Authors: Chaz Brenchley
Small groups and clusters of dark-robed men swirled around darker streams, 'ifrit where they issued forth like stains against the green. Even the hottest heads among the Sharai had the sense to stand off at first, to let their bowmen shoot; even Julianne couldn't see the arrows strike and fail, strike and fall. She could see the momentary dismay among the riders, though, the way they checked their mounts, glanced from side to side, watched each other watching them. She didn't need to see, could have foreseen with her eyes closed the necessary sequel: the spears and scimitars lifted and the voices lifted higher, the mounts urged forward against their terror and the tribes' charge against demonseed, against all good sense or understanding.
It was courage flung down like a banner underfoot to ride across, a bridge into disaster; it was an idiot made of honour. Precious few heroes would survive to show their scars and make their boasts around the fires in years to come. They rode in screaming, and she thought she could hear their screams on the breeze, though it surely should have been a storm to contain so much passion, so much fury; they learned quickly that there were other ways to scream, and other causes for it.
The trouble was, of course, that the Sharai travelled with no tame imams; that they scorned imams, indeed, as much as the imams of the Catari scorned and feared them. A holy man might be given passage through the tribal lands, he might be made as much - or as little - welcome as law and custom and the sheikhs demanded, but he would seldom be asked to bless their endeavours and never invited to ride alongside the warriors.
So never mind all Hasans warnings and wisdom of last night, never mind their own experience of spirits in the Sands; the Sharai had precious few weapons that were blessed and potent, and no one able to work that minor miracle for them.
They might as well have thrown stones from a distance, and charged with willow-wands for sword and spear. No matter how well-aimed the arrow, unless it struck an eye it would glance off uselessly, and they must needs be close to shoot so well from horseback. By the time they got that close, any man of the Sharai wanted his scimitar in his hand; arrows were for hunting, not for war.
So they wasted their arrows from too far off, and then they charged; and few of them came close enough even to batter at impervious shells with blades that had no cutting edge for this. They rode into a hedge of claws and jaws, of piercing and tearing, of death dressed
a dozen sharp arrays.
The lucky were shamed by their horsemanship, or by their camels' training; their mounts bolted before they came in reach of the 'ifrit, and they were carried a long way towards humiliating safety by animals that simply could not be ridden back.
Hasan, of course, was not lucky, not so lucky as to be safe. Of course he had been given a horse; and of course the sheer ferocity of his will was enough to drive it through its fear, even where he was not enough recovered to have forced it with hand and heel. Followed by his own small knot of Beni Rus, who would blood their mounts with their own blades if need be to keep the animals in line, with his progress followed by every Sharai eye on the plain, Hasan led his tribe and all the tribes against the 'ifrit invaders.
'He knows that he must,' Julianne whispered, some part of her commentary to Elisande that was as little needed as the rest, and just as useful. 'They would charge, with or without him; they would never follow him again, if he did not lead them now. So of course he must. ..'
So of course he did, knowing that many behind him would die in this charge, and knowing that he himself was better equipped to live: not so much through a better horse or better skill with rein and stirrup and blade, as through the simple fact that his blade had been blessed, long since. He had slain 'ifrit before, and ought to have had little cause to fear for his own life. Julianne feared for him, though, very gready.
'Strike and run, that's how the Sharai fight; and if he only would
But he's forgotten all he ever knew, or else he's just too stubborn to live. See, his blade cuts, but one blow won't kill the creature, a monster like that, it needs hacking to pieces; and the man who rides at his back and strikes after him, useless, he might as well be a poppet with a sword of wood and silvering. And Hasan knows that; he's already turned and gone back, see, but his horse is so slow, he's having to fight it all the way; and the man's dead or he will be, there's no point in going back. But he will, he'll go back and back, and he can't guard himself for ever even with a blade that sharp. He was so sick only yesterday and he hasn't had
or if he had you weren't there to magic it for him
And she could hear the near-accusation in her own voice —
why weren't you there to magic it
for him, why here for Jemel and not there, or why didn't you do it last night in the palace when there was all the
in the world and all the time too and you could have made a demigod of him, so strong he could have led the world... ? -
and tried to choke the words back before she said them, too late to stop the feelings from showing through; and when Elisande said her name, 'Julianne,' in a dry dead voice she thought her friend only meant to quarrel with her, nothing more than that, a distraction from watching her husband die and another way to pass a dreadful time.
But she turned in any case, if only to demonstrate how utterly she was not going to quarrel; and Elisande pointed without words and without dramatics, just the gesture, nothing more.
Away to the south, from beyond the elbow where the valley turned, a party of Patrics was riding. They were approaching the river at an angle that would bring them to the bank almost opposite the girls on their island. They had scouts and outriders, they were military in their formation but certainly not Ransomers, nothing uniform in their dress and
sign of discipline in their riding; and they came at a pace that was too slow for soldiers with any real purpose in mind, somehow solemn and distraught both at once.
Among them, led by a man on foot with his head respectfully hooded, was a horse that might have seemed riderless on any other day, to other eyes than these; or it might have seemed to be simply burdened, carrying a sack of grain or a side of beef, perhaps, wrapped against the dust of its journey.
Wrapped and knotted tightl
y with a rope, tied firmly to the saddle of the horse; but it was too fine a horse to bear such burdens, gleaming white in the hazy light.
Elisande had recognised the horse. So too did Julianne. The two of them had spent a hot afternoon riding beside it, riding in disgrace and towards retribution, towards a marriage long ago.
Julianne, the Baroness von und zu Karlheim choked, and wheeled round; but that way there was nothing she could do but watch her other husband die, watch him give himself to death again and again, knowing that the gift would not and could not be spurned for ever. Besides, she was a married woman, twice-married and both to soldiers; she would not disgrace either the one who was somehow still miraculously living, nor the other. She should be embarrassed to have her friend see her turn to find a living man, when his comrades were bringing her the dead.
All unwittingly bringing him to her, she was sure, they could not know that she was here; nor would they have chosen to fetch him to her, if they did. More likely they were looking for help and hoped to find it, some way to cross the river to join with the Ransomers they knew to be on the northern road.
If they could see what had befallen the Ransomers, they would not be so eager. But they were coming, all innocence, they were bringing her Imber to her as Marron had brought his Jemel to Elisande. This time there was no help, no hope, neither one of them could give breath to the dead; if they could, they could not cross the river to achieve it.
That was suddenly somehow the worst of it, the greatest outrage: that fate or freak chance was bringing her boy dead to that bank there, bare yards away, and she was here and could not cross the water to receive him.
She cried out to Esren, to carry her across; the djinni did not come. Elisande tried, sharp and demanding, still with no response.
'Elisande, you have powers that I do not, that I don't even understand. Can you not - oh, build a bridge, raise the riverbed, still the waters into ice, something?'
Surely something or why else are you here?
'No, my love, none of those. I'm sorry.' She didn't sound sorry, only distracted; and went on, 'Julianne, Esren lied to me. No matter how it squirms this time, it did lie when it made that oath. It swore to come to my calling; it has not. But the djinn cannot lie, that's - that's inherent, fundamental, sewn into the fabric of the world
'Then the fabric of the world has a snag in it. But Esren was desperate, when it made the oath. And mad, I think. Perhaps it still is mad. And it had been cut off from, what does it say, the world-web for so long—'
'Weft, the spirit-weft.'
'—Yes, that. It says it's crippled, it still can't see the future as other djinn do. Perhaps it couldn't foresee that it would break that oath.' Though it had seemed to guess well enough in other matters, when it wanted to. She thought the simpler explanation was the truth, that it had simply lied. And if in that, in how much else, how often?
'Something else it said,' Elisande murmured, in a tone of wonder. 'Something else, that wasn't true either . . .'
'Well, what? And what of it?'
'Never mind for now, love. Don't make me say it, I don't want to listen to myself or I'll never believe it. Just let me think, let me work
There was war on the north bank, that much she could see -thanks to the
she could see very clearly - and she didn't want to. Every time she looked, every time she risked a peep she thought she'd find herself a widow entire, not the demi-widow that she was now. On the south bank, no war that she could find; only a funeral procession and an army in disarray,
they have lost
man, and they don't know what to do without him.
It was true, or it seemed to be. Some little distance behind the advance party that bore the body, a whole parade came trailing into view: all men, all mounted, with a great variety of weapons, it was undoubtedly an army but it seemed entirely purposeless, a snake without a head. It needed an enemy to fight, and a leader to command it
. Lacking both, it seemed spiritl
ess also, exhausted by its loss. And by whatever battle had brought him down, who had led them this far: many of those men were freshly wounded and ill-patched up, and there were empty saddles as well as other bodies. They all looked weary, and wary also, though it was the grass they watched as they rode over it, rather than the horizon where an enemy might lurk.
Julianne wanted to cry out to them, to warn them to beware of walls and water. She was quite pleased, quite relieved to find that she could still care that much; though it was a distant, detached sort of caring, nothing at all like the passion that was driving Elisande as she stamped about the island building little cairns of stone and gleaning tinder.
Julianne had passions of her own, but they were not rooted like her friend's. Perhaps she lacked depth, foundation. Perhaps that was why she could love two men at once, and both of them distincdy. She might have proved as fickle as her fears, and have loved neither one of them for long; other people might have cause to be grateful that they died before she could shame them. She might be grateful herself, in years to come. Not now. Now she saw her Imber's slack cortege, and could not bear it; she turned around, and saw a miracle.
Just for a moment she saw a hint, a glimmer of gold in the air and beneath the grass, as though an image of the djinn's world had been overlaid on this one. She saw a great shadow moving to obscure the gold, a mass of black that brought her nothing but despair; she thought it was another army of the 'ifrit, coming out of that world into this.
Then the gold was gone, not so much in an instant as in a succession of instants, like a line of bubbles bursting one after another; and there indeed was a host in black, but not 'ifrit. They were mounted Ransomers, and Marshal Fulke was at their head; on his saddle-bow was a great candle of twisted wax in black and white spirals, echoed by the spiral of the smoke that twisted up from the wicks of it.
Briefly, men and horses seemed confused; then the marshal stood in his stirrups, gazed about him, started calling orders back along the column of his army. Troops broke away as he directed them, charging towards the greatest concentrations of 'ifrit - which brought them also inevitably through the greatest concentrations of the Sharai.
Julianne saw black sweep past midnight blue without a pause, apparendy without a glance; she also saw the opposite, she saw black and midnight blue together in swift conversation.
The first time she saw a Ransomer spread his arms wide to encompass all the Sharai within his hearing,
up his head and voice - that was the first time today that she wondered if she were simply dreaming all of this, all the days disasters. Easier to believe that than this, that out of all of Outremer there was a man to be found in Ransomer dress who would call down blessings on the blades of the Sharai.