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VII

RASHIDEDDIN is mentioned in the annals of Abulghazi as a savant of the khalifate of Bagdad and Damascus. He was a Persian, trained in the arts of astrology and divination, who could recite from memory the works of Jelaleddin Rumi. He was acquainted with many languages including Russian and Tatar. It is believed that he possessed all the works of the Alamut library which escaped the destructive hands of Hulagu Khan.

Inscrutable, and gifted, Rashideddin made a mockery of the Koran. He kept his truly great wisdom to himself, except for certain poems which he sent to princes of Persia and Arabia, who gained no happiness thereby. So it was not strange that Rashideddin, the savant of dark knowledge came to a place of evil, of strange and very potent evil. So say the annals of Abulghazi.

Rashideddin did not look at his visitors. He lifted a piece with care and replaced it on the chessboard. The Dai, who Khlit observed, was drunk, as were the men around the fires, yet very pale, did likewise. Khlit, who had small liking for chess, watched the players rather than the board. Especially did he watch Rashideddin. The pale-lipped astrologer sat with half-closed eyes, intent and motionless. The gray cloak seemed not to move with his breathing. When he spoke, his deep and musical voice startled them.

"Have you a god, Cossack? Is your faith firm in the Christian cross you wear around your neck?"

Startled, Khlit moved his hand to his throat, where hung a small, gold cross. Iba Kabash was making hasty signs to him which he did not see.

"Aye, Rashideddin," said he gravely, "the batko has told me about the cross which I carry, and it is a talisman against evil. Hey, it has been good, that cross, because I have killed many and am still living."

"Evil?" said Rashideddin, and moved a jeweled chessman to another square. "The earth is evil. If a saint handles earth it becomes gold. Yet who has seen a saint? Do you seek to bring your cross into Alamut?"

"Not so, Rashideddin," vouchsafed Khlit, crossing his arms. "I bring a sword to Alamut, to Halen ibn Shaddah. The cross is my own. If you can see it through my svitza then you must have good eyes. I am outcast from my people of the Ukraine, and men told me there was work for swords with Halen ibn Shaddah."

"And you call yourself Khlit, the Wolf?" queried the astrologer. "How did you find the gate of Alamut?"

Khlit was bewildered at the astrologer's knowledge of his name until he remembered that he had told it to Iba Kabash.

"Aye. There was a caravan by the Sea of Khozar that a band from Alamut robbed. We," Khlit bethought him swiftly, "followed the riders to the mountains and waited by the gate."

Rashideddin considered the chessboard silently.

"You came over the Sea of Khozar," he murmured, "from Astrakan? That must have been the way. There is another way around by land that the caravans take. They are our prey. What the Kallmark Tatars leave the merchants, we share. Did you see a Syrian armorer in Astrakan?"

"Aye, a bearded fellow. We stayed at his house. He told us we might find use for our swords with Halen ibn Shaddah."

With a delicate movement, Rashideddin lifted one of his opponent's pieces from the board.

"And your companion?" he said.

"A Tatar horseman who has quarreled with his kin," spoke up Toctamish bluntly. "I'm tired of laws, noble sir, and I——"

"Laws are too complex, Tatar. If a man has an enemy, slay him. If a man desires a certain thing, take it. Are not these the only laws? In Alamut you are free from all laws except those of the Refik. You have an image of Natagai in your girdle, Tatar." Rashideddin had not looked at Toctamish since the first moment. "Take it and throw it on the floor."

Toctamish hesitated. He glanced irresolutely at Khlit; then drew out a small cloth figure, painted like a doll and tossed it on the stones. The Cossack saw that it was ragged and worn by much use. He had not suspected that his companion cherished any holy image.

"Spit on it," directed Rashideddin softly.

With a muttered curse Toctamish did so. His lined face was damp with perspiration, and Khlit saw that his hands were trembling. The shifting eyes of Iba Kabash gleamed mockingly.

"The armorer at Astrakan must have told you that Alamut is no place for one who has a god," went on Rashideddin. "There is one here who is greater than Mohammed. We are his servants. Yet our akd says that none go forth who are not of us. Think, Khlit, and decide. Meanwhile——"

The astrologer spoke to Iba Kabash in another tongue and the Kurd went to a corner of the room where a pile of rugs and cloths lay. Selecting a long, white cloth, he laid it in front of Khlit. This done, he stepped back, licking his thick lips softly.

"Tell the Cossack what you have done, Iba Kabash," said Rashideddin.

"This cloth," whispered the Kurd, "is a shroud, Khlit. The astrologer may call his men and lay you in it dead, unless you say you have no god. Do as your friend—remember I have given you good advice. You are in a place where your life is worth no more than a dagger-thrust. Your sword will be useless."

With a beating heart, Khlit glanced around the chamber. The two mailed Tatars were watching him silently. He thought he could see the dim forms of other men in recesses in the wall. And for all Rashideddin's unconcern, he felt that the astrologer was alive to every move he made. He felt as he had once when the Krim Tatars had bound his limbs, leaving him powerless.

"Aye," he said.

Without looking at Rashideddin, he moved to the pile of cloths and selected another shroud. This he brought back and placed beside the other. Iba Kabash watched him with staring eyes. The Dai frowned and fingered a dagger at his girdle. Khlit drew his curved sword and stood over the white cloths.

"Tell Rashideddin, Iba Kabash," he said, "what this other shroud is for."

"What—how do you mean?" muttered the Kurd.

"It is for the man who first tries to kill me, dog," snarled Khlit.

The astrologer bent over the chessboard impassively. Apparently he was blind to what passed in the room and to the words of Iba Kabash. The others watched him, and there was silence. Until Rashideddin raised his head suddenly and compressed his pale lips.

"You fool," he smiled, "blunderer of the steppes! This is not Russia. Here there is one law, and punishment; murder! See!"

He pointed a white hand at one of the mailed Tatars. The man started forward, and drew back shivering.

"Kill thyself, fellow," said Rashideddin quietly.

The Tatar stared at him and cast a helpless glance around the room. Khlit saw his right hand go to his girdle and tremble convulsively.

"Fedavie!" the astrologer's voice was gentle, "show the Russian our law. By the oath of the Refik, kill thyself!"

With a grunt of sheer terror the man dropped his spear. His right hand rose from the girdle, gripping a dagger curved like a flame. Rose, and sank into his throat. With the hilt of the dagger wedged under his chin, the Tatar sagged to the floor, quivered and was still. One blood-stained hand had fallen among the chessmen.

There was silence in the room for a moment, broken by Toctamish. The Tatar stepped to Khlit's side.

"You and I are brothers, Cossack," he growled, "and your danger is my danger."

Rashideddin, who had given a sigh of pleasure at the death of the attendant, studied the disordered chessmen impassively. The Dai sprang to his feet with an oath. For several heart-beats no one moved. Iba Kabash stared in fascination at a red pool which had formed under the dead Tatar's head.