The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 4: Stealing Through the Dusk

“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.

Shaheen puzzled over their intent. Did they know of the Lady Farzaneh and believed she yet possessed great wealth? They could not mean to rob the occasional caravans which supplied her wants, for the always-delayed, miserly train sent by her husband’s brother never carried anything worth the theft, and the caravan which brought better food and a few luxuries – from the charity of those who yet honoured her – that had left Paridiz earlier that very day.

But perhaps it was not her wealth the men sought but her life, and that of Roshan. For had not the vizier of Gorj already compassed their deaths with befouled water?

If such was their design, then if Shaheen did nothing, the city would be his again. And why should he do aught? True, the boy had saved Shaheen’s life, but that debt had been repaid. True, also, the lady was learned and pious and respectful, and the vizier was her enemy as he was Shaheen’s, yet why should that sway him?

If the men wished only to use Paridiz as a place to hide, then Shaheen must act, for their foulness truly would pollute the city, and that could not be borne. But if, beforehand, the bandits should strike against the boy and his grandmother, well then …

Yet even while telling himself he need not save the humans, even while striving to hold fast to his hatred of all mortals, Shaheen knew he could do no less than find the boy and give warning.

Finding the boy was easy, for at dusk his custom was to stand by the Gate of the Dead, looking out over the darkling sands covering the ancient cemeteries, for that gate led also to Gorj. To his former home, to his enemies.

“Boy,” called Shaheen, in the guise of the man Roshan had seen before.

Roshan broke into a great smile. “Sir, glad I am to see thee, for I—”

“Hush, boy, and listen,” said Shaheen. “With thy grandmother and servant, quit thy abode within the hour, for men approach Paridiz and they have the look of brigands. It may be they know of thee and thine. If so, your lives are surely forfeit. And if they intend only to take refuge here awhile, I doubt they will suffer witnesses to live and tell of them.”

The boy paled as Shaheen spoke, but courage held him steady. “These are grave tidings, sir, and I have not the words to thank thee as I should. I shall indeed hurry Grandmother and Sima into safety. The cellar which hides the well of fresh water thou didst so charitably show me, that will hide them also. But when I have them safely housed, where shall I meet thee?”

“Meet me?” asked Shaheen.

“I cannot let thee face these men alone, not when perhaps it is our presence here which brings danger down upon thee. But may I ask what stratagems hast thou devised against the men? We have no poisons, but Sima has sleeping draughts, so we may drug their wine and kill them as they sleep.”

Shaheen stepped back, staring anew at the boy. “Such things … such harm … I cannot do,” he said at length.

“My pardon, sir. Art thou one of the sainted, who eschew such violence? Or—”

“What I am is not for thee to know,” said Shaheen more strongly. “Be gone and warn thy grandmother. What I must do, that shall I do alone.”

Roshan bowed low then ran, leaving Shaheen unsettled, for the boy’s assurance of his goodness, that he would act nobly in confronting the men, shamed him. Yet what could he do? The sorcerer who bound him to the city bound him also from harming mortals, and bandits would not be frightened by such cantrips as Shaheen had played upon Roshan and his grandmother. To defeat the men, he must possess more magic, and none was available save that gathered by the silken panel of embroidery the Lady Farzaneh had gifted him.

So it was that Shaheen made his way to the humans’ abode, now empty of the humans, where the broidery still lay upon its cushion, awaiting him. The broidery that would bind him to the lady and Roshan.

“This gift I accept from thee,” he said into the silence, and the air shivered with the import of his words. He then took the silk, and winding it about his head fashioned a turban, the sacred names of God manifest upon it.

Then Shaheen returned to watch the men. Their original path led directly to the Lion Gate, close by the humans’ abode, but they were skirting the city, making for the Gate of the Dead. Shaheen stole through the dusk to meet them there.

As at every gate, statues of the winged lion guarded the entrance, but here one had fallen. Shaheen took its form and place to oversee the men. Three had ridden to the cemeteries where yet some tombs and mausolea still showed above the sands; some ten others huddled before the gate, talking low.

“I like this not,” said one. “The city is a haunt of ghouls and evil spirits. Coming here is folly. Hiding our stolen treasure in the city of the dead is greater folly still.”

“We require another secret place now the vizier knows of our hidden cave at Gorj.”

“Seyed is wrong to trust him.”

“Seyed trusts him not. If the vizier has laid a trap, and the caravan did not leave today as he said but in fact remains at the Lion Gate, then shall we discover it at dawn before we kill the women and the boy.”

“We should have come yesternight,” said another. “Trap or no, we would have triumphed, and taken the caravan’s wealth in the bargain.”

“Such is not the vizier’s design. He intends another should be blamed for the deaths, not banditti – Seyed carries an armband to be left in the boy’s grasp.”

“I do not trust the vizier,” said the first man.

“No more do I,” said a brutal voice. The three who had ridden to the tombs were now arrived at the gate, and it was their leader, Seyed, who spoke. “But I trust his coin.” He patted a leather bag at his side. “But why stand you here like women gossiping? Into the city!”

Then did Shaheen draw upon the broidery’s magic. Like a draught of heady wine it was, giving strength and spirit. Flaming red and gold, greater than life, he rose upon his haunches as the winged lion, knife-edged claws raking the moonlight, mighty wings beating the air, and he roared anger and defiance in a voice of thunder at the bandits.

Men and horses screamed and shrieked in terror. Horses reared and bucked and bolted. Men, thrown to the ground, were trampled. Two men turned their mounts and fled, Seyed hurling curses after them.

Shaheen dislimned himself and slid to the ground and waited, invisible.

Long was it before the chaos abated. One man lay dead, his skull crushed by flailing hooves, three more were injured, one not like to live, and all were fearful and uneasy. They bickered – some arguing they should quickly kill their quarry and leave as soon as done, others they should go at once before ghouls seized them, or the men of the caravan, if such were there in the city, came to investigate the noise.

“Silence,” roared Seyed. “Are you children to be afeared? That was naught but scraps of trickery from the city’s founding. No ghouls shall worry us, and if the caravan is here, its men shall find us ready. My plans remain unchanged. Here we stay till dawn.”

Scornful, cocksure, he rode through the gate. The others followed but slowly, watchful, wary, swords in hands. With the horses hobbled and two guards set to watch, the men sat with walls at their backs, clay beakers and goatskin bags of wine close, blades closer still.

Doubt and foreboding tainted the air. Taking more of the broidery’s gathered magic, Shaheen blew a miasma of ill-will and rancour and resentment across the men, compounding their disquiet.

Silence fell, no sound but the pouring and drinking of wine. Shaheen slipped through a wall until he lay between two men. Drawing again upon the broidery’s magic, he slid invisibly from the stone, and with an unseen hand he took the nearest beaker, drank the wine – a rough, sour red, its harshness scouring his throat – and set it down again. A man reached for his wine. Finding the beaker empty, he blamed his neighbour. Hard words followed, threats and argument.

Twice more Shaheen forced himself to drink the vinegar wine. Hard words between the men became hard blows, then knives were drawn, and soon two more men lay dead.

Shaheen drew back into the night and used the broidery’s magic to mimic the men’s voices, abusing and cursing and threatening others by name. More arguments raged, more blows were struck, more blades wielded, more men were killed or wounded mortally.

“Thou art a fool, Seyed,” shouted a man, rushing to his horse, intent on fleeing. “A sorcerer was set here to kill us.” Another man joined him, but both fell as Seyed’s sword cut them down. Seyed turned, poised to fight, but no one else opposed him, for all were dead or dying.

Shaheen cursed. The sorcerer’s binding he could thwart by inciting humans to harm each other, but one man could not fight himself. Seyed was now free to kill and Shaheen could not stop him.

“Sorcerer?” called Seyed. “Has the woman bought thee? Whatever she has paid, I offer more.” He threw down the bag of coins which burst asunder in a shower of gold. “Help me kill them and there shall be more. Not only shall he who sent me pay handsomely, but we shall have a hold over him forever.”

Shaheen became visible, but with the last of the broidery’s stored magic he appeared as a sorcerer of legend, silver robes painted with dark sigils, silver turban adorned with gems of power, silver flames wreathing his hands.

“The world has not coin enough to corrupt an argent sorcerer, brigand,” said Shaheen, in a voice as deep as ages. “Return now to thy master and faithfully report the protection I afford the lady, and I shall let thee live. Else shall the ghouls and afrits at my command take thee down to torment everlasting.”

Long seconds passed and Shaheen thought he had prevailed. Then Seyed laughed. “Thou art no silver sorcerer. Scraps of trickery are all thou hast devised – no power hast thou to harm, only to deceive.”

Sword raised, he moved toward Shaheen. But a stone flew through the air and struck his temple, then, close upon it, a second pierced his eye. His sword fell as he screamed in pain and brought both hands to his face, and then Roshan was there, his long dagger slashing Seyed’s throat.

When Seyed fell, Roshan took the man’s sword, and crying “So die all men of evil!” the boy hacked at him until the bandit’s head was severed from his body.

Roshan turned to face Shaheen. “Noble sir, in thy fight against the scorpion it seemed to me thou didst disappear from sight then reappear, and though Grandmother thought otherwise, I knew thou wert a sorcerer. Greatly do I honour thee.”

He bowed. But then, his attention caught by the spilled coins, he started forward and snatched up a richly embroidered armband that lay among them. “This insignia is my great-uncle’s. He was this man’s master.”

“Nay,” said Shaheen, his voice low, for the broidery’s magic was fading and with it the sorcerer’s guise. “Before thou didst arrive, the men spoke of the vizier of Gorj and of placing blame upon another. This armband was to be found with thy dead body. Seemingly, the vizier wishes to be rid of thy uncle.”

Roshan looked up at Shaheen, then recoiled. “Thy turban, that surely is my grandmother’s work. Then … then as she believed, thou art indeed the spirit which tormented us.”

“I am,” said Shaheen.

“But thou hast now accepted Grandmother’s gift.”

“I have.”

“So thou art now our friend,” said Roshan, hope in his voice.

But Shir Shaheen would not answer.

“Friendship, offered the boy, and Shir Shaheen too arrogant, too witless, to accept. Ah, my friend, my greatest of friends, what folly that was. But I see the Tiraz wine and my story have strengthened thee as I hoped, and yet shall do more, as the tale of Shir Shaheen continues.”

© Damaris Browne

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