A thrilling, inventive follow-up to The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones, a "rare master of the storyteller's art" (Greenmanreview.com)
As a snowfall blankets 8th century Mosul, a Persian noblewoman arrives at the home of the scholar Dabir and his friend the swordsman Captain Asim. Najya has escaped from a dangerous cabal that has ensorcelled her to track down ancient magical tools of tremendous power, the bones of the old ones.
To stop the cabal and save Najya, Dabir and Asim venture into the worst winter in human memory, hunted by a shape-changing assassin. The stalwart Asim is drawn irresistibly toward the beautiful Persian even as Dabir realizes she may be far more dangerous a threat than anyone who pursues them, for her enchantment worsens with the winter. As their opposition grows, Dabir and Asim have no choice but to ally with their deadliest enemy, the treacherous Greek necromancer, Lydia. But even if they can trust one another long enough to escape their foes, it may be too late for Najya, whose soul is bound up with a vengeful spirit intent on sheathing the world in ice for a thousand years...
"The Bones of the Old Ones is a damn good tale that not only pays homage to the masters, but sets its own print on the genre." --SF Signal
"This rousing sequel to The Desert of Souls offers a mélange of ancient adventure myths populated by convincing, endearing characters... As intricately woven as the magic carpet of Greek sorceress Lydia, Jones's tale incorporates real historical personages and settings like Mosul of "haggard beauty" from the early days of Islam, and fills the pages with gallantry and glamour to provide a thrilling spectacle." –Publishers Weekly, starred review
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HOWARD ANDREW JONES is the acknowledged expert on fiction writer Harold Lamb. He is the Managing Editor of Black Gate magazine, and he blogs regularly at its website.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The snow banked knee-high against the walls of the narrow alley, and my boots sank into it as I pressed my back to the cold stone. I quieted my ragged breath and listened for the footfalls of my pursuers. They could not be far behind.
Thankfully the snow-clogged streets were already churned with footprints this morning; I was certain those who sought me lacked the expertise to identify my own.
Before long I heard the sound of snow mashed beneath swift, eager steps. I crouched to ready my weapons. Ambushes come down to timing, and I meant to judge my moment with care.
The footfalls stopped, then shuffled without advancing. My mind’s eye had one of them turning a circle, just beyond my hiding place.
Their leader spoke in low, urgent tones. “The captain has to be close. Rami, you go that way. Sayid, you come with me.”
One of his followers waxed confident: “We’ll get him this time!”
I had dressed for the weather, with multiple robes, a cloak, and even gloves. As I was never a small man, I cut an imposing figure so bulkily garbed. When I leapt into the street, roaring defiantly, two of the three youths jumped back in alarm. The other dropped a snowball at the same moment I launched my own.
“Fly, dogs!” I cried, laughing. My first strike caught Imad, the deep-voiced thirteen-year-old, in the dead center of his chest. While he looked down in surprise I grabbed another missile from those cradled in my arm and flung again.
“Run!” Imad shouted, his voice breaking. He dashed away, little Sayid fleeing with him. I tagged his retreating back with another cast even as Rami ducked into the doorway to the jeweler’s house.
“Ho, young one!” I advanced, one snowball brandished. “Prepare to meet your doom!”
Rami did not run; nay, the brave lad stood his ground and threw. His aim was near perfect, and caught me in the chest. At the same moment, I heard Imad and Sayid let out battle cries behind me, and I whirled. Their blows struck me in chest and shoulder even as I countered, laughing. It was then a frosty missile hit the back of my head. I felt my turban sliding toward my left ear.
“Ah!” I feigned sudden weakness and let my arm fall so that the snowballs rained about my boots. I clutched at my breast with both hands. “The lion falls!” So saying, I sank to one knee, then dropped into the snow. I lay rigid as a dying hero on a tapestry while my youthful companions cheered and cavorted with joy.
Their voices stilled at the same moment I heard the crunch of someone else approaching through the snow. I peered up to see my friend Dabir grinning at me, his blue eyes twinkling with amusement. He cradled a snowball in one hand. “Will you live?” he asked.
I sat up on the instant, adjusting my headgear. “What are you doing here?”
“This is the most direct route home from the palace.”
His grin widened as he saw the expression on my face. The caliph himself had ordered me to ensure the scholar’s safety by day and by night, but Dabir took a more casual approach to the arrangement. When last I’d seen him, he’d been sitting at a brazier in our receiving room, reading over some old Greek text. He had promised he would remain there.
Dabir dropped the snowball, and extended his hand. “No one was going to attack me, Asim. Captain Tarif came to get me.”
That made me feel only a little better. He helped me to my feet.
“Where is he now?” I asked, suspecting already the answer I would receive.
“Oh, I walked back on my own. Tarif had more important things to do.”
I sighed as I stepped back to brush snow from my robe.
Dabir smiled good-naturedly at the gathered children, but they could only stare back, shyly, even little Rami, our stable boy. They all regarded him with a certain amount of awe, for they knew him as a famous scholar and master of great secrets, someone to be treated with pronounced formality.
After a moment Rami worked up the courage to speak. “That was a good shot, Master.”
Dabir chuckled. “Thank you, Rami.”
“That was you?” I asked.
“You made too fine a target,” Dabir explained. “What say you to a meal? Are you hungry yet?”
I was, in truth, for I had taken a long morning walk before joining the snowball fight. Thus I bade the children farewell. They were sad to lose me, and in truth I was somewhat reluctant to quit, but Dabir was clearly set on continuing alone if I did not go with him, and as usual he had not even bothered to buckle on a sword. And besides, the cook’s fine pastries were now firmly in my mind. She was a harridan, but I could not dispute the excellence of her food.
So Dabir and I started for home.
Mosul was old … old almost as the Assyrian ruins that lay across the river, but not derelict, and sometimes showed a haggard beauty, for her stones had been set with care. Aye, her builders had been artisans as well as laborers, so that there were pleasing patterns in the brick and mortar. On that day, though, it was as if she had donned an enchanted cloak that restored her youth. Even plain features to which I normally paid no notice—the heights of buildings, the bricks of walls, twisted old tree limbs topping garden enclosures—were mantled in white and transformed into sparkling works of art. It brought a smile to my lips as we walked.
“What did the governor want?” I asked.
Dabir turned over a hand as we walked past the homes and shops that lined the streets.
“Ah, Shabouh has him worried. He keeps going on about the positions of the stars and bad omens.”
I rather liked the pudgy court astrologer, but Dabir was skeptical of the man’s auguries.
“He swears that this snowfall was foretold,” he went on, “and that some old Persian star chart predicts even greater misfortune.”
I frowned. That certainly sounded alarming to me. In truth, the blizzard that had struck Mosul three days before defied any experience in living memory, so a little concern was perfectly justified. “What did you tell the governor?”
“Well, I did not wish to dispute Shabouh, but it seemed unwarranted to worry the governor over isolated acts of nature. I told them I would take a look at the records in the university. By the time I’ve compiled a listing of all the unusual weather in the last hundred years, the snow will have melted and all this will be a charming memory.”
“Do you think so?”
Dabir laughed. “Aye. When I was boy a great frost came to Mosul in early fall. It was so cold that ice formed over part of the Tigris. But it all melted by midday. Strange storms happen from time to time, and it is nothing to wring hands about.”
In light of what befell in the coming days, you will not be surprised to learn that I reminded him of that pronouncement for years after, but I get ahead of myself. At that time I merely groaned a little at the thought of spending the day watching him read texts in the cramped university library.
“I did not say that I would look today,” he added, clapping me on the back. “I plan instead to enjoy a nice game of shatranj near a warm brazier with my friend Asim.”
Soon we reached home, and after a pleasant meal we sat down in the receiving room and set up the shatranj board. We had moved but a few pieces when Rami pushed through the door curtain. He was ruddy-faced from the chill and panting from exertion. “I have found a woman in the street,” he gasped.
Rami’s sudden arrival set smoke from our brazier dancing above the cherry-red coals and introduced a blast of cold air seasoned with the scent of horses and manure, for the smell of the stables clung to him.
Dabir paused with his hand over the checkered board between us, the emerald on his finger glinting. “A dead woman?” he asked.
“Nay, Master.” Rami breathed heavily.
“You sound as if you have run a very long way,” Dabir said patiently.
“She was being chased,” Rami explained, “and begged me for help.”
“Chased by whom?” I asked.
Rami shook his head. “She would not say. She was very frightened.”
“Most like,” I said, “you have found a thief.”
“Oh, she is not a thief, Captain,” Rami assured me. “She is dressed like a noblewoman. She talks like a noblewoman. And,” he added, as though it were the most conclusive proof of all, “she is very pretty.”
Dabir coolly arched an eyebrow at me before turning over another of my pawns. “And you have left her in the stables?”
Rami froze, then nodded, his wind-burned face reddening still further. He lowered his eyes.
Dabir must have recognized the boy’s discomfiture, for his next question was very gentle. “What sort of help do you think she needs, Rami?”
The stable boy brightened. It was not every day he was invited to provide counsel for a great scholar. “There is something wrong with her, Master.” His voice rang with conviction. “I think someone has placed a spell upon her.”
“Do you?” Dabir managed to sound not the least bit condescending. “Very well, then, Rami, bring in your mystery lady. I will see her.”
Rami grinned and backed out of the room, bowing formally. This sober exit might have been more impressive if we had not heard him immediately thereafter scamper down the hall at great speed.
Dabir turned back to me and grinned.
I shook my head. “That boy thinks wizards and efreet lurk behind every doorway.”
“Who shall we blame for that?” Dabir asked. “I was not the one who told him about the ghuls, or the lion, or that thing formed all of eyeballs. The cook said Rami had nightmares for a week.” He waved fingers at the board. “It is your move.”
I grunted. Buthayna had told me the same thing, but likely with more venom. I studied the pieces with care, although I had lost focus upon the game—never wise when playing against Dabir. We were just beyond the opening array and he was already commanding or threatening most of the board’s central squares. “This may all be some trick to ask alms from you,” I said.
“You are so skeptical, Asim. You should try to keep an open mind. Besides, if this woman needs money, I shall give some to her.”
He’d kept his eyes on the board and crinkled them only a little, but I knew he said this to bait me; for some reason my opinion of his financial practices amused him. In the ten months since our arrival in Mosul he had wasted cartloads of money upon an immense collection of old books and scrolls, and yet had not bothered to furnish all the rooms within the house.
I was still trying to decide whether to take Dabir’s central pawn with my knight or to advance my left chariot when there came a muted screech from a nearby room. I raised my head in alarm before recognizing the cook’s voice, and the lower answers of Rami.
“I should have guessed that,” Dabir said. “Rami has brought her in through the kitchen.”
“Likely,” Dabir said, his head tilted to listen, “Buthayna questions the poor boy’s wisdom in bringing an unattended woman into the house.”
“She will blame me.”
“Watch,” I said. “She will blame me, for she cannot blame you.”
“Hmm. What shall we wager?”
The answer came quickly to me. “If I am right, you will take up sword practice again this week.”
Dabir was a passable swordsman, but possessed the reflexes to be far better. He seemed always to find some other thing to do than join me for morning drills.
He nodded after a short moment of reflection. “Done. If you are wrong, you will try again with that text.”
I stifled a groan. “The one where the Greeks are sulking at the siege? That’s hardly fair. I’m trying to better you.”
“I swear by the Ka’aba you would like it if you continued! You gave up before you reached the battle scenes.”
“I suppose,” I said, for I did not expect to lose.
Footfalls hurried toward us from the room adjacent even as I spoke, and within a moment the curtain was pushed smartly aside.
Buthayna entered, bowing her head to Dabir. Like Rami she brought cold air, but with her came more pleasant scents—onions, cabbage, bread. She was thin and stooped, with great gray wiry eyebrows. Many women her age dispensed with veils, but hers was thick. I think she meant the cloth to demonstrate her piety, although, as I had glimpsed her, once, veilless, it might be that she wore it as a favor.
“Master,” she said, her voice deceptively sweet and creaking with age, “my nephew says that you have told him to bring a woman into the house to speak with you.”
“This is true,” Dabir answered.
Buthayna’s eyes shifted to me with a hard look, then back to Dabir. “She has no attendants,” she persisted.
“Does she look dangerous?” Dabir asked with great innocence.
“She does not, Master, but she is alone.” She emphasized this last word as if he had somehow overlooked this crucial point. “Perhaps Rami did not convey all of this information to you?”
“It was clear,” Dabir said. “But the woman may need our help. We will see her.”
Again I received a look. I fully believe that Buthayna expected me to intercede to help her maintain proper decorum in the house. But I did not speak.
Dabir broke the silence: “Perhaps, Buthayana, it would be best if you accompany our guest.”
The cook’s yellowish eyes widened in surprise, then, apparently satisfied, she bowed her head. “As you wish, Honored One.”
The moment she disappeared through the curtain Dabir smirked. “I will bring you The Iliad by midday prayers.”
“Ah, ah,” I countered. “You could see from her look that she found me at fault. And you intervened before she could fully speak her mind. You, friend, need to dust off your sword.”
“But she—” Dabir fell silent as the curtains were pushed aside once more.
Buthayna poked her head through, then held the curtain open for another. “Master,” she intoned formally, “this is Najya. She has not provided me with her last name,” she finished, her voice laced with unspoken rebuke.
I had expected to be presented with a slattern in gaudy jewelry and bright fabrics, young enough to still be pretty. But our visitor was the very image of those aristocratic Persian beauties who walk with high-held heads through the court of the caliph. She not only looked the part, she had dressed it. I had been at pains to examine things more closely, as Dabir had taught me, thus I observed that the sleeves of her white gown were minutely frayed and the downward-pointing red flowers embroidered upon it somewhat faded. Likely they had been purchased from the castoffs of a real noblewoman, but they were certainly convincing enough to fool a boy. Even her movements were practiced, from her graceful entry to her dignified consideration of the room as she probably checked for our most expensive items. In those days, most of our mementos—displayed in niches Dabir had ordered built into our south wall—were peculiar rather than valuable, like the false efreet head and the mummified lion’s paw, so it was not long before her gaze dropped to us.
Here I momentarily forgot my suspicions, and I would challenge any man who ever saw Najya’s eyes to swear they were not arrested by them. Orange-brown ornaments, they were, that sparkled above her thin veil. Two perfect eyebrows arched above them, black like the long straight hair that crowned her more regally than jewels. She was no common thief.
We climbed to our feet. “Welcome,” Dabir told our visitor. “Please be seated, and take your ease. Rami has told us that you need help. Buthayna, please join us.” He gestured the cook to a nearby cushion.
Buthayna lowered herself slowly to the bare floor beyond the rug, as though determined to set an example of servile propriety.
I carefully pushed the shatranj bo...
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