THE Cossack's meditation was interrupted by the girl, who motioned to the Syrian to set his stew before Khlit.
"Eat," she cried impatiently, pointing to the steaming bowl. "You are hungry, Father of Battles, and I would speak with you. A man speaks ill on an empty belly, although a woman needs not food nor wine to sharpen her wits. Eh, look at me and say, Father of Battles, is it not true I am beautiful, that men would die for me? It is given to few to look at me so closely."
She stepped near the Cossack, so the edge of her silk garment touched his shaggy face where he crouched over the bowl. Khlit sniffed, and with the odor of lamb stew he smelled, although he knew not its nature, the scent of rose leaves and aloes. He dipped his hand into the bowl and ate.
"Speak, Khlit, Cossack boor," shrilled the woman, shaking his shoulder impatiently, "and say whether it is in your mind I am beautiful. Other men are not slow to say that Berca of Rudbar and Kuhistan is shapely, and tinted as the rose."
Khlit's hand paused midway to his mouth.
"Toctamish has a handsome harlot," he said and swallowed.
The girl stepped back hastily.
"Clown!" she whispered softly. "Nameless one of a dog's breeding. You shall remember that word. It was in my mind to bid you come with me, and be companion to Toctamish——"
"Am I a man for a Tatar's wench?"
Khlit was making rapid inroads into the stew.
"Nay, a boor of the steppe. Remember, your speech is not to be forgotten. I am a chief's daughter, with many horsemen."
Berca was watching the Cossack half-angrily, half-anxiously. Toctamish moved his bulk to the bowl, regarding the disappearing contents with regret.
"How can one man be courteous, Berca of Rudbar," he asked gruffly, "when the tribe is without breeding? It were better to cut the throat of this caphar, dog without faith, before he ate of our bread and salt."
"Nay, eat also of the food, Toctamish," said Berca, "and let me think."
The Tatar's brown face wrinkled in distaste.
"Am I to share bread with a caphar?" he snarled. "Truly, I promised to obey you, but not thus. Bid the Cossack begone and I will eat. Otherwise he will be brother in arms, and his danger shall be my danger."
Berca stamped her slippered foot impatiently.
"Has Allah given me a donkey to follow me? Eat your share of the stew, Toctamish, and cease your braying. Is it not written in the Koran that the most disagreeable of voices is the voice of asses."
Toctamish remained sullenly silent. He was very hungry. Likewise, Khlit was an enemy of his blood.
"Eat, Flat-Face," chuckled Khlit, who was beginning to enjoy himself, "the stew is rarely made. But the bottom of the bowl is not far off."
The odor of the food tormented the Tatar. And Berca, for reason of her own, allowed him no chance to back away from the bowl. Finally, in desperation, he squatted opposite Khlit and dipped his hand into the stew.
"Remember the law, Flat-Face," guffawed Khlit, as the other ate greedily. "We have shared bread and salt together—I would give a hundred ducats for a mouthful of wine."
"It is not I who will forget, caphar," retorted Toctamish with dignity. Tugging at his girdle, he held out a small gourd. "Here is arak; drink heartily."
"Aye," said Khlit
He had tasted the heady mares' milk of the Tatars before and he sucked his mustache appreciatively after the draft. Pulling pipe and tobacco from a pouch he proceeded to smoke.
"Observe," said Toctamish to Berca, to show that he was not softened by what has passed, "that the caphar dog is one who must have two weeds to live. He sucks the top of one and drinks the juice of the other."
"Still your tongue," said Berca sharply, "and let me think."
She had seated herself cross-legged by the bowl, and her bird-like glance strayed from Khlit to Toctamish. The Cossack, engrossed in his pipe, ignored her.
"Why did you name me a harlot?" she asked abruptly, a flush deepening the olive of her cheeks.
"Eh, I know not, Sparrow. Devil take it, a blind man would see you are not kin to Toctamish. He is not of your people. And there is no old woman at hand to keep you out of mischief. You have said you were a chief's daughter. If that is not a lie, then the chief is dead."
The girl's eyes widened, and Toctamish gaped.
"Have you a magician's sight, caphar?" she cried. "It is true that the sheik, my father is dead. But I did not tell you."
"Yet you are alone, Berca, across the Sea of Khozar, without attendants. A wise sheik will keep his girl at home, except when she is sent to be married. Is it not true that another sent you out of Rudbar?"
Berca's dark eyes closed and she rested her chin quietly on her folded hands. One hand she thrust into the folds of her cloak at the throat and drew it out clasped around a small object which hung by a chain from her slender neck. Opening her fingers she disclosed a sapphire of splendid size and brilliancy, set in carved gold. The jewel was of value, and appeared to be from the work-shops of skilled jewelers of Tabriz. Khlit eyed it indifferently and waited.
"It is true that another sent me from Rudbar, Khlit," said Berca softly, "and it was to be married. The one who sent me sent also some slaves and an attendant. He swore that a certain chief, a khan of the Kallmarks had asked me for his wife, and I went, not desiring to stay in Rudbar after my father died."
"The Kallmarks?" Khlit frowned. "Why, you are a Persian, and the Kallmark Tatars make war on Persians as did their fathers. A marriage would be strange. Eh, who sent you?"
Berca lowered her voice further and glanced at the Persian armorer who was snoring in his corner.
"One it was who is better not named," she whispered. "He is neither sheik nor khan. Listen, Cossack. This is a jewel of rare value. It has no mate this side of Damascus. Would you like to own it?"
"Aye," said Khlit indifferently, "at what price?
"Do you want another Toctamish? Buy him in the streets of Astrakan. Is a free Cossack to be bought?"
"Nay, Khlit," whispered Berca leaning close to him until her loose curls touched his eyes, "the service is for one who can use his sword. We heard in Tatary how you escaped from Tal Taulai Khan and his myriad horsemen. Men say that you are truly the father of battles. I have work for such a one. Listen! I was sent from Rudbar to Kiragai Khan, up the Sea of Khozar, and across the Jaick River, with one attendant and a box which the attendant said held jewels and gold bars for my dowry. I came to the court of Kiragai Khan——"
"Bah, Sparrow," Khlit yawned sleepily, "you are tiresome. I want sleep, not words. In the morning——"
"We will be gone from Astrakan." Berca held up the sapphire. "You must listen, Cossack. I told Kiragai Khan my mission, for there were no others to speak, and opened the box in the hands of the attendant. The jewels were poor pearls and no gold was in the box. Then Kiragai Khan, before whom I had unveiled my face, laughed and said that he had not sent for me. At first it came to my mind that it was because the jewels were worthless. But it was the truth."
"Aye," said Toctamish suddenly, "it was the truth."
"I went quickly from the country of Kiragai Khan, aided by Toctamish, who pitied me when others tried to sell me a slave—of a race that are not slaves. At Astrakan we learned the whole truth, for here word came to us that the one who sent me in marriage had killed my father. I was sent to be out of the way, for it would not do to sell one of my blood as slave. Such is not the law. He who killed my father heeds no law, yet he is crafty."
"Then," inquired Khlit, "you would slay him? Give Toctamish a dagger and a dark night and it is done."
Berca shook her head scornfully.
"No dagger could come near this man," she said bitterly. "And he is beyond our reach. He has many thousand hidden daggers at his call. His empire is from. Samarkand to Aleppo, and from Tatary to the Indian Sea. He is more feared than Tal Taulai Khan, of the Horde."
"Then he must be a great sheik," yawned Khlit.
"He is not a sheik," protested Berca, and her eyes widened. "And his stronghold is under the ground, not on it. Men say his power lies in his will to break all laws, for he has made his followers free from all law. What he wants, he takes from others. And he is glad when blood is shed. Do you know of him?"
"Aye," said Khlit, grinning, "the steppe fox."
"They call you the Wolf," pleaded Berca, "and I need your counsel and wisdom. This man I am seeking has a name no one makes a jest of—twice. He is called by some the arch prophet, by others the Old Man of the Mountain, and by others the Shadna of the Refik folk. He is the head of an empire that lays tribute on every city in Persia, Kurdistan, Khorassan, Syria and Anatolia. If Allah decreed that I should be his death I should be content."
"More likely dead," responded Khlit. "Truly, if these are not lies, your Old Man of the Mountain must be a good fighter and I would cross swords with him. Can you show him to me?"
"Aye, Khlit," said Berca eagerly, "if you come with me. There is the sapphire if you will come to Rudbar with me."
"Khlit stretched his tall bulk lazily.
"One way is as good as the other to me, if there is fighting," he muttered sleepily. "Only talk not of rewards, for a Cossack takes his pay from the bodies of enemies. I will kill this Master of the Mountain for you. Let me sleep now, for your voice is shrill."
When Toctamish and Berca had left the shop of the armorer, the former to seek a shed outside, and the Persian girl to sleep in her recess, Khlit's snores matched those of the Syrian shopkeeper in volume. For a while only. Then it happened that the snores of the Syrian ceased.
Without disturbing Khlit who was stretched full length on the floor, the Syrian silently pushed past the hangings over the door. Once outside he broke into a trot, his slippers pad-padding the dark street. Nor did he soon slacken his pace.