The Tale of Shir Shaheen and the Caravanserai – Chapter 3: The Secret Well

“Dost see, dear friend, how the sons of thy grandchildren lean forward? Their sisters weep, but they fret with impatience to hear more of my story. And more of Roshan, I doubt not; the exemplar against whom they will measure themselves. So shall they learn further of the human boy pitted against that mightiest of djinns, Shir Shaheen.”

Torn was Shir Shaheen. He had spent the morning – as every morning for many weeks past – following the boy, Roshan, around the city, waiting for him to fail. After the fruitless wandering – also as every day for the same many weeks past – the boy returned to his room, collected his cup of sand and its seed, and went to sit at his grandmother’s feet to glean more of her wisdom.

Though Shaheen followed him to the lesson, he paid scant attention to her discourse on the secret well of courage mortal men possessed, untested until need arose. For there, lying on its cushion, was the panel of silk embroidered with the sacred names of God. The gift she had made for him. The gift he greatly desired but could not permit himself to accept, for its price – allowing the humans to live in peace in the city – was too high. Yet so magnificent was the panel, so exquisite its workmanship, nor could he bring himself to refuse it. So a bargain he had struck with himself. He would wait until the boy proved these humans were as all humans, mired in falsehood and deceit and broken promises.

Patience, the boy had sworn. Patience to abide the sting of his great-uncle’s treachery, forsaking thoughts of revenge, but Shaheen believed the boy would soon again begin to kill scorpions, fantasising he thereby killed his uncle.

Then could Shaheen reject the gift, and though bitter would be its loss, the humans would be to blame, not he. And the torments he must inflict upon them, to make them leave, they would have brought upon themselves.

Yet as each day passed, ever stronger appeared the boy’s resolve but ever weaker Shaheen’s own resolution, and ever deeper his hunger to possess the broidery. That hunger had doubled and doubled again in recent days, for within the gift Shaheen had detected the scent of magic.

Not human magic. Great skill had gone into the broidery’s making, but not sorcery. No, the magic scenting the air around the broidery, making his heart leap, had to come from the residue of his brother’s sorcery, left in the city after its collapse, like sparkling raindrops lingering, trapped in hidden crevices, long after a storm had passed.

With the power of the sacred names, the broidery was gathering those drops of magic to itself; magic Shaheen could draw upon if the panel were his. That would be a secret well indeed; a well of magic the sorcerer who imprisoned him could never have foreseen.

Need and desire burned his heart. Allowing the humans to remain was more than he could bear, yet he had to gain possession of the broidery. If only there were a way he could accept it and the obligations it carried, yet still ensure the humans left Paridiz.

Then wails of distress split the air; the maidservant burst into the room. “Aieee, aieee, the evil demon has returned, mistress, as I told thee he would. Here shall we die, and he shall dance upon our bones.”

“Control thyself, Sima, and explain the meaning of this tumult.”

“The demon, Lady Farzaneh. He has bespoiled the water the caravan brought. There is no more. Long before the next caravan arrives, dead, dead shall we be.”

Wroth was Shaheen, that he should be falsely accused. True it was that once he had tried to foul their water, but the sorcerer’s binding thwarted him. And he had played no tricks upon the humans since the gift was proffered. Then the lady spoke.

“Nay, it was not the spirit who harried us aforetime who has done this. Though he hesitates to accept our gift, had he the power to do true harm to us, we would have died ere now. This is the work of others.” She stood. “Come, Roshan. Let us see this evil for ourselves.”

She led them down through the building to the cellars beneath the kitchen, but Shaheen made himself incorporeal, slipped through the walls, and was there before them. Eight large water jars now stood open. All were befouled with thick black rock oil, and five contained also the bloated corpses of rats.

“This is my great-uncle’s work!” cried Roshan.

“I think not,” said his grandmother. “Thy uncle is venal, not vicious. Doubtless he wishes us dead, but he lacks the daring for murder. This was designed by his ally, the vizier of Gorj. Yet whoever bears the guilt, we are sorely tried by it.”

“But not desperate, Grandmother. Many wells have I seen in the city.”

“Many wells, I doubt not, for such were needed when Paridiz was home to multitudes. Springs formed a great oasis here long before the city was built, and they flowed ever sweet while Paridiz thrived. Yet mayhap the wells were too many or dug too deep, or the magic which sustained them failed when the prince disappeared and with him his friend, the djinn who built Paridiz. For thereafter the wells gave forth only salt water and the city fell.”

“It may be that one remains which yet is pure. I shall find it!”

Though she shook her head, the boy ran from the cellar, and pausing only to collect the bag and long knife he carried when wandering the city, adding also a jar and rope, he went in search of water. Shaheen followed. Not because he hoped Roshan would now break his vow, killing scorpions in place of his uncle, but because he knew the true secret of Paridiz.

Far beneath the city lay qanats feeding seven wells created by earth-magic older and more powerful than that which any djinn had ever wielded. These wells were unknown to humans, for Safar had built the city’s seven gates above them and hidden them from mortal senses. Though Safar’s work had crumbled when he was betrayed by the humans, the ancient, deeper magic of the seven wells remained, magic to keep them pure even had Shaheen the impiety to consider polluting them.

Since Safar’s spells of concealment had also failed, Shaheen meant to ensure Roshan did not stumble upon the secret wells, for here was the answer he had sought. Now he could accept the broidery without fear of the humans remaining in the city.

Long through the afternoon’s heat did Roshan search, stopping at each well he found to lower the jug to its depths to test the water, but each time he tasted salt. Towards evening he explored further than ever before, nearing the centre of Paridiz where once Safar’s great tower had stood, and there came to Shaheen the tang of magic. Yet this scent did not make his heart leap, for it carried shades of poison and dark places.

Then he saw and understood. As Roshan lowered the jug into a well, from a dark corner behind the boy, creeping stealthily towards him, came a monstrous scorpion, its body as long as a man’s. Just as the broidery had power to gather the city’s drops of magic to itself, so clearly had the scorpion, though years must it have taken to transform the creature. The magic it held was great, enough to allow Shaheen to break the sorcerer’s binding and be free, if only he could draw upon it.

Possessing the creature by taming it was impossible. Killing it would mean its power dissipating on an instant, some droplets perhaps to remain within the city, but the greater part to return to the aether whence it sprang. He had to keep the creature alive, but helpless, under his control.

Silently the creature came on, past the broken stone littering the ground, until it was mere feet from Roshan as he coiled his rope, its giant claws ready to grab the boy, its tail curved high above its back, its sting, larger than any dagger, poised, ready to kill.

Shaheen moved towards the creature. As it reached to Roshan, its attention fully upon him, Shaheen turned himself into a giant of a man, caught up a huge stone and brought it crashing down upon one of the scorpion’s legs, breaking it.

At the monster’s unearthly shriek of pain, Roshan spun round. Then he fled as the creature, hurling itself aside, seeking its attacker, smashed into a marble column beside the wellhead. But once again invisible was Shaheen – though he had to be visible to hold any weapon, it left him too vulnerable – and he easily evaded the monster’s grasping claws. He stepped around the creature, then again became briefly visible to smash a heavy stone upon another of its legs.

A third time he struck. A fourth. Thick black blood pooled the ground beneath the scorpion. But as Shaheen lifted another stone, of a sudden the creature twisted and caught him in its claw, forcing him down.

Trapped was Shaheen, unable to become incorporeal, his dribble of magic too weak to oppose the creature’s great power now it held him.

The claw bit into his flesh. The poison sting arced towards him. Arced, but did not strike, for a noose of rope held it. Roshan’s rope, which the boy had pulled taut, winding it around the marble column.

The scorpion swung its tail, wrenching the rope. The column swayed, then toppled, blocks of weighty marble landing across the monster’s back, crushing it. Then Roshan was on the creature, thrusting his long knife two-handed into cracks in its carapace, thrusting and twisting over and over until the monster lay still.

Whooping with glee, Roshan jumped to his feet. “I killed it, Grandmother. I found my well of courage!”

Silent was Shaheen, on his knees within the monster’s claw. Silent and raging with fury. Roshan leapt down and pulled the claw open, freeing Shaheen.

“Sir, thou hast saved my life. I did not mark the monster and it would have taken me without thy intervention. I cannot thank thee as I should, but know this – thy courage has made me thy servant, and my grandmother shall heap praise and blessings upon thee and all the treasure at her command.”

Shaheen pushed Roshan aside and reached to the scorpion. Already the scent of magic had faded, the magic itself leached from its body. Nothing could Shaheen draw upon. He beat the creature with his fists. Not only had he failed in taking its magic, he now owed the boy his life – a debt greater even than accepting the broidery.

“Sir, I fear thou art hurt. Pray, come with me to our lodgings, that my grandmother may heal thy wounds and we may offer thee what poor hospitality we can. Though, I confess, the reason I am here is because we are in need of fresh water.”

Still Shaheen could not speak, rage and resentment keeping him silent.

“Sir, the night draws near. I must return to my grandmother for she has no protection other than my poor self. But if you would forgive me, sir, may I ask how comes it we have not met thee before? Art thou but newly arrived in the city? Or hast thou long been living here, unknown to us? Dost know of fresh water here?”

“I know where there is water,” growled Shaheen. For honour’s sake he could do no less than give life in return for life. “I will lead thee to it. But ask no more questions of me. I shall not answer.”

And so Shaheen led Roshan to the gate near the boy’s abode, where one of the secret wells was to be found. Then greatly would the boy have thanked him, and many questions would the boy have asked, but when he turned to give his thanks, Shir Shaheen had disappeared.

“Hark, how the sons of thy grandchildren acclaim my tale, my friend. For what boy’s heart could not be moved by Roshan’s valour? The tale has cheered thee, also, I think, for thy eye brightens as thou dost reflect on all that then passed between the boy and Shir Shaheen. So my tale, and thy recovery, shall continue.”

© Damaris Browne

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