be brought a second time before Bayezid as a captive.
Now Rudolfo had seized the reins, and while Michael could not know precisely what intrigue the condottiere had in view, he knew that Rudolfo had penetrated as far into terra incognita as he dared to go, and alsoafter events had shaped themselves to the Italian's satisfaction-he would be most likely to head back to Trebizond as soon as he had the treasure of the expedition in his hands.
It was the sight of the blow Bembo received, and his warm love of the cripple, that brought Michael to face Rudolfo.
"'Tis a lie-" Bembo had started to cry when Rudolfo's cold glance shut him up as a knife-thrust closes a turtle.
"Bembo had gossiped with my men," he said dryly. "The fool hinted that his master was bent hither on revenge. What revenge should he seek save against me with whom he has a feud as good Messer Soranzi knows well? Aye, and against the Signory of Venice that requited him with scant usury for his services."
Bembo hung his head. It was true that he had liked to babble of the Breton's prowess.
The others nodded in owl-like wisdom. In the minds of the servitors Rudolfo had gained the mastery over Michael. Soranzi and Clavijo were puzzled. Michael, who was by no means a slow thinker, sensed the drift away from him.
"I must take measures for our safety," Rudolfo was saying, "for the pagans are close on our heels. Bind me this miscreant."
"Verily-" Michael smiled quickly-"you are a rare leader, signor. Were you not among the captains of Nicopolis? Did not you, Clavijo, see him there? Rudolfo saw you?"
"Aye," admitted the Spaniard.
"Then answer me one question. If you saw Clavijo at Nicopolis, Rudolfo, why then must you have known he lied, even when you embarked with us upon this venture. Why were you fain to wait until now to accuse him?"
The condottiere could not repress a scowl at this sudden thrust, but he answered composedly:
"I may have seen him at the battle by the river, but a pox on't! I marked him not. Verily I did not recall his face when he told his tale at Venice."
Rudolfo lied well. Michael, failing to catch him off his guard, turned to Soranzi, who was too shrewd a judge of men and too alert where his own money was at risk to be convinced by Rudolfo's charge against Michael.
"Your lives, signori," the Breton said gravely, "are at stake. Would you know why?"
They were silent at that and the thin mouth of the merchant pinched together as he answered-
"Why?
"You call it black magic-faith-when horsemen gallop i' the night, signors. Nay, they were Tatars who ride with a loose rein in day or dark. I know because I have this hour caught one who followed in our trail. Some news I had from him. War threatens between the Turk and the Tatar-the sultan and the khan. Signori, these be mighty monarchs and their bands of riders on this borderland are more numerous than the good people of Venice itself."
"Then," Soranzi's logical mind probed for information, "the Tatars slew our men last night?"
Rudolfo and Gian glanced at Michael, who shook his head gravely.
"Nay. The Tatars passed us as the wind passes. Our varlets were slain by Kurds of the village that Gian and his men visited. So said my prisoner. After Bembo left the place, frightened by sight of the sitting-down beast, our brave men-at-arms made themselves free of the women of the village, the Kurdish warriors of the place being absent with the riders of the Turkish army."
Gian and the others were silent at this and uneasy, lacking Rudolfo's calm.
"Two Kurds only reached our camp in the night," went on Michael, "or our throats as well might have been cut. The Moslems do not forget a wrong, Rudolfo. Wherefore, death follows in your track."
"And what manner of man was he you caught?" inquired Soranzi uncomfortably.
"A Tatar who sighted our cavalcade and followed 'till more of his fellows could be summoned and our merchants despoiled. Mark me, Soranzi, the Tatars are grim enow, yet they attack boldly and do not slit throats i' the night. Nay, they would rip your belly with a sword. You would fare better with them."
Soranzi squirmed and the men-at-arms muttered under their breath. All glanced up and down the wooded ravine and at the impassive rock shrine.
Suddenly Gian broke the silence with a great oath and strode to Michael, his dagger flashing in his hand. The point of the weapon he set against the Breton's bare throat. Michael, after a quick glance at the ring of armed men, had not moved.
"Speak the truth, master," he growled, "or your gullet will be slit for the ants to crawl in. What devil's work brought us to this place? Whence lies Trebizond? Speak!"
The man's face was twisted by anger and fear. Michael smiled, for he could read Gian like a book and the man's diction and words had told him three things.
One-Rudolfo had confided in his lieutenant that the Breton was to be made captive or done away with, or Gian would not have dared what he did. Two-Rudolfo, as well as Clavijo, had lost his bearings but did not wish the men to know it. Three-they were all afraid, and so much the more easily handled.
"You have got yourself a new poniard, Gian," he observed, "in place of the one you cast at me and Rudolfo tossed overside. It was a poor cast for such a clever thrower."
He paused interrogatively and the man, angered, caught at the bait before Rudolfo could speak.
"The mast-" he muttered and stopped. "Death and damnation!"
"The mast interfered with your throw? Precisely. Then, after the mock attack of the pirates-I thought them in the hire of Clavijo till your master cast aside his mask just now-had failed to despoil our venture for Rudolfo's profit, your master waited till he was beyond the last bailio of Venice. Men will wag their tongues. It was necessary to have us beyond the bailio and the trade routes before Rudolfo could seize the gold and riches entrusted to Clavijo by the council. That is why we are here, Gian."
Michael had guessed at this, but he had hit the mark. Gian glanced at his master inquiringly, but Michael spoke first.
"Do not make another mistake, Gian. With my life, your guidance would he lost. If you doubt it, ask Rudolfo whither lies Trebizond."
"You will tell us," said the condottiere dryly.
"Tut, signor; have you time to waste? Soranzi-a bargain. My safety and Bembo's pledged on your word, and we guide you to safety? Do you agree?"
It was to the men-at-arms rather than the merchant that Michael directed this shaft. The Venetian was thinking furiously and he nodded.
"Agreed. But stay-what proof that you can bear us hence?"
"The Tatar lies i' the thicket yonder, bound with his own belt. Your addle-pates, Rudolf o, would never find him. But bid them look i' the thorns behind the shrine-"
In a moment Gian and his worthies dragged forth a squat figure, wrapped hand and foot with strips torn from a shawl girdle. His broad head was set close to square shoulders, and while his body was long and muscular, his legs were short, and bowed. His slant eyes glared at his captors, who freed his ankles so that he could stand without difficulty.
The Tatar's sword had been tossed by Michael into the bushes, well out of the prisoner's reach.
"What this man knows he will tell me," explained Michael, "and no man of you save, perchance, Bembo, will understand aught of what he says. I know a word that will conjure us our safety through Tatary."
Hereupon the men-at-arms crossed themselves and muttered under their breath. They were more than ever convinced that Michael had intercourse with the powers of evil and that this native was his familiar.
"The bargain is struck," asserted Soranzi again.
But out of the corner of his eye Michael saw Rudolfo gnawing his thumb and presently, leaning toward Gian, to whisper a quick word. Gian in turn muttered something to his men and took his stand behind the bent form of Bembo. Michael waited alertly.
Rudolfo cried at him suddenly-
"Your sword and dagger, throw them down!"
The words were prompt and so was Michael's answer. He thrust his captive forward against one of the oncoming troopers. Snatching out his sword, he parried the rush of another, beating down the man's blade and sending him to the earth.
Instantly Michael dropped to his knees and the third assailant tripped over him, cursing. The fourth, a short, wiry fellow in pliant mail, thrust at the Breton before he could rise. Michael caught the blade in a fold of his cloak and lashed out as he came erect. The man dropped with a split skull.
Rudolfo had set spurs to his horse, while the others looked on aghast at the swift clash of weapons. Before Michael could step aside, the condottiere's beast struck the sea captain, knocking him a dozen feet. Then came the grinning Gian, who leaped upon Michael's sword where it had fallen and glanced inquiringly at Rudolf o.
"Do not slay," instructed the condottiere. "Bind Master Bearn to the Tatar or Turk or whatever breed of devil it may be-"
"And where may the devil be, signor?" inquired Gian, gripping the half-stunned Michael in his great hands.
They looked around at that and beheld the Tatar vanishing into the bushes up the slope by the road. His long turban cloth trailed after him as he leaped with the nimbleness of a goat from rock to rock until he passed from sight before the men-at-arms could draw bow. Nor could a horse follow where he had gone.
"No matter," grunted Rudolfo. "Messer Soranzi, verily you are a greater fool than I took you for. The guile of Master Bearn bewitched you. Not only would you have let him ride free, but you would have followed where he led-to his allies the Tatars or fiends or whatever they be."
He leaned from his saddle to jerk Michael, who was more than a little hurt, to his feet.
"So, my friend," he sneered, "you would hide your knowledge from us and bargain for it! By the Pope's head! Tonight I promise myself we will know all you know. Gian has a rare knack with a dagger's point inserted in a man's ear. There is no time for't now; this is a perilous place-"
Whereupon the men-at-arms set Michael on a horse, binding his wrists together behind him with the wrappings taken from the escaped Tatar. The Breton was badly shaken and bleeding from the mouth, but they handled him in no wise gently.
The minds of the servitors were full of the idea of satanic powers pursuing them. Since Michael showed no fear and had familiar knowledge of the pagan tribes, these men had no doubt that he was in league with the powers of darkness that their superstition conjured up.
Soranzi was torn between fear and greed. The astrologer in Venice had assured him of profits passing through his hands such as he had never seen before.
As for Clavijo, he was burning in the fires of conscience. He had lied. In his story before the Venetians he had repeated that his followers had been slain at the edge of terra incognita, and that the spirits of the wasteland had dogged his footsteps.
And now these two things had happened. He felt as if he were under a spell and found himself looking about for the tower of skulls that he had included in his tale. Only Rudolf o was free from superstition.
Under his quick orders the bulkier and less valuable portions of baggage and stores were abandoned. Sick horses were set loose. When they had mounted, Clavijo saw that no provision had been made for the sick servant or the dying soldier.
"You would not leave them, signor?" he cried.
Rudolf o shrugged.
"They will die anyway-"
When the cavalcade of mounted men and pack-animals moved off, Bembo slipped from the thicket where he had hidden during the hurried departure and ran among the horses, clinging to Soranzi's stirrup. The merchant, reduced to a state of panic by the events of the past hour, drove him off with kicks and blows.
"Leave the fool to his folly," gibed Gian, who noticed Bembo's frantic efforts to keep up.
"To leave him would be to reveal our course to those who pursue us," observed Michael. So Bembo was suffered to hold his friend's stirrup.
Chapter IX
The Ravine
There is a subtle intoxicant of fear in the hurry of many persons to be the first to reach a point of safety. The trot of the horses broke at times into a gallop. Some of the stores fell from the packs. Soranzi alternately cried upon God to witness the loss of valuable goods and prayed for greater haste.
The sun was obscured, a thin mist veiled the pine thickets and the stretches of sandy ground on either hand. The heat wilted their strength. Rudolfo turned many times, apparently thinking to throw pursuers off their track, but the track of a score of horses could not be concealed, Michael knew.
As evening closed in they were threading through gorges that hastened the coming of darkness. Often they looked back in the failing light. No one desired to be last. And then Rudolfo, in the lead, halted abruptly.
Before them in the twilight stood a great mound of human skulls.
"'Tis the Sign o' the Skull," muttered Bembo, "where we will sleep the night."
The jester voiced the fear that had come upon the party with the evening. Clavijo had ordered a huge fire to be lighted near the mound of human bones, and the ruddy glare of the flames shone upon a hundred grinning masks that had been men. Nor was it any chance collection of skeletons piled together on a battlefield. The pyramid of skulls was regular in shape and no body bones were visible.
The lighting of the fire brought night upon them with a rush, down the black bulk of the mountain slopes and the mouths of the rock gullies that opened into the gorge on either side. Instinctively the men kept close to the blaze, and they ate little dinner although they had fasted since morning. Michael sat apart under guard of a sentry and without food. By Rudolfo's orders he had been bound hand and foot and only the unexpected sight of the monument of skulls had delayed the torture that was preparing at Gian's hands.
Sight of the pyramid told Michael something unknown to the others and only guessed by Rudolfo. The condottiere had lost his way.
During the panicky run of the afternoon, when the sun was invisible behind clouds, Rudolfo unwittingly had doubled again on his course. Whereas Clavijo had started them north that morning; since then they had been circling blindly to the south and east.
And they had penetrated to the terra incognita-the gateway of the unknown land about which Clavijo had babbled. And to the place that Michael had known as the Gate of Shadows, where the five Christians had been buried.
It was a rare jest, thought Michael. Rudolfo was entering the place he had tried to shun, whither Michael had intended to lead him-and Clavijo, the liar, had beheld reality.
He heard a footfall behind him in the gloom and turned his head cautiously, for it was not the sentry's step. The soldier had moved off a score of paces toward the fire and stood leaning on a spear, his back toward Michael.
A foot from his eyes Michael made out the glimmer of steel in the faint light, and stiffened. A cloaked form took shape behind the dagger-a figure bent and stealthy. The knife was thrust forward even as Michael saw it, and its edge sliced away the bonds at his wrists.
Next, food on a wooden platter was placed in his cramped bands.
"Eat, for love of San Marco," breathed a trembling voice. "Brave Master Bearn, worthy captain, hearken but do not turn your head. I have given to the sentry-a murrain on his greed-a whole purse of good silver dinari, that he be blind and deaf for a short moment."
It was Soranzi, and a terrified Soranzi. Michael, as he munched the meat, reflected that Rudolfo's men were capable of taking a leaf from their master's book in selling their services.
"Pietro Rudolfo has dropped his mask with me," began the Venetian swiftly. "Alack! You spoke the truth this noon. I am ruined-beggared! He holds me captive and will take my goods-aye, every packet and bale. Every soldi's worth."
He wrung his hands and plucked at his thin beard viciously.
"Once in Trebizond again, under the weak rule of the Comneni, Rudolfo claims all my store and the fine presents for the Cham as his, as payment for saving our lives, he said. 0 body of San Marco, 0 blessed head of the Pope! He will hold me for ransom-a prince's ransom-" Soranzi sighed, whereat his meager teeth fell to chattering.
"Do you not see the rest, Master Bearn? The varlets, save his bra vi, are dead or will be. Clavijo cannot impeach him, for dread of the retribution of the council. You he will first try to bribe, believing that you, like himself, are bent on spoil. If you refuse his offer Gian will handle you till you reveal the way by which we may return to Trebizond."
"This is no news," said Michael shortly. "It means merely that Rudolfo knows that he has lost his way and is losing patience."
"But you will never see the walls of Trebizond. You will be left in a grave at Cabasica. Nay, more. Rudolfo, see you, with my goods and per son in his hand, will attack and overpower the small Venetian outpost in the city. He will sell his spoils and perchance his sword to Genoa, which will pay a rare price. It was for this he sailed with us. Oh, we are lost! Yet the wise astrologer of my house in Venice predicted sight of extraordinary profits for me on this venture-the like of which I had never handled before."
Soranzi crept closer and clutched Michael's shoulder in a sweating hand.
"Good Master Bearn, you know this country. You are intimate with the pagan Moors and other infidels. I will pay well for a quick hand to aid me. Is it true you can lead us back from this accursed spot?"
Until now the Breton had been surveying the changing shadows on the black mountain walls that seemed to press down toward the fire.
"It is the Gate of Shadows," he said. "The tengeri darband. The Turks say that the spirits of a thousand dead, slain by this sword, walk in the valley of nights. It is the site of a massacre a generation ago. They shun it. Aye, it is a pass in the Ectag Mountains, through which Fra Odoric made his way out of the unknown land that lies beyond."
Even in his panic the merchant was struck by his companion's tone.
"You were here before? How may I know it?" Inbred suspicion struggled with his new desire to propitiate Michael.
"Behind the tower of skulls, in the sand of the gorge between two rocks that have the semblance of men's faces, you will find a grave with a cross, Soranzi."
"I have seen it."
"Five men are buried there. They were my mates, Christian slaves taken from a French caravel off the Anatolian shore."
"In the name of , why did you return hither?"
Michael stretched his stiff arm and laughed.
"To see the face of the king who did not fear the Turk."
The merchant's fears were thronging upon him.
"Hearken, Master Bearn. I see Rudolfo talking with Gian. You are a man of your word; I never doubted it. If I free your feet with this dagger-the knots be overstrong for fingers-and give you the weapon, will you stab Rudolfo when he comes hither? He will think you bound. The sentry is my man. He and I will set upon Gian, until you can join us. Money and their own fears will deliver the other two soldiers to us-"
"And if I will not?"
"Gian's knife in your ear. You want a larger bounty? Name it."
By now Rudolf o and his lieutenant were moving toward them slowly. Soranzi fairly capered in anxiety, holding the dagger just beyond Michael's reach.
"Swear!" he whispered. "Five hundred gold byzants-nay, seven hundred of Venetian weight and measure-"
"A pox on your mouthing," grunted Michael. "Be still!"
He was studying the surrounding darkness with interest. A stone had rolled from the mouth of a nearby gorge. From the plain outside the ravine he could make out the soft click-click where a horse's hoof struck upon rock.
Riders were closing in on the men by the fire. Michael had expected them for some time. Rudolfo, after carelessly letting the Tatar slip away, had left a trail broad enough for a blind man to follow.
Then, as if this were not enough, the Venetians had made a bonfire in the ravine that would indicate the exact position of their camp.
The question in Michael's mind was-were the newcomers Tatars or Turks? Evidently the former, since the Ottoman bands shunned the gorge that they had named the Gate of Shadows.
As he reached this conclusion Michael made out the figure of a horseman at the edge of the circle of firelight. It was a Tatar and the same Tatar that Michael had captured that noon.
One of the men-at-arms beheld the newcomer at the same moment and gave a startled cry. The cry was echoed by Michael's shout.
"Cast down your weapons, fools!"
He knew the danger of resistance if men of the Tatar horde had surrounded them. The dozen Christians, afoot and framed against the fire, would not be a match for half their number of mounted warriors, armed with bows.
Too startled to heed the warning, or believing that Michael meant to betray them to the riders who were emerging out of the shadows, the manat-arms who had given the alarm cast his spear at the foremost rider.
Michael rose, felt the hindrance of the cords on his ankles, caught the knife from the petrified Soranzi, slashed himself free of bonds and thrust the weapon back into the merchant's hand.
Soranzi was clawing at him.
"Guard me! I will pay what you ask."
A score of horsemen rode into the firelight. The Venetian who had cast the spear was cut down by the Tatar who had dodged the missile easily.
Again Michael shouted to his party:
"Stand back! Sheath your swords if you do not love death. Ah, the cattle-" as the men ran about, seeking their weapons and sending a hasty arrow or two at the riders who swept over them with a quick rush of snorting horses and a red flash of swords in the firelight.
Gian ran close to the fire and wheeled, to cast a javelin at a gnome-like rider. The man went down, but a second Tatar caught the lieutenant's sword-thrust on his small round shield and split Gian's steel cap with a sweep of a heavy curved sword.
With a clash of armor Gian fell prone. The sentry who had been standing by Michael as if paralyzed now turned to flee into the dark, crying:
"The fiends of hell are loose! God have mercy upon our souls."
Michael reflected even as he ran toward the fire, avoiding the rush of a horseman, that men who fled from sword strokes and cried on God for help merited little mercy.
The sentry's shout of fear turned to a moan as the Tatar who had passed Michael overtook him in the outer rocks. Soranzi had fallen to his knees and being patently unarmed-the knife had dropped from his trembling hands-was spared for the moment.
Michael saw that Rudolfo had taken a stand between the fire and the tower of skulls, his sword gleaming, his thin lips writhing.
A rider spurred upon the condottiere -Michael noticed that the Tatar horses seemed trained to go anywhere, even near flames-and a squat black body swung from the saddle. The Tatar leader leaped at Rudolfo's head, taking the thrust of the Venetian's sword on his shield.
The weight of the flying body broke the blade like glass and the two men grappled on the ground.
"My left arm for a moment's truce!" thought Michael, turning to face the riders who were trotting up to him. The last of the men-at-arms had been struck down.
"Pax. Oh verily pax! Peace, my gentle dogs. If you are men, bethink you, there has been enough of slaying; if hellions, begone to purgatory, I conjure you-avaunt!"
With the exception of the warrior who was locked in Rudolfo's arms the Tatars reined in and looked up with exclamations of wonder. They saw Bembo.
The grotesquely striped and bedraggled figure of the fool squatted midway up the pyramid of skulls. His teeth were chattering and his long arms shot out from his body in frenzied exhortation.
Bembo had seized the first vantage-point to hand. Now he gazed hopefully and imploringly at Michael. "Conjure the demons, Brother Michael; weave the spell you told us of-"
The half-moment of quiet was what Michael sought. He lifted his empty left hand and shouted one word in Turki.
"Ambassadors!"
One or two of the riders looked at him in surprise. Michael had learned in Bayezid's camp that in the Tatar country envoys to the khans or chiefs were inviolate. Ordinarily merciless, the Tatar war chiefs took pride in the number of emissaries from other lands that came to them with tribute.
And in several instances the Tatars kept faith better than the monarchs of Europe. They respected an envoy and were bitter in their rage against enemies who slew Tatar emissaries.
"Ambassadors are here," repeated Michael. "Are you dogs, to worry the stranger who comes with gifts?"
Those who understood his words repeated them to the others. The leader heard and rose from Rudolfo to stride to Michael.
His men joined him. They were short, brawny warriors, wearing furs and leather over their mail, and with bronze helmets bearing pointed guards that came down over brow and nose. Scarcely less black than their lamb'swool kaftans were their faces, with slant hard eyes and thin mustaches.
Their short swords were broader at the end than the hilt, and each had a target of bull's hide on his left arm. Michael saw that the empty saddles bore quivers and bows.
"Well conjured, Brother Michael," chattered Bembo. "The charm was a mighty charm. I will aid you."
He started to scramble down from his mount when one of the warriors seized his leg and jerked him to earth, staring at him with ox-like curiosity. Bembo's zeal dwindled.
He skipped away. The Tatar, no taller than the hunchback, made after him with the rolling gait of one better accustomed to a horse's back than the earth.
"I am Gutchluk, a noyon' of the White Horde," growled the leader to Michael. "I heard your bellow. Whom seek you?"
Michael hesitated, for he did not know the name of the monarch of Tatary.
"The sultan?" queried Gutchluk. "Say so and we will sit you in the fire, for the sultan has made prisoner some of the lords of Tatary and our Horde is angered."
"Nay," said Michael promptly.
"At Cabasica your men said they were merchants."
"I am not a merchant. I seek the khan."
At this Gutchluk's expression changed.
"Tamerlane the Great," he cried. "You go to the Lord of the World?"
"Tamerlane the Great," repeated Michael.
The warriors who had been pawing over the stores now desisted and came over to the fire, bringing with them Rudolfo, who was watchful and alert in spite of his bruises.
Gutchluk stared at his captives for a space, grunting under his breath as an animal does when disturbed.
"So be it," he made decision. "We will take you and your gifts to the Mighty One and you can spit out your speeches to him."
With that the Tatars fell to ransacking the half-empty pots and sacks of food, gorging themselves enormously. Soranzi, who crept from hiding in the rocks, marveled at this and at the callous way in which the men of the Horde stepped on bodies of the slain. He sought Michael and found him talking to Clavijo.
"Now, my lord the liar," the Breton was saying; "here must you serve yourself. Lie roundly and mightily at Tamerlane's court or you are lost."
He withdrew to talk long with Bembo, while Rudolfo slept in company with the Tatars who were not on watch by the fire and where the horses were picketed.
Before an hour had passed Soranzi, who had been intent on binding up his goods again, saw that Bembo sat alone. Michael was not to be seen.
The Breton had seized a moment when the sentries were away from the fire to move back into the darkness of the outer gorge. He had marked the position of the outpost Gutchluk had placed and circled this with care for he had a healthy respect for the keen senses of the Tatar watchers.
Nor did he make the mistake of attempting to take a horse from the pickets. Instead he felt his way patiently out of the ravine at the place where they had entered it. He found the grave he had dug, and its cross. Then he crossed the plateau to the woods on the western side.
The first glimmer of dawn showed him one of the horses belonging to the Venetians that had strayed out to the grass during the fight. This he mounted and rode back along the trail Rudolfo had taken. Once he paused to dismount and search in the thicket for something. He emerged with the sword he had taken from Gutchluk twenty-four hours ago.
Thrusting this through his belt, he continued on to the west.
Michael had not left the camp because he feared retribution by Gutchluk for his attack upon the Tatar leader at this spot. Gutchluk had been following the Venetians, and Michael had surprised him and overcome him fairly. This would raise rather than lower him in the other's esteem.
But Michael was aware that emissaries to a Central Asian monarch were always detained for a long space before given an audience. The more important the ambassadors, the longer the delay. It would be weeks before Clavijo and his companions could hold speech with Tamerlane.
Meanwhile Gutchluk had said that the sultan and the khan were at the point of war. Michael, if he was to have a hand in events, could not afford to be kept idle in the Tatar camp. Moreover the foolish resistance of Rudolfo's men had lowered the status of the Venetians.
If Tamerlane was the man Michael thought him, it would take more than trade goods wrung from the captives to gain his ear. So Michael must bring to Tamerlane more than that.
Gutchluk had said that Bayezid and all his power was at Angora.
Was not this a good omen? Michael smiled, reflecting that he had sworn to the sultan that he would return to his court.
Now as he rode he kept swinging his right arm stiffly at his side. The blood was beginning to run through thinned veins and before long he would be able to use his crippled arm.
Chapter X
The Topaz Ring
It was as if Clavijo and his party had been snatched up by a hurricane. They were swept down from the gorge called the Gate of Shadows, swept out to the south upon the high, rolling steppe of Iran where the receding hills of Mazandaran showed purple against the sky to the north.
Beyond these same hills, farther to the north, stretched the Sea of Sarai-the Caspian-about which Clavijo had permitted his tongue to wag and which he had never seen, although Michael Bearn had bitter knowledge of it.
The Tatars halted for nothing, except a snatch of sleep at the hamlets of sheepherders or the bare walls of a Moslem khan by a caravan track. They, so Gutchluk explained by signs, were anxious to leave the borderland of the Turk behind. Not on their own account, for the men of the sultan were dogs, but to safeguard the precious persons of the ambassadors.
So they passed over the dry grass of Iran, away from the clay valleys and the groves of the land that was called Kuhistan, in Persia, and many interminable lines of clumsy camels they saw passing over the steppe at night, and many ant-like bodies of Tatar warriors mounted on shaggy ponies inimitably swift of foot. And Clavijo and his people marveled. The Tatars had swung to the right and were journeying now toward the setting sun.
But they saw naught of the city with brazen walls or the gold trees or the fountains of wine of the earthly paradise that Clavijo had called Cathay.
"Hic ignotus sum quia possum," quoth Bembo the jester blithely three weeks later. "Here we are the barbarians, and the barbarians are the great lords and signors. Lord Gutchluk quarters us i' this penthouse and furnishes us a live ox, that we, poor Frankish outlanders, may eat in our cage like the hunting leopards I saw dragged past i' their leash this day at time o' mass."
They were, in fact, at a serai where a huge fire glowed over which the Tatars roasted the pieces of animals whole. The serai was almost the only building in what seemed to the travelers to be the encampment of a limitless army. For two weeks they had been kept waiting, in the midst of this army.
Bembo was like a man born anew. Gutchluk and the other Tatars had treated him respectfully, for he bore himself boldly and had clad his person in new finery from the stores.
"The mummery is on, i' faith," grinned the jester. "Aye, each buffoon of us has his part to play. Behold Signor Dominus, the consul-general Clavijo-the great lord-treasurer, proveditore, Soranzi-likewise Rudolfo, the lord-general and master of armies. And most of all, behold Bembo, the wise councilor, the privy coz, the whisperer of kings. Without him, my hearties, the rooks would be emptying your eye sockets back in yonder Inn o' the Skull."
Clavijo frowned.
"Tamerlane will see us this noon," he said. "We have been kept waiting long."
"Aye, verily. The delay measures our importance i' the eyes o' these gentlefolk. Two days agone Lord Gutchluk and a baron who looks like a prince of Eblis took our gifts to the king, along with the camels of a khan of Karabak and the painted giant beasts with a tail where their nose should be-the beasts that are gifts from a lord of Khorassan. Now our turn has come and you must lie cleverly or be fed to the beasts, see you?"
"We can say we are an embassy from Venice."
"Nay, San Marco forbid. Firstly, the council, hearing that we who are mere voyagers have usurped ambassadorial role, would slit our throats. Secondly, there would be no need o' that, for Tamerlane would have us tied to the ground for his giant beasts to walk upon."
Bembo smiled at the consternation written in the Spaniard's face.
"Signor Gutchluk," he explained, "confessed to me not an hour since that recently certain merchants of Venice penetrated so far as Damascus and endeavored to sell nostrums and false sovereign waters i' the fashion o' mountebanks, and to claim exemption from taxes and gifts as is their wont. The Tatars threw them into the river. So, my cousins, we cannot be Venetians for the word rings so ill i' the ears of these barbarians as the Venetian nostrums i' their bellies."
They were silent at that, looking blackly at the man whose tale had brought them-Soranzi, Rudolf o, and the injured Gian-hither.
"I tell you," swore Rudolf o, "that Bearn has betrayed us. Why else is he escaped here hence with a whole skin, leaving us to damnation?"
Michael's departure from the Gate of Shadows had puzzled the Tatar guards as well as Rudolfo. The warriors had searched for him briefly without result and had then pressed on to their army. What mattered it to them if one of the Franks chose to part company with them, so long as the chief ambassadors, as they considered Clavijo and Rudolfo, and the all-important gifts remained?
"He will return to us this night or the morrow," asserted Bembo stoutly. "He pledged it me the night he left us. Who are we that we should know his comings or that which he seeks in this land?"
"'Twere wiser, methinks, to question who he is." Rudolfo strode surlily back and forth in front of the clay platform by the fire on which Bembo squatted.
So pliable is human nature that Clavijo and Soranzi had come to look upon the condottiere as a possible protector in their plight. At least they feared the Tatars-who seemed to them like animals-more than they feared Rudolfo, now that Michael had vanished.
"Is he not leagued with these pagan demons?" demanded the Italian. "What will his coming avail us? Nay, we must trust to our wits to cut a way out of this coil. I have heard the Sultan of the Turks, whose power is not far from this camp, is a rich monarch, different from these beasts. Now if we could-"
He broke off as Bembo chuckled.
"So this is Cathay!" grinned the jester. "We must be bewitched, for we saw naught of Clavijo's golden city."
The Spaniard winced.
"Your master swore we would be safe here," he said uneasily. The coming ordeal of the audience with Tamerlane weighed on the three of them. Bembo alone was careless.
Having the gift of tongues, the jester had conversed in broken Greek with Gutchluk and his faith in Michael was strong.
"My master is a true man," he insisted. "He said he would join us at Tamerlane's court at the first of the new moon. He will keep his word."
Here they looked up as Gutchluk entered with another powerful warrior in black armor; the man Bembo had termed a prince of Eblis. The ambassadors were summoned by Tamerlane, who awaited them.
They mounted and rode through the Tatar encampment, seeing on every hand nothing but horses, sleeping warriors, smiths who labored at smoking forges, herders who guided great masses of cattle hither and yon in the dust.
Then a vista of round tents opened before them. Some of these were on massive wagons; some bore standards of fluttering yaks' tails. It was a veritable city of tents.
Hard-faced men glanced at them casually; black slaves made haste to get out of their way. Once a line of elephants passed, hauling sleds on which were wooden machines of war, unknown to them.
It seemed to the cringing Soranzi that they had invaded a city of beasts. He heard a lion roar from the cages where Tamerlane's animals were kept. He saw giraffes brought from Africa penned in a staked enclosure. Yet his merchant's eye noted the barbaric splendor of gold-inlaid armor, jeweled weapons, costly rugs spread within the tents and women's cloaks fashioned of ostrich feathers.
What kind of monarch, he thought, ruled over this hive-like multitude of pagans?
Tamerlane the Great, King of Kings, Lord of the East and West, extended a gnarled hand across the chessboard and touched his opponent's king.
"Shah rohk," he said. "The game is mine."
He freed a long ruby from one bent finger and handed it to the man who knelt across the board from him-a silk-clad Chinese general who had come from the edge of the Gobi to pay homage.
Few could match wits even with fair success with the Tatar conqueror, for Timur-i-leng* had fashioned himself a board with many times the usual number of squares and men.
Gathered about the board were princes of Delhi, emirs of Bokhara, and khans of the White and Black Tatars and the powerful Golden Horde that reached to the shores of the Volga. They were standing under a gigantic pavilion stretched upon supports taller than the masts of ships. Over the head of the conqueror hung silk streamers, swaying in the evening breeze, for the sides of the pavilion were open and the men within could look out from the dais on which they stood, over the tents of the army.
"Summon the Frank ambassadors," ordered Tamerlane.
They came through one of the outer porticos of the purple pavilion- Clavijo and Soranzi and Bembo, each with his arms gripped on either side by a Tatar noble. They were worried and anxious, for they had ridden for six hours through the army that never seemed to have an end.
The custom of holding envoys by the arms seemed to them ominous. Clavijo stared at the kneeling Tatar, noting his big, bent shoulders, his massive length of body, his shaggy brows and hard eyes. Tamerlane, nearly seventy years of age, was near-sighted-a peculiarity that made his naturally fierce stare the more difficult to bear.
Soranzi blinked at the low table of solid gold on which the Tatar leaned and muttered under his breath as he tried to estimate the value of a blue diamond in Tamerlane's plain steel helmet.
"From whom do you bear submission and greetings tome?" demanded the monarch. His speech had to be translated into Persian and then Greek, through two interpreters.
Clavijo's broad brow was damp with perspiration. To gain time to think, he said that he did not understand.
"Then take those dogs of interpreters and lead them through the army by a rope thrust into their noses," commanded the Tatar at once. "Bring others who are wiser."
The two unfortunates threw themselves on their knees, and Clavijo paled. Bembo spoke up, kneeling and crossing his hands on his chest.
"Great khan," he observed in Greek, "their words were clear; it was my companion, the dominus, who was dazed by the splendor of your presence."
This, being interpreted by other mouths, satisfied Tamerlane and he motioned to the interpreters to continue.
"Franks," he resumed, "I have taken your gifts. The cloth-of-silver and gold pleased me. From what king do you come, from the other end of the earth?"
Hereupon Soranzi could not restrain a murmur of anguish. The bales of cloth had been his personal stock in trade, now lost beyond repair. Clavijo bowed and at last found an answer.
"From the King of-of Spain," he replied.
"Good! I have heard of him. How is my son, the King of Spain? Is his health good? Has he much cattle and treasure?"
They stared at Clavijo, these Armenians, Tatars and Chinese. The Europeans were quite a curiosity-petty envoys from a tiny kingdom somewhere at the end of the world.
They had come, so reasoned the Tatars, to bask in the magnificence of the Lord of the East and West.
Clavijo was very much afraid. He would have welcomed the sight of Michael Bearn's cheerful face. But he gathered assurance as he began to describe the splendors of Aragon, enlarging upon the great ships and towns of Spain.
At this, however, Tamerlane began to pay more attention to a topaz ring that he turned and twisted upon a sinewy hand.
Fearing that his tale was lacking fire, Clavijo began to exaggerate as was his want, until he was boasting hugely. Tamerlane scowled under bushy brows, first at the speaker, then at the ring. Finally he held up his hand for the Spaniard to see.
"Behold, Frank, a magician's stone," he said gruffly. "The topaz turns purple when anyone lies to me. I always watch it and it has served me well."
Superstitious, as all men of his time and race, Clavijo stared in dismay. Indeed his round face turned a very good shade of purple. His flow of words dwindled as he scanned the topaz and fancied that it changed color.
This might well have been due to the twilight that was falling upon the great pavilion.
"Frank," observed the conqueror, "you come at a good time. My army is mounted for war against the Sultan Bayezid. He has preyed upon my subjects in lesser Armenia, and I have offered him terms by which he may save his head. We will hear what he will reply."
To hear the sultan who was the scourge of Christendom mentioned as Tamerlane might speak of a slave added fuel to Clavijo's active imagination.
"If there is a battle, you will see a goodly sight," repeated the old conqueror. "Does my son the King of Spain fight battles or is he a dog of a merchant like the Venetians?"
Clavijo essayed a reply, glanced at the topaz ring which seemed to him to be now a deep purple indeed, and the last of his courage oozed from him. Breaking from the Tatar warriors who held his arms, he fell on his knees.
"Mercy, great lord," he bellowed. "Oh, mercy. Grant me royal clemency if I have offended. Make me a captive, but spare my life!"
This being interpreted, Tamerlane smiled. "Verily," he said shortly, "the Frank is frightened by my face. Nay, Timur the Tatar has harmed no ambassador. Fear not, but join in our feast."
He signed to the men who held the visitors. Soranzi, a-tremble with anxiety, took this to be a signal for their destruction. Without waiting for the speech to be translated, he flung himself at the Tatar's feet, embracing his slippers.
"0 King of Kings," he cried, "my companion has lied, even as your wisdom has suspected. He is naught but a seeker after gold, disguised as an envoy. The gifts that pleased you were mine. I will pay more. Do not believe this traitor when he says that I am a merchant, for he is a liar-"
Surprised by this outburst, Tamerlane turned to the interpreters with a scowl.
"Now the fat is in the fire," sighed Bembo.
Tamerlane pulled at his thin mustache, his small black eyes darting from one to the other. He surveyed his topaz ring and grunted. There was something wolfish now in the stare of the Mongol warriors.
Rudolfo swore under his breath and Soranzi did not cease to moan his fear. Since the attack by the riders at the Gate of Shadows his dread had grown upon him. That afternoon he had seen captives of the khan hauled through the camp in cages, like beasts.
"The gifts were mine," he repeated over and over, holding fast to the Tatar's slipper.
"Then you are not ambassadors sent to Tamerlane?"
"Nay." Clavijo and Soranzi were answering in one breath when Gutchluk knelt and addressed his lord, saying that the Franks had purported to be merchants before their capture.
Tamerlane was a man who never minced words and hated deceit. He was about to speak when there was a bustle in the outer porticos. A man flung himself from an exhausted horse, crying-
"A courier for the khan!"
Those who had crowded about Clavijo and his party gave back at this, opening a lane between Tamerlane and the newcomer, barely visible in the half-light of evening, who bowed thrice and knelt before the dais.
"0 King of Kings," the horseman cried in Arabic, "I have beheld the answer of the sultan. He has struck off the heads of the Tatars' envoys and placed them at the gate of Angora. Thus Bayezid has made answer to you."
The old Tatar's face grew dark and veins stood out on his forehead. He caught his sword from its sheath and swung it over the head of the unfortunate messenger who remained quietly kneeling.
Then the khan checked the sweep of his blade midway and stood staring out into the dusk, his face a mask of anger. Yet when he spoke, his words were measured and deep.
"Aye, there will be a battle." He looked down at the courier. "You are a brave man. Take twenty horses and go, that your face will not remind me of the deed you bespoke."
Replacing his sword, Tamerlane ordered that the army be ready to march on the morrow. For the first time Clavijo noted the great bulk of the Tatar and the fact that he was lame. In his youth, during an affray with the Seljuk Turks, Tamerlane had been beaten from his horse and cast to earth with three ribs broken and a mangled side.
Turning back to his chessboard, he observed the Europeans who still remained held by their guards.
"Come with my court, liars and merchants," he said grimly. "Instead of jugglers and musicians, you will amuse me, for I will pass judgment upon you then."
Chapter XI
The Thunderbolt
Two weeks before Tamerlane's audience with the Christians, the stars traced the outline of the river Khabur in Anatolia, two hundred miles west of Tamerlane's camp. Down the river toward the flat roofs of the town of Angora drifted a small skiff, only half-visible in the glittering light from the stars, which seemed intensified by the heat of the windless July night.
But the stars were eclipsed by the myriad torches and lanterns of Angora and the illumination of ten thousand tents clustered about the Turkish town.
Bayezid, his court, and his army held festival. Angora, an unfortified trading town, yet served admirably for mobilizing the army of the Ottomans and Seljuks. Galleys had come from Greece, where the Crescent ruled, to land their loads of Moslems on the Anatolian shore across from Constantinople; the mamelukes had sent their splendid cavalry hither from Alexandria; the veteran main army of the sultan had been withdrawn temporarily from the conquest of Constantinople.
So Angora was filled with the warriors of a dozen kingdoms. Forbidden wine flowed freely and revelry held the courtyards and roofs. The sultan knew how to hold the loyalty of his men by pleasure and by generous pay, which reinforced the natural fanaticism of the Moslems and the devotion of the janissaries-that formidable mass of soldiery recruited from Christian child slaves raised by Moslem teachers.
The skiff drifted with the current of the river to the jetties of the town, already crowded with native craft. Michael Bearn raised himself cautiously, clutched the side of a fishing-boat, and climbed to the jetty.
"Who comes?"
A sharp challenge rang from a pair of spearmen standing at the shore end of the dock. Michael stiffened, then advanced carelessly.
"A sailor," he made answer in his good Arabic, "from the Byzantine coast. I have heard that the great sultan is here and I have come to look upon his face."
A lantern was brought from an adjoining hut and the two spearmen looked him over casually. Michael's skin was burned a deep brown by the sun and he had secured a short cloak that concealed the outlines of his stalwart body. His leather tunic and bare knees bore out the identity he claimed.
"Does a son of a dog think to look upon the favored of Allah?" gibed one of the Moslems. "Stay-you have been a slave on the galleys."
The soldier's sharp glance had noted the scars on Michael's wrists where the irons had pressed.
"Aye," assented the Breton; "a galley slave." He tapped his stiffened arm. "But useless, my lord warrior. I have been freed in a battle."
His pulse quickened, for he knew the strict discipline of Bayezid's army-despite the appearance of revelry-and was aware that every precaution was being taken, now that the battle with Tamerlane was impending.
"You are no true follower of the prophet," said the sentry sharply. Michael's curls, escaping from under his loose cap, revealed that he was not one of the orthodox Moslem peoples.
"Your wisdom is fine as a rare gem," acknowledged he. "I am a Christian who has not seen his own country for many years. My lord warrior, I pray you let me pass into the town where there is wine to be given away and sweets made of grapes and flour and butter. I have not eaten for two days."
This was strictly true. Michael's tone was that of the hopeless slave addressing his guards. The sentry sneered and ran his hand under Michael's cloak to make sure that he held no weapon, and then fell to cursing his own fate that kept him from the feasting. Michael made off.
At the river gate of the town he was confronted by the head of a Mongol-one of the envoys from Tamerlane-caked with dried blood, stuck upright upon a spear. The crowd of soldiery and townspeople surging through the gate paused to spit at the wax-like features and to heap insults on the Tatars.
Michael was carried in with the throng, but now his eyes held a new light and his lips were hard with purpose. He knew for the first time the certainty of conflict between the sultan and the khan.
At the river's edge, upstream, he had bought his new cloak with a few silver pieces and the cap to match. He had cast away his sword to carry out his character of freed galley slave.
Now Michael was among the alleys of Angora over which the crescent standard hung. He glanced indifferently at the lighted balconies where costly rugs were hung and at the magic lantern pictures that Arabs were displaying in darkened corners. He heard the distant chant of fanatical imams, exhorting the Moslems in the mosques.
Asking his way from a drunken sipahi, he approached the walled gardens where Bayezid and his court held feast.
The heat grew instead of lessening that night. The glimmer of heat lightning more than once darkened the gleam of the stars. This the imams, crying from balcony and courtyard, announced as a good omen.
"The Thunderbolt will strike!" they said. "The world trembles."
The heat impelled Bayezid and his divan-the councilors who feasted with him-to leave the torrid rooms of the house, where they were guarded by a double line of Ottoman infantry, and to seek the gardens where an artificial lake shaded by cypresses offered moderate comfort.
On this lake was a floating kiosk of teakwood inlaid with mother-ofpearl, its roof fragrant with flowers, with curtains drawn back to allow free passage to the air.
Bayezid, flushed with the stimulus of bhang and opium, lay back on his cushions, idly watching the play of torchlight reflected in the lake. The grandees were intent on a spectacle of women and boys who danced in iridescent garments of moghrebin and chrysoliths at the edge of the garden by the kiosk.
These feasts had been ordered by Bayezid, who felt himself at the summit of his power. Now he surveyed the splendor around him through halfclosed eyes.
"We will make a welcome," he murmured, "for the Tatar boor. News has come to me that he advances with his power upon the Khabur."
They nodded assent-sheik, malik, and caliph.
"When he comes to the Khabur," went on Bayezid, "I will have a hunt declared. My troops will aid me in the pursuit of game. That will show the Tatar how much we esteem him."
Some of the councilors looked more than a little startled. It was no light thing to hunt game in the presence of Tamerlane's army. And Bayezid had ordered the Mongol envoys slain, wantonly, as it seemed.
The man who was called the Thunderbolt turned sleepy eyes to the dark face of the Sheik of Rum, in whose country they were encamped.
"Give orders for ten thousand beaters to be mustered from the town. It is my will."
The official prostrated himself and muttered:
"Tamerlane has forty thousand infantry and twice that number of riders, 0 Guardian of the Faith. Will you pursue the beasts of the field when such a host stands across the river?" He plucked up courage from the sultan's silence. "Bethink you, Star of the East, there is but one cloud upon the face of your sky-Tamerlane. You have gained the Danube; Constantinople will be yours as Greece is now-then the rest of Frankistan. And, when Tamerlane falls, Iran, Tatary, and India-"
"Sheik," Bayezid smiled, "have you forgotten my spies in the Tatar camp?"
In this manner was it ordained by the sultan that they should mock Tamerlane. Festival was to be held in the town, even when the Tatar horsemen occupied the opposite bank of the Khabur. The bulk of the Seljuk knights-the pick of the host-was to be kept in its tents by the town.
The councilors, hearing this, wondered whether ceaseless conquests had not affected the mind of Bayezid. But the leaders of the mamelukes and janissaries smiled, saying that they were invincible and-some beasts to be slain must be first trapped.
Michael Bearn, sitting among the cypresses on the farther bank of the lake where there were no guards, watched the feast of Bayezid until dawn reddened the sky across the river and the call of the muezzin floated over the roofs of Angora.
He was studying again the brilliant assemblage of grandees that he had seen at times from a distance during his captivity. He noticed the councilors start up from their cushions. By the fading light of the torches he could see them staring up at the sky.
Almost at the same time he heard a sound-a shrill cry that was more like a scream. It rose from one side of the miniature lake, swelled, and dwindled swiftly.
Michael knew the cry of herons and waterfowl. This was different. It was more like the scream of a horse in pain. Yet it had sounded a hundred feet above the kiosk. A shout reached his ears from the kiosk, a bowshot away.
"The warning of Tamerlane!"
Guards were running here and there about the lake. Torches advanced along the shore toward him from the palace. It was no time to sit wondering about the source of the queer sound in the air. Broad daylight would be upon him in a moment.
Cautiously Michael began to crawl through the willow thickets of the lakeside, toward a gully by which he had gained his point of vantage. The light was strong enough for him to see his way.
He stumbled over something projecting from the ground and found that it was an arrow. With some difficulty he pulled it out, for his curiosity had been aroused by its weight.
Instead of a point, the shaft terminated in a hollow steel cylinder, perforated in the sides. Michael weighed it in his hand and chuckled. Such an arrow as this, sent from a powerful bow, would emit a loud whistling sound when passing through the air. In fact it had been the passage of this shaft that he had just heard.
The arrow was plainly of Tatar make and Michael guessed that some man of Tamerlane's, hidden in the rushes across the lake, had sent it as a warning to Bayezid. He thrust the shaft under his cloak, and, hearing footsteps approaching, made his way down the gully.
For several days thereafter Michael was very busy. He frequented the bazaar, heard the news of the preparation for the sultan's hunt, and out on the plain of Angora behind the town saw regiments of janissaries drilling constantly.
And he noticed another head on the Angora gate-posts-an old Tatar fisherman who had been seen more than once dragging his nets in the river. Under the head a large bow had been placed.
Michael guessed that the man who had fired the whistling arrow would not report his feat to Tamerlane.
He heard great emirs say openly in the town that Bayezid was drunk with power and with wine. Litters of Moslem women and captives from Georgia and Greece were passing constantly through the streets.
The finest cavalry of the sultan was encamped a league behind the town, apart from the rest of the army. Angora was continually a-throng with merrymakers, as if the fast of Ramadan had just been broken.
Knowing the inexorable discipline of the Ottoman army and the merciless cunning of Bayezid, Michael doubted the evidence of his senses. This was no idle laxity or sport such as the Thunderbolt was accustomed to use in pleasuring his men.
Even when Tatar horsemen were seen, swooping about the plain across the river, there was no sign of any preparation made to meet Tamerlane.
But when Michael made his way down to the riverbank one cloudy night, he found the boats that were drawn up on shore filled with men, and out in the center of the Khabur he could discern the black bulk of guard ships moving back and forth.
"Bayezid waits!" He laughed silently. "Aye, and thus he waited at Nicopolis! I begin to see the answer to the riddle. And now, for a visit to the sentry post that welcomed me at the jetty. Grant the same two janissaries be on watch; the hour is the same."
Dawn revealed two unexpected things to the officers of the janissaries who commanded the guard at the riverfront.
On a small dock two spearmen lay bound and gagged beside an extinguished lantern. The white woolen turban, the kaftan, and bow of one were gone.
And one of the guard boats reported that its steersman was missing. A janissary, the men of the galley said, had come on board when they were putting out from the shore-a warrior who declared that he knew the river and was skilled in managing a galley. He had carried a bow.
Before an hour had passed, so the tale was repeated, this helmsman had disappeared from the craft, taking with him the steering oar. They had not heard him fall overboard. But at the end of the hour they heard a whistling arrow, shot into the air from the other side.
Michael's penetration of the Ottoman lines had been comparatively simple because the Turk guards-not yet drawn up in battle order-had not looked for a foe from within.
One of the sentries he had found at a distance from the lantern and had stunned with a blow on the forehead. The other, running toward the slight noise, had been easily overcome by the powerful Breton.
Michael exulted in the fact that his right arm was once more serviceable after a fashion. Stripping one of the guards of tunic, cloak, and cap, he had gained access to a galley.
Not trusting as yet to his right arm, he had taken the steering oar with him when he dropped over the stern of the galley to swim to the farther shore.
Here, to disturb further his late companions and to test his arm, he had let fly the cylinder-headed arrow over the river.
Now he began to run up from the bank of the Khabur, casting aside his cloak as he went and unwinding the cumbersome turban. It would not be very long, he knew, before he would encounter Tatar patrols and he did not wish to be cut down as a janissary.
Michael had gained what he had come for. He had guessed the riddle of Bayezid's inaction and the revelry in Angora. An ambush was being prepared for Tamerlane.
The Tatars were to be beguiled into an attack and a trap was to be set for them on the river.
Michael studied the stars overhead and shaped his course by them, shaking his head as he made out a crescent moon on the horizon. He would be late for his rendezvous with Bembo.
Chapter XII
Tamerlane Decides
It was the night set for the Tatar attack. The Lame Conqueror had been riding slowly among his host, listening as was his wont to the talk of the warriors about the campfires. Tamerlane, what with his age and the pain of his old injuries, seldom slept.
When the middle watch had ended and quiet had fallen in some degree on the Mongol army, he retired to his small tent and lay down on the plain mattress that served him for a bed. He read slowly, because of his poor sight, the annals of his ancestors and the tales of past battles written down by the chroniclers.
The plan of attack for the coming day had been decided upon, and every khatun had his orders, which in turn were transmitted to the tumani-the commanders of a thousand and to the khans of the hundreds. Tamerlane, however, was restless. News had reached him from the fisherfolk of the river that the Turkish grandees were at revelry, and Bayezid himself had ordered a hunt, even within sight of the Tatar array.
This puzzled the Conqueror.
Impatiently he ordered his ivory and ebony chessboard set before him, then brushed it aside, for there was no one in attendance who could play the mimic game of warfare as Tamerlane desired. He lifted his broad head and signed to a Mongol archer at the tent's entrance.
"Bring hither the Franks. I will pass judgment upon them."
It would amuse him, perhaps until dawn, to probe the souls of the Christians from the end of the world who had tried to throw dust in the eyes of the Conqueror of the World.
He surveyed them grimly as they knelt before him, their finery rumpled by the confinement of the past few days. Fear was plainly to be read in their white faces-save that of Bembo. The jester was a philosopher.
Bembo was thinking that Clavijo's Grand Cham had proved to be a strange sort of monarch indeed. Steel and wool that clad Tamerlane's long body were hardly the silks and chrysoliths about which the Spaniard had boasted.
The brazen city of Cathay had become a city of tents. The gold house of the khan was constructed, so Bembo perceived, of bull's hide. And instead of winning wealth, joined with perpetual life, they had been deprived of their own goods-or rather Soranzi had-and bade fair to earn a swift death.
The others had not failed to remind Bembo that Michael Bearn had not appeared as he had promised. To this the jester returned only a wink.
He had recognized Michael in the courier who had come in native attire from Angora. He knew that Michael was in the camp and would seek him out.
The moon was already five days old.
"Does this Frank," Tamerlane observed to the interpreters, indicating Soranzi, "confess that he is a merchant and a thief?"
At this Soranzi, reading Tamerlane's harsh countenance, broke forth into feverish words, which the interpreters explained to their lord.
"Aye, sire. 0 Great Khan. Splendor of the World! 0 monument of mercy and essence of forgiveness! 0 Conqueror of Asia. Grant but one small iota of mercy to your slave."
Tamerlane nodded, unsmiling.
"I will. See yonder weapons?"
"Aye my lord." Soranzi's eyes widened at sight of jewel-inlaid scimitars and gold-chased helmets and silver camails hung upon the walls of the tent.
"They were taken from my enemies, merchant-thief. It will now be the duty of your life to furnish and cleanse the spoil that I shall take. Dog, do you understand? You may smell of the riches you may not taste. Pocket but one zecchin of this store and your bowels shall be let out with a knife. Go, to your work."
Soranzi trembled and could not refrain from a frantic plea.
"But my goods?"
"Begin by writing down an account of them-for me."
The Tatar was not lacking in a rough sense of humor. He was naturally merciless, yet he had no love of torture. A man without a god, a man fash ioned for dealing destruction, he could still tolerate another man's faith in God, and he admired courage.
"You say that you are a warrior." He addressed Rudolfo, who was watching him in sullen dread. "Good. You have seen my ranks and the camp of my foe the sultan. Tell me how your Frankish would plan the battle."
Rudolfo licked his lips and tried to speak out clearly, but his voice quivered. He described the order of battle of the Italian mercenaries-skirmishing by irregulars, the entrenchment of pikemen behind abatis, the feints and countermarches that produced the bloodless battles of his knowledge.
This recital Tamerlane ended with a grunt of anger.
"I did not ask you how your children played. I will have you placed with the Tatar boys and girls tomorrow by the river, where you may see a battle."
Glancing contemptuously over Clavijo, he stared at Bembo's sad face and gay attire.
"What kind of man is this?"
The jester rose and bowed ceremoniously.
"I am your cousin, 0 King," he stated cheerily.
Tamerlane frowned, puzzled.
"Because," pointed out the jester, "I am maimed for the fight, whereas you are lame for the flight."
"If you are maimed, you are useless and need not live."
"So be it," agreed Bembo. "I am not afraid. Nevertheless, I would fain set eyes upon my other cousin who is only maimed in the arm."
"Who is that?" asked the matter-of-fact khan.
"A wiser man, Messer Tamerlane, than all of us put together."
Tamerlane looked around as if to mark this other Frank. He noticed a helmeted emir who salaamed within the entrance of the tent.
"The other Frank," announced the newcomer, as Tamerlane signed for him to speak, "seeks admittance to the presence of the Lord of the East and West."
Two archers of the guard held Michael Bearn by the arms. Bembo and Rudolfo-Soranzi and the Spaniard had been dismissed-stared at him in surprise.
He had grown leaner, his face blackened by the sun. Around his shoulders was a rich fur kaftan and silk trousers covered the tattered bindings of his legs.
The emir who had announced him bowed again before Tamerlane.
"0 Kha Khan, we know not this man. Yet, because of his claim, we could not refuse him admittance." The officer glanced at the silent khan and pointed to Michael. "He claims that he is to play with you at chess-as you play it."
In contrast to the flowery etiquette of Bayezid's court, Tamerlane, who was impatient of ceremony, always encouraged direct speech. Now he frowned at Michael as if trying to recall something that escaped his mind.
"I have come to play," assented Michael gravely, "the game that the great khan plays. It is known to me."
Tamerlane's brow cleared. Michael had spoken in his good Arabic, and with this the Tatar, who liked to read the Moslem annals, was familiar. The Lame Conqueror made a practice of treating well all scholars, astronomers, and men of learning whom he took prisoner.
"You are a bold man," he said. "Three days ago when you came to me as a courier from Angora I ordered that you should not let me see your face again. I gave you horses. Why did not you ride hence?"
Bembo had known that Michael was the horseman who had reached the purple tent in the plain three days before. As Michael had not greeted him at that time Bembo had kept silent, trusting that what his friend did was for the best.
The jester did not know what a desperate game his friend was playing nor that Michael, having heard that evening of Bembo's plight, had resolved to stake their lives on a single throw.
"Because, 0 Kha Khan," the Breton rejoined, "it came to my ears that you lacked a man to play at shahk* in the manner of Tamerlane, which is not that of other men of feebler minds."
The khan weighed this in silence, then motioned for the emir, the captives, and interpreters to withdraw to the farther side of the tent, in the shadow. He signed for the two archers to kneel at either side of the chessboard which lay in front of him under the flickering candles.
"So be it," he assented grimly. "Frank, set up the men. Your daring earns you the chance. If you have deceived me, and cannot play as you profess, these two dogs of mine will cut you in two. Your countrymen, Frank, have deceived Tamerlane. Beware lest you do likewise."
It was a long speech for the blunt Tatar to make. He was interested. His small black eyes gleamed as he watched Michael squat on his heels before the board. Only the Persian, the Grand Mufti, Nuruddeen Abderrah- man Esferaini, who had come to Tamerlane from Baghdad, and the Chinese general of Khoten had been able to cope with the Conqueror on the enlarged board and with the double number of pieces.
Now Tamerlane set up his men swiftly on his side of the board and motioned for Michael to do likewise.
Bembo, whose ready wit had grasped much of what was happening, knew that his friend could not play even the simpler game of chess as brought to Venice by the crusaders of the century before. So the jester grimaced and bit his thumb, invoking the lion of Saint Mark to Michael's aid.
The Breton fingered the array of miniature gold warriors, fashioned in the likeness of tiny horsemen, archers, elephants and rohks-castles-and with a single large effigy of a king. He knew neither the pieces nor their moves.
"Break off the head of one of your arrows," he ordered an archer.
The warrior hesitated, glancing at his chief, and then obeyed. Michael laid the wooden shaft carefully across the board midway between him and Tamerlane.
Then, smiling, he set up the pawns along his side of the arrow's shaft, and behind them the knights. Taking the thin gold chain given him by Contarini from his throat, he placed it near his end of the board, and within its circle the castles and the towering figure of the king.
In the clear space behind the gold circlet he stood up the jeweled castles. Tamerlane surveyed him fixedly, evidently growing angry. The Tatar's pieces had been set up in the orthodox fashion, very different from the queer array of the European's men.
"Explain!" he barked.
Michael touched the arrow. "The Khabur river." His finger rested on the tiny pawns. "Ships and archers." He pointed to the gold circlet. "Angora and its troops. Bayezid, the king who is the prize of the game." Last he indicated the castles. "The sultan's heavy cavalry on the plain of Angora."
Leaning forward, he ran his finger along the gold pieces-his own were silver. "The army of Timor the Lame, Conqueror of India, and the Caliphate." He looked at the impassive Tatar. "This is the game that you play, 0 Kha Khan. And there is no other in the world today who can play it with you-save Bayezid the Sultan. His pieces will I play as he has planned. It is for you to make the first move."
The lines in Tamerlane's withered face deepened and his black eyes snapped.
"You are a spy!"
"Perhaps. You may call me so." Michael's thin nostrils quivered, and the smile left his face. "I have been in Angora. I heard the whistling arrow fall. Before that for three years I marched with Bayezid."
Tamerlane did not shift his gaze. "Proof!"
Thrusting his hand under his kaftan, Michael drew forth the long folds of a janissary's turban, spotted in places with blood. He pointed to the scars on his wrists.
"A slave, 0 Kha Khan." He touched again the gold chain. "A gift for service rendered at Nicopolis where the host of Frankistan was broken by the craft of the sultan. Ten thousand Christians were slain there, after they had been taken captive."
To this Tamerlane seemed indifferent. One religion, to him, was the same as another. He was trying to judge Michael's purpose. His interest in the strange maneuver of the Christian upon the chessboard still held him passive.
Bembo plucked at the arm of the watchful condottiere.
"See you, Rudolfo, Cousin Michael holds the Chain in leash, but methinks 'tis a thin, silken leash whereby our lives hang-"
Decision had come to Tamerlane.
"You are an enemy of the Ottoman."
"Slavery under the Ottoman crippled me." Michael's gray eyes lighted. He had risked much to lead Tamerlane to make the statement that, spoken first by Michael, must be received with natural suspicion. "His men slew my brothers-in-arms. I have waited six years to strike a blow against him who is the greatest foe of my faith. I have heard in the Angora palace Bayezid boast that he will set your head, 0 Kha Khan, upon a spear before the Gate of Paradise at Damascus. Yet you alone can humble Bayezid. Will you let me serve you?"
"How?" It was typical of Tamerlane that he did not ask what reward the other might expect. Those who aided the Lame Conqueror received kingdoms; those who failed, death; unless flight saved them, which was seldom.
"It is for the Kha Khan to move." Michael smiled again and motioned at the chessboard. "The sultan's men have caught a flying pigeon that bore one of your messages to Tatary saying that you would force the passage of the Khabur at Angora and drive Bayezid before you."
"True. The dog hunts. Aye, after he has seen my army. Disaster will come upon him for that effrontery, and the slaughter of my envoys." Tamerlane's eyes glowed fiercely. "Our Tatar hearts are mountains, our swords the whirlwind. We count as naught the numbers of our foes. The greater numbers, the greater glory for our chroniclers to write. Aye thus will Tamerlane move, at dawn-"
His gaunt, callused hand swept Michael's array of chessmen off the board in a single motion. Michael still smiled. He had won his throw.
"So," the Breton said, "did the Christian host at Nicopolis attack. Tamerlane has grown blind, and his wisdom is dust before the storm of the Thunderbolt."
The dark blood flooded into the forehead of the Kha Khan. Veins stood out on his forehead and the yellow around the black pupils of his eyes grew red.
"Think ye, slave, Christian cur-" his deep voice cracked. "Think ye, sucking child, the horsemen of Turan and Iran are like to the mongrels of Frankistan?"
His great hand clenched and writhed in front of the eyes of the younger man who drew back before the vehemence of the Tatar's wrath. The two watchful archers gripped Michael's arms, and Bembo sighed mournfully.
"Is it thus," said Michael swiftly, "that Tamerlane plays at shahk? You have made your move. I have not made mine. And Bayezid will make such a move. Do not doubt it, my khan."
The cold rebuke of the Christian wrought upon Tamerlane's anger and he became silent-as motionless as a snake coiled to strike.
"Aye," snarled Michael, twisting in the grasp of the archers, "your horsemen will sweep across the Khabur, my khan. They will carry the line of boats Bayezid has drawn up along the farther bank and filled with archers, hidden from your sight. Aye, my lord khan. Your warriors of Turan and Iran and the Horde will not be stayed by the trap that Bayezid has set for them in the tents on the shore. Within the tents is an entrenchment of lances sunk into the ground. It will not check your myrmidons."
He laughed in the face of the old Conqueror.
"And then, verily, your Tatars will carry the town. By midday they will have beaten back the sipahis stationed on the crest of the Angora plateau. Aye, Timur. But then what? Your ranks will be faced by forty thousand fresh cavalry-the janissaries. Aye, and by the mamelukes, hidden in the valleys beyond-the pick of Bayezid's army."
The black eyes of Tamerlane were riveted on Michael's face.
"More than that," cried Michael, "the line of boats will be ablaze, my Conqueror. Casks of naphtha are hidden within them, to be set alight. Your men will find no water to drink upon the plain of Angora; the river is foul. Your back will be to the river. Bayezid will turn aside from his hunt, which is meant but to cast dust in your eyes, and set his heavy cavalry against your tired and thirsty followers. By nightfall the riders of Turan will be slain or in the river. Aye, there are war galleys awaiting you, around the upper bend of the Khabur. Your men have never fought against the Turkish ships."
At this Tamerlane brushed his hand across his nearsighted eyes, and a hissing breath escaped his hard lips.
"Bayezid revels-to make you the blinder," concluded Michael bitterly. "He ordered your emissaries slain, to anger you to attack. In this manner, not otherwise, will he make of your name a mockery, 0 Kha Khan, and of your empire-dust."
For the space of several moments there was complete silence, while a dozen men hung upon the next word of the old Conqueror.
Instead of speaking, Tamerlane rose and limped to the tent entrance, while the guards fell back with lowered heads. He glanced at the stars, marking the hour, and at the dark masses of men assembling under the wan gleam of the new moon, low on the horizon.
"Take the captives hence," he said at last to his attendants, "save the Frank in the kaftan. Summon Mirza Rustem, my grandson, Mahmoud Khan, and the noyons. Take through the camp the new command of Tamerlane; my men are to sleep. The order of battle is to be changed."
Alone with Michael and a single servant in his tent, Tamerlane signed to his cup-bearer to fill two bowls with wine.
Obeying the request which was virtually a command, Michael bent one knee, touched the cup to his chest and forehead and put it briefly to his lips. The Tatar emptied his with a single gulp.
"Have you a thought," he asked bluntly, "how this sultan who has set a trap may be caught in his own deceit?"
Michael looked at the old Tatar thoughtfully, and smiled, reading the purpose under the other's words.
"Does a sparrow," he countered, "give counsel to a falcon-when the hood is removed from the eyes of the falcon?"
If he had made a suggestion, it would in all probability have been futile and would have opened him to the suspicion of being, after all, a secret agent of Bayezid, who had many such.
"Aye, if Tamerlane commands!"
"Then send a hundred of your horsemen to cut out a river galley, to learn whether the boats be not manned and equipped as I said. Dispatch another hundred up the Khabur, to locate the war galleys that I have seen."
Tamerlane tossed the empty bowl from him and poured Michael's scarcely tasted wine upon the rugs of the tent. It was an unpardonable offense to fail to empty a bowl bestowed by the khan; but Tamerlane dealt with such things in his own way.
"Those men have already been sent," he grunted. "I bade you spit out your thought how Bayezid may be attacked. He is too shrewd to force the crossing of the Khabur, and by the sun of heaven, my Tatars would throw dirt in my face if I sit here in my tents like a woman with child."
Thoughtfully Michael traced out the imaginary line of the river upon the chessboard.
"The sultan has shaped his strength to meet an attack," he responded slowly.
"It is true that he is too wise to cross the river. It is written, 0 Kha Khan, in the memoir of the Ottoman that he who trusts too greatly in his wisdom shall stumble and eat dirt. Bayezid's strength would be more like weakness were he forced to attack-"
"Speak a plain thought!"
"Pretend to fall into the sultan's trap. And meanwhile get the pick of your army above or below Angora and across the river-"
"How?"
Michael smiled.
"If Tamerlane wills, a sparrow may become a falcon. I have taken the hood from the eyes of the falcon."
For a space the Tatar considered this, while one after the other the councilors and leaders of his army stepped into the tent-lean-faced men in armor-the few who had been selected by the Lame Conqueror from the warriors of mid-Asia.
"What reward claim you for this?" demanded the old man abruptly.
"I would ride with your horsemen to see the downfall of Bayezid."
Tamerlane grunted and glanced at the scattered miniature warriors of the chessboard.
"So, Frank," he growled, "you cannot play chess!"
Michael shook his head.
"That is a pity," said Tamerlane regretfully. "You would make a rare player."
Dawn had broken over the river and the Tatar standards before the tents were outlined against the streaks of sunrise when Michael walked alone from the council of Tamerlane and sought Bembo.
He found the fool huddled beside a cage of the khan's beasts, guarded by a black Kallmark.
"San Marco heard my prayer, Cousin Michael," cried the hunchback joyously. "I prayed right lustily and bravely while yonder giant of Magog was washing his hands i' the air and bobbing his head i' the wind and talking with the sun."
Bembo had been interested in the dawn prayer of the Muhammadan Tatar. He skipped to Michael's side and grimaced at the warrior.
"Now make what magic ye will, son of Eblis," he chanted, "and the devil take ye, as he will, for his own. Cousin Michael, did the mad Cham outroar you, or are we saved? What's to do?"
"Where are the others?"
Bembo could not forbear a chuckle. "Rest you, good cousin. The master-merchant Soranzi is counting a myriad gold coins for the Tatar wazirs, as the pagans name their money-tenders; Rudolfo is departed with good grace and Gian to be escorted by Tatar children to the river."
"And Clavijo?"
Bembo nodded toward the cage. "With the apes, who love him like a brother. This black giant was to cut off my head-"
"You will be safe with me. Come." Michael smiled. "The Cham, as you call him, has given us some good sport. We will fly pigeons and when that is done, sleep. Then this night will you see a rare jest, my Bembo."
"So said Rudolf o to Gian when they went off. Gian has been grinning like a dog that scents a bone. Two days agone did I ask them what was i' the wind. That was before they knew that you were with us in pagan garb. Rudolfo cursed me, but his henchman, forsooth, muttered that my master was not the only man who could devise a plan."
Michael frowned, but could learn nothing more from the jester, except that Rudolfo had talked at times with a certain wazir who was openhanded with his gold and knew many tongues.
He could not waste time to search into a possible new intrigue on the part of the Italian, for Tamerlane had ordered him to assist in preparing messages to be sent up with carrier pigeons-messages intended to fall into the hands of Bayezid.
In the annals of the Ottoman dynasty it is written that during the space of that day Bayezid, surnamed the Thunderbolt, hunted with falcon and dogs upon the plain of Angora, having in his heart naught but contempt for the Tatars.
With his grandees and picked cavalry the sultan rode from sunrise to sunset, his beaters spread across the steppe, without thought of water or bodily comfort. His men stood under arms all that time. His ships in the river remained at their moorings. His spies reported that Tamerlane was taking more time to muster the Tatar horsemen to cross the river.
But Bayezid had burned and broken down the few bridges on the Khabur, and knew well that, save at Angora, there was no ford. This gave him assurance that Tamerlane could not cross except at the point where the sultan awaited him.
Further assurance came with a carrier pigeon, struck down by one of Bayezid's hawks. From the bird was taken a message addressed to the court of Samarkand, saying that Tamerlane would that night cross the Khabur and crush the Ottoman army.
Whereupon Bayezid retired to the palace by the lake at Angora, hearing fresh news at sunset that the Tatars were assembling in their ranks.
So Bayezid feasted and received praise from the leaders of the Moslem world.
"The beast," he said, "may see the trap; yet, being a beast, he has no wit to do aught but charge upon the bait."
"Nay," amended his advisers, "where else could the Tatar cross the river, having no bridges or boats?"
Well into the night a tumult arose on the shore opposite Angora. Many lights were to be seen in the camp of Tamerlane, and the neighing of horses could be heard clearly across the river. Soon came the ring of weapons and the shout of the Mongols. A line of fire grew along the waiting galleys. Flights of arrows sped into the masses that were moving toward the ford. Bayezid laughed, well content.
Rumors reached him from fishermen that Mongols had been seen far down the river, but Bayezid could see and hear the conflict that was beginning at the ships. Moreover the torches of the Tatar camp were plainly to be seen.
It is written likewise in his annals that at this time a Christian captive, escaping from Tamerlane's camp, swam the river.
This man, who was attended by another Frank of powerful build, was taken captive by guards at the Khabur shore and carried up into the town where the officers of the janissaries had assembled near Bayezid.
The two were Rudolfo and Gian, who had discarded their mail and broken loose from the half-grown Tatars, slaying one with their hands-so stoutly had the boys pestered them with miniature weapons.
Once safely in the town, they made signs that they would be taken to the sultan and offered as proof of the urgency of their mission a ring that bore the signet of a Turkish wazir.
When the litter of the sultan passed, attended by torches and mounted grandees, Rudolfo and Gian knelt. Bayezid halted. He examined the ring and his brows went up. It was the signet of one of his spies.
"Where is the wazir?" he demanded of the Greeks in his retinue who could converse with Rudolfo. The wazir who was the sultan's man had not been able to leave his post in the Horde without discovery and he had sent the ring by Rudolfo, who was prepared to seek reward from Bayezid for information given.
"'Tis small gain I seek from the Thunderbolt," he assured the Greeks. "Some gold and goods of mine taken from me by Tamerlane, who is a foul fiend. Lists have been prepared of the stuff and when the sultan overwhelms the camp of the Horde I will point it out. For this small gear I have tidings for the ear of the sultan."
Meanwhile up from the riverfront came the clash of steel and the shouting of men. Bayezid, never impatient, scanned Rudolfo's face and observed that the man did not meet his eye. "More like," he whispered to the Sheik of Rum, "that this Frank has had the slaying of my spy and has come to beguile me with words of Tamerlane's. Promise him his gold and get his news."
Rudolfo's message caused a stir throughout the grandees.
Tamerlane, he said, had left the camp across the river at dusk with the bulk of his cavalry, which meant the bulk of his army. The demonstration at the ford was being made by old men and boys-slaves and horseherders. The array of fires that winked at Angora from the other shore had been lighted to deceive the sultan into thinking that the mass of the Horde was still there.
As he spoke the tumult seemed to dwindle, and for a second, doubt was written on the hard face of the Thunderbolt.
"If the Tatar has tricked me-" He thought of his preparations to defend Angora on the river side and the men he had thrown into ships and trenches on the shore.
"But there are no bridges and no fords," his councilors pointed out. "Where else could Tamerlane cross the Khabur? Perhaps he was fleeing with his army."
Bayezid had never met defeat. Astrologers had assured him that the greatest event of his destiny was to come to pass. He felt sure of his plan and of himself. Had not his hunters' falcons struck down a carrier pigeon that day with news of Tamerlane's purpose to attack?
So Bayezid laughed and questioned Rudolf o lightly as to which way the Tatar riders had passed from the camp. When Rudolfo replied that they had headed down the river, the sultan gave orders that a detachment of mamelukes should ride down the Angora side of the Khabur and report if they sighted any Tatars. Meanwhile the two Franks were to be kept in attendance on him, for they would be useful.
The scouts never returned. Quiet settled upon the Khabur.
Some hours after dawn a Turkish war galley was sent down the river to reconnoiter. So it was after midday that the vessel arrived at a point a dozen miles down the river and learned that here during the night the Horde had crossed the Khabur to the Angora side-the Tatars swimming their horses and the foot soldiers holding to the beasts' tails.
Tamerlane, in fact, was now drawn up on the Angora plain with all his strength.
Chapter XIII
The Conqueror
Bembo had secured for himself one of those animals of the Kallmark Tatars, a beast that was neither horse nor mule nor ass. This steed he had caparisoned gaily. Thus mounted, he trotted at Michael's side, discoursing cheerfully.
"A fair day, my cousin, and a goodly steed between my knees-albeit it savors not of bull-stag or cameleopard. Alack, my wooden sword is broken; yet I have got me another weapon which is a favorite among these barbarians."
Michael, clad in a mail shirt with a Tatar helmet on his head and mace and sword at his belt, glanced down inquiringly. He did not see that Bembo carried any weapon.
"Nay, it is invisible, good my cousin," chattered the jester. "I learned its use in the Venetian fields and it likes me well because it avails best at a distance from my foe-ha! Are devils loosed on the plain yonder?"
A distant clamor of horns and drums came to their ears. Michael had taken his position among a regiment of Chatagai horse commanded by Mirza Rurtem, the grandson of Tamerlane-a strong-bodied youth in rich armor. Directly behind them the standard of the Genghis family was raised, the yak-tail standard of the Mongols.
"The Ottoman attacks," explained Michael, rising in his short stirrups. "Bayezid has been maneuvering throughout the morning, and now his front ranks advance upon the Horde."
The plateau of Angora was nearly flat. The field favored neither Tatar nor Turk, except that Tamerlane had his left flank upon the river. Michael could see the masses of Moslem spearmen that had acted as beaters the day before, and other brilliant groups of irregulars-archers on either flank. Behind these, almost concealed in the dust that floated up from the hard clay, were mamelukes, closely packed, and beside them the glint of lances of the sipahis.
Bayezid, taken in flank by the swift move of the Tatar Horde, had been compelled to realign his troops that morning and draw out of Angora, away from his galleys and trenches, to give battle. He had no other course open to him except to retire since Tamerlane refused to advance from the river.
There was no outcry from the Tatars. They waited as they stood. They flooded the yellow plain like bees clustered upon a board. And like an army of locusts was the advancing host of the sultan, fatigued by continuous marching, and tormented by thirst, but high-spirited and conscious of a hundred victories.
Michael's dark face was grave as he scanned their ranks-a hundred thousand souls, hitherto invincible, moving forward in the shape of a halfmoon to the sound of their horns, Seljuk shouting to Ottoman, Turko man to mameluke. He knew the fighting ability of these veterans and was more than a little surprised at the calm alertness of the Tatars, not knowing that every Mongol shared the reckless spirit of Tamerlane and would rather fight than eat.
"A thirsty sight," murmured Bembo, quaffing heartily of one of his skins of water. The day before, Tamerlane had ordered that each man be supplied with two such skins of water.
Emptying the goat's hide, Bembo dismounted to pluck stones from the ground, surveying each with care and throwing away all that were not round and of a certain size.
Michael looked up as arrows began to fly in dense clouds from the sultan's skirmishers. The front ranks of the Tatars took this punishment without cry or movement. By now the Turkish regiments of mailed horsemen could be plainly seen, moving forward at a trot.
Then the sun glinted on ten thousand arrows loosed at the same moment by the Mongol archers who shot three times while one shaft was in the air. The clamor among the Turks shrilled with shouts of pain and anger. Horses broke from the front lines, and the curtain of dust swelled so that it covered the scene of the battle from view from the rear where Michael and the Chatagais stood with picked regiments of Iran and the Tatar steppe.
The roar of voices merged with a pandemonium of clashing steel and thud of horses' hoofs. The tumult swelled until they could no longer hear their own voices.
Stationary at first, the brunt of the battle began to move onward toward the waiting masses of Tamerlane's horse, under Mahmoud Khan and the Lame Conqueror himself-the center of the army that was between the foot soldiers and the cavalry in reserve, where Michael was.
"Bayezid's mongrel skirmishers have been killed off," he mused, "and his sipahis are at work."
Even Bembo looked a trifle downcast. He glanced at the glittering figure of Mirza Rustem seated on a black stallion near them. The grandson of Tamerlane was chewing dates.
Plucking up his spirits at this sight, the jester took some fruit from his girdle and tried to follow the mirza's example. But he gagged and coughed up the food, thereby raising a laugh from Michael and the nearest Tatars.
A hot wind tossed the dust clouds high overhead and the glare of the sun pierced sullenly through the murk.
"Hai-Allah-hai!" the deep shout of the janissaries came to them.
Mirza Rustein finished his dates and began to eat dried meat that he pulled from under his saddle where the heat and the chafing of the leather had softened the stiffened meat. Bembo, watching in fascination, found the sight too much for his stomach and turned to look at the masses of Tatars before them.
Tamerlane, his standard, and Mahmoud Khan were no longer to be seen.
The red ball of the sun, high overhead when the conflict began, was lowering to the west.
A leaping, furtive form passed the jester's vision, like an incarnation of evil. One of Tamerlane's hunting leopards had escaped from its cage. No one paid heed to it.
Bembo began to tremble, and found that the perspiration that soaked his garments was cold. The hideous din in front of him had dwindled for a space and now swelled again until it seemed to embrace the horizon.
He looked for captives to be led back, but none came. Surely, he thought, there would be wounded Tatars running from the front, and others not wounded who had escaped the eye of their leaders. That had been a familiar sight in the orderly battles of Europe.
"The Mongols fight each man for himself," grunted Michael impatiently. "They do not keep lines as we do; that is why Bayezid has not broken their center yet. Tamerlane's cavalry met the charge of the janissaries-"
He rose in his stirrups, looking eagerly over the field. He could make out that the two armies were engaged from wing to wing. The Turkish half-moon was no longer clearly drawn and the bodies of reserve cavalry behind the half-moon had been brought up into the line of battle.
Unconsciously Michael had edged his horse up abreast of the stocky pony of Mirza Rustem. Now he felt an iron hand seize his bridle and draw it back.
Looking into the eyes of Tamerlane's grandson, he found them cold and spiritless. The Breton was flushed and impatient as a hunting dog held in leash. But there was no fire in the glance of Mirza Rustem who gazed upon the death of thirty thousand men with utter indifference.
"Do you fight for your God?" asked the Tatar.
"As you for your khan."
Mirza Rustem turned to glance fleetingly at where he could make out the yak-tail standard in the black mass of the Tatar center.
"Aye," he said slowly, "yet your God is gold, no more. A wazir spy of the sultan confessed before we beheaded him this day that a Christian had gone over to the enemy for gold. That is the word that is ever in the mouths of your breed."
Michael stiffened, knowing that Rudolfo must have tried to betray the plans of Tamerlane. He thought, too, of the mercenary Comneni, of the grasping emperor, and the Venetians who had been sent to plunder the khan.
Then there came to his mind the vision of the chivalry of France who had thrown away their lives with reckless bravery in the crusade against Bayezid. And he thought of the Christian graves that marked the cities of Palestine where the knights of the Cross had struggled vainly with the conquering Saracen.
This he did not try to explain to the Tatar, knowing that it was useless.
"See," said the young Tatar again; "the standard advances. The wolf has shaken the dogs from his flanks."
Michael saw that the masses of Tatars that had been stationary were moving forward now. It was almost imperceptible at first, this hive-like movement of men waiting grimly to slay.
Tamerlane's center had stood fast for three hours. Bayezid's last attack had been broken.
What the chivalry of Europe could not do, the Lame Conqueror and his Horde had done. To Michael this was a strange thing. Where was then the power of God?
Hunger and the nervous suspense of the last hours had made his mind clear and unnaturally alert. He found that he was dwelling upon some words of a woman who had taught him wisdom before he became a man.
"The ways of God are past our knowing," his mother had said.
He wondered if she were reading from the Book wherein she had found these words, and smiling as she did, alone in her room in the tower of the seacoast. She had smiled like that when his father's ships brought in word of new conquests of the Moslems on the borders of Europe.
It did not seem to Michael to be a strange thing that the strongest faith should be in the hearts of women, who knew nothing of warfare.
This had passed through his thoughts almost subconsciously while he watched the battle. Now the dust curtain thickened, cutting off his view. There was a pounding of hoofs and shapes that looked like birds crossed in front of Mirza Rustem and a man shouted something. Then they were gone, wheeling toward the Mongol right. Michael spoke to a Tatar squatted upon the ground sharpening his sword.
"Beduins-our men," he announced to Bembo, a new note of eagerness in his voice. "Be of good cheer, cousin esquire. Five regiments of sipahis have been surrounded and are doomed in yonder melee. The janissaries are reforming. Presently will we, God willing, bear our hand to the fray."
"I am well content here," rejoined Bembo sincerely. "San Marco-"
Almost at his ear a hideous clamor of kettledrums and cymbals broke out. The jester clapped his hands to his head, only to see the standard of Mirza Rustem raised and the masses of Tatar horsemen move forward at a walk.
Michael touched spurs to his pony and Bembo sighed deeply. He looked longingly toward the rear where the leopard had fled, only to see lines of broad grim faces advancing and shaggy horses swarming together like bees.
The sound of the Tatar nacars throbbed over the plain of Angora, summoning the Mongols to attack.
Whereupon every warrior of Tamerlane who could hold himself upon his feet ran or galloped forward. Some, who could not stand unaided, grasped the stirrups of the riders and struck out with their free arms.
And it was upon the checked and disheartened array of the janissaries, ordered to charge a second time, that the Horde advanced. Defeated on both flanks, half his men slaughtered, and half of the rest staggering from wounds or thirst, the Thunderbolt ordered the flower of his veteran host to drive again at Tamerlane's center-only to be met by the picked horsemen of the Mongols, held in reserve until then under Mirza Rustem.
The janissaries, shouting their war cry, met the oncoming tide, wavered and broke up into scattered squares that melted away into mounds of dying and dead.
Michael, fighting beside the Chatagais, glimpsed the body of Gutchluk outstretched on the earth beside a mangled horse. The long hair of the Tatar was matted with blood and his black eyes stared up blindly at the passing riders.
Then through the dust Michael made out the noyon who had been called a prince of Eblis by Bembo. The armor of the noble was cut and hacked away and one hand held together his nearly severed abdomen. He was seated on a heap of sprawling sipahis, and he was smiling. The dead lay thick about him, for the Sheik of Rum had penetrated here into the center of Tamerlane's host.
The Chatagais were galloping now, enveloping and sweeping over detachments of white-capped janissaries. The remnants of a regiment of Turkomans, kin to the Tatars, threw down their arms and were spared.
"Bayezid is in flight to Angora with his grandees," cried Mirza Rustem. "We must not return without him."
The grandson of Tamerlane staggered in his saddle as an arrow embedded itself in his mailed chest. He dropped his shield to break off the end of the shaft. Michael slew the archer who had sent the arrow, and presently found himself riding alone through the dust clouds.
There he turned aside to follow a horseman who had entered a rocky defile at a headlong pace. The aspect of the man was familiar.
"Rudolfo!" he cried.
He had known some hours before that the condottiere had escaped from the guard of Tatar boys, slaying one in his flight to the river. But Michael had not thought until informed by Mirza Rustem that Rudolfo had sought protection and reward from the sultan.
Rudolf o, in fact, had been kept beside the retinue of Bayezid until there were no longer any to guard him. Then with Gian he had circled the remnants of the Turkish regiments to seek safety in flight.
He knew that his life was forfeited to the Tatars. It seemed incomprehensible to him that Bayezid should be routed. It was part of the ill fortune that had dogged him since the Gate of Shadows.
So panic-the panic that had seized him at Nicopolis-claimed him, and he turned into the first ravine that offered shelter.
Michael's shout caused him to glance back swiftly.
He saw that the Breton rode alone. In the fear that beset him, Rudolfo felt that his only chance of life lay in slaying Michael. The issue between the two had been long in coming to a head. Now, Rudolfo thought, it was at hand.
The condottiere checked his horse and flung his javelin deftly. The spear missed the Breton but struck his mount, causing the beast to rear and plunge. Michael jumped to earth and hurled his mace.
It crashed against Rudolfo's round shield of rhinoceros hide, and the man winced as he dropped the crushed target from an injured arm.
He reached for his sword, but Michael was on him, had grasped him about the waist and hauled him from his saddle.
"Now may we settle the issue of our duel," muttered Michael, stepping back and drawing his weapon.
They had, in fact, strange weapons. Both had been deprived of the swords they had brought from Venice. The curved scimitars felt strange in their hands. Rudolfo hung back, shaking the sweat from his eyes and gazing sidelong at the rocky defile in which they stood.
"Gian!" he cried. "To me!"
Michael waited for no more but leaped forward, slashing at the other's head. Rudolfo parried skillfully, calling again for his follower.
Out of the corner of his eye Michael saw the tall figure of the man-atarms on a panting horse. Gian had been following them.
At this Michael set his back to a rock, warding off the counterthrust of Rudolfo, who pressed the attack, certain now of the presence of his ally. Gian plucked forth a long knife and held it by the tip, reining his horse nearer for an opportunity to cast his favorite weapon.
Michael heard rapid hoofbeats approaching down the ravine. He caught the flash of the dagger as it flew toward him, only to rattle harmlessly off the rock at his back.
Gian grunted and flung up both arms, reeled in the saddle and tumbled to the ground. But Michael had not seen the thing that struck him down.
"Habet!" a shrill voice chanted. "Goliath is dead! Stand aside, Cousin Michael, and let the other devil have his due."
By now Michael was aware of Bembo on his mule-ass, waving something about his head.
"Nay," the Breton growled, "this is my affair."
The fall of Gian had brought a scowl to Rudolfo's olive face. He pressed Michael desperately, cursing under his breath. The two scimitars clashed and the helmet was struck from the Breton's head. Rudolfo, panting, exerted every effort to follow up his success and reach his enemy's bare skull. Michael was taunting him softly.
As Rudolfo's blow fell, Michael sprang forward, dropping his sword. The other's scimitar passed over his shoulder and Michael's powerful left hand caught the other's wrist, pinning it to his side.
At this the Italian grinned maliciously, for, with his enemy's left hand occupied, he fancied that Michael was defenseless. So Rudolfo gripped Michael's throat, bending his head back viciously with his free hand.
Somewhat he wondered at Michael's passivity, not knowing that the Breton's right hand, useful once more, thanks to long and patient practice, was feeling in his own girdle for the dagger Rudolfo carried.
Michael's searching fingers freed the dagger and plunged it into the other's throat, over the mail.
Sword in hand, Rudolf o swayed on his feet, choked, and wheeled about as if to run. His knees sank under him and he blundered against a rock, falling heavily upon his back. Both his hands gripped the hilt of the dagger, strained at it and were still.
Bembo, having dismounted, bent over the condottiere and ripped off the bulging pouch that was tied to the dead man's waist. Michael saw for the first time that the jester held a long sling, made of thin strips of leather, a stone ready in the pocket. Catching his glance, the jester laughed.
"My weapon," he said proudly. "Gian's thick head was cracked like a hen's egg. Gian's thick purse was full of gold trinkets plundered, methinks, from the slain. So I would fain crack open his master's nest-egg-"
From Rudolfo's pouch a stream of Turkish gold byzants poured forth.
"Consummatum est," murmured Bembo. "It is finished. Gian's spoil will pay me for saving your life, coz. These belong to you."
As Michael shook his head, the jester, nothing loath, poured the coins into his goatskin, after emptying out the remaining stones.
Breathing deeply from his effort, Michael gazed around at the shadows of the ravine and listened in vain for the war cry of the Tatars.
"You will not hear it, coz," remarked Bembo. "What is left of the grandees is flying toward Angora with worthy Mirza Rustem in hot pursuit. The victory is ours, as I prayed San Marco it should be."
He tied up the sack and surveyed Rudolfo philosophically.
"Cousin Michael," he declared thoughtfully, "you are a wise man. In Venice did you assert that a man follows his bent. And here is Rudolfo, a noble seller of himself, a condottiere to the king's taste. He sold himself to Genoa, then Venice, then back to himself again. Last night he traded him to the sultan, and now methinks he has gone to purgatory to sell his soul to the devil."
Out on the plain of Angora the sun had set over the red mist and the red dust where the bodies of fifty thousand men lay motionless.
It was night when Michael and his follower sought Mirza Rustem and Tamerlane in the town of Angora. They knew that where the khan was, the sultan would be. Men had told them that Bayezid had been taken before he could leave the field and that a hundred of his grandees had died around him before he could be taken.
Torches borne by the Tatars and the glare of building tents revealed to Michael a strange sight. Tamerlane sat his horse at the entrance to the pleasure lake of the palace. Mirza Rustem in bloodied armor and the scarred, dust-coated noyons attended him.
Huddled groups of women and slaves stared in a kind of fascination at what stood before the old Tatar. Pushing past the onlookers to the side of Mirza Rustem, Michael saw the great bulk of Bayezid kneeling in front of Tamerlane's horse.
The sultan wore his embroidered cap with the blood-colored ruby, and his tunic of cloth-of-gold. His head swayed on his shoulders and his eyes were half closed. His glance went from one to another of the noyons and finally rested on Michael.
The black eyes of the defeated monarch widened as he recognized the Christian who had been his slave. His lips twisted as he half-made a gesture of appeal, and then drew back before the passionless scrutiny of the Tatars.
Michael folded his arms and waited, to hear Tamerlane's word that would speak the fate of the man who was called the Thunderbolt.
"Live-if you can," said the old Conqueror gruffly.
He signed to a group of his followers who brought out a cage that had held one of Tamerlane's leopards.
In this cage Bayezid was placed and the door locked. He could no longer look into the eyes of the watchers as he was picked up, with his prison, and carried through the flame-ridden streets of Angora.
Somewhere in the huddle of captives a woman screamed and the other Moslems took up the wail of lament.
News of what had come to pass in Asia spread to the world of Christendom. The wave of Ottoman invasion had been broken. In his marble palace standing over the dark waters of the Golden Gate, the Byzantine emperor held revelry to celebrate the delivery of Constantinople.
The crusaders of Saint John took new heart; the pilgrim galleys that sailed from Venice were filled with new voyagers to the Holy Land. Te Deum was sung in the cathedrals of France. But no mention reached France of the share in the victory of Angora that belonged to an obscure voyager of Brittany. Nor did the mother of Michael Bearn hear the name of her son in the mouths of pilgrims.
The Maritime Council of Venice planned new inroads into the field of Oriental trade, and wrote off the moneys advanced to Signor Clavijo and his party as a total loss. In fact it was recorded in the annals of the council that Clavijo and all those with him were lost.
This, however, was not the case. Clavijo lived-outside the knowledge of the council that he dreaded-in Spain and wrote a book of his travels that was filled with most marvelous tales.
And Tamerlane rewarded Michael Bearn. The Tatar monarch bestowed on him a khanate in northern Persia-Fars, with its palace and riches.
But Michael did not accept it for himself, giving it, instead, to a friend. He turned his back on the East to seek a galley bound for the Brittany he had not seen for ten years and the castle where his mother waited.
So it happened that the bailios of Contarini and the Maritime Council of the Signory of Venice reported a curious thing.
In the heart of Tatary, they said, sometimes called the land of Gog and Magog, not far from the Salt Sea, there was a fine palace in fair groves of date and cypress trees.
The ruler of this palace of Fars was a weird man, with emerald rings on his toes and cloth-of-gold on his broken body. He called himself sometimes the Grand Cham or Khan and sometimes Bembo the First.


When he saw the first stars over mountains, Mark pulled in his racing horse and laughed. It was dark and he was safe. "Faith," he said to the roan mare, "we are still alive in our skins." But he spoke between his teeth; he made little sound.
Even though he now felt himself to be safe from the danger that followed his heels, he kept moving along the path. Mark, late Sieur de Kerak, believed in taking no chances. He reined his horse to the side of the roadway where he could not be seen under the pines. His long body was covered with mesh, darkened so that it did not gleam and oiled so that it did not grate when he moved. Over this he pulled the black mantle that he had picked up when he began his long ride, months before. No ponderous helm of steel showed the outline of his head; he wore only a round steel cap. No long unwieldy sword clanked at his hip. Mark had left the family swords behind him.
Instead he carried, loosely thrust into his belt, the most deadly and efficient of weapons, a morning star. This morning star had a two-foot shaft of wood, strengthened by iron, with three slender chains hanging from it and, at the ends of the chains, three spiked metal balls. A swinging blow from this morning star-as Mark's arm swung it-could crush in the armor or the head of a man.
Mark knew weapons as well as he knew war. His hard body had scars in it that ached when he felt the night's cold. Only a sure instinct had kept him alive, and Mark trusted his instinct more than any talisman or prayer.
Now that instinct told him to keep on going. Behind him, witless people were dying each day by the thousand under the hoofs of that strange horde emerging from the steppes of Asia. It was like a whirlwind, that tide of horsemen.
Mark listened, as he rode, to the heaving breaths of his horse and the stir of the wind in the forest mesh. He put his hand into the small sack of barley tied carefully to the saddle horn. Beneath the barley, his fingers touched objects like sharp stones; only these were precious stones, carefully selected-pigeonblood rubies, emeralds of Ind, and glorious amethysts, a treasure of them, enough to ransom a king.
His father, the first lord of Kerak, had voyaged out of England with the heedless Richard the Lionheart, and his father had left his bones in Kerak overlooking the barren ridges beyond the Dead Sea. Mark, born in that waste borderland, had wrested wealth from it and he meant to return to England with that wealth; to make the acquaintance of the homeland he had never seen. He had grown very tired of his castle above the greenishblue of the Dead Sea, and its sour wine and olive trees.
"The crusades," he told himself, "are running out, like the sands of an hourglass. Aye, they are done!"
Suddenly he checked his horse. A gleam of light showed above the trees. So high up, it must come from a tower. A tower, by the same token, meant a good large seigniory, and that meant food. He ached with hunger, and the mare would be the better for an hour's rest.
Seeking along the edge of the trees he found the break that marked a road going up, and up this he made his way, alert for a challenge. It came when he saw the loom of a wall and the light overhead.
"SloY! "
"Slava bohu!" he shouted. "Glory to God!"
A torch flickered in a doorway, and three bearded men looked him over, jabbering a speech he did not know. The one with the torch took him by the hand and led him into the hall, where logs blazed in a huge fire hearth. Mark took in the place with a glance-the heads of stag and buffalo fastened to the walls, the flax hanging from the rafters, the crude swords and huge embroidered coats of the score of armed men who filled the benches by a long table, the yellow-haired maids carrying wine jugs, the spinning wheels stowed away in the corners. "The hall of a small nobleman," he thought, "who likes hunting. But where is he and what is he?"
There was a high seat, empty, at the table near the fire. There were gold dishes and a white cloth at that place; behind it, a shield of arms bearing something like a dragon, obscured by smoke.
It surprised him that these people seemed to be getting ready to dine, rather than flee the place. One of the men bowed to Mark and pointed behind him. Mark did not turn around. He preferred to face these strangers and he chose to keep the sack of barley slung over his arm.
"Panna Marya!" growled the bearded man.
"I hear you, brother," said Mark to himself, "but the devil himself couldn't make me turn my back to twenty swords."
Then he heard a woman laugh softly behind him and he swung around quickly enough.
She had not meant to pose there. Only she looked like a painting, like the stiff dragon on the shield. For pearl strings lay heavy on her young shoulders, and silver tissue made a crown on her dark hair. Such things did not fit her because her lips were quivering with laughter, and her eyes merry and knowing. She was holding a silver tray and on that tray, a dish of salt and a piece of broken bread.
"Chlieb sol," she said, curtsying. She chattered at him, the words meaning nothing to Mark. He had not seen a maid like this in his life's time, because he was newly come out of the East. "Eheu, hospes," she cried at him. "Oh, guest, speak, can't you?"
She was speaking Latin then, and Mark had once been taught that language by a wandering friar. Only this youthful Marya rattled it out like a bird singing: "I greet you, sir. And the bread and salt of my house I offer you."
A side of mutton was what Mark craved. Swearing silently, he took a morsel of bread, dipped it in the salt and chewed it. Then the girl Marya in her queenly garb fetched him a gold cup of spiced wine.
It felt heavy in his hand, and he guessed the gold to be solid and old. As he drank, he thought that this cup, slipped into his bag, would pay his way to Venice. "A kiss with the cup is good," he grinned, remembering a verse that the friar had not taught him.
For a second, Parma Marya's eyes searched his. Then they widened, fastening upon something on his shoulder. "A kiss, truly," she whispered, slipping up to him, taking his hand. She still looked into his eyes when his lips touched hers and his arm pressed hard against her slim back.
"Nay, you will spill the wine." She smiled. "I did not know that you were crucifer. An honor it is, so to greet a cross-bearer."
No more had Mark known that he was a crusader. The black mantle he wore had a cross sewn on the shoulder because it had belonged to his father.
But Parma Marya acted as if Michael the Archangel had dismounted in her hall. She clapped her hands, she cried out, the towheaded maids scurried around like hens when grain is scattered, old men climbed into the gallery among the stag heads and began to make music. The men-at-arms clanked around Mark, jabbering, and Marya skipped back to interpret.
The giant Kmita, captain of the men-at-arms, pulled off his iron cap and swept his beard below his belt in a bow.
"My people say it is a good omen that you should come at this hour," cried the girl. "And I say so, too."
She led him to the high seat by the fire and made him sit where the gold service gleamed on the boards, while a flustered maid offered him a silver basin of water to rinse his hands before eating.
Kmita drove the maids back to the hearth and brought the platters of smoking pigeon and pork and venison to Mark himself, bowing each time. It was the custom of her people, Marya explained-the Polish people. Didn't he know? He shook his head, eating fast.
When he got up, taking his bag on his arm, Marya looked at him, dismayed.
"But it is night. You must sleep and rest and break your fast with us, Mark!"
He did not think he had heard aright. "You mean to stay?"
"I? Yes."
"Here, in this castle?"
The girl Marya seemed to be troubled because he did not understand. She had been visiting Krakow, she said, for the Easter festival when she had heard the country was invaded. So she had hurried back to the Dragon-as she called the castle.
"You think you can defend this place?" Mark asked. "With what?"
Hesitating, she pointed at Kmita and the henchmen, chewing tranquilly at their meat.
Mark shook his head impatiently. "Lady, the horsemen who follow after me have laid Cathay in waste. Men say that they cracked open Kiev like a melon, and now they may be venturing into these mountains of yours-"
"True-we know. But I had hope" -her gray eyes appealed to him-"that you, a war wager, might abide with us."
How her eyes held him! He could feel the touch of her lips and he did not want to leave her behind.
"Listen"-he was glad the henchmen could not understand him-"it is too late now to evacuate the folks here. But we can drive our horses tonight and with luck get others at Krakow. Change your dress." He glanced at the old-fashioned strings of pearls. "Take your jewels in a bag. Have a fast horse saddled, but hurry!"
The girl Marya gripped tight the carved arms of her chair. "To go away, with you? Only we two?"
"It's a chance, a good chance. What did you say about an omen?" Mark was thinking of the road ahead, full of refugees. "In a month we can be in Venice. And if Venice is not safe, then, there is the sea and England."
"Eng-land?" She did not seem to understand. She said something-about her father the castellan, and her grandfather, and the way they had built the castle, and something else about a dragon that watched over it, protecting it.
"Dragons are not what they were," Mark laughed. It was so like the girl to think of a legend at a time like this. "Not in these days."
"But this one is!" She brushed the mass of dark hair from her cheeks and smiled at him. "Come! I want you to see!"
Slinging the bag on his arm, he followed her out of the hall through the massive doorway of the donjon. "Now, look," she said, holding to the door.
Bedlam resounded outside. Torches flared in the courtyard where wild figures pushed through the outer gate-huntsmen with game on their shoulders, peasants pushing long wagons creaking under loads of kegs and sacks of food. Women with babies lashed in shawls behind their backs, and older children herding in steers and sheep.
Mark recognized these people as refugees he had passed on the road.
"My father said the castle was of ours in time of peace, and it is for them in time of war. They have no other place to go."
"By the eyes of God," Mark muttered, "are you coming?"
"I-they would not know what to do without me."
Her fingers caught at his and then let go. Why had he sat here gossiping like a midwife for two hours?
He jumped down the steps, pushing toward his horse. "Close the gate and knock out those torches!" he shouted, his skin cold with the feel of danger here. Swinging into the saddle of the roan mare, he rode through the gate without looking back.
At the main road he stopped, listening. Evidently the Poles were all inside the castle, because he could hear nothing. But down the road the way he had come, a gray patch blacked out and then reappeared. Something was moving there without making any noise.
Wheeling the roan mare he trotted up the road. Drawing the morning star from his belt he held it where the chains would not jangle. He did not see the riders ahead of him until he was close to them.
There were three of them, waiting, silent. Mark dug in his spurs, bent his head and swung up the battle mace. A bow snapped and something jarred against the steel mail above his belt.
He took the middle rider on his right hand and lashed out with the morning star. The spiked balls smashed into metal and flesh, and that man fell from the saddle. Mark spurred through between the others.
He did not see the rope that caught him over the head and shoulder. Since he was bending forward, it tore him from the saddle when it tightened. Hours later he saw that one of the Mongols had a pole tipped with a long rope ending in a noose. If Mark had seen it cast-
But he felt the dirt of the road in his fingers and the soft run of blood in his mouth, and in a moment he felt the sharp wrench of a twisted arm. The rope held him tight, helpless as a trussed pig, with his horse vanished into the night. Leather creaked above him-he caught the stench of wet hides. A figure picked up something from the road, and he heard the clank of the morning -star chains.
The man standing over him groped for Mark's head. "Adam tzee!" this one demanded. "What man?"
"Farang," Mark said. A Frank of the West, he was.
The Mongols seemed amazed that he could speak a language some of them knew. One said, "This one truly has a voice. It will be of use to us."
They pulled him to his feet by the rope, to see if he could stand. For a moment, curious as children, they examined the morning-star they had taken from him, passing the weapon from hand to hand. Then one of them noticed the light in the tower above the pine trees. At once they covered the blue, painted lantern, and a low command was repeated back through the ranks of the pagan riders.
Turning off the road into the pines they began to climb toward the castle, taking Mark with them ... At sunrise, Arslan Khan, the Mongol officer, called Mark up to him. "Our bows are strong, our horses swift, our hearts hard as the mountain rock," he said, smiling. "Do you understand my words, Farang?"
Mark nodded. It was easy enough to understand the words of Arslan Khan, but not so easy to guess what his meaning might be.
With an effort Mark drew closer, dragging the leg on his injured side and holding his wrenched arm carefully.
"Then tell me," demanded Arslan Khan, "why the white-faced men in that stone house do not come out?"
They had climbed to a knoll opposite the massive, iron-studded gate of the castle, over which floated a banner bearing a white eagle. The gate was closed. The round towers, nicely spaced for cross fire, appeared stronger than the Englishman had thought in the night. But along the battlements no heads showed. This silence puzzled the Mongol.
"How would I know?" Mark said thoughtfully, "Ask them."
Instead, Arslan Khan sat down on his leopard skin tranquilly. He leaned back against a stone slab on which the outline of a dragon showed. This slab, Mark thought, was the entrance to a tomb overgrown with ivy, set into the knoll. At least, it bore Marya's family crest.
"Nay, you will ask them, Farang, with these words."
Carefully Arslan Khan placed Mark's morning star by his knee. Two other gnome-like horsemen sat impassively behind the prisoner, apparently paying him no attention. Down by the road, a half-dozen Mongol troopers let their horses graze. No others were visible, although Mark felt certain that three or four hundred had come up the road that night. They want those Poles to sally out, Mark reasoned. So far, the Poles were lying low.
"Tell them," the Mongol went on, "we are servants of the great Khan who holds the world between his hands. We have no bad hearts toward the Christians. Tell them to throw their weapons over that wall and open that gate. Then if they give up to us what treasure they have hidden away we will take it with the weapons and go. The living people and their cattle we will not take." His eyes shifted to the silent Englishman. "Make your voice clear. We have no mind to kill those Christians."
"And if I will not?"
"I myself will kill you."
Mark shrugged. "I will do as you wish. Only give me a horse. I am too lame to move."
The Mongol glanced at him impatiently. "A wounded bird has no need of wings," he grunted.
That, Mark reflected, was true enough. Arslan Khan was much too experienced to give his prisoner a chance to ride for it. So Mark began dragging himself painfully down the rise toward the silent gate, a long bowshot away. Close behind him the two guards followed, not troubling to draw their swords.
Midway to the wall he stopped, noticing a movement within the embrasures over the gate. "Panna Marya!" he called.
After a moment her voice answered.
"Listen," he said clearly. "These Mongols who hold me offer you a fair surrender if you open that gate."
"Yes, Sir Mark." Her voice came down to him, muffled.
"Don't do it. Don't hear to their promise. Belike, they will try other tricks. Keep lights going at night and watch, or you are all dead."
"We hear, 0 Knight of the Cross," the voice quavered as if laughing, "and we bow to thy wisdom! It must have served thee well." Then the voice changed: "Only, listen to me now. Kmita hath a plan to reach thee. Aye, to go out-"
"Devil take Kmita! Keep him behind the gate."
"But he will not-"
"If he follows his feet a spearcast outside he will be dead before you can say orisons for him. Let be!"
For a moment the Polish girl kept silent. "What will you do?" she asked.
Mark hesitated. "What can I do? Nay, I go with these pagans and I will keep my hide whole."
Her foolish valor angered him. At least, he thought, now these Poles would trouble no more about him. Being angry, he almost forgot to drag his leg as he turned away with the two Mongols.
Painfully he dragged himself up to Arslan Khan's observation point. "Those Christians," he said bluntly, "will surrender. They ask only for the time until the sun is highest in the sky, to consult together and dig up their treasures."
Arslan Khan's eyes narrowed. "Kai-the voice that spoke for them was a woman's voice."
"Ay-a tak. Aye, so. Their commander is a woman, a princess."
Still the Mongol pondered. "What precious things have they? What treasure?"
"Cups of gold and strings of pearls. Enough to fill the arms of one man." For an instant, Mark remembered his own lost jewels.
The Mongol's eyes glowed green and he struck his hands together. "Now I will go over those walls and rip those Christians open like melons."
He shouted an order.
Mark heard, at first, only a stirring and trampling along the ground. Then he knew it to be a rush of hundreds of horses.
The charge came headlong out of the pines, along the road. Lashing their horses, the riders spread to each side. Sharply the speeding mass divided, half of it reining in almost under the shadow of the wall, the riders snatching arrows out of the sheaths at their hips and sending a flight of shafts upward at the summit of the wall. They kept their horses in motion, yelling, "Kiari-ghar!"
The first half of the riders did not rein in until their horses wheeled against the stones of the curtain and a tower. Those pressed against the wall stood up in their saddles, grasping at one another and the rough surface of the stones. Above them lances were thrust up against the wall, and men scrambled up on the shoulders of the first, hauling themselves higher on the locked lances, clutching at the crenels at the top.
In less than a minute they were at the parapet, climbing like monkeys, screaming their "Ghar-ghar!" Somewhere kettledrums pounded in cadence with the voices.
Mark knew the attack had been blinding in speed, the racket meant to confuse the garrison until the first Mongols could get their footing on the wall itself.
That wall, however, came alive. Men rose between the crenels, and battle-axes smashed down on the climbers. Giant Poles swung flails down as if threshing wheat. Two of them heaved a heavy beam over the parapet. Kmita's swordsmen, running up from the gate, began to slash with their blades, and the leather-clad Mongols were smashed down like fruit from a shaken tree.
For the moment, Arslan Khan was paying no attention to his prisoner. Swaying on his haunches, he was staring at the wall but not at the spot where his riders still struggled to climb on the bloodstained lances. He was watching another face of the wall, in deep shadow.
Here a half company of his men had slipped up to the foot of the wall. They had no horses and they wore gray felt capes that made them look like giant moles crawling up. And the first of them carried pole lariats that they cast up at the parapet. Metal hooks on the ends caught over the stones. Men hauled themselves up the ropes bracing their feet against the stones.
Mark swore silently. The racket by the gate drowned out the noise made by the climbers.
Then he saw figures running on the summit of the wall-figures of Polish women. They began to chop at the ropes with axes and to throw blankets over the climbers while they worked at the ropes. Parma Marya was among them. In a minute the ropes were cut. The Mongols below, enraged, could only loose arrows at the women.
Arslan Khan shouted an order, and Mongols began to run back clumsily toward the knoll.
From the wall, crossbow bolts flickered. The archers covering them circled desperately to avoid the iron bolts that smashed among them. They will not try that again, Mark thought.
Moving his head slowly, he saw that the two men behind him were intent on the road below. Arslan Khan sat rigid as a statue before the tomb, his breath hissing from his body. For the moment he was not thinking of the prisoner who had deceived him.
Without hurrying, Mark got to his feet, crouching. The leg that had seemed helpless was firm beneath him as he jumped at the Mongol. And Arslan Khan moved with the swiftness of an animal. One hand snatched the long knife from his girdle, stabbing at Mark's throat.
Mark swung down his head, feeling his shoulder strike under the Mongol's arm. They rolled over on the ground. But Mark gripped hard the shaft of the morning star for which he had made his leap. He rolled over in the dust, gathering his feet under him, knowing that the Mongol was quicker than he. "char!" he heard at his back.
He gave himself no second to stand. Crouching, he whirled, lashing behind him. One of the spiked balls of the morning star caught the Mongol's leg and he staggered, off balance. Swinging up the steel flail, Mark brought it down on the Mongol's light helmet; and Arslan Khan whirled to the ground, his skull crushed-even as his dagger arm struck at Mark.
Reaching down to pick up the dead man's shield, Mark thrust his injured arm into it and stepped forward to meet the rush of the two guards, who had drawn their swords.
He took a blow on the shield and struck with the morning star. But the agile Mongols sprang back, having seen how death flashed from the flying spikes.
Facing them Mark backed toward the stone slab of the tomb. Other Mongols were running up from the road with bows. He could not reach a horse now and he tried to put the tomb at his back, to face them, as an arrow whirred by him.
He heard a grinding and a crash beside him. He saw the stone slab fall into the dust and a giant figure raced from the tomb. "Slava bohu!" it roared. And with flailing sword, it crashed into the nearest Mongol.
It was Kmita, mad with excitement. Behind him the dragon tomb spewed forth clumsy men in mail racing one another toward the leading Mongols. They struck with heavy battle-axes and they threw long spears.
Those Mongols, startled by the apparition of men pouring out of the hilltop, turned and ran down the hill dodging among the pines for their horses. Behind them labored the Polish men-at-arms arms, calling to them to halt and fight.
Mark looked once into the tomb, seeing no grave, but an open passage leading down, crowded with the garrison of the castle pushing out after Kmita. He went with them.
To the Mongols it seemed as if an army, hidden in the ground, had been lying in wait until now. They hurried away with their horses and wounded, down to the road through the mountains ...
"It was," said Parma Marya, "a thought of my father, who was castellan of these mountains. He said we should have two gates here-one seen and one unseen. We called it the dragon's lair."
Reflectively, Mark rubbed his lame arm, sitting on the doorstep of the hall beside this girl.
"Now it is clear to me, lady," he said, "that you have met pagan fighters before."
"We have so," she nodded, "for a hundred years." She looked at him, pleased.
Sitting there in her gleaming gown, she thrust the dark hair back from her slender throat. The scent of the hair was in his nostrils, and the light of her in his eyes. She will never be afraid, he thought.
"They come over the road because it is the road through these mountains," she said. "The black road, we call it." And she hesitated, turning her face from him. "You will not be taking to the road now, Sir Mark?" she asked.
He thought about that. Through the courtyard he saw Kmita pushing by the cattle and carts, past the peasant women who were milking cows and piling hay for the wounded to lie on. Through all this bedlam of a farmyard with its folk, Kmita was carrying a cloak which Mark recognized as his own.
When Kmita reached the steps he held it out in his great paw. Bowing to the belt he shouted angrily, his eyes gleaming.
"He is saying," Panna Marya explained, "how he wanted to go out and rescue you when the pagans made their surprise attack. He is saying that if harm had come to a Knight of the Cross at our gate, it would have been a shame to us forever."
Mark took back the cloak which the Polish captain of men-at-arms had found along the road and he thanked Kmita. He smiled and Kmita grinned.
Here he was, with the cross again, with his wealth gone galloping off. Here he was, not in a palazzo of Venice but shut up in a frontier castle with hordes of pagans roving the countryside.
Panna Marya looked up at him, troubled, trying to read his mind. "Last night," she whispered, "when you rode away, I was frightened."
"You?"
"Yes, of the night and being left alone. I-I wanted so to go away with you to Venice and to live."
Mark, late lord of Kerak, swore silently at himself, understanding now for the first time how frightened this girl was and how she had made a feast of supper, the evening before, thinking it might be her last. He shoved away a bawling calf, put his good arm around her, and laughed.
"Panna Marya, the devil take Venice! This is where we belong, both of us!"


That morning began when the sun came through the mist. It was the warm sun of early spring, and when it struck through the pines and into the ferns of the forest it warmed the heart of the Pole named Szary, and the girl lying beside him-close beside him for warmth.
They were lying there shivering, and they heard the melting ice trickling into the hollows of this Baltic forest. They were looking out between the ferns, across the ribbon of river toward the black castle, secure on that far bank.
"It looks," she whispered, "like a buffalo lying down, very comfortably."
"No, it doesn't," Szary objected. "A buffalo gets up after a while, and goes to some place, to fill his belly with grass or with water or with whatever a buffalo likes. This stronghold of Vorberg will not move itself away. No, it has bedded itself down to stay there by the river."
She smiled, while her teeth chattered from cold and excitement. "Vorberg hath no need to go away, Szary" she objected, "to fill its belly. Nay, it sits there atop the river, and it eats our countryside."
"Hush you, chatter bird," he growled. He thought he heard a hunting horn. And he moved his hand stiffly toward the damp, broken branches, putting them on the steaming embers of last night's fire. She did not try to help him, knowing that she might hurt him by that. For this chattering girl, this Yadvi of Krakow, knew Szary's mind, and she wondered often how she might ease that black temper of his until it would not hurt him.
White smoke swirled up from the wet pine branches, making, Yadvi thought, a new white giant's plume in the forest. She knew that Szary wanted this. Careful had he been to make an eye of light by night where the watchers on Vorberg's keep could see it-and now a heavy smoke for the huntsmen to observe.
"They ride this way," said Szary, his head close to the ground. Here, in the ravine, sounds carried far, and he thought that stones rattled down below them.
And Yadvi's head, with its disordered, straw-like hair, pressed close beside his. The devilkin of a girl was lying on her back, her gray eyes half closed. She was hiding the chill and the fear that tore at her; but she could not hide the pulse throbbing in her throat. And she begged something of him, quickly, while the telltale smoke rose over the two of them like a tent. "Szary, do not be angry again. When you feel hot rage, say to yourself it doesn't matter. I want you to think of me, and say that to yourself. Do it."
Her gray eyes, close to his, held him as if her bare arms were around his neck. He looked over her, through the ferns, without seeing anything.
"Do it!"
"Certainly," he grunted.
"Swear it!"
"Yea-by Our Lady."
But his eyes were questing among the ferns for sight of the riders. "Yadvi-you are like a burr under the saddle-you are always sticking close where I have to feel you. Now, please, get on that pony, and get you gone-"
"Swear," her eyes never blinked, "by the bratsva Polskiego. Or I will not go because you will need me to watch after you like a footless child-"
He could hear brush crackling below him, and the echo of a man's shout, and quick anger ran like fire through his blood. "By the hide and horns of the Lord of-"
"Hush, Szary!"
He slapped her face and thrust her away, toward the tethered horses.
Years before this, Szary had been able to ride with the bratsva Pol- skiego-the winged knights of Poland. Then he could toss the twelvefoot lance in one hand, or slide himself under the neck of a running horse. Now he lived with a stiff right shoulder, and the bones of his hip so knit that he could not grip a horse with his knees again. He could still ride, but not in the rank of the armored fighters that were the best of Poland. And at times black anger made him drunk as with wine. It did not seem to matter to this madcap girl, who laughed at him, and said that now she must be wise for both of them, so that both should live. She wanted to bear the children that would one day climb over his knees.
"Now I think you will remember," she said, as he stared at her. "And that will be well." Then tears gleamed in the gray eyes. "Oh, Szary, I have seen you die once, foolish and headstrong. Now are you something else because you are part of me, so be wary as a wolf-be careful, and live. Here!"
She threw her arms around his neck and her lips touched his mouth. Then because he had to move so slowly-she seized the bundle by him, and shook out his bright blue-and-white cloak, clasping it over his shoulders, which had already begun to grow thin. She lowered his battle sword of gray steel into the sheath at his belt. Then she ran to her shaggy pony, and waved to him, before trotting away through the trees.
"Keep out of sight," he called to her: "Stay with the regiment until tomorrow's night hath passed."
She did not call back to him. He waited until he could see the huntsmen in their green tunics coming up the ravine as if after boar before he hurried toward his mare tied by the fire. He moved slowly, because he limped. He reached the gray mare, set his foot in the stirrup, and hoisted himself into the saddle. He slapped the mare with the end of the reins and turned her up the bank, among the wet ferns. He heard a shout close behind him, and he looked back to see that the huntsmen had spears, and not crossbows. For he did not want to be hit by a crossbow bolt. They were spreading out through the ferns behind him. By now, Yadvi would be clear away.
Szary forced the mare up the slope, but unseen by the huntsmen he pulled hard on the rein. The mare labored and slipped back.
So Szary was caught by the half ring of riders. A dozen of them closed around him, while he turned the mare on her haunches to face them. When he drew his sword and slashed awkwardly to one side, the boar spears of the huntsmen thrust at him. He saved his body from the points, but he could not get through the ring of riders.
The mare staggered from the shock of a heavier charger, and Szary thought his fight was about over. He saw a man over him, massive as a bear-a spear's point held in check.
"Yield you," this rider grunted.
"Tell me your name," cried Szary.
"Arnold of Prauen, Korntur of Vorberg."
Szary let fall his sword and sat back in the saddle, rubbing his side where a steel edge had hacked along his ribs. The fight, he thought, had been just long enough.
Von Prauen motioned for one of his men to pick up the sword, and his blue eyes gleamed with satisfaction as he surveyed it. A gold cross shone on the hilt, and he could make out letters in the worn steel. Pro patria ad mortem.
"We have caught," he said to his men, "what is better than a boar. Bind up his side; take the mare's rein."
"To go where?" Szary asked quickly.
"To Vorberg's gate, where no Pole has been before you." Von Prauen smiled. "Does that please you, my Pole?"
Szary hid his gladness. He would get inside Vorberg's gate. "Faith," he lied, "I have heard that the Lord Devil who was accustomed to dwell within Vorberg's halls now seats himself in the nether regions because he finds it pleasanter. I shall see for myself if this be true."
At the hour of pones the chimes sounded in Vorberg's chapel.
To the workers in the fields the castle looked like a dark mountain rising from the plain. A man-made mountain of stone, overlooking the river and the highway to the Baltic. The easternmost castle of the Deutsche Ritter, the Teutonic Knights, who had come up from the south of the German empire to build a chain of such castles into the eastern lands among the pagans of the Baltic. The Knights had built a citadel of their Order at Prague, among the mountain highways, and at the port of free Danzig where the traffic of the Vistula met the sea.
These castles, stretching eastward, had the center of their chain at Marienberg, where dwelt the Meister of the Order. For long, they had been advancing step by step through the forests of the pagan Prussians. With their swords the Knights had overthrown these stubborn pagans, and had baptized the survivors. And now, toward the end of the fifteenth century of grace, they had taken another step toward the East, and Vorberg had risen within the Pole, on the plain itself.
At noon this day as always, von Prauen made his rounds. But this time he took Szary, his prisoner, with him. It suited him that Szary should see the strength of Vorberg.
"What have you equal to this? " he asked curiously, when they climbed to the summit of the keep, where two men-at-arms paced, watching the distant signal towers on the highroad.
Squinting down an arrow slot, Szary shrugged his good shoulder. "Nothing so high," he said, "nothing so big. We have, however, some good horses and women."
Horses, thought the kolntur, were desirable to carry the weight of armored men to battle, women to breed sons to bear arms. The sounds from the courtyard below made an orderly hum, each particle of which carried its message to him-like the instrument of an orchestra. A clank sang of a smith's hammer on anvil; a heavy rustling, of hay being thrown out in the stables for the horses of the afternoon patrol. A curious thudding meant that the armigers were rounding out the stone cannonballs. The dry voice of the drillmaster echoed faintly: "Cut ... cut!"
"Yes, my sir," von Prauen admitted, "you warfarers of the plain have good horses; and you can ride like centaurs. But you cannot ride your chargers through these walls, nor leap over them."
"As to that," Szary objected, "I am not so sure. I am thinking, brother Knight, I can ride with my war band into your gate before the morrow's nightfall."
"Why not to the moon also?" von Prauen asked.
"Some other day for that." Szary looked amused and kept a rein on his temper. "But I say truly, my lord brother. Yea, now I can see a way into this stronghold of yours, and I must say that you are kind and well disposed to bring me hither to this eyrie that I might see it plain."
Von Prauen smiled. And anger stirred in him slowly, for he thought the Pole was mocking the strength of Vorberg. With his eye he measured for the thousandth time the distance between the double walls below him-the nicely calculated flight of a crossbow bolt down, so that the defenders could always command the outer works. He checked over the flame-pourers on the battlements, the stone curtains over the two gates. The walls themselves had been built too massive to be shattered by siege engines, even if the Poles had engines. And their height had been calculated to exceed the length of ladders that could be raised by human strength.
As to mining-the barrier of the river and the moat prevented that. No, the keen intelligence of the experts in the Order, versed in the arts of fortification and siege, had built Vorberg's walls to be impregnable; von Prauen knew that so long as a garrison of any skill held Vorberg's walls, the castle could not be taken.
"That was a senseless boast," he said coldly.
"Nay," Szary laughed, "I have the gift of foresight. I am seeing what is to be, on tomorrow's night."
The smoldering anger flamed up in the German.
"Remember," said Szary, watching him, "I speak as a prisoner, not as a guest. I ask you to surrender Vorberg, to save men's lives."
"To you?"
"While there is time."
Then, even while the hot blood surged into his brain, the komtur saw something below him out of the usual. He heard the chime of a woman's laugh. A girl with unbraided hair had edged herself through the men-atarms loitering in the water gate. With a basket on her arm, she was chaffing a leather-clad armorer.
"Remain here," the German told Szary. As he turned to descend the stair, he noticed that his prisoner was watching the gate intently.
Her name, she explained to the Germans, was Yadvi and she had come to sell cherries, the first picking of the trees. The Swabian questioned her before von Prauen. The Swabian, who could talk to a mule, understood the chattering Polish tongue.
"The little Yadvi knows it is forbidden to set foot inside our monastic military burg," he said. "But she wanted some coppers, and we have pence-"
"Ask her how she came over the river."
Von Prauen could remember no cherry orchards on this side of the river, and he thought that Yadvi had come far for her pence. A fisher's boat, it seemed, had brought her.
Were many such boats along the far shore?
Yadvi, thoughtfully, admitted seeing only the one.
Had she seen any Poles riding toward the river?
Her gray eyes met von Prauen's stare, and words tumbled out of her, laughing and indignant.
"She says no." The Swabian stretched his long body, enjoying himself. A white scar ran from his brow to chin, and his clipped hair gleamed gray. "She says, what are we getting at? There were Zmud charcoal burners and hunters in the wald. Not a wight with arms. She says, what next?"
"Hold her. Let her wait in the stable yard with the Polish prisoner."
The yard was close to the water gate. Von Prauen watched the girl, while the Swabian translated, and he thought the arrest did not frighten her. She grew quiet, and when he motioned her away under guard, she curtsied to the two Knights.
"A sweet mouthful," the Swabian sighed, when she was gone. "Why not let her go without harm?"
Von Prauen shook his head impatiently, and the Swabian drank wine from the cup in his fist, grumbling, "Faith, she is no witch."
"I think I know," the korntur reflected, "what she is."
"Cross yourself and spit thrice, Brother Arnold, when you think you understand a woman. I never could."
His great body rigid, hardened by the weight of armor, von Prauen kept his temper with an effort. The demon of anger still irked him, and he felt the need of a cool head. Wine he never touched, nor had he looked twice at any woman since he took the vows of the Order. But this Swabian, who led Vorberg's spearmen and had fought from Toledo to Danzig, had a wild manner of jesting. Nay, in that moment von Prauen felt that this other brother was more like the dreaming Szary than a servant of the Order.
Before he took the vows, this Swabian, Friedrich, had been a baron. It was whispered in the halls of Marienberg that Friedrich alone had spoken against the Polish war, asking what was the use of it, when the minds of the leaders had understood the need of a new war clearly. For the Deutsche Ritter had come into being as an order of knighthood to rescue that holy place Jerusalem from the pagans; and now that the crusades had ended long since, how was the Order to continue its growth, unless it made itself necessary to the new Germany by involving the Baltic in war. Without war, the military order would have no just claim to exist longer. Even the Hansa merchants, sitting in the council at Marienberg, had understood the necessity for a major war. Brother Friedrich alone had spoken against it, saying that now the pagan Prussians had all been put to the sword or converted to Christ, and the savage Lithuaniani had turned Christian overnight, baptizing themselves in a mass, and the Poles certainly were worshipers of this same Cross the Knights carried-what reason had the Knights to bring a new war to the Baltic?
"Friedrich!" he said abruptly. "What devil of doubt plagues you?"
The Swabian twisted the cup in his heavy fingers. "No devil, Komtur. I have felt too many of my bones break apart." Suddenly he looked up. "No, not that. That was a lie. Only, sometimes I think of those two other men, you and I, who might have been."
"We have Vorberg in our charge!"
"Admitted!" The Swabian smiled. "I was thinking how that other Friedrich could walk in his cherry orchard with his sons. I will never know who my children are-"
"Discipline!"
Von Prauen knew how to jerk the Swabian out of such a black mood. "Two riddles now we have to solve. Item: This Szary, speaking good Ger man, permits himself to be caught like a blind dog and led into Vorberg. Yea, a belted knight yields his sword after a child's scuffle. Item: A Polish girl who is no peasant's wench strays into our gate two hours later. The answer?"
"Both spies of course."
"Granted. They will be watched. Yet can we find a truer answer."
Friedrich nodded. "The little Yadvi lied. My huntsmen have sighted armed bands in the forest moving toward the river. And on the water the Zmud fisherfolk all seem to be casting their lines just out of sight of our towers."
"Boats."
"Sufficient to ferry a regiment across the river. And yesternoon when I rode after boar beyond the forest I saw the regiment. Polish lances, of armored riders. The sun gleamed on the metal. All this, Komtur, you know well."
"It sums up to this: An attack by the forest folk and Poles."
"A surprise onset-"
"And so, to be expected after dark."
"But where?"
The komtur smiled. "Our two Poles, I think, will tell us that."
"The fools!"
"So we will use them." The demon of anger, stiffed by Szary's boasting, gnawed at von Prauen. "Perhaps that wood is the weak point in our defense-when it is leveled and my cannon are in place-I shall have no more to fear. But now we shall first teach the Poles a lesson. It is necessary."
And he explained what he intended to do. The Swabian, surprised, listened intently. Von Prauen felt reassured. Once the action began, he knew that he could depend on the wayward Friedrich.
Long after the vesper bell, the stars came out in a clear sky. Left to themselves in the courtyard, Szary and the girl watched the posting of the night guard, the closing of the water gate. And Szary whispered his anger while she pulled the cloak around his injured side:
"Why can't you stay where you belong, devilkin?"
"Because it's disgusting to be left, and lonely." Yadvi, in the shadow, pressed close to his good side.
While she could touch him, she felt comforted. Her hands had nursed the lance wounds in his frail body, until he could rise and limp around again, miraculously surviving death in that first battle with the terrible Knights. Her voice came softly to his ear: "Now you can't send me away, Szary. You can't."
He took her chin in his hand, so he could see into her eyes, and he felt her tremble. "Yadvi, if you love me, go to the chapel. Keep away from here."
And he hauled himself up to limp along the stones toward the water gate. The stars were clear now, and he expected to hear the bell any second. Keeping away from the fire, where three men idling on watch inside the gate warmed themselves, he edged himself forward. Across the courtyard a torch flared by the stables where serving brothers moved. He looked up, but could not tell how many eyes might be watching from the dark roofs, behind the inner battlements that commanded the courtyard. And he had a feeling of failure in him-he was taking so slight a chance to open up this dominion of armed power.
Then he heard Yadvi's voice, singing softly: "Kyrie eleison-Kyrie elei- son." The three men by the fire looked that way with interest.
In the glare of the torch, her basket swinging on her arm, the girl was moving toward the chapel's steps. The light glinted on her hair as she sang. Small wonder that these men-at-arms feasted their eyes on her.
Once the bell sounded and began to toll for evening prayer over the chapel, and Yadvi sang louder, gaily, Szary drew himself in the shadow to where he could reach the bar that had been slid into the socket back of the gate. It was heavy, but he could move the end by straining. He shoved it along until the end barely rested in the socket. The guards were still watching Yadvi. He thought he heard a man shout.
Then, leaning close to the gate, he heard a boat grind against the stone step outside. An oar thumped and feet pattered.
"Ho-the watch!" a voice bellowed.
Szary pushed against the end of the bar, and it fell. The three pikemen at the fire turned to stare. And the gate swung open, toward them. Szary thought that the men on the river had been prompt to come at the bell's tolling. They were pushing now at the iron-studded gate.
"Vitsi bratsva!" he called. "Up with the weapon, brothers!"
They came running and leaping through the gate, fur-covered men of the forest, swinging up axes and flails, going for the Germans nimbly. Szary pushed through them, out the gate. Other fishing craft were thrust ing out of the darkness, after the first, to the landing beside the big, empty barges of the Germans.
Out of them climbed wild Zmuds and river men, yelling. They ran into the gate.
Up on the chapel steps, Yadvi, shivering with excitement, watched these weapon bearers rush into the courtyard. And it seemed to her that all the inner space of Vorberg came alive at once. Out of the barrack by the gate, giant pikemen advanced to aid the three fighting by the fire. Torches flashed from the inner battlements, where Genoese crossbowmen began to snap their pieces at the onset. The bolts tore through the running men, sending them sprawling. Out of the Knights' hall ran mailclad armigers and, after them, groups of heavy men in steel caps, their white surcoats with the black crosses filling the courtyard, the Knights.
Then Yadvi understood that Vorberg had been waiting for this attack. She could not see Szary in the rush of men. Crowds of Prussians surged past her steps, moving into the gate. The few men swarming up from the river were knocked down and swept back like straw shapes in the wind. Voices barked commands: "Ropes along the barges! Follow with the boards."
The komtur, with the Swabian beside him, walked out to take command. At the gate, von Prauen saw the fishing smacks pulling away, with the remnants of the attackers. Across the river fires glowed, and bands of the forest men crowded restlessly. By the stone steps, carrying out the orders he had given, his men-at-arms were poling the heavy, empty barges into place. Above his head the crossbowmen were following the retreating smacks with their bolts. The attack had been broken in less time than it took the cresset lights to burn bright. Every detail of it had been foreseen by von Prauen's experience.
Across the gleaming water the bands from the forest bayed their anger. The trained men of Vorberg worked in silence. They laid barge against barge, roping them together, out from the steps, driving poles down between them to hold them against the current. Servants laid down a flooring of heavy boards across the barges. With miraculous speed a bridge thrust across the narrow river toward the attackers.
Crossbowmen on the outermost barge kept up a covering fire, against the seemingly masterless crowd on the far bank. The Prussian infantry began to press over, to the other shore.
Then the mailed Knights, who had mounted their chargers at the stables, moved out at a foot pace over the boards. The Swabian took the lead of the first company. "We'll hunt the boars out of their cover," he cried.
When he had gone off, von Prauen called for his own banner and charger. He climbed into the saddle, still feeling that dull anger against the mob that had challenged his stronghold-Szary's boast still rankled. He called to the master armorer to hold the bridge in place with his castle reserve until the return of the Knights. "So we will not wet our feet at our homecoming."
These men of the forest, he thought, had need of a lesson.
And the Knights cleared the far shore without ceremony. The shaggy Zmuds melted away from the fires into the murk of the fens and the trees while the Knights broke up into small companies to follow. The squads of pikemen kept close to the stirrups of the riders, as they pushed through the forest trails, following the dark bands that slipped through the ferns, pausing to fire their bows among the trees before fleeing on. Only on clear ground could the Knights charge, to scatter the bands. They followed torches dancing like St. Elmo's fire through the trees.
"Faith," said the Swabian, "they light the way to the hunt."
Slowly the disciplined array of Vorberg drove the pack, their halberds thrusting through the light flails of the forest men, their mail proof against the flying arrows. Few men fell.
Before them the lights danced away, and the chill of the forest closed in on them. Von Prauen would not turn back. "In the open, we will drive them, and make an end of them."
When he emerged from the trees into the plain with its dark oak clumps he waited until the other formations came through on either flank. Then for the first time, he noticed that the lights of the fugitives had been put out. He had to guide himself by the faint starlight.
Then he noticed how the stars had dimmed overhead. A damp breath from the wet plain chilled his hot head. And a pale lantern, low over the plain, flooded silvery into his eyes. An old moon had risen.
And it showed him that a dark mass which he had taken for an oak grove was moving toward him. He looked at it under his hand, and shouted suddenly: "Halt, the riders! Stand, the pikemen!"
The darkness on the plain moved swiftly now, and it howled as it came. Cold exultation touched the komtur. These, coming at him, were riders in shaggy furs, on nimble ponies. Some of their heads glinted with buffalo horns. Dogs snarled in the rush.
"Par dex," he breathed, "what are these animals?"
The voice of the Swabian answered at his shoulder: "Riders of the swamps, Mazovi hunters, Lithuanian bands, boar hounds." And he stood up in his stirrups. "Gott mit uns!"
The war shout of the Knights sounded down the line as they met the rush of the wild horsemen, who howled and struck at the long line of the Germans with javelin and sword blade. Their great hounds leaped at the German chargers, and the line swayed here and there. Von Prauen reined back to a rise to watch and the Swabian kept at his side.
"Faith, Arnold," he grumbled, "your hunt is a long hunt. These were waiting for us. They knew well we would come here."
"They save us the trouble of running after them." Von Prauen's eye ran along the steady line of the Germans. Their pikes and swords held easily against the scramble of such wayward fighters. Some wounded dragged themselves back from the line. Then he thought the savage mob gave back a little. He waited to see if it would drift away.
"Now," said Friedrich "they are lighting candles for us."
Off on either flank stacks of old hay blazed up, glowing red in the thin ground mist. Yes, the Lithuanians were drawing back, punished. Von Prauen waited for the moment when he could launch his horsemen across clear ground, to scatter them and make an end of the night's hunt. Already he was thinking it had been a good sally, giving his Prussian infantry a valuable lesson in night work.
And then he saw the movement on the ground, out from the oak grove off to his flank. The Swabian also looked that way, intent and silent. A disciplined body advanced there at a trot, horsemen who kept an even front. Lances raised-lances longer than any von Prauen had seen before. Strange wings bobbed at the riders' backs, and armor gleamed on them.
Polish knights, von Prauen thought. Szary's brothers. He could make out the red banner of Krakow, and the white eagle standard. So, they had been held back in ambush!
"Get the riders moving!" the Swabian grunted suddenly. "Hide of the devil, are you moonstruck, man? Get into motion!"
"Go, you!" von Prauen shouted. "The first company to the left! The second to follow! Wheel them into column-"
But the Swabian had already left his side, riding fast. The Knights on the left had seen the new attack and were turning. Then von Prauen saw the Poles launch into a gallop. Their horses kept close ranks at incredible speed. He thought: "Those men are riders."
The long lances came down with a clash, leveling just as the Polish charge struck his flank. Bright sparks flew where the steel struck, and a rending roar drowned the komtur's voice. He motioned to the trumpeters behind him, and they blew for a wheel to the left.
"Pikemen form on me," von Prauen shouted, raising his helmet on his sword tip. Only the nearest men heard him, because the smashing of wood and metal on the flank drowned his voice. The blare of his trumpets cut through the tumult. And the disciplined Germans began their wheel by companies.
Through the shrilling of the horns, he heard a new sound, an undertone of voices, rising and falling. It sounded familiar, this slow cadence of prayer. He caught a few words: "Ave Maria gratia plena"-and it seemed strange to him that the voices of the Poles as they prayed should reach his ears. He did not believe at first that they could be so close. Their long swords slashed before their eagles' wings. They were shearing through his moving men, their great horses racing. They picked openings and came through with swinging swords. They were almost at his mound.
The uproar of that charge beat at his ears. Beyond it the red flames leaped in the mist, and von Prauen felt cold sweat on his skin. He had been shouting and no one had heard him. Why, all this was not to be believed. Hay burning and dogs howling, and mad men praying and weeping through the shriek of steel pounding and breaking. Riders speeding like stone balls from his cannon, and horses overthrown like stacks of wheat-
He was watching a nightmare, under the witchery of that lantern in the sky. He was trying to drive away the nightmare by his voice. And all the while his brain reasoned clearly. Item: The long lances of the Poles had overreached the German weapons. Item: The momentum of the Poles had thrown them like stones through his first and second companies. Because, by sheer carelessness he had allowed his Knights to be caught at a foot pace, in the beginning of a wheel, by an unforeseen charge on the flank.
So, the answer of course was to hold the mound with his Prussian pikes. The disciplined Knights would form on the company leaders and fight their way to a new line at the forest, where they must rally on him.
A Knight without a helmet broke from a knot of wheeling horses. Von Prauen saw, for that instant, the face of the Swabian turned toward him. A Polish rider struck him at an angle, and the Swabian's tired horse went over. The Pole swung down with his sword as he passed.
A hand pulled at von Prauen's rein. The white face of his trumpeter peered up at him. The man's voice quavered: "Sir Komtur, what is the order?"
Von Prauen's mind repeated the order clearly: To draw back to the forest. They must cut their way back to Vorberg. Then he heard a man laughing. It was such a jest, this nightmare on the plain, where the damp mist hid his straining, panting men and the white cross of the Poles moved toward him like the wind. His trumpeter tugged, groaning at his rein. And von Prauen knew that he himself was laughing, because no one, now, could hear him give an order.
His clear, orderly mind had betrayed him, and he felt only hot anger. His knees gripped the tired horse under him. His fingers gripped his sword hilt, and he rode down from the mound into that tossing sea of steel.
A blow he took on his shield. His sword smashed out at the buffalo horns on a head, and the head became dark with blood, cracked like a dried melon by the good sword. Something ground into the iron links binding his chest, and he lowered his head. His dry mouth felt damp and sweet, and the red fire before his eyes grew dim. He felt the bones cracking in his chest.
And he looked through half-closed eyes at a clear morning sun. Wet grass cooled his neck, and his empty fingers felt dirt when he moved them.
The heads of two men, unhelmed, looked down at him. Szary's dark face shone with sweat; his eyes blinked wearily. Szary, von Prauen thought, was hurt again, but Szary was alive. Yes, he could smile.
"Sir Komtur," said Szary, "do you hear what I say?"
"Of course."
"Can you ride?"
Von Prauen nodded, and set his teeth against the pain of broken bones grating. The other man spoke. They were waiting for him, if he could sit a horse, to surrender Vorberg to them. By now those of his men who had been fighting their way back through the forest without a leader had yielded themselves in surrender. They had been surrounded in the forest.
"You see," said Szary wearily, "you cannot defend even such a castle as Vorberg without men."
All this, von Prauen thought, could not be so. Even when he rode across the bridge of boats, still intact over the river, that noon, and saw the water gate of Vorberg standing open, with the people of the countryside thronging through, staring at the deserted battlements, he did not believe his eyes. The courtyard of Vorberg was silent, and empty except for that foolish girl perched on the chapel steps, waving her head veil at Szary as if such an absurd action could have some meaning.
"It is impossible, this surrender!" von Prauen shouted.
"Perhaps," Szary said. "But it sometimes happens, when a castle is built on a land that will not endure it."

Chapter I
From the Roof of the World we led out our steeds, to follow the wind for a little play.
Where the banners of Islam were unfurled on the ramparts of Sarai.
Not for wall or door did we draw our reins, till the last of the banners were laid away,
And the shout of "Allah" was heard no more on the ramparts of Sarai.
-The Minstrel's Song
It was a year of many omens. Lightning made the sign of the cross in the sky, and meteors fell along the road to Jerusalem. When the dry season began, locusts came and destroyed the vineyards.
In that year, early in the thirteenth century of our Lord, the mailed host of the crusaders was idle. There was a truce between it and the Saracens who had reconquered Jerusalem and all of the cities of Palestine except the seacoast and the rich province of Antioch.
Before the truce the crusaders had suffered heavily in an attempt to take the port of Egypt, Damietta, and its triple wall. And the retreat over the desert to Ascalon had taken its further toll of the lives of peers and men-at-arms alike. Meanwhile, on three sides of the strip of seacoast, the Moslems gathered their power for the blow that would send the Croises back into the sea from which they had come.
So the omens were interpreted as a warning.
The veriest springald of a squire of dames, new come from Venice or Byzantium and gay with curled ringlets and striped hose, knew that the truce would not last. The older men-at-arms who had fought under the banner of Richard of England, a generation ago, shook their heads and spent their days in the taverns.
Why not? The omens were evil-so the monks said. And the truce had been arranged by the paynim Saracen-an interval before the storm. The monks also said, it is true, that the locusts had eaten the vineyards but had spared the corn, and that this was a warning to drunkards. But the older warriors preferred to drown thought in their wine cups.
In the great northern province of Antioch, the nobles took refuge from the heat of the dry season. Led by Hugo, Marquis of Montserrat and lord of Antioch, they crossed the long valley of the Orontes and made their way to a castle on the western March, a stronghold in the hills where they might hunt and listen to the tales of minstrel and troubadour.
Robert, castellan of Antioch, made his way out of a labyrinth of clay gullies and gave his bay charger the rein. A glance to right and left revealed no human being astir on the yellow desolation of sand over which he was passing to gain the thicket of reeds ahead.
These withered rushes, he knew, bordered the Orontes River, now low in its bed. The horse lengthened its stride as it scented the water, and Sir Robert urged it on with knee and voice. The bay was dark with sweat, for the knight had pushed on at a round pace since sunup, when they left the last mud hovels of Port St. Simeon and lost sight of the sea.
But they had still far to go before nightfall, and the valley of the Orontes was an ill place to linger-without a strong following of spears. And Sir Robert rode alone.
He had landed the day before at St. Simeon with his horse and little else. Two years ago he had been wounded in the Egyptian campaign and had been made prisoner by the mamelukes at the wall of Damietta. It had taken many a month to arrange for his release, for among his enemies Sir Robert bore a name that set him apart from his fellows. By reason of the great sword he carried-a straight, tapering blade, a full four feet of blue steel-they called him Longsword.
And so did the minstrels name him when they made a song about him thereafter.
As he entered the rushes he drew rein sharply and turned in the saddle to stare down at a fresh trail that ran athwart the path he was following. Many a man would have passed it by with a casual glance. But the cas tellan had been born in the hills that towered over Antioch, and he knew the sandy wastes of the Orontes as his father before him had known the courtyard of an earl's hold in England.
The trail was a narrow one, yet possibly a hundred horses had passed over it. The tracks were made by unshod hoofs, so the riders must have come in from the desert. And they had kept to the rushes instead of the main path, higher up where the clay was firmer.
They had wished to hide their tracks as far as possible, yet they had chosen a route in the open where they would be easily observed, unless-the castellan fancied they had traveled at night.
He would have liked to follow the trail. But a sound from the heights he had just left caused him to glance up quickly. The faint drumming of hoofs was unmistakable. An arrow's flight distant, he noticed dust rising above the red clay ridges that lined the gullies.
Waiting long enough to be sure that only one rider was coming after him, he put the bay at the ford and crossed over the river, restraining the horse from stopping to drink. Nor did he look back as he rode slowly up the far bank.
Entering a dense growth of gray tamarisk, higher than the crest of his helm, Robert halted and wheeled his horse to face the back trail where it turned sharply. Pulling the long, triangular shield from its loop over his shoulder, he slid his left arm through its bands and took his sword in his right.
Sir Robert smiled, and his gray eyes, under the steel of the helm, lighted with pleasure. The day's ride, that had been dull and hot until now, promised entertainment.
When he heard hoofs thudding over the sand he pricked the flanks of the bay with his spurs and the two horses met shoulder to shoulder at the edge of the tamarisks. And the castellan, learning forward, thrust the top of his shield over the stranger's sword hilt, gripping the weapon in the fingers of his left hand.
The other rider was not slow to act. A twist of the reins, and his horse lunged aside. But the weapon, held by Sir Robert under the shield, slipped from its scabbard and remained in the hands of the knight.
"Ma kaharani!" said the stranger under his breath. "And what now?"
He was a man gray-haired and massive of limb, clad in splendor of embroidered vest and kaftan, and his brown eyes were shrewd. A Moslem by his garments and turban, yet a Moslem who did not sit in the saddle like a Turk or Arab.
Slung over his shoulder, instead of a shield, was a lute. Behind his saddle, a prayer rug. Sir Robert thought him to be a wandering minstrel.
"Your name!" he demanded, for he ever liked plain words.
Arabic came easily to his tongue, as he had been raised among his father's slaves.
"I am Abdullah ibn Khar, the teller of tales, the cup-companion of an emperor."
The castellan considered him and saw that he was not afraid, though disarmed. The horse Abdullah bestrode was a remarkably fine one, a black Kabuli stallion.
"When does a minstrel of Islam follow the shadow of a Nazarene?" Sir Robert asked curtly.
The white teeth of the stranger flashed through the black tangle of his beard.
"Wallah! You ride with a loose rein. Surely a penned tiger is kin to the young warrior who is freed from camp. Not otherwise was I, in another day. To a woman or a battle, a man should ride boldly."
"And you?"
"I followed to see your face."
He studied the dark features of the Norman, the thin, down-curving nose and the powerful neck. Sir Robert had his mother's hair of tawny gold that fell to the mail coif on his shoulders. The hot temper of his race was his, yet the quiet, as well, of those who have great physical strength.
"Aye, a woman could summon you across the Orontes," nodded the minstrel, "if you chose to come. A battle is another thing. Are you the paladin of the Franks-the Longsword?"
"Aye, so."
"In the village by the sea a saddlemaker pointed you out and said that you were he, although many thought you dead. So I found my horse and sought you, for company on the road. There is a truce between our peoples."
"So that your spies may enter our walls."
"And your great lords may hawk and dice at leisure. Many things have I seen-your men-at-arms picking their noses, having no better thing to do-your king holding court on an island, because his foes cannot ride over the paths of the sea. Yet I have not seen a leopard change his skin, nor a spy look otherwise than faithless. Allah kerim! Do I look like a pryer?"
Sir Robert thought that the man was bold enough. The horse under his hand might have been the gift of an emir.
"You do not look like a minstrel," he laughed.
The man's words rang unpleasantly true. The Christian barons spent their days in bickering with each other. They were a weaker breed than the first crusaders who had fought their way over the desert to Jerusalem and left their bones in the land they conquered. Venetians, Genoese, Bavarians, and French-the new lords were more apt at gleaning profit from trade than at defending the fiefs they held.
In the last years the men who had been the heroes of Sir Robert's childhood had passed elsewhere, some stricken by the plague, some thrust into the torture chambers of the neighboring Saracens. Others had sailed back to the courts of Europe.
Now the galleys brought to Palestine disorderly throngs of pilgrims who were more than willing to pay a fee to the Saracens to visit the Sepulcher and bear away a palm.
This troubled Sir Robert, who had known no other land, and no fellowship other than that of the Croises.
While he mused, Abdullah had been studying his face. Now the minstrel leaned down swiftly and caught up a fistful of sand.
"My lord," he said, "I can read what passes in your mind. Who can change a book that is written, if that book be fate? No one among the Franks can keep Palestine for long, and your people will go again upon the sea whence they came. And their empire will pass-so!"
He loosed his fingers, letting fall the sand, and the castellan started.
"In the Fiend's name, mummer, did you ride from the sea to tell me this?"
"Nay, am I a fool?" Abdullah's thick chest rumbled with laughter. "I sought the Longsword, and I found a youngling," he added. "Did you, in truth, hold the wall of Antioch against Nasr-ud-deen and his spears?"
"Now that you have found me, seek another with your tricks. I have no largess to give."
Abdullah glanced reflectively at the castellan's faded surcoat and weather-stained shield from which the armorial device had long since been battered out.
"Largess, my lord, awaits me in the hall of Montserrat, whither I think you draw your reins-unless," he added gravely, "you fear to have Abdullah for refik-companion on the road."
Robert frowned and tossed the Moslem his scimitar.
"Go where you will, knave!"
Turning the bay aside, he passed by the minstrel and let his horse go down to the river to drink. Meanwhile his glance swept the Orontes and the bare, red hills that pressed down upon it, for signs of other riders who might have followed Abdullah and lain concealed during the talk.
But the far side of the river, shimmering through the heat haze, was empty of life.
Abdullah had followed his example, and when the stallion had lifted its fine head to let the water run out between its teeth, he turned in the saddle.
"Will the lord grant one boon to his servant? Your word that I shall not be harmed by the Nazarenes at Montserrat?"
Robert shook his head. He had been taught by his father never to break his word, whether given to a Moslem or one of his own peers. Abdullah, however, seemed satisfied with this response, and rode ahead up the trail of his own accord.
They had no more than entered the tamarisks again when both reined to a halt, and the horses fidgeted. From up the hill loud voices drew nearer, with a clattering of iron, a yapping of dogs, a braying of asses, and a creaking of wheels that made a small bedlam of the quiet of the valley.
From between the gray bushes emerged a gaunt man, stumbling under the weight of a tall banner of soiled samite upon which was embroidered a crimson cross. On his heels tramped a throng ragged and filthy, living scarecrows with feverish eyes.
Drawing aside from the trail, Robert watched the company pass. Some carried bundles slung to pike or staff-bundles that jingled and clanked, spoil beyond a doubt snatched from some native village. Many lay sick in the lumbering oxcarts, and a leper walked alone at a cart tail, his bell clinking when he stumbled.
In another araba lay a woman, suckling a child scarcely a month old. A lad whose only garment was a torn shirt peered up through the dust at the knight and the minstrel.
"Good my lord, is't far to Jerusalem?"
"Too far for a springald such as you," Robert responded gruffly. "What company is this?"
The boy pointed proudly to the red cross sewn on his shirt.
"Messire," he piped, "I am from Provence, like the demoiselle herself. We heard the blessed de Courcon preach, and we are come to deliver the city of Christ out of paynim duress."
He trotted on, and an English yeoman in green jerkin and feathered hood stopped to scowl blackly at Abdullah, and spit.
"A murrain upon yon infidel! When we set forth we e'en had forty thousand such as that-" nodding after the boy-"and now, by the shadow of we have but two. Aye, he and the lass."
"-'s wounds!" cried Robert. "Was this a crusade of the children?"
"Ah, that it was, tall my lord! Verily the mob did betake itself to divers paths from Byzantium, some adventuring upon the sea-and St. Giles and St. Dunstan ha' mercy on them-some upon the coast, where they did fall to quarreling and warring with the Armenians, and are no better this day than crow's meat, drying i' the wind. Our company was five hundred strong when we left Byzantium behind. And now-" He leaned on his staff and jerked a thumb at the rear of the party. The pilgrims numbered no more than five score.
"A black malison on the infidels, say I."
Robert wondered who the lass of this array might be, but just then some dozen men began to crowd around Abdullah, cursing him and fingering the axes at their belts. Someone flung a stone that made the black horse rear, the minstrel keeping his seat in the saddle with easy grace.
"Salvation awaits him who sheds the blood of a Saracen!" cried a giant with a pocked face.
"Seize his horse for Father Evagrius!" suggested another.
"Send him to pare the 's hoofs!"
Taking up his reins, Robert urged the bay between the angry throng and his companion. Whatever the mission upon which Abdullah of Khar had been sent, the man was of gentle blood, and the nobles of Palestine had sworn a truce with the Moslems, giving hand and glove upon it. This oath Robert felt to be binding unless the enemy broke the truce.
"Back, ribalds," he commanded. "Pass on. This is a minstrel who rides with me."
The mob seemed made up of villains, of commoners, and the knight did not feel called upon to voice reasons for his action to them. As some men in rusty haburgeons drew their swords, he rose in his stirrups to peer through the dust.
"Ho, the leader of this pack! The chief of these rogues, I say-call hence your varlets or it will be the worse for them."
At this the throng parted, and an old priest rode up on a white donkey led by a young girl. Flinging back the hood of her gown, she looked up angrily at Robert.
"Messire! Unsay what you have said, and that without ado."
She took the charger's rein in a gloved hand, and stamped a slender foot angrily and a little awkwardly, for it was clad in an Armenian red leather boot several sizes too large. Robert glimpsed a white face pinched by hunger and eyes shadowed by ripples of hair dark as a raven's wing.
"This is our patriarch, Sir Lout," went on the maid in a clear voice, "and Father Evagrius is blind. Climb down from your big horse and kneel and ask his pardon and blessing."
"Nay, Ellen," put in the patriarch, "it is not seemly that a stranger and a man-at-arms should kneel-"
"I say he shall! Nay, he is no sergeant-at-arms but a spurred lordling. His companion is a black-browed Moslem, and surely that is not seemly."
Against the crowd of grease- and vermin-ridden men the slight figure of the maid stood out in bold relief. The pulse throbbed in her delicate throat, and the circles darkened under her eyes that blazed with the tensity of long suffering. Abdullah glanced from her to Robert with some amusement.
"Father Evagrius," observed the knight, "if you are verily the leader of this company you do ill to turn your back on the castle of Montserrat. The river is scarce a safe abiding-place."
"Messire," responded the maid Ellen quickly, "the lord of Montserrat hath seen fit to order us away from his hold to the river."
"How? His Grace, the marquis-"
"-doth lack of courtesy, even as you. Perchance he feared lest the ribalds trample his coverts or disturb the sleep of his hunting hounds."
"Demoiselle," explained Robert calmly, "I am the vassal of Hugo of Montserrat, and even now I seek his hold, above in the border mountain chain. And I do maintain that he would not send a Christian company into hazard of their lives."
"Sir Stiff-and-Stuffy, I do maintain that your Hugo hath turned us off."
While Robert stared at her perplexed, yet finding an unexpected pleasure in meeting the glance of a girl of his own race after years spent without sight of a woman, he heard the gentle voice of the priest.
"The good marquis hath given his word that he will protect us against all foes upon his marches. And the Orontes, where we will pass the night, doth lie within his border."
"Then are you safe," nodded Robert. "Montserrat, having given his pledge, will keep it."
"And now, Sir Vassal," added the girl, Ellen, "do you kneel to the patriarch. Ah, he is a very saint, and his spirit dwells near to the throne of God-whom you miscalled a moment ago."
Robert, looking down upon her youthful rage-the maid scarce numbered more than fifteen years-tried in vain to stifle a hearty laugh. At this she flushed from throat to eyes and slipped off the hawking gauntlet upon her hand. Standing on her toes, she struck him swiftly across the lips.
The force of the blow knocked the glove from her grasp. Robert swung down from his stirrup and picked it up. When he stepped toward her she did not draw back, but clenched thin hands and stood her ground. Her followers, who had time to take in Robert's spread of shoulder and the length of his sword, made no move to molest him-though he paid no heed to them.
"I give you back your glove, demoiselle," he said, smiling at her boldness. "And I would that you and the good father would turn back with me to Montserrat."
"You mock us! Never-we would never go with you."
"By the saints! I meant no ill to you or the blind priest," denied the knight gravely.
"Come, Ellen," said Evagrius, "you have delayed our march, and I feel that the sun is sinking near the earth. A week from this hour we shall bathe in the Jordan, and you shall see the Mount of Olives."
His lined face was lighted by inward rejoicing as he felt for the donkey's halter. But the girl bent her head, and Robert heard her sob as she moved away. Frowning, he watched them pass into the dust cloud.
Why, he wondered, had the maid wept? Surely there was pride in her, and gentleness, for she tended the helpless Evagrius.
"Yah re flk," observed Abdullah, "You know little of a woman's spirit. That was a comely child and-I had fancied, lord, that you rode in such haste to meet with a woman."
"There are none in the castle we seek."
"Wallah! Can it be?"
He looked more than a little skeptical, yet the other's response appeared to give him satisfaction. As they passed up into the rocky gorges of the foothills Abdullah swung his lute around to his saddle peak and began to sweep his fingers across the strings, chanting in his fine voice.
He sang of the joy of racing the stag over the hills, and of watching the falcon stoop, and of wandering under the dome of the stars. Robert, hearkening despite himself, felt the magic of the other's gift of song. In his mind's vision he went back to boyhood, riding with his father over the desert floor, calling to staghounds. He knew again the thrill of loosing a hawk against the midday sky, and the cheer of the fire when the hunt was done and the wine cup made the rounds.
Abdullah sang on, and Robert's memory changed to the days of stark hunger when a Moslem city was beleaguered; he watched the men fashioning great mangonels and massive siege towers-for he had been taught the arts of the siege engines when most boys were playing at jousting.
Lean years thronged into his mind. Years spent in the saddle with the nucleus of the mailed host that had struggled to keep the banner of the Croises upon the walls of Jerusalem. Days of hideous din, when streets under the eyes of the lad had run with blood until the very bodies were washed into the gutters.
As the minstrel sang on, he felt a restlessness in his veins. A craving to wander, as he had often done with his comrades, beyond the border and try his strength against foes.
"Faith!" he cried, spurring on the big bay. "We loiter apace."
Abdullah put aside his lute and brought up the black stallion, bridle to bridle.
"Aforetime," he observed, "I made that song for my master, who is master of all men."
Robert did not ask him who this might be, because at that moment they heard rising from the depths behind and below them a hum of human voices.
"Te Deum laudamus. We praise Thee, 0 Lord-we praise and magnify Thee forever."
It was the chant of the pilgrims, who were visible only as a thin line of dust moving into the maw of the Orontes, where the network of gorges was shadowed by the early sunset in royal purple, the pinnacles crowned with red and gold. The two men paused to look back.
"See, how Allah hath hung in the sky the crimson banners of death," remarked Abdullah. "And we-who knows what days are before us?"
Chapter II
A Year and a Day
The glory of the sunset had dwindled when the two riders halted without the barbican gate of the castle of Montserrat. In the western sky the afterglow ran the length of the horizon, forming the semblance of a dullred river flowing above the earth.
Light glimmered from the upper embrasures of the black donjon. The wall behind the moat shut out the courtyard from the travelers' sight; but they heard voices and the clinking of bowls on wooden tables and a snatch of song.
Robert, who was mightily hungry, struck the bars of the peephole with his mailed fist. In the hall of the main keel he knew that Hugo, his liege lord, Marquis of Montserrat and master of Antioch, sat at table with a goodly company. And the castellan was eager to greet his peers, who thought him dead after an absence of two years in Egypt, and to satisfy his hunger.
"Ho, the gate!" he shouted. "Open in the name of Montserrat."
But the face of the warder that peered through the barred opening in the portal did not withdraw.
"Thy name! And thy companion's name! Small thanks would be ours, I trow, if we unbarred to a Saracen after sundown."
"Sir Robert, castellan of Antioch, am I-Longu'-espee, Longsword, forsooth. And he with me is a paynim minstrel with a song for the marquis. What now?"
Robert's mustache twitched in a grin of amusement as he heard an exclamation, followed by whispered voices. Other faces pressed to the bars to scrutinize him in the dim light.
"Out upon thee for a lying wight," growled one. "Sir Robert was racked, carted, and buried by the accursed mamelukes."
Behind the gate was heard the grinding clink of a crossbow, wound up to speed a shaft. Robert turned to Abdullah.
"Minstrel, are you resolved to enter this hold? Methinks they give but an ill welcome to wayfarers-though Hugo loves well a good tale and a tuneful voice. Forget not that I stand in no way your protector, and what befalls is e'en your hazard."
"So be it."
"'s death! " Robert kicked the gate impatiently. "Set wide the gate and make an end of words. Fetch a cresset, varlets, or I'll set the pack of you aswim in the moat."
Someone remarked that this sounded rarely like the Longsword, and a torch was brought while they examined the visitors. Then the bars were let down slowly, and Robert pushed inside, followed by Abdullah.
A bearded captain of the warders crossed himself with a muttered-"Mary preserve us-'tis he!"
The men who were lowering the drawbridge glanced at each other and whispered behind their hands, and it was several moments before the castellan and his companion dismounted in the courtyard and were greeted by a staring squire.
Word of their arrival had passed to the main hall before them. A slim poursuivant who bowed low at the door seemed to share the general hesitation in announcing them, and Robert was fain to chuckle again at the bewilderment of those who greeted him. At the end of the lofty hall candles gleamed on the table set on a dais for the master of the castle and his guests, and here a man stood up to peer over the candles as the knight strode forward between the long tables of the henchmen and commoners.
"Madre a dios!"
His broad, olive face paled, and he grasped the arm of his chair.
"If ye be a spirit, why-why, know then that I have mourned you right hardily, having given to the shave-pates a ten shekels, aye, and thirty soldi for clank of bell and patter of prayer for this your soul. If ye be Sir Robert, lad, i' the flesh, why-"
"That am I, and sharp-set with hunger into the bargain."
"Ha, that would be the Longu'-espee. Why boil me, lad, but we heard that you were cut down at the gate of Damietta. Aye, a Templar saw you carried within, and shortly thereafter your bare body hung out on the wall headless, to despite your comrades."
Hugo shook his head doubtfully-a craggy head, yet covered with curled ringlets, oiled after the fashion of his native Italy. His broad, stooped body was clad in silk, covered with a damask mantle, fur-trimmed, that fell below the toes of his velvet shoes, which were turned up in the latest style and held by silver chains running from his girdle. His nearsighted eyes blinked at Abdullah, and Robert made known the minstrel.
"A fair greeting have we," quoth the marquis, fingering his chin, "for trouvere and dechanteur, for makers and tellers of tales. But a noose and a fire beneath for spies. Bid him to the lower board."
He turned to his companions.
"Messires, give greeting to this Englishman who is well come, having cheated the Saracens yet another time-though I vow to St. Bacchus my spleen rose to my gullet when he fronted us."
After removing his bascinet and handing his shield to a squire-atarms, Robert hooked his sword over a chair and seated himself to wash his hands in a silver bowl offered by a serving knave. Hugo divided his attention between his footgear and his guest impatiently until Robert had stayed his hunger.
"016, knaves-wine of Cyprus for our guests. Come, lad, the tale! Messer Guiblo-" he nodded at a thin, handsome Venetian whose rich velvets were the envy of the poorer liegemen-"made search for you in the camp of the king, and all reports had you dead."
He bent forward to lean on the table addressing the other guests.
"Know, messers, that Sir Robert, called Longu'-espee, did once save for us our city of Antioch, being rarely skilled at the making of stone-casters and fire-throwers, aye, at counterwalls and curtains, chat-castels and all the engines of siege."
Besides the Venetian, Guiblo, a young Provencal, sat at the side of the marquis. Hugo spoke of him as the Sieur de la Marra, a Hospitaler. On the far side of the knight of the Marra was a dark-faced Lombard whom Robert knew as Hugo's seneschal. Other warriors and a scattering of Venetian merchants he did not know. No other Englishmen sat at the table. But Robert had noticed a woman who had the chair on the right of the marquis.
"The Madonna del Bengli -" Hugo followed his glance-"honors our poor dwelling of Montserrat for sake of the hunting and hawking in the hills."
Robert rose and bowed courteously, wondering why such a woman should come over the valley of the Orontes for the sake of a little sport. She was a Venetian undoubtedly, and, he learned later, the cousin of the man Guiblo. Certainly she was beautiful and aware of it, for her bronzered hair was scented and coiled skillfully on her bare shoulders; her white skin gave no evidence of the sun's touch.
"Equally honored are we," she added lightly, "in such a visitor and his grace of Montserrat in such a vassal."
Her curving lips accented the word vassal, and she turned to stare at Robert out of clear blue eyes. Guiblo leaned back to pick his teeth and exchange a word with the seneschal. Robert was little skilled in the manners of a court, or in play of words, yet it struck him that his welcome at Montserrat lacked of heartiness.
"By Venus, her girdle," lisped the young knight of the Hospital, whose cheeks were warmed by wine, "would we had a Provencal to make song out of Longu'-espee's tale. Nay, his name is already known from Antioch to Ascalon. Didst bind the infidel jailers with their own fetters, Sir Robert-or win the heart and abetment of some fair Saracen maid, as the fashion is?"
"Not so," made answer Robert bluntly. "Your Grace, I bring but two words. One a warning, one a request."
Hugo set down his cup.
"Then let us have the warning."
"A hundred Saracens armed and mounted for war passed through your border within the day."
"Now by the slipper of our fair madonna, that could not be. Our watchers on the borderland have seen no foray pass. Nay-"
"I saw the tracks, across the river."
The marquis pursed his lips and shook his head, then signed for a servant to fill the Longsword's cup.
"I pray you, Messer Englishman," put in Guiblo incredulously, "how could you discern from tracks in the sand what manner of men passed over? "
"How? The hoofs were small-blooded Arabs or Turkomans. They were unshod and so from the desert. To my thinking no pack-animals were among them, and so each horse had its rider."
Mistress Bengli raised slim fingers in polite surprise, and by so doing displayed gleaming sapphire and turquoise rings, rarely fashioned.
"Truly we have a magician with us. Do they not say that the Egyptians are masters of the black arts?"
"Some band of villagers," scoffed Hugo, "chanced to wander along the river. And now your boon. Hawk or horse, or-a fair maid of Circassia for your beguilement; 'tis granted ere asked."
"My life it is," Robert smiled, "I seek at your hand."
"Misericarde-how?"
"At the Damietta wall I was struck down by a mameluke's mace. It is true they pulled my body within the gates; but the hurt mended, and in time I could mount a horse. Being captive, they held me for ransom, yet could no letter be sent in the turmoil until truce was made between Saracens and Croises. Then did the paynim emirs grant me a year and a day to journey to my overlord and raise the payment for the freedom of my body."
Some of the Venetians looked skeptical, for seldom did the enemy put trust in the crusaders to this extent. Yet they were aware that the Longsword had before this kept his promises to the Moslems.
"Well," observed Hugo, "you are here, and you are free. The Cairenes cannot lay hand on you now. On my life, I was not aware that you had a tongue to trick those unshriven dogs."
"I gave my word to return to their camp if the ransom is not in their hands within a year and a day."
"Oho, a prayer and a gold candlestick to the cathedral at Antioch will eke shrive you of a pledge to infidels. So say the monks."
Robert shook his head gravely. "My word was passed."
"But, fool, the mamelukes would tie you to horses and split you. You have emptied too many of their saddles and wrought them woe too often for them to forego the pleasure of torturing you."
He glanced sidewise at the set face of the youth and emptied his goblet, then laid his hand on the shoulder of the woman.
"Do you, make shift to alter the mind of our stubborn vassal; perchance he will listen to reason from other lips than ours-"
Seeing that Robert frowned, he thought for a moment. "What then is the sum of your ransom?"
"Two thousand broad pieces of gold."
"Horns of the fiend! 'Tis the release of a baron of the realm."
A smile touched the lips of the knight.
"My lord, having fought against Longsword, it chances that the Saracens do hold me to be greater than I am."
The demand of the vassal was a just one. By the feudal laws Robert was bound to serve in the wars of Montserrat, and to come mounted and fully armed at the summons of his lord. For this service, instead of a fief and lands, Hugo had appointed him castellan of Antioch, granting him the payment and perquisites of his office-for though the Englishman was young for such responsibility he had shown his ability to handle the defense of a stronghold against siege. If Hugo had been taken captive, Robert would have been obliged to raise his share of the marquis' ransom. So he had sworn when he placed his hands between the knees of Hugo, and his lord was equally bound.
The marquis flung himself back in his chair with an oath, and Mistress Bengli studied the jewels on her fingers, a slight frown creasing her smooth forehead.
"Two thousand byzants!" he muttered. "It passes reason-to raise such a sum for a mere punctilio, a splitting of hairs. Mort de ma vie! Shall we mortgage our souls to swell the wallets of filthy unbelievers. Eh?"
The woman close to his ear spoke softly, and the Italian shrugged.
"You went to Egypt on no mission of mine, Longsword; and, now I think of it, you are cursed with wandering. Let the matter stand for the nonce, and we will talk of it at a better time."
"Not so, Lord," objected Robert at once. "If you cannot advance to me the entire sum, I must make shift to find a share of it, and perchance sell my office of castellan."
"Pardon, messire," put in the Venetian, Guiblo, "you are no longer castellan, for the king hath appointed another."
"Who?"
"Aye, now it comes to Iny mind," laughed the marquis, "our new monarch out of France bath brought with him a vassal who bath rendered loyal service to the State. Believing you dead, he did appoint Messer Guiblo here castellan."
The thin Venetian bowed.
"I regret the mischance suffered by the youth, and I would that he had seen fit to endeavor to advise his liege of his situation while in Egypt."
"I give you thanks for your courtesy," responded Robert, frowning; and Guiblo's eyes narrowed.
The Englishman had not kept his disappointment out of his voice. True, he could not quarrel with the turn matters had taken. The king whose standard he had followed, Baldwin, had died in the last years when Jerusalem had been lost, and the baron who had been chosen to succeed him was a favorite of the French king. But now, unless the marquis aided him, as he was bound to do, Robert would have no means of raising his ransom in Palestine. And not a man present at the table doubted that the Englishman would keep his promise to return to Damietta and his captors if the sum were not raised.
"My lord," he asked, "what is your answer-yea or nay?"
Hugo curled an oiled ringlet around his forefinger and sucked in his lips. Silence fell on the company, and Mistress Bengli exchanged a quick glance with Guiblo.
"Alas," she sighed audibly, "our table doth lack of gaiety since the coming of Sir Robert. Will your Grace permit me to answer the Englishman?"
"Aye," quoth Hugo, pleased. "Let us hear the judgment of Diana. Pardi, Sir Robert, it would have availed you more to urge your suit more gallantly. Then the madonna might have smiled upon you-for you are comely enough to win favor with the fair."
"The fairest face in Palestine," murmured the Hospitaler a little vaguely.
"And now," she added, "having heard the plea of the vassal, we must take counsel of the learned. How now, 0 seneschal and merchants-are not we in the hands of the moneylenders? Hath his Grace of Montserrat such a sum where it can be called in and rendered into gold?"
Piculph, the Lombard seneschal, had gauged the pleasure of the marquis and made answer accordingly.
"Nay, domna, the very jewels of the rings you wear are paying usury to the Jews."
"Then must we pawn our very lives, that this dour Englishman-"
A chuckle from Hugo interrupted her, and she wrinkled her brows in pretended displeasure. The marquis lolled in his chair, delighted with the wordplay of his favorite, while he stroked the feathers of a favorite hawk perched beside him.
"-be safe," she concluded, "unless he dare seek his ransom with his sword from the hands of those Moslems about whom he doth prate so roundly."
It became clear to Robert that they were mocking him, for the marquis was lord of wide lands and great treasure. Guiblo disliked him, realizing that the former castellan of Antioch might urge his claim upon the king. Hugo, indifferent to everything that did not minister to his pleasure, had little desire to grant a small store of gold to the knight for what he held to be merely a quirk of conscience.
"And so," said Mistress Bengli, smiling full upon Robert, "it is our pleasure that you should seek to gain your treasure from the castles of the paynims-a worthy quest for the Longu'-espee-"
"Aye, let the wild boar root i' the thicket," shouted Piculph.
"-for a year and a day," cried the woman shrilly above the maudlin merriment of the feasters, "and that is the sentence of the court of his peers."
"Is it yours, my lord?" Robert leaned forward to address his host.
"It is so," responded Hugo without looking up.
But up from the table rose the Sieur de la Marra unsteadily, yet with a purpose in his bleared eyes.
"By the throne of Antichrist, by the palladium of the Horned One, 'tis a foul wrong so to mischief a warrior of the Cross. Has your Grace forgotten that he kept your wall of Antioch against the Saracen spears when the waters of the moat were red with blood?"
Alone of those present the knight of the Marra was not bound to the fortunes of Montserrat by ties of ambition, and Guiblo frowned at his words. The recent truce had altered the situation in Palestine and the mastery of the rich coast cities was passing into the hands of the Lombards and Venetians who had no wish to see the barons of England or France return to the court. Knowing that Hugo wished to be rid of the Longsword, Guiblo made answer accordingly:
"Hast wooed the cup too long this night, Sir Hospitaler. Art a fool to give belief to the tale of this wanderer. If my lord of Montserrat had not deemed his tale a lie, he would have granted the Longu'-espee his boon. But two thousand pieces of gold for a vassal's ransom passes belief-when the asker rides with a Moslem."
"Now by Venus, her girdle," cried the Sieur de la Marra, reaching a quivering hand for his sword, "that touches upon mine honor-"
"I give you thanks, Sir Hospitaler," broke in Robert, "for your abetment, but no man's aid seek I."
The red lips of Mistress Bengli curled, for here was a quarrel brewing, and she loved well to see men put themselves to the hazard of drawn steel. She did not fear for Guiblo, knowing that her cousin was well able to make shift for himself, and as for Hugo-a vassal might not strike or miscall his lord. But she was more than a little puzzled when Robert signed for his cup to be filled and waited until Hugo had done likewise.
"My lord," he said slowly, "I greet you with this, my stirrup cup. In this hour I ride from Montserrat, and my allegiance is at an end. No vassal am I, but my own man henceforth, by your will. With Messer Guiblo and the seneschal I shall have other speech."
He emptied his goblet and Hugo did the same. Then the Englishman beckoned to Abdullah at the lower table, and in the silence that had fallen upon the company his summons was clearly heard.
"0 minstrel, a song for the people of the castle. We have had our dinner, it seems, and the wine thereof, and in this place a man must pay a reckoning for all that is bestowed upon him. Sing, 0 Abdullah, of gold and gear and treasure, that they may be pleasured, for my entertainment was but indifferent and dull."
At this the marquis flushed, while his followers fingered the poniards in their belts; but Mistress Bengli laughed musically, for the Englishman promised to be entertaining after all. Abdullah rose without comment and salaamed to the marquis and the woman. Advancing to the edge of the dais, he lifted his lute and plucked softly at the strings.
"In the name of Allah, the All-Compassionate, the All-Wise," he began in liquid Arabic, "will the illustrious lords hearken to the tale of a poor wayfarer?"
His powerful hand swept over the lute, and he chanted, deep-voiced:
"With Allah are the keys of the unseen, and who is bold enough to take in hand the keys? Doth lack of gold, 0 king, or jewels for the hilts of swords, or horses fleeter than the desert storm, or garments softer than the petals of flowers? Then hearken to my tale of Khar, the Land of the Throne of Gold."
Those of the listeners who understood Arabic, and they were many, glanced up in some surprise. The legend of Khar had come to their ears before this, but never in the same guise.
They had heard that beyond the eastern mountain wall was a wide desert and beyond this a sea of salt water. Far to the east lay the greatest of the Moslem kingdoms, so it was said. This was known as Khar, or Khoras- san,* and many were the tales of its wealth.
Like Cathay or the land of Prester John, the myth was voiced by wandering minstrels, and no man knew the truth of it, and no warrior of the Croises had penetrated farther to the east than the city of Damascus.
"Know, 0 auspicious lord," chanted Abdullah, "that it hath been my lot to follow the path of a wayfarer. From the Roof of the World I have looked down upon a land fairer than moonlight on a mountain lake; I have walked through gardens where roses were wrought of rubies, with emeralds for leaves; I have sat in a marble tower and beheld the passing of a monarch who hath more riders to his command than the Sultan of Damascus hath stones in his highways. Verily, as grains of sand is the number of warriors in this land. They walk in silvered mail with the plumes of birds upon their heads; their weapons are of blue steel, and the power of their host is such that the mamelukes of Egypt would bow down to them, even as grass before a rising wind."
Some of the guests smiled, and the Venetians, who were the wisest of the assemblage, sneered openly as at a palpable lie.
"Yah maulaya, 0 my lord, this is truth. The very trees of the palace gardens in this place are silver; and the monarch thereof hath a lake within his city-a lake built by the hands of his slaves. Within the courtyard of his castle stands a fountain, casting forth water perfumed with musk and aloes."
Hugo of Montserrat sighed and curled the lock of hair upon his forehead.
"In this land the lords are carried about by their slaves; save to mount a horse they do not set foot to earth. When the king drinks nakars and trumpets sound; when he walks in his chambers, rolls of silk are spread before him. He dwells in a city so great that the eye cannot measure it from one place. The women of his court are the fairest in the world, for they are brought from every land that his riders can adventure to.
"Verily," said the teller of tales slowly, "this king is the lord of life and death, for men seeking the joys of his court oft-times perish in the journey thither. But, having come, their joys are the fullest that life can measure out."
Chapter III
The Riders from Khar
"With Allah are the keys of the unseen." Abdullah ceased his say and took his hand from his lute. "But who will seek them out?" he added.
The listeners glanced at each other, and Mistress Bengli, chin on hand, smiled and watched the gleaming jewels on her fingers. Many had come to Palestine believing that it held the lure of the fabulous Khar and had found it otherwise.
"I have not heard the tale related so," observed Hugo. "Ha, minstrel, you are skilled in your craft-for you make us think you have dwelt in Khar."
"Sire, I have."
Guiblo shook his head.
"Then, rogue, you must have crossed the great desert and passed through the Iron Gates of which your folk prate."
Abdullah bowed assent.
"The road is no easy one. Nay, a full three moons must a man sit in the saddle, and the horse should be of good blood. In an elder day one of the heroes of the Franks led his host over the desert and saw the salt sea that lies in the desert."
"His name?"
"Iskander."
From the end of the table a monk who had not spoken until now looked up with a gleam of interest.
"By your leave, my lord, that should be Alexander, King of Macedon. Aye, the misguided scholasticists do relate in their profane books the deeds of the Macedonian."
"And how did Alexander pass the Iron Gates?"
"With his sword," Abdullah said calmly. "And yet-did he live to set foot in his own land again? Nay; the Iron Cates take their toll."
"What manner of thing are they?"
"In the books of the cosmographers Strabo and Herodotus, Messer Guiblo," explained the monk, "there is a mark on the road to the East inscribed with the words 'Caspiae Pylae,' or Gates of the Caspian. Their nature is unknown, for since the day of the caesars no Christian hath ventured there."
"Riddles," scoffed Hugo in his own speech. "'Tis a myth that holds no profit for us."
Abdullah appeared to grasp his meaning.
"0 king," he observed gravely, "riders have come out of Khar on a foray, and the traces of their horses can be seen within your borders."
"My watchers beheld them not."
"Who can behold the stars in broad day, or the djinn folk who ride upon the winds at night? Does the lord of the castle wish to see a talsmin-a token that his servant's word is true?"
Thrusting his hand into his girdle, the minstrel drew forth something that flashed in the flickering candlelight-a neck chain of rubies cut into the semblance of roses, strung on a cord of finely wrought gold.
"Such jewels as these the women of Khar wear upon their throats."
Mistress Bengli caught up the chain in her white fingers, and the others crowded close to stare from the gleaming rubies to Abdullah, who seemed inwardly amused by the excitement he had caused.
Now, considering him narrowly, Longsword thought that no playing of the lute could fashion such muscular hands, and no warbling of nights could give such note of command to a voice. Abdullah bore himself more like an atabeg-a leader of a host-than a minstrel.
"Here is a strange rogue forsooth," muttered the seneschal, Piculph, "with a baron's ransom in his belly band."
Robert frowned, for he wished no ill to the teller of tales, and Abdullah might as well have cast his valuable chain into the Orontes as to have shown it to the woman of the Montserrat. Hugo would cheerfully slit open a hundred natives on the chance that one had swallowed a single ruby like these. But Abdullah seemed no whit fearful of the fate he had called down on himself, for he had ceased to watch Mistress Bengli and was eyeing the great tapestries that shook and bellied upon the walls as the gusts of a rising wind buffeted the castle walls and whined through the cracks. The man, heedless of the company at the table, was listening to the sounds of the night beyond the walls.
At that moment there was heard a mutter of voices at the entrance to the hall, the clank of a long scabbard on the stone flagging of the floor, and the captain of the warders stood within the curtain with uplifted hand.
"Pardon, good my lord, I bear tidings. On the river road we have seen an array of Moslems. At midnight I went forth beyond the hamlet to overlook the valley, and in the lower gorge armed men do assemble in ranks. Wilt give command to man the walls, or sally forth?"
"Ha-so!"
Hugo stroked his heavy chin and glanced at his companions. "Sir Robert had the right of it, methinks-and the watchers upon the hill towers shall taste of the strappado. What is your counsel, messires?"
The young Sieur de la Marra struck the table with his fist and set the flagons dancing.
"By the Cross, messires, the paynims do challenge us. My men and I fare forth to seek them."
Hugo exchanged a low word with Messer Guiblo, and the Hospitaler caught the mention of Longu'-espee's name.
"Let it be so. Ho, armiger-my helm and shield. Without there, sound the oliphant to muster our followers."
Mistress Bengli put her hand to her throat to stifle a scream, and the chain of rubies fell to the table and slid down upon the rushes, whence Abdullah picked them up without being observed. This done, the minstrel made his way quietly to the wind-whipped tapestries in a dim corner.
An ivory horn sounded a mellow note in the courtyard, and the clatter of horses, led from the stables, made answer. When Hugo's helm was laced on by a squire-at-arms, he summoned the captain of the guard and peered around the hall.
"In the fiends' name, where went the infidel? Seek him out-you, and you-and retrieve me his chain, or Piculph shall strip and flag you. He stood here but a moment agone-"
"The knave bath a rare trick of foretelling the mind of your Grace," muttered Guiblo. "And his crony the English boar hath forsaken us as well. Methinks he bears you ill intent."
"Nay, the youth is a wildling no more. You dared much when you miscalled him. The man's courage is proof, and he will seek you out ere he parts from us."
With a smile the Venetian pulled on his mailed gloves and tightened his belt.
"Grant me leave to deal with him-else will hie him to the court and brew trouble for our quaffing. Hearken, lord-there be too many eyes and tongues in this hall. Once in the gullies by the river, ere the search for the infidels is ended, Iny men will attend the Englishman. A blow from an ax, and he will lack his right hand. Thereafter will he bray less loudly of his wrongs."
The marquis shrugged.
"I'll hear no more. Yet must I ride forth lest the cursed Hospitaler suspect something amiss."
Pausing at the donjon gate to tell off a score of men-at-arms to remain and secure Abdullah, he strode to his horse and signed for the clarion to sound the march. Flaring cressets on the walls cast a smoky light over the courtyard and the lance streamers of the knights. Behind these, dark masses of pikemen and archers were forming under Piculph's orders.
Under the lifted portcullis the Hospitaler and the Longsword sat their powerful chargers impatiently, having put aside their private grievances in the presence of the common foe.
Hugo glanced around and saw that Abdullah could not have left the donjon without being seen; nor was he visible in the courtyard. Satisfied of this, the master of the castle called for his standard to be lifted, and the first line of riders lowered their lances to pass under the portcullis, following the Sieur de la Marra over the drawbridge.
The great hall was being ransacked by servants and men-at-arms, who turned over tables and peered into chests, clustering upon the stairs that led to the chambers above, while Mistress Bengli cried to her serving women to lead the search for the Moslem and his jewels into the kitchen and cellars. Eagerly she urged on the men and ran to one of the doorways to listen to the tumult above-stairs.
Standing there in the shadow, a powerful hand closed over her mouth, holding firm her chin.
"0 lady," whispered the voice of the minstrel, "would you live to greet the king, your lover, this night? Ai-a, life is sweet, is it not? Nay, do not lift your hands, but walk between me and the light-so-and seek the way that leads to the kitchen-so!"
Rigid with fright, Mistress Bengli stumbled along the swaying arras and turned into an archway that brought them to a narrow hall. From the corners of her eyes she saw that Abdullah had his scimitar in his left hand, and the gleam of bare steel sent a chill into her veins.
"It is not fitting, lady," went on the minstrel, "that a man of Khar should loiter in the hall of the feasters, when a battle is joined. So, pray that no man of yours shall meet with us, and lead me to the stables-nay, not into the light!"
While she grasped little of his speech, his intention was clear and Mistress Bengli breathed a sigh of relief when they stood in the shadow of the horse sheds. Abdullah whistled softly, and somewhere a charger neighed. Drawing the woman with him, he found and saddled his horse, taking his time; for the sheds were deserted after the departure of the riders. He had noticed a small gate in the outer wall, and toward this he walked the black stallion and tapped the bars with his sword.
Trembling, she lifted the bars and set them aside, then turned the key and tugged open the gate. Abdullah glanced out and saw that the moat did not extend to this angle. Mistress Bengli stepped back, only half believing she was to suffer no hurt from the wayfarer.
"Say to your lord," he laughed, "that Abdullah ibn Khar rode to Montserrat upon a mission. Aye, to find one among the Franks who was worthy to adventure to the Throne of Gold. Say that he found not such a man within Montserrat, and so-the peace!"
At the edge of the wooded land the Montserrat archers who were the advance of the marquis's array halted and studied the open valley below them. The remnant of a moon hung over the hills to the south, lighting the expanse of rolling sand that extended to the riverbed. In a hollow by the water glowed the embers of a half-dozen campfires.
A raven croaked from the shadows, and the screaming snarl of a panther made response. Listening, the archers heard stealthy rustling in the dry brush on either side. They had come upon no sign of the Moslems in the march of a full league, down from the castle. And they saw nothing amiss in the camp of the pilgrims below them.
So they reported to Longsword and the Hospitaler who rode up presently, followed by the main body. After scanning the valley carefully, Sir Robert surprised his companion by putting spurs suddenly to the bay and galloping out upon the sand.
He rode into the camp unchallenged and halted by the oxcarts that were ranged near the fire. The Sieur de la Marra paused to look down at the pilgrims who lay in scattered groups in the hollows, and to swear under his breath.
"-! Montserrat feared an ambushment, yet methinks naught lies in wait here save Death."
At the coming of the crusaders jackals and snarling four-footed things slipped out of the camp into the shadows. Even the oxen had been cut down, and one man still gripping an ax was prone in the ashes of the fire, his head half burned away.
Torches were kindled by the archers while the riders quieted their horses, made restless by the penetrating smell of blood. Some stared at the carts where a score of bodies lay about the woman who still held the baby in her arms-all pierced by arrows. In the shallows of the rivers the standard-bearer sprawled, the shaft of the banner floating beside his head. In all quarters the sand was trampled by horses' hoofs, yet the pilgrims had had no horses. The Hospitaler dismounted to examine one of the arrows and announced that it was a kind he had not seen before-a short shaft, unbarbed but with long feathering.
"It smacks of an Arab bow. Ha, messires, I wot well the minstrel spoke the truth! The riders who did this pretty business came from the desert, and mayhap from Khar."
Whoever they were, the raiders had taken the camp by surprise and had wrought fearful havoc with small loss to themselves. No bodies of Saracens were to be seen, and if any had been slain they were borne off by their comrades. The attack-judging by the numbers of beasts that gathered about the scene-had taken place some hours before, so the Montserrat watchers must have beheld the foray riding back from the river to one of the trails that led through the mountains.
Pursuit was not to be thought of. The Croises had learned after bitter experiences that their heavily armed warriors and sturdy chargers could not deal with the swift-moving Saracens in broken country.
"A fair riddance, messires," mouthed Hugo, turning over the body of a ragged lad with his lance point. "We need no longer feed the rabble, though we must e'en bury it-Fra Anselmo will see to't. Come, who is for the castle?"
The archers and pikemen who had been combing over the scattered packs of the pilgrims, already pillaged by the raiders, began to move toward their officers, while Guiblo and his following with Piculph the Lombard and Hugo's squire drew closer about the three.
But the young Hospitaler stooped to the stained sand and held up a slender gauntlet embroidered with silk initials.
"E. de I.-requiescat in pace, whosoever ye be-a woman's hawkinggauntlet, or I'm a turn-spit. What-how now?"
Robert had taken the glove from him and turned to face the marquis.
"Messire," said he, "it lingers in my memory that you did give your knightly word to the rabble that you would defend them against all foes upon this, your land." As Hugo was silent in surprise, he added-"Those who utter what they will not defend with their bodies, I do hold arrant cowards, recreant to their vows."
Whipping out his sword, he placed the glove near its point and, leaning forward, tossed it deftly on Hugo's saddle peak.
"By this do I challenge Your Grace, Hugo Amardis of Montserrat, to try by combat in this hour which of us be true and which be false."
Now at this the liegemen of Montserrat stared and muttered and drew closer, so that a ring of armed men was formed about the group, and there fell a silence in which the snuffling breathing of the horses was clearly heard. Passion darkened the swarthy face of the marquis, but before he could frame an answer Robert spoke again.
"My lord, the laws of Palestine do not permit one who hath been a vassal to summon his liege into the combat of justice. So, will Your Grace name from among your vassals a champion to take your place?"
Hugo knew well that he could not have withstood the Englishman's sword, but his anger flared the higher with the thought. Snatching up the gauntlet and casting it down on the sand, he shouted hoarsely:
"Piculph-Guiblo-Sir Curthose, to me! Wilt suffer this upstart to badger me? A thousand , I say-to me!"
"Nay, one will suffice, your Grace," laughed the Hospitaler, who had recovered from his surprise at Robert's plain speaking after his selfcontrol in the castle hall. "It were a foul wrong, meseems, to set three devils on one Englishman."
Two retainers of the Venetian who had been hovering close to the Longsword's flank drew back when spectators thronged about them. Messer Guiblo urged his horse close to the powerful form of the Lombard and whispered to him swiftly. Piculph gnawed his lip, then nodded assent.
"I'll cut his comb, my lord," he said aloud, "then he'll crow less loud, I ween."
"Good!" cried Robert. "'Twas my wish to bid you farewell in this fashion."
Hugo reined back his horse to glance questioningly at Messer Guiblo, who nodded reassuringly and slipped back among his men. The Sieur de la Marra also retreated to leave the ring clear for the fighters.
In the half-light of the low moon it was easily seen that the two were a match in bigness of bone and height, though the Englishman had the better horse. Piculph glanced about him once and swung down from his stirrup, choosing to fight on foot.
It was in the code of the law that in the lists of justice the two combatants should be armed equally in all particulars. Robert dismounted without hesitation, trying the firmness of the sand with a mailed foot and letting fall his shield-as the Lombard carried none.
But when Piculph drew his sword a grim laugh went up from the Montserrat liegemen. The Lombard's weapon was no longer than his adversary's yet it tapered hardly at all, being blunt at the tip and heavier by half than the Longsword's brand. It was a sword to be wielded by two hands, and so Piculph had no need of a shield.
The watchers pressed closer, jostling one another and muttering between set teeth. The hollow where the camp lay was in a natural amphi theater that held the heat of the day, and they sweated under the weight of armor, their veins warmed by the late drinking. Many stood on the huddle of the slain to see the better.
Piculph was no loiterer. Striding forward, he swung the two-handed blade in circles, his muscular arms cracking.
"A purse of gold that he slays the Longsword or makes him cry mercy," offered Sir Curthose of Var to the young Sieur de la Marra.
But the Hospitaler gnawed his lip in silence as he watched Robert, who stood erect in his tracks, his sword held close to his chest, the point upraised.
With a grunt Piculph struck down and sidewise at his foe's throat, and steel sang against steel. The Lombard's sword flashed in a circle that ended high above his own head. Robert, by moving his arms quickly, had deflected the heavy blade so that it passed harmlessly over his helmet.
Piculph recovered and smote again, straight down at the Englishman's head. Robert planted his feet and whirled up his blade, turning the other's aside and into the sand.
"Thy purse likes me well, Sir Curthose," cried the Hospitaler. "Hatreachery!"
Near at hand his quick eye had distinguished one of the Lombards kneeling with a short battle mace drawn back to throw. In that elusive light the iron club might have been cast unseen, and at such short range it could not fail to reach the Longsword. Drawing his sword, the young knight ran at the front of the circle of men-at-arms; midway in a stride he faltered and flung up his arm.
A dagger, wielded by one he had passed, had struck fair into the side of his throat, and gasping, he sank on his knees, choking out his life. The quick movement had caught the eye of Robert, who cried out and sprang aside from Piculph.
"A deed most foul!" he grated through set teeth. "Montserrat-"
Picking out the man who had stabbed the knight and who was trying to work back into the throng, he slashed him full between neck and shoulder and used his point on the henchman who still balanced the mace.
" , Montserrat, since when have you plied the trade of cutthroat? Ah, Piculph!"
Whirling to meet a fresh onset from the seneschal, Robert gave back the Lombard blow for blow, until the clashing of steel drowned the shouts of the aroused liegemen. Sweat gleamed on the Lombard's broad cheeks, and his breath labored as he exerted all his strength, fearing now for his life. Robert whipped his sword over the other's guard, and the edge of the blade thudded against Piculph's neck under the ear.
It struck upon the fold of the mail coif and glanced up, biting through the chain mail, and stripped the end of the jaw-bone and the ear from the side of the man's head. The Lombard plunged down upon the sand, and Robert ran to his horse. The bay, trained to stand where he had been left, was in motion before the warrior had settled in the saddle.
An arrow whistled through the air, and Robert put his horse to a trot, making the round of the circle once, seeking Guiblo, the Venetian. But Guiblo had withdrawn far into the ranks of his men, and Sir Curthose and many of the older liegemen stood their ground, unwilling to draw weapon against the man who had once been castellan of Antioch.
"What, my lord," Robert gibed, "do you lack of murderers? Then summon up your hunters and the hounds and so-fare well!"
He had reached one end of the irregular cleared space; now he wheeled the bay and raked its flanks with rowels. The charger leaped forward, gained pace, and the throng gave way in haste before horse and rider, permitting Longsword to pass through. He headed for the nearest gully amid the foothills, and the voice of the marquis roared after him.
"After him! A cap full of gold to the wight who brings him down."
The bay charger, wise and swift of foot, swung clear of the running men and gained the shadows of the rocks before the riders could draw near him. Guiblo, his swarthy cheeks pallid, stared down at the lifeless eyes of the young knight whose white cross was slowly obscured by a dark tide. Beside him was the hawking gauntlet.
"A good plan," murmured the Venetian. "Aye-but three lie slain and a fourth maimed and another hunted by the liegemen, for so slight a thing as a ribald's glove."
Chapter IV
A fat hound does not hunt well.
-Chinese Proverb
Robert had hunted a fleeing foeman too often not to know that a fugitive who rides blindly is soon overtaken or cut off. So he galloped up the twisting gully, scanning the ground on either hand, and when he was barely within the shadow of the hills turned sharply to the left.
The bay pricked up its ears, braced its forefeet and half slid on its haunches down into the rocky bed of a dry watercourse. Here a stand of gnarled cedars hid them from view, and Robert was out of the saddle and holding the horse's muzzle before the last pebbles had stopped rolling.
His forehead was bleeding and his head was ringing from a glancing blow of the two-handed sword that had ripped off his helmet. And black bitterness clouded his thoughts. To be baited like a buffoon at table, to be hunted over the glens like a runagate cutpurse! To be tricked by the man who no longer had use for his services!
True, he could endeavor to make his way to Cyprus, where the new king held court-Jerusalem being in the hands of the Saracens. There, however, the influence of the Montserrats and the Venetians would be at work against him, and a poniard in the back in some tavern or alley would make an end of him. As for raising his ransom in Palestine under the shadow of Hugo's enmity-that was out of the question.
If he escaped pursuit-and the people of Montserrat would spare no pains to silence the voice that might be raised against them in accusation of the murder of the Hospitaler-he must seek the road that led to the eastern mountain wall and there make shift as best he could in the hills until the hue and cry had died away.
"And look ye, Sir Charger," he observed under his breath, "we do lack the services of squire and valeret, likewise of shield and helm and purse-which last is a sad matter, for we stand bound to garner us a many broad pieces of gold before the year is told. Yet hath the year still many moons, and we have been in a worse strait than this-Old, softly, softly!"
Gripping the nostrils of the horse, he looked up as a rider plunged off the trail overhead, plowing recklessly through the sand until he reined to a sudden halt amid the cedars. And then came a new thudding of hoofs along the ridge and a clanking of steel. Men shouted back and forth and passed on, unseen. Neither Robert nor the stranger moved until the detachment had galloped out of hearing, and they were certain that no others followed.
"By Allah, do the Franks of this country never sleep? The gullies are aswarm with them, and I have all but broken my leg on these rocks. Bi al-taubah-they do me too much honor."
"Abdullah!"
Robert walked over to the minstrel.
"How came you from the castle?"
"The red-haired woman unbarred a gate for me. When you would enter a dwelling seek out for companion a man with a sword; when you would leave unseen, ask a woman. But honor is due first to Allah and then to you. I watched from the height and saw you cut down those who came against you. Before that I observed you in the hall of the feasters, when the wine went the rounds and a woman would have smiled upon you. Ohai, my heart was cheered and I said to myself-'There is one who bath the bearing of a bahator, a prince of warriors."'
"Nay, these Franks do not search for you. They ride to seek me out."
"Wherefore?"
"To bind me and make an end of my doings."
Abdullah laughed, running his fingers through his beard.
"What is written is written, and who shall say otherwise? For I was sent hither to find among other things a Frank who was indeed a warrior and to bring him back with me to my king."
"What lord is that?"
"The master of all men."
"His name and place?"
"Nay, in time you will know that as well as other things. We will ride to Khar, for I have come from there. Have you heart to cross the desert and scale the Iron Gates?"
Abdullah was silent a moment. "The path is one of peril," he went on. "If you live to reach Khar you will never come back-to this. Whosoever ventures to Khar abides there. But this I can promise you; before the summer is past you will behold a mighty warring of peoples, and a treasure uncovered. Of this you shall claim a share that will suffice to build a castle like yonder hold and fill it with a thousand slaves and as many steeds-"
Robert smote the stallion's saddle softly with his fist.
"Words-words!"
The breath of the minstrel hissed through his lips.
"I read you not aright if you are one to seek talsmins and surety for a venture such as this. Yet if you fear, turn aside now. I have seen the Iron Gates crush a trembler-"
"Faith!"
The knight gripped Abdullah's shoulder. "Wherever you dare set foot, I would go beyond you."
"Oh-o-ho!"
Abdullah rocked with inward mirth, as at a huge joke.
"The young cub growls-the fledgling lifts its beak. Ohai-hai!"
"Mount then and show the path. For I will adventure with you into paynimry."
"Aye, bunnayi, little son. The young warrior would level his spear at an elephant! 0 most darling fool; had I a son he would be like you, yet wiser. Think ye, Nazarene, I will not betray you at the first Moslem village beyond the hills?"
"Nay, for you are no Moslem."
In the deep gloom under the trees Abdullah leaned closer to peer into his companion's eyes.
"How? What words are these?"
"And you were not always a minstrel. Though you carry a prayer rug, Abdullah, you have no use for it. I have not seen you pray the namaz gar, and in the castle you shared forbidden wine and meat."
Abdullah was silent for a full minute, pondering this.
"Then you think I am atabeg of the Kharesmian raiders?"
"Not so. For you warned the baron of their approach, and you did not seek them when you won free of the castle."
"True, 0 father of ravens. Had I led the raiders I would have stormed the Nazarene hold, for there was a woman more to be desired than the whitefaced maid of the pilgrims-and a lord to be held for ransom."
The minstrel paused to take the saddle from the stallion and let him roll in the sand, though it meant risk for himself.
"Many things, have I seen, 0 youth, but not this thing-that a babbler of secrets lived to be white of hair. Remember that I am Abdullah, the teller of tales, no more."
"Then we ride alone-we twain?"
"Not alone."
Abdullah laughed softly.
"Upon our road we shall have a brave company. Your Iskander and the hero Rustam-aye, and one of the caesars of Rome-will be our road companions. They who died, seeking the treasure of the Throne of Gold, which we may seize and keep."
Leaning on his sword, Longsword listened in silence. The minstrel could have said nothing better suited to his mood. Robert never hesitated over a decision, and when he felt that he could trust Abdullah he thought no more about it.
Meanwhile the minstrel was busied about his saddlebags.
"And if we die," he muttered into his beard, "we will spread such a carpet of slain about us that men will not forget our names. 0 Nazarene, you may not venture beyond the hills without a name and garments to fit. Hai, you are dark enough in the skin to pass for an Egyptian, being lighter than the Arabs. You speak the language easily-yet not like an Arab. So you must be a Lion of Egypt: Alp Arslan, the sword slayer, the cloudscattering, the diamond sheen of all warriors-the Emir Alp Arslan. And remember to pray the namaz gar," he added under his breath.
Presently Robert stood in changed garments. Abdullah had cast away the knight's surcoat and mailed thigh-pieces, sleeves, and mittens. From his pack he had produced a loin cloth, baggy cotton trousers and slippers. Over the youth's mail he had slipped a flowing khalat of silk and bound it in at the waist with a shawl, working skillfully in the dark. Lastly he gave Robert a light Saracen steel headgear with peak and nasal, and mailed drop that hung about ears and shoulders.
"The horse and saddle may pass for spoil taken from the Nazarenes," he pronounced, "likewise the long sword. In the first village we will seek out a barber, and when he has shaved your head and mouth we will cut him open lest he talk too much. What now?"
Robert stooped and found his gold spurs on the ground. Feeling about for a large boulder in the gully, he put forth his strength and rolled it aside. Then, dropping the spurs in the hollow, he thrust back the stone upon them.
"So that no other may wear them," he said calmly. "For here doth Sir Robert, castellan of Antioch, end his days; and from here doth Robert the Wayfarer step forth."
Taking advantage of the dawn mists, they worked out of the foothills into a cattle path known to Robert, and sunrise found them well away from the castle. Avoiding the main road to the east, they climbed steadily until they were past the line of the Montserrat watch towers, Abdullah remarking grimly that the warders of the marquis would pay little attention to two Moslem riders when they were seeking a fugitive of their own race upon whose head a reward had been placed.
Here they turned back into the trail that had been taken by the raiders, as they judged from the hoof marks. Abdullah started to give the stal lion his head when he swerved in the saddle and reined in sharply. An arrow whistled between them, and another shaft grazed Robert's ear as he urged his horse forward.
Crashing into the underbrush, he drew his sword and slashed at a tamarisk bush behind which a man was crouched. The archer turned to flee, but caught his foot and fell headlong. Robert swung from his stirrups and stood over him, surprised to see that it was the lanky bowman who had marched with the pilgrims. The man snarled up at him, unarmed-for his bow had fallen from his hand.
Robert sheathed the long sword and signed to Abdullah to do the man no hurt. The bowman must have thought them stragglers of the raiders, and Robert had no desire to make himself known, until he noticed a handsome pony with a Moslem saddle tethered to a nearby tree.
"Which way went the raiders from Khar?" he asked in English, for Abdullah desired to avoid the path taken by the foray. "You have one of their horses, methinks."
The bowman sat up, his close-set eyes agleam with hatred and suspicion.
"Aye, that have I, Saracen. And no aid wilt thou have from me to find the unshriven dogs, thy companions. Ha, by token of that long sword and high horse thou hast slain a Christian knight that did bespeak me a day agone upon the road to Jordan."
He spat on the ground in front of Robert and sprang to his feet, palpably astonished that he should have been left alive so long.
His tousled red hair stood up from his freckled skin, and the shagreen hood upon his bony shoulders was rent by thorns, so it barely concealed the greasy leather jerkin beneath. His thin face was defiant.
"Heave up thy hacker, Moslem, and make an end-for Will Bunsley o' Northumberland will ask no mercy from a blackavised knave. Had I my good long bow I'd spit me the twain of ye. Ah, that I would. This lewd Moslem bow, seest thou, carries wide o' the mark."
He kicked contemptuously at the short Moslem bow with its looping arch and silk cord that lay near at hand. In some way he had lost his own weapon and had found him another, less satisfactory. And his failure to bring down the two riders seemed to irk him deeply.
"Nay," Robert smiled, "the feathers of your shaft tickled my ear. And that is close enough."
"Close, quotha!" the bowman sneered. "Why, lookee, my rogue-with Iny yew bow I'd split thee thy forehead fair and featly at fifty paces."
His jaw dropped, and he fell back a pace. "St. Dunstan be my aid! Thou art the knight himself in paynim garb. Aye, that yellow hair-"
He scratched his head, looking from Robert to Abdullah suspiciously.
"And I would have slain thee in quittance of my revenge."
"Your revenge, bowman?"
"Ah. Three lives I seek of the Saracens that fell upon our company, to wit: One for the blind priest, good Father Evagrius, that they carried off to torture; another for the maid Ellen that they seized and bound upon a horse-may they sup in purgatory, may their tongues rot out and the kites beak their eyes!"
"And the third?"
"I vowed to St. Dunstan to feather me a shaft in the losel that smote me a dour ding upon the sconce."
Will Bunsley rubbed a lump on his skull ruefully.
"Aye, a knavish clout it were on this my mazzard."
"Tell me the story of the affray."
Robert sheathed his sword slowly. He had thought all the pilgrims slain, but here was news of two taken captive.
"Affray, quotha!"
The archer shook his head.
"Nay, 'twas a shambles and we the sheep."
The surprise, he explained, had been complete, for the pilgrims thought themselves safe on the Montserrat lands. The raiders must have been concealed in the gullies near the river, and they rode into the camp plying their bows on all sides. Those who stood up to them were shot down before sword or pike could be used, and Bunsley had barely time to string his bow before he saw the patriarch and the girl snatched up and placed on one of the horses.
He sent a shaft into one of the riders and ran after the captives, who were led away at once. Before he reached them he had been struck down by a club or mace from behind, and when he came to his senses the slaughter was over. After washing his head in the river he was able to catch a riderless pony that was circling the camp.
Without delaying Bunsley had set forth on the trail taken by the raiders. This was before the coming of the Montserrat men, and he pushed up into the mountains, becoming weary and confused on the descent, until he dismounted and sought some sleep, being awakened by the tread of Abdullah's horse. The Moslem bow he had picked up when he left the camp.
"And if thou be'st true man, thou wilt seek out the infidel dogs and prevail upon them to release the maid and priest. If not, then for love of the Cross thou didst wear, bear me company until we come up with them."
"You would not go far, bowman."
Robert liked the stubborn courage of the yeoman, yet knew that Bunsley would not live to see the sun set if he kept on as he planned.
"Turn back and seek service with the Montserrat, who bath an eye for a man who pulls a good bow."
"Nay, I'll seek no service with him. Ah, he is too glib with promises and too sparing of deeds. 'Tis a good lass and loves me well."
Bunsley heaved a deep sigh.
"What says the redbeard?" asked Abdullah.
Robert explained, and the minstrel studied the archer curiously.
"Take me with thee, lord," Bunsley begged doggedly, "and, God willing, I'll cry a greeting to the lass and strike a blow for her ere she be lost to Christian folk."
The girl, he added eagerly, was no more than a child when, a year and more ago, she had listened to the preaching of the monk de Courcon in Blois, where Bunsley happened to be stationed. She was Ellen d'Ibelin, daughter of a knight, and she had had schooling with the nuns.
At Blois she took the Cross with many youths and children, for the monk declared that Jerusalem might be delivered by the children. Will Bunsley fell under the spell of the crusade preacher-also he confessed to a mighty fondness for the girl-and adventured with the pilgrims through many barren and hostile lands to Byzantium.
"And 'tis gold I seek," cried Robert. "Nor will I turn me aside for any maid, captive though she be."
It irked him that the men from Khar should have borne off prisoners from the lands of the Croises, and he spoke bitterly, for his warning to Hugo and to the pilgrims had gone unheeded. Having formed a purpose, he would not swerve from it. Moreover the red archer was the last man he wished to take with him on his venture. It was impossible to disguise that rawboned figure and stentorian voice; yet to leave Will Bunsley to follow the trail alone-
"I'll tend the horses, good my lord," insisted the yeoman, "and draw thee wine at every inn, aye, and keep watch o'nights for slit-throats-"
"Ho!" Robert chuckled. "Fare with us then, an' you will. If my companion-"
But Abdullah gave his assent without ado. The redbeard, he said, could go as he was, and they would claim that he was Robert's captive. So should the Emir Arslan have more honor. Bunsley's appearance would be enough to make the Arab, through whose country they must pass, think him a simpleton, afflicted by Allah.
Clearly Robert explained to the yeoman the hardships they would face, first in the desert, then in the heart of Moslem power. But Will Bunsley merely grinned-although he grimaced when told he must cast aside his weapons to play the part of captive.
"Ha, for the land of gold-and the fair damsels of paynimry. How sayeth the song?"
He chanted in a tuneful roar-

Robert hearkened with relish to an English voice, yet felt grave misgiving at taking the archer, thinking that the man could not survive for many days. Before long, however, Will Bunsley of Northumberland proved to be a man of many surprises.
Although Abdullah pushed forward at a furious pace, the archer kept up with his nag, grumbling and groaning, but never allowing the two wanderers out of sight. The heat and the scanty fare stretched the skin taut on his bones, and he came to look like a scarlet skeleton, so that when they stopped at a village, the men of the desert thronged to stare at the red Frank captive in astonishment.
Robert noticed that the minstrel rode in a strange fashion with a longer stirrup than the Arabs and with his weight eased well forward. He picked his course by the stars-for they covered most of their way at night. Robert had a habit of watching the constellations and judged by the position of the Great Bear that they were working steadily east. The Milky Way-which Abdullah called the Path of the Wild Geese-was directly overhead as they dropped down into a country of baked clay, where the tents of the desert tribes were no longer to be seen.
Here when the moon waned they crossed by swimming a sluggish, reed-bordered river that Abdullah called the Frat and Robert thought was the Euphrates. It was well for the knight that long years in the saddle had hardened him for such a journey. Abdullah seemed to be made of iron, and Will Bunsley, ever on the lookout for traces of the raiders whom they followed, moaned and cursed with the weariness of the saddle and the plaguing of midges and huge flies.
Ahdullah had bartered in a Kurd village another pony for the archer and Bunsley changed saddle from one to the other, complaining bitterly that it was a sin to ask one man to do the work of two nags. Yet the hope of coming up with the men from Khar kept him from falling behind. Once they passed around a hamlet of merchants on the river that had been sacked and burned by the raiders, and Robert waxed thoughtful at seeing that the riders from Khar took spoil from Moslem and Christian alike. But in those days upon the desert floor he gave little heed to aught but the necessity for keeping pace with the minstrel, who rode recklessly through the night, and while the two Nazarenes slept, utterly wearied in the midday hours, played softly upon his lute and sang in a guttural speech that Robert had never heard before.
And this flight across a strange and barren land did much to ease the bitterness that had been in Robert. They hunted where they could and avoided the villages, and daily covered stretches that the crusader would not have thought possible. So the three rode from Palestine, one seeking the price of his life, another searching for a captive girl, and the third intent on keeping a rendezvous with his master, whose name he would not reveal.
Unexpectedly, late one afternoon, they came to a muddy stream swift running between low, sandy banks-the boundary line of Khar, Abdullah said; and, pointing to clusters of skin tents on the far bank where some hundred horses were turned loose to graze, he added-
"The riders from Khar."
Chapter V
The Redbeard
It was too late to go back out of sight, for watchers on the other bank had seen them, and their horses were too weary to escape pursuit. Hesitation would have been fatal, and Robert urged his horse into the river, to be followed promptly by the minstrel.
Once they had climbed out on the sand drifts they were surrounded by dark-skinned warriors in silvered helmets-lean, slow-moving men who swaggered in crimson and white kaftans and polished hauberks, who took in every detail of the newcomers' steeds and trappings at a single glance and bared their teeth at Bunsley-who returned their scowls with interest.
"Kankalis, these," whispered Abdullah meaningly, "hillmen, Turkomans, and the best of the light cavalry of the master of Khar-our companions on the road to the Iron Gates, 0 Arslan. Be wily in talk, 0 Egyptian, and think before each word. Do not try to aid the redbeard if they seek him out for sport for their long knives."
Two mounted warriors who had been posted at the river pushed in between the strangers and the crowd, heedless of the insults hurled at them by those who were jostled by the ponies. Commanding Robert to follow, they conducted the three to a large tent where sat the leader of the band-an old man with a beak of a nose, his sword girdled high on his middle. He knelt on a silk carpet, casting knuckle-bones idly, and though he appeared scarcely to notice the strangers he looked them over carefully.
Abdullah related the tale agreed upon, that he, a minstrel wandering from Khar, had fallen in with an emir out of Cairo who journeyed to the court of the Throne of Gold, and with him one Nazarene, a captive taken in the valley of the Orontes. Inalzig Khan, as the leader of the Kankalis was called, did not see fit to ask them to sit as yet, although they had dismounted.
"Where are your followers, 0 valiant lion," he demanded of Robert ironically.
"Ask the kites and the wolves. They were slain in affrays with the Nazarenes and the Bedawans."
"Allah, can it be so? What do you seek of me?"
"Guidance and protection through the Iron Gates."
The khan bared long teeth in a mocking smile.
"Nay, you know not the Gates. Who can protect a stranger who lacks the right to enter?"
Knowing that a display of temper was expected of him, at this, Robert touched his sword-hilt.
"By the ninety and nine holy names, does a son of the Seljuks and a great-grandson of a caliph take grass between his teeth to bespeak a gatekeeper?"
Months of dwelling with the nobles of Cairo enabled him to imitate the mincing temper of a high-born Egyptian; with his mustache and head shaven and his bare feet blackened by the sun of the plains, he had little to fear. Yet Inalzig was not satisfied, although his tone became more courteous.
"Upon what mission do you ride to the shah, 0 Cairene?"
Abdullah threw in carelessly, as if explaining to a friend-" None leave the Sialak, the Gates, or enter to the great city except they go or come upon an order of Muhammad Shah on whom be peace-the Emperor of Khar and the shield of Islam."
"Does the jackal ask of the wolf, 'Why are ye here?"' Robert took his cue. "I will speak of my mission to the governor of the great city, and to you, Inalzig Khan, I say-" he thought swiftly-"that the Sultans of Cairo and Damietta have withstood the Nazarenes and send word of their deeds to Muhammad Shah."
The Kankali nodded without emotion, and made room for the twain on the carpet.
"Hamaian-contentment be upon you, 0 emir. I care naught for such matters, being sent on a foray to fetch a quota of maidens and spoil from the accursed Nazarenes and the desert tribes. If you can pass the Gates you will have fair greeting in Bokhara, the city of which I spoke. For the shah draws his sword and mounts for war."
"With whom?" demanded Abdullah with sudden interest.
"Ma'shallah-have I been within the walls of Bokhara this last year, that I should know? Some tribe of unbelievers from the north dares to withstand the emperor."
Will Bunsley had been staring about eagerly at the piles of wicker baskets holding the fruits of the foray, and certain tents set apart for the captives, without seeing any sign of the girl or the priest.
"It is my wish," remarked the chief of the Kankalis, leaning back on his cushions, "that the infidel be stripped and bound and stretched out for some of my men to try the edge of their scimitars. Is it not written that he who causes the death of an unbeliever will not fail of paradise?"
A glance from Abdullah warned Robert that this request was not to be lightly refused. The khan had halted his men for a day's rest, and a curious throng had gathered about the archer, who had forgotten to mumble and gape as usual.
"It would bring ill fortune upon us to slay him, 0 captain of many," objected Robert, heedless of the minstrel's concern.
"How?"
"He is djinn-infested. The devil of madness is in him."
Inalzig signed for a slave to bring wine cups and shook his head indifferently.
"I am no servant of the priests and herder of the afflicted of Allah. The Frank could not pass the Gates, so why weary two horses in bearing him thither?"
"Do you see the color of his hair and skin?"
"Aye, red as heart of fire."
"When a man is blind, what is the color of his eyes?"
"White."*
"True. Allah bath set his seal on the eyes. Now when the devil entered this man, his skin turned red. Verily, it is a strange devil. The infidel, being mad, believes that he can overthrow any warrior with all weapons. Yah ahmak, the simpleton will bring mirth to your heart."
"Allah!"
The Kankali smiled and sipped at his cup.
"Let us see what he does. Nay, do not give him a bow-" as Robert reached for one in a corner of the tent-"for the might send the shaft this way. Let him try his skill with a spear, a stabbing-spear."
Robert glanced at Bunsley and risked speaking to the archer.
"Canst withstand one of these fellows with a quarterstaff?"
"Aye, by all the saints, that can I, lord brother."
The yeoman grinned cheerfully.
"Last Martinmas I won a silver shilling for a bout-"
"The Moslem will have a long stabbing spear, and he will not stop at the first blood. You stand in dire peril, Master Will, and it will go hard if you do not prevail."
The archer declared that he would hold his own with anything on two legs at brawling or dicing and desired nothing better than to crack the skulls of his tormentors.
"The fool," Robert explained to the Kankali, "will think that a stout stick is a spear, so let him have one. Yet if he is victor, will you permit him to ride with me unharmed?"
"Verily," laughed the warrior, who was studying Robert curiously. "Have you also a devil that you speak the language of the infidel?"
"He dwelt at their court for a year and more," put in Abdullah quickly, "and learned much of their ways. For this was he chosen to ride to the shah with his story."
Saying that it was all one to him and that he fancied there were three fools instead of one at his tent, Inalzig called for one of his men to stand forth with a spear. A thin warrior with a huge, knotted turban stepped into the cleared space, carrying a five-foot weapon. Will Bunsley cast about until he found a spare tent pole of teak as long as he was tall and as large around as his two thumbs joined together.
Tossing up the staff, he caught it in the fingers of one hand and twirled it around his head. Then, setting his long legs, he gripped the quarterstaff with both hands widely separated, well in front of him. To the onlookers this seemed the merest bombast, and the eyes of the Kankali glittered as he advanced on the archer and thrust at Bunsley's ribs, meaning to wound the red man a few times before killing him. Instead the yeoman warded the blow by lowering one end of his pole. Again the Kankali thrust with no better result.
Angered by the gibes of his companions, the Spearman shortened his grasp and feinted, minded to end the matter out of hand. But Will halted him abruptly by bringing up one arm and jabbing wickedly at the throat. Choking, the Kankali staggered back and the yeoman smote him on either ear so quickly that the two thuds sounded as one.
Blood flowed down the warrior's jaw, and he rocked dizzily, then crumpled down on the sand.
"The fool is strong in the arm," observed Inalzig. "Now we will try his skill."
He barked an order, and a stocky warrior sprang out from the growing throng of watchers. The khan tossed him a javelin-a throwinn spear no more than a yard long with a small, barbed point.
"Send him to jehannum or taste a hundred lashes."
Robert, who had watched English yeomen practicing with the quarterstaff in Antioch, had known that Will could make a long spear look ridiculous, but a javelin was not to be warded so easily. Nor could he come to the archer's aid, for such a move would mean drawn weapons and a swift end for them both.
But Will, watching his adversary keenly, yelped cheerfully.
"So-ho, here be a dog with sharp teeth, so give heed, Master Robert, to some pretty work."
Leaping about in front of the Kankali, he whirled the quarterstaff in the man's eyes until the warrior decided that the Frank was not going to attack, and launched the javelin. Will, having waited for just this, dodged alertly, and the short spear did no more than glance from one shoulder, cutting it to the bone.
The warrior snarled and drew a curved dagger. Rushing in, he slashed at the archer's ribs, only to drop like a log and lie where he had fallen. Will had stepped aside and slid one hand down to the other, swinging lustily with the full weight of the staff upon the Kankali's skull.
"Now, St. Dunstan send that he be the one that cracked my pate in the battle," he remarked.
To the Moslems his skill with the staff savored of the marvelous, for they were men who used none but edged weapons. Even the khan was stirred to interest and asked if the red man could do tricks with anything but a stick.
"Put a bow into his hands and set the best of your archers against him," suggested Robert.
After some hesitation Inalzig agreed and had one of the short Turkish bows brought out for Will, who took it with misgivings, saying that it might do to use from a horse's back but was no thing to tickle the fancy of a Northumberland lad. He selected his arrows with care, choosing the longest he could find.
Thus equipped he outdid the best of the Kankalis, who withdrew from the contest with as much dignity as they could muster, explaining loudly that the Frank was surely djinn-infested. Indeed Will was strutting about with a lop-sided grin, for he had more than his share of vanity. Inalzig had fallen into a rage and nursed his wine-cup sullenly until Abdullah, who had followed the archery with mild interest, arose and declared that he had come from a country where men used bows otherwise.
"Then put the fool to shame, 0 minstrel," grunted the chief.
"Nay," responded the minstrel, "I lack his skill, yet have I learned a trick that your men know not."
Taking a small turban cloth, he walked to the nearest tree. Rolling the cotton strip tightly, he wrapped it around the bole of the tree so that a strip some two fingers in breadth showed white against the dark trunk.
Then, calling for a saddled pony, he chose a short, powerful bow and a quiver with six arrows. Mounting and riding off, he wheeled the pony some two hundred paces from his mark and set it to a gallop. One after the other he loosed three shafts rapidly as he rode, gripping the ends of the arrows between thumb and forefinger.
Abreast the tree Abdullah swiftly unstrung the bow and used the flying cord on his pony as a whip. Then, stringing it taut again, he emptied his quiver as he drew away from the mark. It was no easy feat to loose the shafts over the pony's rump, and the Kankalis raised a shout of gratification when it was seen that all but one of Abdullah's arrows had struck the bole of the tree, and three were within the cotton band.
"Such nimble finger work is not our way," remarked Will, studying the hits made by the minstrel, "for we pull a long bow and draw each shaft to the head. Yet no man can say Will Bunsley gave ground to him in honest yeoman sport."
The warriors crowded closer when they saw that the Frank would attempt to equal the minstrel's feat. They had been weaned from boyhood with bows in their hands, but like Abdullah were accustomed to shoot from the saddle.
Will signed for the bow Abdullah used to be brought him, and again selected a half dozen arrows. Instead of standing, he knelt this time about a hundred yards from the trees and stuck the heads of the arrows lightly in the sand in a half-circle under his right hand. After testing the pull of the new bow, he thumbed the silk string and fitted an arrow, holding it in place between his first and second fingers which gripped the string. He let it fly and caught up another deftly. His long arms worked smoothly, and he set his jaw stubbornly.
It seemed to Robert that two arrows were in the air at once as his eye followed the first to the mark before looking for the second. When the last shaft was sped he shouted approval. Although Will had not tried his skill from a saddle, he had bettered Abdullah's hits. All the arrows were in the tree and four in the white band.
"Good!" grunted Inalzig. "The fool may live if he can; and it will be your turn, 0 emir, to think of a trick when we stand at the Gates."
Chapter VI
The Word on the Rocks
Robert 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 cap tives. 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 emir, 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 Baghdad," 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 snowcap standing upon the travelers' right hand.*
"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, 0 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 Sialak. 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 of 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. Yah 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 saddlecloth 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 foothills and immediately pass from view.
When the last shaft of red light vanished from the tallest of the peaksthe 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 halted 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 them selves 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 canyon 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 Caesar 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 windborne 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 charac ters 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, 0 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.* 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 surprised 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, 0 emir-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."
"Ma'shallah! 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, 0 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 characterization 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, 0 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.
"0 brother to a parrot, 0 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 Emir 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 Baghdad 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 smitebows 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, 0 emir, 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 scimitar 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 scimitar 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, 0 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 scimitar 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 cannot 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 spearhead. 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 scimitar. Robert, caught with his blade down, jammed the heavy hilt into the man's beard and took the scimitar 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 breastbone. The man who had flung it shouted and whirled up his scimitar. 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, 0 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 scimitar glittered above his shield. Someone behind him hurled a torch at the knight.
Bending low, Robert moved to meet the Moslem, and the two swords grated. The scimitar 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 thighbone, 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 torchlight 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.
Chapter VII
Osman the Wazir
Many things appeared to Robert to take place very rapidly. He felt delightfully at ease, although aware that his body was being jolted, the creaking of leather and the jolting made him think he was riding again, though how he could ride lying down he knew not. Then the sun smote full into his eyes, and somebody shaded them. Robert peered out between two curtains and saw the green expanse of a wide sea with a sail drifting along the horizon. A salty wind caused him to shiver violently, and, still shivering, he dropped back into the inertia.
Again he found himself studying the stars, looking for the Great Bear and recalling that Abdullah had called it jitti karatchi, the Seven Robbers. He could not make out the robbers, and told himself that this was a strange sky as well as a strange sea.
Once he lay on his elbow, looking down at the earth. It was whitish gray. Taking up some in his fingers, he put his tongue to it and found it to be salt. A strange earth. He was bathed in sweat, and a woman came and wiped his face and hands with a cool, moist cloth.
He began talking to the woman, telling her about the changed earth and the remarkable sea that was so cold and so hot. By and by he noticed that the woman was weeping and that she was the Demoiselle d'Ibelin. Henceforth events happened less swiftly and Robert grew irritable with pain, but more often he felt the girl's touch and drank things from her hand.
"Where is that rogue, Abdullah?" he asked, his voice ringing clear.
"He is not here, my lord. Nay, I have not see him since the night in the mountains when he talked with the infidels, and-but, hush, please you, Sir Robert."
"Demoiselle," he remarked with dignity. "I am not Sir Robert of Antioch. I am Robert the Wayfarer; and as every man's hand is against me, so is mine against every man. Where is the lout, Will?"
"The archer is chained-nay, do not miscall him, for he jumped into the gorge and saved you your life many days ago."
"Now that is verily a lie," Robert responded angrily, "for this is but the morrow of that night."
With that he slept, to awaken master of his senses again.
They were in a boat-he and the maid and the priest, and a score of strange warriors. He lay upon a cloak stretched on rushes, with a woven screen over his head.
His first thought was for his sword. It was gone, and he reflected that his horse, also, was lost to him. Then he fumbled about for the chain of rubies and found it not. The mail shirt had been removed, and he was clad in loose cotton, with a light khalat wrapped over him.
When he moved, one shoulder irked him with its stiffness. Further investigation revealed a stubby beard and mustache and a growth of hair on his skull that had been shaven. After considering this he asked Father Evagrius, who sat quietly beside his couch, how long he had lain ill, and how he came to be brought alive through the Gates.
"For ten days the fever was heavy upon you, my son. The maid prayed that you would regain your wit and strength, and her prayers were heard. I could not see what befell in the mountain pass, yet meseems Abdullah did persuade the guards to send you living to the lord of this land."
"Did we pass the border of a sea?"
"Aye, Sir Robert. A week agone I heard the wash of the waves for the last time. Since then we have been placed on camels, and yesterday within this long skiff."
Robert thought this over. They must then have left the Caspian behind them, and by now should be near to the main cities of Khar. So Abdullah had outlined the journey to him. He asked Father Evagrius to call for Ellen, and the priest shook his head, saying that the maid was kept within the after part of the boat, guarded by Ethiopians. The Kankalis, the priest explained, had permitted her to nurse him during the height of his fever, while he was being carried in a horse litter; but now the Moslems took care to keep her apart. Of Will Bunsley he knew little, save that the archer had survived the gorge of the Sialak and his voice had been heard at times thereafter, complaining bitterly of his chains and a diet of rice and sour wine.
Unable to sit or stand, Robert was fain to be content with this. He could not see over the side wall of the boat, nor could Evagrius see anything at all, and neither of them might speak with Ellen.
So for days the knight was constrained to lie gazing at the roofed-in afterdeck where the slender form of the maid of Ibelin sometimes appeared, heavily veiled. At such moments her eyes would seek him out, and she stood where he was visible until one of the guards signed for her to enter the hangings that separated her from the men.
Father Evagrius spent his time in contemplation, eating slowly when food was brought and fingering the cross that hung from a cord about his lean throat. Robert, waxing more irritable with the confinement and the odors of the boat, marveled at the grave quietude of the priest who was preparing himself to meet death at the hands of the Moslem tormentors.
There came an evening when he could stand and look out from the boat, as the Moslems were at the evening prayer.
The river proved to be broad, and thronged with other craft. Gardens, divided off by lines of flowering trees, lined the bank, and Robert observed at once two marble pillars downstream. These rose from the dark mass of a wall, and until they drifted through the water gate he would not believe that he had judged truly the height of the wall.
Within it he saw the glimmer of lighted pavilions close to the water, and black spires rearing against sunset over domes that gleamed purple and crimson. Straight down upon their boat rowed a barge, draped in black silk and driven by a score of slaves.
On the raised platform behind the rowers a half-dozen men, turbaned and robed in many-colored silks, leaned on brocade cushions and stared down at the smaller craft and its crew.
"Ho, Moslems!" A tall man in the bow of the barge challenged them. "Who enters the water gate after nightfall?"
Robert could not understand the reply of his captors, but presently a command issued from the barge and the sailing skiff was brought alongside, the rowers lifting their oars. The same speaker, who seemed to be overseer of the slaves, ordered the warriors to send up their prisoners and the woman of the Franks. When Robert's guards argued, a mellow voice called out from the stern in liquid Arabic.
"Surety? Am I not Osman the Hadji, Wazir of the Throne and master of Bokhara? I will be surety to the shah, and that will suffice thee. Jackals-sons of jackals and sires of dissension! Yield up the Franks and seek thy pay in the appointed day and place! Am I a hireling to be affronted by slaves in the hour that Allah decreed for pleasuring?"
To a man the soldiers in the boat cast themselves on their knees and beat their foreheads against the planks. Yet Robert heard one murmur to another that the wazir had kept in his own purse the pay that had been promised them. The negroes ushered Ellen forward, through the waist of the boat, and in the deep shadow under the side of the barge she stumbled.
"AUdullah's word to you, my lord!" she whispered quickly. "Hide it!"
He heard the rustle of paper sliding over the reeds of the deck, and leaned forward.
"And what of you, demoiselle?"
"Father Evagrius hath prayed. Tend him-let no injury be done to him."
One of the negroes thrust Robert back, and steel gleamed in the shadow. The girl was lifted to the barge, and he took advantage of the respite to search for and find a narrow roll of parchment that lay near his feet. Putting this in his girdle, he helped the patriarch out of the boat and followed, rendered dizzy by the sudden movement but finding his limbs steadier than he had thought.
"So this is the champion of the Franks," observed one of the Moslems about Osman, "who named himself the Lion and clawed Inalzig, the bahator, to death with a score of warriors at the Gates. Shall we match the lion with a man-eating tiger?"
"Nay, 'twould take an elephant to crush his bones," responded another lightly. "He is greater in bulk than the tallest of the Ethiopians."
"You are both wrong, my cup-companions," put in a third. "The Frank, like the maid, is to be kept alive against the coming of the shah."
Osman, who had been staring at the girl, frowned at this, and a slender boy with insolent eyes ceased tuning a lute long enough to murmur:
"Allah la yebarak fili! May Allah not prosper his coming!"
"What words are these words, 0 Hassan?" reproved the wazir. "Am I not the slave of Muhammad, and was not he-"
"A slave himself, 0 most generous of lords," quoth Hassan, bending ear to lute again, "when he was my age and caught the eye of a woman."
Somebody mouthed a gibe about the eyes of women, and the assemblage laughed. Osman struck upon a silver gong that hung by his side; and the overseer of the slaves bellowed to the rowers, who brought the barge about and headed down the river into the heart of the lighted city.
Robert, utterly unnoticed, studied Osman curiously. It was the first time he had seen a Kharesmian of the higher classes, and it was difficult to believe that this was not the shah himself. Osman had pallid, weakmuscled cheeks, surrounded by a narrow beard, and his jeweled turban would have bought a castle in Palestine. His dark lips curved like a girl's, and his fine brown eyes had the blank stare of a dreamer or a user of drugs. From the instant that the demoiselle of Ibelin was seated at his side he did not cease to pay her attention.
"Let my counsel be as earrings in thy pretty ears, 0 damsel. Incline to me, and I will robe thee in samite and cloth of gold, and scent thy eyebrows with attar of rose-so that the shah himself shall fall bewildered by thy beauty."
He seemed loath to believe that the captive did not understand his praise, but when it was clear that she knew no Arabic the courtiers launched re marks that made the knight turn away so that they could not observe his eyes. It was wiser that they should not be aware that he could follow what was said.
"To the seller of perfume," smiled the boy with the lute, "what remains save the dust of the rose petal? How long, 0 treasurer, wilt thou labor to keep safe the treasure of the slave who claims to be thy master?"
Osman glanced at him warningly, yet seemed to find food for thought in the idle words. He lifted a drinking cup of pure jade, and from the waist of the barge cymbals and drums resounded as he drank.
"Nay, Osman," called out a stout man in purple silk who was being fanned by a Nubian slave girl. "Am I not crowned king of the hour of pleasure? What royal honors are accorded me when I lift my cup?"
"The dogs bay."
Hassan displayed white teeth.
"And spent hags pluck thy purse away-"
"Out upon thee. Pfagh-you are rank of the dunghill that bred thee. Who but I bore to our master, this excellent fellow Osman, the news of the taking of Otrar by the barbarians?"
"The tidings that sent Muhammad to the northern border," nodded one who had something of the warrior about him. "It was three moons ago that the Manslayer took Otrar into his maw and sent the head of its governor to the shah. Allah, he was angered! "
"And I made a song about it," quoth Hassan.
"The imams and kadis wagged their beards and fouled the carpet of counsel with the spittle of quarrels," nodded the wine-bibber unsteadily.
"And I made a song about that, too."
"Yet the news was good for us because it gave the reins of government in Bokhara to our lord, Osman."
"0 sharp-of-wit, canst thou truly see an anthill when the ants bite thy toes?"
"The chief of the Kankalis who was leader of the garrison could not," put in the warrior, signing for a slave to fill his cup again. "At least he drank too much opium by mistake-"
"Thy tongue wags!" whispered one of the courtiers.
"Nay, he was a fine sight in his shroud. By Allah, it came to my ears that his favorite singing-girl slew herself with a dagger-"
"And that was not so fine a sight," broke in Hassan, "because a shroud was an ill garment for so fair a wench."
He glanced from under kohl-darkened lashes at the Nazarene maid and swept delicate fingers over the strings of his lute, singing under his breath:

The river became narrower and darker where high walls of palaces and mosques lined the banks, but Osman's barge kept to midcurrent, and Robert noticed that the other craft got out of its way hastily and other pleasureseekers knelt as the wazir passed. But Osman had eyes only for the Nazarene maid, and Hassan, perceiving the mood of his master, sang of love and the beauties of women in a voice that was softer than a silver flute. A brazier, burning in the prow, cast a scent of aloes and musk incense into the air, and at command of the leader of the revels, different powders were put into the wine cups by slaves-hashish, opium, and bhang. Robert, feigning exhausted sleep, heard other references to the Manslayer, to Otrar, and the treasure of Muhammad Shah, as the tongues of the drinkers were loosened.
He made out that Osman was the keeper of the shah's treasure, which was kept in Bokhara, where no Moslem band dare venture theft. And that Muhammad knew to a dinar's worth the value of the treasure. Otrar, he suspected, was the northernmost fortress of Khar, and its capture by the new foe from the mountains to the north had impelled Muhammad to collect his army and march thither some months ago.
The chief of the barbarian tribes who had entered Khar was spoken of as the Manslayer.
On a landing-stair of carved marble a throng of Nubian slaves awaited Osman's party with sedan chairs. Link-bearers attended them, and the girl was put into a closed palanquin, Osman riding in a chair close behind. Robert, taking the arm of the blind priest, walked in the center of the company.
From the shadows of the alley ragged shapes emerged like lame crows hopping to a meal. They croaked for alms, and the slaves thrust them back with their long wands, shouting against the outcry of the beggars for a way to be opened for the wazir.
One of the ragged men stumbled against Hassan's chair, and a flood of obscenity welled from the lips of the singer. The beggar crouched, whining, and Robert saw that his cheeks were blotched, the flesh eaten away to the bone.
"A bow!" Hassan commanded one of his followers and snatched the weapon, ready strung.
The leper lifted swollen hands, and Hassan, smiling, ordered two of the slaves to hold him. Shivering, the Nubians sprang to obey. The bow twanged and the arrow shaft plunged into the creature's stomach.
The knight, who had seen many men die, was sickened, and fought down rising nausea.
"Have we come to the prison, my son?" the gentle voice of Evagrius asked.
"Nay, we are within the streets of a great city."
"The sound of it is evil," nodded the priest. "And the smell is foul, both of dirt and incense. So must Babylon have been ere it was cast down."
In spite of the fact that Osman seemed anxious to take dark and unfrequented ways to his destination, Robert was amazed by the size of the walled-in dwellings, the stone towers and marble pools that were glimpsed as they passed. Loitering crowds sighted them and stared at the two Franks, spitting and clenching their hands on perceiving the dark robe of the priest. Robert thought that surely Babylon could not have been a greater place than this.
At a bronze gateway Osman's escort halted, and the master of revelry hastened to his side. The man had sobered perceptibly.
"Lord and hadji," he muttered earnestly, "do not stumble with the foot of recklessness upon the pit of misfortune. The maid was to be sent to the palace of the shah with the other women captives. Will you dare take her within your dwelling?"
"0 small-of-wit," responded the wazir slowly, "if harm came to the Nazarene, who would face the blame?"
"You."
"Most true. And so shall I keep her safe, under my eye, until Muhammad returns. Who else is to be trusted with a pearl such as this, beyond price?"
"It would be better," objected the courtier, "to take under your hand the throne treasure, for safekeeping. That would buy allegiance of a host of chiefs, whereas a fair woman will-"
"Please the eye of Muhammad more than countless swords."
Osman signed for the palanquin hearing the captive girl to be taken to one of the buildings about the central garden, and gave over the knight and the priest to some guards, who led them to a postern door and up a winding stair for so great a distance that Robert knew they must be ascending a tower.
Upon a landing of the stair a narrow door was unbarred, and they were pushed into darkness. Robert bade the priest stand still while he investigated, and discovered that they were in a small, semicircular chamber furnished only with a rug and mattresses to sleep upon. An oval window, barely large enough to admit his head through, enabled him to look out over the garden, and he heard a voice like a nightingale's where lights glowed under the trees beneath the tower-
Wilt to Bokhara? 0 fool for thy pains!
Osman's tower proved to be the highest of the many minarets and cupolas of Bokhara-higher even than the emperor's palace, as Robert observed the next morning. Moreover in the open square and marketplaces near the tower were the tents of several thousand Kankalis-easily distinguished by their black cloaks and trappings.
Beyond the mosques and academies were the tents and picket lines of a host of mounted warriors. Where the caravan roads led into the gates of Bokhara's wall other pavilions were pitched. Although the distance was too great for the knight to be sure of the numbers, he estimated forty thousand men under arms within his range of vision and guessed at as many more elsewhere.
Hourly long lines of camels threaded through the gates and pushed into the already crowded marketplaces. Passing along the alleys beneath him, he made out throngs of mullahs, followed by their disciples, jostled by swaggering Turkomans and pushed aside by the riders that were continually entering and leaving Osman's palace.
And four times a day there floated out over the humming confusion of alley and bazaar the musical call of the summoner to prayer.
"Allah akbar! God is great ... There is no God but God ... Pray ye! Prayer is good, and the hour of prayer is at hand!"
The gigantic concourse, the uproar of voices, the smells-that rose even to the tower-wrought upon the senses of the watcher even as Osman's music and incense had failed to do and brought home to him the power of the stronghold of Islam. It was during the first dawn prayer, when the light was strong enough to read by, that he took out Abdullah's scroll and scanned it in the window niche where the guards in the outer corridor could not see him through the aperture in the door that served to pass in food and enable them to spy upon the prisoners. The letter began abruptly.
Salaam, yah ahmak-greeting, 0 fool! I have brought you to Bokhara, in spite of your folly which nearly made the Gate the end of the road.
Have you never learned that one rider can pass where four may not go abreast? Why then strive to befriend three others, and two of them weaklings?
But what is done is done, and what will be, will be. I have claimed on your behalf that you are the greatest of all the Franks, and it is well that the name of Longsword has penetrated even to the borders of Khar. The shah will desire to see you, and until his arrival you are safe, for I swore on the Koran that your disguise was needed to take you through the desert tribes.
l also swore that you had been cast out by your peers of Palestine and sought the service of Muhammad, for that also was necessary to keep you from being put into a shroud by the followers of Inalzig.
Your sword is more eloquent than your tongue; keep silence and listen, for Bokhara breeds more gossip than a dunghill vermin. Take these matters to heart, chiefly: Osman is only lip-loyal to the shah. The treasurer is the companion of Muhammad's mother, Turkhan khatun, who holds the allegiance of the Kankalis, who in turn are the backbone of the Kharesmian host. Osman secretly poisoned the emir who commanded the garrison of Bokhara, and would do away with the council of the imams, who are the Moslem elders. The shah fears him, the imams hate him. If he could lay hand on the throne treasure he would be master of Khar.
Ponder these matters and gather your strength again, for you will have need of wit and daring when I seek you. Bahator, a new path will be opened up by the next moon, and we will ride again.
Three times Robert pored through the delicate Arabic scroll writing and then thrust it into a crack between the bricks outside the window, wondering more than a little what manner of man might be Abdullah, who seemed to go freely wherever he willed and to judge any situation with a clear mind. The crusader was beholden to him for his life, and yet could not be sure Abdullah was his friend.
For days he paced the chamber, or slept heavily as they sleep who are casting off the inertia of sickness. And though he often pondered Abdullah's message, he could make little of it. He had come among men who learned to plot before they were weaned, who built mosques that outrivaled the Temple of Solomon, who could fashion weapons that made the clumsy arms of the crusaders look like flails and scythes. Without a weapon in his hand and a horse between his knees, he was restless; and often he found himself thinking of the girl who had come with the pilgrims to seek the Holy Sepulcher and had been led to Bokhara. Father Evagrius talked of her after his fashion, blaming no one for her fate.
"When all is told," the knight observed thoughtfully, "is not her state better here than on the roads of Palestine?"
"Is yours?"
"Nay, my case is different."
"You, my lord, have achieved much against the paynims. Will you swear to me that you will strive to speak again with Ellen d'Ibelin and ransom her from this infidel king?"
Robert frowned, chin on hand.
"Nay, that will I not. What ransom would suffice him who sits on the Throne of Gold? What have I?"
"My son, in this life we serve not ourselves. Not long ago the good yeoman leaped into the pool of the gorge and saved you from drowning, and thereafter the maiden tended you when the fever ran in your veins. What will you do for them?"
Glancing from the embrasure, Robert shook his head.
"Could you see the vast city and its wall, twice the height of Jerusalem's-aye, and the array of Moslems passing in and out upon the roads, you would not talk of hope. We have been brought hither like beasts for the eyes of the emperor to scan. Nay, Evagrius, 'twere folly to deceive ourselves. If the maid and the yeoman were free, and I, and we had horses-could we ride over these walls? And, even so, could we achieve a passage through five hundred leagues of Moslem lands?"
He laughed without merriment.
"Nay, Abdullah spoke truth to Montserrat. Whosoever enters Khar returns not."
The priest smiled.
"My blind eyes have seen more than that. The Red Sea dividing its waters, so that the Christian host passed through. Aye, and water issuing from a rock in the desert."
Evagrius nodded gently and sank into one of his long musing spells. Robert leaned back against the door, where he could listen to the talk of the guards in the corridor, and presently both were aware of a change in the sounds that drifted up from the alleys and gardens below.
The hum of talk had died away, although it was past the hour of evening prayer for the Moslems. In the water garden of the palace the companions of the wazir were sitting about their cups, and Hassan's clear voice rose in mockery above their laughter. Somewhere a woman began wailing, and slippered feet pattered along a corridor. A horse galloped furiously along the palace wall, and presently the hum of talk arose again in the alleys.
"What do the warriors, our warders, argue?" asked Evagrius, for the voices were louder than usual outside the door.
"They are disputing about the war. Otrar, one of the cities of Khar, fifty leagues from here, has fallen into the hands of the barbarians. There has been a battle between the host of the shah and the barbarian chief who is called the Manslayer."
Robert listened with rising interest.
"They say that Otrar was taken in a week, and ten thousand Moslems slain. A short siege, forsooth. Before that there was a battle in the northern mountains. One man claims that the shah overthrew his foes; another that he lost half his warriors-a hundred thousand."
"Who is this foe?"
"They name him now the Great Khan, which is to say Genghis Khan, and his tribe are called Mongols."
Chapter VIII
Not by the robe of honor on his shoulders, not by the sword on his hip, not by the words on his lips is a man to be judged.
When a friend calls for aid-then is the warrior weighed in the balance. And by his deeds, not by his promises, is the bahator judged.
The next morning the talk of the warders was that Muhammad was approaching Bokhara with his army and there was rejoicing in the bazaars. Carpets were hung out on the balconies overlooking the wide street that led from the Otrar gate through the righistan-the central square on which the great Jumma mosque was situated-past the two palaces of the shah and Osman, over the bridge that spanned the canal, to the western gate.
All this Robert observed, for his embrasure faced the east and north; but he saw too that while the Bokharians prepared a triumphal entry for the shah, many caravans came out of the east and passed by the city while none went the other way. He reflected that if the shah had overthrown his foes, merchants would not be bearing away their goods.
While he was watching, visitors came to his door, and he beheld bearded faces topped by huge turbans peering in at him. A low-voiced argument between the owners of the turbans and Osman's guards followed, until the door was flung open for the first time since his entry and a stout man with worried, sunken eyes walked in.
"This is the mullah," announced one of the spearmen, "who has in his keeping the Jumma mosque, and Allah alone knows why he is bearing you hence for a day, 0 dog of an unbeliever," he grumbled.
The mullah drew up the skirts of his silk robe as he passed Father Evagrius, and stared for a full moment at Robert.
"Are you verily the infidel bahator who withstood Nasr-ud-deen at Antioch and broached the wall of Damietta?" he asked in scholarly Arabic.
Robert bent his head to conceal his surprise, but the Bokharian guessed his thought.
"We of Khar are conversant with the events of the borderland of Islam, for this is the heart of Islam. The heart would not beat as high if a vein in one finger were opened. Speak, 0 caphar, for Abdullah sang your praises and made known to us that you are acquainted with our speech."
"True, 0 hadji."
For the mullah wore the green turban cloth that showed he had performed the pilgrimage to Mecca.
With another scornful glance at the impassive blind man the mullah signed for Robert to follow and led the way down the tower stair. In the street they were joined by a half-dozen dignitaries of the town, imams and kadis-hawk-faced Turkomans and stalwart Uzbeks, all looking more than a little troubled and all armed. They took the shortest way-as Robert knew from his study of the streets-to the canal and the wall beyond the bridge.
Once he set foot on the walk that ran on the summit of the wall, Robert strode to the crenellated parapet and stared down. The nobles watched him silently as men might eye a horse that was going through its paces.
"Abdullah," observed one presently, "who is a cup-companion of the shah-upon whom be peace-said in our hearing that the Saracens of Syria set the price of a king's ransom on your head because you were master of the art of siege."
Robert kept silence, inwardly cheered by the knowledge that the various Moslem races were more often than not tearing at each other's throats and that the Kharesmians apparently were not allied to the Saracens whom he had fought. So he waited for the speaker to explain himself.
"In the mulberry grove below," the man went on, "is the mazar of a venerable sheikh who dared to prophesy. Aye, he foretold to Muhammad that a day would come when the walls of Bokhara would be one with the plain, and cattle would graze where its mosques had been."
The mullah pushed forward to add his word.
"By command of Muhammad, the shadow of God upon earth, this man was cast into the pit of vermin, having first been blinded. Thus his death was slow, yet because of his sanctity, the mazar was erected. Muhammad did not act wisely."
Seeing that they sought something from him, Robert continued to gaze indifferently down at the grove and its shrine.
"How long, 0 caphar," demanded the mullah at last impatiently, "could Bokhara withstand a siege?"
"With how many men for garrison?"
"You have seen them, and you have seen the wall."
Robert shook his head, smiling.
"Will one claw show the size of a tiger-or its teeth?"
After consulting together they led him a league or so around the summit of the wall until they were winded, and the knight waxed exultant with his first hour out in the sun. The guards at each tower and stair looked at him until he was out of sight. The sentries that squatted by each ballista to cast arrow sheaves and each mangonel for the casting of naphtha jars forgot to scratch themselves and salaam to the mullah.
Robert, standing half a head taller than the Bokharians, with his tawny beard uncombed and his yellow hair falling on his square shoulders, strode in the lead, for his interest was aroused; and his gray eyes gleamed as he studied the engines of defense, which differed little from those in Palestine. The murmurs of the warriors gathered around stew pot and dicing reached his ears, but he gave them little heed-though the kadis were more attentive.
The men were saying to one another that here was another Iskander from the land of the Franks. The mullah knew better, but one of the kadis twitched his sleeve and held up a row of coins that served to ornament his sword belt. They were old coins, dug out of the cellars of the city, and one bore the head of Alexander.
"Nay, he is no Islander," they decided. "But the poise of the head, and the brow and the hair-aye, and the chin are the same. He must be of the race of Macedon."

They seemed to take comfort from this, although the knight could have told them otherwise. In the memory of the councilors, old men had told stories of the rule of the Bactrian-Greek generals who governed Bokhara until a Chinese horde came out of the east-to be driven away in turn by the Arabs, who were succeeded by the Khar dynasty, the emperors before Muhammad.
"How long could the wall be held?" they asked all together when the mullah halted at the Otrar gate, which, being the chief gate of the city, was used as the site for exposing the heads of men slain by order of the shahbeing ornamented by wizened shapes of skin, and hovering birds.
"Forever," answered Robert briefly. "If two things happen not."
He was amazed at the labor that had gone into the fortification. The blocks of sun-dried brick were hard as stone, and the wall was solid, a full eight spears' lengths in height and three in width. Moreover, except where the river flowed, the country outside was a wind-whipped, sandy waste. A besieging army would need to drag timber for engines and food from a distance. There was plenty of water within the city and ample forces to man the wall. No ordinary stone-casters could make a breach wide enough to do harm.
"What two things?" demanded the Moslems in unison.
"Treachery, or poor leadership."
The councilors stared at him with hard, covetous eyes and fingered their beards.
"Inshallah! That is a truth. Cannot the wall be made stronger?"
Robert nodded.
"Dig a ditch at its foot-a wide ditch. Or the foe would start tunnels to run under and collapse the towers."
"And what else?"
"Nay," the knight smiled, "am I also a prophet, to tell of what is to be? What I know, I know, and words are easily twisted. I have answered your question."
They drew apart to talk again; and when they began to argue, he suspected that the Bokharians had no one who could put the city in a condi tion for defense. The leader of the garrison being dead, and Osman occupied with his own affairs, the forces in the city lacked a head.
"You have told us no more than we understood before!" exclaimed a kadi with a narrow skull and a wisp of a beard. "Surely you have greater knowledge than that, and we have means to make you speak. The vermin pit is an ill dwelling place."
"Lies are easily had," assented the knight, "and in Bokhara I have heard much lying and little truth."
"We will make a bargain with you, 0 Nazarene. If you will advise our captains how to prepare the city for defense we will speak a word on your behalf to the shah."
"And if I tell them what to do, who is to see it done?"
After much argument the Moslems offered to let the crusader come to the wall each day, to watch the progress of the work, and to give advice to the various chiefs who would command the slaves who would do the work. Muhammad was expected in three days. Robert stipulated that the mullah and the judges were to give him a signed promise that no harm would come to Father Evagrius during this time.
At sunrise, the next three days, he was on the wall, attended by guards of Osman's household, and the nobles, who at first listened contemptuously to the plans of an infidel, began to stroke their beards and to ask for fresh suggestions. A multitude of slaves were turned loose outside the wall to dig the ditch.
Across the canal at both entrances a chain was stretched, and a bridge of barges set in place inside the chain. Wooden parapets were erected on the barges and detachments of archers told off to practice shooting in triple ranks; the engines were greased with sheep's fat, and new timbers shaped by craftsmen where the old were decayed.
The chiefs of the Kankalis and Turkomans were better skilled in leading their men on forays than in preparing for a siege, and the headmen of the city saw the worth of what Robert advised. The knight himself, glad of something to do at last, went among the soldiers showing them by example what he wanted done. Meanwhile the councilors did not neglect to seize the cattle of the countryside and to fill up the granaries of the city.
By the third evening the slaves had been joined by throngs of merchants and idlers, for it was known at last that the Moslem host under Muhammad had suffered at the hands of the barbarians, and that the shah was ac tually in flight before the Mongols. He had with him a formidable army, and with Bokhara prepared for siege and the shah to lead the defense the Moslems of the city had no fear of the outcome.
That night Robert found a scroll from Abdullah awaiting him on the silver platter that bore his evening meal, in the tower room. The missive ran:
O little son you have done well, and I have not been idle. Gold, in Bokhara, is the key to all gates save that of the treasure, which is hidden. Your warders have pouched gold from my hand. On the morrow demand to be taken to the street, to stand in the crowd when Muhammad passes. Speak boldly when the time comes, for the devil had his paw on a timid man.
With the first streak of sunrise the knight confided to Father Evagrius that Abdullah had appointed a meetingplace, for what purpose he did not know. He had been content to follow the hints given out by the minstrel, who seemed to wish to make known the worth of the man he had brought to Khar.
He found that the three men who were on guard in the corridor were quite prepared to take him down to the street. They wanted to watch the spectacle themselves, and Robert had been allowed to go out before this. But the knight suspected they had been bribed.
From the window he saw that the flat housetops were lined with throngs of watchers and that carpets had been laid in the street through which Muhammad must pass to go to his palace; and before the guard had been changed, he perceived dust rising in a long line out on the plain.
When the first horsemen entered the Otrar gate under the sightless eyes of the heads exposed there by order of the shah, Robert was taken down to the garden and thence to the street where Osman's followers were jammed against the wall. His guards, anxious for a better view, elbowed their way forward with the knight, claiming that the wazir had ordered Robert to be displayed as his prisoner.
Room was made for him in the outer line, and for hours he watched the passing of bodies of horsemen. These were strange to his sight-darkskinned warriors, well mounted, who cursed the crowd when the way was obstructed. The ponies were sweat-streaked, and many of the riders bore wounds. Robert noticed that they had no spare mounts and no baggage. They looked like men who had been in the saddle throughout the night.
The tumult in the street was echoed from the housetops when it was seen that the van of the cavalry did not halt at the river. Instead they crossed the bridge and passed out of the southern gate. The Bokharians mocked them for cowards who did not dare make a stand in the city, and the shah's men answered in kind.
Other riders followed-Persian mailed archers, with high lambskin hats and bronze shields. One of the guards at Robert's elbow shouted a question, which was answered by a blow from a scabbard. But rumors were buzzing in the crowd.
"To Samarkand-the army goes to Samarkand! Nay, to Herat, for I heard-Allah, they lost their tents, and all but-to the mountains, I say-they draw their reins to Khorassan."
Behind Robert the press grew greater. A gaunt Turkoman beg, smelling of sheepskins, bared yellow teeth and roared in his ear:
"Pillage! The door is open to plunder! Death to the Franks!"
They were thrust forward into the dust cloud as the slaves of Osman issued from the palace gate and beat a path for their master, who sat in a palanquin. Catching sight of Robert, he signed for the guards to bring the captive after him and ordered his bearers to run toward the righistan.
"Where is Muhammad Shah?" bellowed the Turkoman, running with them. "Where are the emirs?"
Osman lay back on his pillows, closing the curtains against the dust. They passed an array of spearmen mounted on camels and-thanks to the wands of the Nubians-emerged into the great square at the same moment that some score of elephants came swaying up the street on the other side. Before and behind the elephants galloped horsemen, white with dust, drawn scimitars in hand. Abreast the pillars of the Jumma mosque the leading elephant-a towering beast painted green and red, with steel blades lashed to its tusks-slowed its ambling gait and threw up its trunk. The lines of Bokharians near Robert cast themselves on their knees, pressing their foreheads to earth. So he was able to see the mullah of the mosque standing on the steps of the edifice.
And, when the elephant came to a halt, the man who sat alone in the glittering howdah stared first at Osman and then at Robert, who remained standing.
"Hail to Muhammad Shah, the mighty, the victorious!" roared the crowd.
Robert saw a face under a turban that glittered with jewels-a puffy face with restless eyes. Osman climbed from his litter and salaamed.
"0 monarch of the world, make thine elephant kneel. Thy palace is in readiness."
He spoke boldly, and under the words was a shadow of mockery. The shah leaned forward.
"Upon thee the peace, 0 hadji!" he greeted the mullah first. "Necessity has changed my plans. I ride to Herat, there to gather together the new forces from the south."
The dark eyes of the wazir glittered, although he did not seem surprised.
"And what of Bokhara? What is thy command?"
"To defend it against the Mongols," replied the man in the howdah slowly. "In council the emirs of the kingdom have given decision to retire to the walled cities. Against these the foe will spend his strength, while a fresh army gathers under my standard."
"And is this thy decision also, 0 king?" asked Osman loudly.
"It is my command."
The minister bent his head.
"To hear is to obey. Give to thy servants the boon of the Presence, if it be only for one night, that our hearts may be strengthened."
Muhammad hesitated, and Robert thought then that this man was not of a race of leaders, if he knew not his own mind. Instead of answering he signed for Osman and the mullah to approach closer, and they talked for several moments in low voices. Then deliberately the wazir made a response loud enough for Robert and the nearest horsemen to hear.
"Lord of the Age, Companion of the Warriors of Islam, Mirror of the Glory of Allah-give to thy poorest servant, Osman, the wazir, thy signet ring and the command of Bokhara's garrison, that his back may be straightened and his courage heightened and thine enemies confounded."
Again Muhammad hesitated while Osman waited at ease. It occurred to Robert that if Osman was powerful enough to speak insolently to the emperor, a successful defense of the city would strengthen the wazir's hand. Osman already had under his influence an army as great as the shah's; a considerable victory would win him new followers.
"Nay," said the man in the howdah, firmly this time, "the care of the treasure is thine-and the mullah's. Is not that enough care?"
Other officials now approached the elephant, and there was a brief conference. Osman dissembled his disappointment and listened attentively. Presently Robert recognized Abdullah's voice and saw the minstrel close to the howdah, laughing as at some excellent jest.
Muhammad glanced at the mullah.
"Is it true, 0 hadji, that the imams have asked for a new leader?"
"Protector of the Faith, it is true."
"Then I name the emir of the Franks, the conqueror of the Saracens, commander of the garrison of Bokhara."
A murmur went up at this, and men pushed closer to study the face of Muhammad. Until the shah signed to him Robert did not realize that he was the man in question. Osman for once looked utterly astonished, but the mullah seemed satisfied. When he stood under the elephant Robert saw that the lines of fatigue and worry were strongly marked in Muhammad's broad face, and that he was too restless to keep still for long.
"Will you swear, 0 Nazarene," the mullah asked, "to serve the shah in this thing and to give your utmost to the defense of the city?"
The knight looked up silently at the man in the howdah, who turned impatiently on the officers below.
"What is this? We have escorted this warrior from Syria, and you have failed to give him sword or armor or horse. A robe of honor for his shoulders, and do you, choose a horse from the best."
Several of the imams hurried off to obey, and Robert saw Ahdullah smile. Osman was chewing at a strand of his mustache, his brow unruffled but his eyes dark with anger that heightened when Muhammad loosened the signet ring on his finger and tossed it down to one of the mounted emirs, who pressed it to his forehead and extended it to the knight.
"Do you swear allegiance, Nazarene?" cried the mullah again.
"Tell me first," Robert answered slowly, "what authority goes with the ring?"
The keeper of the mosque opened wide his eyes; and Muhammad, listening, started as if he had set his hand on a scorpion.
"Power of life and death! Bokhara is in the hands of its garrison, and you are the leader of the garrison. My favor is accorded you."
The knight faced Muhammad, and perhaps he was the calmest man of them all because he was skeptical.
"0 king, I have heard. What then of Osman? Can there be two moons in the same night? Is my word to be obeyed over his?"
"Boldly have you spoken, 0 emir."
Muhammad did not seem displeased this time, and he gave the knight the Moslem title.
"Yah khawand, the men of the garrison will obey your commands; a fiirman, a decree, shall be written for their leaders to see. The good wazir has authority in matters of the treasury."
He glanced restlessly at the tall crusader.
"It has been dinned into my ears by my councilors that you are the one man who can defend the wall of Bokhara. Give me your pledge that you will do so!"
"Speak, fool," whispered Abdullah, reining his horse nearer Robert.
"First," observed the knight, "do you, pledge me safety from harm for three persons."
"Allah, what are they?"
"The Nazarene damsel carried from Palestine by Inalzig Khan and her companion the archer, and-" Robert turned to the mullah-"the priest Evagrius."
"They are yours."
Robert bent his head.
"0 king, there be many witnesses to that promise. And to mine. I swear that I will do my utmost to hold Bokhara for you against your foes."
"You have my leave to withdraw."
The man in the howdah turned to speak to the mullah, when a rider passed forward from the rear and rose in his stirrups to exchange a quick word with Muhammad-a word of warning, Robert thought. The shah uttered a sharp command, the mahout tugged at the elephant's neck with his hook and the great beast swayed into a walk, then broke into a long shamble, followed by the others.
The Bokharians were forced to scramble aside, out of the way, and a disorderly horde of infantry flooded the square, pushing after the elephants. The throng on the housetops and about the mosque knew by now-for tidings travel swiftly in a Moslem crowd-that the shah was minded to leave the city with the troops that attended his person, and that he had appointed a captive, an infidel, to take command of the garrison. Even now the crowd, fatalists without the power of acting on their own initiative, made no protest at the departure of their shah. As the glittering elephant swept by, the throngs prostrated themselves; and something like silence settled on the square, where a dozen officers stood about Robert, who was staring at the ring in his palm.
Osman was the first to move forward.
"Salaam, yah khawand. We have heard the word of the lord of Khar, and there is naught but obedience in our hearts. Command, and my men obey."
The mullah came next, followed by the nobles, who bore a shirt of silvered chain mail, a crested helmet and a cloak of black silk. They took off Robert's old khalat and fitted on the mail, slipping the cloak over it and winding his waist with a girdle of cloth of gold. A scimitar of blue steel with a hilt set with glittering gems was offered to the knight, and he took it. Still doubtful of the reality of the honor, he gathered up the reins of a white Arab pony with the mane and head of a king's charger. When he swung into the saddle he flushed with sheer pleasure.
"Salaam, bahator," his companions saluted him.
Robert raised his sword and took up his rein.
Abdullah came to his side. "A slave's greetings to Iskander," he cried. "May the road of your namesake be open before you."
Chapter IX
Will Finds a Bow
With some ten thousand staring at him, the new Emir of Bokhara issued his first commands and watched without seeming to do so to see if each were acknowledged-Abdullah finding great amusement thereby.
Robert appointed a conference for the chiefs of the various tribes in the courtyard of the shah's palace two hours hence. He called the several atabegs within view to him, and sent one to take immediate charge at every gate of the city. The imams he requested to draw up lists of the amount of food in the granaries and the total of the weapons stored in the armories.
From the crowd he picked out the Turkoman beg who had talked about killing him, and the man knelt with quivering cheeks, evidently expecting that he would be given over to torture. Instead he was bade to select a hundred riders and set out to the east to establish an advanced post beyond sight of the city. Other detachments were ordered off, to patrol the river and caravan tracks beyond the walls.
His commands were received with the deepest respect and executed at once. Robert, aware of the mullah at his elbow, turned in his saddle.
"0 hadji, is it fitting that the leader of your warriors should stretch his cloak in an alley and have the sky for a roof?"
The keeper of the temple started, eyed the knight keenly a moment and nodded gravely.
"True. A house shall be made ready in the garden quarter by the river, and slaves-"
"To this house," Robert suggested to Osman, "the blind priest and the archer can be sent before the hour is ended."
The wazir bowed in silence.
"And the Nazarene maid."
Their eyes met, and the minister of the shah twisted his fingers in the pearls that hung from his throat.
"Yah khawand! What words are these? In this place? To name a woman before listeners is to shame a follower of the Prophet!"
"Yet, 0 wazir, I am a Nazarene and a man of my word. If the maid is not placed in this dwelling, unharmed, before the sands have run from the hour-glass I shall open your gate with a thousand spears."
Osman exchanged glances with the mullah and extended both hands open before him.
"Who am I but the slave of him who has honored you? It shall be as you have said."
Robert watched him out of sight, well aware that he had made at least one bitter enemy. Turning the long ring on his finger, he studied the massive sapphire, cut in the form of a seal, in the gold setting. Then he raised his head and smiled.
"Here is a riddle, and I would know the answer in true words."
"Command me," suggested Abdullah promptly, but Robert shook his head.
"Hadji," he asked of the mullah, "have you in your house a hamman, a bath where the bathmen are discreet? Then may I be your guest for onehalf of the hour?"
Surprised, the mullah signed for him to ride to the rear of the mosque, and Abdullah stared after the two thoughtfully. The boy Hassan approached his horse and peered up mockingly.
"Lick thy palm, 0 teller of tales. The cup-companion is the favorite of a day and then-the dust of the rose petal remains to the seller of perfume."
Having launched this shaft the boy darted away and overtook Osman's palanquin at the gate of the wazir's palace, hearkening with interest to the low-voiced exclamations of his patron.
"0 dog of a mongrel pack! 0 eater of filth! To claim with a loud tongue what was mine! Son of dishonor and father foulness! To speak of the maid that would have been mine-aye, before a multitude! 0 fool and madman-Nazarene, prince of unbelievers-thy grave will be dug by jackals, and dogs will tear it loose again. May the bones of thy mother and thy father's father suffer a like fate."
Perceiving Hassan awaiting him, Osman mastered his rage somewhat and ordered the singer to run to the dwelling that was being prepared for the Frank, and stint not gold among the slaves selected by the imams for his service. Having confidently expected this command, Hassan made off blithely, for here was a matter dear to his heart, and a quarrel out of which a song might be made to quiet his master in another, more fortunate hour.
Robert understood the Turkish character well enough to be quite sure that the shah's ring and the imperial decree would not serve to keep him his command if he failed to enforce his authority by his personality. He did not wish to appear before the chiefs in council until he had learned something about them and the situation in general. To talk with Abdullah would be a mistake, because the Bokharians would conclude that he relied greatly on the minstrel.
Nur-Anim, the mullah, was a man wise beyond his years and a shrewd schemer, with the fire of fanaticism behind his close-set eyes. Robert had reasoned that he was the second most influential leader of the Bokharians; and he wished to question the mullah before Osman could talk with him, knowing well that he would be answered with half-truths and lies, out of which he might put together some guess as to why the sword and the ring had been bestowed upon him.
"Little time have we, Nur-Anim," he observed, refusing the offer of sweetmeats and fruit and a seat on the mullah's carpet, "to sit on the carpet of counsel. Is it not true that Muhammad was overthrown in the battle at the Takh-i-suleiman and lost half his men? And that his foes the Mongols are pursuing him apace? Nay, they are not fifty leagues behind."
He had reasoned this out in the bath, judging that no one not harassed by pursuit would appoint a commander in the great city of Bokhara in such haste. Nur-Anim inclined his head.
"The Mongols are horsemen and ride swiftly," went on Robert, who had remembered what his guards gossiped, but chose to let Nur-Anim think he was well informed. "And they number full as many as the warriors within Bokhara."
"Nay, the sum of their strength-may Allah not prosper it-is somewhat greater than one hundred thousand."
The mullah considered.
"We have twenty thousand more under your orders, and the slaves besides."
"Who are the most experienced atabegs?"
"Kutchluk Khan, the Uzbek."
The mullah pronounced the name with distaste.
"Leader of the horsemen of Turan-a one-eyed wolf who can scent plunder farther than a vulture can see a dead horse. And next to him Jahan Khan, chief of the Kankalis, who can cut a sheep in halves with a scimitar stroke. Sixty thousand follow them, and their pay takes the revenues of one-tenth Bokhara's trade."
There were others-the captain of the Persian mailed archers, and only one a noble of Khar. Robert began to see light. These leaders of the tribes were hired retainers. Gold was the tie that bound them-for the most part-to Muhammad, who had much gold. Their homes were elsewhere, and they lost little chance to quarrel and plot against each other.
If Muhammad had chosen one of them for emir the jealousy of the others would have flared up, and the leader would have had his hands full with the pack. Whereas, led by a stranger, they might fight well; at least until the fighting around Bokhara was at an end, and Robert was glad to learn that he had such men among the garrison.
When he asked about the Mongols and the Manslayer, Nur-Anim could say only that the foes of Khar were wild tribesmen, infidels, who had emerged from the Himalayas, coming down from the Roof of the World like a black storm. Ignorant of the strength of Bokhara, and lacking siege engines, they would be crippled under the wall and cut up by Muhammad when the shah raised a fresh army in the south.
"Where does Osman keep the treasure of the throne?" Robert asked suddenly.
He knew that the treasure was in the city, and that the shah had not taken it away.
Nur-Aniin started and suppressed a smile.
"Would Muhammad entrust the treasure of Khar to a wazir whose palace was surrounded by wolves like Kutchluk Khan?"
"Yet Osman knows the place of its hiding-as you do! "
"Am I a servant of the shah-that I should keep the keys? Nay, I serve the mosque."
He glanced contemptuously at the Nazarene who could be foolish enough to ask such questions.
"What if the Mongols take the city? The wealth of Khar would fall into their hands."
"They would not find it. Not if they tore down the dungeons and let the water out of the tanks."
This explained somewhat the readiness with which Muhammad left his personal hoard of riches behind. And Robert fancied that if he had tried to bear off the treasure the atabegs and the garrison would have made trouble. Pretending disbelief, he asked if a guard should not be set about the place where the treasure was kept.
Nur-Anim turned aside to take up some sugared fruit.
"There be watchers that stand over the Throne of Gold. For a hundred moons they have watched, and not Osman himself would dare draw sword against them."
"With Allah are the keys of-the unseen."
Robert took his leave and went out, the mullah staring after him a long time and wondering whether the new emir was really as simple as he seemed, for Nur-Anim was shrewder than others. The knight circled the precincts of the mosque, within which he was forbidden to set foot. He found an escort of a score of Kankalis and its many lean Turkomans awaiting him.
"Yah khawand," greeted a Kankali beg in a sleeved cloak of red satin, "by order of Jahan Khan do we, thy slaves, attend thee."
"0 emir!" growled a bearded Turani. "We also be here! Command us!"
They held his stirrup, then raced to their horses, and Robert rode off musing upon the power of an emperor that could raise an unknown warrior to such dignity. From his talk with the mullah he suspected that NurAnim was well acquainted with the hiding -place of the treasure-if he was not actually its keeper.
If Muhammad remained away from Bokhara and the city should be besieged for a long time, the possession of the treasure would mean power to the holder. Robert did not intend to let Osman put his hand on it. One thing puzzled him; if Osman knew where it was hidden, what had kept the wazir from seizing the treasure? And who was the Manslayer, that men who had never set eyes upon him should fear him?
This question was answered for him sooner than he expected.
It was sunset before he left the atabegs after issuing his orders and finding out that they knew less than he did about the Mongols. In the courtyard a familiar voice hailed him.
"Now by the shank-bone of the blessed St. Dunstan, here be Master Robert!"
Will Bunsley sprang forward and grasped the knight's hand in both fists, grinning hugely. His hood and hose were somewhat the worse for wear, but he looked fat and hale; in fact a strong odor of wine of Shiraz hung about him.
"Praise be to St. Bacchus-who was a fair trencherman if he lacked of sainthood-that I ha' found thee. Abdullah brought me hither with tidings-"
"How left you Ellen and the blind priest?"
"Safe as an arrow in quiver, and chattering like magpies, God wot! Has Gabriel sounded his trump, lordling, or is the day of miracles at hand again?"
"Yah khawand," spoke up Abdullah impatiently, "the Mongols are within the gate."
"How?" The knight's eyes narrowed. "Where?"
"An envoy came to the Otrar gate to have speech with the ruler of the city."
"Ha-and no word from our outposts?"
The minstrel snapped his fingers significantly and pointed to where in the gathering darkness red glows were visible in the distance-the reflection of fire upon rising columns of smoke. Bunsley followed his gesture with an appraising eye and explained cheerily.
"Abdullah doth fret because the light horsemen sent out from this citadel be somewhat heavy this night. Methinks they are, in a manner of speaking, dead, my lord, and divers paynim villages aflare on the horizon; by which token are we beset, and the goodly walls of this town invested, and I lack a bow, Master Robert. A fair long bow, seest thou, is a goodly thing when a siege is toward, and I pray thee-"
But the knight waited not to hear how Bunsley had managed to gather his tidings. Putting his horse to a gallop, followed by his escort and the minstrel and archer, he made for the eastern gate. Riding with loose rein, he glanced about him and saw that in the bazaar the merchants were hurrying to gather the goods from their stalls and that men ran about shouting aimlessly. As when the shah passed through, crowds of slaves and women lined the housetops to stare at the fires on the skyline. Torches were lighted by the Otrar gate, and here a body of Kankalis stood beyond spear-throw of three men.
At first sight of the three Robert thought that Abdullah and Will had jested.
They were mounted on shaggy ponies not much larger than donkeys. They were clad in coarse wool and leather, loosened over their bare chests for coolness in the windless evening. Only one, the most powerful of the three, wore mail of sorts-a haburgeon of iron plates knotted together with leather thongs.
The face of this rider was dark as burnished bronze and clean-cut as iron. His bare right arm was heavy with corded sinews, and the sword at his thigh was broad as an English battle-ax. He spoke in explosive gutturals, barely moving his lips, and one of the Moslems interpreted.
"The Mongol says he is Chatagai, a commander of a hundred. He says Genghis Khan offers the people of the city their lives."
The envoy glanced once at the crusader and his horse and spoke again.
"You are to bring the people from the walls to the plain," explained the Kankali, "with food and forage for a hundred thousand men and double that number of horses. He has gifts-a bow and an arrow. Look upon them; such bows are strong, such arrows shoot far."
Robert took the weapons in his hand and found the bow to be massive indeed, as heavy as a spear and as long as the English bows. The arrow was of cloth-yard length, its solid silver head pierced with holes.
"He says you cannot cope with such weapons. If the gates are opened to Genghis Khan he will slay no man; if the gates are shut no man will live."
Curiously Robert studied the Mongol, the first of that race he had seen. The warrior was strongly built, and horse and man remained as tranquil as if the rider had never known any other seat than the saddle. Chatagai stared for a long time at a dried and wrinkled head stuck upon a spear by the gate, seeming to take especial interest in this one grim remnant among the many skulls about the gate.
"Can you bend this bow?" Robert asked the archer.
"That can I," assented Will, who had been circling around the weapon like a dog that had sighted a side of venison.
He dismounted, examined the double stringing of twisted gut, and, exerting his strength in knee and arm, strung it swiftly.
"The bow is an honest longbow, but the arrow hath a lewd hammer head. Natheless if yonder churl can loose it, loose it I will-"
Planting his feet he gripped the feathered tip between fore and middle finger upon the string and drew it to his ear. The arrow flashed up into the night with a shrill, tuneful whistling that dwindled and passed beyond hearing. Chatagai grunted in approval.
"Now that is a pretty conceit!" observed the archer in surprise. "The holes i' the silver made a fair flute-sa ha! Master Robert, grant me the bow for mine own, an' it please thee."
The knight nodded, wishing that he could find a weapon to fit his own hand as easily, and turned to the Mongol.
"Tell him we can handle his weapons. Bid him say to his king that I hold Bokhara for Muhammad Shah, and the gates are closed to him."
Chatagai pointed at the head on the spear and spoke vehemently.
"Yah khawand," explained the Kankali, "this barbarian reminds you that the man whose head stands there was an envoy sent by Genghis Khan to Otrar. He dares to titter the warning that the person of an envoy was sacred before the time of Muhammad the Slave; he says God alone knows what will be the issue of this. Ai-a, shall we cut him down?"
"He goes free!" growled Robert.
The Mongol glanced briefly at the tall crusader and at Abdullah. Then, lifting his hand to his forehead and lips, he jerked the pony about in its tracks and swept through the gate with his men after him.
In an instant they had vanished into the dust and the night.
"That was ill done, my Frank," quoth the minstrel. "Until now you have walked forward through peril with a sure step, but now you have stumbled. Would you know the reason? Then dismiss your men beyond earshot, and we will talk-you and I alone-of the fate of an empire and the souls of a million men."
Chapter X
In the temples sit the priests, seeing all things, for they are slaves of the gods. Aye, the wisdom of the gods is one with Fate. Yet the lips of the priests are locked.
In the palace are the rose-faced women. Their hair is fragrant as a garden at dusk, and their fingers are like silver, for they are the slaves of a king. They have covered their lips with perfume and their hearts with secrecy.
One key only will unlock the hearts of the slaves, and that is Fear.
-Persian proverb
Robert ordered his followers to remain where they were and reined his horse through the gate after Abdullah until they were a stone's throw beyond the wall but still within the glow of the torches. The minstrel bore himself like a new man. Lute and pack were gone, and the good nature had faded from his broad face; he sat restlessly in the high-peaked saddle, peering into the maw of the dark plain as if watching the retreating Mongols and eager to be after them.
"My quest is ended, 0 companion of the road. I have found you and brought you hither with honor enough for us both."
The crusader nodded and laughed.
"Verily you are something of a wizard, Abdullah. You led me hither to serve-as you said-the master of all men. And I serve Muhammad in a high place."
"My master-" Abdullah glanced on all sides-"is not Muhammad, who is a slave, served by slaves. I follow the Manslayer."
"Genghis Khan?"
"Aye."
Robert's eyes narrowed. Here was a riddle, and he waited for the minstrel to explain it. And after perceiving that his friend would not speak, Abdullah went on.
"Hear then, lord companion, one last tale from the teller of tales. Before your mother bore you, there lived a tribal chief in the Gobi Desert, which is beyond the Roof of the World. This man came to be called Genghis Khan later, but at that time he herded sheep and cattle and fought with the other tribes. One day there came to him a youth who could sing the hero songs of the tribes, whose tongue was quick to boast, yet who drew back from no man's sword. This was Chepe Noyon, and they called him the Tiger.
"Again there came one who had the strength of a buffalo, who quaffed a cask of wine before setting it down, and Genghis Khan named him Subotai, or the Buffalo. When the other chiefs of the Mongols were in tatters and saw their herds thinned and their women carried off by their foes, they hung their heads and rode away to another place; then Genghis Khan said to these two, the Tiger and the Buffalo, that they should be his chief men, and they kept at his side to spy out the way in front of him and to guard his back against arrows. Sometimes when they were stiff with wounds they fled to the mountains; they tasted the dregs of treachery, which was worse than the buran-the black wind-storm that sweeps the high desert and freezes men in the saddle."
The minstrel folded his arms and thought for a moment. "When the dust rose from the plain or the mist descended from the sky these three did not lose the path they followed. In time came reward. The other tribes were trampled down. So they joined the Mongol standard, and Genghis Khan became leader of the Horde-the riders of the Gobi. They counted their herds by the hundred, and friends came to them from the white world of the north* and from the west and the south.
"When Cathay sent its bannermen against them they rode over the Great Wall, which was stronger than this."
The minstrel nodded at the wall of the city.
"So in time they humbled Cathay and rode their horses into the palaces of Yen-king, which is as great as three Bokharas. The wise men of Cathay served them, and they sat at table with Prester John of Asia. But Genghis Khan always kept the Tiger and the Buffalo near him and gave them honor. They were three brothers who would give up their horses, one to the other, in a battle.
"Then the Gur-khan, who was lord of the Roof of the World,, mustered his warriors, and Genghis Khan mounted his horse and went up against him. The Horde did not sit again upon the carpets of ease until they took the tents of the Gur-khan.
"I am Chepe Noyon, the orkhon, leader of the right wing of the Horde, and brother-in-arms to Genghis Khan."
The minstrel drawled his name, and his eyes twinkled.
"From the Uighurs, who are Turks and scholars, I learned Arabic and heard of Khar; and the desire came upon me to ride down and look upon this shah who was himself a slave.
"And I came because at the table of Prester John my master had heard of a race of Franks who had landed on the Moslem shores and made havoc with their swords. Hearing of their deeds, Genghis Khan laid a command on me. And the command was to fetch to him one of the Christian Franks who had a strong arm and a stout heart. This was because Genghis Khan wished to see for himself one of these warriors who had come over the seas, to overthrow all of the Moslems as he had struck the Cathayans. And I went, for a command is a command, even from a brother.
"Aye, the orkhon became a minstrel, and good sport was his. Muhammad, the shah, after seeing him ride and shoot an arrow and empty a flagon of wine without setting it down, took him into favor-not knowing his name or race. Abdullah became the cup-companion of an emperor's revels-and bethought him of his mission. So he asked the way to the strongholds of the Franks, and Muhammad gave him a chain of jewels."
The Mongol-Robert still thought of him as Abdullah-laughed heartily at the jest, probably aware of what kind of a chain Muhammad would have set upon him if his true name had been known.
"Why," asked Robert, frowning, "did you bring me with you? There were greater knights in Syria."
"Of the very few who could have made the journey and lived, none except you had the heart to set forth. Oh, I have watched you and tested you, and my choice was good."
Chepe Noyon nodded reflectively and continued:
"When we drew our reins to the Sialak I first heard of the war between Muhammad and Genghis Khan, and many lies were told me. But while you were a captive here I rode to Otrar and there learned the truth, and this is it:
"The Moslems, being traders and traffickers by nature, sent caravans to the Mongol empire to sell their wares. And so Genghis Khan sent an embassy to Muhammad to greet him. The governor of Otrar was a fool, and he mistook the envoys for common men."
Robert thought of his first impression of Chatagai, and judged that this might easily happen.
"First the governor of Otrar cut off their beards and then their heads," went on Chepe Noyon carelessly, "and kept their goods, to win Muhammad's favor. The head that hangs by this gate-" he pointed to the wall behind them-"was the brother of Chatagai. Genghis Khan will let no man of the Horde suffer injury unavenged. Aye, in our land a young woman might carry a sack of gold in her hand from Bishbalik to Kambalu, and she and the gold would be untouched. Nay, can there be two suns in the sky? War between the shah and the khan was certain, and now it has come to pass. Muhammad thought he was dealing with a nomad-a herdsman. So he was. But he thinks otherwise."
Throwing back his head, he laughed, white teeth flashing through his beard.
"By the white horse Kotwan, by the sky dancers, that was a ride we made, from your gate to this gate! These men of Khar be liars! Aye, the men of Khar have tasted fear, and the day is at hand when they will eat shame! Bokhara's wall will be level with the plain and herds will graze where the palaces stood."
Thinking of the prophecy of the dead sheikh, Robert held his peace.
"In Bokhara," resumed Chepe Noyon with relish, "I sang your praises, so that the shah would hear, and demand to see you; then Osman would not dare put you to the torture as he planned. Hai-it happens oftentimes that a pit is dug for a tiger and an ox is trapped. Behold what happened. The imams and the mullah besought Muhammad to make you emir of the city, to lead its defense. And now you may surrender to Genghis Khan, winning honor thereby. If Bokhara resists it will fare no better than Otrar."
Robert held up his hand.
"Is a promise made at sunrise to be broken at sundown?"
"Not the promise of a true man."
"Then I will defend Bokhara. My word is passed, and I will not unsay it."
For a full moment Chepe Noyon gazed up at the vault of the sky and sniffed into his nostrils the odor of the warm sand.
"Tell me this, 0 companion of the road. Can one man cast himself into the water and so stem the rush of a river in flood?"
The crusader was silent, having no answer, and Chepe Noyon did not seem ill pleased.
"The men of Khar are foxes, apt at stealing and flying to cover. I have lived among foxes on the steppe. You know not the depth of treachery in these Moslems as I do, who have sung my songs in diwan and riwan-in council and feast. Each one lusts for the treasure of Khar."
"Is the throne of gold in Bokhara?"
"Aye, well hidden. It lies below ground-so much a drunken priest babbled. The wazir knows the way to it, but priests stand guard over it, and Osman cannot hew them down because his foes would cry sacrilege and muster enough Moslems to cut him and his men to pieces."
He laughed again shortly.
"0 fool-to think they gave you honor in good faith! I overheard the talk between Muhammad and his advisors in the righistan where his elephant took stand. He would have waited to bear off the treasure, but Osman's men declared that he must leave the gold as surety that Bokhara would be relieved by him. He fears Osman and his own mother."
The Mongol looked long at Robert.
"Your eyes would be opened in time, but then it would be too late," he added. "The shah left you behind as a figurehead, to deprive Osman of honor. The mullah took your part because he has a dread of the Kanka- lis-without someone to hold them in check. Osman is shrewd; you cannot deal with him. Bokhara is doomed. We are clear of the gate. Ride then with me. I go to Genghis Khan and the fellowship of true men."
"Go!" said Robert briefly. "I will keep to my place."
"By the eyes of !" cried the Mongol. "Bold words, but what deeds will follow? Summon your men-or they will question you about me. Hai-I will lead them a chase."
He gathered up his reins, and the horse, sensing the purpose of its rider, reared impatiently.
"Nay, there is peace between us, for you saved my life."
"The debt is even, since you shielded me in Palestine. Now the sword is between us."
He lifted his muscular hand to his forehead and lips.
"Ahatou koke Mongku-hai!"
Although Robert did not know it, Chepe Noyon had given him the salute of the royal Mongols.
He listened awhile to the drumming of hoofs on the baked clay of the road and then turned back to the gate reflectively. Abdullah, or Chepe Noyon, had been a wayward kind of friend, but Robert found that he missed the minstrel now that the Mongol was gone for good.
The next day the men on the walls of Bokhara watched columns of Mongols move up from the east and spread out over the plain. All day the dust hung in clouds over masses of riders and herds of horses. The sun gleamed on the horns of cattle and the spears of the guards that shepherded thousands of captives from Otrar.
Robert, studying the array, saw that the Mongol warriors were all mounted, and all looked the same. He could not pick out the leaders. All wore the dust-stained leather and skins, and crude, rusted armor was on a few; here and there above the masses of the Horde moved immense standards-the horns of a stag or buffalo, trimmed with streaming tails, on long poles.
When the dust settled, lines of gray tents, built over a wooden framework, stood in place; back of these the captives and the cattle were herded on the open plain, with the heavy carts of the Horde forming fences around them. Robert bade Will try to count the warriors, and the yeoman estimated a trifle over a hundred thousand, the knight somewhat less.
"By the foul fiend, his cloven hoof!" muttered the archer. "Here is woundy work, i' faith. Our foes be quartered already, and the day is not yet done. A besieger now in Christendom would set about the work in seemly wise. Aye, he would first fashion him out of beam from his baggage-train a fair array of battering engines-mangonels and trebuchets. Aye, stone-casters and rams-chats and foxes and eke towers of assault. Then in another week he would cut and fit together storming-ladders, and we would harry him with a-many cloth-yard shafts and cast back his ladders on his poll-"
"The Mongols lack siege engines to my thinking, Master Will."
"Then do they lack sense, Master Robert. Rede me this riddle: How may men ride horses up a wall? Or tear down the wall with their hands? 'Tis a thing impossible."
He rubbed his long chin and scowled.
"This paynim wizarder hath the right o' the matter. My lord, as he says, we should sally out and fall upon the foe, pikes and bills-sa ha!"
Osman had suggested a sortie of the garrison, arguing that the Bokharians outnumbered the Mongols. But Robert would not give assent to the plan. The Horde puzzled him, and he wished to see what they were about before trusting the Moslem soldiery against them on open ground.
Meanwhile the besiegers established mounted patrols that cut off all communication with the world outside, and this pleased the knight. The shah had given him authority within Bokhara, and now no message could reach the city gainsaying this authority, and he meant to hold the command until the Mongols were beaten off. Beyond that he had made no plans.
By noon of the second day he noticed work in progress within the Mongol lines. Ox-sleds dragged up loads of earth, which was dumped along a front of a hundred yards, facing a portion of the wall where no towers stood. The captives labored at this spot, thousands of them, and the earth mound grew in height as it neared the wall.
"A causeway," he explained to Will. "And a great one. They will push it nearer until it reaches the rampart of our wall."
Whereupon he set to work to place on platforms built behind the menaced point, machines for casting sheaves of arrows and stones.
Throughout the night the Mongols kept at their labor, and the creaking of the carts sounded nearer. The defenders kindled cressets on the rampart and contented themselves with shouted insults and laughter, while Robert slept in a tent under the wall and the archer dozed at the tent entrance. An hour before dawn the knight roused and went to the battlement.
The causeway had crept forward and mounted higher. Now it reared against the stars about a hundred feet back from the edge of the ditch. Robert sent a warrior for Jahan Khan, the leader of the Kankalis, and the atabeg came, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and cursing under his breath. He was a slender man, glittering from knee to throat in gilded mail. Pearls were sewn into his turban, and a heron's plume marked him apart from his men. The right sleeve of his khalat was turned back on a supple shoulder and held by a diamond chain-this marking him for a notable swordsman-yet his eyes were heavy with the after-sleep of opium as he made his salaam.
"Take twice a hundred of your bowmen to the rampart," ordered Robert without salutation, "and scatter the workers upon the mole."
"Ma'shallah!" The atabeg smiled. "Am I a captain of bowmen? Bid me sally forth from the gates, and I will bring you the head of the Mongol chief on a spear."
"You are a bahator, chief of thirty thousand. Can you check the advance of the causeway?"
Robert permitted the torchlight to flash on the signet ring he wore, and after a moment it was clear to the Kankali that the Nazarene meant to be obeyed. Robert dismissed him and ordered food to be brought to the tent. He broke his fast with keen relish, after instructing Will to mount to the wall and mark the progress made by the defenders.
The archer came back indignant. The Mongols had brought up to the head of the mound wooden frames, upon which raw hides had been stretched. These frames were triangular in shape at the front and while they covered the besiegers, permitted earth and stones to be dumped down into the angle and the causeway moved forward as steadily as before. The Moslem archers with their short weapons were doing no damage at all.
"Bid the khan," Robert ordered one of his followers, "set the engines to work."
Response came back promptly that Jahan Khan declared the handling of stone-casters was not in the order given him.
"Then say to the khan that he is to come to my tent for a new order."
The knight was finishing the last of his rice and fruit and washing his hands when Jahan Khan approached and made as if to sit beside him.
"Stand," said Robert quietly, and while a hundred pairs of eyes watched intently he commanded two bowmen who came with the chief to chain Jahan Khan's arms and lead him away to his tent, there to guard him until relieved.
"What shame is this?" yelled the startled khan. "Am I dirt-I, Jahan Khan, the bahator?"
He gripped his scimitar hilt convulsively, and a great sigh went up from the crowd that had gathered about them.
It was the first real test Robert had made of the power given him, and he sat on his carpet without stirring or looking up at the raging chief. If he had started to explain his action, Jahan Khan might have pushed the quarrel to blows; if the crusader put hand to weapon, the man would strike first and claim afterward that he had done so in defense of his life. In the shadows at his back he heard Will Bunsley slip an arrow from quiver.
After awhile he motioned toward one of the younger begs, the tallest of the officers present. This sign among Moslems was as if Robert had beckoned, and after a second's hesitation the warrior strode forward, the crusader waiting until he saw fit to make a salaam.
"Ho, Moslems," snarled Jahan Khan, "this Nazarene takes upon his shoulders the mantle of the shah, and that is a shame upon us all."
It was just too late to appeal to the religious zeal of the Kankalis, because now they had grown curious as to what Robert wanted of the younger beg. They pressed closer to stare, and after a little reflection Jahan Khan took his hand from his weapon, choosing to make the conflict one of words.
"Do you," Robert remarked to the attentive younger warrior, "take the leadership of the Kankalis, and fight as a man should. And you-" he turned to the doubtful bowmen-"confine this atabeg until he has slept off the opium in his tent. You have leave to go!"
With that he turned his back and no more words were spoken. Jahan Khan was too surprised to argue, and one or two laughed as he went off. Robert had made good his authority against the most troublesome adherent of the wazir, and he knew that the account of the quarrel would be in every quarter of the city by dawn. It was well worth the risk he had taken.
To help the new leader, he sent Will Bunsley to the wall to show the Moslem archers how to loose their arrows in a high arc, to fall behind the protecting shield. The tumult above grew louder, and the grind and thud of catapult and mangonel sounded above the whistling of the arrows as the sun rose. Although the Mongols suffered from the fire, they pressed the work. The remnants of the captives were sent to the rear, and lines of armed men bore sacks of earth and stones up the causeway. The shields were wrecked, and, for a time the bodies of men fell over the head of the causeway as thickly as the sacks.
Then arrows began to fly from the Mongol lines and sweep the battlement.
"Ha, lord," muttered Will, "mark how yonder shafts cleave the paynim shields! They be stoutly sped, with a true eye. Would I had fourscore Lincolnshire lads here upon the rampart!"
He sighed and presently uttered an exclamation of astonishment.
Under cover of the arrow-flights the Mongols began a new building-up of the causeway, which had ceased to move forward. The ox-carts were driven out of the camp by hundreds and steered up the incline.
Men with torches herded the bellowing animals up the causeway, and once the mass started forward, the oxen kept on, goaded by spears and the smoking torches. The first carts reached the brink of the embankment and rolled over and the rest came after in a steady stream of frantic beasts and splintering wagons. The arrows of the Moslems fell fruitlessly among them, and Robert saw that the carts were loaded with sand and stone. Men, caught in the rush of surging animals, stood up and shouted defiance at the wall. One powerful warrior in a tigerskin hurled his torch at the Kankalis and leaped out from the cart, to fall into the ditch and be crushed by the carts that came after him.
When the causeway stood upon the edge of the ditch, as high as the wall and some twenty feet from it, the Mongols withdrew and quiet settled down. Robert left the Kankalis in charge opposite the causeway and rode to seek out Kutchluk Khan, who was camped across the city with his Turkomans.
The one-eyed chief came forward on foot, and the crusader did not dismount, for he was entitled to speak to the old warrior from the saddle.
"Take half your men-ten thousand of the best armed-and clear away the stalls and sheds of the suk. Quarter yourselves in the marketplace which is in the center of the city. When a wide space is cleared, assemble your men and report to me. Can you reach any point in the wall, riding four abreast from the suk?"
"Allah pity any who stand in my way," boasted the Turkoman, grinning. "Are we to sally forth by the river? The Mongols have no more than a few riders on watch on the banks of the Syr."
"Who spoke first to you of a sally, 0 atabeg?"
Kutchluk Khan thought for a moment.
"'Twas Osman, or one of the cup companions."
"You have seen many battles."
"By the ninety and nine holy names, I have seen rivers run with blood and the dust of the fighting hide the sun, 0 emir."
"Have you ever given your men an order to ride whither your foes wished them to go?"
"Nay! Am I a smooth-faced boy, to listen to false talk?"
"Then why incline your heart to a sally? The Mongols fight best in the saddle, and on the open plain they would be at home."
The Turkoman grunted and fingered his beard, not too well pleased at the rebuke.
"Likewise," went on Robert bluntly, "tell me if Osman holds me in honor or not?"
"By the sword-hand of he doth not. Yah khawand," Kutchluk laughed, baring yellow teeth, "he would be content to pour molten lead in your ears and make of your skull a drinking -cup. He has sworn he will."
"Sworn to whom?"
"To me and others, having gone among us with whispered talk. Slay him while the hour is propitious; it is all one to me, and my men would stand aside. I know not why the shah chose you to be over me, but Osman is an adder that strikes from a hole in the wall."
Kutchluk became good-humored again as he watched the crusader ride away. To his men he observed that the dog of a Nazarene was good steel shining from a dunghill.
"He knows well the worth of a mounted reserve of warriors such as we be. He hath given command for us to clear the bazaars-aye, and a way through every quarter of the city, so that we can mount and ride to his aid when he summons us. Allah send the wazir slay him not, for a feud comes to a head between them."
"Inshallah-then the door of looting is opened!"
The Turkomans, who had become quarrelsome from long idleness, waxed supremely content and prepared to go and plunder the stalls of the merchants. And by the time they were in saddle the words of the new emir had been repeated so often that to a man they were ready to swear they had been ordered to loot.
Chapter XI
Two Men and a Plan
The sun was a brazen ball hanging in a shroud of dust; and even the dogs of Bokhara had got up, panting, and left the alleys when Robert sought the dwelling where Ellen d'Ibelin and the blind priest were quartered. He found the narrow street filled with men who squatted where there was shade, and sweating horses. Pushing through, heedless of the scowls and imprecations that followed, he led his horse into the door of the garden that, behind a high clay wall, separated the house from the street.
It was a rose garden, bordered with jasmine and thyme. A fountain splashed where the shade was coolest, and about the fountain sat Osman and Hassan and several other followers of the wazir. Robert glanced toward the entrance of the house and saw Will Bunsley seated on the threshold with half a dozen weapons-the archer had a way of acquiring whatever dagger or sword struck his fancy without bothering to pay the owner-spread out on the stones beside him. Father Evagrius and the girl were not to be seen.
Osman had entered and brought in his men unknown to the knight, and Robert waited for an explanation of his presence. The wazir rose lei surely and called the crusader by a dozen complimentary names-Lord of the Planets, Perfection of Chivalry, a second Iskander.
"I bear thee tidings, 0 emir-good tidings. Because the heat in the alley without was a curse upon us, we made bold to enter thy garden."
His eye quested over the barred embrasures of the dwelling for a glimpse of the girl.
"And Hassan of the ready tongue hath made a song for thy mistress."
Robert gave his charger to Will to lead back to the stable and walked over to the Kharesmian.
"This house belongs to the damsel," he said slowly, "and I have not come here save to ask of her welfare. Send your buffoons from the garden and say your say in few words."
Osman hid his anger behind a smile, and Hassan laughed. When the cup-companions had departed the wazir motioned Robert to the carpet and sat beside him.
"You are not wise to tarnish the mirror of friendship with me, 0 Nazarene. Our paths in Bokhara lie together, and we seek the same end of the road-"
"Your tidings?"
"Are that the Mongols have food and fodder for their horses sufficient for only three days. At the end of the three days they must enter Bokhara or strike their tents and go elsewhere."
"How had you this?"
"From my spies, who traffic with the barbarians under guise of shepherds and wood-carriers."
"No men have come into the city in two days."
"True. My followers send messages over the wall. They took from Bokhara pigeons that fly back when they are loosed, and the messages are written and bound to the claws of the pigeons."
He looked amused at the ignorance of the knight who had never heard of carrier pigeons or water clocks or naphtha.
"Lo," went on Osman agreeably, "the seal of fate is on the foreheads of the accursed Mongols. They cannot complete their causeway, and their horses cannot leap the wall elsewhere. Your skill will save Bokhara, for the three days will soon be at an end. And then-" he hesitated-"what reward will be yours?"
Robert merely glanced at him inquiringly, carelessly at first, then attentively. Osman's hand shook and the pupils of his eyes were dark; a muscle twitched in his sallow cheek. In Cairo the crusader had seen Moslems who had taken an overdose of bhang or hashish, and they had looked like this.
"I will take," he observed suddenly, "two thousand pieces of gold."
"Two thousand! Thy palm would scarce be covered. Ask for more and it shall be thine! But not from the hand of Muhammad."
"How then?"
"I can show thee the treasure of Khar."
"Ha!"
Osman chuckled with secretive satisfaction.
"Aye, the throne of gold that an elephant scarce may bear on its back! Miskals of gold piled in caskets and the caskets as many as the stones of this garden. Jade scattered upon the floor, and an ivory table-"
"Nay, it is hidden."
"Beneath a mosque. A hundred men might search every mosque in Bokhara for a twelvemonth and find naught. They could dig until they wearied their loins. Only one way leads to it."
Osman's thin arms clutched his stomach in uncontrollable excitement.
"Ai-a, there are blue sapphires and chains of rose pearls! Diamonds that could put to shame the light of the sun lie there in darkness-for how long?"
"Have you seen it?" Robert's lean face was attentive.
"May Allah grant me joy for the pain! Aye, I have seen each thing that was sent down, under the eyes of the priests. And Muhammad the Slave fears to bring his riches to the light. Were I the shah I would keep it within my hand."
His thick lips drew back in a sneer. Taking Robert's silence for a reflection of his own greed, the wazir explained how tribute had been levied on the caliphs of Baghdad to get some of the finest of the jewels, and how Herat and Balkh had been searched to add to the treasure of Khar.
"And now you have a plan," nodded Robert.
Remembering the heat of the day and the quivering nerves of the man beside him, he wondered how much the drug had affected Osman. Certainly the man was telling the truth.
Osman's plan was a bold one. The wazir dared not draw upon himself the rage of the Moslems by violating a mosque. He offered to tell Robert how to reach the entrance to the treasure vault. With some of the lawless Turkomans the crusader could beat off the priests and hold the mosque above the vault long enough to make away with the jewels and the bulk of the gold. Meanwhile Osman would assemble the Kankalis and would protect the Nazarene and his men from pursuit. Robert could take a part of the gold, leaving the rest with the wazir in his palace.
They would not make the attempt until the Mongols had been driven from the city. Robert could escape to the gates with his portion of the gold; his escort of hillmen would be sufficient to force a way through the pass. The Turkomans would like nothing better than such a venture; Khar was torn by strife, and Osman, with the treasure in hand and the city held by his men, would be able to raise his standard against Muhammad. The victory over the Mongols would heighten his influence
"And if the Turkomans turn against me?"
"That is thy affair and risk. Thou art winning honor among them, 0 emir, and they love a bold leader."
Robert remembered that Osman had said nothing of the maid of Ibelin. Probably the wazir would prove treacherous. Yet with some of the treasure in his grasp and a horse under him and the road from the city clear-with a few of the wild tribesmen to follow him!
"If thou canst win a victory over the foe, Muhammad will soon put thee in thy shroud," whispered the Kharesmian. "That is ever his way."
This was probable. Osman's plan offered a desperate chance, but it stirred Robert's pulse. Nothing could have been said more to his liking. To ride through paynimry into Palestine with an emperor's ransom-to hew out a way of escape at the sword's point for Master Will and the priest and the maid Ellen!
He looked at Osman. The man was dreaming, his cheeks flushed, his eyes dull.
Surely the wazir would lose nothing by making the attempt, and-by a stroke of fortune Robert might find himself at the head of an army, lord of Bokhara in truth. Weighed in the balance, Osman would be found wanting if the ownership of the treasure stirred up fighting.
"Seek me out when the Mongols have been scattered," Osman whispered. "Our paths lie together-and the end of the road is in sight."
Robert nodded and rose as a warrior entered the garden.
"Yah khawand," the newcomer salaamed, "there is brawling between the men of Kutchluk Khan and the merchants of the suk. The Turkomans are riding down the stalls and snatching plunder."
Osman rolled over on an elbow, secretly pleased at the trouble in store for the crusader, when he should attempt to interfere in the dispute.
"Are the riders clearing the marketplace?" Robert asked the messenger.
"Allah-as kites clear bones."
"Good!" Robert nodded to the surprised wazir. "Go you and adjust the troubles of the merchants. They are in your charge."
Left alone, he stood by the fountain, his lips set in a harsh line. In his journey from Egypt to Bokhara he had met nothing but treachery and plotting. Even Abdullah had proved to be otherwise than he seemed-and Robert found that he missed Abdullah. Were there no men who kept faith? And why should a man keep faith?
Chapter XII
Concerning a Maid and a Surcoat
"Nay, Messire Long-Face, you may not shun our company this time as heretofore. For I have made ready a pudding of dates against your coming, and Master Will hath fetched some rare wine and, what is more, hath saved some of it."
So saying, Ellen took Robert's sword belt and shield and pushed a chair forward to the table where supper was spread.
"Aye," growled the archer. "Wash, wipe, sit, eat, drink, wipe, and depart. 's blood, tall brother, dost never loosen thy belt and stretch thy legs under table like a Christian?"
He noticed that the girl's fingers trembled when she placed food and wine before the knight and saw the ominous breaks made in the steel rings where arrows had struck his haburgeon. Ellen had sent away the slaves who had been placed in the house, for she wished none but herself to tend Father Evagrius. And the priest lay on a mattress in another room. The heat of the day had wearied him, and he had declined to join them.
Robert watched her trip back and forth to clear the table and minister to the priest, and the lines of weariness fell away from his eyes. In truth had he longed for this sight of the maid of Ibelin, and several times had turned aside from his riding in Bokhara to pass through the street and listen for sound of her voice lifted in song.
And now he racked his brain for words, wishful that he had been raised in the court where apt speeches were to be learned. He looked expectantly at Will Bunsley, but the glib tongue of the yeoman was still, for a marvel. Meanwhile Ellen settled down on a cushion under a great candle and began to embroider a pattern on a fair sheet of linen stretched upon a small frame.
Her dark head was bent over her task.
In this way had she whiled away the long hours of loneliness. Not once did she raise her eyes to the knight.
"Demoiselle."
Robert blushed and lowered his voice, for he had spoken as if addressing a squadron of men-at-arms.
"Prithee-my thanks for-the supper."
The long locks hid Ellen's face as she made answer quickly.
"Messire, my thanks for-saving my life."
"How? In sooth-"
"Indeed Master Will bath told me how you won us from the hands of the wazir."
ay-
"And Father Evagrius did relate how you took his part in the tower dungeon."
"And sent the wizarder a-packing from the courtyard before vespers," observed the archer with a nod.
"And so," went on the girl, "my lord, you have repaid me in most courteous wise for-the despite I put upon you. Once, my lord, I struck you. They tell me you are ever minded to pay a debt and to hold good your word. So do we render you-thanks!"
Suddenly Robert smiled, and when he smiled the tight, down curving lips grew merry.
"I cry quittance, demoiselle. 'Twas a fair good buffet you dealt me at our meeting, and a just one. Nay, child, hast forgotten our second meeting, beyond the Gates, by the desert sea? Your hand was gentle then-to a churl."
Ellen bent over her embroidery, and her fingers tangled in the thread. For when Robert had lain ill with fever she had often taken his head upon her knee and stroked his forehead until he slept. She wondered how much he remembered, and, observing with a swift, sidelong glance that he still smiled, she waxed haughty.
"My lord, I am no child. Next Martinmas I will be seventeen."
"My lady," Robert laughed, "I am no lord. Nay, you have spoiled the pattern. What is it?"
She untangled the thread and went to work anew, and he saw that she was embroidering a crimson cross upon a white background.
"Father Evagrius did ask it of me."
"A surcoat? Then the patriarch grows stronger?"
"He doth not mend."
She glanced anxiously toward the door of the other room.
"It was his wish that I make it for you."
Robert thought there was slight chance of his donning the garments of a knight again-or of leaving Bokhara alive. And what chance had the girl?
"See-'tis nearly finished."
She tilted the frame and surveyed it critically.
"The one you wore was sadly stained."
"'Tis a fair gift," he said, surprised that the girl should remember details of this meeting six months ago.
And he listened while she talked lightly of the strange slaves of Bokhara, the pretty garden and the music that she heard upon the river near at hand. Will, she said, had seldom been absent from the house; servants of the priests had brought her all she could wish of fruits and sweetmeats.
"And Will must not leave this place to seek the wall again," responded Robert gravely. "I give you in his charge."
"Nay, tall brother," put in the archer, "'twas she that sent me hence, saying-'Hie thee to my lord, and stand at his back; for he hath many foes, and if harm came to him-"'
"Why, our case would e'en be a hard one," interrupted Ellen swiftly.
Will shook his head doggedly. "By all the saints, thy words were otherwise. I mind-"
"Be still!" The girl's eyes flashed, and the work on the embroidery ceased altogether. "I sent you for tidings of the siege. Will the wall withstand assault, Sir Robert?"
"We will hold it. And the foe must withdraw in three days."
Will Bunsley scratched his head. "Now verily, and by thy leave, lord brother, thou didst hold forth contrariwise upon the rampart. Thou didst swear in good broad words that the Sooltan's men were overconfident, and the Mungals-or howsomever they be called-were brewing trickery for our quaffing-"
Robert reached out his foot under the table and, finding the yeoman's understanding too dense to heed a kick, frowned warningly. "You have quaffed too many cups of Bokharian brewing to remember aught aright, Master Will."
"Nay, by St. Dunstan-"
"Curb thy tongue, rogue, and cool thy head in the garden for awhile."
The archer went out, muttering under his breath, and Ellen laughed merrily.
"You would make light of our peril, Sir Robert. But you cannot silence your eyes, and they were troubled."
She looked at him frankly. "Will hath described the barbarians, and it would seem they fight best upon their horses. If I were leader of the besiegers I would take your wall upon the flank. I have seen a point where horsemen could enter a score abreast without dismounting or unbarring a gate."
Robert did not smile.
"If so-but where?"
"Where you and I entered Bokhara-" she paused to stitch the last thread in the cross-"the foe could swim their horses upon the river through the water gate."
"A chain hath been stretched across and a barrier made against boats, yet the thought is a good one. How came you to hit upon it?"
"When I was a child, messire, my father held command in the stronghold of Carcassonne for the queen, and I remember a siege and seeing the foemen swim their chargers across the moat."
She glanced at his hand where the great sapphire of the shah's ring gleamed. "Is that the talisman bestowed by the paynim king?"
"Lightly given." Robert turned it on his finger, and lifted his head with sudden purpose. "We have shared peril, you and I, and you have a heart for true words. Our chance of winning free from Bokhara with our lives is slight."
The brown eyes searched his without a trace of fear. "Ah, let the archer attend you, messire. If-if harm befall you he should seek me out, for I would then have need of one arrow from his bow."
"You would have need of it." Robert forced himself to speak coldly. Beholding her pride and her trust in him, he clenched his hands and strode the length of the chamber, to pause beside her.
"Nay, I am a wildling and worthless-as the peers of Palestine did maintain," he went on. "Hither came I to loot gold and gear and raise myself to a high place, and this day I plotted how to profit by the treachery of the wazir to his master. When I cast aside my spurs I put aside Iny vows and I have mocked the prayers of good Evagrius-thinking to drown memory of the past in a sea of blood. And this thing is true."
She began to loosen the long surcoat from the embroidery frame so that he could not see her face, and she made answer softly. "Among the peers of Palestine-aye and France-who hath done the deeds of the Longsword? Is life, forsooth, such a little thing that we must spend our years in kitchen and hall, making love to some and quarreling with others?"
Robert frowned down at her, wondering, for this was a maid of many surprises.
"In my father's castle, messire, were many who painted their shields brightly and made a song of each slight dent won in the pleasant jousts. Faith, they tested their skill at romaunts and gestes in the banquet-hall, and they were bold in the hunt-and the war of words."
She smiled wistfully. "My father was otherwise, and many a time did he tell me of the brave days of Richard of England. When he died I took the Cross, being heavy with grief, and now am I in a paynim hold, long leagues from Jerusalem."
She stood up, tossing back her dark hair. "I would not have it otherwise. For now, messire, perchance, I share the last hours of a brave knight and true."
"0 maid," Robert replied gruffly, being stirred by her bold words, "this is no fit place for a child of d'Ibelin to end her days."
"Then forsooth and verily," she cried, her mood changing lightly, "let us adventure forth and win us honor. Nay, the troubadours shall yet make a tale of us, and we will yet see Jerusalem. Master Will hath planned a plan for me whereby I may go forth when the time comes. 'Tis but a makeshift of a plan, and yet-"
Ellen turned and disappeared into her sleeping -chamber and emerged with her arms full of garments.
"-and yet'twill make a man of a maid."
Her dark tresses were hidden by a light helmet of silvered steel, and a cotton drop that fell to her boyish shoulders. "Well for me," she said gravely, "the Moslems of this quarter are slender men, for Will bath looted shamefully."
She held out a finely wrought haburgeon of delicate chain mail with a silk girdle, and wide damask pantaloons with embroidered slippers, and-smiling merrily-a long khalat of the richest purple.
"Ha, Master Robert," quoth the bowman, who had come in when he heard his name called, "she hath the hearing of a likely esquire-at-arms and a temper to boot. I have found for her a small shield and a bow suitable for her hand-"
"Yah khawand," interrupted Ellen blithely, "wilt take me for a companion upon your road-your road of peril?"
"Aye, verily," smiled the knight. "Yet no khawand am I, for that is 'lord and master."'
"Lord and master," she whispered; and there was no mockery in her eager eyes.
"Hearken," said Robert suddenly.
A sound as of a multitude of bees came through the open embrasures. The two men glanced at each other. To their trained ears the distant hum resolved itself into the mutter of kettle-drums and the clashing of cymbals mingled with the uproar of human voices. Robert picked up his sword belt and helm.
"That would be a bruit upon the wall."
Swiftly he girdled on the long scimitar he had chosen for lack of a better weapon of the size and weight to which he was accustomed. Ellen dropped her belongings and caught up the white surcoat.
"Wear this, my lord, for the sake of-of Evagrius, who hath blessed it."
Skillfully she slipped off the khalat that covered his mail and thrust the mantle over his shoulders, fastening his belt upon the outside. As he strode toward the garden he gripped her hand, and she skipped beside him to the outer gate.
"Fare you well-the good angels fight at your side!"
"Brave heart!" cried the knight. "Keep hidden until I return."
The alley door flew open, and a bearded Kankali peered within and saluted Robert as Will ran up with the saddled charger.
"Will the lord grant his servant permission-"
"Speak!"
"The barbarians have bridged the gap between the wall and the causeway. Aye, they have launched a storm, and Allah hath caused a battle to be."
Heedless of Robert's last advice, Ellen watched him ride away from the gate and waved farewell as he reached the turn in the alley.
"A fine mark hath thy mantle made of him," grumbled the archer, who was disappointed at being left behind. "Ah, for the shafts of the foe-Why, lass-why, as St. Dunstan hears me, thou art weeping!"
Chapter XIII
The Storm
As they trotted out of the alley Robert signed to the messenger to come up with him, and sent the man to command Kutchluk Khan to saddle his ponies and hold his men ready to ride. He pressed forward alone, seeking the shortest way to the wall. Here the alleys, odorous with fish and wool and stagnant water, twisted and turned, and his horse was forced to pick a way among heaps of refuse. White walls loomed out of the darkness and voices flung hearty curses after him in many languages.
He turned aside into a quarter where the wooden barrier was let down, and lights gleamed from lattices and the scent of incense and aloes was in the air. In gateways under great lanterns the tinted faces of women peered at him, and from a roof nearly over his head came the high-pitched song of a Circassian girl with the monotonous accompaniment of a lute. In the labyrinth of the alleys the dwellers of Bokhara had come forth after the heat of the day and Robert wondered whether in truth there could be fighting on the wall.
A woman's form, veiled and sinuous, moved toward him in the swaying walk of the Bokharian slave. Her henna-tinted hands drew back the veil, and he looked down into a face thin yet beautiful, and saw in the half-light of the stars eyes, darkened with kohl, wise with the unhallowed wisdom of Egypt.
Anklets tinkled as other girls fled with ripples of laughter from his horse. In his path a handsome boy caressed a lute, singing with a full throat, his head thrown back to the stars.
"Time passes and no man may stay it. This hour alone is thine. Turn not from the rose and its fairness, for thorns lie thick on the pathway!"
Robert reined in his horse and gripped the singer's shoulder.
"Where lies the wall?"
"I am Hassan," the boy responded with the gravity of the intoxicated. "Lo, the wall is not here, for this is the street of delightful hours."
He laughed at the set face of the crusader, and Robert loosed him, setting spurs to the charger. The spring of the horse sent the boy rolling in the dust that eddied up from the plunging hoofs.
Hassan sat up, muttering, and a veiled woman ran to his side from the deep shadow of a wall.
"The moon hath come down from the sky," cried the boy. "Ah-"
A thin length of steel darted into his side and was withdrawn. The woman's hand felt for his purse, which had jingled when he fell, and slipped it from his girdle. Then she merged again into the shadow.
Rising to his knees, Hassan felt about in the dust as if for something he had lost. Suddenly he screamed, and the song of the Circassian on the roof above ceased for a moment.
Robert rode over the bridge that spanned the river, and glanced to either side. Although the tumult on the wall was nearer, pleasure barges drifted along the banks, and Bokharian nobles made wagers as to the length of the fighting. Passing through the gardens at a gallop, he began to hear the ululation of the Kankalis and the clashing of weapons. Dismounting among the tents behind the wall, he climbed a stairway to a tower and found the beg he had left in charge.
"Yah khawand," the man greeted him, "you are in good time. Watch."
The causeway was crowded with packed masses of Mongols, and more were moving up on foot from the lines of the camp where the drums and nakars kept up their clamor. At the head of the earth mound, beams had been thrust across the gap by the besiegers and hastily covered with spears, planks, and hides. Over this bridge warriors were rushing the rampart, climbing upon the bodies of the slain.
They were half-naked, and those who had shields hurled them at the Moslems. Then they ran forward, stooping and smiting with axes and heavy, curved swords. Most of them fell under the arrows of the Kankalis, who shot from the wall and the nearest towers. The survivors were hurled back by spears and maces in the hands of the mailed defenders.
"Twice have we hewn down their bridge! " exclaimed the captain. "See where our stone-casters thin the numbers in the rear! Allah send victory!"
"But, do you, send for reinforcements from the palace," retorted Robert, watching two human tides beat against each other and a sprinkling of dark bodies, outflung from the press, drop into the beds of jasmine and roses underneath.
After awhile he picked up his shield and ran down the stairs toward the wall. Greater weight of metal and steadiness of foot was needed here.
Thrusting through the struggling Moslems, he whipped out his sword, hewing his way well in among the Mongols without waiting to see if any of his own men followed. A mace crashed against his helmet, blurring his sight; a spear clanged on his shield. All around him there was a tearing, sobbing sound of tired men striving to rend each other, a snapping of wood and the moaning of the wounded underfoot, Moslems for the most part. The short, grim men who surged at him fought in silence.
Robert thrust the hilt of his sword into a snarling face, swept clear the space before him with his blade, and felt himself caught about the legs. Stumbling, he dropped his sword, and his mailed mitten grasped a short battle-ax on the stone surface of the wall. With this he smashed free of those who grappled him and gained his feet-a thing that few did who went down.
Now as he stood his ground he felt that shafts flew past him. A giant who rushed at him with open hands was transfixed by a long arrow and fell upon his feet. Another was pierced through the throat, so that the blow he aimed at Robert fell feebly against the steel casque. He could see, through the eyeslits of his visor, the black mantles of the Kankalis on either hand, and the flash of their scimitars. So in time he rested against the broken rampart and the bodies that lay upon it, panting, while the Mongol tide receded down the mole.
Still, however, was heard the summons of the drum and cymbal from the Mongol camp.
"Yah khawand!" the voice of the beg spoke at his side. "Evil tidings have come. The Mongols have struck in another place along the river. They stole up and smashed the chain with sledges and swam their horses between the towers of the river gate. They are slaying the men in the barges-"
"Send to Kutchluk Khan. Bid him ride with all his men to the river. Half his division should cross the bridge to this side. Then order five thousand Persian archers to the house-tops along the river to support the Turkomans! Haste!"
While he waited anxiously for news of the fight at the river he saw torches assembling in the Mongol camp. Fresh warriors walked to the lower end of the causeway and began to mount silently.
Under the flaming cressets of the wall he could make out that these were powerful men with the horns of beasts upon their fur caps. Those in front carried beams; behind these came ranks of swordsmen in rude iron armor, followed by masses of archers.
Robert realized that the Mongols had launched their main attack at the river under cover of the assault on the causeway. The fresh effort might mean that they had been checked by Kutchluk, or that they had been vic torious behind him and meant to press home the attack. As yet he heard no fighting on the river nearby, and he breathed a prayer that the one-eyed Turkoman had driven home his charge.
Again the Mongols thrust forward their beams and swarmed to the assault. An arrow struck the Kankali begin the throat, and his body fell under the feet of his men.
"Are ye dogs?" Robert cried at the Moslems. "Come with me!"
He climbed the rampart, followed by all on the wall. The Mongols stood their ground, shouting and wreaking havoc with their heavy weapons. With his long ax Robert cleared a space around him and planted his feet, dizzy with the blows that smashed in the steel of his helmet. Warm blood trickled down his ribs, and hot air seared his lungs.
Until his arms were wearied he stood his ground, until the ax broke in his hands, when he fell to rallying the Moslems, who gave back on either side. The weariness crept into his brain, and he fancied he was standing at the head of a great stair up which writhed grimacing dwarfs with hands outstretched to drag him down into darkness.
A moment's pause enabled him to wipe the sweat from his eyes, and he saw Chepe Noyon clearly. The Mongol chief was halfway down the causeway beside a thickset warrior. This man leaned on a spear, staring up at the fight without expression. His massive arms were bound at the biceps with gold rings, and he wore the long horns of a buffalo on his helmet.
When his glance fell on the knight the powerful Mongol tossed down his spear and strode up the causeway, thrusting friends and foes from his path as a man might push aside cornstalks.
"Subotai- Subotai! " the nearest Mongols howled exultantly.
Robert fought for breath and looked about vainly for a weapon suited to his strength. Measuring the man with the buffalo horns and his own weariness, he felt that he would not be upon his feet for long.
"Yield thyself," Chepe Noyon's voice reached him through the uproar, "to the paladin, Subotai, and no shame is thine!"
"I yield to no man!" Robert cried and stepped forward.
A fresh onrush of Moslems from the wall swept between them as reinforcements came up at last from the Persian camp at the palace. Subotai crushed in the head of a warrior with his sword and leaped to one side, knocking two others from their feet. Then other Mongols sprang to the aid of their leader, who was drawn back, snarling angrily, as the besiegers were thrust back by weight of numbers, and the incline cleared.
Robert watched until the fight on the causeway was over. For the first time he noticed that a broad streak of light ran along the horizon. The struggle had lasted through the night.
"0 captain of thousands and companion of heroes," a glittering Persian addressed him respectfully, "the barbarians have been scattered at the river gate. They have left the waters thick with their dead, and Kutchluk Khan hath passed to the mercy of God with more than the half of his men."
When the sun rose the sound of the drums ceased. The crusader sought his horse and climbed stiffly into the saddle, while throngs of Bokharians clustered about him and cried praises on the infidel emir. Men fought for the privilege of taking the reins of his horse and leading him into the thick of the shouting mob, while women tossed roses from the housetops.
"The barbarians are withdrawing their tents from the river!" A warrior stood up in his stirrups to call out. "Hai-they are scattered! The favor of Allah is with the faithful! The triumph is with Bokhara!"
Robert was aware that the rejoicing was ill-timed. Yet was he too weary with his hurts to think of the future. He had held the wall and had made good his word to Muhammad. So might Alexander in other days have ridden through the streets of the ancient city and received the salutes of his warriors.
The tumult died down when he reached the square where some Persian mounted archers were drawn up by the mosque. At their head was Jahan Khan, relieved of his chains, sitting his horse beside the litter of Osman. On the steps of the mosque stood the mullah, Nur-Anim, with a paper in his hand and an array of priests behind him. The Moslem who had been leading his horse withdrew, and the crusader halted before the steps of the Jumma.
"Greeting, 0 prince of warriors and paladin of swordsmen," Nur-Anim said in his high voice. "Upon thee-the Salute! And now hear the word of Muhammad, Shah of shahs. This firm an, this decree, he left with me to be read when victory had fallen to our arms."
Robert glanced at Jahan Khan, who had been released without his order, and saw that the Kankali was staring at him curiously. A thousand eyes were on him as he sat his charger without helm or sword, with armor and surcoat hacked and stained.
It is the will of Muhammad Shah that Osman the wazirshall watch closely the deeds of the infidel leader of the garrison. If the Frank pre sumes to set foot in a mosque or to contrive aught against the treasure of Khar or raise his hand against a true believer he is to be put in chains and held captive until my return. If he resists this command he must be slain with a sword. The Peace upon my servants.
Robert's lips drew into a hard line, and he lifted his head angrily. Yet, thinking of the three who looked for his coming in the house of the fountain, he waited until he could speak calmly.
"Have I kept my word to Muhammad?"
"Aye," assented Nur-Anim, rolling up the decree. "It was written that victory should be, and you have served fate."
"Then will the shah make good his word to me?"
The mullah glanced at Osman, who raised himself on his elbow to speak; but the knight was before him.
"0 Moslems, it is also written that he who breaks an oath is without honor. I have been guilty of none of these things. Who is to be my judge?"
"The wazir and I."
Robert rallied his wits and tried to shake off his weariness. His head pained him, and loss of blood made it hard to sit erect in the saddle. His eyes went from one face to another and read in them only exultant mockery-save for two or three of the officers who had served him on the wall.
"And who speaks against me?"
"I!" cried Osman loudly. "Give heed, 0 Moslems, to the ill deeds of this Frank. He schemed in his garden to steal the treasure of Khar from the mosque. I made a test of him, and witnesses without the wall heard."
A murmur of astonishment and anger came from the lips of those who listened.
"He cast dirt upon the beard of Jahan Khan," went on the wazir. "And the boy Hassan he slew in the night for no cause. Women saw it done and will testify."
Seeing clearly that Osman had determined to get rid of him, Robert held up his hand silently, and after awhile-such was the prestige of the man who had defended the city against the Mongols-the murmurs quieted down.
"These be words, and lying words!" he cried. "Do ye believe, ye who have beheld my deeds?"
Some of the warriors looked about restlessly, and all eyes sought NurAnim. The mullah could have cast his influence for either man, and he chose to favor the wazir.
"Ye have heard the word of the shah!"
He lifted the rolled parchment.
"I obey the word."
Robert tightened his rein and urged his horse slowly along the line of the Bokharians, glancing into each face. And now he beheld only sullen fanaticism and hatred. He had been tricked and cast aside when they believed his work was done. The anger that he held in check swept over him.
"0 fools! I could have let the Mongols into the city. Who will lead you when I am gone?"
He ripped the signet ring from his finger and hurled it at Nur-Anim.
"Greet Muhammad with this, and do you, find honor in it if you can."
"Take the dog of a Nazarene!"
Robert wheeled his horse and headed for the Persians who closed in on him. One man he threw from the saddle, and his charger shouldered another out of the way. Vainly he sought to win through the press to reach the three who awaited him in the house of the fountain. A warrior struck him on the head with a mace, and he fell, under his rearing horse. A red mist gathered before his eyes, and powerful hands forced him to his feet. His wrists were bound behind him, and a cord was slipped over his head. The cord tightened, and he stumbled forward.
When his sight cleared he saw that he was being led out of the righistan beside Osman's litter, and the wazir was leaning on his elbow the better to feast his eyes on his prisoner.
"Is thy memory so short, 0 Nazarene? Not three days ago you put yourself before me. You took from me the treasure, the diamond sheen, the houri out of paradise. Didst thou believe I had forgotten? Nay, I will take again the treasure that is more than gold-my eyes will take delight in the face that is fairer than diamonds. Ha, you will live to see that-dog of an unbeliever."
At the gate of his palace he paused to stare a moment longer at his captive.
"Put upon him the chain that may not be loosened and the weight that may not be set down."
In the courtyard Robert was seized by slaves who riveted upon his wrists fetters to which chains were attached. These chains in turn supported a round ball of iron half as heavy as a man-a spiked ball, stained with dried blood.
"This is the morning star, Nazarene," Osman smiled, "for when you awake from sleep it lies near you, and when you would go forth it stirs not. Many who have looked upon it long have cursed the sun and prayed for death."
The slaves urged him toward a postern door of the tower. To obey, he was forced to pick up the weight and carry it, for the chains were too short to allow him to stand upright. He went forward, and the door closed on him, leaving him in darkness. But for a moment before the door was shut, he heard the distant mutter of great drums and the clash of the Mongol cymbals.
Chapter XIV
For those who watch the highway and for those who sit by the carpet of sickness, the sands run slowly from the hourglass, and the water lingers in the wheel of the water clock.
That day the muezzin did not call from the minarets at the noon hour. Will Bunsley and Ellen had grown accustomed to hearing the cry to prayer when the sun was at its highest point, and they looked up at the white spires without seeing turbaned figures in the tiny platforms that stood against the blue of the sky.
It was a cloudless day, and no wind stirred the spray of the fountain in the garden. Ellen hung about the path, making pretense of gathering flowers, but really listening with all her ears to the sounds in the street beyond the wall, to be ready to unbar the door the moment she heard Robert's ringing-
"Gate ho!"
She noticed that the noises of the street had changed. There was a steady mutter of voices and a shuffling of feet. The cries of children and the quarreling of loiterers were lacking. And no word came of Robert.
"Lady," quoth Will Bunsley, arranging his collection of arrows in sundry quivers, "the foe doth make a bruit with drum and horn, so methinks Sir Robert is yet upon the wall."
"But there is no fighting now."
Will scratched his head and looked up at the sky dubiously. "Fighting? Nay, I think so. Armed bands do pass a-nigh us; so perchance Sir Robert hath driven the foe out upon the plain."
"Master Will! You know as well as I that my lord would permit of no sally!"
Squinting down an arrow, the archer paused to cut back the feathering a trifle. Every day of their stay in the garden he had come in with news of Robert's deeds and his health, and he was well aware that the maid loved the knight with an enduring love.
"Hum. Why then, being weary, my lord doth sleep. For, look ye, a night of swordstrokes doth weary a wight somewhat. Even I-"
Ellen smiled at him. "You are a brave liar and a hardy rogue, Will Bunsley. Think you Sir Robert would sleep when the clarions were sounding? Oh, for one word-"
She broke off to listen to the murmur outside the gate, her brown eyes dark with anxiety, for Ellen herself had not slept while the clarions were heard upon the wall.
"Why, lass, he will be here anon," nodded the archer confidently. "Aye, he sought you out i' the mountain pass and in the wizarder's palace. So go thou within and change to thy warrior dress to greet him."
The girl knew that Will was hiding his misgivings and wished her to be clad as a man because he thought danger was at hand. So she went to her chamber and donned the light mail and steel cap, thrusting her hair beneath the cotton drop. Casting the silk khalat over her shoulders, she hurried forth to the garden. For a moment her glance quested in search of Will, who had disappeared. Then she heard his voice, loud with amazement.
"Lass-lass! The good father sees-he sees! A miracle hath come to pass!"
Ellen caught her breath, and, realizing better than the yeoman what his words portended, ran swiftly to the room of Father Evagrius. The patriarch was sitting up, one hand clasping his thin chest, the other outstretched in the air; his emaciated face was flushed, and his lips quivered. Will Bunsley stood agape in a far corner.
"Monseigneur!" cried the girl.
The eyes of the priest held a new light; no longer did they wander or lift viewlessly to the sky. They were fixed on the white wall, where the sunlight struck through a latticed embrasure.
"The mercy of God!"
Evagrius framed the words with difficulty, and then his voice grew clearer.
"I see the light of the sun! 0 blessed and fortunate! Nay, this is no abode of paynims!"
He glanced into the shadows, and Ellen sank on her knees beside him, supporting his shoulders with her arm. The hand of the patriarch felt her mailed throat and the steel head-piece.
"Who attends me? I cannot see you, but surely you must be one of the warriors of the Sepulcher. Behold-" his finger darted at the wall-"the tomb! Aye, the sun is bright on the Via Dolorosa and the walls of the blessed city. I can see the ensign of the Cross-there."
His eyes closed, and Ellen felt under her hand the heat of the fever that had made him delirious. Yet his lips twitched in a ceaseless smile.
"Happy are those who have taken up the Cross!" he cried again, stretching out his thin arms. "They are at home in Jerusalem, and the weary lie here at rest. 0 warrior, will you come with me to the tomb-yonder, a little way?"
"Aye, father," said Ellen, bowing her head.
"And bring the good knight Robert. For the Lord hath called to him the mighty men, and they come from the far places."
"Aye, father."
She eased the patriarch back to his couch and looked steadily into his face. After a moment she bent forward to close the blind man's eyes and to cross his hands on his breast.
"Evagrius hath died," she said to the archer, who had drawn nearer uncertainly.
"Nay," objected Will. "A moment agone he could see. 'Here is a miracle,' said I, and a miracle it was."
"Perchance it was, Master Will," assented the girl. "Now, do you, leave me, for a prayer must be said and candles placed fittingly. And then-what can we do?"
Will sought the garden and halted in his tracks. A dull crashing resounded from the alley, and the outer door quivered back against its bars. The wood splintered, and the head of an ax showed through. Catching up his bow, the archer strung it swiftly. Kneeling in the threshold of the house, he emptied a quiver at his foot and stuck the heads of a score of arrows in the earth in front of him.
"So-ho!" he muttered. "No friend knocks in that fashion."
The door fell into fragments, and the bars were cast aside by a tall Kankali who strode into the garden with drawn scimitar. The light of the afternoon sun was full in the man's eyes, and he saw nothing of the archer until Will's bow snapped and a shaft struck the warrior's throat, knocking him down.
Two others leaped over the dying man and started across the garden. Will sent a shaft fairly between the eyes of the first. The other reached the fountain, where an arrow clanged into the mail above his girdle, and he plunged into the water. An angry shout from the alley showed that the fall of the three had been observed, and the door remained vacant for a moment. Will heard Ellen's step behind him and called over his shoulder.
"We are beset by the paynims. Go thou to the roof with thy bow, but keep below the parapet. Watch lest they climb the wall in the rear."
"Who are they?"
"What matter-ha!"
The yeoman drew a shaft to his ear and paused alertly. Two shields had been thrust across the opening on the alley side, and behind this protection two warriors knelt hastily, bow in hand. They could not see Will, and he waited until they had sped their shafts hurriedly and without harm to him.
The attempt was repeated, more boldly this time, and an arrow thudded into the empty quiver at his foot. Evidently the assailants hoped that they had wounded the archer, because a Kankali ran into the garden, keeping his head down prudently so that the steel helmet protected his face. His round shield he held in front of his body.
Will rose to his feet and loosed an arrow that ripped through the tough hide target and pierced deep into the warrior's chest. The man stumbled and lay where he fell.
"They will eke be wiser now," he muttered, fearful that the Moslems would scatter around the wall and climb it out of his range of vision. "What tidings, my lady?" he called cheerily.
"I can see naught beyond the wall. What happened in the garden?"
"A fat man hath gone to pare the -'s! hoofs! His comrades hang back. Nay, I think they are brewing mischief."
He heard feet running in the alley, and a loud outcry. Then a couple of Kankalis swept past as if the fiend Will had invoked were after them. Ellen appeared at his side, fearful that he had been hurt, and they ventured a few steps into the garden.
Horses trotted up from somewhere and halted outside the wall. Through the door stepped a man who was not a Kankali-a warrior whose long beard swept his bare chest, whose iron helm bore the upper portion of a tiger's head by way of a crest and whose wide shoulders were wrapped in the tigerskin. Will fingered his bow, planting himself before the girl. But Ellen caught his arm with a cry of amazement.
"'Tis Ahdullah, the minstrel!"
Ahdullah, or Chepe Noyon, the Tiger Lord, glanced at them and laughed. Then, while a dozen squat Mongols crowded after him, he began to turn over the bodies in the garden to look into the faces, evidently seeking to identify one of them.
When he reached the last of the Kankalis, who had been smitten through the shield, he bent over and uttered an exclamation of satisfaction. The dead man was Osman, the wazir.
Chepe Noyon signed to one of his followers, who promptly struck off the head of the Moslem minister. Then the Mongols crowded around the two Christians to stare and finger Will's tattered garments. The archer faced them defiantly, while Chepe Noyon studied Ellen curiously. Resistance was useless, and the girl was the first to throw down her weapons.
Chapter XV
The Throne of Gold
Robert had been without sleep for a day and a night and the part of another day, so he had not been an hour in his dungeon before his head sank to the rushes and he fell into a dreamless stupor.
The opening of the door brought him back to consciousness, but his wounds ached and his limbs were stiff. He heard guttural voices that dwindled and left him to sit and to wonder first why he was in the dungeon and then-as the events of the last morning flashed back into his mind-why the door had been opened. The men who had come to his cell had merely glanced in and passed on.
He tried to get up and cursed the massive weight that cramped his arms. Picking up the spiked ball with an effort, he went to the door and thrust it wide.
The sun was setting, and the minarets of Bokhara were touched with the last crimson of the western sky. For awhile he gazed at the courtyard and listened, suspecting some new trick of the wazir's making. Every detail of the place was familiar to him, and yet everything was different. It was the hour of evening prayer, but no call of the muezzin was to be heard; no lights hung in the palace gardens, and no men moved about the courtyard. The gate stood open.
Robert picked up the morning star and walked out into the street, and his eyes puckered thoughtfully. The street was deserted. Opposite him was a potter's bench with a half-formed jar on the stone wheel and water in the bowl beside it. A dog trotted across the alley and entered the door of a shop. Bokhara was wrapped in silence. Although he listened, Robert could not hear even the whine of a beggar or the grunting of a camel. He surveyed the alley reactively, wondering if his senses had not failed him. Then he set out to walk painfully toward the house where he had left Ellen and Will.
At the first crossing, near the righistan, he heard horses approach, and blinked at the glare of torches. Three riders came up and reined in when they saw him-slant-eyed, squat warriors with spears slung at their backs. They wore wolfskin cloaks and rode small, long-haired ponies, and Robert saw that they were Mongols. They exchanged a few words, and one started to draw his sword, when another uttered an exclamation and pointed to the knight's surcoat on which the red cross was still to be made out. Robert caught the word "noyon"-chief-and guessed that the warrior had recognized him as the leader of the garrison.
They stared indifferently at his chains and the iron ball, and motioned him to accompany them, slowing their ponies to a walk to keep about him.
Entering the righistan, they joined other mounted patrols and headed for the Jumma mosque. At the steps two of the warriors took Robert by the arms and rode their ponies up the stair into the pillared transept. Here they dismounted and led him within the mosque itself, where torches glittered on white marble and gold and the great tiles of the flooring. Gathered near the entrance he found groups of the chief imams and khadis. They were holding the bridles of several Mongol ponies. Beside the noblemen were ranged scores of the shah's singing-girls, guarded by armed Mongols. Robert asked the nearest Moslem what had taken place in the city. The man only seized his beard in both hands and bowed his head.
"Hush!" whispered another. "The wrath of God stands near us."
"Where are the people of Bokhara?"
"Where is the snow of last year? Wo! Wo! All were ordered out on the plain save the grandees, and we-we must tend the conqueror's horses, aye, feed them with hay from the Koran boxes. Ai-a-ai-a!"
"How did the Mongols enter the city?"
The khadi glanced fearfully toward the rear of the mosque and tore at his beard. His plump cheeks glistened with sweat.
"How? Allah be compassionate to his servants! They rode in through the gates before sunset, for the keys of Bokhara were rendered up to them."
"Why?
Now the man looked at Robert and knew him.
"It happened thus, 0 captain of many. Osman and Jahan Khan decided on a sortie of the garrison, for the Mongols seemed to be withdrawing in confusion. Nay, it was a trick. When the warriors of Islam rode forth they were cut to pieces as a hare is torn by dogs. The plain is covered with the bodies of the Kankalis and Persians, and Jahan Khan fled toward Herat like a leaf before the wind. Then we within the city gave up the keys on promise of our lives."
Robert started and gripped the man's shoulder.
"What of the other Franks?"
The khadi moaned.
"What of one bird in a storm? Ask of him if you dare!"
A solitary rider sat in the saddle of a white horse under the colored dome of the mosque, apart from the captives. He wore no armor or insignia of rank. In the shadows at the rear of the edifice he might have been a statue cast out of iron. Even the white horse was motionless on the black marble flooring.
"Who is he?" Robert asked.
"He is the scourge that has come out of the desert. Aye, the Great Khan, Genghis Khan."
The crusader glanced with quick interest at the conqueror, measuring the spread of the high shoulders and the sinews of wrist and forearm. Only the keen black eyes of the Mongol moved, and Robert fancied they glinted with amusement when they lingered on the grandees holding the horses.
A touch on his arm made him turn, and he saw Chepe Noyon standing beside him; but a Chepe Noyon that no longer resembled Abdullah, the teller of tales. The chieftain had cast back upon his shoulders the tiger muzzle, and Robert noticed that the hair on his head had been shaved except for a long scalp-lock that fell from his skull to the tigerskin.
"Where are the Nazarene maid and the archer?" Robert asked him.
Chepe Noyon chewed his lip reflectively, glancing from Genghis Khan to the imams who were tending the ponies. Throughout the mosque there was only to be heard the snapping of the torches and the munching of the horses that were feeding from the Koran boxes.
"From that high place Nur-Anim was accustomed to read the book of the Moslems."
Chepe Noyon nodded at a miniature tower, some dozen feet in height, that rose behind Genghis Khan. It was shaped like a minaret with a platform and cupola in which rested on a sandalwood stand a massive Koran.
"There is the book that no one but Nur-Anim might touch."
He looked at Robert reflectively.
"Your archer slew Osman, which was a good deed. I have him and the maid in man's attire, in my tent. I came upon them when I followed the wazir. But Nur-Anim I have not yet unearthed. In all Bokhara there is no trace of his passing, yet he must have fled from the city."
He snarled in sudden anger.
"What avails the capture of the city without Nur-Anim?"
"The mullah? Nay, he is harmless-"
"As the fangs of an adder! You were slow to see the evil in these servants of the shah. Osman was no more than a cup-shot fool, and he died like one, striving to put his hand on a woman. Nur-Anim used him for a moment, no more. The mullah was the true master of Bokhara, for he had the treasure in his hands."
Chepe Noyon laughed grimly. "The mullah persuaded the shah to leave the treasure in the hands of their god, Allah. I have spoken with one or two of his priests with a dagger in my hand, and I know that Nur-Anim wanted you to be emir because he feared Kutchluk Khan, who was a wolf. Then he overthrew you and whispered to Osman and Jahan Khan to lead forth the army, and they knew no better."
He made a gesture as of gathering up sand in his fist and casting it into the air.
"A little trick served to break their formation, and then the Horde rode them down."
"But why did Nur-Anim-"
"0 little son, you held the wall like a man and a noyon. But you know not the ways of snakes. Muhammad is already shaken, and his power grows less; Bokhara will be razed to the plain, yet the treasure is hidden beneath it, and Nur-Anim knows the hiding place. When we have passed on he will come out and dig it up again. A hundred thousand have died that he might do this thing."
A warrior spoke to the chief, who took Robert's arm.
"Genghis Khan summons you."
Robert took up his shackles and stepped forward at once, Chepe Noyon walking at his side.
"I cannot aid you now. Speak boldly!"
A sigh of relief went up from the Moslems as Robert was singled out to face the man on the white horse, but he himself was too weary to feel either excitement or fear. For several moments he waited by the muzzle of the Khan's pony, while the eyes of Genghis rested on him. Chepe Noyon, after making his salutation, stood to one side to act as interpreter.
"The khan asks," he said briefly, "if you are one of the heroes of the Franks who came over the sea?"
"I am a Frank."
"Are you he who held the wall against our assault?"
"Aye."
The gray eyes of the knight sought the broad, lined face that looked down at him, utterly without expression.
"And if treachery had not put these chains upon me, I would have kept the wall."
Chepe Noyon interpreted, and the old conqueror glanced at the iron weight that hung from Robert's wrists. He spoke slowly in his deep gutturals and raised his hand.
"He says-" the Tiger Lord drew Robert aside-"that no man has stood so long before the rush of the Horde. The chains are to be taken off, and you are to eat and sleep. On the morrow you will be matched against a man as great in strength as you. The khan will watch. If you slay the other, you are free to go where you will."
As Robert turned to go back to his guards, Chepe Noyon signed for him to remain. The white horse of Genghis Khan had grown restive and was pawing the marble flooring. As if the mood of the horse had aroused the chieftain, Genghis turned in the saddle and pointed at the Moslem grandees, his dark eyes snapping with anger.
"0 ye imams and khadis," cried Chepe Noyon, translating the words, "the Khan bids you to reveal the riches that are hidden in the ground. What is aboveground his men will care for. Who among you knows the hiding place of the treasure of Khar?"
The nobles answered with many voices that they knew nothing of the hiding place. Some cast themselves on their knees, and the echoes of their cries were flung back by the dome in the roof.
"We have fire and steel that will wring the truth from you," pointed out Chepe Noyon dispassionately.
Several began to relate how their personal hoards might be discovered, but all insisted that Nur-Anim alone could lead the Mongols to the treasure of Muhammad. Chepe Noyon turned to Robert.
"The throne of gold and the jewels must be near to a mosque," he observed. "Have you come upon the way to Nur-Anim's secret?"
"I think it lies beneath the grounds of this mosque. Osman disclosed as much."
Robert, in fact, cared little what became of the hoard. It had passed out of his reach, and his only wish was that Muhammad and the Moslems would not regain it, possibly to use it against the crusaders in later years.
Chepe Noyon spoke briefly with Genghis Khan.
"The floor at this place rings strangely when the horse stamps. Is there a space beneath?"
Echoes sprang to life as some of the priests of the mosque made answer that there was no chamber beneath.
"I would believe them more readily if some had said they did not know," muttered the Tiger Lord, frowning. "Why do you think it is near to us, 0 little son?"
"Because Nur-Anim must have kept it where he could watch, and his own dwelling is small and scanty. The garden of the mosque would not be safe. Besides, Muhammad came hither when he entered Bokhara."
He paused to watch Genghis Khan who, without touching the reins, was kneeing his pony back and forth over the square of black marble. And it did seem to Robert that the tread of the horse echoed differently when it passed under the reader's stand. Genghis Khan dismounted and moved to the tower, as clumsy on foot as he was graceful in the saddle.
He climbed the tiled steps to the cupola, while Chepe Noyon issued a command to the Mongol warriors about the door. A score of them went out, to return quickly with heavy blacksmith sledges.
Meanwhile Genghis Khan had caught up the great Koran, which must have weighed as much as Robert's shackles and ball, and poised it over his head. Then he flung it out, over the edge of the stand, and it crashed down on the marble beneath.
"He said," muttered Chepe Noyon to the knight, "that if the Kharesmians had spent their gold for walls along the river and if they had fed the army of the beggars and the sick in the city they would not be captives now."
Once more the echoes of the vast interior started up as the Mongols began to smash at the marble-some kneeling upon the flooring, from which the white horse drew back at once, others standing about the walls, pounding down the gold plaques with the Arabic inscriptions.
The Moslems, who had quivered and crouched as the great Koran was flung down, fell on their faces beating with their fists against the tiles. The women huddled together in a corner, and the night wind whisking in through the wide-flung portals moaned an undernote to the hideous clamor of the echoes; but no thunderbolt came down from the sky to crush the man who had thrown under the legs of his horse the sacred Koran of the Jumma.
Robert thought of the Gates in the Mountains that had barred the way to Khar for a thousand years. Now the bars were falling. Whole segments of mosaic crumpled up and rained down from the walls, and the gold plates toppled out and down.
In spite of his weariness and his hunger Robert drew closer to the men with the hammers. He was seeing the empire of Islam cracked asunder-something that the crusaders had striven in vain to bring to pass for a hundred years; and his pulse leaped. The thin marble blocks were split into fragments on the floor and tossed aside, revealing an under-surface of brick. Once more the hammers went to work, and more torches were brought.
Two of the sledges smashed through the brick at the same time, and the Mongols leaped back. The square that they had uncovered sagged and disappeared in a cloud of dust, leaving a hole wider than a man could leap.
Chepe Noyon flung back his head and roared with laughter. Robert peered down, dazzled by the reflection of the torches on a hundred glittering surfaces. As the dust eddied and settled, he beheld a chamber of considerable size below the floor of the mosque. Near the opening stood a long ivory table, covered with silver, bronze, and jade caskets.
He was looking at the riches of Islam, the spoil of Baghdad and Nineveh-the plunder of Balkh and India. It shone from the hilts of weapons hung upon the walls of the vault-it sparkled from the piles of jars and incense holders, of necklaces and anklets upon the floor. And almost under the opening gleamed the throne of gold.
Who had fashioned it and how long ago, the knight could not know. Assuredly it was older than the wall of Bokhara, for in the massy metal of it were inscribed arrows and darts and emblems of another age. Perhaps Alexander and perhaps Darius had sat upon it. But just then-and Chepe Noyon had been the first to perceive him-Nur-Anim crouched against it, staring up with writhing lips, a dagger gripped in his hand.
"Ho, the snake is in its hole!" cried the Tiger Lord.
Some food and a water-sack and several candles showed that the mullah had planned to lie hidden for some time. Robert noticed steps running up into a corridor near the priest, and judged that they led to a door concealed somewhere in the reader's stand.
Chepe Noyon drew his sword at a sign from Genghis Khan. Turning to Robert, he explained swiftly that the knight was to go to a tent in the Mongol camp with the warriors who had brought him to the mosque.
"What of the maid? I must see her," Robert demanded.
"You will see her on the morrow."
With that the chieftain leaped bodily into the chamber below, and Robert saw Nur-Anim spring into the dark corridor. He heard Chepe Noyon laugh again, and as he moved away to join his guards, the Moslem grandees moaned and gripped their beards. From the opening in the floor arose a scream that swelled and dwindled to a hoarse babble.
Chapter XVI
The Road and Its End
It was late when Robert was led into a small woolen tent pitched near the horse lines of the Mongol camp, and the rivets of his fetters were struck off by a smith. But he did not go to sleep at once.
The warriors had sought out one who knew a smattering of Arabic, and of him the knight requested water and rice and mutton, and ate until the Mongols smiled approval, believing it a sign of a strong heart that a man should eat mightily before going forth to fight for his life. They asked what weapon he would select, and brought him a varied collection of Moslem mail and swords.
From these the knight selected a strong haburgeon, and tossed away his own, that had many broken links. He refused all the scimitars, and the Mongols inquired if he wanted one of their shorter swords.
Robert, however, had determined to fashion a weapon which would not break in the combat on the morrow-as his scimitar and ax had broken on the wall-and which would decide the issue swiftly. Hope had forsaken him, and he longed only for two things-the strength to stand against the champion selected by the Mongols, and a sight of Ellen.
He called for a stout staff of hard, seasoned wood as thick as his wrist, and the smith brought him one reinforced with iron-the broken handle of a great mace.
Then Robert took up the spiked knob and the chains from which his wrists had been freed and set to work grimly to fit the fetters at the ends of the chains upon the staff.
The Mongols watched the making of this unwonted weapon with attentive interest. They had orders to deny the champion of the Franks no request, and the smith helped find bolts that would fit the holes in the shackles.
When the work was finished, Robert had the mace-handle attached to the two chains, each about a foot long. From these chains swung the spiked knob of iron that had been his gift from Osman. The warriors took turns trying to swing it around their heads, and only a few could do so, with an effort.
"What is this thing?" they asked of the interpreter.
Robert smiled.
"It is the morning star."
"How is that?"
He thrust the handle in the water cask so that the wood would swell and grip tighter the iron bands.
"When it falls a man dies."
The guards squatted down to watch while he slept on a pile of skins. And in whispers, not to disturb him, the Mongols discussed his stature and mighty muscles, the lines in his dark face that were deep even in slumber. They pointed to the tawny mane of yellow hair and shook their heads, for they had never seen a man like this. With equal interest they watched the morning star soaking in the water cask, certain that this was some kind of magic.
When the sun scattered the mists on the sandy plain, throngs of Mongol warriors moved toward the standard of Genghis Khan. They squatted down, keeping clear a space some hundred yards square in front of the pole that bore the horns and the yak-tails. A little later the chieftains of the Horde walked over from their tents, and all raised their arms as the Khan appeared in the entrance of his pavilion and mounted a pony.
It was ever his custom, bred of a life of constant warfare, to be in the saddle, and he was never known to walk when a horse was at hand.
After he had taken his place at the edge of the cleared ground and received the greetings of the paladins, Chepe Noyon rode up and dismounted. Two warriors with drawn swords forced a way through the ranks of watchers at one end of the square and halted. Robert, clad in mail from knee to throat, walked between them, bearing the new mace in his hand, and a thousand pairs of eyes fastened on it curiously.
The knight swept a quick glance at the lines of silent warriors, who sat or stood where they willed, each with a spear or sword at hand-at the savage standard and the deserted wall of the city that loomed above the round tents of the Horde, and the pall of smoke that rose behind the walls and overspread the sky. He stood, erect, smiling a little.
For here was no fair list, fashioned for jousting, with heralds and poursuiv- ants to tend the combatants and enforce the rules of the tournament-no minstrels to make memorable the names of the men who bore themselves well. He rested the spiked knob on the earth and turned to where a commotion at the other end of the square announced the coming of the antagonist whom he was ordered to overthrow if he would live longer.
He saw a tall figure, glistening in the finest of Damascus mail, and a crested helm. The man left his guards and moved toward the knight, who noticed that he carried only a battle-ax, a heavy blade with a long haft.
"Will Bunsley!" cried Robert, taking a pace forward.
It was the archer, and he was pale to the lips as he moved closer. Within easy speaking distance he paused to wipe his forehead and to lean on his ax.
"Aye, Sir Robert, 'tis Will Bunsley, who will ne'er pull a bow or buss a lass again. Harkee, time lacks for parley, and so do thou listen while I gabble-as is my way.
"The demoiselle d'Ibelin rests within Abdullah's tent. Some words the minstrel did contrive to make clear to her, as follows: Item, thou and I, my lord, must e'en stand and smite each other till one is done to death; item, the maid doth pray for us both, but her heart aches for thee; item, these Mokals be dour fighters-as witness yonder fair city taken in de spite of sword and bow and wall-and they will be an-angered if thou dost quibble or draw back."
He glanced with widening eyes at Robert's new-made mace, and with a muttered, "St. Dunstan abet me!" went on. "Item four, and last, Sir Robert, by no means might I prevail against thee in combat, so do thou, hew me down-would thou hadst chosen another weapon-and fail not. To make sport for these our captors I will rap thy ribs a time or two and e'en deal thee a buffet on the sconce."
Drawing a deep breath, he tightened his grasp on his ax. "And so-fare thee well, my lord."
It was a changed Will Bunsley that faced Robert, the merriment vanished from his blue eyes, his jaw set stubbornly. Whether Genghis Khan or Chepe Noyon had selected the archer to oppose him, Robert did not know. Probably they had singled out the two Franks for the duel, aware that Robert was more than a match for any man of Khar. And Robert, knowing that Will Bunsley was no match for him, took a step forward.
"A true man are you," he said, smiling, for he saw his way clear before him now.
Will heaved up his ax hurriedly.
"Nay, Master Robert, get thee to the work. One of us must fall upon the ling, and-what would it avail me to strive with thee? Come, lad, a few good blows-"
"Aye," cried Robert and, striding forward, thrust aside the other's weapon and gripped his shoulder hard. "We will show them how two Englishmen can bear arms. Shoulder to shoulder, bowman-"
"What would ye, master? Ah, the good Christ aid us!"
For Robert had turned and was walking toward the nearest Mongols, swinging his mace in widening circles.
"'Tis madness for both to die. Bethink ye of the maid Ellen-"
"-who would hold me a caitiff and recreant, to strike you down!"
Robert sprang into the Mongols, who rose to meet him, growling and catching up their weapons. Steel ground against steel, and the great morning star swept clear a space about the knight.
Will Bunsley thrust a quivering hand across his eyes, then leaped after his comrade. His ax smashed down on the iron armor of the scattering Mongols and rose red, to flash down again until he gained Robert's side.
The warriors, who had started back in astonishment as the captives turned on them, closed in swiftly, making a circle about them. But Robert kept moving onward, and ever the iron flail kept clear a space before him, crunching into the heads and breasts of the men who leaped at him.
The knight was making his last stand, and all the power of his long arms went into every sweep of the mace. The ring shifted and changed to a black knot that writhed and twisted and finally came to a halt near the standard, where Will went down voicelessly and disappeared under the stamping feet. A man's spine snapped like a bent branch, and someone cried out:
"Subotai! Way for the Buffalo!"
The knot about Robert fell away as the warriors drew back, glaring and snarling at their victim-as dogs might leave the sight of a stag half pulled to earth. On his pony Genghis Khan had not stirred, although the beast snorted and stamped, a spear's length from the struggle. Only the eyes of the old Mongol followed every move of the men below him.
Robert reeled and steadied himself on his feet against Subotai's rush. His breath was whistling from his lungs; both hands were slashed to the bone, and blood streamed from his forehead into his open mouth. Recognizing the warrior of the buffalo horns as the one who had sought him on the causeway, he swung up the morning star as the giant leaped forward.
Instead of plunging on, Subotai halted, digging his heels into the earth. But Robert did not strike as he had expected, thus leaving himself open to a slash of the massive curved sword of the Mongol. The other warriors stood back to watch the two champions.
This time Subotai rushed in earnest, head up and shield down, his lips snarling and his sword arm swinging at his side. Both struck at once. The knight's mace smashed the Mongol's iron shield, and the sword swept the helm from Robert's head, sending him back, staggering.
"Hai!" Subotai grunted and leaped in, slashing low.
Robert could not parry the blow; instead of trying to do so he stepped forward, into the sweep of the sword. It bit into the mail on his side and thigh, snapping the steel links, and glanced down to the earth.
The spiked knob smashed down on the Mongol's chest, ripping off the iron plates and drawing blood in streams. Before Subotai could leap clear Robert dropped the mace and gripped him about the knees. Gasping with the effort, he put forth all the strength of sinews and back muscles, raising the struggling body of the chieftain to his shoulder, shifting his grasp in a second to throat and belt of his foe, holding Subotai at the full reach of stiffened arms.
No one among the watchers moved to intercept him, and, filling his laboring lungs, he hurled Subotai to the ground. The warrior, striking on head and shoulder, rolled over and was still.
Robert stood looking down at him, swaying the while on his feet from utter weariness. He heard Chepe Noyon call out, and the deep voice of the khan bark a command, and he tried to step toward the place where his mace had fallen, but had no longer strength to move foot or arm. He saw Chepe Noyon running toward him, felt the iron embrace of the Mongol's arms about his bruised ribs and looked up as a shout roared forth from ten thousand throats-
"Ahatou koke Mongku, ho!"
"0 little son," cried the Tiger Lord, "you overthrew the Buffalo! You lifted him in your hands and tossed him down! Hai! I chose well-by the white horse of Kaidu, by the eyes of all the gods-I picked a man!"
He drew back to look into Robert's scarred features.
"Did you hear the salute of the Horde? No man hath overthrown Subotai before. Nay, you know not the words of the Horde. 'Ho, brother, warrior of the Mongols, ho!"'
Genghis Khan spoke again, first to Chepe Noyon, then to a group of swordsmen who ran to the fallen Subotai and stood over him. The Buffalo had opened his eyes; now he shook his head savagely and sprang up. Instantly a score of powerful hands gripped him and held him, while the red glare faded from his eyes and he looked at Robert curiously.
"The command was given," explained Chepe Noyon to the knight, "to stay the Buffalo until his anger passed. You and he must pour water on your swords. The Khan is not minded to lose either of you."
Robert lifted his head with a wry smile.
"What mockery is this? I fought against you and slew many. Make an end!"
"Then will I tell you the judgment of the Khan. He said-
"'The two Nazarenes kept faith with each other, and so will they keep faith with all men.'
"If you will ride with us, you will sit in a high place at the feasts and ride the best of the horses and have a great tent. Little son, this battle was a test, even as my offer to you to surrender Bokhara was a test, and in each thing you have stood your ground and held to your faith. We have honor for such a hero, as you will see."
The knight was silent, finding this hard to believe. Yet the warriors he had wounded came to look at him closely and examine the morning star, utterly indifferent to their hurts. Subotai after awhile walked over and took up the mace, whirling it about his head like a sling.
He grunted something, and Chepe Noyon interpreted:
"He says that you are to make him such a weapon and he will go against you or any other three warriors."
Now Robert laughed a little unsteadily.
"Well for me he did not have the mace awhile ago. Nay, spare me another such test."
He remembered Will Bunsley and sought him out, to learn from Chepe Noyon that the Mongols had refrained from slaying the archer and had had him borne away to a tent to mend his wounds. As they talked, Genghis Khan wheeled his horse and made off, a lane opening for him through the Mongol ranks. Robert saw that smoke was rising in dense plumes over the wall of Bokhara, and flames, fanned by a stiffening wind, were leaping through the smoke over the mosques.
"'Tis the end of Bokhara," nodded Chepe Noyon, following his glance. "But the treasure is safe. Come, I have put aside a tent for you, and your share of the treasure awaits you."
As the windstorm lashed the plain and the horse herds of the camp turned their backs to the eddies of dust, the flames raged in Bokhara, and the plumes of smoke grew into great clouds that hid the sun and swirled down on the quivering tents. Robert and Chepe Noyon wrapped their mantles over their arms, and the knight shielded his torn face as best he could from the smarting dust. Coming to the closed flap of a round woolen tent, the Mongol raised it and signed for the crusader to enter.
Still holding his mace, Robert stooped under the pole that served as a lintel and the next instant he was fighting for his life. A scimitar smote his chest, and he warded a blow at his head with the handle of the mace. In the semidarkness of the heavy tent he could make out the figure of a Moslem in armor-a flying cloak and a curved sword that sought vainly for his head.
The figure leaped at him fiercely, and he brushed aside the steel blade with surprising ease and caught his antagonist fast within both arms. As he felt for the Moslem's sword wrist his right hand closed on the warrior's throat, and he was aware of a pulse that throbbed frantically under his fingers. The helm of his adversary fell off, and Robert released his grip.
But only to tighten his arm about the dark tresses that fell about the slender shoulders of Ellen, who stared bewildered into his eyes.
"By the Cross, demoiselle," he laughed out of a full heart, "hast still a mind to war?"
Her hands caught his cheeks and held him with rigid strength, while her warm breath beat against his throat. And he saw that she was pale as the white silk khalat.
"Ellen!" he cried. "Dost not know me-Robert?"
At this her eyes glowed, and she pressed her lips against his, running trembling fingers through his clotted hair, her throat quivering with sounds that made no words. Robert kissed her closed eyes and felt the weariness pass from him. Both flaps of the tent were ripped back, and Chepe Noyon strode in, hand on his sword hilt, looking greatly surprised.
"What-ha! No need to lead thee to the treasure, 0 Nazarene."
Ellen looked up as the light flooded in and brushed a hand across her eyes.
"My lord-I thought you slain when you came-I deemed you a Mongol, and I did not want to be-parted, again. Oh, what have I done?"
Her eyes widened, and she swayed back against his arm.
"What?" Robert smiled.
"Your face-and your armor hacked!" Tears started to the girl's eyes. "And see, your hand is slashed. Nay, I sought only to die, and now I have hurt you sore."
Robert stared for a moment in astonishment and then rocked with laughter.
"Little warrior, these few wounds were dealt me by the men of the Horde. Nay, Ellen, methinks you make a better maid than man-at-arms."
For many an hour they sat upon the rugs of the tent and talked, hand in hand, recounting all that had befallen them; and Chepe Noyon, leaning against the pole of the pavilion, took up a lute-for he was well content-and sang again for them the song with which he first greeted Robert. Until Ellen fell silent, her glance ever on the man who sat, chin on hand, looking through the entrance at the swirling sand and the riders that came and went.
"In another day, brave heart," he said, "Bokhara will be no more, and the road will be before us again. Chepe Noyon hath made clear to me the Mongol plans. I told him we would ride with them no-wither save to Palestine. For there is my place-and you did promise the good Father Evagrius to seek Jerusalem."
"Then will we go together, and you shall take Jerusalem," she nodded decidedly.
"Am I an emperor with a host?"
"Aye, so."
"Nay, I think not. Fair heart, our king lies at the island of Cyprus, and there we will seek him if we reach the end of the road. Yet none before us hath returned alive from Khar. These barbarians set out upon a way of peril, for they seek out Muhammad to overthrow his power and will follow him even beyond the Gates, to Baghdad or Byzantium. They would have me strive to aid them at siege and assault upon the great cities. Will you come with me?"
"Aye, so." She bent her head. "If you will have me."
"Then is your promise given." He sprang up, and Chepe Noyon rose. "And I will hold it binding. Aye." He looked at the Mongol, who held up his hand for silence.
From the center of the camp came the mutter of drums and the brazen note of a great gong. Chepe Noyon spoke, and the knight nodded understanding.
"The summons to saddle hath been given," Robert said, and his eyes gleamed with swift joy. "Never a queen shall have her coming heralded as yours, and never a maid shall put such a song upon the lips of the troubadours of Christendom."
Afterword
Six months passed; and John of Brienne, thirteenth King of Jerusalem, and his court rested at Tyre, upon the seacoast, where the barons of the northern provinces had gathered in general council to discuss means of holding their ground against fresh inroads of the Saracens.
The Moslem power had grown during the long truce, and the Croises knew themselves to be unable to stand in battle against the armies of the caliphs and the Sultan of Damascus if these hosts should be launched toward the seacoast.
At this council were gathered the lords of Ascalon and Acre, and the Marquis of Antioch, with their peers, and the leaders of the Genoese and Venetians. And the council came to naught because the young king lacked the personality to hold men united in a cause, and each baron thought for the most part of his own fief. Yet one curious and notable happening marked the assembly of the peers. A caravan entered the east gate of Tyre and passed through the wall coming from the valley of the Orontes.
The leader of this caravan was a strange figure. Garbed in the finest of Persian silks and the brightest of nankeen and cloth-of-gold, he rode a horse with trappings of silvered cloth. He was attended by a score of savage men armed with spears and bows, whose like had never been beheld in Palestine.
He bore with him a certain store of gold which he guarded carefully and was at pains to dispatch by agents of the chief Venetian merchants to Egypt, there to be paid to the Moslem masters of Damietta. This gold amounted to two thousand broad pieces, and the bearer explained that it was the ransom of a knight, one Robert Longsword, so called, who had been thought slain on the border.
As to the messenger himself, when his mission was done he called for the best wine of the taverns and the most skillful of the musicians and held revelry from the Tower of the Sea to the Sign of the Broken Sword in the French quarter. When he drank, his tongue was loosened, and it was learned that he, who had been esteemed a wealthy lord, was merely Will Bunsley, a wandering yeoman.
And when his gold and silver was spent he took service among the archers of the king and in time went from Tyre on a galley to Rhodes and thence to France. Those who had listened at first, drawn by the gold he had in his purse, began to laugh at his tale and call him a lying knave. Some, however, remembered the strange riders who had escorted him to the gate of Tyre.
But these had turned back at once, and few men believed the story of Will Bunsley, of Khar and its treasure, and an emperor of Islam who fled before an unknown conqueror.
Yet in time his narrative returned to the minds of the barons who had been at the council, and chiefly one Hugo of Montserrat, who had held his peace when mention was made of Khar.
This was when tidings came over the border of defeats suffered by the Moslems. Of Herat stormed by a new race of conquerors called the Mongols, and Balkh lost to Islam, and finally Baghdad itself fallen. So it happened that the power of the Saracens was not turned against the crusaders.
And when the fear of invasion had passed, the court of the king waxed merry. The minstrels and troubadours had a new song, made from the talk of the caravans that came over the border, and they sang of a crusader who adventured into paynimry itself and waged war upon the great cities. This they called the "Romaunt of the Longsword," and many a time in hall and woman's garden they related it for the pleasuring of the people of the castle who had ever an ear for something new.
This romaunt came to be known even in the courts of Europe, and some of the minstrels sang of a maid who rode in armor beside the knight.
It is the song of a man of high honor, though no more than a youth in years, who kept faith in all things. And now this tale, from which the song came to be, has been told.

Rorik the Yngling tried to catch up with the bell. It was the only thing he could hear moving around him, but he couldn't find it.
He had taken the wrong path; he was lost, and unless he worked his legs fast he was going to be late for the battle.
It would never do if Rorik the Yngling missed the battle, for then he would have no gold-neither pay nor plunder, or the chance of finding a girl somewhere about afterward.
Shouldering his long two-handed sword, he hurried his lanky legs after the clank-clong of the elusive bell. Being a Dane, Rorik was not accustomed to mountains. Up through the pines a black shoulder of rock showed, and far above that a white summit of snow, but no sign of a road or the camp he was looking for.
The Good Lord, thought Rorik the Yngling, had made the farming land down in the valleys, and up here the devil must have piled everything evil. Up here in these Swiss mountains. No, Rorik wouldn't be surprised if he found a forest troll ringing that bell to fool him.
Running up the path he found a cow standing there alone, with a heavy brass clapper bell hanging on its neck. The bell grated when the cow looked at him, but it didn't clatter as before. Someone had been driving the cow-someone who couldn't be seen. Rorik listened and dropped suddenly to a knee.
A rock swished over his head, and he jumped into the laurel bushes by the path, sliding the sheath from the five-foot blade of his sword.
"Pfut!" he said. He reached out and caught the arm of a girl who was trying to slip out of the bushes. She tried to bite his wrist. He felt beads around her bare throat.
"Kitten," said Rorik, "you can keep the cow. I am too much in haste to drive it off, now. Where is the camp?"
She shook her head, listening.
"The soldiers, the army, the verlorene Haufen-where are they, girl?"
Getting no answer he pulled her up to him, rubbing his head against her hair, feeling the gasping of her throat, kissing her. She tried to twist away from him.
"Listen, flaxhead," he whispered in her ear, "I am a Yngling of Jonsson's dale-of pastureland and homestead. No man has gentler blood than I have, child. And no weapon man can stand against me, foot to foot. In truth," said Rorik modestly, "I am a champion."
In spite of this assurance, the girl pulled away, silently.
"I like you well enough," he told her, "and you can tell me your name."
"Maera," she gasped.
That was a strange name and her tongue had a strange, slow twang to it, unlike Danish.
"Why do you stay here where a battle will be with only a cow?"
Maera looked up from the tangle of her hair, and stopped pulling suddenly. Taking his hand, she drew him along the path. "Look," she said quickly, "I have all the cows to milk."
Before he could think about that, she had reached a turn in the path where a hut perched on the mountain slope with cattle and pigs pressing against the pens.
"This is the homestead," she said, catching him from the corners of her eyes, while she tried to keep her arms from trembling. Often, while she peered down through the pines at the lower valley, Maera had wondered what the enemy would look like-those men-at-arms of the emperor, riding over the crops-if she met one face to face.
Now here she was with this giant of a man looking not at all like a soldier, his head thin and brown, his hands hard and curved as if from the grip of a mattock. She had been frightened when she felt his strength.
Rorik wanted to pick her up and carry her into the hut. Such a foolish thing as she was, to stay here alone. The place was certainly empty except for her-with faggots for the fire stacked along its bare planks, and shirts and hose washed clean hanging among the apple trees where a terrace had been scraped from the mountain and walled up with stone.
"Your hide isn't safe here," he said. "Where have your menfolk gone?"
"I won't tell you!"
To Maera it seemed certain now that this prowler was a spy, spying and peering to find out where the Swiss fighting men were gathering, in these Bernese uplands. "You are no champion," she cried at him. "No-a dunderhead, trying to talk like a soldier. You are as full of lies as a hive is of honey, Sir Nobody!"
Now Rorik of Yngling had broad shoulders and a small head. Perhaps he did not think things out easily in that head; but when he did have an idea he was sure of it. Up on the mountain he had expected to meet devils and Swiss pikemen. Instead, he had found the little Maera. And he began to think she was mocking him.
"Sir No-" he stared at her.
"Nobody of Nowhere."
There she stood, with fire in her blue eyes-so thin and young he could have broken her back with his fist. No longer afraid of him.
She had touched the pride of Rorik the Yngling. "I will show you," he said. "Pfut! I will let you see that I am first among all those soldiers." Then he remembered that he had lost his way. "But first tell me where the German camp has moved to."
Maera laughed. Such a clumsy lie!
"The dog would know where his kennel is. Go down past the waterfall, my fine soldier. Take the forest path to your left. And stay away there, or it will be the worse for you."
"No. I will come back. And you, girl-you will wait here?"
Maera looked up at him curiously. "I will be here. But you will never come up again."
As he jumped the stone wall, sliding down by the mountain stream, it seemed to Rorik the Yngling that this girl with her blue eyes and her cowbells had managed to put a spell upon him. There might, after all, be a power of magic in these mountains ...
Maera, running back from her lookout, flitting through the timber where no path ran, hurried to take her message to the pikemen of the Bern canton assembling at the stone church where the tolling bell summoned them from their land. Her father, waiting among the captains, the blue steel of his pike by his head, breathed deep at sight of her safe.
"Still they stay down in the valley," Maera cried. "Only one dunderhead of a spy came peering up into the wald."
"Yes," said her father, "yes, they are careful. If their scouts have not gone up into the forest, they will come along the valley, this way, to the head of the pass. Now that the sun is down, they will not venture where their scouts have not explored."
As Maera made her way back to watch the cattle, she passed the bands of Swiss moving along the mountain trails where they could not be seen in the darkness, to where the church bell tolled.
The echo of the bell comforted Maera. In that gray church atop the pass she had been christened, to drive out the devil in her. There, sometime, she would walk in her bride's veil. She felt that the voice of the bell was speaking to her, telling her she was not alone on the mountain. She prayed that it would drive Rorik and all his fellows away.
"Mark ye well," said the Genoese, "he is a noble Yngling." And he nudged Weiphart, who was turning the spit at the fire.
"Ach so," muttered Weiphart, blinking into the smoke. "From the land of Jonsson's dale. Like a baron he is, indeed. Will his nobility have white wine with the fowl?"
"It is not like beer," said Rorik the Yngling, "but I will have it."
He chewed the flesh from a chicken's back, tossed away the shell of bones, and wiped his hands politely on the straw where he sat before taking the wine jug.
Rorik had followed his nose among the fires of the gewaltige Haufen, the main guard, to the smell of fat fowls sizzling by this fire. A good camp, Rorik thought, where the sentries challenged sharp, and the horse lines were quiet. Never had he seen so many great horses together, fit for drawing the heaviest plows. And here the men had good steel shirts, well oiled and cared for. How kindly they greeted him!
"Almost you were too late, Rorik, my sir," said Weiphart, pouring wine into his own steel cap. "Before daylight we advance up. Yes, already have the high sirs given orders."
"Good," nodded Rorik the Yngling. "Good! Then you will have me with you in the battle."
Weiphart and the Genoese breathed hard over their meat. "You will win this battle for us?" asked the Italian crossbowman anxiously.
"I do not say that," replied Rorik modestly, "but no man could stand foot to foot with me in Jonsson's dale."
Conrad the Schwarzreiter looked up at him. "Have you ever," he snarled, "stood in the line of a battle?"
Rorik shook his head. "The messenger of the emperor said in Jonsson's dale that his majesty called, for men broad of shoulder and long of leg. To me he gave a silver thaler. I walked to Cologne, where they said the army was up the river. Pfut, at the river they said it was here, in the mountains of the Swiss. Eight gold florins they will pay me for a battle."
"Eight-gold!" grunted Weiphart.
Rorik the Yngling nodded. He remembered the amount very well. And he had calculated what he could buy with the gold. "Eight they said, and eight it is."
"Dane gold," said Conrad.
Conrad thought that he had never seen a recruit with such broad shoulders and so little wit. "This one," he nodded at Weiphart, "is doppelsold- ner-frontline-pay man. For an open attack he gets one gold piece and for an assault on fortification, one and a half pieces."
They were all veterans of long campaigns from Spain to Bohemia-the Genoese being in a high-paid class, with the best of the new steel crossbows. They had horses and body armor, while Rorik seemed to have lugged along only the heavy two-handed sword.
"Eight it will be," he said, "for me."
"For using that woodchopper?" Weiphart reached over and gripped the handle of the Dane's long sword.
"Yes," said Rorik.
With a grin Weiphart tried to raise the point off the ground. Using one arm, by straining he could raise it; taking both hands he swung it once in the air, and it sagged down.
"Great Lord of heaven," grunted the doppelsoldner, "no one can cut with it."
It seemed to Rorik that this German was disparaging his sword. He took the handle himself, gripping with both hands. He planted his feet and the muscles of his long body tensed. His arms shot up, and the fivefoot blade slashed the air over the soldiers' heads, whistling.
At the edge of the firelight two men stopped to look. One wore a cloak with an eagle embroidered on the shoulder, and a silver chain shone under the other's beard. Conrad, who noticed everything, sprang up when he saw them.
"If you have not found one, my sirs," his clipped words came, "I offer, with gladness, Conrad, captain in the Thuringen riders."
"We have not decided," the cloaked man said, watching Rorik. "Who is your Hercules?"
The two were staring at Rorik the Yngling as if at a new breed of war horse, marking his stand and his points, as he sheathed the two-handed sword.
"My sirs," said Conrad, stiff, "it is a Dane from the farmlands who fancies himself the best of us."
"He's the tallest, certainly," observed the officer with the armiger's chain. "Too tall, eh, Strube?"
"A lighthouse has its uses. It can easily be seen at all times."
"But he has as much wit, my sir," Conrad grated, "as your Livonian mare. Less."
"That also has its use." The official of the eagle walked around Rorik, studying him. Suddenly he looked up into his eyes. "So you are a mighty man-at-arms, Dane?"
"True enough," agreed Rorik.
"Would you like to be given armor fit for a noble. Or even-an emperor? From helm to spurs, eh?"
"Well enough," Rorik smiled, pleased, "if it is for the battle."
"It is for the battle."
He of the eagle glanced once at the armiger, who nodded. Then between them they conducted Rorik the Yngling away from the fire, through the lines of the Black Riders to a pavilion that glowed with candles. Young squires who were oiling saddles and cleaning leather sprang up at sight of them. And here, where swords and armor were stacked, the armiger took charge of Rorik.
Not once did he look him in the face. First he tried a hauberk of fine linked steel on the giant Dane. It gleamed as with silver. The boys fitted mail to his legs and tried low boots on his feet until a pair was found to fit. They fastened shoulder pieces etched with gold up against his neck-they clasped a cloak over his shoulders. They even combed out his long hair while he admired his gleaming limbs. The steel mesh, being too small for him, gripped his muscles tight.
"With the padding out, it will do," decided the armiger, and the one named Strube nodded.
They studied the effect and seemed satisfied. Strube hung a gold chain around Rorik's neck, while the armorer fetched a shield with two eagles, black, painted on it, and a half-helm with tiny silver figures and an eagle spreading its wings for a crest. "My sir," said the armorer carefully, "I will bear your shield, of course, but you must take the war helm on your arm. So."
With pleasure Rorik contemplated it. The boys were fastening a belt over his hips.
"You understand," pointed out the one called Strube, "that this is the armor of majesty." He gestured at the pavilion. "You wear now the insignia of empire."
Rorik nodded, hardly understanding, but well content at this kindness.
They laid out some swords for him to look over, asking him to take the one he fancied. Suddenly Rorik stopped, shaking his head. If it was a question of swords, he wanted none but his own. For the first time the two officers looked ill-pleased. Strube said it would never do to carry such a thing-the armorer could not hang it over a horse's side. Rorik explained that he shouldered it.
"Oh, strap it on his back," cried Strube, "and take him along. God's thunder-we have no more time to waste."
When they hung the two-handed sword along his back, the armorer signed to him to hurry and went before him to a pavilion entrance where a knight stood with drawn sword by the standard pole. Within the pavilion, voices hummed with long words-the night advance to surprise the Swiss-the Schwarzreiter maneuver-flanks refused-holding back the charge-
Making nothing of this, Rorik watched the sentry who moved only his eyes. A voice rose over the others: "Have they the mock king?"
Heinrich barked, "Here at command."
Then Heinrich pulled Rorik down to a knee, whispering "Altesse." A tall man, muffled in a robe, stepped out, yawning. And Rorik knew that this was the emperor, who slipped a ring from his finger and pressed it into Rorik's hand.
"Faith," said a drowsy voice, "you have found one as tall as the standard itself, Heinrich."
"At command!"
And the emperor went back to his officers.
Ring in hand, Rorik walked away with the armorer. Beyond the stir of the men-at-arms, the calling of orders by the horse lines, he heard the echo of a distant bell. When the wind blew, the chime came clearly, and he thought of that cowbell. But this was a great, chiming bell. Restlessly, Rorik stirred. "Heinrich, I would like a horse."
"In two hours, my sir-when we advance."
"No, not in two hours-now, Heinrich."
"Why now?"
"To see the girl-the little Maera."
Heinrich grunted. This was not the time, he pointed out, to think about a girl. She would keep well enough, until afterward-when Rorik could do what he pleased. Didn't Rorik understand that now he wore the arms of majesty? He would carry them into the battle, wouldn't he? He would get his eight florins, wouldn't he? Wasn't he content?
And Rorik had to say he was content.
When the armorer hurried off to his duties, he suggested that Rorik drink some wine and stay within sight of the great pavilions. He told off an esquire-at-arms to follow the Dane and see that he did not stray.
When Rorik thought of wine, he thought of his companions at the fire, and he walked over to show himself to them. When men passed him, carrying a torch, they stared at the immense figure holding the crested helm, and they saluted.
Only Conrad sat awake by the embers, still drinking. He lowered the jug when the Dane stepped into the embers' glow, with the small squire behind him. The hilt and wide handguard of the huge sword seemed like a cross behind his bare head.
"Eyes of God," breathed Conrad. "They have done it."
Pleased by the effect on Conrad, Rorik sat down in the straw, examining the gold ring. The ring had a flat jewel that shone, and on the jewel were traced letters that meant nothing to him because he could not read. But when Conrad inspected the ring, he interpreted the letters. Gloria.
"Is that a sign?" asked Rorik, curiously.
"A kind of sign," said Conrad, pondering, "to many men. Do you know what they have made of you?"
Rorik shook his head. Truly, something in this puzzled him.
"They have made you the mock king."
"How, the mock king?"
The words sounded both pleasant and ominous to the Dane. Giving him the jug, Conrad explained, low-voiced. In an hour Rorik would be mounted on a high horse and placed at the head of the gewaltige Haufen. With the half-helm on his head, he would appear to be the emperor himself to all those who were not close to him, or in on the secret. During the fighting, the enemy would drive at the one who seemed to be emperor, to kill him. Probably they would reach him and kill him. But the real emperor, in plain dress, would be directing the battle elsewhere, unharmed.
"Seven to one," said Conrad softly, "you will turn up your toes this morning."
Rorik thought about that.
The eyes of the Schwarzreiter searched beyond the fire glow, where the squire, seeing Rorik seated, loitered carelessly. Groups of men were in motion already, toward the head of the valley, although they carried no torches and no trumpets had sounded. He knew the step of the Italian mercenaries. He listened to the movement at his own horse lines, where the sergeants called and cursed. The Black Riders would go up with the advance, with the Genoese covering them. His troop mates would be calling for him in a few minutes.
"Don't let them make a fool of you, Sir Rorik," he whispered, straining his ears. "What's the sense of becoming chopped meat-with your face bashed in, belike?"
"Mine?"
"Yours. Look-I know the horses of our troop. We can edge over to the lines now, and get two of the best. We can rein down the valley. Before full light we can be four leagues away. Safe enough. We can pass this ring and stuff to the usurers, and live like lords. We can pick over the girls, Rorik."
"Where?"
"Take our choice-Basle, Munich, Paris-"
Reaching out, Rorik took back his ring, while Conrad still breathed words. Rorik had no wish to go to Paris. He wanted to stay here in the valley. Conrad changed his tone:
"Rorik my sir, you've never felt your bones broken in as I have. The Swiss poleaxes can cut the head from a horse-"
He checked at a quick step near him. A voice called, "Thuringen troop in the saddle, Conrad."
The Black Rider got up, with his gun. "At once!" The step went on. "Quick, Rorik-we can get away."
Rorik shook his head. For an instant Conrad stared at him, then swung off toward the horses. Steel clanked as men swung themselves into the saddle; troop commanders called as they led off their men. Rorik did not want to run off from this. They had made him like a king. He would be the first in the battle. And if he left them, where would he get his eight florins? Conrad, with all his cleverness, had not thought of that.
With the sun full on the valley, Rorik the Yngling was riding up in majesty, with the battle standard swaying in the wind behind him, and Heinrich carrying his shield beside him and the squire leading another horse. Rorik was riding on a great bay charger, his sword strapped fast to him, and the helm on his head agleam with silver.
Ranks of men-at-arms paced beside him, their spears rising like a forest of young, slender trees. Thousands of riders moved up the valley, toward the pass where they could see the spire of a church.
It seemed to Rorik that these marching ranks were fine, and surely he was the first of them. He could see nothing of the real emperor, although he heard the fanfare of trumpets blowing commands. Heinrich, he noticed, listened closely to the notes of the trumpets, but watched the narrowing fringe of pines on either side.
"Tell us, Heinrich," he said, "what to do."
"Nothing," muttered the armorer, "but what you are doing-sit in the saddle."
This suited Rorik, but he had another question to ask: "Heinrich, why do we go up this valley?"
"By command."
Rorik nodded. "But for what?"
"To break the infantry of the Swiss cantons."
The armorer answered with half his mind, because the other half was listening to a faint popping and crackling somewhere ahead. So, the Swiss were making their stand in front of the pass.
For a while Rorik thought about it. "But why is there war with the Swiss?"
In the mountains, Heinrich explained, the Swiss refused to accept the sovereignty of the new Reich. They were, he said, commoners having no king. They had no generals. They had only infantry. They called them selves free men of the cantons. They were stubborn, meeting together like a mob, refusing allegiance to the German emperor whose sovereignty in this new plan of the Holy Roman Empire would dominate from Frankfurt over the continent, from sea to sea.
"They rolled down rocks on Maximilian's array of knights," Heinrich grunted. "They broke back the lancers of His Grace of Burgundy, when those dismounted to fight on foot. But no infantry can stand against the cavalry of the Reich."
Rorik was looking up the mountainside, where a rock summit jutted beneath a snow peak. Barely he could make out the patch of Maera's potato field.
"Is that the battle," he asked, lifting his steel headgear to let the air cool his skull, "going on ahead of us, where the noise is?"
Laughing, Heinrich explained that was only their advance, skirmishing with the Swiss, to bring the Swiss into action. Undoubtedly the Swiss would charge with their main onset from the screen of pines here, on one flank. So thought the sir commanders of the Reich's army. And then the Swiss would be charged by all the horse of the gewaltige Haufen, held back in readiness for just such a maneuver-
"But still, Heinrich, I do not see any fighting."
It was noon and Rorik was tired, before he saw it, while the hot sun made him sweat in his steel mesh and the apple orchards around him smelled fragrant with the heat. Stone walls hemmed in the peasants' fields here, and the heavy German chargers labored over plowed land.
Through these trees Rorik could watch a line of Swiss pikemen pressing down the valley with the sun flickering on the steel of their pikeheads. Behind them another brown line carried long axes, coming on slowly, keeping step without trumpets, climbing over the stones. Those lines seemed small in the face of the German regiments now crowding into the narrowing valley.
"Why," muttered Heinrich, "why, they come here-they make no maneuver."
In front of the brown ranks, the Schwarzreiter wheeled in troops, snapping off their pistols when they were close to the Swiss. Bands of Italian crossbowmen sifted back through the trees, fast.
"Bad ground," Heinrich observed. "But now comes our charge-ah, so!"
Suddenly-hearing a call from the trumpets-he caught the rein of Rorik's horse, leading it to a knoll where the figure of the mock king could be seen above the apple trees. Past that knoll the German cavalry surged, with lances down, sweeping up the disordered Italians, forcing the Black Riders off to the flanks.
Through the orchards the packed ranks of horsemen edged around the trees, plunging over the low stone fences. The horses, tired and heavily weighted, slowed in the plowed land.
The Swiss did not stop. The Swiss came to meet the cavalry, closing together. Against those steel pikes, longer than their lances, the German horses piled up, rearing, the first ranks forced into a mass by pressure from the rear. Into the crush of riders the Swiss poleaxes beat like flails. Steel clanged and roared as if a thousand hammers were beating forges.
"Good Lord!" breathed Heinrich.
He heard the trumpets calling to the horsemen to re-form and charge.
Crowded regiments tried to get clear of the press. The steel of the Swiss flashed at their heels. The Swiss were shouting now, digging their feet into the plowed ground, slashing down everything in front of them. They were coming up the knoll where the mock king waited by the standard.
Rorik heard the armorer calling, "Go back-"
"No," said Rorik the Yngling, "now we can fight."
Swinging down from his charger, he pulled clear the two-handed sword. He stepped out toward the Swiss who shifted their pikes lower. He planted his feet, and his heavy sword drove down the pikes. Heinrich held the great shield in front of Rorik, and he elbowed the shield away for arm room. He felt swordsmen pressing against his right shoulder then the steel pikeheads pushed them back.
Rorik did not feel tired now. His arms threshed, swinging the twohanded sword at the bearded men stepping closer. Foot to foot. Something clanged against his headgear and it flew off. He could see better to strike now.
A splintered pike shaft jammed into his shoulder, and he leaned to one side to free himself. A two-foot ax blade ripped the steel rings down his arm. "Ho," he roared, "a good one, that."
Never had he seen so many honest bearded faces in front of his sword. His heavy sword smashed them back, and Heinrich flung up the shield to catch the swing of a poleax. Another blade came down, and Heinrich fell on the stone wall.
Steel struck at Rorik from the side, and he stepped back against the stones of a well. Turning, his long arms threshing, he kept a space clear about him. "Stand up to them, mates!" he shouted, his feet gripping the earth. But he was alone now on the knoll.
The broken cavalry troops, reining back past the knoll, saw this figure in imperial armor fighting on foot. They went on back, knowing that this was a mock king, meant to draw the enemy's attack.
Conrad, getting clear of the orchards at last, stopped to watch and nurse a broken arm bone. He saw the Swiss close in around Rorik, while the tall figure climbed up higher on the stones. The standard was gone and Rorik was alone.
"What if he had been the king?" Conrad wondered, watching until the man on the stones went down, and the Swiss came on over the mound.
And Conrad turned his horse's head. He had kept within sight of a group of officers around a man in plain armor, with four trumpets behind them. They were riding now down the valley, in silence, away from the mountains.
Hard cobbles pressed against Rorik's neck, and a church bell clanged above him. His shoulders ached and a bone's end grated in his hip. Faces of women and bearded men looked down at him and passed on. Blood caked the fingers of a hand when he looked at it, and Rorik thought he was lying here like a calf in the marketplace for the Swiss to stare at. Then one woman did not go away, and he recognized Maera.
Now, he thought, she sees nothing good in me. His steel mesh was ripped, his cloak a rag around one arm, and he could not move.
"Well," he said, "I tried to come back to the hut to show you, but I could not."
She shook her head, staring at him, trying to wipe the blood from his hand. Then Rorik remembered. He pulled the ring from his little finger and gave it to her. She held back from taking it, her eyes startled.
"Girl," said Rorik the Yngling, "even if I am not a soldier, and cannot hold my ground, I can make you a gift. Somehow," he went on, shamed, "I like you."
He could feel her hair brush against his face, and it was pleasant to have her bending over him, "What does it say?" she whispered, looking at the letters inscribed on the jewel. Gloria.
"That I do not know," said Rorik, who could not read. "That is for you to tell me."
Tight she gripped the gold ring, closing her eyes.
"My father says," she whispered, "there was no one like you, in the valley. So I am proud, and I will take your ring and be your wife."
Rorik looked up at the bell tower, to think about this. He had wanted to be first in the battle, to get his gold, and perhaps a girl. Maera had arranged matters in a way of her own, and he found that he liked it.
"They can ring their bells," he agreed. "For Rorik the Yngling will stay in these mountains."