A Strange Tale of Adventure, as told by Amelie Andrezel
1. The Wedding Gift
Isak sat beneath the boughs of the orange trees in his father’s garden. The branches swayed gently in the ocean breeze, casting dancing shadows across the young man’s legs as he lay in quiet contemplation upon the grassy carpet. The air was laced with the aroma of almond and the buzzing serenade of honey bees, which the young prince watched sail from blossom to blossom like skips of the sky.
The drowsiness of the afternoon hung heavily upon Isak’s already troubled mind. At the setting of the sun, he was to wed the daughter of a duke. Although he was eager to please his own father by securing the match, he felt as though he were an hourglass to be turned, or a wave between tides. Change blew in coldly on the wind, and its taste was as bitter to him as arsenic poison.
He lay upon his back, taking note of how the clouds progressed with stately regularity behind the waving branches of the orange tree. As a child, Isak had spent many afternoons in the garden, playing at games and hiding from his nurses in the bracken. Here, he had counted the stars by night and gazed down across the sea at dawn. From the height of this watch tower, he had assayed his future kingdom, dreaming of the day he would inherit the throne. This was where, as a boy, he had marched in the armies of a thousand generals, and where, in the silent shade, he had conquered the hordes of their imaginary foes.
Now he thought only of the motion of the clouds, marching with divine grace toward their future. Isak was a religious man, and he prayed to God for the strength to bear his fate with their dignity. Despite his prayers, Isak felt his heart was not with the clouds, but rather the birds. He watched the eagles and the sparrows from the garden. Their feathers were spread wide, harvesting the wind. Once captured, they tamed and molded it to their own desires, riding it up and up, until it brought them face to face with God himself. But when the wind subsided, they would plummet, and it was falling Isak feared the most.
In another garden in that same clifftop stronghold, a young woman sat, cross-legged, like a queen bee at the center of a hive. Women with dark, painted eyes and silken black hair that fell to their ankles knelt at her sides, sculpting her nails, bathing her fingers in snow white milk, and misting her veil with delicate rose water.
They spoke in excited whispers, but all their words bled together in the young woman’s ears. She was Nasrin, the duke’s daughter, and her heart was heavy with the responsibility of her duty. All her life, she thought to herself as she stared out onto the shimmering haze of the desert dunes, she had honored her father and sought to behave in a way befitting a daughter. She had listened intently to the scholars who had come to teach her the fashionable tongues. She had learned to paint and sing and play the dulcimer with great skill. Above all, she had been chaste and demure, refusing the letters and tokens sent to her by the young men of her father’s fiefdom. All of this had been to preserve her honor for this very hour—the eve of her honorable marriage.
Now, she wondered what had become of her life. All the hours she had spent in prayer, all the pleasures foregone for the promise of future reward, danced in the eye of her mind like fruit before Tantalus. The future was here, in the garden above the sea, but in what should have been the moment of her victory, Nasrin felt only remorse. The trappings of her joy, the snowy satin gown, the great crystal drops cascading from her ears and around her bare neck—the silver bells that tinkled like rain around her ankles—were as macabre to her as dry leaves scraping harshly across the autumn ground.
The birds taunted her from the heavens. The wind rushed by with a rustling laugh at her impending captivity. There was a crispness to that breeze, a herald of the coming fall. As it kissed her cheeks, Nasrin wished with all her heart that she could be as changing as the seasons, as free as the birds, unchained from the body that held her prisoner.
At the time of the wedding ceremony, when the cool night air rested in the arches and portals of the majestic citadel, Nasrin and Isak knelt beneath the dome of a lofty cathedral. Incense burned slowly, blurring the light of the hundred blazing candles to the quality of twinkling stars. Nasrin trembled behind her billowing veil as the priest gesticulated above her, and was careful to sip evenly from the chalice of wine he placed in her outstretched hands.
“Give me the flexibility of the changing seasons,” she prayed as the syrupy liquid passed between her ashen lips.
Isak took the cup at the request of the priest. His fingers brushed his bride’s hand as the cup passed between them. It was warm and quivering, like a canary in a cage, heart palpitating wildly in its tiny, fragile chest. He wondered what his future queen looked like beneath her silver veil. The sun set behind her, casting a holy light around her jeweled form, setting her ablaze like an angel of God, both beautiful and terrible. She loomed in front of him as a personification of the unknown—mystery and anticipation incarnate.
Isak brought the cup to his lips and drank deeply, hoping to wrestle courage from the wine. It burned his throat as it rushed toward his stomach.
“Let me languish never in the dark,” he thought, “But let me be a light unto the world, leading my people by the grace of God into heavenly morning.”
He lifted his head and the priest began to sing in the ancient manner. His gnarled fingers reached down to the crown prince and his new lady, and joined their hands together. The bells in the highest tower began to ring, and a flock of doves that had been roosting there took flight above the rooftops of the twilight city.
Following the ceremony, a great feast was held in celebration of the marriage. The lords and ladies of all the surrounding lands lounged upon the balcony above the menagerie. All the animals, from the peacocks to the lions, were sleeping in their enclosures, but the air was rich with subtle perfume of the fruit trees and the melodies of the players who had been brought to the court for the occasion. There was great merriment, and wine and spirits were enjoyed all around.
The high table was surrounded by the finest gifts available, all of which had been brought by the happy guests in tribute to their future lord and lady. There were plump, exotic fruits and fragrant spices from all corners of the globe; there were treasures crafted from silver and gold, great sparkling gems, delicate perfume, and yards of handsomely dyed fabrics. Bards sang newly composed songs and poets recited tales of true love and prosperity. Old King Asher, who sat between the new couple at the high table, was pleased by how well the people loved his son. The duke’s daughter, he could see, was a smart match, and with God’s grace, they would grow old at one another’s side. But he had not become so great a king by trust alone. So, he had arranged for the best wedding gift of all to secure the future happiness of his heir.
When the moon was high in the night sky and the guests were lazy from wine, the King took the bride and groom warmly by the hand and down into the menagerie.
“Come,” he said fondly, “I have a gift for you.”
Obediently, Isak and Nasrin followed the King to a little trap door. They opened the door, which led to a dimly lit passageway. Together, they followed the passage to a small grotto facing the water. In the grotto was an ancient old man, shriveled and preserved by the salt of the sea. It seemed to Isak that he was as old as the cliffs themselves.
“Shalom, hermit,” greeted the King.
The old hermit nodded.
The King turned to Isak and Nasrin. “This hermit is a wise man;” he told them. “A holy man; a favorite of god. His prophecy is without flaw.”
Nasrin threw herself humbly at the hermit’s feet, and Isak bowed deferentially. “We are honored by your wisdom on this, our wedding night,” he told the old man.
“God’s blessing be with you,” croaked the hermit with what little voice he had.
The King spoke up. “We have come to ask for just that. Hermit, I command you to bless the union of my son.”
“God shines favor on the humble and devoted,” the hermit said, casting his gaze first toward Nasrin and then Isak. “The righteous and the faithful are rewarded in Heaven.”
“Your words are wise,” agreed Isak.
“God also rewards the just in this life,” insisted the King. “In the name of the one true god, holy man, I command that you bless this union.”
“God is great,” advised the hermit. “He knows our path.”
“I have been a good king,” Asher continued. “All my days, I have honored God’s laws. When faced with beauty, I have praised His glory. When tested in battle, I’ve put faith in His power. When my people were hungry, I have shown His compassion; when they have been wicked, I’ve deferred them to His judgment. All I ask in return is that He bless my children with this wedding gift.”
The hermit looked sternly at the King. “Are you not wealthy?” he asked.
“I have great wealth,” said the King.
“Are your people not prosperous?”
“Their fortune is envied far and wide.”
“Then are your gardens not fertile?”
“The most lush in all the land.”
“Are your children ill matched?”
“As well paired as tailored gloves.”
“Then God is great,” concluded the hermit.
The King looked reprovingly at the old man. Isak and Nasrin looked on in silent anticipation. At long last, the old hermit spoke: “If Your Majesty insists,” he said, “I will grant you this wedding gift. As proof of God’s greatness, each of you shall be blessed with your heart’s true desire.”
“God is great!” cried the King, praising God’s mystery. Nasrin kissed the hermit’s hand.
“Peace be with you, my child,” the old man said softly, stroking her hair tenderly.
“Remember,” he added, “Life is long, and God is great.” There was a deep sadness in his eyes, but only Nasrin could see it.
“Now be gone,” commanded the hermit. King Asher did as he was told, bearing his children away at his side. His heart was at peace to know they were favorites before God.
On the path back up to the citadel, Nasrin considered what the hermit had said. Certainly, he was a holy man. It could be seen clearly in the frailness of his earthly body and the kindness in his eyes. How many years, she wondered, had he passed in silent contemplation in that cave? The wonders he must have seen in the throes of his visions, the ecstatic joy of his long conversations with the one true god. If ever a man could save her from the confines of her life to come, she thought, it was him.
At the top of the passage, Isak, Nasrin, and the King emerged to find that the guests had returned to their rooms, lulled to sleep by the wine they had drunk. The King kissed his son and touched his forehead to Nasrin’s outstretched hand. Then, he retired to his own bed, craving rest.
Isak turned to his new bride. He was unaccustomed to her shining eyes. Behind them lay more mystery than under any veil, and he wondered if perhaps the wedding convention was more for the protection of the groom than the modesty of the bride. Who would willingly cast themselves adrift in such dark and treacherous waters?
He took Nasrin by the hand and led her to their chambers. She was trembling, so he held her more tightly. They opened the door to the great room. Inside was a large bed, dressed in fine satin with an intricate, colorful pattern. A gaping balcony revealed the sleeping city far below. Cautiously, Isak kissed his bride.
Her lips were warm, and deliciously soft. Intoxicated by her uncharted person, he kissed harder. Sensing that the moment of her doom was upon her, Nasrin returned the kisses with desperate abandon. Brazenly, she took her new husband by the hand and led him to the bed. As she lay down atop his firm and unfamiliar body, she couldn’t help but think of all the great adventures his flesh had seen: his bones had borne the weight of blows on the field of battle, his skin had been tanned and cured by the sun and salt of a thousand horse rides over windswept shores. Surely, he had known the pleasure of other women, ached for their softness and rejoiced in their splendor. Flesh of his flesh, she recited to herself as he slid his hand up her skirts and between her legs. Deep wisdom came upon her, and she first understood the import of the passage. God and his prophets might as well have passed the words down from heaven for her benefit alone: her fate was to experience the richness of life through the looking glass that was her husband’s body. With this wisdom came a sudden jealousy of Isak’s limbs and his organs; she made her mind up to take from them all the sweetness she could steal.
Later, when the marriage had been consummated, Nasrin went off into the room with the wash basin to throw water on her face. Isak lay on the great bed, considering the events of the last few hours. He had been surprised by Nasrin’s ferocity, as she had thrown herself into their marital bed with the single-minded bravery of a soldier to battle, and not without the soldier’s pressing sense of his own mortality. The joy and despair that radiated from her pulsing body had been so profoundly animal, like a rutting doe for whom copulation is both the pinnacle of existence and the exhaustion of all further purpose. There was a similarly self-aware abandon to Nasrin’s kisses, a familiar tremor in her gasps and moans. Like the dry grasses where a deer falls in the hunt, the bedclothes where Nasrin had lain were now sticky with blood. Isak shook from his head such morbid thoughts and walked to the balcony.
The night was cool and the stars dim, as already the sun was bringing its glow to the distant waves. He sat down on a large cushion beside a rose-covered vine and watched the coming dawn. His thoughts turned to the curious events that had transpired in the grotto. The holy man had bestowed upon them each their greatest desire. What, Isak wondered with sudden terror, was his greatest desire? If he did not know, would he recognize the gift when it was given?
Was it Nasrin, with her wild spirit and wayward limbs? Or the esteem of his people? Perhaps some distant, unknown treasure? Had the gift already been given, or would it be bestowed on his dying day? He felt as though, like Job of old, he had been put to the test, and the fate of his very soul relied on his next decision. With great anguish, he rung his hands. His heart cried out to the one true god: Lord, have mercy on me! You are great, but I am only a man. Give me strength to perceive your mysteries!
Suddenly, like a clap of thunder, a mighty voice broke the dawn:
Isak, why do you call out?
The prince was terrified, and fell to his knees in supplication.
“O Lord,” he cried, “Have I offended you?”
Have I not given you fertile fields and gentle vassals? boomed the Lord. Have I not put a great desert between you and your enemies, and stocked your waters with the bounty of the sea? Have I not given you a loving father and beautiful wife? Did I not, this very night, agree to grant your heart’s greatest desire? What more, Isak, son of Asher, do you require?
“I am grateful, O Lord,” Isak cried, “For all the multitude of gifts you have given me. I am your humble servant.”
Why, then, do you despair?
“It is a great responsibility you have given me,” Isak explained, “I am but a young man, and do not yet begin to know my heart. How can I praise you properly if I do not know the nature of your gift?”
You speak as one who is wise, observed the Lord.
“My wisdom is dwarfed by your own, O Lord my God,” Isak declared. “I beg of you, give me your council; reveal to me my heart’s one true desire.”
Pledge yourself to my service, the lord God replied. And you shall learn the nature of your wedding gift.
“I would renounce my kingdom,” Isak said, “And all the privilege of my birth, for the opportunity to better know your love and wisdom.”
Then let it be so, thundered the Lord. Leave tonight.
“But my family,” protested Isak. “My father, and my new wife!”
Tonight! resounded the Lord.
“God is great!” answered Isak. He cowered to the floor of the balcony, awaiting the Lord’s reply, but none came. When he lifted his head, he was alone beneath the watchful stars. “God is great!” he repeated, rather breathlessly. He rose, and returned to the bedroom. Nasrin had not emerged from the washroom. This greatly saddened Isak, as he would have liked one last chance to see her face. With a heavy sigh, he slid back on his robes and slipped quietly out the door.
All the while, Nasrin had been sitting on the cold washroom floor, contemplating her lot in life. She was breathless. Streaks of blood stained the space between her legs, and every inch of her body ached. This was not to say that the experience had been without pleasure; to the contrary, Isak had proven to be an attentive and generous husband. But the last object of her life’s duty had passed, and the thrill of her forwardness had subsided. She was empty, devoid of vital purpose.
Nasrin splashed cold water on her face and gazed a moment into the looking glass on the side table. She was like a shell that had housed a sweet and nuty flesh, but which had been cracked and robbed of its substance. What little remained washed away with the water.
Nasrin slid onto the floor and began to weep. Great, unnamed emotions took hold of her, and she lost all sense of time. When, at long last, she lifted her gaze, she was startled to see an unfamiliar man sitting beside her. Afraid of the stranger, she grabbed a dagger from off of the table and clutched it close to her body.
“The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away,” the stranger said.
“God is great,” Nasrin replied.
“So it is said,” the stranger admitted. “But do you believe it? The Lord, I am told, frowns on false believers.”
“I am nothing,” replied Nasrin. “Can the Lord be troubled by what nothing believes?”
“From nothing,” the stranger asserted, “God created the Earth and the Sun and the Heavens.”
“It is true, the Lord made these things,” Nasrin wept. “But when he made the Sun, he hung it in the Heavens, and when he made the worms, he buried them in the ground. What God created from nothing were not objects, but order. I have served my purpose in Creation; what is to become of me now?”
“A philosopher!” remarked the stranger. “Tell me, how do you see your fate?”
Nasrin considered the possibilities. “I can live out this life,” she said, “That God has chosen, although whatever life was in it has already been lived.”
“Or,” she added, after a heavy pause, “I can take this knife, and deliver myself to my maker.”
“To end your own life is a mortal sin,” the stranger reminded her.
“For my soul,” Nasrin assured, “Nothing can be done. But my body,” she added thoughtfully, “When I die, my body will be put into the ground. Of my flesh, grasses and flowers will grow. Livestock will nibble at stalks that sprout from my grave; fruits will flourish in trees nursed by the milk of my bones. Like God himself, I shall create a world of my own image. The creatures of my Eden will lope across the plains and soar into the heavens. In death, as never in life, I will be free.”
“A poetic vision,” answered the stranger, “But will you be aware of it? Like god, will you look down on your garden and say, ‘It is good’?”
“It shall be my final act of faith,” Nasrin exclaimed, clutching the knife closer to her chest, brandishing it threateningly, as if at any moment she might make good her promise.
“What if,” the stranger asked, “There were another way? A certain way?”
“Are you offering me a bargain?” Nasrin asked, dagger still poised above her heart. Her cheeks bore the streaks of hot tears.
“How could I do such a thing?” asked the stranger coyly. His eyes gleamed.
“I know who you are,” Nasrin replied. “You are unmistakable.”
“Who am I?” purred the stranger with satisfaction. “I want to hear you say my name.”
“Lucifer,” Nasrin whispered. “Satan. Enemy of the one true god: the Devil himself.”
“Are you not afraid?” asked the Devil.
“I have nothing to lose,” answered Nasrin defiantly.
The Devil laughed. “Everyone has something to lose. But you have been honest with me; I shall be honest with you. Tonight, you were given a gift.”
“Tonight was my wedding night,” Nasrin reminded him. “I was given many gifts.”
“This was a special gift,” continued the Devil with a glint in his eye. “Your heart’s desire.”
“But you denounced that gift,” the Devil said, “And in doing so, displeased the Lord.”
Nasrin looked hard into the knife.
“Naturally,” the Devil concluded, “That makes you of great interest to me. Let me offer you the same gift: your heart’s true desire.”
“What is my heart’s true desire?” Nasrin asked him defiantly, her eyes blazing, daring him to say it.
“To be as changing as the wind,” the Devil said. “Not a prisoner of fate but the author of your own destiny, as shifting as the desert sands.”
“It is true,” Nasrin said. “But what must I give you in return?”
“Collect for me the souls of the damned,” replied the Devil. “Shepard the wicked dying to my door.”
“How?” inquired Nasrin.
“Your soul will come into their bodies,” the Devil explained, “You will deliver their fate, and when their souls pass, their bodies will remain with you.”
Nasrin’s eyes grew wide.
“For three days following their death,” the Devil continued, “The lives of men and women of all walks of life, from every corner of creation, will be yours to do with what you please. No single body will hold you, and no duty save the harvest shall bind you until the judgment trumpets sound. Your heart’s desire: agree to reap for me, and it will be yours.”
“If I refuse?” Nasrin asked.
“I will leave you in peace,” Satan said plainly, “To take your chances with the knife.”
Nasrin thought long and hard about the Devil’s offer. Her learning had taught her to fear the Devil, and beware his temptations. Her learning, however, had been what brought her here, to the little room and the knife and the Beast’s proposal. Taking this into consideration, Nasrin came to her conclusion.
“So be it,” she told the Devil. “I will enter into this bargain. From this moment forward, I am your humble servant; tell me what I must do.”
“Drive the dagger through your breast,” the Devil replied.
Nasrin looked at her new master, astounded.
“How can your soul be free of your body while your body still lives?” the Devil asked. “Drive the dagger through your breast, and when the life of this body expires, your soul will move into the body of the first soul you will reap.”
“Will I always travel in this manner?” Nasrin asked, a little queasy at the thought of a long line of deaths stretching out before her.
“Yes,” replied the Devil. “It is a small enough price to be paid. But know this,” he cautioned. “You must end the life of each body before the end of the third day. Linger too long in one form, and your soul will be carried with it into the ground.”
Nasrin shivered, nodding in understanding. “Will I see you again?” she asked.
“Your life will be long,” the Devil shrugged. “I make no promises.”
With that, he was gone. Nasrin sat, alone in the washroom with the knife. She drew a long breath, raised the dagger one final time, and in a moment of great courage, lowered it forcefully into her bosom. It pierced her trembling heart, and Nasrin fell limply to the floor. Blood pooled around her ashen, tear stained body.
True to the Devil’s word, Nasrin’s soul began to rise from the remains. She hovered for a moment above her own body, and gave one last, long look at the prison she had known so long. Even in death, it was a delicate and beautiful cell, with pouting lips and silken hair spread out around it like wings. For all its beauty, she reminded herself, it was still a cell. In it, she had been weak, tethered to the ground, susceptible to hunger and pain and fear. Now, she would be powerful: changing, free, immortal. Looking down on the body that once held her, she felt nothing but pity for the wretched thing, nothing but relief to leave it behind. Then, all too quickly, it was gone. Nasrin was flying, soaring, onward to the Devil’s promise, off to find the souls which were hers to collect, to usher to the gates of Hell.
In the morning, King Asher awoke to find that his son had vanished and his new daughter had taken her life in the wedding chamber. He became maddened with grief. Full of rage, he sent for the hermit, but he was nowhere to be found. The King’s men searched the land for the old man, but he had vanished. The old king was distraught. He could not eat, or sleep, and thought of nothing but his betrayal at the hands of the Lord. He cursed his god, and closed the temples. He locked himself into his chambers, and though the remainder of his reign was long, he never again emerged. The once strong kingdom fell into decline, forsaken by the Lord, neglected by its king, and abandoned by his once beloved son.
In those dark times, the balance of power shifted away from the citadel by the sea to other, stranger, and more wild lands. But even in those strange days, the peculiar tale of the hermit and his wedding gift was whispered far and wide, always on the lips of the faithful, never quite forgotten.
2. Isak’s Tale
The sun, when it rises above the desert, casts long shadows from the rocky cliffs that reach like fingers down the steep dunes toward the citadel. The world is cool, in the morning, and the deer and sheep grave lazily on the short grasses that grow in the foothills on the outskirts of the great walled city.
In a small alcove above one such gathering of half-wild livestock, a shepherd-boy was sleeping on a bed of matted reeds. He was a young man, no older than sixteen, but his life had seemed much longer than that. There were dark lines of worry etched on his brow, even in slumber, and the way he clutched tightly to his staff suggested he had had to fight hard to retain what few possessions he carried with him.
In the sweet hush of the breaking dawn, the boy was dreaming. In his dream, he was standing at the edge of a great ocean. Waves crashed lazily at his feet, which were buried ever so slightly in the wet sand, which felt marvelously cool and soothing between his calloused toes. Before him stretched an endless vista of water and sky, and the boy was comforted by the sight of the earth’s curvature. He was carefree, and paid attention to nothing but the salt in his nostrils and the call of the gulls reverberating in his ears.
And so it was that the young shepherd did not notice the beautiful woman swathed in yards of billowing orange silk walking toward him from the far edge of the beach. The woman was radiant; her beauty was unsurpassed, and she glided across the sand with the effortlessness of the foam atop the charging waves. She was watching the boy with great interest, but she did not wish to startle him, so she refrained from calling out. At long last, when she was quite close, the lady could see that he was spellbound by the aqua waves, and would not turn to see her face of his own accord. Seeing no other possible recourse, she called to the boy by name:
He turned and was alarmed by the closeness of the strange woman.
“God is great!” the boy shouted, and made the holy signs, believing her to be a spirit. When he saw the gesticulations had no effect, he took a step back and eyed her with great suspicion.
“What are you?” he asked, scowling in her direction.
“In my life, I was called Nasrin,” said the lady, who was none other than the duke’s daughter, wife of Isak, son of Asher.
“Then you are a spirit,” the shepherd said, and made another holy sign.
“Those won’t do you any good,” Nasrin sighed.
“Because this is a dream?” the boy asked, realizing for the first time he was not awake.
“Because the one true god sends no aid to those who have forsaken him,” she said plainly.
The young shepherd lurched backward, the horror of understanding flashing across his tired young face.
“You killed a man,” Nasrin said coldly. “For his watch and his saddle, just off the north road two summers past.”
“How did you know that?” the boy stammered, his face as pale as a ghost’s.
“I have come to collect you,” Nasrin informed him.
The boy was instantly at her feet, begging on his hands and knees.
“Please, please,” he cried. “I was hungry. I sold the watch for bread and traded the saddle for a new blanket. Please don’t take me.”
Nasrin frowned. “The man you killed had a wife, and three small boys. Now they are hungry.”
“Spare me!” the boy cried again.
“How did he put it?” Nasrin asked, “When he begged for his life?”
“I’ll repent!” cried the boy. “Give me another chance!”
“It’s too late for that,” Nasrin said, flooded with certainty. She was in the boy’s body, and it spoke to her. “You are dying.”
“I feel fine,” the boy insisted.
“While you were sleeping,” Nasrin explained, “A viper slithered out of his hole and bit you behind the ear.”
Subconsciously, the boy raised his hand to his neck, just below the line of his jaw. His fingers came down, dark and dripping with blood as rich as bursting cherries. At the base of his ear two puncture marks betrayed the means by which the venom he now felt had entered his veins. He crumpled to the ground. He cried out, but his courage failed him, and what had been intended as a righteous roar escaped as no more than a whimper. He had killed like a man, but he was dying like a child.
Nasrin bent to her knees and knelt over the shepherd. He was shivering now, and his joints were buckling under the power of the venom as it spread through his body.
“Hush now,” Nasrin said, clasping the boy’s hand, doing her best to soothe his tremors.
“What will happen to me?” the boy whimpered.
Nasrin mopped his scorching brow with her cool fingers. The boy looked up at her with delirious eyes. She looked back, her face etched with sympathetic concern. “I cannot say,” she cooed. “Keep your strength.”
“I’m so cold,” the boy cried. His face was burning.
“Be still and quiet,” Nasrin told him, her hand pressed gently on his chest. “It will all be over soon.”
“Yes,” the boy repeated, his wit failing him. “Yes, soon it will all be over.”
He smiled a little, and Nasrin continued stroking his brow. The tension in his muscles subsided a little, and his limpid eyes rolled up to meet her gaze. They were wide as saucers, all recognition gone out of them.
“Are you an angel?” he asked, eyes light with a brief flash of wonder. Before Nasrin had a chance to speak, they were glazed; empty. He was gone.
Nasrin awoke in the cool of the little cave above the grazing livestock. Astounded, she touched her hands, groped her cheeks and ran her fingers through her hair. Nothing felt familiar. In a panic, she rushed from the cave. Not far from the entrance was a little well, from which she quickly drew a bucket. She looked down at her reflection in the watery looking glass and was horrified to see the face of the shepherd boy staring back up at her.
With a sharp cry, she let go of the bucket. It landed with a loud splash that echoed strangely back up the well. Nasrin thought of the boy, at the horror in his childish eyes as he lay dying, and stared in horror down at his hands, alive and well and moving at her command. Nasrin began to cry. She sat down hard at the base of the well. She was feeling more than a little sick.
Suddenly, from behind the well and a little way down the rise came a man’s voice.
“Hello!” it called out. “Who is there?”
Nasrin raised her teary eyes in time to see a handsome young man in fine robes appear above the knoll. He had a long, straight back; tanned, able limbs; and a face like a hunting bird. His eyes were sharp and his features thin, capped with a patch of dark, unruly hair that floated waywardly on the wind. It was Isak, who had been, of late, her husband.
In a moment of terror, Nasrin hid her face, afraid she would be recognized.
“You there,” Isak called, “Boy! Why have you been crying?”
Nasrin looked up into her husband’s face. She brushed a tear from her eyes. The transformation was absolute: he did not know her.
“I am hungry, lord,” she said. Her words sounded strange, emanating from the lips of the boy.
“Come, have a bit of bread,” Isak said, motioning toward the spot down the rise where his horse was tied.
Nasrin rose, and did her best to recreate the look of suspicion that the boy had shown her in his dream. Her act achieved the desired effect. The crown prince beckoned again, this time more tenderly. “Come down here, boy,” he repeated. “You have nothing to fear.”
Gingerly, Nasrin picked her way down the unsteady rocks of the shepherd’s trail. To her great surprise, her feet were steady, her balance without fail. The sharp edges of the rocks made no scratches on her bare feet. It was as though she had transformed not into a boy, but a mountain goat.
When she had reached the little alcove where Isak had tied his horse, Nasrin stepped cautiously toward the prince. In his outstretched hand was a chunk of bread. She snatched it from him, and gnawed it ravenously, as she imagined a hungry orphan might.
When the bread was gone, she wiped the crumbs from her mouth with her sleeve. “You are Isak, son of Asher,” she said, “Heir to the throne.”
“I am he,” Isak replied.
Nasrin looked at him with more genuine suspicion. “Were you not this night wed?” she asked.
Isak looked in surprise at the country boy. “That’s fresh news, so high in the mountains.”
“For weeks, the roads have been crowded with wagons full of guests and rich treasures brought in tribute. I saw the carriage of your lady not two days hence, coming down these roads from her father’s lands across the mountains,” Nasrin said. She lied with confidence, for the memory was real. It was lying in the recesses of the shepherd’s mind. Nasrin could see the brightly colored banners and jewel-encrusted horses. She could smell the spiced meats and sweet mead shared in the warm tents. Above all, she could feel the boy’s aching desire for the food, drink, and precious cargo of dowry and damsel.
Parham’s face must have been as transparent as a window, for as the lusty thoughts sprung, unbidden, into Nasrin’s brain, the crown prince removed on of his riding gloves and smacked the boy across the face.
“Rid yourself of impure thoughts,” he ordered. “You disgrace the Lord with your wickedness.”
Nasrin rubbed her cheek where the leather had bitten into her skin. “You are swift to leave your wedding bed,” she replied. “What does the Lord make of that?”
For a moment, she thought he would hit her again, and perhaps he intended to. At the last moment, however, he lowered the glove and began to laugh. It was a rich laugh, and it filled the glen as would the roar of a lion.
“You have a quick tongue,” Isak said. “Subdue it before you are mistaken for a wise man.”
“Why have you left your lady?” Nasrin asked. “Has she displeased you so quickly?”
“My lady is a fine songbird,” Isak replied, “With the mystery of the deepest sea and the wisdom of Ruth and Sarah in one. She is an empress among queens; an orchid in a bed of weeds. I am her servant, until the day I die.”
Nasrin was surprised by the depth of the prince’s passion. “Forgive me, my lord,” she inquired, “But if you are so devoted to your lady, why are you riding here in the mountains, at an hour when good husbands lie at home in their beds?”
“I have been summoned by another master,” Isak told the boy. “He whom no earthly devotion can usurp, my Lord the one true God.”
Nasrin looked at her husband in the light of the early morning. His eyes shone against the shadows, and his head sat elegantly on his neck and shoulders, buoyed by the effervescence of his convictions. Passion radiated from his limbs, and his fingers itched with eager energy to prove himself to the world. Under different circumstances, Nasrin observed, he might have made an excellent husband.
“You had a vision, my lord?” she asked, pretending not to grasp his meaning.
“Yes,” Isak replied. “The Lord came to me, and called me to his service.”
“You must be a holy man,” Nasrin said.
“To the contrary,” insisted Isak. “I am humbled by the responsibility that the Lord has given me. That is why I am crossing the desert to live in the caves. I will reside in poverty and meditation, so that one day I will be worthy of the task.”
“The way across the sand is dangerous,” Nasrin observed. “The desert is wide.”
“And God is great!” asserted Isak. “His providence will deliver me.”
Nasrin considered her husband. He was a brave man, with great faith in the power of God. Perhaps he would fare better than she had.
“Have you crossed the desert?” Isak asked the shepherd boy.
“Once I carried wares for a merchant,” Nasrin said. She could remember the boy’s thirst and feel the sun boiling his skin as if it had been her own. “I did not like the desert,” she added. “I prefer the mountains.”
“If you show me the way to the cliffs,” Isak said, “I will share with you my provisions, and when we are safely there, you may have my horse and my robes. They will be of no use to me.”
Nasrin nodded her head enthusiastically. Isak held out his hand, and they shook on the bargain.
“When do we ride?” Nasrin asked.
“As soon as we can,” answered Isak. Nasrin could see that he was bursting with a need to begin his quest. “Do your animals need tending?” he asked, trying his best to contain his excitement.
“Let them run,” Nasrin replied, shielding her eyes from the low-hanging sun and gazing out over the valley. All around, tiny shapes stood or lay in the sweet green grasses. “God is their shepherd now.”
“And if the wolves come?” Isak asked, securing his saddle upon his horse.
Nasrin shrugged. “If it is His will, then they will come.”
“God is great,” Isak agreed. He jumped upon his mount. “Still, you have cared for these beasts. Does it pain you to abandon them?”
Nasrin thought a moment, searching the boy’s memories for any sign of fondness. Delve as she might, all traces of emotion were of hunger and want.
“I have given them my guidance,” she said instead, “My shelter and my love. What more do I have to offer them? It is in God’s hands.”
“As are we all,” Isak agreed. He offered the shepherd boy his hand and pulled him up behind him on the saddle.
Nasrin gripped his velvet cloak tightly, burying her face between his sturdy shoulders. She felt suddenly secure. As she inhaled a sigh of relief, she drew in the smell of her own perfume, still lingering on the nape of Isak’s neck. His arms had been her last embrace; his ears the last on which her words would fall. The woman she had been was gone now, passed to dust. All that remained of her in the world, she realized, was contained in this man. Her thoughts from the night before returned to her: flesh of his flesh; bone of his bone. The bond of their marriage, it seemed, was deeper than she had first imagined. God was great, she concluded, and worked many mysteries.
With a mighty pull on the reigns, Isak brought the horse into a trot. The lonesome trio made their way up the mountain trail and onto the path that God had chosen for them.
On the road, they made their way mostly in silence. The higher they climbed on Isak’s splendid war horse, the drier the climate became. The lush, green pastures of the foothills gave way to short, scratchy thistles and tough, brown bushes that bent against the wind which scoured the pass. The canyon walls that seemed to stretch above them to heaven itself were painted in vibrant colors by the brushes of the Lord: great variegated bands of red like the blood of a great, gored bull; veins of the palest pink twisted into grotesque shapes by the folding of the mountains. This was the masterpiece wrought by the churning engines of God inhabiting the space between man and the fires of Hell. The supernatural canvas spread before Isak and Nasrin as they passed onward, ever higher into the clouds.
When they came to the top of the pass, Isak announced that they would stop to give the horse its water. Nasrin jumped down from the back of the beast and took stock of their surroundings. They were at nearly the highest point of the range that divided the coast from the vast inland desert. Behind them, the farmlands glittered like emeralds inlaid between the azure blue ocean and the rocky spine of the continent. Before them stretched a seemingly infinite sea of sand. The towering dunes rolled and devoured one another like boiling waves that had been churned by the most violent hurricane and miraculously suspended in time, transfigured to sand. In that golden plain, there were no markers by which to map your path, no water to quench your thirst: only a constantly shifting horizon of burning sand, driven by the winds and haunted by nomad riders.
Isak uncorked the leather flask in which he carried the water. He took a long glug of the sweet liquid and made a gesture of the flask in Nasrin’s direction. Nasrin shook her head. As they had climbed the mountains, she had searched the boy’s memories. To her horror, despite Parham’s seemingly limitless remembrances of hunger, thirst, and depravation, his journey across the anvils of sand were the worst. The boy had promised himself that, no matter how destitute he became, he would never set foot again into the sand.
Isak shrugged and gave Nasrin’s share of the water to the horse.
“We will need to tame our thirst,” Nasrin explained. “In the dunes, we will suffer greatly.”
“You think we should prepare ourselves now?” Isak asked.
“Yes,” Nasrin replied. “I have seen men go mad with desire for the smallest drop of water. They wander off into the dunes, never to return. It is said that their ghosts stalk the peaks and valleys of sand, calling out for water to slake their unquenchable thirst.”
Isak recapped the leather flask and stowed it on the saddle. “The singing dunes,” he said, nodding in recognition. “I have heard stories from my men who have served in regiments against the nomads.”
“Have you fought in many battles?” Nasrin asked.
“Many,” Isak replied.
“Tell me about them,” Nasrin pleaded.
Isak looked kindly at the shepherd boy. “What is your name?” he asked.
“Parham,” Nasrin replied. The word sounded hollow as it rolled from her tongue, like the shell of a sea creature that had been outgrown, cast away on the ocean floor. Once, a soul had curled inside that name. Now it was a dry and empty husk.
“Why, Parham,” Isak asked, “Do you want to hear tales of battle?”
“I like tales of victory,” Nasrin replied, drawing from echoes of the boy’s bloodlust. “Of trumpet sounds and fluttering banners. I like to hear of high walls breached and barbarian tribute, paid in gold and women.” Nasrin shivered again as she felt the intensity of the boy’s love for conquest and subjugation. “Someday,” she added, “When I am old enough, I will be a great soldier.”
“Perhaps,” Isak said, “But it is not all as glorious as in the stories told around evening fires.” He offered Nasrin another scrap of bread, which she munched gratefully.
“There is great suffering,” Isak said, “Even for the soldiers of God.”
“Every treasure under the sun has its price,” Nasrin said, “Glory among the dearest.”
Isak looked at the boy. He was certainly an odd creature, Isak thought, part bloodthirsty urchin, part wise man. The impression was of a compass needle balanced on a spire, one end above the precipice and the other over salvation, wavering wildly under the slightest agitation. The image captivated the prince, and he made up his mind to indulge the boy, if only to see what would happen next.
“I will tell you a story,” Isak said, “While we ride down the pass, but only if you promise to tell me a story when we are out on the sands.”
Nasrin nodded, and once again took the prince’s hand as he pulled her behind him on the horse.
“When I was just nineteen,” Isak began, “My father gave me the responsibility of leading his divisions against the barbarians of the North.”
The hooves of Isak’s horse clipped loudly against the worn face of the trail. Apart from the echo off of the leaving sides of the canyon, Nasrin and Isak seemed alone in the world. They were dawn, by the lonesome sound, into Isak’s tale.
The first tale of Isak
I had trained for years in hopes of leading my father’s troops into battle against the enemy. Like you, I had into a man fed by stories of the heroes of old. I had watched, wistfully, from my father’s balcony as his generals had passed in victory parades. Their chests were held out like ferocious bears, and they were decorated in medals and sashes, from the feathers in their caps to the oiled toes of their boots. Even their horses sparkled and jangled with the coins collected in tribute from our fallen rivals.
I was determined to prove myself worthy of their station. I practiced my swordplay at every spare moment. I jabbered with the officers with great abandon about tactics and strategy, and the history of the epic battles. There was no finer student of war, and when I came of age, my father decided I was ready to test my skills fighting for his glory against the encroachment from the North.
So, on the morning of the winter solstice, I suited myself in my father’s armor and rode my horse to the front of his army. We headed up the coast, wedged between the sea and the mountains, marching many miles every day and training in the cool of the evenings. The generals who had been my teachers and idols now rode at my sides and relayed my orders to the men whose ranks stretched behind us as far as my eyes could see. Together, we crafted our plan of attack as we made our way closer and closer to the enemy. I was glad to have the wisdom of my generals behind me, and the light of God to lead my way. I felt invincible, and with each passing day grew more and more eager for the fight.
When at last we reached the northern border, we camped the night before the battle on a ridge overlooking a broad river. Across its dark waters, there was a bit of plain that separated our men from the burning ruins were the barbarians had set fire to our settlements.
Seeing the carnage first hand, the men grew angry, but I promised them the advantage was ours if we waited until the dawn and attacked when the enemy was changing their morning guard.
That night, in my tent, I could not sleep. I could barely lay still, for my excitement. So, thinking that I needed my rest, I called for the lute player and a cup of spiced wine.
The lute player came at once. He was a boy, younger than you even, with agile fingers and the voice of an angel. He poured me my wine, which I drank from deeply, and began to sing. He sang of fallen heroes, of the gardens and spires of the ancient cities, and all the classical tales. To this day, I couldn’t say if it was the tenor of his voice or the sweetness of the wine, but whatever the reason, I was transported. I could taste the spiced cakes on the platter of the drinking halls, smell the hair of the exotic women who poured the wine, hear the laughter of the men as they enjoyed their moment of peace. The boy’s voice was as clear as ice from high in the mountains, and it lingered, note by note, in my mind as I drifted into sleep.
Some time later, I awoke. I could not say how long I slept. Though I doubt it could have been any substantial length of time, I felt as though it had been a lifetime. My muscles ached and my head was as muddled as if I had drank a whole barrel. Immediately, I suspected that I had been drugged. Gathering my wits as quickly as I could, I raised my arms just in time to block a blow from a dagger descending upon me. I grabbed the arm of my assailant and twisted hard. There was a nauseating crack. The attacker released the knife and let out a wounded yelp.
The noise of the altercation alerted my guards, who rushed quickly into my tent. By the light of their torches, I first made out the identity of my attacker. It was the lute player.
The boy had a large welt across his cheekbone, where first I had struck him, and his arm hung limply from its socket at the elbow. He was in great pain, but was, with equally great bravery, holding back his tears.
“My lord,” exclaimed one of my generals who had seen the lights and come to investigate, “What has happened here?”
“The lute player attacked me as I slept,” I explained.
The general looked at the boy, who hung limply on the arms of the two largest guards. He made no attempt to struggle free.
“He must be a Northern spy,” the general declared, spitting at the boy’s feet.
“Is this true?” I asked the boy. He made no reply, only starred ahead, all his efforts channeled to keeping upright against the pain.
“He should be put to death,” the general said. “Let him be an example.” He drew his great curved sword from his belt and raised it into the air.
As the blade climbed above the boy’s head, I watched carefully to see how he would react. To my surprise, he did not flinch or squirm, but hardened his expression and straightened his back ever so slightly to meet the blow.
Just as the general was about to bring the weapon down, I held up my hand.
“Stop!” I cried. “He is only a boy; spare him.”
The blade hung in the air. The general looked at me, his expression quizzical. “He has just tried to assassinate you, my lord,” he said. “It is a dirty northern trick, against the rules of civilized warfare to send a child to do in the night what an army should do in the light of day, in plain view of man and God.”
“That may be true,” I acknowledged, “But the fault then lies with his liege, not with the boy. See the honor with which he comports himself? Let us not descent to the level of the cowards and slaughter him now, but punish his master on the battlefield.”
All in the tent were silent a moment. At last, the general spoke: “You speak with great compassion, my lord, but in times of war, ruthlessness can be the best wisdom, and kindness a dangerous foe.”
I considered his council, as by my experience, he had proven himself a wise man. Still, I could not banish from my head the sweet sound of the boy’s voice, the pleasure it had brought me, and the bravery he showed in his moment of mortal peril.
“He will be spared,” I concluded.
“And what will be done with him?” the general asked. “He cannot be released to his master, or he will tell the enemy of our plans.”
“Tie him to the wagons,” I decreed. “When the battle is won, we will bring him with us, and he will sing of our victory before my father and his court.”
The general nodded, and the guards carried the boy from the tent. “Let it be written that you are merciful,” the general said, but in his eyes I read that he was not convinced of the wisdom of my decision. Then he left me, and I returned to what fitful slumber would come.
The next morning, the troops awoke and the camp was alive with activity. In every direction, some preparation was being made. I donned my father’s armor, drank a strong cup of rich coffee to steady my hands, and knelt in prayer. I asked God for all the things we have discussed: that I would honor my father’s name on the field of battle, win glory and riches for his kingdom, and should I fall fighting for his honor and the Lord’s pleasure, that my bravery be sung for years to come.
Suddenly, I was overcome by an overwhelming desire to see the boy. Perhaps it was the memory of the beautiful music he had made, or the compassion of the Lord seizing my person. Whatever the reason, I rose from my tent and sought out the wagon where he was being held. After a few minutes searching, I found him, tied roughly to the wheel of a giant cart. His guards had gone, preparing no doubt for the battle, and he was sleeping uncomfortably on his feet.
As I watched him there, his contorted and tortured body as peaceful and angelic in sleep as had been his music, I made up my mind what I must do. I knelt beside the wheel and removed my knife from my belt. The battle was almost upon us, I reassured myself. The boy was gravely injured; in his condition, he could not possibly run to his master in time enough to bring him warning. Quietly, I cut the ropes that kept him bound. In doing so, I jostled him slightly, and the boy awoke. At first, he was alarmed, but upon regaining his bearings, he became calm. In a flash, all his bonds were cut, and he was standing before me, a free man. Our eyes met for a moment.
“Go,” I told him, and gestured toward the water.
Hardly had the words escaped my mouth than he was away, scampering down the ravine, favoring his good side. Pleased with myself for my great compassion, I returned to my tent to finish my preparations for battle.
The fight, later that day, was everything I dreamed it would be. The barbarians were caught completely by surprise, and our forces descended on them with speed and certainty. I commanded the regiments with skill and determination, taking down many of the enemy with my own hands. The result was a rout, and by the evening, we were emptying coffers of northern gold.
I was overjoyed by my debut success as a general, and after I had thanked the Lord for delivering the day, I asked my general to accompany me into the field to see to our wounded.
The general agreed, and was glad to see my concern for my fallen companions. We toured the field until the sunlight began to fade. Then, just as we were returning to the camp, we happened upon a particularly brutal area of carnage. Fighting had been intense here, at the bottom of the ravine, just across the river from our camp. Even after a day of horrible sights, my stomach turned to see the bodies mangled there, wrapped around one another at the base of the steep cliffs. Then I saw him, in the middle of the atrocities, the lute player.
I let out a cry, and ran to his side. He was stone dead, his angelic features smashed and blood smeared through his hair and on his clothes. I feel to my knees beside him, and for a moment, I could find no words.
After I had sat alone beside the body for a moment, my general came up behind me and laid his hand upon my shoulder.
“He was an angel,” the general said, “The Lord will not forget your kindness to him.”
“Yet He chose to take him,” I said bitterly.
“For some of us, the time comes early,” the general said.
“God is great,” I laughed with venomous bile. “He is wise.”
“Perhaps,” agreed the general, “But so was this boy.”
“How can this be wisdom?” I asked, casting my gaze across the hellscape, holding back my tears.
“Though he was only a boy,” the general said, his voice full of wisdom, “He knew something you did not: War is for killing. Tolerance, compassion, and mercy are well enough, but they are for orators, kings, and gods. The soldier is an instrument of death; it is his business. War should not be done in half measures. It is done ruthlessly or not at all. This boy knew that.”
I rose, wiping the kernel of a tear from my eye. “Now I know as well,” I said, and together with the general walked back to the camp.