As we approach publication of Mike, Linda and Louise Carey’s extraordinary 1001 Nights-esque The City of Silk and Steel, we’re delighted to present a series of short tales designed to entertain and enlighten you. Following on from yesterday’s introduction – What is Known, and What is Hidden – here is the first tale . . .
The Tale of the Third Bandit
Three men once went to the Djinni to ask for success in their profession, which was banditry. They were young men, and goaded each other on the way with boasts and insults, or they would hardly have taken such a risk for so uncertain a reward. It was their fortune to arrive at the right time: the veil at the cave entrance was lifted and the figures of the seven Djinni appeared, with their shifting shapes and eyes of smoke and stone. They stood before the three bandits and spoke not a word.
The young men were terrified, of course, and all three thought of flight. But at length the eldest, who valued the respect of his fellows even more than his safety, spoke up in a bold voice.
“Give us what we seek, great djinni, and we’ll praise you for ever.”
The djinni said not a word. But a question began to grow around them, weaving itself into the minds of the young men. Perhaps the question was: And what would we do with your praise? Or perhaps it was: What would we do for your praise? The eldest bandit chose to hear the latter, and feeling his great desire almost within his grasp, was moved to eloquence.
“Eyes of the eagle,” he proclaimed. “Heart of fire. Nerves of iron. Mind of quicksilver…”
It was the song and creed of the bandits, one they had chanted many nights over a scanty fire, after dividing still scantier pickings. The last line was “…and the luck of the Devil,” but the young man was not destined to say it. For as he spoke, his eyes began to change in his face, becoming smaller and rounder. Next moment he gave a great cry; flames burst from his chest and he fell to the ground, his body dripping with molten metals.
Nowhere is it written that the djinni are lovers of poetry.
The remaining two bandits at once discovered the value of caution: they took to their heels and ran for some time in different directions without ever looking back. Of one of the two it was said that a part of the djinni’s benediction overtook him; that for the rest of his life he retained just enough of iron, and enough of the bird of prey, to become the greatest brigand of his time. And certainly, Vurdik the Bald, in later life, bore a resemblance to an eagle, with his brooding presence, hooded eyes and great beaked nose. Certain, too, that the great robber chief was famed for trusting neither man nor god, which saved his life on many occasions. And that he spoke little, and had a particular loathing for metaphor and flowery language of all kinds.
The third young man ran until his legs failed. He fell on his face in the sand, feeling that his heart was about to explode (a thought he hastily banished), and lay gasping for a while. And as he lay there an unexpected anger stirred within him, and with it a resolve.
It was not that he particularly mourned his dead comrade, or regretted the breaking of their fellowship. He was the youngest of the three, and had come in for his traditional share of mockery and abuse. But human mockery he felt he could take. It was the scorn of the djinni’s answer, their contemptuous literal-mindedness (for how could they have failed to understand what was actually meant?), that now filled him with fury. He felt he had been made a fool of. And he determined to get his revenge.
If you wish to meet the djinni, as is well-known, you must leave your starting-point just before nightfall, and travel west for three days. But the young man had no wish to encounter the djinni again, and he did none of those things. As soon as there was enough light to see he found the line of his footprints, and retraced them until he could make out, in the far distance, a rocky shape that might mark the entrance of the ravine.
The footprints became fainter as he walked, and faded to nothing. But he kept on in a straight line, and by mid-day had recognised, faint and far ahead, a certain row of slender rocks that a fanciful spirit might take for the shapes of men with spears.
He reached the spot as evening fell and looked down into the remembered ravine. He did not go down, but set up camp in the rocks at the entrance. His plan was a desperate one: to rob the djinni themselves. Whether their cave held treasure, or forbidden knowledge, or nameless horrors, he determined that he would see it with his own eyes, and despoil it if he could: so his tormentors would be diminished.
The djinni did not appear. There was no sign of the body of his old comrade; no sign of life at all but a bird high overhead. The young brigand made himself as comfortable as he could and awaited his opportunity.
In the days that followed he watched the arrival of other pilgrims, coming singly through the rocks at nightfall, who talked with invisible presences and left in a trance, or in tears, or screaming. He never caught sight of the djinni themselves, only the dead blackness of the cavern mouth. One man came who did not leave; he dropped down in the middle of a word and lay still. The young brigand crouched in the dry bushes above, and watched as night fell and the fallen figure dissolved into shadows. By morning it was gone, leaving not so much as an imprint in the sand.
The young man removed his shoes and descended into the ravine. The sun picked out every rock at his feet: only the cave was still in darkness. A great black bird stood on a crag above the entrance and cocked its head at him. All else was still. The young man took a step towards the cave mouth, and hesitated. As he did so, the black bird left its perch and swooped down on him, circling his head, before vanishing into the dark opening. As it passed him, it croaked one word: ‘Come!’
The young man hesitated no longer. He followed the bird into the cavern, which seemed to lighten as he passed the threshold so that he could make out the rough surfaces of walls and floor. He set his foot inside. Almost at once there was a creaking noise which became a great rumbling, and a cascade of stones poured down on him from the roof. It took all his agility to throw himself out of their path. He lay quaking in an angle of wall, his arms over his head, as the avalanche roared around him. It subsided at last, and he looked up to find the cave’s doorway blocked with stones.
The young man was filled with dread and horror. He remonstrated with the bird, which was unharmed and had settled on the ground near his head: ‘Wicked creature! Why would you lead me in here!’
The bird blinked one black eye at him. ‘Here,’ it remarked.
‘Bird,’ the young brigand said, ‘if you can give me no more useful advice, I shall be compelled to mistrust you. Indeed, I think you may be the djinni’s creature, to trap me in this way.’
‘Trap,’ the bird agreed.
Since it offered no further comment, the young man began to look around him. The cavern was wide enough for a man to lie full-length; high enough at the centre to stand upright, and empty. A little light filtered through the stones at the entrance, showing the bare rock of the walls. There was no treasure, nor any crevasse where treasure might be hidden. The bird gave a cry that sounded like laughter, and flew up to perch on a jut of stone below the slanting roof.
At that the young man was mightily angered. ‘I’ll take you, at least.’ he said, and grabbed the bird by its tail. The creature squawked and flapped, but he grasped it firmly until he had tied the end of his girdle about its leg.
Having done this, it seemed he was done with his revenge. He had no food or water, and must surely starve – unless, indeed, the djinni came back here and found him first. The tethered bird glared at him, and he thought that he might make one more meal before he died. As if it could divine his thoughts it fluttered to the end of its leash before he could seize it, and cried out another word: ‘Fire?’
The young man still had his flint and kindling. Keeping hold of the leash, he found a flat space on the ground and raised a spark – and at once there sprang up a clear flame, green and blue, as if the very air could burn. But before he could turn to catch his dinner, the fire began to grow. It rose to the height of his head, and stretched out fingers of flame towards him. The bird rose too, with a great flap of wings that fanned the flames into greater life.
‘This way!’ it screamed at him, and flew towards the back wall of the cave, where suddenly, in the light of the unearthly fire, there seemed to open the mouth of a tunnel.
The flames reached the cave roof and spread above them. The young brigand felt his face scorching and his hair starting to crisp. But he did not think it wise to follow the bird. The tunnel mouth seemed blacker and emptier as the creature hovered before it, and he thought he could hear the sound of many harsh cries, or perhaps laughter. He skirted the flames and ran instead to the blocked-up mouth of the cavern, scrabbling at the stones as his clothes began to burn.
Next moment there was a rush of air behind him, and a report like a thousand thunderclaps. The young man was hurled against the wall of stones, and then, as it collapsed beneath him, flung out into the ravine, while behind him the cave collapsed into rubble.
He did not stay to savour his escape. For a second time he fled that place without looking back, and came to himself at last bruised, bloody and scorched, without shoes or pack. To his surprise the black bird was still with him, fluttering on the end of its leash. It rose into the air as he saw it, trying to fly back the way they had come. ‘This way,’ it insisted. He ignored it, and after a while it set off in a new direction which after an hour or so of stumbling, led him to water.
As to the young man’s later career, the story is less certain. He came out of the desert barefoot and sun-struck, carrying a great black bird on his shoulder and babbling that the cave of the djinni was destroyed. But later pilgrims found the place unchanged, and the djinni as remote and terrible as the legends had always said.
The man himself, the stories agree, did not go back to his former profession. Some say that he became a poor tradesman, seeking only obscurity; others, that he died a beggar. This, say such storytellers, was the final punishment of the djinni, who had known all along of the brigand’s intentions. It was they who willed his return to the cave, and decreed all that followed: how else could he have come back to that spot, without following the prescribed journey?
But some maintain that the young man survived and prospered; that he kept the great bird always with him, listened each day to its croaked advice, and devoutly performed the opposite of whatever it told him. Among these tellers is the celebrated diplomat Anwar Das, who has claimed to be a descendent of the Man Who Robbed the Djinni, and who adds one final detail:
The bird stayed with the reformed robber till the end of his life, eating his food and becoming the pet of his beautiful wife and many children – who were warned, however, not to listen to anything it might tell them. Over the years, by dint of being constantly ignored and contradicted, the bird began to dwindle, till by the time of its death (which took place at the same instant as that of its master) it had become no bigger than a sparrow.
And to substantiate this tale, Anwar Das will produce from his purse a tiny skull, and a black feather.