IT IS written in the annals of Abulghazi that as the year of the lion drew to its close, very great riches came to the treasury of Halen ibn Shaddah from the cities which lived in the shadow of fear. Save from the north, by the Salt Sea, where the tithes came not. Nor any riders. And in the north, said Abulghazi, a storm was gathering, swift as wind, rolling up all in its path. Yet no murmur of the storm came to Alamut, to the man who named himself prophet of God, to the banquet-place of the fedavie, to the man of wisdom, Rashideddin.
It was the second day after the visit of Berca that Khlit, who had been thinking deeply, sought out Iba Kabash where the Kurd lay sleeping on the floor of the banquet-place and roused him from his stupor.
"I have news for the ear of Halen ibn Shaddah himself," he said, squatting and lighting his pipe, "none other. He will surely reward me."
Iba Kabash ceased yawning and into his lined face came the look of a crafty fox.
"Halen ibn Shaddah will not see you, Khlit. He will see nobody except a few, old fellows of Alamut, of whom I am one. Verily, I have the ear of the master of Alamut. Tell me your message and I will give it, for you are a man of brains. You, Khlit are of the chosen. The others are ones without understanding."
Khlit knew that Iba Kabash lied, for the most part. He considered his pipe gravely and shook his head.
"My news is not to be repeated. Halen ibn Shaddah would pay a good price. How can you get such a good price for it as I?"
"Nay," remonstrated the Kurd, "I shall get a better price. For I know well the value of news. Tell me and we shall both profit, you and I."
Khlit grinned under his mustache. For a while he played, with the skill of one who understood the game well, with the growing inquisitiveness of his companion. Iba Kabash steadily raised the reward he assured Khlit, as he sensed the interest of the Cossack.
"Then," stated Khlit slowly, "you will do this. You will go direct to the master of Alamut and tell him my news. To no other. For here, a man takes what credit he can. And as the price of the good you will get for the telling, you will aid me in the plan I have.. The plan concerns a girl that Halen ibn Shaddah would give a finger of his left hand to see brought before him."
"I swear it," -said the Kurd readily, "on my ahd, the oath of a fedavie. Now tell me the news, and it shall go to Halen ibn Shaddah as you have said."
Khlit nodded. That much the Kurd would do, he was sure. Whether Iba Kabash would tell the source of his message was dubious. Khlit felt in his heart that if the news was important Iba Kabash would keep the credit for himself. Which was what Khlit wanted.
"Tell Halen ibn Shaddah this," he said slowly, "that Khlit, the Cossack, called the Wolf, has learned that Berca, the Persian girl who was sent from Rudbar by Rashideddin has returned, and is in Alamut. He will be very curious. Say no more, for you and I, Iba Kabash, can find the girl and take her to him. If you help me, it can be managed. That is my message."
Khlit watched the Kurd depart nimbly. Iba Kabash had sensed the importance of the Cossack's words. It would be a rare tale to pour into the ears of the master of Alamut. And, nimbly as the Kurd took his way from the banquet-place, Khlit was as quick to follow, keeping in the shadows of the passages, but well within sight of the other.
So it happened that Iba Kabash did not see Khlit when he turned into the winding stair that led to the room of Rashideddin, but the Cossack saw him and waited by the outer chamber. If Iba Kabash had looked behind, he might not have gone where he did. Yet he did not look behind, and Khlit waited patiently.
Presently one of the Khirghiz men came from the winding stair, walking idly, and Khlit halted him, asking if the Khirghiz had seen aught of a certain Kurd called Iba Kabash.
The man had seen him. Boa Kabash had come to the astrologer's chamber. Of a certainty, he had spoken to Rashideddin. Why else had he come? Was the astrologer one to stare at? They had talked together, and he had not heard what was said, although he listened carefully, for it was in another tongue.
Rashideddin, swore Khlit, was a man to be feared. Doubtless he was the one that spoke most often to Halen ibn Shaddah, the holy prophet. Nay, he surely had the ear of Halen ibn Shaddah, who held the keys to the blessed paradise.
The Khirghiz swore even more fluently. It was a lie that Rashideddin spoke with Halen ibn Shaddah more than others. Rashideddin was favored by the dark powers, for he read books. The Khirghiz knew that, for he was one of the chosen fedavie of the astrologer.
Khlit turned, at a step on the stair. Instead of Rashideddin, he saw the stout figure of Iba Kabash who halted in surprise.
"Listen, Cossack," the Kurd whispered, with a glance around the chamber. "I have not yet delivered your message, for Rashideddin stopped me on my way to Halen ibn Shaddah, and ordered me to bring you to him. But do not tell Rashideddin what you know. I shall see that you get a good reward, I swear it. We must try to get the girl. If you know a way tell me, and it shall be done. Remember, say nothing to Rashideddin."
Khlit weighed the words of the Kurd for their gist of truth and found very little. He little liked to face the astrologer, but he ascended the stair at once, swaggering, and stamping his boots.
In the round chamber of the astrologer he halted. It was night and candles were lighted around the tapestried walls. Rashideddin was crouched over rolls of parchment and instruments the like of which Khlit had not seen. In a cleared space on the floor in front of him the wise man of Alamut had ranged a number of images, silver and cleverly wrought, of stars.
The stars formed a circle and in the circle was a bag. Rashideddin sat quietly, arms crossed on knees, staring in front of him. Around the walls of the chamber silk hangings had been placed, on which were woven pictures of scenes which Khlit recognized as belonging to the paradise of Halen ibn Shaddah.
"Seat yourself, Cossack," said Rashideddin, in his slow, deep voice, "in front of me, and watch."
₪ THE astrologer's eyes were half-closed. Looking into them, Khlit could see nothing. The room was still and deserted except for the two. Khlit wished that others had been there. He felt ill at ease, and sucked at his pipe loudly.
"In the place of darkness, of the spirit Munkir," said Rashideddin, "there are no stars. Yet when men are alive they can look on the stars. Few can read them. From Alamut I have seen them, and learned many things. Do they read the stars in your country, Cossack?"
"Nay," said Khlit, "we know them not."
Rashideddin contemplated his circle thoughtfully. His hands, yellow and very clean, took up a pair of dividers with which he measured the distance between the silver stars.
"In the heart of Alamut, we have burned the law books of the Persians and the code books of the Medes. They were very old; yet is the dust of age a sacrament? What is there about an old law that makes it graven as on stone in the minds of men? One prophet has said that he who takes a tooth for a tooth is lawful; another has said that he who injures another for his own sake shall suffer greatly. Which is the truth?"
"Nay," answered Khlit, "I know not."
"It was written that when one man kills another the kin of that man shall kill the first. So I have seen many in the world outside Alamut kill each other without cause. Yet in Alamut, we kill only for a reason."
Khlit thought of the dead Tatar who had fallen where Rashideddin sat and was silent.
"Watch," said the astrologer. Putting aside his dividers, he took up the bag. Opening the top of this slightly he held it over the circle in both hands. Tipping it to one side, he allowed a thin stream of sand to fall in the space enclosed by the stars. The sand heaped itself in mounds, which Rashideddin considered carefully, setting down the bag.
"There are laws in the stars, Cossack," he repeated, tracing idly in the sand with his dividers. "And I have read them. Is it not true that when a man has found the sum of wisdom, he has none? The poet has said that no beauty is in the world save that of power over other men. The stars watch the evil and idleness of men. One who reads them learns many things. I shall tell you what I learned of you, Cossack."
"Aye," said Khlit grimly, "tell."
Under the cover of his bushy eyebrows he studied his companion. Rashideddin was a magician, and in Khlit's mind a magician was not to be trusted. Was the astrologer playing with him, using him as a chess-player moves a piece on the board? What had Iba Kabash told Rashideddin? Khlit waited, paying no attention to the stars or the sand, watching only the eyes of the other.
"From the land of Ukraine you came, Khlit," said the astrologer. "Alone, and met Toctamish in Astrakan. When the wolf runs with the jackal over the steppe, the stars have a riddle to solve. Perhaps the wolf is hungry. And the jackal is useful."
"Aye," said Khlit, "Iba Kabash."
Rashideddin's expression did not change as he stirred the sands with his dividers. "At Astrakan there was a fedavie who is dead. You and the jackal Toctamish were under his roof. You came with him to a ship. And the fedavie was slain. Aye, the wolf was hungered. Much have I learned from the stars. There was a girl with you on the ship. She did not come with you to Alamut."
Khlit made no response, and Rashideddin continued to stir the sands.
"The girl was not one easy to forget. You have not forgotten her. The jackal is drunk. But you have an ear for wisdom. The girl might be found in Alamut. Aye, by one who knows her, in the thousands of slaves."
Khlit shook the ashes from his pipe. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the hangings move behind him. Well he knew the chamber of Rashideddin was pregnant with danger. The pallid astrologer toyed with men's lives as he did with the magic sands. He made no move, waiting for what was to come.
It came in a blinding flash. A burst of flame, and the sands leaped upward. Smoke and a wrenching smell filled Khlit's eyes and throat. The skin of his face burned hotly. Blinking and gasping, he rocked back on his haunches.
"The wolf is wise in the ways of the steppe," purred the astrologer. "Yet he came to Alamut, the vulture's nest. It is a pity. The girl, too, is missing. Perhaps she can be found."
The face of Rashideddin stared at him through thinning clouds of powder smoke, and Khlit wiped the tears of pain from his eyes. Rapidly, he thought. Rashideddin wanted Berca. Halen ibn Shaddah would pay a high price for the girl, who was dangerous, being not as other girls.
"Aye," he muttered, coughing, for the flame had burned his face, "she may be found."
"Tomorrow there will be an audience by Halen ibn Shaddah for the fedavie. She will be there. I shall send for you before evening. Fail, and the fedavie will break your bones slowly, with stones, or tear the skin from your back."
Khlit rose to his feet without obeisance.
"Have the stars," he asked, "any other message for me?"
For a long moment Rashideddin studied him through narrowed lids. Idly, the dividers traced patterns in the powder ash in the circle of stars. And Khlit cursed himself softly. For in the eyes of the other was the look of one who measures swords.
Once too often he had drawn the attention of the astrologer on himself.
Dismissed from the round chamber, Khlit sought out Iba Kabash, and secured the promise of the Kurd that he would be put with Toctamish among the sentries for the next night, for being admitted to the paradise of Alamut this was their privilege. To gain this point, it was necessary to assure the Kurd that Berca could be found. Once more, Iba Kabash swore Khlit would get a good price, whereupon Khlit had the thought that the other was too glib with a promise.
Then he found Toctamish, and told the Tatar enough of what had passed in the garden of Halen ibn Shaddah to keep him sober overnight. This done, Khlit seated himself in a corner of the banquet-place and took out his sword. Placing it across his knees he began to whet it with the stone he always carried. As he did so, men near him stared curiously, for Khlit was singing to himself in a voice without music.
And Rashideddin sat over the circle of silver stars, tracing and retracing patterns in the ashes of powder, with the look of one in whose soul there is no peace.