For pity’s sake, Malik, hurry! Rob’s voice in his head, urgent. Nasir clenched his jaw. The web of inscriptions sprawled mockingly across the rough-hewn stone, telling him nothing for all that he could not keep his eyes from them. And then the thing moved, bending Robin in a frighteningly boneless way, and Nasir saw what he needed to know. Wide-mouthed, big-eyed, and round-bellied like a frog. An image carved deep in the stone, and buried even deeper in his memory. Far down in the shadows of Nasir’s mind, recognition stirred, and a flicker of loathing and fear that he could not mistake. Belleme. He hadn’t wanted to remember a thing about Belleme, locking that hell away behind strong doors. But this was for Rob, and for Rob he would flay himself raw. With a deep breath, he flung the doors wide open.
Rob’s voice was fainter now, desperate, as if pulling against a strong tide. Nasir cursed and cast about, looking for any sign, anything out of place. Old, it would be old …
Something shoved him hard, making him stumble. Without thought, he yielded to it, falling back, making his will an empty vessel and letting himself be guided. This was pure instinct and pure faith combined; he hadn’t done this since Masyaf. Hadn’t been able to do this since Masyaf. Somewhere along the line, he’d learned to think too much. There was no time for thinking now.
“No!” The thing was screeching, clawing its way over the ground. It didn’t seem to be able to use Robin’s body properly; it scuttled like a broken bug. “It’s mine! That’s mine!”
Casting himself forward, Nasir had half a heartbeat to wonder where the ground had gone, and then he was falling. His racing mind barely had time to register it – there were rocks, and there was dirt and darkness – but his body hardly needed his mind to tell it what to do. He coiled, twisting in the air to land in a half-roll on something that crackled under his weight. It sounded like dry sticks. He did not look to find out.
It might have been a cave, once. Now it was a pit, the roof tumbled away in rockfalls, open to the sky in a long narrow tear, like a bisht ripped along the seams. Light filtered down, grey and shadowy, but enough by which to see.
The altar was there. Old, crumbling, but intact. The ugly little idol perched on it, eyes full of dust and wide mouth dry. Above, Nasir could hear the thing that was bound to it whining and chittering like a hare in the jaws of a wolf. “No, it’s mine, it’s me, it’s mine!”
“He is not yours.” Taking the idol in both hands, Nasir prepared to heft it at the wall when another voice slid into his head, sick and grating like rotten shards of bone rolling in decay. It drove him to his knees, retching.
“He’s not meant to be.” He gasped it out against a wave of pain, and had time to acknowledge that not all of it was caused by the touch of the ghul
even as he felt his hands go cold and trembling. The ugly little idol slipped in his grasp.
“He is not,” Nasir growled again, breathless as his stomach roiled, “meant to be.”
Nasir swore, gathering himself, and hurled the cracked idol down to the stony floor. It shattered with a low squeal. Behind him, with a dull snap, the altar cracked too.
Overhead, there was no sound at all. Nasir waited on all fours, head hanging, gasping for breath. In his chest, his heart thumped so hard it sent dark waves over his eyes. He didn’t call out. He wasn’t sure what would call back.
“Nasir? Malik, where …?” Robin’s voice. Normal and sane and worried as hell. Nasir started to laugh in pure relief then stopped when it hurt, putting a hand to his ribs. He must have hit them in the fall.
“Sweet Jesu! Malik, don’t move!” The light above darkened and shifted. Nasir looked up, appalled.
Robin landed nearby with a thump, hitting the wall and skidding the rest of the way down. There was blood on his face, a thin trail of red bright against his pale skin, but he didn’t seem to notice. He reached for the Saracen, hands quick and gentle, searching for injuries. Nasir stared at him, then shrugged him off and fisted his own hand in Robin’s jerkin, dragging him around to study his face with intense eyes.
“It’s me,” Robin told him, in a soft, soothing voice. He touched the back of Nasir’s hand very gently, asking him to let go. “It’s just me.”
There was no trace of shadow in Robin’s eyes, no hissing gurgle in his voice. Nasir nodded, satisfied, but he did not relax his grip. Instead, he glared, white teeth flashing in the young man’s face. “Idiot! What are you doing?”
“I am fine.” Which was not quite true, Nasir realised, now that he had time to take stock of things. His ribs hurt quite badly and one knee was throbbing angrily, protesting every movement. His head hurt too, but from the inside. He shoved Robin back and looked up. The crack through which he could see the sky seemed very far away.
“You don’t look fine.” Robin grimaced, then sat back on his haunches and put his own head in his hands. “And my head feels like a troop of cavalry is doing field manoeuvres in it. What was that thing?”
“Stupid.” Hauling himself away from the broken shards of the idol – he didn’t want them touching him if he could help it – Nasir propped himself against the cave wall and turned his gaze upward again. Too far. He returned his glare to Robin, exasperated. “Stupid.”
“What, for wanting to help you?” Robin glared back. “Or for all of this? You think it’s my fault?”
“Would it have mattered? Hell’s teeth, what was I meant to do, ignore it?”
“Yes. Just because they call does not mean you must answer,” Nasir announced flatly. “And for your help, I thank you.”
If that had been any drier, it would have burst into flames. For a moment, Robin stared in affront. He looked as if he were about to start shouting: a noble born lordling fetching a servant the sharp side of his tongue. Nasir was ready for him to do it, and prepared to say in return something very biting on the theme of reckless and trusting boys who should never have been let off leading strings, but then Robin surprised them both by tipping his head back and laughing out loud.
Nasir sighed, relenting. “Being fools, I think.” Fighting was not going to help anything – and in any case, it wasn’t Robin he was angry at. “Rob. Did it … that …” and he tipped his head
“I don’t think so.” Robin shifted, rolling his shoulders and stretching, feeling for the places where it hurt. He didn’t probe too far, though, for fear of what he might find. Inside, some deep part of him wanted to jibber and wail. Oh Jesus God, it had been in his head, inside him … No. He didn’t want to think of that. He focussed on the pull in his shoulders, the dull complaint of muscles that had been made to move in a way they should not. “I feel like John’s beaten me three times around the bailey with his staff, but other than that … tired. My head aches. That’s the worst of it.”
Nasir nodded, watching him carefully. He knew about the headache, at least. As for the rest, he was not fooled. He knew more about suppressing emotion and denying pain than Robin could learn in three lifetimes (and for Robin’s sake, Nasir prayed that would always be true); he knew when a man was holding himself down. There would be a price to be paid, for this. Nasir, as ever, did not push.
There was a silence. Then, inevitably, Robin asked, “Are we going to talk about it?”
A raised eyebrow answered that. Robin clarified. “Are we going to talk about what happened. To us.” And then, when he got no response, “Sweet Christ, Malik, I could hear you in my mind!”
“It happens?” Robin stared at him in disbelief. “When does it happen? When has it ever happened? You were thinking into my head!”
“Could you …” Nasir paused, thought for a moment, then started again. “Could you hear the other? The thing that … That?”
“Yes.” Robin’s face went briefly hard, then very gentle. “It lied to you, Malik. I won’t betray -”
“Hush.” Nasir interrupted him with a sharp motion of his hand. He had been hoping that Robin would say no, that he hadn’t heard
Nasir ignored him. Safest that way, safest. Robin had a way of seeing through him, of making him say things – feel things – he should not. Best to avoid that, if he could.
His eyes scanned the cave, looking for some sign of a path, a crack in the rock, even a door; if this had been a place of worship once, dark and twisted though it was, people must have come here. They couldn’t all have fallen though a crack in the ground. He saw nothing though, only the uneven altar and a too-careful pile of rubble behind the place where Robin waited. It looked deliberate, as if the old people of this place had realised what was here and walled it away. Probably, he thought grimly, they had. He only wondered what they had sacrificed to it before they worked that out. He still had not made himself look at the dry, crackling things on the floor.
Turning his gaze upward, Nasir traced the cave wall, searching for handholds and fissures; he had no intention of hovering down here in the haunted dark for any longer than he had to. The ghul or whatever it had been was gone, but this place had been its home for long and long; there was no telling what evil might linger here, or what it might do to a man. Especially a man as open and defenceless as Robin – did he have no shields at all? Nasir knew the answer to that, though: of course Robin had shields, but he was too trusting to use them. If he had not been, Nasir would have loved him less.
The rent through which he had fallen – and Robin, Allah be merciful, had jumped – was above Nasir by perhaps four times the height of a man, and the cave walls were rotten and unstable. Nasir supposed he had climbed worse, but not easily, and not with a leg that would bear next to no weight.
Moving carefully to the Saracen’s side, Robin followed the sweep of Nasir’s eyes and shook his head. “We won’t make it. You can barely stand.”
Nasir did not acknowledge that last. “You might.”
“And leave you down here with God only knows what?” Robin snorted to show what he thought of that. “No.”
Nasir glowered. “I am no helpless child to fear being left in the dark.”
“I didn’t say you were.” Robin rolled his eyes; Nasir’s bloody pride was a prickly thing, and it only got worse the closer their friendship became. When they had been strangers, Nasir had never snarled at him at all. One day, Robin thought with an inward grin, the man would probably try to tear his throat out with his teeth, and then Robin would know that he was closer to Nasir than anything in the world. “But there’s no climbing that. The overhang’s at least six feet. I’d never get over the edge.” With a sigh, Robin ran a hand through his hair, shaking out dirt from the fall. “I’m sorry, Malik, I am. I should have thought. But I thought you were hurt, and that thing, and my head …”
“Don’t, Rob.” Easing himself back down the wall, Nasir stretched his bad leg out in front of him, ignoring the pull of his ribs and kneading at the stiffened, aching joint. “‘If only’ is a game for fools. You jumped; we are here. Now we must think what to do next.” The fact that he would have done the same thing himself, had their positions been reversed, was not something he brought up. He didn’t have to. Robin knew.
“The others will come looking for us,” Robin told him. “When we’re not back by nightfall. Or when I’m not back, at least.” The young man smiled, trying for humour to fend off the darkness inside and out. “You do have a habit of wandering off; it might take them longer to miss you.”
Nasir grunted, though Robin couldn’t tell if he was amused or annoyed. “And how will they find us? You did not tell anyone where we were going.”
“They’ll track us.”
“They will track?” Nasir made a rude noise. “John tramples his big feet all over the sign before he even knows it’s there. Tuck can’t see past his own belly. Will sees nothing he cannot drink or fight.”
“Much, then.” It was difficult, Robin found, to make his voice calm and light when he wanted to curl in a ball and hide. Somebody had to be reasonable, though. He did his best to head off Nasir’s temper. “You told me you were teaching him, you said he was doing well.”
“He is,” Nasir conceded grudgingly. “He sees clearly, he learns what he is taught.”
“They’ll come. We’ll just have to stay put until they do. Not that we’ve got much choice.” Robin gave the other man a brief, strained smile. The idea of waiting to be rescued would grate badly on Nasir’s sense of honour, but he would survive it. Certainly the Saracen had endured worse. To distract them both – there were things in his own head
(so sweet so vital so strong all mine)
(get out get out of my mind get out get out)
he didn’t want to think of right now – Robin said, “Here. Let me see your leg.”
“It’s nothing. A sprain, no more.” Even so, Nasir, who recognised in Robin’s words the need to do something, the need not to be trapped in this place with nothing to do but think on what had happened to him, submitted. He let the younger man examine his knee with careful, probing fingers. Robin knew that for the privilege it was; Nasir tolerated very little when it came to his own weaknesses, physical or otherwise. He eased the joint, very gently.
“That’s going to slow you down for a week or so.”
Nasir said nothing, only leaned his head back against the rock wall and blew out hard through his nose, like a winded horse. Robin grimaced. That meant the man was in pain, and trying not to show it. “What else, Malik?”
“Maybe.” There was a faint hitch of one shoulder, deliberately unconcerned. “Either way, they will mend.”
Robin gave a short huff of breath, unimpressed. “You don’t have to do that, you know. Not for me. I want you well and whole, but you don’t have to pretend it doesn’t hurt.”
“Nor do you, sadiqi, yet we do it all the same.” Nasir’s tone was a complicated thing, rough and reluctant, part accusation and part something less sharp. Sympathy, maybe. An acknowledgement of the things they didn’t say. Robin felt his throat go tight. That thing had been inside him, using his body … no. No.
Dropping his eyes from the other man’s face, Robin busied himself with working the buckles and straps of the complicated harness that held Nasir’s weapons.
“It is nothing.” Nasir growled and batted his hands away. “Leave it.”
“Get that thing off, I want to see the damage.” Curt, and husky at the edges, threatening to unravel – just like the rest of him. A little desperately, Robin thought of the honour of his line, and holding himself together. Christ, Malik, help me.
“Nothing to see.” Nasir lifted his arms and twisted, slipping the harness and its scabbarded blades away, moving as if nothing was wrong. Robin, who knew better, wondered how much that had cost him. Nasir’s shrug was dismissive. “It is bruising from the fall, no more.”
Raw as he was, Robin found his friend’s stubborn stoicism even more frustrating than usual. He looked away from Nasir quickly, fixing his eyes on the tangle of leather and steel the Saracen had shrugged aside. The man carried so many blades that sometimes Robin thought it was a living breathing wonder he didn’t stab himself with his own damned knives every time he turned around. The outlaw leader sat back on his heels and dragged a hand over his face. His fingers were trembling, very faintly, and his gut felt as if it was tying itself in slick, ugly knots. Taking deep breaths seemed to help a little. Somewhere far back in his skull, a low panic was rising, like a distant keening in the dark. He did his best to keep it down.
“Rob? Is there water?”
Nasir’s quiet question gave him something else to think about. Robin latched onto it like a man on the edge of a cliff grabbing for a rope to keep from falling. He felt at his belt, swore with more passion than was necessary and cast around in the dim shadows filtering down from above. He found what he was looking for.
“Here. Half a skin. Mine, if it matters; yours is probably up top somewhere.” Slung on his belt, the waterskin had survived his leap into the cave with nothing worse than a scuffing. He held it out. “Have a drink. You could use it.”
“I could?” Nasir shook his head, eyes watchful. “You could.”
You are not, Nasir thought. He did not say it though; he had more respect for Robin’s pride than that. Best to let him handle this in his own way, and be ready to catch him if he fell. With another shrug, he gestured the proffered skin away. “Save it, then. Later.”
Later. Always later, with this man. Never answers, never now. Robin shoved the waterskin at him, and let it fall into Nasir’s lap when he wouldn’t take it. He growled in aggravation, knowing full well what his friend was doing. It was what he always did, with his courtly manners and his ridiculously over-developed integrity. Nasir was not a creature of sacrifice, but if the day ever came when he was asked to give up his life for Robin – for any of them, really, but especially for Robin – the young nobleman knew that his Saracen friend would do it without pause. That frightened him in a way he couldn’t explain. Nasir had tried, once, to put words to it, to tell him that some things were not even a choice, that his destiny was written and if that meant he would die to save another then not all the wailing in the world would change it, but Robin still didn’t like to think on it. Fear and frustration made his words sharper than they needed to be. “Sweet Christ on the Cross, man, don’t play the martyr for my sake. If you’re thirsty, drink.”
“Blasphemer.” Nasir sounded gentle, even so. He lifted the skin obligingly and took a sip of water, barely enough to wet his lips. “Does it please you?”
“No, it bloody doesn’t please me. You -” Robin faltered and clicked his jaw shut, catching himself starting to snap. If he lost control now, he did not think he would get it back. He began, unthinking, to pace. “I’m sorry. It’s this place, I think. And that … whatever it was …”
“Do not think of it.” Nasir reached out to stop him, touching his hip once, lightly, then letting his hand fall away. “You are here; it is gone. Leave it, Rob.”
Leave it. There had been a … a thing, a demon, sliding about inside his head, making free with his body, with his bloody mind, and Nasir said leave it. That made Robin want to howl, to rail, to fling himself clawing at the dark. He slanted a wild-eyed look at Nasir and tried not to veer away from the calm, accepting gaze that came back to him. Either the man had no empathy at all – and that wasn’t true, not by a long shot, and Robin knew it – or he understood too well how easily a man could come undone, thinking of what lay in the darkness. Considering what darkness Nasir had seen, in the bowels of Castle Belleme and in other places too, it was hardly a wonder if he knew a thing or two. Now the Saracen was watching him with careful, concerned eyes. Robin drew himself together, squared his shoulders to tell the Saracen that he was right, it was gone, he was fine … and then something inside him crumbled and failed.
Robin sat down hard, all the strength suddenly run out of him. He couldn’t hold this off any more. Choking back a moan, he dropped his head into his hands. “It got inside me, didn’t it?”
“I knew it was there.” Robin shuddered, feeling unclean at the memory. “It was cold. Like wet smoke. And it was hungry.”
“Yes.” Nasir touched his friend’s shoulder, and this time he let his hand linger. When Robin lifted his eyes, they were large and dark with reaction.
“It got inside me. Christ Jesus, Malik, it got inside me, it got in my head, it touched …”
Oh, Allah be kind, was it as bad as that? He had known this was coming, but he had not expected it to be so raw, such a skinned and bleeding thing. Nasir’s chest went tight at the need and the horror in those pleading eyes, and in Robin’s desperate voice. Nasir reached without thinking, pulling him close, holding him like a child. Robin clung, hard enough to hurt, and buried his face in the crook of Nasir’s neck. The Saracen could feel him trembling a very little, all over. He made himself a rock, and let Robin draw what strength from him he could.
Robin surprised him. Nasir had expected a flood of words, a babbling rush to let out the pain. Robin liked words; he used them all the time. Now, though, he was silent save for the tremor of his breathing catching in his throat. Shifting a hand to cradle the back of the young outlaw’s neck, Nasir could feel Robin’s pulse rattling under his fingers, quick and harsh. He was tense all over, like a bow strung tight to breaking. Hating it, wishing he was better at this, Nasir said the most comforting thing he could think of. “It is gone. Hush, sadiqi, qalbi, nuri. It is gone.”
“It was in me. It took … it had …”
“No, you don’t. I wasn’t me!” The words were muffled against Nasir’s neck. “I was trapped in there, in here, and it used me and I couldn’t …”
“I know. I do know.”
Robin’s hands tightened, not kindly. “How? How can you?” he said in a low, almost angry voice. And then, softer, drawing back to look at his face, “Oh, Malik. Belleme?”
“He … did things,” Nasir said quietly, schooling himself to stillness. The barest mention of Belleme in this place made him want to shudder. “Best not to speak of them. But it passes, Rob. It fades.”
“You dream still. Of that?”
Nasir grimaced. “Sometimes,” he admitted. “And other things. Mostly, in this land, I dream of the sun.”
Robin laughed weakly, letting himself lean to rest his head on Nasir’s shoulder, not ready yet to let go. The darkness was still out there. Odd that Nasir, so at home with the shadows, would be the thing that held it at bay. “Sunlight would be a good thing right now.”
Nasir agreed, relieved to hear even that much steadiness in Robin’s voice. Maybe he was past the worst of it, then. “Everything is better in the sun.”
“Even your beloved desert?”
“I do not love the desert.” Which was true, in its way; the beauty of the desert was as nothing compared to the beauty of a single flowering tree, even if he needed both to feed his soul. He was coming to believe that he needed other things too, things long denied. He tried not to think of that, or of Robin’s breath on his neck. “It is a hard place. We say that Allah gave us the desert to test us, to make us strong.”
Nasir’s faint laugh rumbled softly in his chest, so that to Robin it was felt more than heard. “Do you say so, sadiqi? Then I thank you. But no, the desert is too fierce for love.”
You are fierce. Robin didn’t finish that thought. He sat himself up, drawing reluctantly away from Nasir’s warmth. He rubbed at his face, embarrassed at his own weakness and at the same time glad that it had been this man who had seen it. Nasir, who would tell no one, and would understand.
The waterskin thumped against his chest. “Here. Drink.” Nasir again, letting them both take refuge in the practical: Robin smiled inwardly at how typical that was. Very briefly, he thought of saying, ‘Save it. Later,’ but teasing Nasir now seemed wrong. Besides, his throat was aching, parched with dust and the strain of not weeping. He tipped the skin back and took a gulp, then poured a little into his hand and wiped it over his face. Perhaps that was a waste, but Nasir said nothing. It made Robin feel better, less brittle, less like a cracked jug on the verge of splintering. He drew a deep breath, then straightened his shoulders and peered about the cave.
“What is this place?”
Nasir didn’t speak, only tipped his head towards the broken altar. Robin frowned. “It was going to … what, bring me here and …?” He broke off, shying away from that thought. “There’s really no other way out but up?”
Nasir answered that with a shrug. His cursory inspection had revealed nothing likely, but that did not mean there was nothing there. “Look. See.”
Moving off, Robin followed the line of the walls. He stopped once, feeling something snap under his boots like a dry branch. His voice carried back to where Nasir sat, watching. “Bones.” A pause, then, sounding sick, “Children, I think.”
That wasn’t really a surprise. Nasir was only glad he hadn’t stopped to look when he had fallen onto them. He offered up a quick, silent prayer. “What else?”
“Markings on the wall. Very faint.”
“Do not touch!”
“Don’t worry. I won’t.” That was a lesson learned. Another pause as Robin moved on, then; “Whoever brought this rockfall down wanted to make sure something stayed buried.”
Nasir, who had had the same t
hought, grunted. “Wise.”
Robin came back, shaking his head. “No way out but up,” he said. “I’m sure the others will come soon.”
Personally, Nasir thought that the others were likely lounging in the forest, drinking mead and swapping stories about girls. He did not say so, though. Instead he shifted against the cave wall where a stone was digging into his back and tried to flex his injured leg again. It complained sharply; he scowled at it and willed it to behave. If it came to climbing, it would just have to do what it was told.
“It was your voice, Nasir. I heard it. Tell me how.”
Oh, Hell’s everlasting flaming teeth, he was back to that. Nasir felt his midriff lurch. He pretended he hadn’t noticed, shutting his eyes and letting his head loll back against the dusty stone.
Not that Rob, don’t ask me about that. Ask me anything else, but don’t ask me about that.
“I want to know.” Robin was using his lordling’s voice, the one that expected – and demanded – answers. That might have meant only so much to Nasir, who had faced down caliphs and kings with the strength of his stare and the blood that was his by birth, but this was no mere petitioner. This was Rob, and Nasir didn’t have to look at him to know the stubborn jut of his jaw or the lower of his brows. He was not about to be put off. Nasir opened his eyes with a sigh and turned a discouraging gaze on his friend.
Damn you Rob. I told you, not that.
“The voices. ‘It happens’, you said.” Robin was not going to be stared into submission. He lifted his head, returning Nasir’s flat look with one of his own. “I could hear you in my head. That never happens. What was that?”
For a long moment, Nasir sat in silence, as if he hadn’t heard. Robin was not fooled. Silence was this man’s best weapon and strongest shield, but it was also where he found himself, and made himself safe. Robin let it do its work. At last, Nasir said, “Faith. Instinct.” And then, lower and very reluctantly, “Love.”
Robin’s heart kicked. “What?”
“Love does?” Robin made a wry, sad face, thinking of Marion, always a step or two out of his reach. “I know. But …”
“No. All three, at once.” Nasir lowered his head and kept talking, hoping that Robin would
hear him. “When faith is there, and instinct, and love, and when the need is very great and the bond is very strong, and …” He trailed off, struggling to find a way of explaining that he had been trained to do that, to open himself and act, yielding up all of his will in the hopes that another would seize it. “And when the mind is free,” he said at last, knowing that it lacked definition but unable to make himself more clear, “sometimes, then it happens. Inshallah. You think, and I hear.”
“Has it happened before, for you?” Robin’s brow was creased. “With me, I mean?”
“No. You would know.”
“Sarak, sometimes.” Three times, actually, and never on command. But always it had been the difference between living and dying. “Leave it, Rob.”
Robin frowned, hearing the stress in that last. The stress in all of what Nasir had said, if it came to that, as if he were admitting to something that pained him. It dawned on Robin all at once what that was. His eyes widened, amazed.
“Malik, did you just -”
“Don’t.” Nasir’s eyes flashed at him in the dark, like those of a wild creature brought to bay. “Do not.”
“Did you say -”
When there is love, when the bond is very strong. He had said that. Those words. He had said that. Robin stared. “Did you say you love me?”
Silence. Then a long, indrawn breath. Nasir’s voice, when it came, was little more than a whisper. It seemed to ache in the air. “You know I do.”
That was true; it had been true for some time. Robin’s smile was devastating. “Of course I do. But you’ve never said it.” Which was also true; Nasir had tended to show him what he felt only by lowering his walls, snarling at him when he pushed too hard, sharing with him when he didn’t. “I didn’t know you knew the word.”
“You mock me.” Nasir’s voice was stiff and hurt.
At once, Robin was contrite. “No, sadiqi. I don’t. I really don’t.” Reaching out, he took Nasir’s hand in both of his. “I’m honoured you trust me that far. And that you’d say so.”
“You didn’t have to answer.” Robin paused, shook his head wonderingly. Why did this man hide so much of himself, even now? Something told him not to make too much of it; he knew Nasir well enough to understand that heartfelt words would not be appreciated. Nasir would not give them back, but eye them askance and throw up his shields. Clearly the Saracen did not trust words to say the things that mattered, though where he’d learned that lesson Robin didn’t know. But there was one language Nasir was comfortable with; Robin, who could be wise when he needed to be, chose now to use it. In silence, he met the Saracen’s gaze and raised Nasir’s hand, setting it first to his friend’s heart and then clasping it to his own. He watched Nasir understand and bow his head, hiding the dark shine of his eyes. It was surprising, Robin thought, how much could be said without words.
Overhead, the light was starting to fade. Looking up, Robin could see through the fissure above him that the sky was dimming. He sighed and shivered as a chill went over him, moving back quietly to give Nasir some space. He suspected his friend might need it. “I hope the others find us soon. I don’t fancy spending the night down here.”
Nasir said nothing, only followed the line of Robin’s gaze to the scrap of darkening sky that was left them. He did not particularly relish the idea of being trapped in this place all night either. They had no light, and though he had a striking flint in his pouch, there was little down here to burn if they wanted a fire – and they would want a fire, he suspected: it was cold already; come true night, they would freeze. Besides, this place had once been steeped in blood. Even with the ghul gone, there was no telling what unhappy spirits might still hover here.
He was not sure how he felt about the words Robin had won from him. He supposed that it did not truly matter: it was not as if he had told Rob anything he didn’t already know. But words had a certain power, an ability to fix things in the world, to trap them in place, that made Nasir uneasy. He could have told himself that it was nothing, that of course he loved Robin – he loved them all, all of his uncouth infidel friends, in their own ways. Even when, as often happened, they drove him halfway to madness with their chatter and indiscipline. Why else did he stay here in this green and growing land, when there was so much to which he should return? But Nasir was not in the habit of lying to himself – or, for that matter, to anyone else. What he felt for Robin was different. He would not have been able to open his mind to any of the others the way he had with Robin, no matter what the duress. That deserved something from him, he admitted. To be fair to himself and fair to Robin, that deserved to be acknowledged.
It made no real sense. It was not even safe. Only with Sarak, friend and kinsman, teacher and brother to his heart, had he shared that bond before, and look how that had worked out. He will deny, he will betray, the ghul had said. Nasir shook his head, trying to dismiss that thought. Demons lied; it was their very nature. Souls, he had to believe, were truer than that. Robin was truer than that.
With a shiver, Robin drew Nasir’s eye. His white gold hair was light in the dark, as if it held the last of the day’s glow. His face, under it, was smudged with dust; his quick scrub with the waterskin had done little but move the dirt around. The young outlaw said, “How did you know? About the … what did you call it?”
Nasir shrugged. “It wasn’t you.”
“But you knew before then. You knew as soon as you saw the stone. Sooner, even.”
“Instinct.” Another shrug. “These things … they haunt the empty places, and places of the dead. In your tongue I do not know them, but for my people they are of the djinn who forsook Allah.” He made a face, not wanting to say the next thing for the memories it would bring with it, but unable to explain without. “Belleme – may Iblis take him – treated with them.”
Robin nodded, accepting that. “Well, next time a voice in my dreams tells me about a mysterious stone, I’ll speak to you first.”
“Next time a voice in your dreams does that, do not answer.” Nasir’s cheek twitched in a fragment of a smile. “Better that way, I think.”
“How’s your leg?”
“The same.” Nasir bent it minimally and winced. “The cold does not help.”
“We could try and get a fire going.”
“With what?” Nasir raised an eyebrow at the nearby pile of bones. “Those?”
Robin shuddered at the thought. “Sweet saints, no. They will need a proper burial, once we get out of here. Whoever they were, they deserve that much.” Moving close, he edged in against Nasir’s flank, looking for warmth. The Saracen glanced at him, but did not move away. Robin was glad of that, for more reasons than only the cold. Nasir denied himself too much, sometimes. “I really don’t want to sleep here. You’d think they’d have noticed we’re missing, by now.”
“Maybe. And do not sleep.” Nasir didn’t think that would be safe. Gently, half hoping it would not be noticed, he shifted, yielding to Robin’s body pressed against his own, drawing him closer without seeming to. Robin grunted and huddled in, hugging his arms unhappily about himself in the dark.
“You’re going to have to distract me, then. Tell me a story. Something about your home. Something warm.”
Nasir gave him a flat look. Stories, he wanted? “Do I look like Scherazade to you?”
“A woman,” Nasir said shortly. “In a story. Who tells stories.”
Robin hid a smile. “No. In that case, you don’t.” He paused, deliberately casual. “What story?”
Nasir growled and jabbed him in the ribs with an elbow, not gently. “Don’t.” Then, relenting slightly, “She was wed to Shahryar, a great king of the land, who, because of the unfaithfulness of women, took a new wife each evening and executed her the following morning.”
“Why in the world would he …?”
“Rob. I am not telling stories. Be quiet.”
“Yes. Sorry.” For a while, Robin said nothing, only sat watching the stars glimmer through the gap above him and feeling Nasir’s warmth press against him on one side, the cave’s deep chill coiling on the other. After some time, he said, “So this Shahryar fellow killed her?”
“No. She told him stories each night that did not end by morning, so he would spare her life to hear the rest of the tale.”
“Oh.” Robin smiled to himself, secret in the dark. “What stories?”
“Robert. Stop it.”
“They must have been good stories, is all. You know, if they were worth her life.”
“Rob.” That had a warning tone, but Robin knew better than that. He could hear the humour underneath the growl; with this man, he had become very good at listening for what was unsaid.
“Any djinn in those stories?”
“Yes. Sometimes.” Another jab with that elbow, softer this time. “Quiet.”
Robin rubbed at his ribs, grinning. “I probably don’t want to hear them, then.”
Nasir rolled his eyes, letting the shadows hide a smile of his own. “No,” he said. “You do not.”
From above, there came a clatter of stones. Two sets of eyes, one blue and light, the other dark and intense, snapped upward at once. Nasir’s hand went to the nearest of his swords, poised lightly on the hilt; he drew himself into a protective half-crouch, putting his body between Robin and whatever had made that sound. Robin leaned forward, watchful.
“Robin?” The big man’s voice answered from overhead. “Where are you?”
Casting Robin a disapproving glance, Nasir took his hand away from his sword and pushed himself upright. Calling out like that, before he even knew who was there … ah, but that was Robin. Too trusting by far. Beautiful.
“Be careful!” Robin had scrambled to the centre of the cave, directly beneath the fissure. “There’s a hole. We’re down here.”
“Nasir’s with you?”
There was another scrabble of stones and broken twigs, then Much’s voice floated down, sounding excited. “You see? I told you I could. I lost the trail for a bit back there on the rocks, but I found it again, didn’t I?”
“That you did, lad. Well done.” There was the sound of one of John’s congratulatory back-slaps. Nasir flinched in sympathy; for all that he was a gentle soul, John put his weight into those. Much had done well, though. He would have to make sure to tell him so.
“John, you’ll need a rope or something,” Robin called up. “It’s a fair way down. Do you have one?”
“No,” came John’s deep rumble. “But we can fetch one.” A darker shadow loomed against the patch of sky framed by the crack in the roof. “Are you hurt?”
“No,” Nasir replied firmly, with a hard look at Robin. John, who knew that tone, chuckled.
“Robin, is he hurt?”
“Yes.” Robin ducked to avoid the quick cuff Nasir aimed at his head, laughing under his breath at the irritation in the man’s eyes. There was that pride again, all his walls back in place. “Not badly, but he can’t climb.”
“Why am I not surprised?” John’s voice sounded as if he was smiling. “You’re a terrible liar, Naz.” And then, when he got no reply (not that he had expected one) John called down, “What about you, Robin? Are you all right?”
“I’m …” Robin stumbled to silence, suddenly uncertain. Nasir saw the white roll of his eyes in the gloom, like a horse about to shy. He touched the young nobleman’s shoulder, very lightly.
“He is fine.” His words carried up to where John was standing, but they were meant for Robin. “He is fine.”
That was enough for Robin to steady himself, to regain solid ground. What had happened had happened; he was still himself. He could live with that. Low, too low for the others to hear, Robin whispered, “Thank you.”
A slight dip of the head acknowledged that. “Ahfwan, sadiqi.”
“How did you get down there anyway?” Much piped up, leaning far enough over the edge to send down another quick spattering of pebbles. Robin stepped back, blinking grit out of his eyes. “What were you doing?”
Again, Robin hesitated. “I … the stone … there was …” What was he supposed to tell them – that he had followed a dream voice and let a demon into his head, and nearly got himself killed? “I heard …”
“Hunting. I fell.” Nasir cut him off, still speaking to his friends above, still looking at Robin’s face. “Robin came after me.”
He’d had to set some of his pride aside to say that. Robin met his eyes, and bent his neck, acknowledging that even as John laughed.
“You fell? You must be losing your edge, Naz. It’s not like you to be so careless.”
“Yes,” Nasir said tonelessly. “Careless.” His eyes on Robin’s warned that there would be recompense for this. Robin smiled quietly, touching Nasir’s wrist in wordless gratitude. There were things he was not yet ready to say.
From above came the sound of scuffling, and then Much’s voice floated down from a short distance away, sounding puzzled. “What’s this?”
Nasir and Robin exchanged quick glances. Robin called out, “What’s what?”
“There’s a rock here, with marks on …”
“Don’t touch it!” Robin and Nasir spoke at the same time, all urgency. Much’s shadow appeared back at the edge of the hole.
“I didn’t,” he said earnestly. “And it’s all broken anyway. Might have been one big stone once, but now it’s all little pieces. Why, what is it?”
Broken, was it? Robin raised a questioning eyebrow at Nasir, who shrugged in reply. Robin said, quite truthfully, “Nothing, Much. It’s nothing.”
“Forget the bloody rocks,” John grumbled. “We’ve got to find a way to get you out of there. We won’t be long. Can you wait?”
“We’re not going anywhere, if that’s what you mean.” Robin gave a wry laugh. “But don’t take too long. It’s freezing down here.”
“We won’t. Stay put,” John called back with another low chuckle. “Come on Much, we have to find …”
The big man’s voice faded out as he moved away from the rent in the earth. Robin drew in a deep breath and turned to Nasir with a small half-smile.
“There. I told you they’d come.”
Robin nodded. He tipped his head back to look at the sky, with its scattering of distant stars. “Nasir,” he began. “What happened here …”
“Stays here.” The Saracen leaned back against the wall, doing his best to ignore the throb of his wrenched knee. “I know.”
“No,” Robin told him, with a private warmth that Nasir was not sure he had heard before. “I’m not sure you do.” He crossed to where the Saracen was standing, and took hold of his hand again. He raised it, and repeated his earlier gesture, pressing it to his own heart, to Nasir’s, to his own. “It stays here, Malik. Yes?”
Nasir blinked slowly, considering that. This man, this young infidel Frank for whom his mind had opened like a flower and his heart had opened like something else, was not safe for him. He knew that. There was too much temptation there, too much connection where by rights there should have been nothing at all. Worse yet, he had no defences in this fight; this beloved enemy at his gates was not daunted by his walls, could not be held at bay by silence. Robin knew too many of his weaknesses, slipping under his guard with alarming ease. No one had done that in a long while; no one should have been allowed to. Every part of Nasir understood the danger in that, in the same way that he understood the steel he wielded so well, intuitively and without pause. But a deeper, quieter part of him understood the comfort in that too, and weak though it might be, he needed it. Allah the Merciful help him, he needed it.
At last he lowered his eyes, and dipped his head in a bow. He was unsure if what he was offering to Robin was surrender or mere assent. He didn’t think, right now, that it mattered. It was enough to open the gates.
“Yes,” he said. “Here. Yes.”