“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.”
All was ready, for long had they planned for the likely further intrigues of the vizier of Gorj who wished to steal the caravanserai from them, and they had known he might use the peoples of the townships clinging to the desert’s edge as his weapons. These settlements had prospered from the trade routes when Shaheen ruled the desert, forbidding any caravans to cross, but the rise of the caravanserai at Paridiz had led to their decline. The seeds of disaffection nurtured by the vizier’s agents now were bearing fruit, as from both sides of the desert men advanced towards them, armed for war.
Not without allies were Shaheen and Roshan, for no caravan master wished the city and its caravanserai to fall into the vizier’s rapacious claws, so they had provided men to fight should battle come. And though Shaheen was never now alone with his friends in Paridiz, he begrudged not the presence of these men, for they offered protection to Roshan and his grandmother.
Yet they could not win by force of arms alone. Seven gates had Paridiz, all open to the desert. Even when new-built the city walls could not have stood against assault, created as they were by Safar only for show and glory, and long since had they been ravaged by time and storms and the failing of his power. But the stinkpots to the north were the least of the preparations Shaheen had made, and as he and Roshan reviewed their defences, satisfied was he. And yet …
The fever of the tower’s stone was everywhere; the city seemed to pulse with it. Not ailing, came the sudden thought, but energised. By the nearness of so many men intent on battle? Was their malevolence calling out to something that yet lurked in Paridiz?
Oh, Safar, what evil did the humans breed in thy city which thou, in thy innocence, couldst not see?
Yet he could not dwell upon it, for the men from the south were near indeed, making not for the gates – which they might suppose were guarded – but for ruined sections of the walls. Drawing upon the magic of the embroidered silken panel, Shaheen sent commands through the city.
Inhuman shrieks and howls burst out upon the desert, for amid the shadows of the walls lurked darker shades Shaheen had created, and with the hideous screams of afrits and the cackles and screeches of demons had he endowed them. Terror froze men’s blood and seized their bowels. All fled, some never to return.
Even the dulled echoes within the city caused men to blench in sudden fear, and Roshan himself started, clutching at the hilt of his sword.
“Dear friend, I ask thy pardon,” said Shaheen. “Warning I should have given of my intent.”
“The fault is mine, to be afeared by noise,” said Roshan. “Now I am a man, I should be such as my grandfather, a nobleman of courage who knows no fear.”
“Thy premise is at fault, for without fear, there is no courage. To be brave is to suffer fear but not yield to it.”
“Yet is it not ignoble that I fear the coming battle? Not only fear of hurt, but that I shall prove to be a coward and bring dishonour to my grandfather’s name. And if we should lose …”
“Thou art no coward,” said Shaheen, “as has been proven many times in thy encounters with great peril. And trust my word: we shall prevail.”
“Thy words strengthen me, dear friend. Yet in one thing art thou wrong, for the courage of ten men thou hast, yet art utterly without fear. This do I know.”
Shaheen spake not, keeping close within his bosom what fears he had, what worries and concerns for the feverish city, for what djinn ever would confess his weakness to a human?
Shaheen made himself invisible as they approached the open space before the Lion Gate, where the defenders of the city waited, for his role was not to fight with weapons. As they reached the gate, Roshan abruptly stopped. For there stood his grandmother, composed and proud, with Sima on one side, scared but resolute, and on the other, unhappy and abashed, Adil – no husband to the Lady Farzaneh, despite his wishes, but a faithful friend.
“Grandmother,” cried Roshan, “this is no place for thee and Sima. Return home, I beg thee, and lock yourselves within.”
“This city is mine, these people here my charges. Am I to be denied my right to defend my land and obligations?”
“Thou canst not fight, Grandmother. What weapon couldst thou wield?”
“I have a voice, do I not?”
“Argue not,” murmured Shaheen in Roshan’s ear, for he alone knew of her plan, and though he doubted its success, his word he had given to support her.
“A voice and great courage, Grandmother,” said Roshan, still concerned, yet conceding.
“Friends,” she called, addressing all who waited, “we must avoid bloodshed here tonight. Let no man strike unless in need to save himself or another. Stand behind me, for those who come against us must enter through the gate without hindrance. I will persuade them to return to their homes.”
Many shook their heads at this. “But the enemy—” one began.
“These men are not our enemy. They are our fellow mortals, impelled by the malice of another, but truly driven here by fear and sorrow – fear of what will come if they do not act, for much have they lost and more will likely lose, and sorrow for that loss, of wealth and caste and dignity and future.
“Well do I know that suffering; thankful I am I was not tempted to seek redress in such a way. The men will listen. Trust me in this.”
Greatly did Shaheen doubt she had their trust, for folly did it seem, but shadows lay behind her where they could conceal themselves, so they obeyed, leaving only Roshan and Sima and Adil by her side.
Shaheen himself obeyed her secret instructions, and he walked until he stood a few feet from the gate.
Outside the city, shunning the demon-haunted broken walls, those men from the south who had not fled the battle were stealing towards those gates they thought the least defended. As each gate was approached, Shaheen drew again upon the panel’s magic and sprung the traps he had prepared. Phantoms of gigantic soldiers roared threats at one, scorpions and venomous creatures scurried and slithered in great floods at two more, and at the Gate of the Dead stood the carapace of the monstrous scorpion Roshan had killed, its deadly sting arcing once again above its back.
At each gate, all but a handful of attackers ran in terror, to be herded inch by inch to the Lion Gate where Shaheen himself awaited them.
Now were they close, dark figures in the night creeping forward. Shaheen raised his arms. Calling upon the panel’s magic once again, an invisible barrier he created which the men could not pass, and into the space ahead of him, he blew an air of harmony and calm and friendship, as desired by the Lady Farzaneh.
Two men sidled through the gate, wary, swords raised, suspecting traps, but as they breathed the air of calm, disquiet left them, ease showing in their stance and lowered weapons. Four men followed, then eight more. Shaheen stepped back with the barrier, increasing the space for them, and into each man’s ear he sent subtle whispers which they heard without awareness, engendering respect for the lady and a willingness to listen and make peace.
“Friends,” called the lady, “grieved am I that we meet in such a fashion. Let us find a way that all may profit from our venture here in Paridiz.”
More and more men entered at the gate. As Shaheen stepped back and back, he kept close watch upon them, for some would doubtless be the vizier’s men, vicious and less susceptible to the atmosphere of peace. But all were silent and respectful as the lady talked of pacts and concessions, offering trade for their goods, aid for their poor.
As more men flooded through the gate, Shaheen again stepped back, but now he struggled to maintain the barrier. Since the day he had first awakened the ancient earth-magic by creating the lady’s garden, he had found that the more he called upon the magic of the silken panel, the more it gathered from the city.
No longer. The stream of magic was dwindling, its power fading.
Though shocked and dismayed, Shaheen did not falter. He abandoned first the traps waiting at the northern gates, for the men approaching from the north were still a league away. Then he withdrew his power from the scorpion’s carapace, for only one man lingered near that gate, then from the ghostly giants where two men yet plotted how to enter. Still the panel’s magic waned.
Next the scorpions and venomous creatures he let free despite the several men remaining at those gates. Then the demon shades he let dissolve into nothingness. Silence fell across the desert.
Still this was not enough.
Greatly alarmed, Shaheen yet fought against despair as last of all he ended the subtle whispers and the atmosphere of peace. Now only the barrier protecting Roshan and the Lady Farzaneh remained; he could not let that fall.
But the magic seemed to shiver once, then failed.
Most men had breathed enough of calm and had heard enough of the lady’s words to remain at peace, listening, but some few latecomers now moved restlessly. Though seized with doubt and apprehension, Shaheen stepped towards them –harming mortals was impossible due to the sorcerer’s binding, but his own dribble of magic should suffice to keep them quiet. Then a man darted through the gate, shouting abuse and threats, and Shaheen turned instead to him.
Too late did he see it was merely a diversion. A second man appeared at the gate, bow in hand, arrow nocked and pointed at the Lady Farzaneh. Too late did anyone see, save only Sima, who threw herself in front of the lady as the arrow flew. Both women fell, and as the sand beneath their bodies drank their blood, from the stones of the city there came to Shaheen the hint of laughter, dark and malicious.
Clamour rang out, and all was movement – but louder than all, quicker than all, was Roshan, his war cry ringing through the city as he raced towards the bowman. Before another arrow could be loosed, Roshan was upon the man and slew him. But two men turned on Roshan, drawing blood as he fought them, and of a sudden many men were screaming and falling and all was chaos as arrows flew from the defenders of the city.
And Roshan was on the ground, the archer’s accomplice standing over him, sword carving down towards his belly.
Then time itself fell into chaos, so it seemed to Shaheen, and with it all his senses, and nothing could he understand of what he saw and heard. For the sword remained frozen in its downward swing, yet in that same moment it was also ripping into Roshan’s body, and as he watched Roshan be torn asunder, he saw himself carrying the body, blood streaming from it, and still in that same frozen moment he watched that other Shaheen tenderly set Roshan down beside Sima and the Lady Farzaneh.
Through all the confusion of the images one thing was clear: Roshan was dead. If a djinn could weep for a human, then tears would Shaheen have wept.
The stones of the city then whispered to him – his friend was foully murdered, nothing was more important than revenge, and magic, boundless magic, was his for the taking.
Howling grief and fury, Shaheen transformed himself. As the winged lion of Paridiz he stood there, a giant of a creature, eyes aflame, teeth bared, snarling hate and vengeance. Terror and rage were his, his roar obliterating sound, his claws shredding the air, the thunderous beat of his wings throwing men aside like chaff in the burning desert winds. Bloodlust glutted him and he saw that the sorcerer’s binding was a fragile thing which he could break. Then could he kill the humans, bathing Paridiz in blood, and the stones of the city could gorge themselves and become—
A hand touched his burning shoulder. A human dared to touch him. He should kill the human and—
“Friend, thou hast prevailed,” said Roshan.
Only slowly did Shaheen understand, only with great effort control the bloodlust still pulsing in his veins, but Roshan was alive, barely wounded. Mere phantoms were all the visions of his death. The man whose sword had threatened him had been killed by Roshan himself before ever the blow could fall.
Real, though, had been Shaheen’s fury and might, for the men from the south lay dazed and helpless on the ground before him.
Fingers touched his other shoulder, cooling his heated skin, and at his side stood the Lady Farzaneh. Though her arm hung limp and bleeding, blood coating her dress and hands, her voice came calm and strong as she addressed the men.
“Friends, here have you learned the secret of Paridiz – the winged lion of the city shields and protects us. What you have endured is less than the bite of a flea compared to the vast power he wields. Never could you succeed against us. But the proposals I have offered of trade and charity, I hold to these. Who will be your spokesman to reach agreement with me?”
Slowly did the men of the south raise themselves, casting fearful glances at Shaheen. Men were chosen, and they and the lady went aside to talk. Adil and the men of the caravans tended to the injured and took away the dead, among them Sima, whose last and greatest service after forty years was to save her lady’s life. Throughout, Roshan remained at Shaheen’s side, his hand upon his shoulder, while Shaheen, mute and motionless, trembled inwardly to think how close he had come to murder and betrayal.
He trembled, also, at the fear of all that might yet come. Terms might be agreed with these frightened men, but those others who had entered through the now-unguarded gates, and the men of the north closing on the city, would they agree? For they had seen and felt nothing of his power, nor dare he take it up again to make them fear him. Even if dissuaded from present battle, might they not return in greater strength and more prepared for sorcery?
The stones, feverish and excited, still whispered to him, still tempted him with promises of power. To protect Roshan and the Lady Farzaneh he might succumb, but who then would he be? Even when he ruled the desert and allowed his storms to take the merchant caravans, he never gloried in the deaths he caused, nor did he ever take the lives of women or children. And never had he broken his word or betrayed his friends and those he protected. Once consumed entirely by bloodlust of the stones, such scruples, he knew, would vanish. Shir Shaheen would be no more.
Escape was there none, but in capitulation.
“Friend Roshan,” he whispered, “go to thy grandmother. Tell her it is my wish a new bargain shall be made. All from the townships, south and north, driven to this pass by desperation, they may come and settle in the city. Then its prosperity also shall be theirs. But in return they must swear allegiance to thee and thy grandmother, to honour and obey thy laws, and hard they must work to enable Paridiz to thrive, to keep it truly safe from its enemies.”
Greatly did Roshan protest, knowing how Shaheen disliked so many humans in the city, but Shaheen would not be turned, and so Roshan obeyed. And ever after Roshan believed that Shaheen had acted then to save him and his grandmother and the townsfolk, never knowing that Shaheen had acted to save himself.
And so, through fears and sorrows and death, people came to Paridiz, and long did Shaheen suffer from their presence, and long did he think on the power which tempted him, and more resolute than ever was he in his thirst for revenge against the vizier of Gorj.
“The fragrance of the blossoms has brought colour to thy cheeks, sweet friend, or mayhap it was hearing once again of the courage of young Roshan. But surely this is one more sign of thy improving health, which shall continue, as shall the tale of Shir Shaheen.”