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XIV

IT WAS not long before Khlit was alone. The Khirghiz lay at his side on the rocks, muttering to himself with enough hashish inside him to make an imbecile of an ordinary man. Khlit sat by his side, saber across his knees, and watched the moonlit sides of the heights that frowned down on him. On the slopes he could make out the shadowy outlines of droves of horses, and he wondered if the Dais were planning an expedition that night.

Usually, Khlit was not given to forebodings. Yet the black mass of Alamut rising at his back gave him the feeling of approaching danger, and when he scanned the shadows along the river they moved as if filled with the bands of drug-crazed fedavie. Especially, Khlit wondered if the spies of Rashideddin were watching him. Rashideddin had learned of the murder of the Syrian, had connected Berca with it, and Toctamish with Berca. Toctamish, at his order, had been tortured with such devilish cruelty that even the Tatar's fortitude might break down.

How much did the astrologer know of Berca's secret? Once the alarm was raised in Alamut a thousand swords would block the stairs at the river gate and the rope hoists of the slaves at the rear would be drawn up. There were no signs of activity that Khlit could see, but few ever saw the movements of the fedavie. Accustomed as he was to war on the steppe, he was skeptical of horsemen taking such a stronghold as Alamut.

Once the Tatar horde forced the entrance there would be a battle such as Khlit had never seen before. Himself a Cossack, he cared little whether Refik or Khan were the victor—except that he had sworn an oath, a double oath, that the life of the Master of Alamut, Halen ibn Shaddah, would fall to his sword. Wherefore, he waited patiently, eyes searching the road by the river where the invaders might come.

Berca had told him that twenty thousand Tatars were riding through the hills to Alamut. Yet the road was narrow and the way twisted. It would be hard to move quickly. And there were the horse-tenders on the hills who would give the alarm. Khlit had come to grant a grudging admiration to the sheik's daughter who had defied Halen ibn Shaddah. But she was in Rashideddin's hands, and the astrologer was the man Khlit had marked as most dangerous of the Refik.

Rising suddenly, Khlit drew in his breath sharply. Outlined against the summit of a hill he saw a horse and rider moving very swiftly. The man was bent low in his saddle and Khlit thought he saw the long cloak of the fedavie before the rider came over the brow of the hill. Half-way down the descent the horse stumbled and fell.

Khlit saw a dark object shoot from the rolling horse and lie passive, clear in the moonlight. The messenger, if such it was, of the fedavie would not reach his destination. And at the same time Khlit saw something else. Before his eyes as if by magic he beheld Kiragai Khan and thousands of his horsemen.

Then Khlit, surnamed the Wolf, buckled tight his belt and drew on his sheepskin hat firmly. There was to be a battle that would redden the waters of the Shahrud and, among the swords of the fedavie Halen ibn Shaddah was to be found.

Apparently there was nothing stirring on the mountain slopes of Rudbar except the shapes of the horse droves that drew down to the river as was their custom, awaiting the bands of the Dais which came out for mounts. Tonight there were no men issuing from Alamut. And it was only when one of the herds moved across the face of the moon that Khlit saw the tips of Tatar helmets moving among the horses, and understood why the horses seemed more numerous than before.

Even as Berca had promised, the Tatar horde was approaching the gate of Alamut. One of the herds reached the river's edge and pressed on, in the shadow of the hillside. Khlit could see the faces of men peering at him, and catch the glint of their spears. He gave a hasty glance at his companion. The man was sleeping heavily.

Familiar with the ways of the Tatars, the Cossack could guess how their whirlwind rush into Rudbar had cut off all news being sent to the citadel, and how, after dark, the Refik horse-tenders on the pastures had been singled out and cut down. One had broken away with the news that was to carry the doom of Alamut, only to fall by the river.

The foremost warriors had reached him, clinging closely to the sides of their horses. A low voice called out to him cautiously.

"You are the Cossack who will guide us?"

"Aye," said Khlit, "but the moon is bright here and there are others within the caverns. Are you ready to rush forward at once?"

"Lead," said the voice, "and we will follow. Lead us to the gate of Alamut and we will purge the devil's hole of its filth."

Khlit cast a quick glance at the hillsides. Other bodies were moving down. Some were nearly at the river. Thousands were coming over the hillcrest. More were coming by the river road. On the far flanks detachments were moving to the rear of Alamut.

Drawing his sword, he sprang down into the river and splashed toward the shore. Dark forms closed in beside him, and the welcome stench of sweat and leather filled his nose. The river was full of moving forms, and horses that dashed, riderless, to either side. Khlit's heart leaped, and his clasp tightened on his sword. One of the foremost caught him roughly by the arm. Khlit had a quick glimpse of a dark, lined face and flashing eyes.

"I am Kiragai Khan, Cossack. Where is Toctamish? He was to stay by the side of Berca!".

"She sent him to watch with me. Yet, very likely he is dead by now."

The other swore, as they gained the shelter of the caverns.

"Take me to her, then," he snarled.

So it happened that before the light of day touched the date trees on the summit of Alamut, citadel of the Refik, and place of plague and evil, the first of the horde that had ridden from the shores of the Salt Sea entered the river gate, overcoming a few guards, forced their way up the stair, and spread through the passages of Alamut, making no sound but silently, as tigers seeking their prey.