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XIII

RASHIDEDDIN went straight to the winding stairs that led to his own apartment. At the foot of these stairs Khlit, who had traced the astrologer closely, paused. It would not be easy to go farther without being seen. And this Khlit wanted to avoid. He believed that Rashideddin was having him watched, and that the Khirghiz had attended him to the divan under orders. And at all costs he must be free to act that night.

Rashideddin, thought Khlit, sensed something impending. In some way the magician of Alamut kept himself informed of what went on in the citadel. His spies were everywhere. And on the night when Berca planned to admit the enemies of the Refik, both were under watch. Where was Toe tarnish?

Khlit wasted no time by the foot of the winding stair. There were other entrances to the circular chamber where Rashideddin kept his henchmen, and the Cossack cast about until he came to one of these. A passage led upward, unlighted in the direction he sought and this Khlit followed until he came to a curtain which he suspected divided it from the chamber of the astrologer. Beyond the curtain he could hear voices.

Lifting one edge of the hanging, Khlit looked out cautiously. Candle-light in the chamber dazzled him for a moment. He made out a dozen figures, Rashideddin not, among them, dressed in the red and white pf the magicians' cult. They were grouped around a man prone on the floor. This man was Toctamish.

The Tatar's coat and shirt had been removed. Two fedavie held each of his arms outstretched on the floor. His thick chest was strangely red, and he gasped as if in pain, not once or twice, but long, broken gasps that shook his body.

As Khlit watched, startled, one of the fedavie, a gaunt Tatar with a pocked face, placed some brown dust on the chest of the prostrate man. Khlit recognized the dust. It was the same that had singed his face when he sat opposite Rashideddin.

Thrusting aside the hanging, Khlit stepped into the room. The fedavie took no notice of him, believing that he was one of Rashideddin's henchmen stationed in the passage. Toctamish, however, lifted his eyes, which gleamed as they fell on the Cossack. Khlit saw that his brow was covered with sweat, and that blood ran from his mouth.

The man of the pitted face lifted some brown powder and sifted it on the chest of his victim. Another pushed a torch into his hand. Khlit realized then how his companion was being tortured. The smell of burning in the air came from singed flesh. And Toctamish was feeling the angry hand of Rashideddin.

Khlit stepped to the side of the fedavie with the torch, and peered closely at Toctamish. He saw then what made the Tatar's chest red, of a strange shade. Strips of skin had been torn off over the lungs, and here the powder was laid. Khlit swore and his hand strayed to his sword. And fell to his side. The fedavie numbered a full dozen, armed, and able-bodied. To draw his sword would be to bring ten whirling around him.

Khlit had no love for Toctamish. Yet in this room the other had stood with his sword drawn beside him. And they had shared bread and salt. Toctamish was standing the torture with the stark courage which was his creed. The lips of the sufferer moved and Khlit bent closer.

"Kiragai Khan—Khan of the Horde," the cracked lips gasped, "tell him. Blood for blood. We have shared bread—and salt, and arak. Tell him."

The Cossack nodded. Toctamish was asking him to report how he had endured torture to Kiragai Khan who was advancing on Alamut at the head of his men, and claiming vengeance. He was weak, and seemed to have no hope of living.

"What said the dog?" muttered the fedavie with the torch who had been trying to catch what Toctamish whispered. He spoke in a bastard Tatar with a strange lisping. "He will not speak and Rashideddin has said that he must or we will hang by the heels."

"He is out of his mind," answered Khlit carelessly. "What must he tell?"

"He stuck a dagger into a fedavie, a Syrian, on the shore of the Salt Sea. A girl, Berca, the sheik's daughter, was there also. This yellow-faced fool must tell if the girl ordered him to do it. Bah! His skin is tough as oxen hide, and his flesh is senseless as swine."

"And he has not spoken?"

"Nay. Rashideddin was here and questioned him, but the Tatar cursed him."

Khlit scanned the face of Toctamish. The yellow skin was dark and moist with sweat. The eyes were bloodshot and half-closed. The mouth lifted in a snarl, disclosing teeth pointed as an animal's. He felt that Toctamish would not yield to the torture. And great love for the man whose courage was proof against pain rose in the heart of Khlit whose own courage was such that men called him the "Wolf."

"Aye," he growled, "blood for blood. That is the law of Alamut. And Kiragai Khan shall know."

He saw by a quick opening of the eyes that Toctamish caught his words.

"What say you?" queried the fedavie. "Kiragai Khan?"

Toctamish's knotted figure writhed under the hands of his captors. He spat, blood and foam combined, at the other.

"Aye," he groaned, "Kiragai Khan—lord of fifty thousand spears—chief of a hundred ensigns—master of Alamut."

"He speaks," interpreted Khlit swiftly, "of one Hulagu Khan who conquered Alamut. Tell Rashideddin. And cease the torture, for the man has nothing to confess."

The fedavie stared at Khlit suspiciously.

"Nay," he snarled, "shall we hang by the heels?"

He thrust the torch near the powder. There was a hissing flash, a smell of burning flesh. Toctamish's body quivered spasmodically and sank back. The eyes closed. Under cover of the flare and smoke Khlit slipped back through the circle and sought the stair. Gaining this he did not pause until he had reached the inner gate of the underground citadel where a Dai was assembling his men to guard the outer gate by the river.

When Khlit, who was nursing in his brain the sight he had just left, went down the river stairs to his post in the River Shahrud, he found that his companion was the bearded Khirghiz chieftain.

The outer post of the guard around the citadel of Alamut was in a small nest of rocks several hundred paces from the entrance, and midway in the stream. So shallow was the river that they could wade out to the rocks. The Khirghiz led the way.

It was not yet the middle of the night, and a bright moon lighted the winding ribbon of the Shahrud that twisted between the rocky heights of Rudbar. The mass of Alamut showed dark, giving no sign of the evil world it concealed. A wind from the heights brushed Khlit's face and he breathed it in deeply, for he was nauseated by the stench of the caverns.

"You and I, Cossack," said the Khirghiz, seating himself unsteadily on a ledge of the rocks, for he had been drinking, "will keep the outer post."

"Aye," said Khlit, "you and I."

He stared out into the moonlight haze that hung over the river. Berca had said that he and Toctamish were to hold the outer post. From some quarter the horsemen of Kiragai Khan were nearing the gate of Alamut. Khlit realized that unless the attack came as a surprise the citadel was impregnable. A surprise might carry the Tatar horde into the entrance. Berca had said there was a way. And this was it. Yet, if a surprise was to succeed the Khirghiz must be disposed of. He had been drinking, but he was still watchful. No movement of the Cossack escaped him.

Quietly Khlit drew out a small vial. From this he poured a few grains of a white powder into his hand. Lifting his hand he made as if to take the powder into his mouth. The Khirghiz bent forward, and his face lighted with evil desire.

"Have you—" he began.

"Come, Brother," whispered Khlit genially, "we will be comfortable on the rocks. Is not the bread of the Refik the vintage of the Shadna to be eaten? Come."

The Khirghiz swore softly and held out his hand. In wine and food, the vintage of the Shadna was often in the hands of the Refik men. But not, except on expeditions of the Master of Alamut, or by costly bribery of the Dais was the pure powder of hashish to be had, the hashish that brought bright dreams of paradise and lulled the mind with pleasures, that hardened the souls of the men of Alamut, and steeled their hands to the dagger.

Khlit, who had discovered the secret of the drug through the babblings of Iba Kabash, quietly dropped his portion back into the vial. Later, he knew, the Khirghiz would want more and he had but a little.