I hold the memory of him in my mind, gentle as a paper swan, so I don’t forget the details. The rosy red of his cheeks; the way looking at him was like looking in a living mirror. The way we’d play hide and seek, and the shrillness of my voice as I called after him. How he could never stay hidden for long. Will, Will, Will, I call into the darkness, as if it could bring him back. As if he is only hiding, as if this is only pretend.
You’re twins, aren’t you? the kindly man in the market had said, crouching down to get a better look at us, his glasses glinting in the sun. Yes, I replied, puffing out my chest, but I’m older. The man smiled, escorting us to a bus filled with other children, identical twins just like us, and the bus took us away, far enough that the air was thick with fog and the mountains hunched over everything. Will was afraid, but I was confident life would be better here, amongst the jagged rocks and the crashing waves. No more begging for scraps and stealing and sleeping under newspaper. I promise, I said, offering my hand to him so we could do our special secret handshake. I won’t let anything happen to you.
Now I am a monster, and Will is not here.
“Let me wrap this blanket about thy shoulders, dear friend of my heart, for gentle as the zephyr is which brings the perfume of blossom to us, I fear it may chill thee. So is it always, even in the least of things, good and evil ever intermingled. And so Shir Shaheen and Roshan found when once again the vizier of Gorj moved against them.”
Shir Shaheen breathed deep as the breeze played around his tower. He no longer controlled the desert winds, yet still they sought him out, bringing news and the clean smell of the open sands for which he yearned. And if, as now, they brought tidings of evil, he had come to expect no less.
He sat in the shadows of the open-arched chamber atop his tower, not on the parapet where he was wont to sit. Too many eyes now could see him there, for too many people now lived in Paridiz – agreement had easily been reached with the men of the desert towns, and their folk had swarmed to the city.
Rarely now did Shaheen leave his tower, and then only to tend his gardens or to sit with the still-grieving Lady Farzaneh and let her talk of Sima. Many were his reasons. The new humans, for one, for though allowing them to settle in the city was his own idea, yet still did their presence disturb him. Shame was another, for close had he come to murder and betrayal, and guilt stung him when he talked with Roshan.
“Ah, beloved friend, how sweet is the scent of hyacinths this gentle breeze brings to us, and the pomegranate and almond trees also have blossomed early, sending forth their perfume for thy delight. How different their fragrance from the stench which once assailed Shir Shaheen and Roshan as they stood in Paridiz and waited for battle to come to them.”
Midnight was long past when Shir Shaheen shed his eagle’s form, became incorporeal and slipped into the stone to begin the descent of his tower. Warm was the stonework, yet not from any lingering of the day’s heat. It seemed to him akin to something like a fever, one he had sensed elsewhere in the bones of Safar’s city in recent weeks. Was Paridiz itself now ailing as so many humans intruded on its peace?
Awaiting him at the tower’s base was Roshan, a scarf wound about his nose and mouth. “Friend Shaheen, with all thy great magic, canst thou not contrive that our enemies alone, and not ourselves, are beset with the reek of the foul concoction thou and Sima have created?”
“Give thanks the stinkpots are far distant and the wind blows away from us, so it is no worse. Riven with sickness are the men approaching from the north. Many will proceed no further.”
“And the men from the south?”
“Will be here within the hour.”
“Then, my friend, let us ensure all is ready for them.”
I can hear it. About twenty metres up ahead, somewhere high in the trees. That caw. I renew my glamour hex to blend in with the thicket of the woods and slowly walk in its direction. I can feel that it’s close.
A sound. Not its cry, but the groan of a passing truck not far from here. The road that splits the forest is about half a kilometre to the west. The vehicle passes and the silence returns. Now I wait for it to cry out again, hoping it’ll betray its location.
The leaves have turned to their autumn brown. It’ll stand out more in this ocean of earthy colours. If I don’t shoot it now, it will vanish in the snow that will fall soon. This might be my only chance.
A glimmer from between the leaves. I pick it up. A gold nugget. Two more up ahead. It’s collecting nesting material. There! A flash of white. I peer through my scope and aim. Was it my imagination? No, that must have been it. I listen for the sounds of wings or creaking branches should it perch. I can feel my hex losing its strength. Damn it all, where is it?
“Ha! Such commotion, dear friend! I should be annoyed at this interruption to my story, but thy laughter at the turmoil caused by the escape of thy great-grandson’s pet cheers my heart, so I set all rebukes aside and forgive them both. And though the boy’s lizard is no great adornment to thy room nor like to take much profit from my tale, it displays none of the malice and corruption of the human lizard who once visited Paridiz. But let me tell the tale of that malign creature, and of Shir Shaheen, the lion who stood against him.”
The last departing caravan was now far beyond the city’s gates and the nearest group of men still some leagues away. So when Shir Shaheen left his tower – where long had he studied the approaching men with the keen vision of an eagle’s form – he took a lion’s shape and raced and roared through the streets of Paridiz, scattering the snakes and lizards that lay basking in the sun.
Rare now were these hours when the city belonged to him and his friends alone, for the success of their caravanserai was beyond all expectation, beyond even the ever-buoyant hopes of Roshan. Adil, the caravan master, had told his fellows of the venture and nothing loath were they to see it for themselves, especially if it might disoblige the vizier of Gorj. Curiosity there was, for who could fail to wonder at the tales of the lost city and what had now been wrought there; interest, too, in seeing the widow and grandson of the great Lord Roshan. Yet when curiosity and interest were satisfied, still the merchants came for the sake of profit and the shorter journey through Paridiz.
“As I foresaw, dearest and best of friends, my tale of Sima’s sweetmeats did restore thy appetite. So what prodigies of eating wilt thou in thy recovery achieve when now our story turns to the great festival of New Year? And since New Year brings always new hope and new beginnings, what shall I tell of the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen?”
Many long years had rolled beneath time’s wheel since last had Shir Shaheen celebrated New Year in Paridiz and walked in a garden there beside a human. Then had he roamed the palace grounds beside the prince, the mortal man he’d thought the bosom friend of his brother, Safar; the mortal man who, so soon after, would betray Safar. Now he strolled within a courtyard some twenty paces square with Roshan, his own friend, and memories sharp and bitter rose around him like stinging insects.
Well did Shaheen remember the prince’s words that day. “In gardens are we most near to God, and glad I was that I persuaded thy brother to create so many here in Paridiz. Yet even this great garden now reeks to me of the Accursed One. Evil grows within the city. Canst not feel it?” But Shaheen had not felt it, not known he walked beside it.
Well also did Shaheen remember his own words when he learned of his brother’s fate, for he had cursed the prince and his line, that henceforward their gardens should bring forth only bitter fruit and tamarisk. And as Safar’s magic decayed, and the city failed and the desert claimed it for its own, in those gardens of which the prince had been so proud, naught indeed thrived but saltbush and camel thorn and earth-poisoning tamarisk.
In the forest it was late Summer: the path a dancing dapple of sunlight amidst birdsong and the background rustle of leaves.
In the forest it was always late Summer.
Unvisited by other seasons, the great belt of the Greenswathe encircled Garth, last city of High Men within the Circle Mountains, perhaps the last in the world. Now Sigurd, said to be the oldest of oaks, had sent for me, although there was never any sense of urgency in his communications, as if the sentinel lived life at an entirely different pace.
I raised the apple I was eating by way of salute. “Summoned, I came.”
The voice that issued from the malformed knothole was a low growl. “Havardr, by the Black Falls, sent word of one who spoke to him without speaking. Havardr is now silent. There may be danger.”
“Spoke without speaking? Did he say anything else about who this was?”
“It was a—” Sigurd lapsed into a long melodious flow, typical of their descriptive terms.
I half-turned my head, raised my voice. “Cuyler, I have need of your ears.”
“Here, beloved friend, sweetmeats the kitchens have made for thee to tempt thy appetite, knowing thy fondness for such dainties. Syrup strands and sugared almonds, cardamon pastries and little cakes with pistachio and rosewater. Worthy to be compared even with the delectables the boy Roshan and Shir Shaheen once shared on a tower high above Paridiz.”
Shir Shaheen again sat atop the city’s tallest remaining tower, his senses alive to all that happened both across his desert realm and within the ruined walls of Paridiz. Most particularly aware was he of the scrabbling noises and muffled exclamations from within the tower itself as a determined figure clambered his slow way up past its many hindrances and dangers – fallen blocks of stone, wide fissures in paved floors, missing steps in broken stairways. The boy Roshan had courage, but as for intelligence … Had he forgotten that Shaheen could slip away or disappear in an instant? His evident desire to meet Shaheen could be thwarted even in the final seconds of his approach.
Yet Shaheen did not slip away nor disappear, not even when Roshan reached the tower’s summit and the open-arched chamber where once a prince had dined. Motionless stood the boy, steadying himself perhaps after the arduous climb, or gazing upon the gilded magnificence that yet remained within and the glory of golden desert that could be seen without. Or, perhaps, consumed with fear and dread at the tower’s height and the lack of parapet around the open balcony encircling it, where Shaheen sat on crumbling stone, legs dangling over the edge.
Several deep breaths did Roshan take before moving to the arch behind Shaheen. “Sir, mighty djinn, pardon I ask for intruding upon thy solitude, but I am sent by my grandmother to bring this letter to thee.” He held the letter out, but Shaheen turned not, nor gave any sign of hearing.
“I ask pardon also for its late delivery. Many days have I sought thee through the city, and though oft-times I saw a mighty eagle here, I did not bethink me of thy wondrous skill in changing thy form. Only this morning, when I saw thee here in human shape, did I understand and hasten to approach.”
“Drink a little wine, O friend of my heart; it will strengthen thee further and speed thy recovery. From the vineyards of Tiraz, this is – the best of wines for the best of men, and such a wine as Shir Shaheen would have welcomed the night he and the boy Roshan met and talked a second time in the ruins of Paridiz.”
Shir Shaheen sat atop the city’s tallest remaining tower, brooding, ever brooding. Weeks had he passed there since the killing of the monstrous scorpion, and though every morning the glory of sunrise bathed the desert sands in gold, and every evening the crimson sunset dyed the city walls with rose, his heart danced not. For the desert was no longer his, the city no longer his. The humans were there and immoveable.
Meagre was the dribble of magic left to Shaheen, yet every trespass of the mortals into his realm could he feel. There, the footsteps of villagers seeking the desert’s wealth – animals to kill, oases to despoil; there, the pad of camels from merchant caravans near Gorj carrying wealth across the desert; there, the plod of mules as pilgrims sought spiritual wealth in the holy cities; and there …
Shaheen sat more upright, then turned himself into an eagle, using its keen vision to pierce the shadow of twilight. Yes, there, with the beat of hooves, men on horseback; a dozen, perhaps more. Not soldiers. Not arrayed as soldiers at least, for no spears or metal helms caught the last gleams of sunlight. Nor an embassy neither; no retinue of officials, these plainly dressed, hard-faced men. Bandits. Or men wishing to be thought bandits. And all stealing through the dusk towards Paridiz.
* Winner of the 2021 Story of the Year Award *
All in all, the end of the world turned out to be a little disappointing. Elodie had expected something more dramatic. Spectacular explosions, perhaps, followed by a tunnel of light. She hadn’t even experienced her life flashing by in a wonderful montage of images. No, things just sort of … ended.
Now she floated around in a vast, dark space. At least, something was floating around. She didn’t appear to have a body, so it must be her conscience. Her awareness, so to speak. Because she was definitely aware. It was rather interesting.
A small spark flared up nearby, hot and intense for a moment and then dying down to a pulsing glow. Elodie tried to speak, but the words came out as thoughts.
“Hello?” the glowing spot echoed.