Open main menu


IX

IF IT was a dream, Khlit asked himself, why should he be able to taste the red wine that trinkled down his throat? Yet if it were not a dream, why should a torrent of the red wine issue from a rock? And sunlight burn on the red current, when Khlit was in the passages of Alamut, under the ground?

Truly, it must be a dream, he thought. It seemed that he was lying on his side near the flowing wine, with the sun warm on his face. Whenever he wanted to drink, he did not need to sit up, for he raised his hand and a girl with flowers around her head and breast came, and filled some vessel which she held out to him. Khlit was very thirsty and the wine was good.

The girl, he felt, sat by him, and her finger-nails and the soles of her bare feet were red. He had never seen such a maiden, for her hair also was red, and the sun glinted through it as she drew it across his face. Her hair must be perfumed, he thought, like the harlots of Samarkand, for it smelled very good.

The music came to his ears from time to time, and he snorted, for Khlit was no lover of soft sounds. Neither did he fully relish the wine, which was oversweet. He was well content to be in the sun, and too drowsy to wonder how it happened.

The dream, if it was that, changed, and Khlit was in a boat lying on some rugs. The boat was drifting along a canal. From time to time it would pass under a porcelain kiosk, tasselled and inlaid with ivory. From these kiosks girls laughed down at him and threw flowers. One of the tinted faces was like Berca's, and Khlit thought then it was surely a dream.

One other thing he remembered. It was in a grove of date trees where young boys ran, shouting, and pelted each other with fruit. In spite of the warmth and pleasantness, Khlit felt very tired. He was in the shade of one of the date trees with his sword across his knees. The music was very faint here, for which he was glad. He seemed very wakeful. The air was clear, and looking up he could see the sky, between jagged walls of stone. He had seen other walls of stone like these. That was when he and Toctamish had stood at the Shahrud looking up at the dog rock that was Alamut.

Even in the dream, Khlit felt ill. He saw the damsel of the red hair and flowers and beckoned to her, for he was thirsty. She ran away, probably at the sight of his sword. Khlit felt angry, for she had given him drink for what seemed many years.

Then he saw the gray-cloaked figure of Rashideddin, the astrologer of Alamut, beside him, and the white face stared at him until Khlit fidgeted. He heard Rashideddin speak, very faintly.

"Where art thou?"

Khlit was too tired to answer at first.

"I know not," he said finally.

"Thou art in paradise, and by favor of Halen ibn Shaddah. Do not forget."

Truly, Khlit had not forgotten. There were other things he remembered. Vistas of blue pools where dark-skinned men bathed, and date groves where bright-colored birds walked, dragging their tails on the ground. He saw girls pass, hand in hand, singing. And the music did not cease.

If it had been a dream, Khlit said to himself, how could the taste of the strange wine stick to his palate? Or the warmth of the sun be still burning on his skin? Nay, surely it must have been a dream. And the waking was disagreeable.

The place where he found himself on waking was dark, wet and smelled strongly f wine dregs. Khlit rose to his knees cautiously and felt about him with his hand. He could feel the outline of something round and moist on all sides except overhead. Also he came upon the body of a man lying by him, which he identified by its fur tunic and peaked helmet as Toctamish. The Tatar was snoring heavily.

"Wake, Flat-Face and son of an unclean animal," he growled, shaking him. "We are no longer in paradise. Devil take me, if it ain't a wine cask."

Toctamish roused at length and sat up reluctantly.

"Is it you, caphar?" he asked, stretching himself. "Many times have I been drunk as an ox, but never such as this. May the devil bite me, if there was ever such wine! Let us find some more."

"Then you have been dreaming, also," meditated Khlit. "Did you imagine that you saw Berca?"

"Berca? Nay, but she said that she would visit us here. That was no dream, caphar, for there was sunlight, and much feasting. Did Rashideddin tell you it was paradise? I met other Tatars there. They told me what it was."

"Were they also men who dishonored their god at Rashideddin's bidding? What said they concerning this paradise of yours?"

Toctamish snarled in anger, at the memory of the scene by the chessboard.

"You are one without brains, Cossack, and it is well that we are here alive. My companions said this: that all who came to Alamut were admitted to the paradise by Halen ibn Shaddah, if they were worthy. Then, if they were killed in the ranks of the Refik their souls returned to the paradise. That was a lie, for how can there be a soul in a man?"

Khlit said nothing. But he thought that he had found the key to the riddle. Halen ibn Shaddah's power lay in the lusts of his men. They looked on him, even so shrewd a man as Iba Kabash, as one who held the secret of paradise. And, although he did not know it, Khlit's thought had come near to the evil of Alamut, which was a plague spot on the face of the world.