And so they set forth with their great train of red, snarling camels and little patient donkeys and slender, nervous horses toward the rising sun. Behind them the green hills of Palestine died out as a rainbow dies out, and now there was sand before them and now bleak mountains, and by day the wind was swift and hot and by night it was black and cold. And moons were born and died. . .
And they passed through the land of the King of Armenia, and they passed Ararat, the mountain where Noah brought his ark to anchor, and where it still is, and where it can be seen still, but cannot be reached, so cold and high and terrible is that mountain.
And they passed ruined Babel, that was built of Nimrod, the first king of the world, and now is desolation. They passed it on a waning moon. And out of the ruins the dragons came and hissed at them, and strange, obscene birds flapped their wings in the air and cawed and pecked at them, and over the desert the satyr called unto her mate. . .
And they passed through the Kingdom of Georgia, whose kings are born with the mark of an eagle on their right shoulder. They passed through Persia, where the magicians worship fire. And they passed through the city of Saba, where sleep the three magi who came to worship at Bethlehem, and their names were Kaspar, Balthlasar, and Melchior.
And they passed through Camadi, where great ruins are and robbers roam through the magical darkness. And they passed northward of the Perilous Valley, where the Devil's Head is in black stone, and that is one of the nine entrances to hell; and passed the Valley of the Cockadrills, where there are serpents five fathoms in length; and passed the Valley of Cruel Women, who have precious stones in place of eyes. . .
And they went through the Dismal Desert, where no stream sang. . .
And in the desert they passed the Trees of the Sun and Moon, which speak with the voices of men. And it was from the Speaking Tree that Alexander heard of his death. And it was near there that he and Darius fought. And they passed the Arbre Sec, the Dry Tree, which has a green bark on one side and white on the other, and there are no trees within a hundred miles of that tree, and it is sprung from the staff of Adam.
And they passed through Balkh, the Mother of Cities. And they passed through Tailian, where the great salt mountains are. And they passed through Badashan, where the mountains of the rubies are. And they passed through Kashmir, whose women are very beautiful, and whose magicians weave the strongest spells in the world. . .
And moons were born and died. . .
And they came to Alamoot, the fortess of Senex de Monte, the Old Man of the Mountain, the King of the Assassins, the greatest wizard of all time. . .
Now this is the tale of the Old Man the Mountain.
Whenever within his dominions there was a fine young horseman, the Old Man would put a spell on him and draw him to the Castle of Alamoot, and outside of the castle sleep would come on him. And when he woke up, he would be inside the castle, in the wonderful gardens. And they'd tell him he was dead and in paradise. And paradise it would be for him what with the lovely women and the great playing on the flutes, the birds singing, and the sun shining, the crystal rivers and the flowers of the world. And after a while the Old Man of the Mountain would call for him, and tell him he was sending him back on earth again on a mission to punish Such-and-Such. And the Old Man would put sleep on him and a knife in his hand, and when he woke he would be outside the Castle of Alamoot. And he would start on his mission. And when he came back he would be readmitted to paradise. And if he didn't come back, there were others to take his place.
The Old Man of the Mountain always kept one hundred and one assassins and four hundred and four women to tend them.
Now when the caravan of the Polos had come to rest for the day, the Old Man of the Mountain put out white, not black magic, and he drew Marco Polo to the castle as a magnet draws a needle. And Marco Polo galloped up to the Castle in the waning moon, and the Old Man looked down on him from the battlements and stroked his long white beard.
"Do you know me, Marco Polo?"
"I know you and I have no fear of you, Old Man of the Mountain."
"And why have you no fear of me, Marco Polo?"
"Because the cross of the Lord Jesus is between me and harm. Because it protects me night and day."
"I know Eesa ben-Miriam," said the Old Man. "He was a great prophet. But whether he would have protected you from me, we will differ about that. I've often thought of you, Marco Polo, and you coming this way. I could have used you in my work of keeping the kings and chieftains of the world in fear and subjection."
"Then why am n't I in your garden, Old Man of the Mountain?"
"The four most beautiful women in the world are in my garden. There is a tall, black-haired woman, and she is fairer and more adroit than Lilith, who was before Eve; and there is a tall, blond woman, and she is like a queen; and there is a slim, copper-colored woman, and she is like an idol in a shrine; and there is a little brown-haired woman, and she is like a child. But none of those women could make you believe you were in paradise while there's a face in your heart. Not the cross of the Lord Jesus is between you and me, but the face of little Golden Bells of China."
"But I am not going to China to woo Golden Bells, Old Man of the Mountain. I am going to convert the men of Cathay."
The Old Man of the Mountain laughed and stroked his beard.
"You had a sermon from Gregory before you came away. Did he tell you you were to convert the men of Cathay?"
"He did not."
"Ali, Gregory's a sound man. He knew you can't make saints in a day. Why, child, I've seen the beginning of the world, and I've seen the end of it. I've seen the beginning in a crystal glass, and I've seen the end in a pool of ink in a slave's hand. I've seen mankind begin lower nor the gibbering ape, and I've seen them end the shining sons of God. Millions on millions on millions of years, multiplied unto dizziness, crawling, infinitesimal work overcoming nature, overcoming themselves, overcoming the princes of the powers of darkness, one of whom I am. But this is too deep for you, Marco Polo.
"Now you can go on your way without hindrance from me, Marco Polo, because of the memory of an old time, when the courting of a woman was more to me than the killing of a man, when beauty meant more nor power.
"Let you be on your way, Marco Polo, while I sit here a lonely old man, with wee, soft ghosts whispering to him. Let you be hastening on your way before I remember I am a prince of the powers of darkness and should do you harm. . .
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