Northeastern Rûm, 487 Hicri (1094 AD)
Rûm. In these open, sun-white steppes west of the caliphate, these black craggy mountains, saints like the dervish Ilyas and I run wild. Our hair free and bleached red, our cheeks stung by wind, our powers unseen and unfettered.
And so we would remain, if we chose solitude and the wilderness. If we choose otherwise, Ilyas once warned, we pay the price.
I chose Armen. And I paid that price with my freedom.
Legend says the caliph gave Melik Danişmend his own banner to raise as he and his warrior gazis set out west from Baghdad. To Rûm the pious king rode, and with the black standard high, he and his raiding cavalry devoured the land between Melitene and Sebastia. His conquests swept to Evdokia. To Amaseia, which he named Harşana.
And it is easy to claim a young woman as bounty. Easier still for a warrior of the faith to bind a saint to his cause, when he knows verses heavier than any shackles.
A part of me cannot begrudge his actions. It was the decision of a canny leader, to enslave a saint. He saw what burned in me, took my uncalloused hands, and put a mace in them. He made me a warrior. He made me more than that.
I became his weapon.
And as Melik Danişmend’s conquests brought him closer to the shores of the Pontic Sea, where mist-girdled mountains studded with Roman fortresses dove into dagger-edge valleys, I learned that it was wise to have such a weapon.
For these forests are home to monsters.
“We’re being stalked.”
It’s dawn, cold and sheathed in mist blue as steel, when Armen appears before Melik Danişmend to give his report. I stand a half step behind Melik, a slave’s respectful distance from the king, but I peer unabashedly at Armen. Rations are lean and night watches long near the end of campaign season, but I hunger for the sight of him more than any hot meal or uninterrupted rest. For the certainty of his presence near me. For the opportunity, however brief, to see how he is faring.
Badly, it seems; though the hold of his shoulders is resolute, sleeplessness weighs beneath his eyes like a bruise. His dark hair is tied away from his face, premature hollows and deep lines around his usually easy mouth. Though I see him too little to know if this exhaustion is due to the end of the season or something worse, I fear it is the latter.
Around us, tents and sleeping pallets collapse in on themselves with haste. Horses toss their heads; they taste the bite of anxiety on the autumn air and stamp impatiently. Gazi warriors cast glances over their shoulders, bark at one another to be quicker. Their tempers have the short burn of men who know they are being watched.
The men standing guard saw something in the night, Armen reports; unlike other nights, however, all the gazis are accounted for. Melik Danişmend’s brow furrows. We are four days’ ride yet from Sivas, the name the Turks have given Sebastia. That means three nights without the protection of its walls.
“Be alert,” the king tells me.
I nod my assent, but my eyes fix on Armen’s retreating back. He never once looked at me once as he spoke to Melik. The awareness of this aches dully in my breast, a thumb pressed into a yellowing bruise.
Before we ride, the men turn south and Melik leads them in prayer. I hang back with the horses, pretending to occupy myself with mending a stirrup leather damaged in our last raid. I listen to the sweep of their clothing as foreheads bow to earth; to the fear humming on the air, lacing the prayers with a sick melody.
Armen is among them. I know why he avoids me—to protect me from Melik’s ire. The words we exchange are skittish, ginger. It feels as if a limb has been broken off, this distance between us.
You’re home, we once swore to one another, the warmth of our breath mingling in the dark of the fortress courtyard.
I know guilt keeps him from my side. In a way, they are his fault, these shackles of mine. My place at Melik’s side. How I was strapped to a stake in a fortress not unlike the ones we have since helped the king sack. In my hour of direst need, when my own father called me a demon, when smoke blackened my throat as I screamed for help, Armen was already gone.
Yes, it is Armen’s fault I was left alone. But when I was saved, when I was given shelter, I was the one who chose to turn my back on the other saints.
I chose Armen.
The fault for what befell me afterwards is all my own.
A voice shatters my uneasy sleep. That is my name since I became a slave—no longer Eumorphia but Efromiya, a typical Turki mangling of syllables—and it is sharp with panic: “Efromiya!”
I am on my feet, reaching for my boots and mace in the dark. I don’t have time to strap on my sword. It could be Romans. It could be worse. Either way, I don’t need a weapon. But I feel safer with its weight against my palm as I tear through the tent opening and sprint toward my name.
I nearly collide with Melik Danişmend; I gasp and fall back a step. My bow is shallow with haste.
He is a head taller than me, his shoulders broad from a decade of campaigning. Gray streaks his beard and his hair, which is loose around his drawn face; a shirt of light mail was thrown haphazardly over what looks like a sleeping shirt. He was roused as suddenly as I, and like me, he is armed: he grips a long spear in one hand.
The spear is tipped with silver. It winks in the torchlight held by another gazi at his side—Ömer, the king’s standard-bearer, a friend of Armen.
Ah. So it has come to a head. That which has been stalking us has made itself known. My focus sharpens; the fingers of my free hand uncurl, fan into a stretch, and recurl as a loose fist. My weight shifts to my toes, ready to sprint after quarry. This was why I was awakened, after all: it is time to send the saint after the monster. The eagerness of the hunt builds in my belly as I await the king’s command.
The torchlight carves Melik’s grim expression deep. “Armen is gone.”
My stomach drops out beneath me.
My eyes flick to the silver-tipped spear, then back to Melik’s face.
Armen can’t have been taken. No one is found after disappearances like that.
It is a death sentence.
“Where?” A ragged, desperate demand: let me get him.
Melik points to the north end of camp, nearest to us. “He was on second watch, and—”
I dive into the dark.
Our camp fills a clearing among the thickening trees. Its weak halo of yellow light—torches, the embers of cooking fires—is powerless against the night, and the sickle moon is long set. My desperation is a rope tied fast to Armen, and on it I am a drowning sailor; one hand follows the other, one step after another. I will find him. I must. He is my home, and always has been. The one soul I cling to though I have lost everything else.
Twigs sting my face. I pump my legs as hard as I can, clawing my way through the forest. Low branches pummel my arms; I break them back with my mace.
I follow instinct into the darkness, then I hear it: a weak cry, the snarling of a beast. A wet, sick sucking.
I still at once; my boots sink into soft earth as the hairs on the back of my neck stand erect. “Armen?”
A violent hiss slices the dark. Suddenly, there is a burn of red eyes in the black. Red like a storm dawn; red like a splatter of blood.
They are fixed on me.
Every mortal part of me screams flee. I, too, am prey. But there is a stronger force in me: anger washes over feral knowledge. A deluge, a flood of fire.
This monster took Armen.
I plant my feet apart in a firm stance. Throw down my mace. It hits the ground with a thick thud.
I hold out my hands before me and shut my eyes.
I am tendrils in the dark, seeking the white of bones, seeking the monster, seeking hunting craving to break.
I find my quarry.
Me, my power—I, it—together seize the monster’s body, trace its ribs, its spine, its tenderly bent arms. My power would unleash on the monster’s all, but I have a different plan.
I hold all fifty-four bones of the monster’s two hands in my mind and, with a surge of will, I shatter them.
A deadweight thump; the cracking of twigs. A man’s scream splits the forest.
Not Armen’s scream.
Now that my power knows the taste of the monster’s bones, it flies like an arrow to the marks I set it: one thighbone snaps, wet as the cracking of a green branch. The body hits the undergrowth; the howls are ceaseless now. My power snakes up over the arch of the hips, up the stairs of the spine to the ribcage.
It took Armen.
I fasten my power on one rib, not allowing it to snap—not yet, not yet—but pressing with gradually increasing pressure until it splinters. What soft things it wounds inside the monster’s body are beyond my knowing; all I taste is the shape of the white, the stark curve of bones.
I move to the next rib. The monster is shrieking now, its pitch searing the night.
I press harder. I want it to be in agony for taking Armen.
Shouts; crescendoing footsteps. I am faintly aware of Melik and his men approaching; I sense the movement of their bones as if through a thick fog.
But I am focused on the next rib. Slow, slow, shatter. I have seven left, and I swear I will break every single—
I open my eyes. The panicked leaping of torchlight cuts through the trees. It illuminates the scene before me: two bodies in the undergrowth, one limp, its front drenched with blood. Armen. The other writhing in pain, wrenching away from the light.
The monster. I hold my pressure on the rib in my power’s grasp. The monster’s steel-on-stone shrieking continues; every other nighttime sound is drowning in it. It fills the valley, it strikes the distant mountains.
I look down.
Its face is that of a young man.
Perhaps it was once handsome, but now it is gaunt, its jaundiced hollows carved deeper by the torchlight, its skin scarred and scabbed and tanned like hide by sun and wind. Its clothes—for the monster still wears clothes, remnants of a once-life—are tattered, stiff with blackened gore. Its face contorts in agony, its mouth wide and gaping, bearing fangs as long as a wolf’s and jagged at the edges for slicing flesh.
The teeth shine with blood. Armen’s blood. The monster’s chin is slick with it.
I release the rib. My power snakes up the monster’s spine, and I and it—my power and the rage building inside me like a blacksmith’s furnace—snap the monster’s neck.
The shrieking cuts off.
Silence presses on my eardrums, firm muffling hands.
Someone steps forward from the group behind me. It’s Melik. Though the night is cold, sweat glistens along his hairline. His chest rises and falls from the exertion of pursuit.
He nudges the body with the tip of his boot.
An arm twitches. Fast as a reflex, my power halves its bone; the crack splits the silence. Melik flinches. Everyone behind me jumps.
Then Melik raises the spear. A whispered bismillah, a falcon-swift strike, and the silver tip is buried in the monster’s neck, pinning it to the earth.
A final shriek rips the night, sharp claws shredding the veil between us and the unknown. A wind rises, impossibly, from among the trees; I fight the urge to fall back from the acrid smell it whips around us. The monster’s body turns to ash, lifts, dissipates.
Behind me, men murmur verses of protection. Calloused fingers brush amulets—tiny Qurans in metal cases worn around their necks, verses inked in cloth. Beneath their mail are talismanic shirts embroidered with protective verses by loving mothers and sisters. Protection from infidels and monsters alike.
I shift my stance; as my outstretched hands fall and my power shifts into rest, the last thing I feel is the bodies of men leaning away from me.
Perhaps they pray for protection from saints as well.
One man has come forward and fallen to his knees. Ömer. He cries out once, soft and desperate, at the sight before him and begins fumbling for bandages from a bag at his side.
My home. My beacon. Men with torches creep forward, illuminating frank splatters of blood and torn flesh. No. The front of Armen’s shoulder is an open wound, as if he has been mauled by a wolf where neck meets breast.
Armen. He is my whole world, and now his eyes are closed, his face drained and hollow. The fevered voices around me dull to noise, my guts a wet slick inside me. There is nothing but Armen’s face in the frantic leaping light of the torches. The rise and fall of his breathing: shallow, labored, wet.
I can’t keep my hands from trembling. How can I help him? Bones, I know. I shatter I crack I splinter. But other parts of the body? I am powerless. My mother—she was a saint in all but name, her unearthly gifts disguised by poultices and incense and prayers. But she is dead six winters.
I should fall to his side to help staunch the blood. I can’t. Anything my mother taught me has been cleared and written over with combat footwork and grips on a hilt, with the new sinew to strike with a mace from a gallop, with the focus required to hold the skulls of seventeen Romans in my mind and break them in a fell blow.
I am destruction. I cannot nurture. That part of me died when Melik made me a weapon.
My hands hang useless at my sides as Ömer binds Armen’s wounds and directs men to lift him. As the torches move back to camp through the dark.
Melik is the only one who remains by my side. “Well done.”
The words glance off me, arrows turned by a thick shield. Every word of praise from Melik is currency, one coin closer to a freedom that—if he deems me worthy—I may be mercifully granted before he dies. Otherwise I am like a jinni trapped in a ring, bound to him until his dying breath, my first and most explicit command to prevent him from dying in the first place.
Yet I don’t care. My mind is full of Armen. Armen’s flesh ripped open. Armen in the stable in the castle in Amaseia. Armen running beside my fat gray pony as he taught me to ride years ago. The rich summer sun reddening his hair, gilding his skin like an idol. I knew then there was no one for me but him, though I never said so aloud. Everything that was expected of me in those days—skirts, piety, submission—made me want to rip my dresses off. With Armen I could always just be.
But then he left.
He was bringing horses in from pasture when he spied a lone traveler resting beneath a tree, a great man with a thick gray beard and hawk-like pale eyes: Melik Ahmet Danişmend. Ahmet the wise, Ahmet of the far-sight, a warrior king from the caliphate who claimed to see the future in dreams not because he was a saint, but because he was God-touched. He offered Armen freedom, bounty, land. A chance to win a world of his own.
He promised Armen me.
When he told me this, Armen said he feared there was no other future for us. He was the orphaned son of a nomad; my father was a lord who betrothed me to a stranger twice my age. My wedding was on the horizon; our time together grew lean.
So he accepted Melik’s offer.
But when he begged me to run with him, my limbs cooled with fear. The gazis were our enemy. They swept in from the east like the Scythians of legend, burning castles and stealing women and boys to be sold in the markets of Aleppo and Baghdad.
I didn’t leave with him.
That was my first mistake.
Melik’s words break into my thoughts. “You need to go to him.”
I murmur something in the affirmative, even as dull pain fans across my shoulder blades. An attack like this always costs me. Tomorrow I will be wooden in the saddle, spine stiff and curled as a crone.
There will be no tomorrow if Armen dies.
I will go and sit at his side, and... and do what? Watch as he expires before me, as the one home I have ever known slips through my powerless fingers?
“You must keep watch,” Melik says. “If he shows signs of becoming one of them, you must kill him.”
I whirl on the king, too stunned to speak. Then his command finds its hold in my chest; an answer ignites between my ribs. “You can’t make me do that.”
Ah, but he can. I can already feel his words curling through me like roots, the magic woven into them as real as my own. These are the words of a master to a slave. These are my reward, the price I paid for leaving the dervish, Ilyas. For Armen.
Grief is heavy in Melik’s eyes. He looks down at me with something so achingly close to pity I want to strip it away and tear it in two. The king is fond of Armen, despite his transgressions. Everyone is fond of Armen. They’re fond of his easy, lopsided smile, the one that shows his chipped incisor. How his clear voice lifts hearts when he sings yearning ballads in his mother’s tongue, as we walk our horses up rocky winding paths in the mountains. Armen is no saint, not the way I am, but he holds a gentle power over people I will never understand.
You must kill him.
A cruel fist closes around my throat. I can’t breathe. My eyes sting with the smoke of Melik’s torch. With something hot.
“My dreams are not clear, Efromiya. There is a chance yet he may survive.” His voice is softer. I can feel it is meant to be comforting, and I loathe it more for the gesture. “But I cannot risk this sickness spreading among my army. Nor Sivas. It is never easy when the fallen are men like Armen, but we must think of the many.”
Damn the many. I would let them all burn for Armen.
“You must protect my men. Is that understood?”
The commands scrape over my clavicles and rest around my neck, their weight an iron chain. I curl stiffening hands into fists. “Understood, my king.”
I walk straight to Armen’s tent. I would never dare this on any other day. Thanks to Armen’s love songs, everyone knows what we are, he and I: forged together by fire but ultimately, unmarried. The irony that Melik frets over my virtue while sending me to slaughter his enemies has never escaped me.
I pull aside the tent opening without announcing myself. Ömer and Gülnuş Banu—Melik’s wife, skilled in dressing wounds—hover over Armen, their fingers smeared with blood diluted by water. They look up at me in one gesture.
Their fear strikes me like a cold draft, brittle.
Our abode is transitory, the dervish Ilyas once warned me. Our life therein but a loan. The memory of splinters digging into my back as I am tied to a stake is never far from my mind; the ripples of heat rising between me and the crowd, the faces that look on me in fear and disgust. This was why Ilyas cautioned me to stay away from people: the powers of saints cannot be explained by the books or clergy of cross nor crescent. For this, we are either worshipped or burned. We cannot live among them for long.
Ömer rises, murmurs something to Gülnuş, and brushes past me into the night.
Gülnuş pats the earth at her side. Even if she fears me, she has never been unkind. It’s impossible for Gülnuş to be unkind to anyone. I want to thank her—for this, for understanding what Armen is to me without prying into why we avoid one another—but my tongue sticks to the top of my mouth. I sit back on my heels, mute.
Armen’s neck is thick with bandages; his skin has a clammy sheen. His pupils flutter beneath closed eyelids, but he does not wake as Gülnuş dabs his brow with a damp cloth.
“Did Ahmet say he dreamt about this?” Gülnuş wonders. As Melik’s wife, she’s the only one who calls him that. As a fellow once-captive, she is the only one apart from Armen who speaks to me in our native tongue.
I part my dry lips. My voice is raw from shouting Armen’s name. Armen. “Only that it’s not clear.”
She looses a quiet sigh. When I cast a glance at her, her eyes are distant, lost in thought. She was also the daughter of a Roman castle lord, traveling between fortresses when her caravan was attacked for its riches. She, too, was stolen, but once she had a taste of life on the road with the gazis, a spark lit in her. She converted and married the king and campaigns with him for months at a time, her hands ever busy mending or healing, her cheeks red from wind and laughter, her mouth full of song over the dinner fires. I know what it’s like to live in a fortress and be without use; with Melik, she has purpose, and she crackles merrily with it.
All my new purpose has ever made me want to do is lay down beneath a tree and never rise again. The knowledge that Armen fights by the king’s side and needs my protection hauls me to my feet every morning. But now...
“Be careful.” Gülnuş turns to me now, her posture stiff with concern. “Keep watch.”
“For what?” I don’t want to know. I don’t want it to be true.
The corners of her mouth twist softly; she shoots Armen a mournful look. “You’ll know.”
She stands, wiping her hands on her skirts. Fabric swishes, brushes my back, as she leaves.
If he shows signs of becoming one of them, kill him.
A metallic tang sours my mouth: the promise of nausea.
Armen was convinced there was a way to bend Melik’s power over me. What if I twisted the king’s words in my own mind, or believed an incorrect interpretation of them so fervently I had no choice to act as Melik did not intend? Could that free me from my shackles?
Fleeing camp last spring was our first trial of Armen’s theory.
We galloped hard. We knew we’d be followed. I’d been kidnapped before and recaptured at great cost. I am the king’s prized weapon, the mace of the gazis, an infidel girl paving the road of conquest with shattered bones.
Neither of us fully understood Melik’s ferocity until he and the gazis bore down on us like a landslide. Some commands, it turns out, cannot be bent: Melik ordered me to stop, and I could not move. When attacked, Armen hesitated rather than strike the men he had fought alongside; for this, Melik lessened his punishment. Even in battle, Armen’s gentleness endears people to him.
I have no such affect on men.
The lashes had me on my stomach on the raw flagstones of Sivas’s citadel for nearly a week. My broken bones heal with saintly grace, but my flesh festers like any other mortal’s.
Armen was forbidden from visiting my cell. He came anyway, with poultice and sweet words, Melik’s retribution be damned. “This is my fault,” he whispered. His lips on my hair were as firm as his promise: “I’ll free you if it kills me.”
Gülnuş and Ömer have taken off his blood-soaked mail, and without its weight, Armen’s chest rises and falls rhythmically, peacefully. I put a hand over his heart; its beat brushes my palm. I’m overcome with a need for it to fill me, to consume me, to prove to me that Armen is alive and always will be. I bend over and place my ear on his chest; the small bones of my ear vibrate tenderly with each thrum and its echo.
We spent so many honey-gold afternoons like this, in the fields outside Amaseia, sleeping off the heat beneath a tree’s shade. I glance up, past the bandages at his throat; my chest contracts with grief. I half expect him to open his eyes and look down at me through dark lashes, a soft, contented smile drawing at his lips. Just like he used to.
“Wake up.” My voice barely makes it past my lips; it’s then I notice they’re trembling, that tears well in my eyes. My fingers curl into his shirt, over splotches of stiffening blood.
Our breaths are numbered, Ilyas once said. Our abode is transitory.
It was Ilyas who saved me from the fire, who heard a fellow saint’s cries and sent his jinni companion, Menüçehr, to rescue me. In the dervish lodge, he taught me about what we were, and the truth of monsters. About how we were created to control the other, the creatures that lurked in the shadowed valleys of the Taurus Mountains and prowled the Pontic coast. These were unnameable creatures, born of the ash of the world’s youth; of these perversions, the gluttonous oburs, the blood-hungry, were an affliction that could spread to and transform men, believer and infidel alike.
Who was the monster I killed today? Did he have a family? When he was attacked and fell sick, did he remember his name? Himself?
I don’t know how long I sit there. A dark stain of tears grows on Armen’s shirt. Voices approach and pass the tent; fade. The camp quiets.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but suddenly I am aware of the woodenness of my spine. My left arm tingles from being pinned beneath me. The torch illuminating Armen’s tent has burned low—I must have been asleep for two hours, maybe three. Dawn has not yet broken; the camp lays cocooned in silence.
I look down at Armen. The bandages at his neck have soaked through with blood. I lurch up, grasping for the basket of clean rags Gülnuş left behind, but I don’t know how to replace them, how to clean the wound to prevent infection. I’m paralyzed. What if removing the bandages means he bleeds away quicker than I can replace them? What do I do?
At least he is breathing easily. That’s good.
No—he breathes too easily. Even though his face is grey in the dim light, the bandages dark with the glint of new blood.
I have seen men die. I have seen how blood slips from their lips, staining their teeth and beards as they strike the earth.
The amount of blood Armen has lost would bring any gazi to his knees, then to his Creator.
Yet he breathes.
This realization opens sourly before me, a fruit with a rotten pit. I killed the monster, but I came too late. The damage is done.
Melik’s commands hang around my neck.
I cannot wait for Armen to get sicker. For Melik’s words to take hold of my bones and force my hands on the person I sacrificed my freedom to be near.
You must stay, Ilyas told me.
Ilyas. Ilyas is old as the mountains, old enough to have been the teacher of Iskender, a saint made immortal by legend if not by his search for the waters of eternal life. Ilyas healed my wounds after Menüçehr saved me from fire.
Perhaps he can save Armen from this.
If he shows signs of becoming one of them...
My only boon in this nightmare is that, contrary to Gülnüş Banu’s words, I don’t know the signs.
You must protect my men.
Armen is one of his men.
Dawn grays as I haphazardly wrap more bandages around Armen’s neck, and lift him one arm slung over my neck.
In this way, I bend the king’s command: I know the only way I can protect Armen from his wounds is to take him to Ilyas.
My warhorse was bred to carry an armored gazi outfitted with weapons and supplies swiftly across an eastern steppe, but still she struggles with our weight as I urge her into a canter. She can’t keep this pace for long, but if my plan works, she won’t have to. Armen slumps before me; I tighten my left arm around his belly, my right on the reins.
I know we’ll be followed, but I can’t let them stop me. If we are captured and I am made to follow Melik’s command...
Nothing will tether me to this world anymore.
I press into Armen’s back and pray. Not to a god, for what god of believers or infidels has a place for monsters in his heart? I reach for a presence I have seen before, someone who once lifted me from heat and smoke. I threw my spirit into the wind that day. I do so now. Desperation is a prayer in all tongues, and the only one that tastes real on mine.
The jinni Menüçehr whirls out of the air beside me.
My horse shies violently; I thrust my heels down in the stirrups to brace, clutching Armen’s dead weight as I steady her to a halt.
She trembles beneath me in the presence of the jinni. I would, too, if I did not know who he was; he appears to mortals as a tangle of vines and branches, his skin mossy and dappled like a fawns. Vines weave through exposed ribs. His head rests higher than any mortal man’s, his face ever-shifting, that of a predator: it is fox, it is wolf, it is brown and green and growing, crowned with the sweep of gazelle’s horns. His legs are a deer’s, hooved and graceful, and his arms are the roots of an oak.
Eumorphia. A rumbling that sets my horse’s ears flat against her skull: Menüçehr speaks my given name. It settles into my chest like an amulet. Mine, that name is mine. It wakes a part of me that I thought died with my freedom. My hope is an atrophied muscle, but it lifts weakly as the jinni continues. Your friend is unwell.
“I need help.” My voice cracks over the words. “Will you take us to Ilyas?”
Menüçehr’s attention turns on Armen. I feel and understand his apprehension more than see it; what mortal could read emotions in a face like that?
“Please,” I gasp. “He’s...” I tighten my arm around Armen’s middle, aching for the reassuring thrum of his heart. “He’s all I have.”
Branches creak as Menüçehr shifts his weight, as he turns his ever-shifting face to the east and smells the dawn. Light silvers his horns like dew.
For a long moment, he is still as a deer. Then, as in dreams, the color of the air shifts; everything beyond his silhouette blurs.
My horse’s nostrils flare; her ribs expand sharp with panicked breaths. She senses what’s coming. I do too, and relief fills me like wine when Menüçehr speaks it into being:
A cold wind rises. Menüçehr breaks apart into it, and soon, like smoke, so do we.
The wind stills. My poor warhorse shies again, throwing up her head in surprise as she takes in a world of new smells.
A river runs behind us, driving the familiar click of a mill. Ilyas’s dervish lodge stands before us: along, low building at the foot of a mountain, its silhouette stark against the increasingly light eastern sky.
Memories course through me like water: warmth and a firm roof and the hum of zikr rising and falling like a current as I fall asleep in my small rooms on the other side of the building.
The day I was strapped to a stake, Ilyas heard my cries and sent Menüçehr to bring me here. Ilyas put poultices on my burns, eased my coughing with dark tea. I learned later his healing abilities were beyond compare: after long centuries of maturing in his powers, Ilyas was capable of miracles prophets would envy.
He left me one scar. The too-smooth flesh on my calf, puckered and pink at its edges, was meant to remind me of the price any saint paid to be among the people. Why it was prudent—necessary—to live apart.
“Such is our fate,” he told me then, one hand on his staff, the other on my shoulder, watching dawn sweep into the valley as the sheep milled around us. Appear, perform miracles, vanish again: this was the purpose of our creation, this was how we maintained balance. That, or risk enslavement, like the ancient saint Hızır—once worshipped as a pagan god of spring, he was now a shadow chained to the throne of a sultan in Ikonion. Or worse, be murdered like Isa of Syria, whose belief in his own invincibility could not save him from the banal cruelty of men.
“This is why you must stay,” Ilyas said. “To live free and maintain balance.”
Then, I did not appreciate how precious plentiful food was, nor the luxury of sleeping without a mace by my side, but I loved the tranquility of the lodge. It was a place of quiet routine, where my assumed eventual conversion was not rushed; where I was taught to read and write in Persian and speak Turki, to wake to the rhythm of the dervishes’ prayers at dawn, to be at peace sitting on a rock with my thoughts as I watched the sheep.
But Armen’s absence was a wound Ilyas could not heal. It festered and wept, its infection creeping red up my arms. It was a mistake, not running with him when I had the chance. Armen strode into my every daydream like a prophet, weaving up the rocky paths of the valley with a lamb tucked beneath one arm and a song on his lips.
So I left.
I disguised myself as a boy and walked for three days until I found a village with people who could show me the road to Sivas, the city of the Turks, the seat of the rule of Melik Danişmend. As I grew closer to Sivas, I asked farmers and shepherds after the king’s army.
A week after I left the lodge, I ran out of food. I dozed beneath the back awning of a caravanserai, hiding from the spring rains and the night, wondering if I should give up and return to Ilyas in defeat.
Then I felt the movement of bones; the approach of people, their intent locked on me.
I opened my eyes. A group of Turks, cloaked and hooded against the rain, the torches of the caravanserai and its stable throwing their faces into deep shadow. I leapt to my feet and held out my hands. My power reached out, tasting their number, their presence, and it touched something tender, something so familiar I gasped.
One of the men threw back his hood. “Morfia?”
I dropped my hands. Only one person has ever called me that.
His embrace knocked the breath out of me. He was bigger than I remembered, or perhaps it was the cloak, the leather armor on his chest, the short beard on his jaw. The heaviness of a sword at his hip. He smelled like campfire and the road, but when I buried my face into his neck he was Armen. My Armen.
“I thought I lost you,” he said, voice trembling against my hair. “Amaseia, and your father...” He tightened his arms. He must have seen the plume of smoke rising from the castle we once called home, the rumors of my witchcraft. “Everyone said you were dead.”
I pulled away, took his face in my hands. Tears glistened on his face in the torchlight. They were warm as I wiped them away.
“I’m fine,” was all I could manage.
“Is this her?” a man asked in Turki.
Armen turned; my hands fell from his face, hung loose at my side.
A broad man with pale eyes took stock of me. The others fanned behind him like a peacock’s tail; this was their leader, this was the man who had tempted Armen away from the castle so many months ago. My fingers flexed. I sized him up as he did me, running my sight over his bones: many were once broken, gnarled from how they had healed. This was a man who had survived much combat.
Armen switched seamlessly to Turki. “This is Eumorphia, daughter of the tekfur of Harşana.” To me, in our tongue, he said: “This is the king Danişmend.”
The king held out a hand to me—to be kissed, no doubt, as was custom. I held his gaze, narrow-eyed, until he retracted it with a low, thoughtful noise.
Then he began to recite.
I recognized the Arabic from the prayers of the dervishes but did not understand what he was saying; only that at once I could not breathe, there was a weight around my neck like chains, and it dragged me down, down...
My skull rattled as my knees struck earth; I choked, gasping for breath.
“What are you doing?” Armen’s panic echoed as if from far away, so far, even as he took me by the arm and lifted me, supported my dead weight.
Darkness suffocated like smoke. Through the black, each brassy strike of Arabic took a face, took a shape, settling into my marrow with meaning: Efromiya of Harşana, with these words I bind you to my service until the day of my death...
“You’re making her your slave?” Armen’s voice cracked in horror. “You lied to me! You lied!”
As my senses dulled to nothing, I thought: Ilyas was right all along.
Now I stand in the dawn, facing Ilyas’s lodge as if I had never left. The turn of the mill wheel counts the seconds as I nudge my horse forward toward the door. Insect chitter busily to themselves. Dew crystalizes on the grass in the strengthening light.
We halt before the door. I slide from the saddle and nearly collapse as Armen’s weight hits me.
“Sorry,” he murmurs. “So sorry.”
His voice is like a draught of wine: a sudden flush of warmth in the cold morning. Will he live? “Hush,” I whisper. “Can you walk?”
He grunts—affirmative. I don’t quite believe him. His head lolls against my shoulder; his forehead brushes my cheek. I expected him to be feverish, but as his skin touches mine, it is too cool.
I quell my rising panic by telling myself that Ilyas will be able to heal him. There is nothing Ilyas isn’t capable of.
I half-carry him the last steps to the door. There is no lock; it swings open into warmth, into honeyed light, into the great central room of the lodge. Deep red rugs with geometric patterns cover the walls; low pillows line the edges of the room. For months, this peaceful place was home. It still feels like it.
A group of dervishes emerge from the prayer room at the sound of the door. When they see me, recognize me despite the mud and the blood, they blink in surprise, as if rising from the thickness of a dream.
One pushes forward to the front, his sharp aquiline nose and beard illuminated by the gray light spilling into the lodge from the doorway.
I open my mouth to speak, but he cuts me off with a sharp gesture. His eyes are on Armen, and they burn, stoked embers of hatred. “What have you brought here?”
“My... my friend is sick,” I say. My thighs are burning from the effort of holding Armen upright with his arm slung over my shoulders. “I need help.”
“A saint seeking to help an obur?” Ilyas’s posture is wide-footed, a defense between me and the dervishes. “No monster crosses this threshold.” Acid is thick on his voice: that is a threat.
“He’s not—!” I gasp. I can’t bring myself to form my lips around the word. “He’s alive. Please, I can’t lose him. Can’t you heal him?”
Ilyas holds out a single hand for silence. A moment passes; his eyes rake over Armen. At last he steps forward. Even being in his presence makes the hairs rise on the back of my neck: within this man is lightning curled waiting to strike, a humming power that eclipses my own like clouds swallowing a sickle moon.
He puts a hand on Armen’s brow, pushing away sweat-stiff hair. He makes an indistinct noise, the lines at the corners of his mouth deepening in thought. “He’s the reason you left, isn’t he?”
I keep my eyes downcast. Shame and hope twine up my spine. The first because yes, Ilyas is right. I feel it keenly, standing in the presence of all the good Ilyas gave me, all the peace I turned my back on. The second because I feel Ilyas’s energy shifting. My skin tingles in anticipation: he will heal Armen.
“Yes, pîram,” I murmur in respectful Persian.
“I should not be sur...” Ilyas begins.
Then his forearm inadvertently brushes my cheek.
He jerks back as if stung, his eyes widening like my warhorse’s in surprise.
“You’re a slave!” Grief clouds his eyes; then it’s gone, swept away by a storm wind’s charge. Thunder is all that’s left. “Is this a trap? Have you led your master here?”
“No! I swear I would never...”
“I cannot trust you.” He’s talking over me, backing away, his rage building in the lodge like smoke. “So long as you remain enslaved, you must never return. I will make sure of that.”
No. He was about to heal Armen. I can’t lose that. “But he needs you! I’ll go, but let me leave him with you, and—”
“When you left, you chose attachment to the mortal world.” Ilyas’s expression is stone. In the past, I saw flashes of his true ancient self, div-like, flames fanned by his own protective ferocity. A resolute sentinel for the world of men, its lone guard against starving shadows. I once felt safe behind his walls.
Now, he turns against me.
“Today you learn the lesson all saints face: that world is transient. Men die.”
“I pray you outlive your enslavement.”
With a taut gesture, Ilyas holds out his arms, then brings them forcefully together, palms outstretched. A rush of wind; everything dissolves. The lodge, the dervishes, the mountain, the mill.
We are back in the woods. Not precisely where we left—the trees grow too thickly here. I don’t know where we are. I do know I have no provisions; that the shadows at my back hang close after the openness of the valley.
Armen groans. I barely hear it. I am numb as I stare at the forest, Armen’s weight so heavy it will drag me down, down, drown me where I stand...
I look sharply to my right, past Armen’s graying face. Menüçehr is still with me. A soft breeze lifts as his head tilts to the side, his unknowable face towards me. Awareness of his pity sears through me, visceral as the snap of wet bone.
“He could have healed him,” I cry. “He could have.” It bursts forth on a wave of sobbing. I sway from the force of it, clutching Armen’s arm as if he could steady me, comfort me as he has so many times in our life.
I do not know if that is true, Menüçehr says carefully. Ease his death, perhaps, but...
“He is not going to die,” I snap. The strength of my denial, how it strikes like a reflex, shows the truth in stark relief.
Armen is leaving me. Again.
I learned my lesson the last time, but now, I do not even have the choice to follow. What can I do?
Ease his death, perhaps.
I am powerless to heal him, but my hands are capable of swift, painless death.
Yet the thought of taking Armen’s bones, so precious to me, so familiar, in my tender hold and snapping—
Grief hollows my chest. Its dull, sure strike leaves an empty grave in its wake.
There is a chance he survives, Menüçehr says slowly.
But as what? My Armen, my home, a monster?
I realize I am sobbing. I tremble through each deep inhale I take to steady myself, my chest aching from the effort. I hate weeping. I hate how it hurts.
He will never be as he was, Menüçehr adds. But there is a chance he may keep what he is.
When I have found my voice, I ask, “What do you mean?”
I know oburs, he says. This alone does not shock me. The jinn see all the world’s ugliness, what lurks in its nooks and veiled shadows. But how could one know a monster? I have met those afflicted who keep their minds. In Constantinople. In Baghdad. They act as humans do, even live among one another as humans do, hidden from sight.
His shrug is sharp, birdlike. The oburs keep their own counsel. But I suspect it is their proximity to men that stays madness, for they are not forced to seek their... sustenance from beasts.
The prim delicacy with which this jinni—himself so otherworldly, so monstrous—refers to obur bloodlust shocks a wet bark of laughter from my chest. “You think feeding on humanity keeps them human.”
The only thing I know for certain is what makes them mad, Menüçehr says. Loneliness breaks men, Eumorphia. In the wild, they risk losing their humanity. Perhaps saints, too.
I swallow the lump thickening my throat as Menüçehr straightens, sniffing the air.
This farewell is not forever, he says. He bows his great head to me and vanishes.
I stumble downhill, the reins in one hand and Armen’s dead weight across my shoulders, my chest pierced by sob-sharp breaths.
Once, he murmurs my name. But he never fully wakes.
When I cannot carry him any longer, I scan the forest for a place to rest. We will be well-hidden here; Menüçehr taking us to the dervishes and Ilyas turning us out broke our trail, making us difficult to track.
Ahead—a jut of rock as tall as two men, the first knuckle of mountain. It’s a solid wall to put my back to, its overhang enough to shelter us from rain. I drop my warhorse’s reins and stumble forward the last few strides with Armen, shifting my weight to soften our fall.
I roll him onto his back. His breathing is shallower now, the bandages newly wet with blood. Too much blood.
He can’t survive this. He won’t survive this. My ribs bend with the ache of grief.
Ease his passing, perhaps.
I think of the Armen I knew before he left my father’s castle, the one who lifted a hand to shade his sight as he looked over Amaseia’s glittering river, his eyes clouded with billowing dreams. He hungered to prove himself, to win me, to make a world where we could be together. So he risked joining the Muslims.
Armen left all he knew and changed his creed for a chance for more. For life.
But the dark glint of blood spells his fate, the fell stroke of a geomancer’s reed: life is no longer a choice. It will end, one way or another.
I stand. Stiff, unsteady, I return to my warhorse and lead her slightly away from where Armen rests. I loosen her girth and remove what slim supplies are attached to her saddle: two blankets, small and worn. A leather flask of water, stale.
Wheezing coughs draw me sprinting back to Armen’s side. His eyes are still closed and a trail of blood trickles from the corner of his mouth. Twigs and dead leaves beneath him crinkle and crack as his back arches sharply.
I cast aside the supplies, my hands outstretched, my power rising. Nausea rises after the reflex. It feels as if I am drawing a sword on myself. It feels wrong.
I remember the face of the obur that attacked Armen, its lines stark with agony. Beneath the blood splattered on its chin was the face of someone who was once loved. Someone who had a mother, a home.
Perhaps that monster was afraid.
And I killed it.
What makes a monster?
My hands break bone, shatter skulls. I have swept Rûm like a plague, carving a trail of widows in my wake. I have encountered more monsters protecting Melik’s men than most people see in their lifetime. And yet I know so little of them.
All I know is that their bones snap like a man’s. I know how silver scorches them. How to defend myself from them.
Armen looses a soft groan. My heart splits for him, giving like flesh beneath steel. I drop my hands. He gambled with fate for a new life, and this was what fate gave him. Sweat beads at his hairline, pink foam at his lips; his breaths are wet and gasping.
He cries out again, pupils flickering frantically beneath his eyelids. His hands rise sharp from his sides, then paw at his neck. I tense, ready to stay his hands and keep them from ruining his bandages. Then I see what he’s doing.
Months ago, Melik gave him a talisman: a tiny Quran, small enough to fit in his palm, encased in a lacquered box. It hangs around his neck on a chain, for protection in battle.
A silver chain. It is the silver that is hurting him, though it didn’t before.
You’ll know, Gülnüş Banu said.
In the slick turn of a moment, I know: he is changing. Becoming a monster.
The weight of Melik’s command slams onto my clavicles. My vision darkens around the edges; flecks of stars drift before me.
If he shows signs of becoming one of them...
My wrists twitch, itching to obey. Heat prickles across my shoulders, first thorny, then sharp. The command sinks into me like claws, and my hands rise.
I clench my jaw. “No.” It’s half grunt, half prayer. The command in my shoulders spreads like roots as instead, I lower my hands to Armen’s neck. My power rises.
If there is a way to bend that order, I don’t know it. I am not wise like Ilyas. I have no inexplicable power like Menüçehr.
I am a weapon.
Bones are my maces, and spears the thundering hooves of my army. I am a saint of slaughter and splinters; my word to bones supersedes any command of man or god.
I turn my power on myself.
I fill my own bones with my will, force my fingers to untangle the talisman from Armen’s clothes and slip it over his head. I cast it aside.
His skin has gone gray, like steel left in the snow.
“Shh.” I rock back and forth, watching his face. Still he twitches. “I’m here.”
I put my hands in my lap and curl them into fists, so hard they ache. So hard the fragile bones snap. My vision is nothing but stars.
I begin to sing, a song he wrote for me; haltingly at first, stumbling over the words of his mother’s tongue. When it ends, I start again. White pain shoots through my hands as they restitch themselves, and snap again.
I am here, singing in a ragged voice, until the man I would raze Rûm to defend breathes his last.
It is so quiet I almost miss it: an inhale, an exhale. No more.
The weight of Melik’s command melts off my shoulders.
I lower my head to his chest. Press my ear to his shirt.
“You’re home,” I whisper. “You’re home.”
Tears slip down my cheeks. My own breathing hitches; his never returns. His chest is still. For what feels like hours, it is still, and I lie there, grief thickening my bones like tar, curling them in on themselves.
Morning strengthens. Distantly, I hear birds. The scuttle of small creatures over dry leaves.
Then a soft heartbeat.
I open my eyes.
Armen’s face is alert. His eyes are open, staring at the trees above.
But he died.
Shock moves through me like a cold wave, raising me to my feet, forcing me back on unsteady legs.
Leaves crunch under my boots as I retreat, but Armen doesn’t seem to notice. He lifts a hand. Looks at it. Slowly turns it over. A sliver of pale morning light breaks through the thickness of the forest; he flinches, and curls into a fetal position, his back to me.
My heart is at flat gallop. My fingers curl of their own accord as I think of red eyes in the black, the sound of sucking...
Armen sits up. Cracks his neck to the right, a soft pop. The way he always used to.
“Armen?” It’s more croak than name, too timid to be hopeful, too longing to be afraid.
The difference shimmers in his eyes. There was a time I thought they looked almost red, when he squinted in direct sunlight, their brown dyed amber by the gold of the afternoon. Now they truly are red: red like a storm dawn, red like a splatter of blood.
They fix on me.
I hear my own heartbeat like a war drum. Once. Twice.
His face resettles, softens. “Morfia.”
He knows me.
He rises. He sways there a moment, then speaks again: “I feel faint.” His voice is hoarse, but it’s his. “I need... I don’t understand.” His strange eyes are distant, clouded—then they focus with a predator’s precision over my shoulder.
At my warhorse, tethered among the trees.
I move through Menüçehr’s words more than remember them. As I rise, I am bending Melik’s commands, breaking them to my need. I plant myself between Armen and the horse, my stance firm.
He fought for me. I fight for him.
“Look at me,” I snap. Again, with more force: “Look at me.”
He does, and I’m keenly aware of how much broader he is than he used to be, how the months fighting with the gazis have made him light on his feet and fatal. If we went mace to mace in a clean fight, there would be no contest.
But this isn’t a clean fight.
I draw my dagger, rip my left sleeve up past my elbow, and press point to flesh. Rubies well along the steel, slipping down my skin.
Armen’s attention is immediately on my arm. Instinct pulls him to his knees. I look away as his cool lips brush my forearm, and I brace for pain.
There isn’t any, not how I expect. Armen’s touch envelops me like incense. My world is a heady sweep, like wine to the head: too-sweet, vertiginous, dizziness catching in thick, crystalizing honey.
I don’t know how much time passes, nor notice that I’ve lost my balance until the trees spin.
Armen’s surprised cry feels far away.
I hit his arms heavily, limp as he guides me to my knees. Distantly, I feel him take my dagger and cut away any clean bandages that remain on his body, fumbling as he binds them over my cut. His hands shake violently; he curses softly, the same word over and over.
Something strikes my forearm, wet and warm. It’s not blood—Armen weeps as he lifts my arm above my heart to slow the bleeding.
He leans his forehead against mine. His nose is cool against mine. “Forgive me.” His lips have the iron-salt smell of blood as he presses them softly to my cheek, my temple.
I wrap my right arm around him. Though his back shudders with tears, I can still feel the beat of his reborn heart.
He’s not human, but he’s him.
“You’re home,” I murmur. “You’re home.”