Authors: Chaz Brenchley
The flood had not reached so high; neither had the men of the house come up here since, to tramp wet mud from dirty feet across the gritty floor. The only signs to be read had been left, must have been left by those she hunted: her enemy, her friend.
'Look,' she said to Sherett, who held a lamp above and behind her, where she crouched low on stone. 'A bare footmark here, the touch of a robe against the opposite wall there; neither one has had the time to dry. He brought her this way, and not so long ago.'
. 'We are all of us barefoot,' the older woman said mildly enough, 'ou
r feet and robes are wet. A restl
ess man, a thinking man - a hungry man perhaps, looking to see what food might have been stored here and forgotten?'
'There is none - and after that feast, who could be hungry? Besides, this is not mud.' She had it on her finger now, a little of the dark damp stain she'd found and followed from mark to scattered mark. She sniffed it, nodded, held her hand high. 'Taste.'
Sherett did that, touching tongue to fingers tip. 'Blood
she said. 'Julianne's?'
Elisande managed a smile, slightl
y, as perhaps she had been meant to. 'Even I don't know the girl that well. She can't be dead,'
'or why would he carry her body away? He left the guards he killed. This is their blood, I think, he must be marked with it.'
And you can taste their bodies if you want to, to compare. Not
'He might have left her somewhere else, there is no sign that she is with him
'He carries her, across one shoulder. Why else would the one side of his robe brush the floor, the other not? Her weight drags at him.' She was a big girl, Julianne. By Elisande's standards, at least, she was big: little shorter, little lighter than Morakh who had taken her. He was all desert, that one, all bone and leather and no water in him: bone and leather and black spite to match his black robe. Elisande would like to find a black thread to prove it, but he must be the abductor. The men who'd watched at Julianne's door had second mouths for throats; their bodies had been wrapped before Elisande had seen them, but she'd heard the talk and seen the broad stains on the passage floor. Morakh had killed others that way, swift and silent. Besides, who but a Dancer could race two alert companions and surprise them both, get behind each in turn?
She'd been with Sherett when the news reached the women's quarters, a message sent from Hasan,
no more than that. No more had been needed. They'd left goblets of
heretically unfinished, had gathered up their skirts and run through the crusting mud on the valley floor to the house of the Beni Rus. There they'd found a mill of men in the hallway, furious and aimless, weapons drawn and voices raised. In the Sands, Elisande had thought as she squeezed her way through in the larger woman's wake, in the Sands they'd have been more cautious; they would not have wasted their anger so. All that water, and a hopeless fight survived: relief and wet feet had made them slippery of discipline. She'd have thought them wedding-night drunk, except that the Sharai did not drink alcohol.
There had been more order on the upper floor, but still no direction. Even Hasan had been pacing, to and fro across his carpets. Juliannes bride-gifts had been scattered from their tray; of Julianne herself, no trace remained.
Sherett had been quick, sensible, controlled. Only her eyes had given her away, and those briefly, before she fixed them on her husband and called him sharply to himself.
'Hasan. What has happened here - a thief?'
'She has not run away. Not this time. Two men are dead, the Dancer's work
'I saw. If you don't calm those headhot fools below, they'll forget the Dancer and blame the Saren or the Kauram, anyone they can see. Then there'll be war here in Rhabat, and that will consume us all. You go down, go now. Organise the men, search the valley, lo
ok for camel-tracks beyond. Point
less, I think, but do it, put them to work. Send messages abroad, if any mount of ours survived the flood: your wife is stolen from you, no Dancer should be trusted. Anything, but keep them from fighting the tribes
He'd looked as though he wanted to fight the tribes himself, all of them at once and by himself; but even this outrage, even the loss of Julianne hadn't been able to take his
for long from his greater goal. A tribal war would destroy any hope of the war he sought, perhaps for another generation or longer, his chance lost. He'd nodded, turned, stridden away.
Sherett had fingered the scattered jewellery, stooped to retrieve a piece or two, said, 'These must be counted and checked, to see if Morakh has stolen aught else but our sister. Not now, though. Let the men search below; they will make a lot of noise, and find nothing. You and I, Elisande, we will search above
Elisande had been thinking that there was nothing but solid rock overhead, that Hasans chamber stood at the height of the house. She'd been mistaken, forgetful: there were corridors that climbed higher yet, leading to store-rooms that were little used, ultimately to a great cistern where rainwater from the occasional storms could be collected against a future need. A complex web of channels had been cut through the rock, to draw it down from the plateau above; she knew that, she should have remembered. Only yesterday she'd fetched water herself from the cistern in the women's quarters. Why was she, why was everybody being so
All of those drains were wide and high enough to accommodate a man, if barely. They must be, necessarily, or how else were they cut? Elisande had squirmed through a few in her time, following giggling friends. And Morakh was a small man, no spare flesh on his body. He could likely contrive to make his way through to the air. How he would do so cumbered with an unconscious girl, Elisande couldn't guess, but there was certainly no other escape up here, no other point in the climb.
Morakh had left few marks, but marks there were, enough to make a trail. It did lead past the store-rooms to the far end of the passage, to the cistern. The
air was cool and damp; Sherett’
s lamplight showed her a low roof above a dark, still pool. The water looked deep, and chilly. She suppressed a shiver as she gazed about. The cistern was encompassed by a narrow walkway; to left and right, it was overhung by spouts carved from the rock of the walls. Above each spout was black emptiness, where the light could not penetrate. An agile man could haul himself up, a strong man no doubt could boost a girl so high; a thin man could insinuate himself into either of those channels. Could he drag a girl behind him? Well, perhaps
Where a thin man and a tall girl could go, so could a skinny short girl. She thought about that, and shivered again. Looked lower, to see if she could find that trail again, and found her eye caught by the water.
And laughed, a little shrilly perhaps, and said, 'Esren.'
A shimmer in the lamplight, an intricate coil of air as fine as her friends hair plaited; the djinni was there at her word. 'Lisan.'
'I think you will know where Julianne has been taken.' It was a quick-learned habit, almost second nature now not to ask questions.
'You are right.'
'Go after her, and fetch her back. If you had to slay the Sand Dancer to achieve it, I would not much mind that.'
'Neither would I; but I may not do it.'
That was a surprise, but
don't ask why not!
'Well, so long as you restore my friend to me, that one can die later.' At her dagger's point, for preference.
*I meant that I may not do what you require. The daughter of the King's Shadow must seek help from otherwhere.'
Elisande gaped. Her mouth moved soundlessly for a moment; no need for Sherett's urgent hand on her arm, she had no questions to ask. Then, slowly finding words, finding an almost-anger to drive them, she said, 'Spirit, you swore to obey me —'
'I swore to come when you called me and to act at your command. That is not necessarily to say that I would obey your commands.'
Was it not? Well, perhaps not; but the difference was as fine as a single one of Julianne's hairs, and should have been as easy to snap except that Elisande had a question now,
why will you not obey me in this, as you have whatever I asked before?
and it burned so brightly in her head, so hotly on her tongue that she could think of no way not to ask it.
And then had no need to ask, because the djinni offered her an answer regardless. 'Lisan, close your eyes.'
Starded, she did so; and heard its thin voice again, 'Tell me what you see.'
'Nothing. A darkness
'Show it to me.'
'I cannot!' Her eyes snapped open again, glaring.
'No. It is neither day nor night, it has no existence outside your own mind; and yet you see it, it is there. Similarly, I cannot walk in the place where the Sand Dancer has taken the Shadow's daughter. He took her from here to the plateau above; but now they are not quite in this world, nor yet in the land of the djinn.'
'I don't understand.'
'You have seen how the Sand Dancers can move when they choose, unseen from one place to another
'Yes.' They flicked in and out of view, they were here and then they were there without seeming to cross the ground between; but, 'Only short distances, though, only moments of time,' only just long enough to pass from one man to another and be behind each of them in turn, convenient to cut their throats.
'Yes. The effort costs them, and they grow uncertain of finding their way back to the world, if they linger. This one is half-mad, though, and knows he will be hunted. He has risked much to seize the Shadows daughter; he is risking more to keep her.'
It was the risk to Julianne that concerned Elisande. She said, 'I still don't understand where they are, that you cannot reach them.'
'You know of four directions in your world, north and south, west and east. Conceive of a fifth that has no name, that stands an equal distance from each
That made sense to her, suddenly. 'I k
now of this; it is how we have f
olded my land, out of the reach of our neighbours. But the djinn can visit us in Surayon, when they choose to.'
'Indeed. Surayon exists where it always has, within its borders, and we can find it there. The border, though, where the shift is active - neither human nor spirit can find that. The Dancer Folds the land as he goes, and he walks within the crease. As long as he does so, he is beyond me.'
Elisande still found it hard to credit, she'd grown so used to djinni omniscience. Djinni honesty, though, was an article of faith; Esren would not, could not lie. So she gave one more glance to the darkness of the narrow rain-channels, and felt a shudder of relief that she need not claw her way through those in pursuit of her friend. Then she thought suddenly of Julianne's being trapped within a worse darkness, sucked helpless into the space behind her eyes. Dizzy and confused perhaps, terrified certainly
'Esren, wherever they are now, they must be heading somewhere, Morakh must have an ambition in this world. However mad he is, he must come back to what is solid,'
he must bring Julianne back,
'and you can surely see where he will touch ground again.'
'Perhaps; though I have been long detached from the spirit-weft, and my vision is uncertain.'
'If we get closer, you may see more clearly. They went to the plateau, you said. Take me there, Esren. Quickly, before the men get so far.'
She felt herself swept up and almost closed her eyes again, against the expected swirl of dark as Esren opened some strange pathway to the stars. Except that she was afraid of that particular darkness now behind her lids, and so she held them wide; and so she saw the rush of Sherett's lamp and the racing shadows of the passage beyond as she was carried back, all the way back to Hasan's chamber. She saw a blur of startled, bearded faces, his men, the man himself.
No time to speak to him, to any. She was carried out of the open window, into the night and up, high above the narrow valley. Briefly she did have time to think how Julianne would have hated this hellride, and yet to yearn hopelessly to have that girl beside her, and to wonder what use a djinni was if it could not bring her the miracle she sought. Then the broad stretch of the plateau lay below her, blacklit by a blaze of stars.
Before the men get so far,
she'd said, because this was her hunt, she'd thought, and hers alone; even Hasan had less claim than her. She'd been too slow, though, despite her urgency. One man stood alone, a shadow on the bare rock; her mind caught hold of the word,
a Shadow indeed
and she whispered, 'Esren, set me down. With him.'
It was strange, how she seemed constantly to forget about Julianne's father, constantly to discount one of the most powerful men in Outremer and so constantly to be surprised by him. Or else it was not so strange, because he was such a self-effacing man in many ways, he seemed almost to discount himself until he was needed or felt an urge to intervene; and then again it was perhaps not strange at all, because a girl could get into the habit of discounting fathers altogether. It was a hard thing to remember that some mattered, and to their daughters too.