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"SEEK I but oblivion for a day," said the wise man, "so shorten I the stature of my soul!" But men have sought oblivion since time immemorial, from many things, more notably against fear. In the year 1220 A.D., fear hung over Islam like a naked sword—fear of the thunder of the hoof beats of the hordes of Genghis Khan, poised like an avalanche in the passes leading down from High Asia.

And men were seeking oblivion, in the Shah's city of Merv, when the first rays of the morning sun came weakly through the arrow slits of the room, high in the north tower of the citadel. It strove with the murky rays of the lamps, even now guttering.

All night the flutes had whispered lasciviously, the zithers strummed and the heady little drum had throbbed forth, while the dancing girls swayed and twisted with a rhythmic jangle of golden bracelets and turquoise studded anklets, keeping time with smooth, ?owing, muscular undulations until men's eyes gleamed. Now the girls were curled up, asleep, exhausted, but the wine still flowed freely, despite the admonitions of the Prophet, for Omar the poet made more wisdom, to the minds of the Governor and his boon companions.

These were awake, save the two delicate-faced and feminine mannered Persian youths from Bokhara, who breathed gently in slumber. The fumes of wine were heavy in the heads of Nas'r, the singer of bawdy songs, and Ferruk, the dissolute son of a holy kaid, and Ayub, whom the dancing girls hated for his cruel hands and his love for the pain they inflicted upon them.

The friend and patron of these boon companions, the magnificently humorous Emir Maudud, Governor, by grace of the Shah Muhammad, of the white walled city of Merv, in the sands, was furnishing fresh sport for them.

It had to do with the ministrations of Maudud's huge, impassive executioner, who squatted by his brazier, with the tools of his craft spread neatly on a square of linen beside him and expertly drew another groan from the writhing lips of the nomad merchant, bound upon the floor. It was a matter of serious business for Maudud, short in his accounts for the tax moneys he was required to turn over to his public master, the Shah, short, as well, in his annual contribution to the coffers of his secret master, the dread Ala ad-Din Muhammad, known to the world at large, including the Crusaders, as the "Sheykh el Jabal," the "Old Man of the Mountains," and the Master of the Assassins.

The nomad merchant, bound upon the floor, were he but properly induced, could go far to make up some of those shortages, for the fellow had sold the cargo of his camel caravan in the bazaars of Merv but had refused to pay more than the lawful tax to the rapacious minions of the Governor.

The legal aspects of the matter bothered Maudud not one whit, for was not the nomad an idolater, an infidel, and thereby outside the laws of Islam? and, moreover, being a nomad, from beyond the Gate, there was always the chance that he might be a spy of that strange nomad chieftain, Genghis Khan, now but a small cloud on the horizon of Islam.

It was typical of Maudud, possessing as he did the culture of his Persian mbther and the cruelty and rapacity of his Seljuk Turk father, that he should quote the golden verses of a Persian poet as he watched the writhings of the nomad.

Nas'r and Ferruk giggled drunkenly as he recited the stately couplets, the merchant moaned in pain and then fainted suddenly, sighing and going limp. Maudud raised annoyed eyebrows and dipped his hands in a bowl of water on which floated rose leaves, wiping them on a square of fine linen.

There came a knocking on the door to the anteroom, and the Governor looked up sharply, wondering at the portent of a message so important as to permit any to dare disturb him at his hours of relaxation, but gave Command to open.

THE narrow door swung back in its deep aperture and the light of a swing lamp in the anteroom cast into Sudden high relief the damascened helmet and silvered coat of mail of a Kankali Turk of the inner guard, his drawn scimitar borne upright, showing that he was on duty. There was, he reported, a messenger with important tidings, who demanded instant admittance, and the sentry waited, his eyes flaring at sight of the sprawled forms of the sleeping dancing girls.

"Admit him!" ordered Maudud. There came then, soft footed dressed in white khalat and red boots, a travel stained young Persian, who showed, half concealed in his hand, a square of greasy Moslem bread. Resting on its surface were two small, crossed sticks. At sight of this, Maudud shook his lassitude from him like a cloak, waved the Seljuk Turk of the Guard out, and went into the anteroom closing the door behind him. Not until they were alone together did the messenger start to speak:

"Peace upon thy house, O most excellent Dawi!1" whispered the Stranger softly.

1: Prior to the secret order of the Assassins. --Author's Note.

"And upon thee, peace . . ." returned Maudud.

". . . . I am sent by One . . ." said the Persian and then paused.

". . . . aided by God!" Meudud completed the phrase.

". . . . the Master of the World . . ." the Persian continued.

". . . . breaks the Chains of the Law!" Maudud made swift response.

". . . . Salute to his Name!" they intoned together, completing the ritual greeting of the secret sect of the Chosen Ones.

"Thou hast a message for me?" asked Maudud, his fingers curling and uncurling, striving to keep the anxiety from out of his voice.

"An urgent message . . . from Alamut, the castle of the Master . . . he sends word that passing there, in time to reach Merv tomorrow, was a Nazarene knight, with a small force of men-at-arms, that this Nazarene knight is an ambassador that hath been sent to the Khalif of Baghdad by the nomad chieftain calling himself Genghis Khan, and is now returning to report to the nomad Chieftain beyond the Gate. The Master sends thee his greetings and commands, saying that thou wilt halt this Nazarene; and exact from him, by torture if need be, the import of the message he hath carried from Genghis Khan to the Khalif of Baghdad!"

Maudud breathed a sigh of relief—he had been expecting the dread summons to render instantly his overdue contribution to the coffers of the Order—or suffer the consequences, which could be swift and terrible.

"Give, O noble Fedawi, my homage to the Master of the World!" said he, "and tell him that to hear is to obey and that in all things I am his slave!"

"There are yet more of the commands of the Master," said the Fedawi tonelessly. Maudud drew in his breath. "It concerns the mutter of the overdue payment to the treasury of the Order . . ." went on the relentless voice, "the Master bids me tell thee that he hath already suggested to thee the means whereby that contribution can be met and surpassed. . . ."

"I know, I know . . . the seizure of the wealth of the Sheykh Saleh ibn Khalil . . ." fine beads of sweat broke out on the forehead of the Governor of Merv. Such was the discipline of the Order that the young Fedawi before him might very well be judge—and executioner—and even now the young Persian's hand rested within the folds of his khalat where the two sharp daggers of the Fedawi were invariably carried.

"The matter is more difficult than appears on the surface," Maudud spoke rapidly, "tell the Master that I have striven diligently, first, to locate the treasure, for there is considerable doubt whether the old man has it here in Merv, and secondly, to devise means to take it from the Sheykh without too much outcry being made by the rabble of Merv, for the Sheykh is esteemed as an exceedingly holyman, and noted for his charity to the poor. Also," he added hurriedly as the eyes of the young Persian grew bleak, "there is the matter of complaint being made to the Shah Muhammad, at whose court the Sheykh hath powerful connections . . . a matter which requires some circumspection . . ."

THE young Persian, his face still impassive glanced upward, avoiding Maudud's eyes.

"These things have already been considered by the Master," he stated coldly. "As to the matter of the location of the treasure, he reminds thee that some slight activity of thy torturer could extract this knowledge; as to the rabble of Merv, the Master bids thee depend upon thy force of soldiery to keep it in order; and as for the matter of any possible outcry at the Shah's court, the Master bids me remind thee that Timur al Molok, the Shah's Wazir, is a Dawi-el-kirbal (a Grand Prior), one of the three men of power in the Order, and can be depended upon to forestall any trouble from the Shah's court . . ."

Maudud nodded, moodily, staring at the rug at his feet. The young Persian went on:

"The Master commands me to tell thee that he expects his orders to be carried out in regard to the Sheykh and his wealth before the setting of the new moon of Shawwul, ten days hence . . ." and without further word, the Fedawi turned and was gone, silent and soft footed as he had come.

"Insh' Allah! but they set me hard tasks!" Maudud muttered gloomily in his beard, and then, after some reflection, sent for his major-domo, and ordered that his retinue be moved to his country house, a few hours' ride from the city, and on the road on which the Nazarene knight would appear enroute to Merv.

For it had occurred to Maudud that the seizure of an ambassador was also a serious business and might better be done away from the many prying eyes and wagging tongues of the city.


CHAPTER II

FAR to the south stretched the Black Sands of the Kara-Kum desert, and nestling on its edge, not three hours from the Shah's walled city of Merv, was the tiny village of Karun, in whose inn men also sought oblivion this night. The more respectable of the villagers, Persian artificers, for the most part, from Ispahan, had long since gone to sleep, but light shone from the village tavern, a red gleam of fire from the brazier that underwent intermittent eclipse as the ample form of the Armenian innkeeper revolved about it bent on his tasks.

An ox hide had been laid on the rugs and upon it there were placed such delicacies as roasted almonds, which supported and flanked white cheese and bread and skewers of kebab, mutton roasted with laurel leaves, but crowning the feast were the baggalis, the glass flasks of brandy, flasks designedly flat, thereby enabling a true believer, mindful of the behests of the Prophet, to hide them under arm and carry them home without exciting the vulgar curiosity of the rabble.

The innkeeper even brought out candles, impelled thereto by the gold dirhem carelessly thrown to him by young Ghulam-Hosain, a personage not ordinarily given to the throwing about of gold dirhems, let alone their lawful possession. In fact up to this evening, the young louti, or brave, had been far more noticeable for the avidity with which he shared the bounty of others than for any largesse of his own. Sharing that largesse were two of his boon companions, swaggering young bravos like himself; also a mullah, of the kind not favorably regarded by the more devout clergy, who could be, with the proper inspiration, induced to issue marriage licenses for a period of twenty-four hours or less; plus two Kurdish tribesmen of evil mien; also a ferrash-bashi, a head servant of the Governor of Merv, the Emir Maudud, and therefore a man of high standing in the community, and lastly, a stranger to the village, but not, as was evident a stranger to young Ghulam-Hosain, a high cheek boned, boney faced nomad out of the North, from above the Sungarian Gate, whence from time immemorial hordes of his nomad ancestors had descended to erupt on the plains.

They had eaten and drunk quietly, and the talk was polite and lofty in tone as was to be expected from such distinguished company, save for one of the Kurds who sang sad songs through his nose.

It was the ferrash-bashi who had broken the momentous news.

"Excellencies, since my eyes are gladdened by beholding so many illustrious faces, I feel impelled to impart to you a secret known only to myself and the head steward . . ." here he paused and looked around the assemblage.

"The magnificence of Your Excellency's condescension fills me with transports of wonder!" exclaimed one of the camel men, dreamy eyed.

"May Allah requite you for your indulgence!" returned the ferrash-bashi somewhat acidly, "know you, then, that my illustrious master, the Emir Maudud, the Governor of Merv, upon whose name be praise, arrives today for a sojourn of several days, to rest and recuperate in his country house from the cares of state."

"Ma sha' Allah! Can this be true!" appropriate interjections of wonder went up from the assembled guests, all except Ghulam-Hosain, who assumed a supercilious air. The innkeeper beamed and added two more baggalis to replace the emptied ones, rubbing his hands at thought of the trade which would be brought by the large entourage of the Governor.

"May Allah punish me if I deviate a hair's breadth from the truth!" continued the ferrash-bashi, "he comes with his favorite wife Zobeide, with musicians and dancers to entertain his officers and guests, and our silent residence will resound once more with merriment and feasting. . . ."

YOUNG Ghulam-Hosain had the effrontery to interrupt at this point. "Yes, Your Highness, granted all that, but it will be the village who pays for it . . ." he stated arrogantly. The eyes of the assemblage, all save those of the nomad from beyond the Gate, turned on him in astonishment. The ferrash-bashi gasped, and stared haughtily at the forward youth.

"The wisdom of a young man is like a bird without a nest!" the jerrash-bashi stated. "The small tax my master exacts from the village protects it from the grasping hand of the Governor of the Province . . . and even that is more than repaid to the village in purchase of food, fruit, and provender for man and beast when he honors us with his presence at the Great House."

"The illustrious ferrash-bashi speaks truly," interposed the mullah placatingly, remembering his duty both to distant higher authority and to present host, "we could have a much worse master than his magnificence, the Governor of Merv, upon whose name be praise!"

"New masters are what we need!" Ghulam-Hosain retorted loudly, "Men who will let us be our own masters . . . men like those in the country of my friend Tuyuk the Torgut here, where everything is held in common, horses, women, weapons, money, and everyone shares alike and no man goes without . . ."

The ferrash-bashi was plainly scandalized to the point of stunned silence. It was the mullah who again attempted to pour oil on the troubled waters, one eye on the unfinished kebab and, the bottles, foreseeing a quarrel that would inevitably end in the ejection of all by the innkeeper and the ending of the feasting. He spoke in measured tones as befitted his calling:

"It is, of course, well known that all empires are ruled by thorough rascals," admitted the mullah. "To kill them all would be but simple justice but to what avail? Worse rascals would succeed them. Glory be to God, who for reasons beyond our comprehension hath ordained that the wicked and the stupid should rule the world. "But," he added, "this is a matter wherein we of this village are blessed above all other people in that we have a kind patron such as your illustrious master," he turned to the ferrash-bashi who had by this time recovered power of speech, but also looked upon the unfinished meats and drinks and considered his reply carefully:

"The words of your Holiness are illumined with singular truth," he inclined his head to the mullah, "and while your friend, O Ghulam-Hosain, from beyond the Gate, may find happiness in sharing and sharing alike with all, it should be asked . . . what has he to share? a tent, and a horse and a goatskin? It is easy to share and share alike when two beggars have but a crust between them . . . but I ask you, who among us would be willing to share his women with all and sundry?" he looked triumphantly about the circle. This was a staggering thought, which cast each and everyone into deep silence save one of the camel men, who put his head upon his hands and wept bitterly at the very thought.

The ferrash-bashi let this grave idea sink in before he moved to switch the conversation to less argumentative channels. Placing his finger on his nose, he leaned forward impressively and spoke:

"But before this disquisition by my learned young friend, Ghulam-Hosain, I had other news of singular potency to impart to this noble company." Everyone looked up, except the camel man who still sobbed.

"Know you then, that my illustrious master, the Governor, comes here for more reasons than a simple rest from the cares of state—as a matter of fact he comes here on matters of vast moment. This I had from Jamal, the chief steward, who had it from Mahound, his cousin, the ferrash-bashi of the Governor's household in Merv, who had it from Safed, the Governor's pishkedmet (personal valet), that the Governor, may his name be glorified! comes hero to halt no less a personage than an ambassador from Genghis Khan, returning from a mission to the Khalif of Baghdad!"

"Ma sh'Allah!" men exclaimed, a babble of talk broke out at this news.

"And you say, Excellency, that this ambassador is doomed to be halted by your illustrious master, the Governor?"

"Aye, and mayhap doomed to worse than that!" the ferrash-bashi hinted at vast mystery, and the guests shivered deliciously, at thus being privy to so great an affair of state. The ferrash-bashi waited for the babble a little to subside and then leaned forward, impressively.

"The strange thing," he stated, "concerning this ambassador is the fact that he is no Mongol but a Nazarene knight, born in Al Kuds (Jerusalem), but nevertheless high in the favor of Genghis Khan . . ." but the ferrash-bashi could go no further such was the hubbub of talk that broke forth.

ONLY the nomad from beyond the Gate, Tuyuk the Torgut, maintained his impassive calm, bending however to speak low-voiced to young Ghulam-Hosain, who thereafter paid the score to the innkeeper and departed quietly, with his strange friend, leaving his guests almost unaware of his going.

"But," questioned the ferrash-bashi, privily removing the last bottle of raki from under the questing hand of one of the camel men, and sharing it with the mullah, "the wonder is not where Gholam-Hosain gets his ideas, which have always been tinged with s touch of madness such as only an afflicted of Allah could surpass, but where he got his gold to nay for this feast?"

The same question had been asked by the Young man's parents to whom, like a good son, the young man had given another gold dirhem, which quite obviously had already been spent when he arrived home near daylight.

There he found his worthy parents with the remnants of a bottle of raki and broken meats and sweets before them. His father was enraptured, playing the rebeck, his mother enthusiastically accompanying him on the tambourine, the two of them singing, loudly:

"My true love, like a vine
My heart and soul entwine . . ."

but ended this at last to announce that they were intoxicated with rapture at his return.

"Tell me, my soul! Tell me my darling, whence came this gold that you have so generously given us, tell your mother, my precious!"

Ghulam-Hosain affected an air of world weariness, wiping -his brow as one overburdened with affairs of immense import.

"'That I cannot do, O my Mother!" he announced, "but there is more gold . . . and today I go to Merv on important State business . . . more I cannot tell!"

His father asked no questions but gratefully took the two gold dirhems handed him. His mother looked at him tenderly.

"You will be appointed an atabeg!" she announced with utmost conviction.

"Or the Governor of a Province!" insisted his father.

Ghulam-Hosain thought it not unlikely, but his present task, which had already brought him ten gold dirhems, would yield another ten once he hied himself to Merv, found out the number of Kankali and Seljuk Turks garrisoning that city, made report to a certain one concerning the reputed arrival of the Nazarene ambassador of Genghis Khan, and returned to the village of Karun.


CHAPTER III

A CLUMP of steel clad men, coming along the road that led from Baghdad, rode steadily toward the village of Karun. Herdsmen and villagers stared at them agape, for they were a strange sight on the borders of Persia, being for the most part fair skinned and blue eyed. Their dark, oiled chain mail was stouter and stronger, if less beautifully made than that of Islam, and they wore upon their surcoats the cross of the Nazarenes.

In the column of Nazarene warriors the men-at-arms, as usual, were grumbling. The desert road was long and hot, their steel caps were hung on the saddle bows but the metal links of their chain mail coifs and shirts were hot to the touch and heavy.

"I'd as lief ha' stayed with John o'Brienne at Damietta, and ta'en my chances with the Mamelukes," growled the heavily thewed, black bearded Thomas Little, so named for the size of him, which was prodigious.

". . . to lead another battle of camp followers against the infidels?" inquired Will the Bowman, referring to what time Thomas, after the siege of Damietta on the Nile was surprised by a Moslem sortie in a house outside the city walls and led the six women camp followers successfully against the attackers.

"Le roi des putains!" jibed Pierre, the French man-at-arms, riding on his near side.

"King of the camp followers yourself!" retorted Peter Lacknose, so named because a Moslem scimitar had sheered off that member at the taking of the Tower of the Chains at Damietta, "never yet was a Frenchie who wouldn't rather battle with a bottle of wine and a girl than with the Saracens—I mind me when we finished fighting the Saracens at Damietta we had to fight the Frenchies to get the girls away from them!"

"Forte en la bataille et forte en l'amour, les Francais!" insisted Pierre, serene.

"Ho! . . ." the lank, dour faced Wat o' Lincoln made heavy ribald play on the words and a roar of laughter went up, with even harsh Diccon, the Sergeant-at-Arms, chuckling in his heard, and young Brian de Lacey, the slim esquire of the Sieur Josselin, bending over his saddle bow in laughter.

Baldwin de Berg, the stout knight with the black cross of the order of the Hospitallers embroidered on his wool surcoat, who rode at the left of the Sieur Josselin, turned in the saddle to inquire the cause of the laughter, looking like a great tun of wine but forebore a smile when it was repeated to him, by Jock the Jongleur, Baldwin's own man, it being Baldwin's custom to laugh at no joke save of his own making.

The Sieur Josselin's rather grim young face twitched as he heard the joke and turning in the saddle he called back to Pierre:

"Be of good cheer, Pierre, battle and love, love and battle, it takes prowess in both to make the perfect soldier-'tis a pity we could not combine Wat o' Lincoln and Jock into one such type . . ."

A deep chuckle went up from the men, in this allusion to Wat who had married a virago of a Flemish wife who was reputed to beat him with her slipper on occasion, and to Jock the Jonslour, adept with song and the cooking pots, and a notorious trifler with women but liable to a certain diffidence in putting himself forward where the sword clash rang most loudly.

They learned this what time the Kurdish marauders galloped down upon them on the borders of the Kara Kum, the Black Sands, not two days since. The little Cavalcade looked like easy pickings to the hard faced Kurds, their eyes gleaming with avarice, their yataghans flashing behind their round shields, but the men-at-arms met them with a steady creek and twang of crossbows, the steel quarrels thudding so emphatically into .Kurdish men and horses that the nomads drew back, only to be beset by the Sieur Josselin and the clump of steel-clad men in a grim charge that scattered the interlopers. It was while despatching the wounded, stripping the slain, and recovering the steel quarrels, that Jock had joined them from the sumpter mules. The others had cursed. him heartily but he was in no wise abashed, It was the first time they had seen the knight Baldwin de Berg in action and they forgave Jock much because of the prowess of his master who wrought like a veritable Trojan, smiting the foe with his Danish axe to the tune of his ear splitting battle cry.

THEY also forgave Jock when he took charge of the cooking pots and concocted a savory stew out of their usual, tasteless, plain boiled mutton.

It was Jock who told them of his long captivity, with his master, among the Arabs and their escape at last to wander night and hide by day until they espied the Sieur Josselin de Beaufort's small clump of lances and threw themselves on his mercy and his store of provisioning, electing to cast their lot with him, with little curiosity expressed as to his mission in High Asia.

Sieur Josselin's men themselves knew little of this mission.

For there was dissension in Islam, between the Khalif of Baghdad, still wearing the black veil and the mantle of the Prophet upon him, and the Khalif of Cairo, that Cairo which Mohammedans called "El Kahira," the Guarded. "The Mark of the Beast," said orthodox Moslems, "is upon her," and reviled the Fatimite sect which had its fountain head on the Nile. And here in the west, the Shah Muhammed of Kharesm ruled over ancient Persia and far outer Turkestan, threatening his neighbors to the east. Along the shores of Palestine, the Christian knights held insecure tenure by the grace of the divisions in Islam. And ready to conquer those warring Islamic elements was a power greater than them all, the Mongol Horde, commended by that shrewd warrior, Genghis Khan, who called himself Master of Men and Khe. Khan, Ruler of Rulers.

But the men-at-arms, riding along that dusty road recked little of these affairs. It sufficed for Josselin's men that the young knight was a good leader who cared for man and horse and held them all to account in severe but kindly fashion, and wrought mightily in battle.

"He was the first knight to o'er leap the rampart of the Tower of the Chain at Damietta," explained Thomas Little, "and the first man of all the army up the ladder when Damietta was stormed, clearing the Moslems single handed, out of the gate tower, himself slaying a. score of them, which afterwards the jongleurs made into a song and sang around the campfires. 'Twas for this that King John sent him on this mission, to go to High Asia and solicit the aid of Genghis Khan against the Saracens. And for his sagacity that Genghis Khan sent him as ambassador to the Khalif of Baghdad. . . ."

"He is sober of mien and grim visaged, that young knight of thine," commented Jock the Jongleur.

"And so wouldst be thyself had thine eyes seen as he hath seen, his father, a baron of Jerusalem, treacherously slain by the Turks, and his mother die of sorrow, and himself captured and held for ransom by the Arabs when he was yet a lad. It was in part to seek for the slayers of his father that he accepted this mission, being set upon avenging that slaying when he can find the guilty one."

Jock the Jongleur shook his head forebodingly.

"He would do better to have as little to do with the Turks as ever he can encompass—treacherous devils and their memories are as sharp as their daggers."

"The Sieur Josselin is a fit match for them, be they man or devil," stated Thomas confidently, but broke off as he saw a stir at the head of the little column.

Young Brian de Lacey, the esquire, had ridden upon on the Sieur Josselin's left hand, handing him, in turn, steel helmet with its nasal; the ten foot ash spear with its pennon of the three leopards rampant on a field azure; and lastly, the tall, kite-shaped shield. Jock the Jongleur rode rapidly forw...

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