The mummer danced before us, red ribbons dancing from his elbows and hanging from his knees as he throated sticks and then belched fire in flamboyant gouts from his mouth. Asra watched him for a time before retrieving a coin from within her robes and tossing it into the wicker basket at his feet. The frivolous nature of his performance evoked patrician impulses of scorn, which I thought I had hidden, but she gave me a knowing grin and gestured for us to continue.
We walked in companionable silence for a time. The conversation about Armand had sent her into a relative state of solemnity and for me, there was a consideration for her feelings. She had been open to a degree that challenged my faith and perceptions, but I was aware that simply because a door was open, did not mean that there would not be peril stood behind it.
‘Did the fire breathing bother you?’ she said.
I stiffened, caught by her perceptions before I nodded.
‘There are associations for me with the careless use of fire, milady.’
She closed her eyes and her hand went to her breast in a gesture of tribute.
‘Who did you lose?’
My wife, my children. My brothers and parents.
She reached out and took my arm, a loyal child with a loving parent. I flinched, fearful of what passersby might think but she paid it no mind.
‘I am sorry for your loss.’ she said.
The strength in her grasp was withheld but present. A supple grace and the calluses that came from endless regimes of the scimitar and spear as well as whatever unarmed combat she had learned.
‘My experiences of the first djinn war were academic. The second one, less so.’ I said.
She turned and looked at me.
‘My training was part of my father’s response to the first. The engineering works that connected the reservoir. He opened the trade routes when he was counselled against it, simply because, as he put it, to the djinn, we are all kindling for their fire.’
The first war had been a result of exuberance.
The second, intention.
It was taught that the djinn were part of the trinity of Allah’s creations, as a child. It was a contentious part of theology that there was no mention of the Under Tribes or the Alfar until after the First Djinn War.
I stopped and stared at her.
I had seen a range of expressions on her face. Surprise was a new one to me.
‘You do not know of them? And you call yourself a man of learning.’
Her tone was whimsical but my embarrassment made me sensitive to the edge in her words.
‘Daw-Alfar and Zalam-Alfar. We will start from there. If there is an element of pragmatism to my telling, you must forgive me. My interactions with them do not stray far from that realm.
By pragmatism, you mean killing?
‘See, now you’re showing an understanding of me.’
I laughed, then caught myself, but at the last moment, she joined in and I knew that we were on relatively safe ground again.
As informal as my ‘alliance’ with Armand was, the formal version of it was less passionate but with more at stake than our emotions. Father had negotiated an informal agreement with The Crow King, who held dominion over the Forests Of Night’s Breathing, and Armand had been on his way, that night, to serve as an envoy to visit my father.
So, we saw one another far sooner than I had anticipated. He stood there, before my father, with letters of introduction. I think I managed to hide my expression reasonably well.
However, he was not only my father but before he was the Caliph, he had invented the role that he had trained me for. Discretion, however was always one of his favourite tools and so he pretended that this was simply another part of his duties.
Armand, in formal clothes, did manage to set my heart beating a little faster though. Whether that was aesthetic or emotional, I will defer to whatever artistic license you demonstrate in the recollection. Still, in the ceremonial armour of scale metal shaped into layers of black edged feathers and a helmet shaped into a beak, he did look quite dashing.
However, amidst the letters of introduction, was a request that would concern me directly.
The Crow King, according to legend, was the offspring borne of a lonely woman’s wish for a child and the goodwill of a crow-spirit. As we waited to board the ship that would take us across the sea, he confided that it was a convenient fiction, designed to hide the truth. That, if any parentage could be inferred, it was desperate circumstances and ambition that birthed him into being. Armand said that in person, he was intense but personable, and having known poverty endeared him to his subjects with the attitude that rule was a privilege, not a right. Once we were aboard, then we would alternate the two nights journey, wrapped around one another.
There really is nothing like an educated man’s tongue exploring you as a storm rages outside. I don’t think I enjoyed a sea voyage quite as much as I did that one.
He was right, too about the Crow King. He had a quick mind, and his concern for his people that felt genuine.
Which was when I learned about the Alfar.
Armand had direct experience of both breeds.
The Daw-Alfar, as a partial translation, means Light Elf and the Zalam-Alfar translates as Dark Elf. A layman might believe the former possessed of qualities of virtue, mercy and beauty with the latter acting as their opposite. That is the stuff of children’s tales, and the truth is rooted in more tangible impulses.
The Daw-Alfar possess wings and a large lung capacity that have allowed them to adapt to life in the mountain regions that ring the Forest of Night’s Breathing. The Demon’s Spine extends onto the Staggus Region, which is where the puerile legends of angelic beautiful entities originated. I say puerile, because with the Alfar, a romantic notion renders you meat in their bellies or worse.
Which I will return to, simply because it was not explained to me at the time. Plus, I’m hungry and talking about them ruins my appetite.
We ate kibbe nye and freshly baked flatbread at a stand. Asra was not allowed to pay, but she passed coins over afterwards and was met with effusive praise.
‘Sometimes, I forget that you’re actually a princess.’ I said.
She laughed and rolled her eyes before shaking her head.
‘This, as the poetess Christine Strigas says, is a tale where the princess saves herself.’
We ate and washed it down with water before proceeding on our walk.
‘It was the Daw-Alfar that had caused the issue for The Crow King. I had yet to meet a single Zalim-Alfar but that would come in time, I am sad to say. The allusion I made to what might be worse than being eaten, it originates with them. Plus I’ve eaten and so have you.’
We walked, and she continued to talk about the Daw-Alfar and Armand.
The Forest of Night’s Breathing gains its name from the species of tree that lives there. They exist in symbiosis with a type of fungi that clings to them, and uses pockets of gas that build up until they generate enough force to send clouds of spores further along. The partnership keeps the forest thriving but the process of gas generation produces a sound akin to breathing. They absorb sunlight during the day and then the fungi generates the gas at night. The process also forces the wood to absorb mineral elements which give the timber a durability and hardness which adds immensely to its value. The Iron Brothers force splinters underneath the skins of their student’s hands to add the building of calluses and they are known for their ability to block blades with their palms.
All the wonders of Allah’s creation. His designs demand awe, don’t they?
Armand told me this as we rode slowly from the citadel into the depths of the forest.
‘So, how many of these things might we be facing?’
Armand scratched his chin.
‘I hope for none. Perhaps a villager lost to madness, which would be preferable to the alternative.’
I peered through the trees ahead and saw the snow-littered peaks of the mountains. My breath was visible, and I pulled the surrounding furs over my shoulders.
‘I’ve seen much of this world and fought with more than my share.’
He acknowledged me with a smile and touched his forehead in the traditional notion to show respect within the Caliphate. It warmed my heart more than the furs did.
‘Not the Alfar. I’ve fought five in my time. You remember that scar on my right thigh?’
I did, a deep worm like tunnel that went from hip to knee. I had been able to place the tip of my tongue into it. The association, once sensual now gained a sheen of displeasure for me.
‘It managed that?’
‘And that was after it murdered five men at arms too. I’ve had to talk his highness out of a pogrom more than once.’
I pulled on my horse’s reins to slow his canter and asked him why.
‘Because it would demand too high a price for victory.’
I glanced around me to see that we were entirely alone.
‘Presumably, we are expendable?’ I said.
He chuckled and moved his horse abreast mine.
‘Symbolic, too’ he said.
We both laughed at that. He made me laugh often and without mummery or artifice. My work held me apart, hence why so many of my sexual encounters were opportunities rather than stratagems. He also knew what was required of me, and so I could let myself feel with him, rather than think. His strength was not a threat, but a tool of mutual pleasure. If anyone else sought to touch my throat, they risked being gelded but with him, I could ask that he tighten his grip until my orgasms resembled acts of spiritual possession.
I wished that we were here on pleasure, the air was invigorating and the thought of the silence absorbing my rapturous screams held a mischevious appeal. However our hands strayed to the hilts of our weapons rather than one another.
That, of course, if we survived whatever waited for us.
There were eight bodies found. Torn apart and with organs missing, and the evidence of blood splatter found some twelve feet above the ground was what led Armand to advise that this was a Daw-Alfar. He had mapped out where the bodies were found and our destination was the central point to all of them. Still, we rode on, lapsing into a companionable silence as we moved deeper in, past where the light failed to reach.
We had struck camp, a convenient fiction, as we could not allow ourselves the luxury of relaxation. The Daw-Alfar, he whispered were intelligent but arrogant with it. We were bags of meat, a starter or apéritif with presumptions of grandeur. When he said for us to lay down, I hesitated.
My fear, sudden and debilitating, was that it would be the last time I saw him.
The common traits are that an Alfar is close to seven feet tall, long ears tipped with fine hairs that allow them to sense movement past the range of their visual and olfactory capabilities, long limbs that fold in upon themselves and fingers tipped with claws that can slice through plate steel. Their teeth retract into housings in their gums, and they possess three layers of needle teeth that are controlled by a set of muscles akin to those in the jaws of men, in that they can manipulate them from side to side or forward in a limited motion. They sleep a great deal, sometimes centuries, which is why there has not been the concerted effort to remove them from existence as there was with the Djinn. They possess a terrible beauty and intelligence that allows them to control their numbers with a discipline and practice a decree of isolationism that is their sole virtue.
I knew these details when it swept down, a blade in a perfect arc of descent.
It cocked it’s equine head to one side and smiled, its bloodless lips pulled back over gleaming black teeth. There was a beauty to it but it was alien. I could not believe that Allah would allow for such a thing.
But then there were the djinn.
‘It was quite amusing to see you try to pretend to be sleeping.’
It flared its nostrils and sighed.
‘It would amuse me to see what sort of bastard I could cripple you into having.’
Armand stood there, bow in hand. Arrow notched and already beginning to move forward.
I snatched up my spear and started to run towards it.
It flapped its thick, moist wings and laughed with a scornful glee. Its cold arrogance betrayed a sublime indifference to anything but its own need.
The alfar were demons. They were Not of this World, I will go to my grave believing in that.
Armand loosed off an arrow, and I drew back my arm to throw the spear. I knew that I had to aim, not at where it was but where it would be. My run gave the proper amount of speed and momentum to deliver a smooth and controlled flow. In those moments, I knew what it was to be touched by the will of Allah.
It sunk into the Alfar’s chest at the same time that Armand’s arrow punched into the side of its throat. It shuddered before falling to the ground. It gave a wet cough and started to pull the spear from its chest with one hand whilst trying to gain purchase on the arrow. Armand fired a second arrow a few inches above. I drew my scimitars, and strode forward, ready to swing them into its shoulder. It took its hand away from the spear in its chest before raking at me in a frenzied swipe of its clawed hand. I swung the scimitar in my left hand forward, underhand and its edge cut into the first joint of its finger and slid on through. It gushed blood the consistency of oil, steaming where it made contact with the air. Armand’s third arrow made its eyes roll back in its head and I leapt forward, bringing the blade on my right forward and swinging it at the right eye where it had turned outward. The bones around the eye tended to be the weakest point on the face. My blade slid in and the impact travelled down my arm as it bucked out a final spasm of agony.
Armand kept his bow up. I drew the left back and cleaved its skull in two. The momentum allowed me to pull the right free. I stopped after a few judicious blows and stepped back. My heart thumped in my chest.
‘How did we manage that?’
Armand lowered his bow and grinned at me.
‘I’m just happy we did. I think it might have stopped to gloat, but we were lucky.’
I figured I had managed to hit something vital in its chest.
‘I know they sleep a lot. You should have someone bring it back, study it.’
He chuckled and strode to where I stood, tossed his bow to the ground and pulled me into his embrace. His mouth was warm, soft against mine as his gloved fingers swept my hijab from my hair.
It spoke to his feelings, his purpose and direction of intimacy more than his poetry, as adept as it, in truth.
She narrowed her eyes in recollection and brought her fingers to cup her chin.
‘Yes, the king sent soldiers but by the time they arrived, its body had gone.’
A shock of surprise made my eyes widen.
She sighed and nodded.
‘They police themselves. Perhaps it had broken some unspoken covenant. Certainly, they were not bothered by such savagery again.’
We were at the gates of the castle. We had walked with our arms joined but as we arrived, she slipped her arm from mine and rested her hand on my shoulder.
‘That, I feel is enough for today. Some time in silence would be good for us both. You have much to write of.’
She bowed to me and returned to her chambers.
Perhaps she had sensed my desire to return to the question of the Zalim-Alfar, or even the Djinn. The theological implications that there were creatures who had not been the creations of Allah disturbed me to the core of my being. The more that I learned of Lady Asra and her adventures, the more questions that emerged and they demanded answers.
With each tale, more courage was demanded of me and I wondered if I had the fortitude to capture them all.