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     be on my head
        if I can say
where I
     in bewilderment
        have wandered

       --Farid ud-Din Attar (12th c.)


Those who know treachery know the desert. The sun casts visions of cool water on the burning sand. Sounds travel leagues, or rise and echo strangely from rocks and dunes contorted by the wind. The wind, especially, is not what it seems.

It was blowing when Gisborne heard the cry; and perhaps that explained it. The sound was wordless but the voice pulled at him as the quarry's scent commands the hound -- and there, for a heartbeat, he caught the smell of blood, too, like a bright note on the hot breeze.

Fate, said the wind, or it might have, tapping its way around a mud-flaked corner, and Gisborne followed, already knowing what waited there. He moved through the shadows and out into the barren square fired to incandescence by the sun; he saw a man not yet dead but within death's reach at last. Richard, at last. The blade in Gisborne's fist felt alive. The killing stroke would be his; and all that would follow -- his: Richard's end, his new beginning.

Yours, said the wind, and Gisborne felt the truth of it sigh through him.

His eyes, fixed on Richard, burned in the fierce light. He heard the rattle of sand against the broken walls behind him as the wind veered through gaps and in amongst the ruins. On the far side of the square it blew something adrift from a high window; Gisborne saw from the corner of his eye how it floated down, fine as a lady's airy veil, and flew across the inferno where Richard lay, his cloak a dirty shroud to its soft radiance. The thirsty breeze licked the sweat from Gisborne's skin and, turning again, kicked up a scatter of dust that hazed his sight.

See, it whined, and he forced his eyes open to find Marian, as beautiful in that hellish place as the cool, green grace of England itself. Fair as moonlight, gentling the glare, with her swaying silks and her long hair sweetening even the air, though he'd no breath in him at the sight of her. But quick as the wind's caprice his exultation turned to terror, anger, shame. She shouldn't be here, it was not yet time --

Her arms were open. She spoke of love, but not for him, and he forgot about Richard. No, he pleaded, though the truth sawed at his heart like a notched blade. He lifted his own in reply.

Listen, hissed the wind, uncoiling. Then Marian was in his arms; but her luminous smile was gone and she was silent, only stared into his eyes with a look of terrible triumph; and then, only then he understood the lunge, the push of steel through flesh.

She'd a knife concealed, he thought, of course she did, and the pain was immense, devouring; the strength went out of him between one breath and the next. But it was Marian who fell, and on a stray gust of hot wind he caught again the bright scent of blood, his blood, it was surely his own blood --

--Gisborne staggered from his bed and went to his knees, sick and shuddering. The Sheriff was shouting for him from the rooms below but he crouched there, teeth clenched, hands tight around the hilts of his sword, which he'd found sheathed and unstained in its usual place beside him.

When he could stand, he rinsed the bitterness from his mouth and went down to the news that Richard's would-be assassins had been ordered instantly to return to England, on pain of death, by Prince John himself. "Do what you please with the girl," the Sheriff told his Turkish major-domo, vicious with thwarted malice, but he didn't interfere when Gisborne, on their departure, gave the man instructions to deliver her to Richard's camp unhurt.

"Have her clean the place up first," Gisborne said, handing him a heavy purse. "Bit of honest work for milady." He took his leathers and his sword and went out. He did not see Marian, nor speak to her.

The heat was already rising. The dust of their way through the narrow lanes stung his eyes and scoured his throat. As they rode past the high window of Marian's cell a warped shutter clattered on its hinge; the wind slid musically through the narrow space between wood and wall.

Wait, it crooned at his back, or might have, but Gisborne heard nothing. He wanted nothing.

There'd been a pretty dagger in his saddlebag: gold-chased haft and hilts of ebony inlay, and a deadly edge that nothing would dull. It was Toledo steel. He'd meant it for Allan, but one faithless hand was much like another. A few moments past he'd slid it beneath the tumbled linens on the bed he'd slept in and stood there, staring at his own empty hands, before pulling on his gloves and turning away.

Those who know the desert know that in the end all promises are false. The sun kills what it births. The sand swallows empires. The wind goes where it will, and it lies.



January 22, 2008