The Devil in the Dust
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In which Julianne encounters the "devil in the dust"
These steep-sided hills threw out rocky spurs, twenty or thirty feet of sudden, sharp-edged cliff. Just after the road bent around one such outcrop, they found the tail of the queue. A mule-driver with three bone-bare beasts monstrously overladen; then an ox-wagon, another, a small train of wagons; then the caravan Blaise had spoken of, a string of camels that would stretch half a mile or more when they were moving, but were hobbled in small groups at the roadside now while their drivers crouched over cooking-fires in the shade. All these people, Julianne supposed, must be bound for Roq de Rançon: the trade good for them, essential for the castle. And all of it halted, for fear of a creature all the garrison of the Roq might not be able to destroy or chase away; and who knew how long the djinni would choose to dance in the road?
The caravan, Blaise indicated, was keeping a prudent but not a nervous distance from the djinni, just comfortably out of sight. They would find that around the next bend...
So they took the next bend, Blaise leading. He and the other men were visibly on edge now, touching fingers to sword-hilts or axe-hafts and muttering useless advice to each other. Even Julianne found her legs moving more slowly, her fingers sweating in Elisande's grip and her eyes with a tendency to jerk a little at every movement they caught, every sound that reached her.
Around the bend the road narrowed, to squeeze between two of those inconvenient outcroppings of rock; and just there, in the eye of the needle was where the djinni stood.
If that was a djinni. Julianne wouldn't know a djinni from an 'ifrit from a manifestation of the God, and for a moment what she saw was what Blaise had described - only a dust-devil such as they'd seen a couple of times already on the journey, a sudden twist of wind made tangible.
But this dust-devil didn't stir, it stood rock-still between its jutting rocks; and it stood quite as high as those walls of rock, like a pillar balanced on a point; and it spun so fast that at this distance it seemed not to spin at all, but rathyer to be an endless coil of silver-grey rope that climbed itself and swallowed itself and began the climb again.
A few paces before the djinni stood a boy, ten or twelve years old and dressed much as Elisande was dressed, only that his burnous was torn and soaked a vivid red. He stood transfixed, staring and sobbing; and what he stared at was not the djinni, but what had been his right arm. It hung loose and dreadful from his shoulder, bare white bones barely joined now, stripped of skin and muscle.
Both girls were briefly still, as still as the djinni, as still as the boy. Elisande it was who moved first, who pulled free of Julianne's hold and ran forward, past Blaise's gesture of denial. She reached the boy and took his other arm, and turned him; and beckoned imperiously to the sergeant, shouting "Take him, quickly! Back to the fires, look after him..."
Blessedly, Blaise asked no questions. This he could deal with. He hurried to take the boy from Elisande's grasp, picked him up and handed him to one of his men, with quick instructions. That man ran off down the road, the fainting boy slack in his arms. As they passed Julianne she stirred, shook the numbness of shock from her head and walked slowly on to join Elisande and the sergeant.
"Why...?" Her voice came out in a cracked whisper; she swallowed dryly and tried again. "Why do you want to know its name?"
Elisande smiled thinly. "It helps."
"So what will you do, just ask it?"
"No," fiercely. "Never ask a djinni a question, it isn't safe. If you don't know that, just stand quiet," though her fingers closing tightly on Julianne's sleeve said that she was glad to have her there, if only standing quiet. For her part, Julianne had no intention of doing anything more. This close, she could see the roiling dust that wove the ever-turning rope of the djinni's body, that must have ripped the boy's flesh from his arm when he stupidly, unthinkingly reached to touch. She was frightened beyond measure; almost she wanted Blaise to grip her again, to drag her back to the litter and leave Elisande to face this monstrous thing alone.
But the sergeant was rapt, stunned it seemed by this proximity to an alien magic. He wasn't offering rescue, nor truly did she want it. Curiosity had brought her here; a swift loyalty would keep her at her new friend's side, despite her craven soul.
Elisande lifted her head and her voice, though both took a visible effort. "Peace be upon you, spirit."
"And upon you also."
The reply came from the heart of the spinning tower, oddly light, almost female but not in the least human. There was no body behind it, no beat of blood, no hint of mortality. Julianne shuddered, and saw Blaise stir in the corner of her eye as though he too wanted to run and could not.
"My name is Elisande."
A laugh greeted that, like the chime of cold bells; and then, a gift graciously given in return, "And mine is Shaban Ra'isse Khaldor."
"I have heard of you, Djinni Khaldor," Elisande said, with a deep bow.
Again the laugh. "And I of you."
"They speak of you in the Silent Quarter, great one, but not here."
"That is true."
"Your purposes must be momentous, to bring you so far." Her voice strained down at the end of the sentence, lower than was comfortable for her, to make it oh so plain that this was an observation only, and in no sense a question.
Once more the laugh: amusement without humour, Juliannr thought. The djinni's voice dropped an octave in imitation, perhaps in mockery, as it said, "This is not far, little one. No distance is far, to the djinn."
"I have heard that. But I have heard also that the djinn are seldom interested to concern themselves with the deeds of humankind."
"That too is true."
"As they should be. But I have waited long enough." The djinni span faster yet, and the column of its body rose like smoke into the sky; and it said, "Go back to the Sharai, Lisan of the Dead Waters. They will bring you a gift of questions."
Julianne saw Elisande's jaw drop open at that, and knew that she too was gaping. Go back to the Sharai? To the Sharai?
But then the djinni spoke again, and this time not to Elisande. "And for you, Julianne de Rance: go where you are sent, and marry where you must."
And once more this day - even here, at the foot of a tower of dust and enchantment - she felt the sting of her pride and position, and her voice was entirely ice as she replied, "And why do you suppose that I would not, or that I need a djinni to point me to my duty?"
Elisande hissed in alarm, and snatched at her skirts too late to still her.
This time, the djinni's laugh was louder. "I do not suppose either one, daughter of the Shadow. But your mind is murky now. Trust this, that your duty will come clear. The journey is necessary, and the marrying also. And trust this too, that your father's name is great but yours will be the greater, if you fail not."
And there was a thunderclap that shook slabs from the walls of rock on either side, and made the ground tremble beneath her; she closed her eyes against a great cloud of dust, and when she opened them again the djinni was gone and the road was clear for as far as she could see ahead.
Elisande was still sitting with her head in her hands, muttering to herself. When Julianne touched her shoulder, she glared up and said, "I told you! I told you, don't ask it questions..."
"I didn't mean to," defensively. "What harm, in any case?"
"What harm? It gave you answers!" And then, in response to Julianne's bewilderment, "Don't you know anything?"
"About the djinn, no." Nor did she care to learn, if it meant having conversations of elliptical nonsense in a constant state of fascinated terror. "It told me nothing. Though I'd like to know how it knew my name."
Elisande groaned, and pushed herself cautiously to her feet. Even through her own indignation and uncertainty, Julianne saw how drained the smaller girl seemed. She offered her arm for support, and Elisande clung to it, more gratefully than eother might have expected.
"It knew your name," she said carefully, "because it was waiting for you. Perhaps for me, for us both; but certainly for you. That's why it was here."
"Don't be ridiculous."
"It said so! 'I have waited long enough,' remember? It waited, and we came. It gave us both a message; yours was a trap, and you didn't see it."
"How am I trapped?" she demanded.
"Julianne, you stand in a djinni's debt. Don't you understand? You asked, not it offered. It gave you service, which must be repaid. They always claim their debts; and they choose the manner of repayment."
No, she didn't understand. What could any djinni want of her, what could she do for a spirit creature that it might think worth the doing?
She shook her head, calling up stubbornness again. Wouldn't think about it, wouldn't risk worrying it into truth.
"Have you," she said instead, "have you really been among the Sharai?"
"Yes. Once. My grandfather sent me, he said it would be good for my education..."
"I suppose it would have been," Julianne said, trying to sound just as casual. "Well, it was. No one else here knew how to speak to a djinni."
Elisande made a wry face. "I've never done it before. But they tell stories, the Sharai, stories that are lessons, how to live in the world; and a lot of their stories are about the djinn. I don't know what to do, though," her voice almost breaking suddenly, now that the danger seemed past, "I don't know how to protect you. None of the stories ever offered a way to evade a debt owed to a djinni. Well, no way that worked..."
Again a shake of Julianne's head. "We'll be in the Roq by sunset tomorrow. A thousand men to protect me there, and afterwards all the strength of Elessi for the young Baron's wife. And besides, I am my father's daughter. His name will do what any number of men cannot." And the djinni said that my name would be greater, but she wasn't going to think about that. "It called you Lisan," she went on, remembering. "What did it mean? Lisan of the Dead Waters, it said."
"I don't know what it meant," said Elisande; but Julianne thought she was lying at least a little.
Walking back towards the litter, they passed the boy with the ruined arm, lying in dark shadow by one of the camel-drivers' fires. Though he seemed unconscious now, there were three men knelt beside, to keep him still.
The sergeant's man crouched grim-faced over the small hot fire, holding his dagger in the flame.
Neither girl spoke; both perhaps were counting their steps, counting their breaths, waiting.
Blaise grunted something to the man, then said, "Please, ladies, will you hurry now?"
Before they reached the next turn in the road, they heard the boy at last begin his screaming.
Read an extract from Feast of the King's Shadow
© Chaz Brenchley, 2004, 2008, 2022.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
Marron, another central character from The Devil in the Dust appears in an extract which you can read on Chaz Brenchley's website. Better still, read the book: The Devil in the Dust, by Chaz Brenchley is published by Wizard's Tower Press.