Authors: Chaz Brenchley
But the djinni said, 'Do I need your permission to speak?' and there was a silence that was almost palpable, a shock of stillness that could have changed the world again, and Elisande was far from generous or grateful.
'No - but that was a question, djinni, and I have answered it.'
'Nothing matters,' the djinni said, 'further than this. Here, at this point, now. Stand and look, Lisan of the Dead Waters, and see what you have done.'
She had pulled living water out of the valley, unpicked it from the tapestry, joined two battlefields into one. Beyond where her grandfather and his old friend were fighting, there were riders coming: men driving frenzied horses past the edge of terror or exhaustion, men whose mounts would carry them now into the mouth of hell, would chase death till they caught it.
Men, Ransomers, who chanted prayers as they rode; Marshal Fulke led them with his hood thrown back and his pale cropped head like a summoning in the sunlight, like a beacon, bright against black robes.
They chanted prayers against evil, and they rode down the 'ifrit and hewed from the saddle as the creatures tried to flee, too late and surely knowing so. Fulke's own blade bit deep through chitin and into whatever served as heart or life's blood to a spirit in a mortal frame. Then, as the 'ifrit's body dissipated into dust, he turned his horse towards the Princip.
His voice was still murmuring, prayers to the God who had condemned this old man and all his land for heresy. His sword was in his hand, and his face was grim. Elisande gasped; Julianne wanted to scream. Specifically, she wanted to scream at her father.
Don't let him, you're the Kings Shadow, he has to listen to you. Stand in the way, if nothing else, push that stupid stubborn old man behind you
Elisande had seen her father die, in one brutal moment; now her grandfather stood in the same danger and under her eye again. If necessary, Julianne would push that stupid stubborn girl behind her, not to let her see; but she wasn't sure, she didn't know Fulke's mind, she couldn't read him.
Fulke kicked his horse forward, the King's Shadow stood like a shadow and did no more than the Princip, did nothing at all.
It was a slow ride, though, not a slaying speed. One man might kill another slowly, but not on a battlefield. Fulke came up to stand his horse beside, above the Princip. How did he know him? Not by description, surely, when he hadn't been known or sighted outside Surayon for thirty years. Not by his dress of battered leather and chain, any old soldier with a life's supply of stories could boast as much; not by his noble bearing and haughty demeanour, for he had none.
However it was, Fulke did know the Princip, that was clear. And did and must still want to see him dead, that was given, it was required between those two men in this world. But the world was fractured, and darkness spilled in through the cracks; Fulke did no more, no worse than to speak.
'There are demons abroad in this country.'
'There are.' With a look that seemed somehow entirely level, although he was gazing up; with an unambiguous directness that made no compromise and allowed no doubt, that included both the 'ifrit and the Ransomers.
'Then let us be about them.'
With no more than that, Fulke rode his horse hard at the boundary and passed through it, disappearing entirely for that brief instance between north and south as he passed over the Fold. Julianne gaped, and was still gaping after he had emerged on the other bank, after he had recovered himself and his horse and begun to slash at the serpent-things that swarmed about him, after all his men had ridden after him. She had to fit all the broken pieces of her expectations into a new understanding, and it took a while. The best she could manage just then was an acceptance that the two men had not after all met in the same world, though they came from the same far country and stood on the same ground now.
Watching Fulke as he fought, though, she still thought that salvation might be an impossible stretch, as far out of reach as the rivers banks were beyond her and Elisande. Wherever she looked, men were fighting; but wherever she looked there seemed to be not enough of them, never quite enough. Fulke's army might win in the north there, with the Sharai to help; but Fulke himself had left them, and had taken too many men with him and yet not enough to win the south, and it was a law of history that a force divided was a force betrayed. Those serpents in the south could surely defeat what men they had to face — and Elisande had given them a passage north, perhaps, if they could learn to cross it. She might have saved her grandfather and doomed her land, in the same moment. Perhaps Julianne should break the casting, kick down the cairns, disrupt those bonds and let the river back. Perhaps they must abandon the south of the valley, with all the clangers that implied, sooner than risk the north also
Do it now and you can strand Fulke there, give him the death he deserves and the martyrdom hed cherish, save the Surayonnaise from his later persecution . . .
Nothing could save them from the 'ifrit, though, unless Fulke could help to do it. She wished him well or well enough, she had to; and had to hope that there might after all be a God in heaven to hear the prayers that he sent skyward as he fought. Or two Gods not at war, perhaps, to give an equal hearing to the Sharai, as Surayon and the Kingdom and the Sands beyond all needed their blades, their strength alongside the Ransomers'.
And needed more, and she couldn't see any hope of finding it in all the wide valley, from her position here at the heart — until she saw movement in the shadows of the hills. She thought it was more 'ifrit, she thought they were endless, innumerable, doomed to win. She knew that simple counting decided most battles, heroes seldom had a chance.
But the shadow, the shadows, the long lines of shadow resolved themselves into people in the sunlight, a steady stream flowing down the roads and fields from the mountains and breaking out across the plain; and for a moment she didn't understand who they were. She had seen the Ransomers, the army from Ascariel, the Sharai; she had seen Sieur Anton and Marshal Fulke, her husband Hasan, she had seen the end of her husband Imber; who else was there who could come to battle willingly, leading such numbers? It had been a miracle or a series of miracles that had brought so many armies to the principality at all, it had taken high art and high diplomacy to have them all fight 'ifrit and not each other for today at least, it had still not quite been enough — and now here was one more miracle, another army when and where it was most needed.
And of course it was here, it had been here all the time. Elisande's trembling tension, her expressive silence named it and explained it. All day she had watched other people fighting over her homeland, and she had done what she could to help; now it was her own people she was watching, and there was nothing more that she could do. These were the
Surayonnaise who had been fighting Ransomers and Sharai just yesterday; more, it was also the Surayonnaise who had been fighting no one, who had retreated to their holdfasts in the hills. Someone had gone to fetch them, had blessed their weapons and brought them out in perfect time for this last blow
Someone who she could see quite clearly from this vantage point they had, this inverted stage where the actors played in the auditorium all around them: someone tall and brightly blond who made her heart ache for her lost man as he rode to and fro, as he marshalled his unlikely troops and led them forward against serpent-beasts and worse.
And she watched him despite the pain of it, unless it was because of the pain, because all she could do for Imber now was hurt. She watched him as the slow time passed, as more men died and women too, because that army was not bound by religious law nor tribal custom, but the 'ifrit died too in greater numbers. She watched him and watched him and could not have said, could never later say when it was that her mind understood what she was seeing.
It was later and a lot later before she understood what else it meant, that his beloved cousin Karel must be dead in his place, must have been dead on Imber's own horse. What she knew now, all she knew now was that Imber was not dead after all, that she was not a widow in either side of her life.
She watched with more trembling intensity even than Elisande at her side, suddenly desperately fearful that he would die now under her eye, that some malign god would love the irony of that more and far more than any god ever had loved her. Not even the sudden recognition that Sherett was there too, leading a small regiment of women, not even that could distract her for longer than it took to be amazed, to stare, to turn back. When he was at bay, when his reckless youth and determined ferocity had led him too far forward of his followers, when she had to look away she'd look for Hasan to the north, and see him too fighting, killing, surviving while men and monsters died all around him; and when she'd had her dreadful fill of that she'd turn again to see how Imber lived and killed, and how he rallied these who were not his people in this that was not his land.
And she would love him, as she loved Hasan who was moulding all the tribes into an army even as she watched, who was making one people of the Sharai and making them his to do with as he would, and she knew what he would want to do and loved him none the less.
But they were two men, and each of them loved her and would not, could not brook the other. More than a river ran between them, and nothing that she could Fold away to join the two together.
They were hot with slaying, fierce in victory; she could see nodhdng else now, but she saw them perfectly. A
nd had her own touch of djinni’s
foresight, as she saw them meeting on this field of battle, with the last of the 'ifrit: slain between them and gone to nothing, leaving them bereft; and each would have a sword in his hand and a determination in his heart to claim her and to allow no claim else
And she would not allow that and could not see any way to prevent it if they met, stranded as she was on an island that was inaccessible in any case and Folded out of the world where they stood and would stand against each other.
And so she waited, breathless and shaking until it was clear that they would destroy what last 'ifrit remained, that the Sharai and the Ransomers and the Surayonnaise between them all would win this day if not the next. And then, as the two men her husbands came closer and closer to her and so to each other, she finally did what she had thought of doing earlier.
She pulled herself away from Elisande and ran from one cairn to the next, and kicked them down. She scattered light and magic, let it lose itself in nothingness, brought the river back into the world so that the valley truly had two sides again, and she had a man in each.
This is the Dir'al Shahan in Ascariel, that was their greatest temple when the Ekhed governed the city. It would have been destroyed when the God gave us victory there; but the King decreed otherwise, and took it for his own. Now it is his palace, and the seat of his power.
More than that: it was his home, his shelter, his symbol. That above all, his symbol throughout the Kingdom and beyond. For many people - for the lucky ones, those who had seen it, those who had walked the streets and alleys of the golden city on its golden hill — it was what they thought of and what they saw when they thought of the King, because they had and could have no other picture for him.
It was not the building set highest on the hill, nor was it the tallest, nor the most grand in decoration. Once, yes, once all three, but that was long ago. Now it was only the oldest, and that was only by default, by destruction of what had come before. It stood on a broad platform of stone
towards the summit, and was made to look small by the size of its stage, which might have contained three, four such buildings and still have left room for an army to march a quatrefoil pattern between them all. That had been the walled compound of a temple complex, dedicated to a forgotten god before the Catari came, before the Sharai had found the Sands, before the Ekhed had come north to rule until the Patrics came in turn to drive them out. Legend said that the djinn had removed the complex overnight, and left the platform bare; the imams said that too, or else they said that a tremendous storm had levelled walls and buildings, had ground the rubble to dust and swept it all away. In either case, they said it was at the will and instigation of their God, who had decreed a temple to His worship to be built there in its stead.
And so it was: high shielding walls of stone about a central court, with domes and minarets to rise above the blank faces of the walls, to be tiled and gilded to gleam in sun and starlight to declare God's glory in this holiest of cities.
That was the Dir'al Shahan as it was made, as it was meant to be. Years passed, decades, centuries. There was a palace built that stood higher on the hill, whose garden wall enclosed the peak itself, as though the Ekhed could possess the Mount and all it stood for; there were temples built whose towers rose higher, as high as their architects had dared to dream. Still the Dir'al Shahan was the glistening jewel, the Eye of God, the utmost point of the created world; when people spoke of Ascariel — as they did, everywhere in the world, in terms of hope and longing — it was the Dir'al Shahan that they meant, even where they did not name it.
And then the Patrics came from their homelands far away to claim the city, to seize it with steel and pay its price in cruelty and death. They drove the Ekhed out, slaughtered the imams and their congregations, filled the temple courts with bodies and washed the stone facings with their blood.