The Thief and the Hidden Citadel
by Ross Smeltzer
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Al-Ukbari recruited a cadre of robbers, housebreakers, and assassins to assist him in the sacking of the stronghold of Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb. He selected only the choicest representatives of these vocations.
Some were men of violence: practiced thugs, goons, and butchers. He recruited a sahib ba’j, so-named for his special talents as a disemboweler; and a sahib radkh, so-named because he often accompanied lone travelers on their journeys, waiting for them to prostrate themselves in prayer to come upon them and clobber them with smoothed stones selected for this murderous purpose.
He also enlisted men of cunning, including one who advertised himself as the prince of camel thieves. This man’s methods were known throughout Bukhara. It was said that he released containers filled with hungry, biting camel ticks on the outskirts of encampments he came upon in the desert. The creatures, greedy for blood, would scatter the camels, allowing the prince to abduct the frightened beasts with ease. He always carried with him a jar filled with oil-dregs, hair clippings, and straw; this he fed to any watchdogs he encountered, for the mixture clogged their teeth and jammed up their jaws, rendering them mute.
Finally, he procured the services of a dark-hued Maratha from distant Karnataka who assured Al-Ukbari he could scale the wall of any fortress, delivering it to its besiegers with ease. This man, who was nameless, claimed he did this by tying strong ropes to the body of a giant monitor lizard and sending it crawling to the top of a fortress’s ramparts. The animal, powerful and adept at scaling sheer rock, could drag its human cargo up any fortress wall and deposit him atop it, giving him access to its interior.
Al-Ukbari was skeptical of this man’s claims, but was so pleased by his inventiveness that he admitted him into his expedition. It was easy to find talented, ingenious men such as these in the labyrinths of Bukhara. A city with such men in it could not be regarded as truly enchanted.
Al-Ukbari and his confederates remained in Bukhara long enough to gather their weapons and the instruments of their various unwholesome professions. All were animated by the prospect of treasure.
The band of thieves, backstabbers, and rogues left the city on a dark morning. Clouds, pregnant with rain, hung heavily over the desert beyond its gates. Exiting the city, Al-Ukbari felt just as he did when he entered the Ark: crushed. He felt as though he were being compressed by a great weight. The desert had been his refuge. Now, he felt the paralysis of civilization even among the dunes.
The thieves rode towards the south and east, quickly surpassing the Emir’s dominion. Villages grew scarcer, and the roads grew thinner with every mile the bandits traveled. Eventually, the roads wasted away and were eaten by the sand.
Soon the bandits spied the heights of the Hisor Mountains, grey and sullen against the turquoise sky. They were nearing the bastion of the conceited merchant. They were keen to humble him.
They arrived at the foothills of the mountains just as the sun was beginning its daily descent. There, nestled among the lesser peaks and virtually indivisible from them, was a fortress. It was just as the Emir described: the color of bone that had been left to bleach in the desert. Its walls were high and studded with rounded turrets that thrust skyward like boar tusks. The colossal fortress was girt by elephantine towers, each of which was a mountain of pillars, arcades, and shapely arches.
Al-Ukbari could identify but a single entrance to the fortress, with two tigers on its fascia. These decorations, commemorative of Ali, were supposed to ward off all who would beset the fortress. The prominent bastion above the gate, with its many gleaming guns, was a surer way of frightening away would-be attackers.
The forts and caravansaries that Al-Ukbari was accustomed to despoiling could not be compared with the structure before him. He felt as if it were glowering at him. The fear he had begun to feel as he left Bukhara was amplified by his nearness to the white fortress of the mysterious Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb.
“Let us wait a while before we attempt our attack,” Al-Ukbari whispered to his compatriots. “Darkness will obscure us from the merchant’s servants, who doubtless patrol those walls.” The men around him agreed. Al-Ukbari was comforted by their evident timidity. The boasts each had made during their journey had been forgotten.
The men dismounted from their horses and camels and made a shabby encampment in the long shadow of the merchant’s fortress. Each sharpened his swords and knives, loaded his pistols, and inventoried his tools. They performed these tasks in silence. Wind howled in the mountains above them.
Night came quickly, and Al-Ukbari assembled his men. He detailed an audacious plan to storm the fort. His men were contented by his cunning. Their daring, momentarily subdued, returned. They smiled and laughed again, their conceit restored.
Al-Ukbari led the thieves towards the fort. It grew as they approached, swelling until it negated the sky. In the indigo of early evening it gleamed less brilliantly and looked like the grey mountains surrounding it.
When the thieves reached its base, they began to play their parts in Al-Ukbari’s plan. The dark Maratha warrior exhumed his monstrous, wart-covered ghorpad from a sack. He tied the animal to his waist and encouraged it to ascend the fortress’s steep wall. It did so eagerly. Its sharp claws sank into the stone as if it were soft dough. It heaved its human cargo up the face of the wall, pausing but a few times to recuperate from its exertions.
The men, crouching at the base of the wall, eventually lost sight of the man from the south and his brutish reptile. They waited in silence, eyeing the fortress’s gate.
After a time, it opened. The Maratha strode out. He had removed his helmet and looked puzzled. “The fortress is unguarded,” he shouted. “This gate was not even bolted shut. I have seen neither men nor evidence of their presence inside the fortress. We have no need of schemes or designs or weapons.”
Al-Ukbari and his accomplices stood and timidly walked towards the fortress’s gate.
“You are sure it is unguarded?” Al-Ukbari asked.
“Yes, I am certain of it,” the Maratha said slowly. “It is abandoned, I think.”
Al-Ukbari could perceive the men’s sense of dejection; he shared it with them. He had promised them riches. They would now leave this forsaken place with their avarice unsated. Fearful of their wrath, Al-Ukbari shouted, “We will scour this place. Each man may keep what he finds.”
Al-Ukbari’s men entered the fortress and were confronted by its unnerving starkness. It appeared complete, and yet all observable signs of human inhabitation were absent. The fortress’s entrance led into a vast but barren courtyard; neither grasses nor weeds grew in the slender runnels between the stones that made up its floor.
There was a single building in the interior courtyard: a squat, windowless, circular tower. It could be accessed through a single portal. The men meandered towards it. They laughed and joked with one another, their voices amplified by the silence in merchant’s fortress. The growling wind in the nearby mountains was muted in the fortress’s interior, muzzled by some unseen enchantment.
The thieves entered the circular tower, expecting to find little but eager to be dazzled by treasures forgotten by the haughty Haj Hussain Amin al-Zarb.
They stepped onto a stone landing overlooking a cavernous chamber. The great room was far vaster than Bukhara or any other city Al-Ukbari had ever seen. It was like the desert: ever-growing and boundless. At the edges of the vast panorama before them, Al-Ukbari and his men perceived immense walls that receded into a black and hazy void.
The vaulted ceiling of the space was untouchable as the blue firmament. It was pierced by numberless diamond-shaped oculi that allowed long shafts of concentrated moonlight to illuminate the space below, exposing countless rooms, courts, and galleries, and the winding, bewildering halls that connected them to one another.
The space — not a chamber at all, but a dense labyrinth — was a web of stone and marble. Great towers and spiraling staircases that dwarfed the divinely-sanctioned minarets of Bukhara thrust upward from the floor and disappeared into the murk between the chamber and the ceiling above.
Awe and dread merged in the breasts of the thieves. They lit torches and dispersed. Each man remained intent on pillage, and none wished to discover the treasures that surely resided in the labyrinth of the merchant — most certainly a man whose mind was diseased or warped — while in the company of his fellows.
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Copyright © 2014 by Ross Smeltzer