Authors: Chaz Brenchley
'It'll go out.' The protest was not to save herself, only that she feared to lose the fire; she'd give her hands gladly, if that was all that was asked of her. Why not? She'd given one man already, and might yet have to give the other; what was a pair of scorched hands, after that?
'No. I can keep it now, but you must hold it. It will burn where I tell it to burn, and what; I'll have it burning stone soon, and gladly. I won't let it feed on you, but the heat of it will hurt.'
She nodded. Heat did hurt. Many pretty things hurt, she thought, if you came too close, but some you had to cradle.
'Be ready now, let me just speak to it a minute
And Elisande did speak to the fire, though she didn't know the language; and she thought it brightened, whitened, stiffened under just the impact of her voice.
'Now, Julianne. Scoop with your hands right underneath, it doesn't matter if you pick up soil too, but don't leave any of the fire behind, don't let it scatter . . .'
It didn't want to scatter now, though it was made so scanty. It felt as though she picked up a bulb, something light but solid.
Light and solid and hot. Damp earth and grass was cool only for a moment against her skin; then it began to steam beneath the smoke. Anywhere else, any time else she would just have dropped whatever it was that she carried, before her palms could blister. Here and now she set her teeth and tightened her grip and followed Elisande.
Who seemed to her to walk deliberately slowly, but perhaps that was again ritual and required, like a priest in a temple, pacing to his own bloods beat; or else it simply helped her friend to keep her mind in focus. Julianne could focus too, on something other than her searing hands. All she had to do was lift her head and look across the water, to where men were fighting for their lives, where her man had done that thing and lost, and lay neglected. That was a burning focus, and a sharper pain than any she could feel in her body. Let her flesh blister and scar; she'd wear it as a reminder, every time she reached or touched or gripped a thing, that once she'd been twice married and had lost the first and sweeter, lost her boy
She'd never seen the virtue in sacrifice, never understood the priests when they told her that suffering ennobled. She thought that was a pap they sold to the poor, to anyone who truly suffered. And she still didn't feel noble, what she felt was pain, pure and meaningless, but that in itself was a virtue, a strengthening, a gift. She could do this, she could carry a thing that was too hot to carry; which being true, she could also certainly bear a thing that was too heavy and too hard to bear. Or else turn it around, look out at the seething mass of black and the men who struggled to keep their feet within it; look in vain for Imber's body and she could do that, she could endure the loss of him twice over. Which being so, she could undoubtedly endure this simple and uncomplicated pain, she could cany this fire for Elisande who so much needed her to do it.
She could, she did. To the first cairn, and let a segment of the bulb-fire fall away between her fingers when Elisande sang to it; wait and watch while it spread out across the little heap of stone and flourished, sprang to more vigorous life.
And so on to the second, thinking that she could smell her palms begin to cook, though Elisande had promised that the fire wouldn't actually consume her.
To the third, and she thought her bones were steel, and glowing, and shining through her skin; she thought her joints were locked and solid, she couldn't drop the fire now if she had chosen to, she'd have claws for hands for ever.
To the fourth, and she couldn't see the river's banks now, couldn't hear the water. Elisande had to guide her, a hand on her rigid arm to push her forward, a tug to stop. She couldn't anneal her spirit further by turning from pain to grief and back to pain again; her greedy body had seized her, wrapped her in itself and in its agony, so that she could barely remember her husbands' names and not think at all about them. That part of her which was grateful for this was very small indeed, and very deeply buried. She might hope to have it rise later, she might seek to dig it out with frantic, buckled fingers; for now, all she could do was gasp.
She had to trust that fire flowed across the fourth cairn and flourished there; she could not see, could not stand to look. She twisted in a hobbled dance, too racked to be still, too breathless to scream; all she could think was to throw herself into the river if only she could find it. Distantly, though, she felt someone grip her wrists, which would prevent her. Faintly, faintly she heard a voice, 'Oh, sweet, your poor hands! Its all done now, all over, trust me now
And there was a cooling somehow within her surely blackened, surely shrivelled flesh, a soothing from the inside out, which seemed all wrong but welcome none the less; and following close on that healing touch there was a wordless whisper in her head, a voiceless song that eased her dizzy mind, calmed her breathing, laid her down in damp sweet grass—
—And would have sung her to sleep in another moment, except that she understood herself and it that precious moment too sooi} for Elisande, and just in time for her. She forced her eyes to open and stared up into her friend's, bare inches away and just where she had thought to find them; said, 'Don't do that, Elisande. I don't want to sleep, I want to see.'
'Nothing to see, precious, nothing that matters. I've numbed them, and started the healing process; they need salves now, but not till they've been cleaned and it's too soon for that, even if we had the necessaries. Let them rest, don't look
'Not my hands,' she said, she explained with terrible patience. T can't feel my hands.'
t feel anything—
but that was a lie, even though she didn't say it. She only wanted it to be true. T want to see what you do; and I want to see what's happening.' North and south, to her Imber and her Hasan and all men else, and Elisande's precious Surayon also.
'Oh. Unh. All right, then, sit up and be good. And still don't look at your hands, keep them in your sleeves. Promise? Or I'll knot them there
She made the promise carelessly, literally not caring. What need any beauty in her hands, after today? She might have trouble naming any use for hands at all, except to hold a dagger one last time.
She might stop being so self-pitying, or so dramatic. The war was not yet lost; time to think about escaping the 'ifrit when it was clear, when it was certain that she needed to.
Elisande helped her into a sitting position, with a bare stub of rock to lean against.
'It'll pass. So will time. You'd best get on with your show, sweetheart.'
Elisande shook her head, denying the implication,
you're wasting what's most valuable, frittering it on me.
'I had to break a while, to let myself calm down. Nothing's more calming than a little
Nothing was more exhausting by the look of her, vast eyes in a bloodless face, a tremble in her fingers where they still touched and fussed over Julianne. She was in no condition to make a major working — but there was no one else able to do it. Julianne still felt a residue of the
virtue inside herself, rewoken perhaps by Elisande's healing touch; she wished, she yearned to have a way to share it with her friend. Or give it her completely, that was better.
'Elisande, if there's any way you can draw strength from me to help you, it
s yours, just take it.'
A smile that was almost closer to a death's-head grimace, and, 'What, after I've spent so much of myself to keep you fit for life, shall I drain you of it now? Against everything that I was ever taught, and all that I believe in? Shall I throw that all to waste, and you along with it?'
Why not, where you would throw yourself to waste? I am half wasted already.
'You must, if you need it. For all these lives
"Well, if I must, I will.'
It should have been the sort of thing one says to a fretful convalescent, but it was not
. Julianne believed her implicitl
y. To have the chance at least to save so many lives, to save something at least of her beloved country - yes, she thought Elisande would spend herself unsparingly, and if she needed more she would spend her friend alongside. Not willingly, perhaps, but she would do it.
If she needed to. Perhaps she wouldn't. Julianne had a great respect for Elisande's endurance. That one kept going where men and lesser mortals fell and failed. Imber had fallen, Hasan might fail yet; it seemed as though only Fulke would be triumphant, and that spelled failure for all of Surayon. And still she thought that Elisande would endure. Outcast and homeless, what was indomitable in her would sustain the rest; and if nothing else, she would have Julianne at her side for company. That was predetermined. Widow and orphan, together they could chase a myth of rest over all the world, and never pine to catch it
If, if, if. Even the djinn could not see that future, there was too much death in the picture to give it any semblance of the truth. For now Julianne was helpless, fuel to her friend's fire if needed, and nothing more. She settled herself more comfortably against her rock, cradled her hands unfelt, unseen within the long charred sleeves of her robe, and set herself to watch.
four cairns were flaring brightl
y, beacons of white
unnatural flame: a fire that fed on stone, to a girl's encouragement. Elisande walked across to the first, on the northern bank; she thrust her hands deep into the light - Julianne gasped, but why? why should Elisande spare herself, who had not stinted to use her friend? — and drew it out in strands and cables, ropes of shine that flexed and flowed and seemed to live between her fingers.
Elisande gathered them all into a hank between her hands, and flung them high and far.
For a moment they hung, and Julianne feared that they might fall back, that all her friend's strength might prove not to be enough; or else that the wind would catch and scatter them, they'd fall into the water and be dragged to loss. If light could be flung, it could be dragged also, she thought, and to its own destruction.
Those weaves, those plaits and cords of light hung and twisted, turning contrary to the wind, seeming to quest rather than drift. Then they stretched themselves across the river in a high arc, sprung and vibrant like bent sword-blades, steel under tension. White-hot steel was what they looked like, and Julianne knew how that felt in the hand, but the Princip lifted both his big hands and caught hold of those intangible cables as they came to him, as they seemed to seek him out. And knelt, and plunged them into the earth; and they held there, binding bank to bank in a fiery and impossible, an impassable bridge that would do no mortal man any good at all, she thought.
Elisande left it thus and turned to the south, to Julianne's own father. As she went by, Julianne glanced at her hands and saw no hint of burning, not so much as a reddening of the skin. It had been live fire in her own hands, a natural and wild thing; now she supposed it was something other, cool to the touch as it burned stone, something that could be gripped and moulded and spun and not burn anyone who touched it. Which would be why Julianne had had to carry it, she supposed, because Elisande needed nimble fingers for this as well as a dreadful concentration.
The same dabbling of those fingers in the fierce light, the same strands drawn out, flung up with the same force; they found the Kings Shadow ready to receive them, and even ropes of light in his hands could not dispel the shadows that Julianne had always seen clinging around her father.
Now the island was poised at the centre of a double arch, like the grip of a recurved bow such as they used in Marasson; like a strung bow, it seemed almost to vibrate with possibilities.
Elisande went to the east and to the west, one after the other; and there when she had woven her glittering cables she flung them high and far again, only that this time there was no land, no waiting hand to catch them. Only the rivers rush, and Julianne had been afraid of that.
No need. Again the ribbons and streamers of light stiffened and arched, and plunged down. This time, rather than rooting in the earth with a man
s hands to guide them, they wove themselves into the waters turbulence, so that from her raised rock Julianne could see bright threads amid the dark river, running down and down and out of sight. She turned her head when Elisande went the other way, and saw the light flow upstream with the
same ease, the same high disre
It felt then as though the island were no longer fixed to the river's bed, but hung rather from these white wires, quivering with a quick anticipation. Even the rock that Julianne leaned against seemed to tremble beneath her weight. The river's noise couldn't actually be quieter, but she had to strain to hear it, as though a muffling blanket had fallen all around.
Not only the river's sound was muffled. Julianne was watching Elisande, of course, as she returned to the centre of the island; it was a snag of movement in the corner of her eye that turned her attention to the southern bank. Her father had sword in hand now and he was battling with a sudden rush of those black serpents. As he killed them they faded, like 'ifrit; but there were so many of them, and they came on and on, and how many could one man kill before they overwhelmed him