Hero at the Fall – Alwyn Hamilton

I woke from a sleep filled with nightmares to the sound of my name. I was already reaching for a gun when I recognised Sara’s face above me, swimming in and out of focus as my eyes blurred with exhaustion. My grip on the trigger eased. It wasn’t an enemy, just Sara, the guardian of the Hidden House. She was holding a small lamp that lit up only her face. For a moment she looked like a disembodied head floating in the dark, like the ones in the dream that was fading now as I woke. Imin wearing Ahmed’s face going willingly to the executioner’s stage. My cousin Shira screaming her defiance as she was forced to her knees in front of the block. Ayet, with eyes full of madness, awaiting the death that would come from having her soul drained out of her. Ranaa, the Demdji child, who had carried the sun in her hands and died by a stray bullet in a battle she shouldn’t have been fighting. Bahi, who’d burned in front of me at my brother’s hand. My mother, who’d swung from a rope back in Dustwalk for shooting her husband, the man who’d never been my father anyway. People I had watched die. People I had let die. The accusation was all over their faces.

But Sara was real. Sara was still alive. And so were others. When the Sultan ambushed the Rebellion’s camp in the city, many were captured. But there was only one execution. Imin. Our Demdji shape-shifter. Imin had died wearing Ahmed’s face to deceive the Sultan and all of Izman into thinking the Rebel Prince was dead, while Delila cast an illusion to hide her real brother, who had been jailed with the rest of them. And so Ahmed was still alive. So was Shazad, our general, even if she didn’t like being called that. We needed her back to lead us in the fight against the Sultan. And Rahim, another of the Sultan’s sons, who had held a grudge against our exalted ruler since he caused his mother’s death. He was our key to getting a whole army in the mountains that had never been loyal to the Sultan, but to him instead. And now it was up to me to rescue them. Along with a handful of others who’d escaped capture that night.

We had our reluctant prince, Jin, our professionally difficult golden-skinned Demdji, Hala, our shape-shifting twins, Izz and Maz, and our semi-reliable foreign thief, Sam. Not exactly an army, but it was what we had left. I’d fallen asleep in a chair in some corner of the Hidden House, our last refuge in Izman, where what was left of the Rebellion had retreated. A faint glow coming in through the window danced across Sara’s face, enough for me to see the worry etched there. Her hair was tousled from a restless night, and a dark red robe hung loosely over her nightclothes, like she’d tied it in a hurry. It must have been dawn. But my body still felt heavy with exhaustion, like I’d slept only a few hours. I reckoned I could sleep a year and I still wouldn’t shed this tiredness from my bones. It was the exhaustion of pain and of grief. My side still throbbed from the effort of using my powers a few hours ago, and for a second my vision tilted dangerously to one side, like I might lose my footing. ‘What’s happening?’ My voice came out a croak as I stretched my aching body, still sore from being cut open by my aunt just yesterday. A necessary evil to get out the iron the Sultan had put under my skin to keep me from accessing my Demdji power. ‘Is it morning?’ ‘No, it’s late. I got up because the baby was fussing.’ As my eyes slowly adjusted, I noticed the sleeping infant balanced in the crook of her left arm.

It was little Fadi, my cousin Shira’s newborn Demdji son. If there was any justice in the world he’d be with his mother now. But Shira had lost her head on the chopping block too. I remembered the accusation in Shira’s gaze in my nightmare. That her son would grow up without a family, all because of me. ‘When I woke up, there was …’ Sara hesitated. ‘I think you’d better see for yourself.’ That didn’t sound good. I pressed my palms against my tired eyes. What else could possibly have gone wrong in the last few hours? Behind my lids I saw Imin’s head falling on to that stage all over again. I dropped my hands. Better to face reality than nightmares. ‘All right,’ I said, slowly getting to my feet. ‘Lead the way.’ Cradling the small, blue-haired Demdji in her arms, Sara led me up the dark, winding staircase to the rooftop that gave the Hidden House its name.

The garden that topped the flat building was surrounded on all sides by trellises thick with flowers that concealed the house from prying eyes and kept Sara and all the women under her charge safe. I knew something was wrong before we fully emerged on to the roof. It was late at night. But there was a dim glow outside, like the red of an angry dawn. That didn’t make any sense this near midnight, not even in summer. Sara reached the roof ahead of me and then quickly stepped out of the way, giving me an unobstructed view. And I saw what she was talking about. The city of Izman was domed by fire. Rippling flames hung over my head and to every side of us, like an immense vault placed over the city. I could just see the stars on the other side, but it was like looking through warped glass; they were blurry and indistinct. To the west I could see the fire arching down towards the walls of the city, and to the north it plunged down towards the sea. A memory came to me from nowhere, of my mother in our kitchen when I was little, slamming a glass over a beetle as it scurried across the kitchen table, capturing it inside. I’d watched curiously as the thing scrambled up the side of the glass, frantic and confused. Trapped. Staring up at the dome of fire over us, I understood that little Dustwalk beetle pretty well right now.

‘It’s magic,’ Sara said grimly, squinting up at the stars through the sheen of flames. ‘No.’ I might’ve believed that, too, once upon a time. But I recognised it, this flickering, toobright, not entirely natural fire. It was the same one I’d seen bloom in the vaults under the palace when the Djinni Fereshteh had been killed in the Sultan’s machine. It was the same stolen fire that I had seen light up the Abdals, the Sultan’s mechanical soldiers, who, even now, patrolled the streets below us, keeping the curfew. ‘It’s an inventor’s trick.’ Some new creation of Leyla’s, the Sultan’s inventor daughter, designed to keep us imprisoned here. Except, even though this was new, there was something strangely familiar about it. And lo, did a great wall of flames did enclose the mountain, trapping her for all eternity. Those words from the Holy Books sprung into my mind fully formed. Dustwalk had drummed scripture into me for the first sixteen years of my life. I knew the story of Ashra’s Wall as well as anyone: the great barrier of fire that imprisoned the Destroyer of Worlds at the end of the First War. Killing immortal beings. Resurrecting ideas from the Holy Books.

The Sultan really was playing at being a god now. Except this wasn’t to protect us from some great evil. And this was far from holy work. We were trapped here by the great evil. * I didn’t wake the rest of the house, just Jin. Though it took me longer than I would’ve liked before I finally found him in one of the many rooms of the house. He’d fallen asleep fully clothed on top of an unmade bed with his arm flung over his face against the light. I didn’t even have to shake him awake. The moment my hand touched his shoulder, his eyes snapped open, his hand clamping painfully over my wrist, moments away from breaking it before he recognised me. He cursed in Xichian, his grip loosening quickly as he sat up. He fought for alertness through his exhaustion. ‘You startled me, Bandit.’ ‘Don’t try to tell me that this is the first time you’ve been woken up by a girl in the dead of night.’ My lightness was strained as I pushed a strand of dark hair out of his face with my nowfreed hand so I could see him clearly. He needed to cut it.

But it’d been a long time since we’d had the luxury of time for frivolous things. Not since we were pushed out of our camp in the desert. Jin caught my hand again, but more gently this time, and for a moment there was a ghost of that old smile, one that meant simpler trouble than the kind we were in right now. But before he could give voice to whatever thought it was that went with that smile, my words reached his tired mind. ‘It can’t be the dead of night.’ He glanced at the light leaking through the window. And my brief moment of dodging the world outside was gone. I told him what Sara had shown me as we waited anxiously for the real dawn. The house woke little by little around us, and the same unsettled feeling draped over everyone’s shoulders as, one by one, they saw the dome. Each of them looking at me for answers I didn’t have. How is it made? Can we get through it? Is it here to keep us in? Finally, the very first spark of dawn leaked through the veil of fire, signalling the end of curfew. Finally, Jin and I could move. The streets were already flooding with people, men and women stumbling out of their houses, eyes upon the fire-filled sky above us. The same questions that the Rebellion had been asking me were on everyone’s lips. Jin and I dodged around them as quickly as we could without attracting suspicion.

Both of our gazes were fixed on the compass in Jin’s hand. The one that was paired with Ahmed’s. Our Rebel Prince had had his compass with him when he was taken prisoner. ‘He still has it,’ I said out loud to be sure, as we rushed through the tight streets of the city. I could feel my breath coming short the closer we got to the palace. That was where the prisoners had been taken yesterday, before Imin’s execution. But as we neared the wider, richer streets that surrounded the palace, the compass needle didn’t swing towards the Sultan’s walls. Instead it kept pointing south. We passed the palace, my heart feeling tighter with every step we took away from it. We’d figured our rebels were still being held within the palace walls. Hell, we’d counted on it. Now all I had to cling to was a faint hope that they were at least still in the city. That Jin’s compass might track down its pair before we reached the wall. It didn’t. The sky outside the wall of fire had gone from pink to gold as we reached the south gate.

Zaman’s Gate, named after the first Sultan of Miraji. Just beyond it, the wall of fire rose. It looked a whole lot more imposing up close than it had standing under it. It seemed to snap and crackle angrily. Sparking at intervals, like it was hungry for destruction. Like it would consume anything that dared try to cross it. And the compass in Jin’s hand was pointing straight towards it. They were outside the city. The Sultan had sent the prisoners beyond the city and put up a wall around us. We were trapped here while they were out there. Taken somewhere to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives without trial – our Sultan’s version of mercy. We could feel the heat pouring off the wall from here. But Jin picked up a stone from the street. He bounced it up and down in his palm a few times; it made him look young, like a kid about to cause mischief. And then he chucked the stone at the wall.

It didn’t bounce back towards us like it would against a regular wall, or pass through like it would normal fire. It incinerated as it hit, turning from stone to ash in the space of a heartbeat. We would burn even faster than that if we tried to walk through. My first thought was that the Sultan was trying to keep us from getting to the prisoners. To keep me from getting away, so he could sink his hooks into me again and drag me back to the palace. But doubt chased that thought hot on its heels. Jin said it first. ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ He pushed a hand through his hair, dislodging his sheema. I glanced around quickly, to see if there was anyone who might spot us. ‘Not if he thinks Ahmed is dead. All this … it can’t be for our benefit.’ He wasn’t wrong. In the Sultan’s mind, we were defeated. An act of war against us this large would be wasted.

‘Then who do you reckon it is for?’ We got our answer before the sun set. As we were waiting anxiously for news from the palace. For something the Sultan might say to his people about what we had all woken up to. Izz and Maz circled above the palace in the shapes of larks, taking turns to dash back to the house and report on the comings and goings. But there was nothing much of interest. That was, until just before sunset. Izz and Maz returned together, two sand-coloured birds crisscrossing each other frantically in the sky before they landed on the rooftop, becoming boys again as they did. ‘Invaders.’ Izz spoke first, trying to catch his breath. ‘Coming from the west.’ ‘Blue-and-gold banners,’ Maz added, breathing hard, his chest rising and falling. My heart faltered. The Gallan. The Gallan were marching on the city. The desert’s all-too-familiar occupiers.

Come to take our country for themselves once and for all. That was what the wall was for. Not to keep us in. To keep them out. The city was protected. But we were trapped. Chapter 2 The Deathless Sultima Once, there was a desert under siege and a Sultan without an heir to defend it. The desert had many enemies. They came from the east and the west and the north to occupy the desert’s cities, enslave its people and steal its weapons to fight other wars in faraway lands. The Sultan saw his desert was under siege from many a side, and that his own forces were outnumbered man to man. And so he summoned his enemies’ kings, queens and princes to his palace. He called it a truce. His enemies saw it as surrender. It was neither. In truth it was a trap.

The Sultan turned soldiers made of metal and magic on his enemies, and reduced their leaders to dust. Many of the Sultan’s enemies retreated, but the great empire spreading across the north heard the Sultan’s declaration of war against them and resolved to answer it. They were enraged by the slaughter of their king and their soldiers. And so their young impulsive prince, soon to take his father’s place, ordered his forces to march on the great desert city and destroy it. The Sultan heard of the approaching threat, and he had no small number of sons whom he might have sent into battle to face the approaching armies. But he had no heir. His firstborn had died at the hands of the Rebel Prince, who was consumed by jealousy and sought the throne for himself. Or so it was said by some. There were others who said that the Rebel Prince was no traitor, but rather a hero. And those men and women cried out that the Rebel Prince should be the one to defend the desert, not any of the Sultan’s sons raised in the palace, but his true prodigal heir. But even as the enemy’s army approached, the Rebel Prince was captured. No matter that the people cried out for him to save them, they could not save him as he was delivered to the executioner’s block. For the people of the desert knew that it did not matter if he was a rebel or a traitor or a hero, all men were only mortal in the end. And yet, when the axe fell, some who saw it swore that he seemed to be more than a mere mortal, that they witnessed his soul leave his body in a great light and transform into a shield of fire around their city. They whispered that the Rebel Prince had answered their call for succour even in death.

Just as Ashra the Blessed had answered the desert’s call in time of need thousands of years ago. And sure enough, when the invaders arrived, they found a great barrier of fire protecting the desert city. The invaders could not attack, and the people of the desert praised the Rebel Prince for shielding them. The invaders could do nothing except surrounded the city and wait for the wall of fire to fail or for the Sultan to send a champion – a prince and heir – to lead his armies against them. On the first day of the siege, the Sultan’s eldest surviving son, a great swordsman, came to him and asked that he might bear the honour of leading their armies in battle against the invaders at their gates. But the Sultan refused him. He did not know if this son was worthy. On the second day, the Sultan’s second-eldest son, a great archer, came to him and asked that he might have the honour of leading men in raining arrows down on the enemies who surrounded them. But again the Sultan refused, unsure if he was worthy. On the third day, the Sultan’s third son came. And he, too, was refused.


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Updated: 16 September 2021 — 06:38

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