1029 AD

Ghazni, Afghanistan

To the Hindus, this mountain range was known as Paariyaatra Parvat. But the last Hindu king of Kabul was killed three years earlier. Muslims ruled this land now, and they called these mountains the Hindu Kush -- "Slaughter of the Hindus".

For thirty years, Mahmud the Great, Sultan of Ghazni, had spilled blood in the Hindu Kush, and through the Khyber Pass he had raided northern India no less than seventeen times, slaughtering and enslaving hundreds of thousands.

When someone came to Ghazni from the plains of India below the Khyber Pass, it was to spill Muslim blood....

He was a tyrant, a fanatic, one of history's greatest conquerors. He was known as "The Sword of Islam" and "The Image Breaker." But Mahmud al-Din ibn-Subuktigin, the son of a Turkish slave, was also old. He had brought culture and immeasurable wealth to Ghazni -- the temples of India had yielded immense riches and countless slaves. His court hosted Arab scholars and Persian poets, his capital was a center of learning and culture second only to Baghdad. Now his conquests were over, and soon Allah would call him to paradise, leaving his son Masud to rule in his place.

He was entitled to enjoy his pleasures. Such as his harem of beautiful Hindu slavegirls. Tonight he called for one to be sent to him, and she arrived, eyes modestly downcast, ankle bracelets jingling, wrapped in silken veils. She moved across the room to the reclining Sultan with a sinuous grace that aroused him in a way he had not felt for years. Reaching his couch, she raised her eyes briefly, and he sensed that she was smiling beneath her veil. His tongue ran over his lips in anticipation as she raised her arms and began swaying, turning around and around, in a dance that somehow managed to highlight every silk-draped curve of her body in turn.

He never even saw the sword until it was too late. Where could she have hidden it?

"Do you remember, oh Image Breaker?" the Hindu woman hissed. Her knee had landed between his legs when she lunged forward to crouch over him, and his eyes were glazed over with pain. All the air had gone out of his lungs when she landed on him, and it took him several long, agonizing moments before he could breathe again. He realized she had a sword pointed at his throat.

"Remember...what?" he gasped, as she tore off her veil and glared at him with unspeakable hatred.

She leaned forward, until her body was pressed against his, her face inches from his beard, and she was smiling, all while holding the blade steadily at his throat.

"It was in Gujarat," she said, "when I first laid eyes on you, Conqueror. You raided the city on my wedding day. My betrothed was Prince Prithvi Rai."

Mahmud was old, but he was not feeble. Both remembrance and fire leapt back into his eyes.

"I remember Prithvi Rai," he said. "I had him beheaded because his father had betrayed me when we attacked Delhi. He promised support, but instead tried to ambush my forces. That was almost thirty years ago. You were not even born then, woman!"

"Do you remember what you did to me?" she asked conversationally, ignoring his last statement. When he did not answer, she let her fingertips brush against his cheek as she said "You ordered me strangled to death, slowly."

Mahmud's voice came in a strangled gasp from his throat. "The woman Prithvi Rai was to marry.... She came onto one of my generals, with fluttering eyelashes and a suggestive gait, and then she planted a dagger in his groin. And smiled while he fell to the ground screaming. She was evil..."

"You should have cut my head off too," she said. "Instead you had a cord slowly, slowly tightened around my neck, so I would be aware of all the things your men were doing to me while I died." She took her hand away from his face, ran it along the blade that was held over his throat, and showed him the deep, bloody gash running the length of her palm. He watched in horrified fascination as the bleeding stopped and the wound disappeared. "You cannot imagine how many times you Muslims will pay for your mistake." She sat up slowly. "I was there at Somnath, when you destroyed our greatest temple, killed our Brahmans, when you smashed the idol of Shiva with your mace, and had hundreds of temple prostitutes sent back to Ghazni as slaves."

"You didn't know I was one of them. I have memorized every room and corridor of your palace. I have listened from hidden places as you discussed strategy with your advisors. I have intercepted letters from Damascus, Persia and Iran and made copies. I know all your weaknesses, Mahmud who-thinks-himself-Great."

Mahmud the Great stared at her, and then bared his teeth. "And you tell me this why, witch? To gloat before you kill me? It does not matter, for I am a servant of Allah and you are an idolatrous whore and you will burn in hell!"

She laughed and rose. "When I first came here, I planned to kill you. But now I see that you will die soon anyway, so instead I will make your dying days unpleasant and horror-filled as you made my dying hours. I know you have enemies, Conqueror, and I have many secrets to give them. I know you dote on your son, and I will make his life unbearable, for you never know when or how I shall return. I am immortal, you shriveled old man, and though your name may be remembered forever, I will _live_ forever! I prayed for vengeance as your men strangled me, and the gods heard my prayer and brought me back from the dead! I will be a curse on your descendants for as long as Muslims dwell in Hindu lands. I will not rest until every Mohammedan has been driven out of Hindustan, and the suffering you inflicted on me will be passed on a thousand times over. I will be a friend to your enemies, until the Hindu Kush is known as the Muslimun Kush."

She wove her way across the great Sultan's chamber, saying over her shoulder "Do not bother calling for your guards, I have already left you a token of my appreciation for what you did to me."

Long after she was gone, Mahmud of Ghazni emerged from his quarters, and walked the halls of his palace. Along the corridor to his harem, he found one guard after another lying in a pool of blood next to his own severed head.

Trembling, he opened the doors to the women's quarters, and smelled blood and heard silence.

Every wife, every slave, and every nursing infant and toddler was dead. >From the way many of them lay in bed or on the floor, reclined casually even in death, most had apparently been killed as they slept, and a variety of wounds were evident -- some had their throats slit, some were stabbed through the heart, one baby had been crushed by a vicious kick. But every single woman and child had been decapitated during or after death. Dozens of severed heads littered the marble floors, staring at the Sultan of Ghazni.

She was intercepted, in the streets outside the palace. She felt the Quickening, and knew another immortal was here in Ghazni. It did not surprise her.

The man who approached, hand on his sword, was a Muslim. He looked at her in surprise, for she was still dressed like a harem girl, and he could see the Hindu markings on her face, as the sun was beginning to rise.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

"Muslimun Kush" she replied.

"Do not play games, girl," he snapped. His eyes widened slightly as she began to sway, holding his gaze with her own and smiling seductively. She raised her hands above her head, letting some of the sashes fall away from her body, and her hips swayed back and forth one way, her head weaving on her neck in a reverse pattern. The hypnotic undulations held his attention for several moments, then he said "Stop that--"

And she was gone.

He blinked. It was hard to focus his eyes. He still sensed the Quickening, but he could not see her. He drew his sword, but it was too late.

In his palace, Mahmud the Great roared for the guards outside, and for his generals, and for his son. As the servants who dwelled downstairs and had escaped the slaughter began answering his summons and scurrying in all directions to fetch reinforcements, the building commotion was drowned out for a moment by a peal of thunder. Everyone looked at the lightning flashing from a clear sky, and saw flames leaping from the streets outside the palace.

Eventually, soldiers and firefighters discovered in the wreckage the headless body of a newcomer to the Sultan's court, a learned warrior from Damascus who was tutoring Masud in swordsmanship. No one but Mahmud ever knew who might have killed him, in the pre-dawn streets of Ghazni.

(Mahmud of Ghazni, the iconoclast and desecrator, died in 1030. His son Masud continued his rule, but the Ghaznavid dynasty shrank over the next century, plagued by revolts, assassinations and treachery. The Ghori tribe, a rival group of Afghan Turks, had managed to maintain their autonomy despite supposedly having been conquered by Mahmud, and in 1150, they sacked Ghazni, reducing many of its grand buildings to rubble, and destroying the Ghaznavid dynasty for once and for all. Ironically enough, Muhammad Ghori would then go on to conquer more of northern India than Mahmud ever did, replacing temples with mosques and slaughtering thousands of Hindus and Buddhists in the name of Islam. He was assassinated in 1206 AD.....)

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