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VIII

THE astrologer, apparently giving up as hopeless the attempt to replace the chessmen, stood up. And Khlit, who was watching, wondered at his figure. The man was bent so that his back was in the form of a bow. His head stuck forward, pale as a fish's belly, topped by the red skullcap. His gray cloak came to the ground. Yet when he moved, it was with a soft quickness.

"You see," he said, as if nothing had happened, "the oath of Alamut—obedience, and——"

He stirred the shroud contemptuously with his foot. Then, as if arriving at a decision, he turned to Iba Kabash.

"Take these clowns to the banquet-place, and give them food. See that they are not harmed."

With that he motioned to the Dai and retreated through one of the recesses. Toctamish wiped his brow on which the perspiration had gathered and touched the dead man with his foot.

"The good Rashideddin will not kill you," chanted the Kurd eagerly. "It must be a miracle, for you are both fools. You have me to thank for your safety. I have given good advice, have I not?"

Toctamish eyed him dubiously. He did not feel oversure of safety. Khlit, however, whispered to him. Rashideddin was not the man to play with them if he desired their death. It might be that the astrologer's words were in good faith—Khlit learned later that the latter never troubled to lie—and if so they would gain nothing and lose much by staying where they were.

So it happened that both warriors sheathed their swords with apparent good grace and followed Iba Kabash who led them through empty rooms until they came out on a balcony overlooking the banquet-place of Alamut. And Khlit was little prepared for what he saw now.

The warm wind touched their faces again. Iba Kabash pointed up. In the center of the lofty ceiling of the place a square opening let in the starlight. A crescent moon added to the light which threw a silver sheen over the great floor of the hall. Toctamish grunted in surprise.

At first it seemed as if they were looking on the camp of an army from a hillside. Dozens of fires smoldered on the floor below them, and a hundred oil lamps sprinkled the intervening space. About the lamps men were lying, around small tables on which fruit, wine and dishes massed. A buzz of voices echoed down the hall, and Khlit was reminded of bees stirring about the surface of a hive.

The sound of eating and drinking drowned the noise of voices. Along the stone balcony where they stood other tables were placed with lamps. Numerous dark figures carried food and drink to these n and carried away the refuse left at other tables.

"Slaves," said the Kurd, "captives of the Refik. Let us find a table and eat. It is a lucky night that I met you, for I shall go into the paradise of Alamut."

Khlit paid little attention to the last phrase. Later, he was to remember it. Being very hungry he sat down with Toctamish at a convenient table and took some of the bread and roasted meat which he found there. Toctamish was less restrained, and gulped down everything with zest.

As he ate Khlit considered his companions, and the banquet-place. All of them, he noticed, seemed drowsy, as if drunk, or very gay. In the lamplight their faces showed white. They lay in heaps about the tables, sometimes one on the other.

To the Cossack drunkenness was no sin, yet there was something about the white faces and limp figures of the men that stirred his blood. And the smell of the place was unpleasant, a damp, musky odor seemed to rise from the hall under them, as of beasts. Piles of fruit lay rotting about the floor.

"It is time," chattered the Kurd, who was sipping at a goblet of wine, "Halen ibn Shaddah showed himself. He comes to the banquet-place every night, and we drink to him. Drink, Khlit—are not Cossacks born with a grape in their mouths? You are lucky to be alive, for Rashideddin is a viper without mercy."

"Who is this Rashideddin?" asked Khlit, setting down the wine, for it was not to his liking.

"Oh, he is the wise man of the arch-prophet—the master of Alamut. He knows more magic than all the Greeks and dervishes put together. He reads the stars, and tells our master when it is time to send out expeditions. They say he has servants in every city of the world. But I think he learns everything from the magic sands." Iba Kabash's tongue was out- tripping his wit. "There is nothing that goes on in Persia and Tartary that he does not see. How did he know you wore a cross?"

"He saw the chain at my neck, fool," retorted Khlit.

He began to feel strangely elated. He had had only a little wine, but his head was whirling and he had a curious languor in his limbs. The trouble extended to his eyes, for as he looked at the banquet-place, it seemed to have grown wider and lighter. He could see that Toctamish was half-unconscious.

Thus it was that Khlit, the Wolf, in the banquet-place of Alamut came under the influence of the strange evil that gripped the place. And came to know of the great wickedness, which set Alamut apart from the world, as with a curse.

Khlit, turning the situation over in his mind, saw that it was best to play the part he had taken on himself. He doubted if it were possible to escape past the guards by the river stairway, even if he could free himself from the guardianship of Iba Kabash. Rashideddin, he felt, had not left his visitors unwatched. Also, he was curious to see further of the strange world of Alamut, which was a riddle of which he had not found the key. He had seen a Tatar kill himself at a word from the astrologer, and Iba Kabash who was a man without honor, speak with awe of the master of Alamut. Who was Halen ibn Shaddah? And what was his power over the men of Alamut?

As it happened, it was not long before Khlit saw the man he was seeking, and whom he was sworn to kill. There came a pause in the murmur of talk and Iba Kabash clutched his shoulder.

"Look!" he whispered. "Here is Sheik Halen ibn Shaddah, who will choose those to go into paradise tonight. You are newcomers in Alamut and he may choose you, whereon I shall follow behind without being seen. Pray that his eye may fall on us, for few go to paradise."

Across the banquet-place, on the stone balcony, Khlit saw a group of torches. The bearers were Dais. In the center of the torches stood a tall man, dressed as the Dais except that he wore no turban, a cloak covering his head, drawn down so that nothing could be seen of his face. The sheik's houlders were very broad and the hands that rested on his girdle were heavy.

As Khlit watched, Halen ibn Shaddah moved along the balcony among the eaters. On the banquet floor a murmur grew into a shout—

"Blessed be he that has unmade all laws; who is master of the akd; chief of chief, prophet of prophets, sheik of sheiks; who holds the keys of the gate of paradise."

Iba Kabash shouted as if in ecstacy, rising on his knees and beating his palms together, as the group of the sheik came nearer them. Once or twice Khlit saw Halen ibn Shaddah beckon to a man who rose hastily and followed the Dais. Iba Kabash, he thought, was drunk, yet not in a fashion known to Cossacks. Khlit himself felt drowsy, although clear in mind. He saw that the noise had wakened Toctamish who was swaying on his haunches and muttering.

Halen ibn Shaddah stood over them, and Khlit thought that one of the Dais whispered to him. The Cossack had fastened his gaze greedily on the cloaked face, for he wished to see the face of the master of Alamut. He could make out only a round, dark countenance, and eyes that showed much white. Vaguely he remembered that he had seen others who had faces like that, but he could not think who they were. The sight of Halen ibn Shaddah affected him like the foul smell of the banquet-place and the rat-eyes of Iba Kabash. Halen ibn Shaddah beckoned to him and Toctamish.

Khlit supported his companion to his feet, but found that the wine had taken away all his own strength. Hands, belonging, he suspected to slaves, helped him after the white figures of the Dais. They passed from the banquet-place through passages that he could see only dimly. The torch-light vanished, and there came a silence, which was broken by music, very sweet. Khlit's head was swimming strangely, and he felt himself moving forward through darkness. Darkness in which the music echoed, being repeated softly as he had heard the voices repeated when they first came into the passages of Alamut.