The Substance of a Dream
by James Lecky
That summer there was talk of war. The young men sharpened their weapons and drilled from dawn until dusk in the plains beyond the Bright Gates of Amaritsard, sending great dust clouds into the air as their horses thundered back and forth.
For me the talk meant little – there were always rumours of war in those days, ever since the Nazarani had come from the west with fire and sword. Besides, more welcome news had reached me of late, that of my aged uncle Marwan who had been taken to Paradise, leaving me, his favoured nephew, Tulun of Birjand, the sum of one thousand gold sequins. The timing was fortunate. I had recently gambled with and lost the greater part of my personal wealth - in backing a spice caravan which had then been taken by desert raiders - and the knives of my creditors were already being sharpened in anticipation of payment.
And so it was with no regret that I resigned my commission from Amaritsard’s famed light cavalry, took up my sword, shield and lance and rode to Jassala province on the fine chestnut gelding that I had acquired on the fall of three dice the previous spring.
For three leisurely days I rode south through land that became increasingly arid with every passing hour, making camp wherever the fancy took me and mentally preparing to spend my not inconsiderable inheritance.
It was on the fourth day, as I crossed the border into Jassala, that I encountered the raiders and their captive.
The sun, as fierce and unforgiving as the land it shone upon, was high in a cloudless sky, broken only by the wheeling black shapes of carrion birds a mile or so distant. It did not take a soldier’s instincts to realise that their presence meant danger, but equally I was aware that they circled the only waterhole for a hundred miles and to skirt around it would have meant many unwelcome, dry miles.
The potential danger did not trouble me unduly, however. I was in the prime of life then – not yet in my thirtieth year - as strong and ferocious a ghulam warrior as one could hope to meet and mounted upon a steed that could easily outdistance any horse should force of arms prove insufficient. I readied my shield and lance, loosened my sword in its scabbard, and touched my spurs to the gelding’s flank.
The waterhole, little more than a wet scratch in the land, lay in the centre of a small gully and as I crested the ridge that overlooked it I saw what had interested the birds so much.
An unconscious man – a Nazarani judging from his golden hair and pale skin – had been staked to the ground tantalisingly close to the water. He wore nothing except a white loincloth, and the noonday sun had already stamped painful blisters onto his exposed flesh. A short distance away, a group of horses were tied to the stump of a tree and beside them four robed men squatted over a pile of clothing and weapons, squabbling over who should receive the lion’s share. I knew the cast of them at once – desert nomads, doubtless cousins to those who had helped in my recent impoverishment – and already held little love for them.
As soon as they became aware of my presence, the leader – a tall man with a curled beard and a pockmarked face – stood and bowed.
“Peace be upon you,” I said.
“And on you be peace,” he replied. “Welcome to our encampment. Please, friend, dismount and join us.” As he spoke I could see his gaze roving over my weapons and horse, calculating how much they were worth.
“You have a guest already and I would not wish to share in such a welcome.”
“The Nazarani? Shed no tears for him, he is an enemy, his death is well deserved.”
“I was not aware that we were yet at war.”
“My people are always at war.” He smiled - his teeth white against sun-darkened skin - then bowed again, a little deeper his time. “I am Rabiah of the Kasseef.”
“Tulun of Birjand,” I replied, taking a tighter grip on my lance.
“Ride on, friend,” Rabiah said. “Why do you care if this pale dog lives or dies?” As he spoke, his companions took a surreptitious step towards me, reaching down to touch the hilts of their scimitars.
“The Book says, ‘He who forgives and is reconciled with his enemy shall receive his reward from God.’”
Rabiah’s smile slowly turned to a sneer. “It also says ‘Take not my enemies and yours as friends’ – you see, Tulun of Birjand, I know the Book as well as you.”
“Enough talk,” one of the other men barked. “Kill him!” Three swords were drawn with a hiss as the raiders charged towards me.
“Wait!” Rabiah cried, but it was too late.
I spurred the gelding down the slope and met the first with my lance, the point entering his stomach and punching out through his back. I deflected a sword-thrust with my shield and drew my own blade, screaming a wild eastern battle cry. The second man died with his throat torn open and the third with my steel buried deep in his heart.
It was over in an instant, and the three bodies lay before me, staining the sand with their bright blood. Rabiah had not moved during the skirmish and now he stood staring at me, his face impassive.
“Go,” I told him. “Let this be an end to it.”
“Why should you spare me?” he asked.
“You did not raise your hand to me – why should I raise mine to you?”
“As you say, why should you?” He grinned wolfishly as he mounted his horse. ”But if we meet again I will kill you for what you have done today.”
“Perhaps, Rabiah, or perhaps not.”
I watched until he disappeared into the desert, then turned my attention to the Nazarani.
He was an older man, at least twice my age, and there was more grey than gold in his beard and hair. But his body was heavily muscled, criss-crossed with numerous old scars - the body of a warrior. Fortunately, he appeared not to have been too long in the sun and he stirred as I poured a few drops of water into his parched mouth. His eyes, startlingly blue, flicked open.
“An angel,” he whispered through cracked lips. “An angel in the midst of hell.” Then unconsciousness took him again.
He slept for the rest of that day, awaking only when the sun had set and the desert began to release its heat. Other than a large lump on the back of his head, his wounds were light – and a little healing balm soon took the fire from his skin.
“Peace be upon you,” I said as he opened his eyes.
“And upon you, my heavenly friend – it would seem that God works in mysterious ways after all.” He spoke the trader’s tongue fluently, but with a thick accent that I was unable to place.
“I am no angel,” I told him, “and there are many who would attest to that fact.”
“Not an angel, certainly, but heaven sent for all that.” He stood and extended his hand. “My name is Luicien of Rossilion and you have my deepest thanks for your timely intervention. They caught me unaware when I stopped to drink.” He glanced across to the three bodies that lay on the sand. “Three of them? What of the fourth, the one named Rabiah …?”
“I allowed him his life.” I took the offered hand and found iron in the grip. “Tulun of Birjand at your service.”
“You are a merciful man, Tulun of Birjand - an extraordinary quality in these troubled times.”
“But then I am an extraordinary man.”
He looked quizzically at me for a moment, trying to ascertain if I spoke in jest. Then he grinned.
“I believe that you are, at that.”
As night fell, we sat by our small camp fire and he told me how he had come to be here, so far away from home and from the camps and cities of the Nazarani.
“This is not the first time I have travelled these lands,” Lucien said. ”As a young man I fought with Baldwin on the Field of Blood and years later with his son at Ascalon. It was there that I received this.” He pulled down the front of his shirt to reveal a long, puckered scar on his upper chest. “An honourable wound from the lance of a ghulam not unlike yourself.” Then he winked to show that he harboured no malice. “Ah, those were the days, Tulun, when men were men and war was war, not like the dirty little scraps they call battles now!”
He paused for a moment, staring out across the desert. When he spoke again his tone had changed.
“I remember it well – the heat and the sand, the blood, the screams of horses and men. And the pain. I shall never forget the pain.” He rubbed absently at the old wound. “They left me for dead when the battle moved on and when I awoke I witnessed something that has remained with me equally as long.” He paused, gathering his thoughts.
“It began as a single, sweet note drifting through the mounds of the dead. And as it rose I could feel it surging through my mind, calling to me. Another joined it, then another and another, merging into a beautiful, unearthly melody that dragged me to my feet despite my wounds.
“And all around me others rose from the masses of dead. Others who, like me, still retained some spark of life within their shattered bodies – I could see it in their pained eyes and twisted faces.
“Step by agonised step I followed the song as it led me towards the horizon. Its words – if words they were – meant nothing to me. I only knew that it called and I must answer.
“How long I walked I cannot say, time meant nothing in that strange half-life, but finally we came to a fog-bound valley that appeared suddenly from the scrub and sand.” Lucien leaned closer to the fire and, for a moment, his eyes were hidden in deep shadows, but I could still see the fierce spark that glowed there.
“And there in the swirling mists, was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen – she had the face of a goddess, or an angel fallen to earth. Her voice rose in greeting and her arms opened in welcome.”
Despite the night’s chill I could see beads of sweat on his deeply lined forehead.
“And yet she did not receive you.” I said.
“No, she did not, Tulun. I watched the others disappear one by one into the mist and saw the joy in their faces. I tried to follow them but could not. I do not know why I was refused. Perhaps there was still too much life left within me, or perhaps I was simply not worthy, but for some reason she turned me away. When her song ended she too vanished and I simply wandered back the way I had come. The next day one of our patrols found me, half dead and delirious from loss of blood, no more than a mile from Ascalon.”
I opened my mouth to speak again but he cut me off.
“It was not a dream, Tulun, I know it was not. I have heard that music echoing through my mind in quiet moments ever since, no matter where I have travelled, no matter where I have fought it calls to me.” He cocked his head to one side, listening to something in the night. “It calls to me still. I have searched long and hard for her and now I am close, I can feel it.” Then, abruptly, his sombre tone left him and he flashed me a dazzling smile.
“Would you believe that there are those who call me Lucien the Mad Knight. Imagine that, Tulun!”
Our laughter rang across the desert sands.
The next day we rode south together. We made a strange pair, Lucien of Rossilion and I–the burly Nazarani with his dusty red tunic and black cloak and the young ghulam in his flowing white robes and turban.
Lucien proved himself an amiable travelling companion, politely curious without being intrusive and I soon found myself warming to this strange, haunted man. As we rode I told him of my childhood in Khursasan province, of how I had been sold to the army of the eastern Caliphs when still a boy, to be trained as a ghulam warrior. I told him of the battles I had fought for my masters – against Daylami rebels, Berber tribesmen and even the Nazarani themselves – and of my eventual release from obligation.
“You have lived a full life for one so young,” Lucien said.
“And with the grace of God I may even live to be as old and fat as you, my friend.”
He swore softly in his own language and then laughed. “I thought that ghulams were still taught manners at least.”
“Most,” I told him. “But not all.”
By mid-afternoon we had reached the trails leading to Jassala town.
“And here we must part, Tulun of Birjand,” Lucien said. “My path does not lie that way.” He offered me his hand and I took it, wrist to wrist as warriors should.
“I hope you find what you seek, Lucien of Rossilion.”
“Who knows, perhaps I will. Or perhaps I am mad after all.”
“Go in the name of God,” I said.
He nodded once and then tugged on the reins of his warhorse. The land swallowed him up in moments.
As it leaves the desert, the road to Jassala winds slowly towards stark hills and snow capped mountains. But its wild beauty was lost on me that day – Lucien had left me with many troubling questions, and the buoyancy of heart with which I had begun my journey had disappeared.
I thought of the Mad Knight, alone in a hostile land, searching for the fragment of a dream. What had he seen on that night so many years ago and what was the song that had called to him ever since?
I am by nature no more curious than any other man and by rights I should have simply spurred onward to Jassala and the glittering coins that were waiting there, but the mystery nagged at me with every step. Finally, I could stand it no longer and with a flick of the wrist I turned my horse around and galloped back the way I had come.
I had no difficulty in picking up Lucien’s trail and caught up with him in less than an hour. I reined in beside him and we rode for a mile or two in comfortable silence until at last he said:
“Thank you, Tulun.”
“You are an old man,” I said. “And the desert is a dangerous place. What kind of a man would I be to allow you to travel by yourself?”
“A wise one.”
“God grants wisdom to whom He pleases,” I said.
“But the righteous man is cautious in friendship,” he replied with a smile.
“So you too are a man of the Book, Lucien of Rossilion?” The knowledge surprised me.
“A different book, my friend – but perhaps it is the same in God’s eyes.”
Without warning he reined his horse to a halt and stared towards the darkening horizon.
“I have no wish to alarm you, Tulun, but we may have a little more company on our journey.” He indicated a swiftly moving dust cloud a mile or two to the west. Within in it the blood red light of the waning sun picked out the glitter of steel.
I had no doubt who it was. “Rabiah of the Kasseef seeks us out again.”
“And why not, were there ever two more amiable travelling companions than us?” He frowned slightly. “You made a grave mistake in allowing him his life.”
I readied my lance as Lucien drew a great bladed axe and a sword from the scabbards on his saddle. “I seldom make the same mistake twice,” I said. And we rode to meet them.
There were ten of them, scowling Kasseef raiders with hatred burning in their faces. Rabiah halted them a short distance from us.
“You owe me three lives, Tulun of Birjand,” he called. “But I will be merciful if you give us the Nazarani – I will only take your right hand and left eye in payment.” He smiled his wolf’s smile again. “What do you say to that?”
“I say that your mother bore a cowardly bastard.”
The smile vanished from his face. “For that I will take both eyes and both hands before I kill you.”
“This whoreson talks too much,” Lucien said, then with a bellow he spurred his horse forward, swinging sword and axe in a whirl of steel.
I followed him a heartbeat later and together we crashed into the Kasseef horsemen.
My lance snapped as it went through a horse’s neck, sending the screaming animal and its rider to the ground. I smashed a face with my shield, then drew my sword. Beside me Lucien’s blades weaved and slashed, hacking and cutting with a ferocity equalled only by my own. I saw him cleave through a raider’s shoulder and down into his chest, almost splitting the man in two. The Mad Knight’s eyes shone with the glory of battle and his voice rose in barbaric exultation as he fought.
Steel flashed in the dusk as Rabiah’s sword plunged into Lucien’s side and the joyful battle-song was choked off. Twisting in the saddle, Lucien brought his axe around to return the blow and Rabiah screamed as his arm was struck from his body, the force of the blow throwing him from his horse.
I pushed forward, striking left and right until I had won free to the other side of the melee. As I turned to rejoin it a second sword plunged into Lucien, almost unseating him – his sword swung back in reply and the last of the Kasseef died.
Lucien reeled in his saddle and a groan escaped from his blood-spattered lips. Then he slid slowly to the ground and lay there, his massive chest heaving as he fought to breathe.
A few feet away Rabiah knelt on the sand, his life pouring out of him in red torrents. As I dismounted he raised his head and glared at me.
“The prince of hell awaits your coming, Tulun of Birjand,” he snarled through gritted teeth. “And I will wait with him.”
I struck his head from his shoulders with a single blow.
As I approached, Lucien coughed weakly, sending fresh blood onto his lips.
“It was a good fight, Tulun.”
“Yes, old man, it was a good fight.”
A spasm of pain passed through his body and he fought back a groan. His eyes closed and the breath rattled wetly in his throat, too loud in the rapidly closing night.
“May God take you to His side.” I had no other words, no other prayers.
All around us the land was silent and still, even the perpetually shifting sand was motionless now, as if in respect for this dying warrior.
Suddenly, his eyes flicked open.
“Can you hear it, Tulun? Can you hear her song?”
“I hear nothing.”
His hand shot out and gripped my robe. “Help me to my horse,” he gasped. “She is calling to me.”
“There is no song, Lucien.”
“Help me, you heathen bastard!” But there was no hatred in his voice, only an entreaty.
It took a long time to get him into the saddle, but finally we did it. His face was grey with pain and even those incredible eyes had dulled, but when he spoke again his voice was strong and determined.
“Ride with me one last time, Tulun, and I will show you the substance of a dream.” Without waiting for a reply, he touched his spurs to the flanks of the warhorse and trotted into the darkness.
I followed, straining to hear the music that called to him. But there was nothing, nothing but the jingle of our harnesses and the soft fall of hooves on sand. Above us the sky grew dark, the stars themselves had been snuffed out and until a thin sliver of the moon remained to light our way.
And then, from somewhere in the night, I heard it – a single, sweet note drifting toward us. At its coming the moon waxed full and the stars broke through the heavens again.
“Can you see, Tulun?” Lucien whispered. “Can you see?”
We stood on a path that sloped down into a wide, broad-bottomed valley wreathed in mist. On either side its jagged walls rose sharply, as if a gigantic hand had torn this place from the land. And before us, her arms open in welcome, stood the woman that Lucien had sought all these long years.
As we rode towards her the music grew stronger filling my senses until I thought I would weep with joy. Lucien turned to me.
“Farewell, Tulun of Birjand, may God keep you safe until we meet again.” He grinned and winked, his vitality suddenly returning, then spurred his horse forward and was lost from sight.
Abruptly, the music ended. I was alone with this strange, beautiful woman. Her hair was as dark as the night itself, her eyes as luminous as the moon.
“Thank you, Tulun.” When she spoke her voice was sweeter than her song.
“Who are you?”
She smiled. “I have many names – Inanna, Badb, Eshara - which would you prefer?” She stepped closer to me and for the first time I could see that her flesh was pale, almost translucent, her body wavered and shimmered with each word she spoke.
“Inanna,” I said and somehow the name was fitting. “I know you, but from where?”
“You know me better than you think, Tulun of Birjand – I was there at your birth and I shall be there at your death.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will.” She began her song again, slowly and softly, each note like a fragment of crystal.
And I heard. And I saw. And I understood.
Inanna, the goddess of war, whose very existence had been all but taken away by the Book – for what are the gods without belief? – who still dwelt at the edges of the world and called the bravest and the best to her side at the moment of death.
I should have hated her – what was she but the fragile remnant of a time before God opened the eyes of righteous men? – but I could not.
She reached out and touched me with a hand as insubstantial as smoke.
“Do not fear for your friend, Tulun,” she said. “Paradise has many rooms, many gardens – he has found his with me. As will you one day.”
“Not I.” And at my words a flicker of pain passed across her exquisite face and a little more of her form faded away.
“Go then,” she said softly.
I turned my horse and cantered away.
When I looked back I saw only featureless desert and heard nothing but the shifting of the sands.
“Farewell, Lucien of Rossilion,” I said. “May you find the peace you deserve.”
Then I dug my spurs into the flank of my fine chestnut gelding and set off south again, towards Jassala and the thousand sequins that awaited me there.
James Lecky is a theatre actor and director from Northern Ireland. Most recently, his work has appeared in Everyday Fiction and the Aeon Press anthology Emerald Eye. He lives with his wife, his cat and is sickeningly content.
What do you think is the most important part of a fantasy story?
I think what fantasy tries to do - and for that matter all fiction - is to transport the reader, however briefly, into a different world and it is those different worlds and the characters that inhabit them that attract us to fantasy.