WHITE ELEPHANTS



WHITE ELEPHANTS, by Linda Donahue

Driving gilded chariots, gaudy embassy guards rode across the Persian desert.  A shaded chariot, drawn by four horses in silk caparison, led a white elephant, its tusks decorated with tassels and capped with golden balls.  Silk curtains enclosed the howdah on the elephant’s back and a dark-skinned Mahout rode with bare legs tucked behind the elephant’s ears.

Darius, chosen as treasure guard, nudged his horse towards the white elephant.  His fellow Sassanian guardsmen filed into the front of the procession, leading the way to the shah’s palace in Ctesiphon.

Nearer the elephant, Darius’s horse snorted and tugged against the reins.  Even Persian horses disliked camels.  Clearly, they were less fond of Indian elephants.

For much of the first hour, Darius minded his skittish mount, thinking only that he hoped never go to war against India . . . not if they rode elephants into battle.  When not coaxing his horse or eying the elephant warily himself, he glanced at the howdah‘s fluttering curtains.  Inside rode the shah’s gift, a new wife.  His thoughts wandered to grounds more dangerous than battle . . . to curious thoughts as to what an Indian princess looked like.

Slender fingers drew aside the silken veil an inappropriate  sliver.  A lilting, feminine voice said, “I expected camels.”

“Camels are not as maneuverable as horses and thieves hide in these hills,” Darius said.

“I appreciate your honesty,” she said, her voice like a thousand songbirds.

“You speak Persian?”  Clearly she did; Darius cursed himself an idiot for asking such a stupid question.  However, he hadn’t expected her to speak to him at all.

“My father wouldn’t have sent me if I didn’t.”  The curtain drew back a little more, revealing a perfect almond-shaped eye, its iris as dark and unfathomable as the midnight sky.

His mother had spoken of love striking faster than a snake and that in some instances, love’s “bite” could be just as deadly.  This, Darius felt certain, was one such instance.

He struggled to keep his eye in check and to master his heart’s bumptious whim.  He should be watching for bandits, not for another glimpse of the princess.  And his heart had no business beating for a woman betrothed to another.

The curtain drew back farther.  Too late, Darius saw her delicate, heart-shaped face.  His mother would disown him if she knew of his foolishness.  But a heart was harder to govern than the outlying tribes.

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Darius,” he said, wondering where his tongue had found the strength to utter a sound.

“I am Sitara.”

If a word could have texture, her name would be velvet. Darius tasted her name as it rolled silently across his tongue.  Besides feeling as lightweight as a musical note, her name tasted as sweet as pomegranate juice and was more intoxicating than haoma.

As the sun tracked across the sky they talked, at first brief banter, then longer exchanges.  Princess Sitara told him of tiger hunts and Darius spoke of falconry.

Leaning from her howdah, she smiled at Darius.  “In India, it is said that a man enamored of birds is equally hard to cage, for he will always yearn to fly free.”

“But all birds nest, do they not?  Even the farthest flying birds return home when the sun goes down.”

“A man is not a bird, for many birds take a single mate to last a lifetime.”

“So do some men,” countered Darius.

When Sitara fell quiet, Darius rode uneasily, feeling the sun’s heat, tasting sand and noting the arid scent of withering brush.  As her silence endured, he feared he’d insulted her.

Then she asked, “Are you a good man, Darius?”

“I am not certain what makes a man good.  Is a good man only good because fortune smiles upon him?  Might not that same man turn evil if fate turned against him?”

“How does fortune gaze upon you?”

Before today Darius would have answered that fate smiled upon him.  Knowing Sitara’s fate sent her to the shah’s harem, he wondered if instead fortune mocked him.

“No answer?”  Sitara laughed, a sound like lute music.  “Perhaps fortune has done us both ill.  Yet I bear it no grudge, for karma balances all, if not in this life, then in the next.”

Before Darius could explain that the next life was either in Heaven or Hell, shouting erupted.  Sassanid guards and embassy guards aimed their lances towards the sky.

Darius’s gaze followed the glinting points.  He pulled his own lance from the saddle straps.  A dark shape, as enormous as a storm cloud bringing the spring flood to the Tigris, flew across sun.

A giant bird bearing curved talons and a black beak flew on heliotrope wings broader across than a ship was long.  The roc swooped downward, letting out an earsplitting cry, as it swept through upraised lances.

Shafts snapped as easily as if the giant bird had waded through twigs.  It’s talons latched onto the howdah while the Mahout driver beat the roc’s legs with his stick.

Darius’s horse bucked, throwing him.  On all sides, horses shied and reared.  A couple bolted riderless.

While Darius scrambled to his feet, drawing his scimitar, the roc lifted the white elephant and the princess skyward.  Dozens of guardsmen jabbed uselessly at air with swords and lances.

Above the embassy caravan, the bull elephant swung beneath the great roc’s grey speckled underside.  As the animal thrashed, the Mahout driver fell and broke his neck upon landing.

Darius collapsed to his knees, torn as to whether he hoped the howdah‘s thick leather straps held or broke.  A falling death would be preferable to being torn apart and eaten.  Yet if the roc landed with its prize intact, the princess might escape.

Sassanid bowmen loosed a volley of arrows.

Over the din, the bony emissary screeched, “Don’t hit the elephant!”

Yet even before the first arrow had been fired, the roc had flown out of range.

###

 Darius stood at the back of the shah’s audience chamber.  As appointed treasure guard, the duty had befallen him to protect both the elephant and the princess.  To lose one was unspeakable.  To lose both would surely cost him his head.

Thinking of Princess Sitara’s fate, Darius didn’t care what happened to him.  He deserved his punishment for having failed her.  Worse, he had failed his shah, the celebrated Anushirvan, He of the Immortal Soul.

Before the shah, Emissary Omparkash pleaded, “You must retrieve Gajra!”

“The princess is no doubt resting inside the roc’s stomach,” the shah said.

“Gajra is the emperor’s white elephant,” the emissary explained, as excitable now as he’d been when the roc had flown off with the pride of India’s herd.

“Shall I send men to die in search of bones?  Or is it tusks your emperor desires?”

Emissary Omparkash grabbed his turbaned head.  “It cannot be.  The emperor raised Gajra from a calf.  He will be most distraught.”

Not a word was said of Princess Sitara.  That the shah lost a new wife apparently concerned him little.  That the emissary had lost his emperor’s daughter concerned him not at all.

Darius almost spoke up, but a woman’s value, even that of a princess, was less than a rare animal.  Only Darius would mourn her loss and pray for her soul.

“He should have killed the creature!” the emissary shouted, jabbing a thin finger before Darius’s face.  “Because of him, Gajra is lost.  Now I will likely perish in the mines and the emperor will go to war against Persia!”

“Over an elephant?” the shah said.

“Gajra is not an elephant, but India’s ivory treasure!”

The shah rose, his opulent robes cascading around his feet like liquid gold dripping with gemstones.  He raised a bejeweled hand.  “Enough!  Darius, go to the temple and seek out Magus Majnoon.  Bring him to me at once.”

###

From the back of the shah’s audience chamber, Darius watched Magus Majnoon set up a small altar with candles in colored glass holders.  The elderly priest drank haoma and stared into the fire.  He chanted until his words slurred and his gaze turned glassy-eyed.  When his head turned towards Darius, his eyes focused.  “You–”

Darius’s shame reddened his cheeks.  Whatever the magus saw could exonerate or condemn him.  Rationally, he knew he could not have prevented the roc’s attack, nor had he been in any better position to battle it than any of the other guards.  Nonetheless Darius felt guilt and remorse and those feelings conjured an imaginary sharp edge pressing against his throat, a sensation so vivid that Darius wondered there wasn’t blood dripping down his shirt.

The priest’s composure returned and he bowed to the shah.  “Through the eyes of the divine, I saw a white elephant on Mount Demavand.  The roc cannot touch it.”

Emissary Omparkash clapped.  “Yes, yes.  Ganesha protects the ivory treasure!”

Magus Majnoon continued, “In my divine­-touched sight, Ahura Mazda bathed the guard Darius in a Heavenly aura.  The Creator illuminates the truth, Great Shah.  This man is fravashi.”

A soul chosen to battle evil.  Yet such souls didn’t always win.

Darius felt weak from relief.  The magus’s vision offered a chance at redemption.  His knees almost buckled, but luckily he stood against a tiled wall and felt grateful for its cool support.

“Divine spirits tell me,” the magus said, “that only this man and this man alone can save the elephant.”

The elephant.  Did no one care about Princess Sitara?  Darius trembled from anger welling inside.  But that anger gave him the strength to stand tall.

The shah nodded.  “Darius, come.”

The shah led Darius to a treasure chamber filled with riches that would tempt the most honest man to pocket a few coins or jewels.  Darius touched nothing.

More than a dozen rolled carpets leaned against the wall.  The shah selected one with double-thick, fringed edges and corner tassels made of silk threads.  With great reverence, he unrolled the carpet.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” the shah said.  “A flying carpet.”

Darius tried not to scoff.  Magic existed in living creatures–monsters, beasts, angels, demons and sometimes humans.  It did not exist in objects.  That was the invention of storytellers.

Yet the shah smiled knowingly.  He sat on the carpet and said, “It can only carry one.  To make it fly, you utter the name Feroz.”

The carpet hovered in the air, its fringe dancing at Darius’s eye-level.

“Feroz?” Darius echoed.

“The name of the air efreet trapped in the carpet’s weaving.”  The shah commanded, “Down,” and the carpet settled on the floor.  “Do not damage it.  A large enough tear will allow the efreet to escape.”  The shah shrugged.  “Before you ask, I do not know how large is too large.  Even the mountain mystic who gave me the carpet could not say, though he hinted that should the efreet escape, it would not be charitable to whomever released it.”

Darius nodded; efreets’ temperaments ranged from violent to capricious, but seldom were they in a generous spirit.

“Do not fly until you are outside the city gates,” the shah said, rolling up the carpet.  “No one must see, for many would commit murder to possess such magic.”

Wearing full armor, a curved scimitar at his hip, a quiver and bow across his back, Darius wove through the bazaar’s billowing maze carrying the carpet.  He ignored sellers beckoning from the tents packed side-to-side.

An old woman stepped into his path, her eyes milky white and clouded over.  Though clearly blind, she seemed to stare right at Darius.

“Pardon me.”  Darius tried to sidestep her, but she mirrored his movement.

“I cannot judge the color of cloth,” she said, “but in matters of destiny, truth and the future, I see clearer than most.”

“Then tell me, seer, do you see me rescuing India’s prized white elephant?”

“Yes.”

Though she confirmed the magus’s vision, the faraway drone in her voice left an unsettling chill in Darius’s blood.

“You must kill the woman,” the old seer added.  “Strike when she does not see, when her eye is turned skyward.”

Darius backed away.  “I won’t.”  How could he even consider such a vile act?

The old woman’s voice followed him.  “She is yatu.”  A demonic spirit.

Darius scowled.  “You saw wrong.  She is not yatu.”

“Kill her and blame the roc.  No one will fault you.”  At that, the woman disappeared among the crowd.

Darius hurried through the marketplace.  If the old woman had seen evil, it was only his lust for Sitara.

Beyond the city walls and past the first sandy rise, Darius unrolled the carpet.  He sat cross-legged and gripped its edges.  To fly would surely be marvelous.  To rescue the elephant and redeem himself would be even more wonderful.  Saving the princess’s life, however, would be a bittersweet victory.

Feeling nervous and uncertain, he said, “Feroz.”

The carpet hovered as hesitantly as Darius had spoken.

“Fly?”  Though he tried, Darius couldn’t stop the questioning tone from raising his voice.

The carpet sailed forward, scraping over rocks and low-lying shrubs.  Darius’s heart seized as thorny branches scratched the carpet’s underside.

“Fly higher!” Darius shouted.

The carpet pitched back and soared.

Darius clutched the edges, his teeth clenched, his eyes squinting against the wind.  All he could focus on was how flimsy the carpet felt beneath him, a thought which tightened his hold and quickened his heartbeat.  He kept repeating a mental mantra: Soon it would be over . . . soon it would be over.

“Now you’re too high!” Darius finally managed to say.

“We are no higher than a camel’s back,” the carpet said, still climbing.

Darius squinted and arched his neck to peer straight downward.  “You lie.  We’re easily as high as three camels!”

The carpet rippled beneath Darius, like a mildly amused shrug.  “A trifling fall.  You’d hardly break any bones.”

“Quit squirming,” Darius commanded.  Passing a tree, its top just barely beneath them, he added, “And watch out for trees . . . and by that I mean, don’t hit them.”

“As you command,” the carpet muttered, the efreet’s voice muffled, almost as if he chewed on the carpet fibers to stifle his answer.

At last the carpet leveled off.  As Darius caught his breath, he reevaluated the flying carpet concept.  Perhaps the old methods of travel were better.  Man was not meant to fly.

Now Darius muttered, “Allah, preserve me.”

Though the carpet traveled much too fast for comfort, he knew the success of his mission depended on a speedy arrival, and so, though he longed for the carpet to slow down, he kept his mouth shut, his jaw tightly clenched.  His heart finally settling into a more acceptable, yet still racing beat, Darius realized the carpet had spoken.  Suddenly, the carpet became more than woven and knotted yarns, but a living entity, an efreet . . . a dangerous creature named Feroz.

His mother’s voice whispered in the back of his mind.  Never trust anyone whose eyes you cannot see.

###

The sun had barely moved in the sky before the carpet had carried Darius across what was easily a two days journey.  The foothills of the Alburz Mountains swelled below like a dry sea.  Dunes twisted like tangled snakes.  Ahead rose a storm of dust.

Darius directed the carpet towards the flurry.  The roc rose from the swirling dust then dove back into the storm.  Before the roc saw him, Darius commanded the carpet to land.

It hit ground with a bottom-scraping thud.  Darius glared at the carpet, wondering if the efreet’s foul nature made it so uncooperative or if the air elemental purposefully tried to destroy its prison.

“I didn’t put you there,” Darius said while rolling the carpet and pulling out thorns.  “It’s not my place to set you free.  I can only offer my sympathies.”

The carpet wiggled in dissatisfaction.

“To free you would cost me my life.  While you are imprisoned to this task, your situation makes you no different from the rest of us.”

At that the carpet settled down and Darius stashed it from view.

Beyond an outcropping of boulders and trees came loud squawking, heavy stomping and the roar of a bull elephant.

Darius crept up on the ruckus.  Hiding in the shadows of a mountain pine, he watched the reddish purple roc dive towards the white elephant.  Princess Sitara stood before the massive bull.  The howdah, hanging in tatters, clung to the elephant’s back while the elephant’s pointed tusks were bare, the tassels and golden balls that had once decorated them gone.

Sitara threw up her hands.  A prism of light spread before her.

The roc veered off screeching, then stubbornly circled back.

Darius stared at the shimmering rainbow-hued shield arcing over the ground like an overturned bowl.  The realization struck him three-fold: She with almond-eyes and keen wit was no mortal woman but of the pairaka; India’s emperor had sent a witch to wed Persia’s shah; and worst of all . . . Darius still desired her.

He sat against a boulder, listening as the roc made another failed attack.  The Yasna, Law against Demons, was clear.  All yatu were evil and their presence not to be tolerated beneath the Creator’s sky.

Darius retraced his steps then turned around and shouted, “Princess?  Are you nearby?  I’ve come to your rescue!”

If Sitara wished to pretend, she had the option to deceive him.  If she wished to be honest, she would not hide her magic.

“I’m here!” she cried, her tones dulcet even while shouting in feigned terror.

Darius ran to her aid, suspecting she chose deception . . . saddened she didn’t trust him.  But pairaka were deceptive by nature.  He glanced at the carpet peeking out from a clump of brush.  Pairaka were as untrustworthy as efreets.

Sitara grabbed a handful of dirt and threw it at the roc.  “Help!” she cried.

Staring at the ridiculous display, Darius almost forgot to draw an arrow.  The roc’s echoing screech snapped him to his senses.  He fired twice in succession.  The bird veered left, dodging the first arrow.  The downbeat of its wing blew the second aside.

Darius’s hand trembled.  Defending a caravan against raiders was simpler.  And raiders didn’t eat their prisoners.

He tossed aside the bow and drew his scimitar.  Despite the cool mountain air, sweat matted his shirt to his back.  A lucky thrust or jab might sink deep enough to kill.  With even a little luck, he might wound the roc bad enough it would retreat.  Certain a single-line strike would miss, Darius adjusted his grip and cut a wide arc through the air.

The soaring roc spun and dove, its black beak like an enormous spear.  At the last moment, the bird veered, swinging forward dagger-like talons.

Darius’s curved blade glanced off a talon.  The bird rose and circled back.

This time Darius reached higher as he swung.  Grey leg feathers showered him.  Feathers . . . but no blood.

The bird let out an angry squawk.  It reeled back and a talon scraped Darius’s shoulder, ripping off a couple of metal plates.

He glanced at Sitara, wondering if she would offer any real help.  Instead she threw small stones at the giant roc.

While crouching, Darius positioned his blade.

The roc reared back, swinging its talons towards him.

Darius leapt upward.  The scimitar struck solid flesh.  Blood sprayed from the leg wound.

The bird screamed and flapped wildly while hopping clear.  Every downbeat of the heliotrope wings stirred a great wind that blasted Darius, nearly knocking him over.  Only by planting his feet and broadening his stance could he withstand the storm.  The roc’s wingtips struck Darius’s face, slicing into flesh.  Dozens of tiny cuts welled with blood.

The bird jumped again.  Its landing shook the ground.  Darius stared up, standing beneath the giant creature whose legs reached taller than Darius.  The roc clacked its beak, arced its neck then jabbed downward as if picking at bugs.

Darius jumped aside.  When the beak darted past, he glimpsed his bloody reflection in the roc’s round black eye as large as a man’s head.

The roc slammed its beak into Darius, broadsiding him.        Darius fell and skid, still gripping his scimitar, the miracle attributed to his fear-locked grip.  He rolled clear just before the roc’s beak cracked the rocky ground beside him.  The sound echoed.  Darius scrambled to his feet, his arm and hip throbbing.

The roc lunged with its beak open.

Darius struck.  Although the curved edge of his sword clipped the side of the beak without leaving a scratch, the blow caused the roc to raise its head.  It screeched then snapped at Darius.  The loud clap of its beak clattered with such intensity Darius felt the vibration.

He swung upward, aiming for the bird’s speckled belly.  Even with his arm fully extended, he couldn’t do more than scratch the monster, but it might be enough to scare it off.

The roc jumped as high as the shah’s palace was tall.  So Darius’s blade only parted air.  Then the monster-bird landed behind him.

Darius scrambled away, seeking a better vantage.  While scaling a jagged outcropping of boulders, a dark shadow rapidly enveloped him.  Against the rock face he saw the roc’s shadow a moment before the hooked beak punched through the plates at his  shoulder.

Pain burst through him, the pain as sharp in his fingertips as at the point of impact.  He lost his grip and tumbled down the rocky slope.  Sprawling beneath the roc, Darius looked up at what would be his death and proof that even seers and magi could be mistaken.  Warm blood oozed beneath his armor, but he had feeling in his arm and fingers.  He breathed shallowly, every breath painful.  At least blood didn’t bubble inside his lungs.

The beak shot towards him.

A mix of fear and self-preservation gave him the strength to roll clear.  Darius scrambled to the nearest haven, a cluster of bushes growing beneath an overhang of rock, the same place he’d hidden the carpet.

The roc cocked its head, turning that black eye to study its prey.

Leaning against the carpet, Darius knew the answer, as if the efreet had whispered it on the wind.  He could never defeat the roc from the ground.  Not that he entertained any certainty he could defeat it in the air.  He merely thought his odds would be better.

Darius flung open the carpet, jumped on, then commanded, “Feroz!  Fly!  Keep me safe and maneuver me into striking positions.”

The carpet chased the roc.  At first the bird hopped backwards, then launched into flight.

The carpet turned sharply, staying on the roc’s tail.  The bird’s flapping wings produced a swirling wind that blasted Darius and caused the leading edge of the carpet to flip back and the fringe and corner tassels to flutter wildly.

The wind blew Darius over on his side.  He grabbed an edge just before rolling off the carpet and plunging to his death.  “You will not drop me!”  As an afterthought he added, “Should I fall, I command you to catch me.”

Though the wind roared in his ears, Darius swore he heard a muffled, “Yes, master.”  Yet the efreet was no willing servant.  Given the opportunity, Feroz would help the roc tear Darius to shreds.

The wind from the roc’s wings made it impossible to kneel on the carpet and swing a scimitar.  Besides, the tail feathers offered no good target.  While the roc’s belly made the ideal target, it was protected by talons.  “Fly above the creature!” Darius commanded.

Feroz darted atop the roc’s back.

The air much calmer, though still windy from their own flight, Darius struck downward.  Cut feathers twirled like falling autumn leaves.

“I have to hit deeper,” he shouted.

Feroz flew lower.  The roc arced upwards and turned.  Now it faced its attacker.  It squawked, flapping so hard that trees, which appeared no larger than shrubs, shook.

Darius hadn’t realized how high they’d flown.  From here he could see the very edges of the world, soft and blurry.  For a moment, he felt lightheaded.  Swallowing the large lump in his throat, Darius steeled his nerves and focused his sight on the target.

The carpet veered behind the roc.  It maneuvered much tighter than the monstrous bird could manage.  That advantage, coupled with only a scimitar seemed pale compared with the roc’s size, beak, and eight enormous talons.

The bird half-flipped in mid-air.  A talon raked a corner of the carpet.  Fibers tore.  A tassel dangled from a long strand . . . a strand that grew!  Before his eyes, carpet fibers wiggled looser, creating a tiny opening.

Darius’s heart seized, waiting to plummet to the ground.  Would he see the efreet escape?  Whatever an air elemental looked like, Darius hoped it would be spectacular, as it would be the last sight he took from this world into the next.

Not willing to die without making some effort to save his skin, Darius hunched over his sword, then grabbed the dangling tassel and the unraveling fibers.  As best he could, he twisted and tied the long strands with the tassel’s lead.  Then he prayed to Allah that his miserable efforts would be sufficient.

Miraculously, the carpet stayed on the roc’s tail.

Again the roc raked the air with one foot.  With each swipe of its talons, four daggers slashed nearer and nearer.

“Down,” Darius commanded, pointing at narrowly spaced trees.

Either the efreet saw his gesture or anticipated the maneuver.  Feroz wove between mountain pines.  Behind, the roc swooped low, but it pulled up rather than crash into the trees.  Darius used gorges and crevices to lead then escape from the roc, hoping to tire it out, hoping a magic carpet couldn’t be likewise exhausted.

When the roc seemed to falter, Darius commanded Feroz to sail up underneath.  “Aim for its throat.”

He laid flat on the carpet, staring at the hanging talons.  Feroz pushed hard against the high altitude winds.  But the monster’s throat remained just out of reach.  Feroz pushed harder.  Then the roc dropped rapidly, its talons rushing as though to go through Darius and the carpet both.

Seeing razor death dropping towards him, Darius closed his eyes and stabbed upwards.  His blade pierced the roc’s foot.

The bird screamed and twisted in mid-air.  While disengaging, it nearly wrenched the sword from Darius’s grasp.  It circled once then flew off.

Feroz chased after it.

“Let it go,” Darius commanded.  “Land beside the elephant.”

The carpet struck ground with a spine-jarring thud.  Nonetheless, Darius felt grateful for any landing.  As he examined Feroz’s torn fibers, he hoped the carpet would hold together long enough for him to return it with the efreet intact.

Quietly, Darius said, “I thank you for your valuable aid in fighting the roc.  I only hope you will remain in the carpet until I can return you to the shah.”

The fringed edges of the carpet rippled.  “Though you are no craftsman, your knots are holding.”

Sitara rushed up.  “That was the most heroic feat I’ve ever witnessed!  I’m certain my father will reward you most handsomely.”

Darius wished he had time to consider what to say.  “The flying carpet doesn’t surprise you?”

“I’ve heard of such wonders.  But a mere flying carpet pales in comparison to fighting off a roc.”

“I don’t know . . . you held the roc at bay for quite some time.  And with only rocks and dirt.”  There.  He had given her one more chance to tell the truth.

“I was lucky the roc wasn’t hungry.”

Darius sighed.  He almost wished she’d been truthful.  Almost.  He still felt torn about returning her to the shah.  On the one hand, if she married the shah, Darius might see her in the palace now and again.  Yet he would be delivering a witch into the shah’s harem.  And another man would marry this beautiful woman. . . .

She’s pairaka; they bewitch and beguileShe’s evil . . . yatu, as the old seer woman had said.

Darius gripped his scimitar so tightly his hand lost some feeling; if only his heart could be so easily numbed.  “I know the truth.  I saw. . . .”

“Every truth has many truths of perception around it.”

“According to all Holy Laws, I must kill you.  But will you answer one question?  Why didn’t you simply destroy the roc with magic?”

Sitara cocked her head.  “Because my magic cannot harm a magical creature.  In time, I would have tired and it would have killed me and Gajra.”

He weighed her words–every one of them–words spoken now and words spoken when they had first met.  His heart felt inclined to believe her.  Yet his head asked a nagging question: Who was she?  Had India’s emperor sent a trap to Persia’s shah?  “Are you really the emperor’s daughter?”

Sitara stared in genuine astonishment.  “Of course, I am.”

“But you’re”–he swallowed hard–“pairaka.”

“So was my mother.”  Her voice saddened and her dark eyes glistened with tears which she blinked away.  “Father burned her alive when he discovered the truth.  Yet he could not bring himself to kill me.”  She shrugged.  “But is a loveless marriage to your shah any better a sentence?”

Love is the most precious jewel any man can possess and is so often tossed aside without a thought, his mother used to say.

Darius sheathed his curved blade, knowing he could no more harm her than she could the roc.  “Run, princess.  I will not hunt you down.”

“Such a generous offer.  Won’t you be blamed for my death?”

Darius looked down, certain this truth had but one hard perception.  “No one cares if you are returned.  Only the white elephant matters.”

“Surely that’s because I was assumed dead.”

A glance at the shredded howdah made it seem unlikely anyone could have survived.  Had Sitara been mortal, she would be dead.  The fact of her survival condemned her.

As if reading his mind, she said, “As soon as I saw the roc, I lay flat in the howdah, using my powers to strengthen the straps.  If Gajra fell, I could not have helped him.”

That she had used her magic to protect the elephant might save her own life. Might, but doubtful.  Any witch could do good if only to appear good.

“Consider how impressed your shah will be if you return both Gajra and myself safely.”

“How impressed will he be when I report his new bride is–”  Darius swallowed the word, unable to say it.

“If I am so evil that you cannot even speak of it, why not kill me?”

Darius had no answer; he couldn’t admit his feelings.

“If you truly wish me to leave, I will,” she said.

Telling her to run free once had been difficult.  Staring into her almond-shaped eyes, he couldn’t say it again.  He didn’t want her to go.  But what he wanted wasn’t something he could have.

A dark shadow briefly blotted out the sun.  The roc screeched overhead.  Just as Darius looked up, a giant boulder fell from the roc’s talons.

Darius grabbed Sitara and dove, dragging her with him.  The boulder crashed a few feet away.

Gajra trumpeted in panic.

As Darius stood, the elephant charged.  One of Gajra’s tusks punched through Darius’s armor, impaling his side.  The bull shook Darius free, throwing him through the air.

Darius crashed on the shoulder the roc had injured.  Blood gushed from his side.  Within moments, he felt lightheaded.  His sight dimmed as if gazing through a veil.  He struggled to keep his eyes open, to watch as the roc swooped for its prize.

Sitara threw up her arms and created a shimmering curved wall of prismatic colors which enveloped Darius, the elephant and herself.  Gajra immediately stood calmer, his head and trunk swaying gently from side to side.

Darius closed his eyes, listening to Sitara sing.  With her beautiful voice, perhaps she thought to tame the roc.

Overhead, wings flapped louder than before, echoing inside the magic “bowl.”  Curiosity gave Darius the strength to crack his eyelids.  Seeing a second giant avian, his eyes opened wider.

A red and gold simurgh sailed on the high winds.  Its long tail feathers fanned out like lightning.  As its ruby red wings beat the sky, their golden tips reflected sunlight, seeming to flash with fire.

Nearer the roc, the half-dog, half-bird simurgh snarled, exposing canine teeth.  The four-legged flying creature reared in flight.

Though the roc was half-again larger than the simurgh, the dog-bird flew swifter and struck faster.  The simurgh raked the roc with its rear talons leaving black scorch marks on the roc’s underside.

The two latched together and tumbled.  As they rolled in mid-air, plummeting towards Darius, Sitara and Gajra, huddled beneath the magic shield, the massive creatures appeared to be the very Heavens crashing upon the Earth.  They struck the top of the prismatic bowl and skidded aside.  That impact had broke the two apart and they each quickly launched upwards and over the nearest craggy peak, each soaring along a different flight path while regaining altitude.

Overhead, the fight resumed.  The simurgh bit into the roc’s shoulder.  The ensuing screech echoed as loud as a thunder peal, causing Sitara’s prismatic shield to vibrate.  She, too, Darius noted, trembled, her arms straining to maintain the magic shield.

At last, the screeching roc fled and after a triumphant howl, the simurgh spiraled down to land.  With a heavy sigh of exhaustion, Sitara released the shield and the prismatic bowl popped.  For an instant, colors sparkled around them, dissipating like a fading rainbow.

Sitara knelt beside Darius and stroked his hair.  He might have enjoyed her attentions if only he didn’t feel so cold and tired.

The simurgh approached, lifting its feet in a stately manner.  It knelt on its forelegs and bowed its head, its muzzle close enough it could bite Sitara and Darius in half with one chomp.

The dog-bird sang a keening howl which entered Darius and flowed though him.  As the music inside grew louder, Darius grew stronger.  His blood seeped back into the wound, warming him, returning life to his fingers.  His wounds healed, even the minor scratches on his face.

The simurgh gave a friendly yip then launched into flight.

Darius looked at Sitara.  “Your singing called the simurgh, didn’t it?”  At her nod, he asked, “Why didn’t you summon it before I arrived and let it drive off the roc?”

She gave him a bemused look.  “No mortal was in need of its magic.  So it would not have come.”

Darius considered her words.  Although simurghs were known to help mortals, he couldn’t remember a tale in which one had ever helped an animal . . . or a pairaka.

“Tell me that you aren’t evil,” Darius said, “because, I do not think I can kill you.”

“I’m neither evil nor good, Darius.  As you said, I am how I am by virtue of circumstances.  Like you, I make my own choices.  As such, I have decided to return with you.  There will be no further discussion.”

###

For two days, Darius and Sitara rode Gajra down the mountain pass and across the desert with the silent–and sullen–flying carpet stretched atop what remained of the howdah‘s frame.  The distance Darius had flown in an hour seemed so much farther by elephant.  Still, he preferred to ride over fly.

 Outside the city walls, Sitara tapped the elephant’s side and commanded it to stop.  She pulled free a section of the howdah’s tattered curtains and wrapped it around herself, covering her head and face.  “Now I am ready to meet Persia’s shah,” she said.

 People lined the streets, throwing flowers and spices at their approach, cheering Darius as a hero.  Yet their hero brought the shah a witch who, by her own confession, was only as good as her circumstances.  Although Darius had enjoyed Sitara’s company these past days, he couldn’t completely trust that his decision not to kill her had been the wise one.

Guards opened gilded gates then stood at attention, their spears raised in salute.  Darius felt as if those spears stabbed his conscience.  But he shoved aside his fears.  Whatever it took, he would see to it that Sitara caused no harm.  How he would accomplish such a feat, he had no idea.

After riding so long, walking felt good.  Sitara patted Gajra and promised him a bale of hay.

With guards as escorts, veiled women led Darius and Sitara through the palace, throwing rose petals in their path.  As soon as they entered the shah’s audience chamber, the Indian emissary rushed forward.

“How is Gajra?” Emissary Omparkash asked.

Sitara said, “He is well and in the courtyard.”

The emissary ran from the chamber with barely a parting nod to the shah.  Darius stiffened, offended by the emissary’s lack of courtesy, not only to the shah but to the princess.  The man had neither thanked her nor inquired about her health.  Neither did he appear to trust her word without verification.

After the shah motioned for him to approach, Darius laid the rolled carpet at the shah’s feet, saying quietly, “It still”–he mouthed the next word–“flies, but is in need of repair, Great Shah.”  Then hastily, Darius retreated, bowing.

“You have met your fate admirably,” the shah said.  “Sent to rescue one, you rescue two.  Such a feat is worthy of ample reward.  Tell me, Darius, what would you have?”

Darius tried not to look at Sitara, but his gaze flickered.

Emissary Omparkash ran back inside.  “You have our emperor’s many, many thanks.”  He squeezed Darius’s hand in his bony ones.  “I am certain his imperial highness will deem it fit to reward you with a basket of jewels.”

A basket of even poor-quality jewels made a man wealthy for life.

Darius’s mouth gaped.

“And what reward shall I bestow upon you for returning my new bride?”  The shah gestured for Sitara to approach.

With the promised wealth, what more could Darius want?  Watching Sitara glide across the tiled floor, he knew the answer.  But he shouldn’t want her; she wasn’t his.

The shah’s attention focused on Sitara.

“My future husband,” she said, her voice sweeter than honeyed dates.  She lifted her veil so that only the shah could see her.  “My father sends his regards.”

The shah turned pale.  He offered Sitara a respectful bow then again addressed Darius, his voice sounding weak, as if he needed to swallow but couldn’t.  “With your new wealth comes new status.  You will be a minor prince among men.  It therefore benefits you to have a wife of equal standing.  Perhaps my reward should be the hand of a princess.”

“A princess?”  Darius’s gaze drifted towards Sitara where it longed to remain forever.  Yet he was undeserving.  Sitara had kept Gajra safe; she had called the simurgh to heal Darius’s fatal wounds; the simurgh, not he, had chased off the roc.

True, he had battled the roc and Sitara couldn’t have protected Gajra indefinitely and the simurgh would’ve never come to her aid when her magic failed.  Nonetheless, he still felt undeserving of a hero’s welcome or reward.  He had simply done his best to his limited, mortal abilities.  As with all things in life, fate played the greater hand.

Bowing his head, Darius said, “Great Shah, although it would be my privilege to marry any of your daughters, I am unworthy of your bloodline.  I would not wish to bring dishonor to your house.”

“No honest man ever brings dishonor,” the shah said.  “But I understand.  Perhaps a compromise to suit us both?  It seems to me that a woman will be fiercely loyal to the man who had saved her life.  As such, she would never be a good wife to another man.  So as a favor to me, would you consider marrying Princess Sitara?”

“I am grateful for any gift you bestow, Great Shah.”

The shah exhaled.  “It shall be done!”

Darius risked a look at Emissary Omparkash, certain the man would take umbrage.  Yet the odd little man, so easily irritated, only smiled.  Maybe since Gajra was safe, he didn’t care about anything else.  Or maybe he was secretly glad that neither the shah nor the emperor had to deal with the witch Sitara.

###

Darius took his new bride to his modest home, promising that once her father sent the jewels, he could build a house better suited to her heritage.  Only after they were inside did she remove her veil.

“Sitara, I must know, what did you say to the shah–or did you cast a spell over him?”

“Over him?”  She laughed.  “No.”

Darius’s blood chilled.  “Then why did he suggest I marry you?”

“I suspect he did not find me to his liking.”

Darius scowled.  “Why would that be?  You are the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

Sitara’s features shifted, her skin wrinkling and darkening like charred leather.  Her lips puffed and sagged.  Her thick tresses of dark hair greyed and, instead of falling in waves, stuck out in coarse, tangled masses.

Darius staggered to a chair.  “Is that . . . is this . . . do you really . . . ?”

Sitara’s laugh still tinkled like bell chimes.  “Surely, husband, you did not marry me for my looks.  I thought you valued my mind.”

“I didn’t . . . I do.  I’ve never known a woman so versed in conversation . . . at least in things beyond the price of fruit.”

“Then my appearance does not matter.”

Darius had no answer.  Homely he could have tolerated.  He was no prince in appearances himself.  But her features surpassed homely, delving into the realm of grotesque, frightening even.  A yatu face.

Sitara laughed again while her features shifted back.  Gazing at him through almond eyes she said, “I can look any way I please . . . and so long as you please me, I’ll please you.”

Darius kissed Sitara’s hand, realizing how conflicted her father must have felt.  Until now, Darius hadn’t understood how a father could give away such a beautiful, intelligent daughter.  Yet sometimes even treasure proved far more costly to keep.  And Sitara might prove very costly.

Yet Darius would willingly pay any price, for despite everything, he truly loved Sitara.  Nonetheless he vowed to be a devoted and pleasing husband.

 

____________________________________________________

Linda Donahue, an Air Force brat, spent much of her childhood traveling.  Having earned a pilot’s certification and a SCUBA certification, she has been, at one time or another, a threat by land, air or sea.  For 18 years she taught computer science, mathematics and aviation.  Now when not writing, she teaches tai chi and belly dance.  You can find Linda’s thirty-some stories in various anthologies from various presses.  As well, Linda coauthored a story with Mike Resnick for Martin Greenberg’s Future Americas, from DAW Books.  Also find Linda’s stories in MZB’s Sword & Sorceress 23 and in Esther Freisner’s anthologies, Strip Mauled, Fangs for the Mammaries, and Chicks and Balances, published by Baen Books.  Linda has a novel, Jaguar Moon, available from Yard Dog Press. Also find there The 4 Redheads in Apocalypse Now, and Redheads in Love, two collaborative novels. In non-fiction writing, Linda published an article in the 2007 Rabbits USA Annual and several articles in the dance magazine Jareeda.  She and her husband live in Texas where they keep cats, a sugar glider and a rabbit for pets. 


banner ad


Comments are closed.