With two days to go, here’s the last of the introductions to the cast of Reawakening. I saved my own favourite until last, naturally, so I’m delighted to introduce Raif, an exiled son of Tiallat, the nation the Shadow has turned to its own purposes. I’m still hoping that I’ll have a chance to write Raif’s book one day, but there’s a lot which needs to happen before then. For now, come with me to the Alagard Desert, where he lies dreaming in the tent of his father, far from the hill roads of Tiallat…
Raif dreamed he was above the Rulat Pass, crouching in the narrow shade of a fractured rock. The sun poured over him with the full force of summer. The light in the high mountains, where the air was thin, made every day feel like a dream, but this time Raif knew it was not real. All the same, he breathed in the hot dry air and lifted his head to gaze down the pass, over folded mountains the color of dry rose leaves. The sky was as blue as azure, with only the faintest haze over the horizon.
His shadow stretched out behind him, across the rocks, and he moved instinctively to conceal it within other shadows so that the landscape itself, Tiallat his own country, would hide him when the army of the Fist came marching through. For he had been here before, three years ago, waiting to ambush the Savattin guard as they marched behind the banner of the scarlet fist. He had not been alone then, and so he looked up the slope to where his friend had waited beside him.
There was someone there, although he knew at once that this was not Iskandir (and how could it be, when he had left Iskandir behind in Tiallat, holding the resistance together with nothing more then the strength of his hands). Like his friend, though, this stranger had the sturdy build of a Rulatai tribesman, from the remote central plateau. When he turned to look at Raif, he could see that the man had eyes that were two shades of green, in the quirk the Rulatai called God’s tears and took as a sign of greatness. Raif could see nothing more of the stranger’s face, hidden as it was beneath the scarf that covered his head and neck and protected his mouth from the blowing dust. One look at the stranger’s eyes, however, told him all he needed to know. His left eye was as bright as malachite, whereas the right was as dark as shadowed moss, but both gleamed with their own light, as no mortal man’s could.
“Raif,” he said, and his voice was as low as the wind over the mountains. “Beware the Shadow.”
“Lord,” Raif said to the Dual God of Tiallat, dropping to one knee. “Please. Your country needs you.”
But below them in the pass, the sound of marching feet was growing louder, as steady as drums, and the Dual God was walking away from Raif, vanishing again, as he had vanished when the Savattin came riding across the border to turn god’s own country into a land of grief and shadows. As Raif reached out for him, crying, “Lord!” he faded into the heat-hazed air, becoming as distant as the blue line of the faraway mountains.
And Raif woke, sitting upright, with his hands stretched out and his heart pounding in his chest.
It took him a moment to remember where he was. The light was golden and rippling with the soft sigh of the wind against the tent walls, and in the next bed his brother was snuffling into his pillow, his shoulders lax in sleep.
He was in the Alagard again, safe in the desert, beyond the reach of the Fist, beyond the sight of the Dual God. The air was dry here, and he had to breathe slowly until his body remembered that he was not in the highlands of Tiallat. Then he rose from his bed, feeling the sand sink beneath his bare feet and dressed quickly before padding outside.
His father sat by the fire, a pen idle in his hand as he contemplated the sunrise over the desert. It was a bright sky this morning, pink and gold and silver, and Raif paused to appreciate it. Tiallat had its own loveliness, dearer to him than this, but it had been too long since he saw a desert sunrise.
“Bad dream?” his father asked.
“I almost saw god,” Raif said, grimacing as he approached the fire.
“Religion,” Namik Shan said. “It’s bad for you, in excess.”
“As are all things,” Raif agreed, because he was still sleep-mazed to argue. “Is the tea brewed?”
Even after thirteen years in exile, his father still brewed tea the Tiallatai way, in the enamelled samovar he had brought with him when he fled before the wrath of the Savattin. Raif could vaguely remember that desperate flight over the mountains, with the snow crunching below his feet as he clung to his father’s side and whispered lullabies to baby Zeki to keep him quiet. He could remember how the desert had welcomed them with light and heat as they came down out of the mountains. He had thought it the most beautiful place in the world then.
But Tiallat’s need had called him home in the end. Fanaticism might have chased away the poets and dreamers, but a poet’s son could wield a bloodier weapon than a pen.
Of course, he could also end up with such a price upon his head that he had been sent back into exile to wait until the Savattin stopped scouring the villages for him. He hoped Iskandir would send for him soon. A man should not have to linger too long at his father’s hearth, not once he had gone into the world to face his own test.
The tea was sweet with cinnamon and cardamom and tasted like home.
“Do they still serve it with ground almonds, up on the plateau?” his father asked, his eyes sad with memory.
“And rose petals, for a guest,” Raif said and lifted the shallow cup so the morning sun struck the golden liquid. “Bright Lord smile upon us.”
“Oh, shame on you, Raif,” a light, amused voice commented behind him. “Evoking your god in my desert. How rude.”
Raif choked on his tea and turned around to see Alagard, the spirit of the desert, saunter towards him. Alagard was as bright and pretty as his desert, and he was smirking widely. As Raif spluttered, Alagard clapped a hand to his heart and pouted at him, his silver eyes bright with mischief. “Oh, Raif. I thought you loved me best.”
“Yet again, Great Desert, you are mistaken in your assumptions,” Raif said, trying to stop his own smile from twitching out. “It is your advanced age, I am sure. You have my sympathy. Ow!”
Alagard tugged on Raif’s earlobe again. “Oh, what was that? Did you say, “Oh, Great Desert, let me prostrate myself before you and lick the sand from between your divine and lovely toes?” I’m sure that was what you meant to say.”
Raif chuckled and looked down to study Alagard’s feet. “I will admit that they are the most divine toes I have ever seen, although, alas, I have not had to opportunity to make a thorough study of the feet of gods. Does that satisfy you?”
“Your son is pert, Namik,” Alagard complained, but released Raif’s ear and dropped a kiss on his cheek anyway. “Welcome home, Raif. Where’s your brother?”
“Ah, a stayabed. Shame on him, when the morning is so lovely.”
“He is fifteen,” Raif pointed out.
“Boys,” his father said with a shrug.
“Oh, you’re all boys to me,” Alagard said, throwing himself down to sit by the fire. He looked no older than Raif, lounging there, but he had looked just as young when Raif was six, and the oldest of the Selar riders remembered him from their own boyhood, his face unchanged by the years.
“Why are you here?” Raif asked. It was not unusual for Alagard to wander into a Selar camp. He went where the wind carried him. He rarely came at dawn, though, and there was a tension in his shoulders and a ferocity in his laughter which worried Raif.
“Did you not hear the drums?” his father asked. “The Selar called him.”
Raif remembered the thunder of marching feet in his dreams. “A prayer dance? At this hour?”
Alagard gestured towards Namik, his fingers stretched out tightly. “Tell him.”
“The outriders came in just before dawn,” Namik said. “They’ve been up to the pass. The army of the Fist have marched their banners down to the foot of the pass, and there’s more than a border garrison behind them.”
So, even the desert was not safe. Raif looked up, towards the foothills of the Illiats where they rose from the desert a few miles away. They looked quiet, in the morning light, but he had heard his father talk of the morning before the revolution. That had been a bright spring too, before the clouds began to gather over Tiallat.
“They’re coming,” he said softly.
“I think our time of quiet is over,” Alagard agreed, unusually sober. “Too many great powers are taking an interest in us, both from the north and the east. I’ve advised the tribe mothers to swing back towards the Riada. Once you’re clear I’ll turn the wind towards the pass. They won’t find it easy to cross the desert. That much I can promise.”
For a moment, Raif imagined watching Alagard fade away from his people, as the Dual God had vanished from the people of Tiallat. It was a dark thought and he put it aside carefully before turning back to Alagard to say, “We will do whatever you need. Your enemy is our enemy.”
“Thank you,” Alagard said, looking towards the hills. He looked distant and worried, as he rarely did, and Raif felt a shiver of anticipation run through him, as it did just before the horns signalled them into an ambush. “But I want you to be safe. That is all.”
Strange to think that in some ways Raif knew more of the world than this ancient spirit. There was nowhere safe under the sun, not in this age, and Raif found himself hoping bleakly that Alagard never came to learn that hard truth.