This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Child death
The narrators of histories and tellers of tales relate that, in the God-guarded town of Qalati Zabel, there was once a holy woman with a mind to rebel.
Her name was Bibi Siti, and she had come to Zabel from her native country to the west. Some believe she was a descendant of the beloved Prophet; others, the daughter of a fallen Persian king. They say she was fleeing a band of Mongol soldiers—the same troops that had seized not only her homeland but half the world—when the heartbroken earth opened up and swallowed her whole. The next she appeared was among the windswept walls and dust-kissed gardens of Zabel.
Now, at the time, Zabel was a true rarity: a place free from the Mongol emperor’s rule. Its king, Darwesh Ali, had cast off the ravaging shackles of foreign domination by seeking help from a dragon. People cheered him and blessed his name until the dragon’s shadow fell across their own homes. When they approached Darwesh Ali with seared hearts, he shut his eyes and ordered the fort’s sandstone walls be expanded. This had been the bargain, after all—and were not a few stray deaths better than bowing to the Great Khan?
It was in this bruised and hamstrung age that Bibi Siti came to Zabel. Her joy at living free of the Mongols curdled upon seeing the bloody robes of shepherds, the charred bones of schoolchildren, the ground forever swelling with new graves. People sighed and cursed. Some murmured about the Ghayib Mahdi, who would emerge from hiding at the end of time to cast down every tyrant. But Bibi Siti refused to wait that long.
Instead of openly unfurling the banner of revolt, Bibi Siti spread her message in secret. Sometimes she debated scholars sitting upon silk-corded charpoys. Sometimes she delivered lectures sharper than Damascus steel from behind a latticed screen. Sometimes she murmured truths to women out drawing water at dawn. Sometimes she passed hours among gimlet-eyed grandmothers squatting next to the public tandoors. Her message to all of them was the same:
“Darwesh Ali robs you of your daily bread to expand his wall. He raises his tribe above all others, in fear of his own subjects. He lets a beast prey upon the flock he is sworn to protect. He is making a Hell of this country.
“Make of it a Paradise instead.”
No one can say how Darwesh Ali came to know of Bibi Siti’s rabble-rousing. Many believe he was a sorcerer who gleaned news from Zabel’s pigeons, but such noble creatures would never have betrayed her. Only a human being could have given up Bibi Siti. She was speaking at the shrine of Mubarak Qadam when the king’s men burst into the courtyard.
Bibi Siti did not even have time to wrap herself in her tsadar. She leapt up from her spot and, nimble as a Meccan deer, bolted into the shrine’s main hall. The baying soldiers were hard on her heels. The startled worshippers flapped about, slowing the soldiers without meaning to—save for a girl named Zareen Taj, who quite purposefully tripped a bellowing captain.
Now, in the hall was a stone where the hoofprints of the Holy Prophet’s camel could still be seen. Marking the stone was a somewhat tattered flag: a red pennant of a Turki weave stitched with crisscrossing black patterns. As the troops closed in, Bibi Siti uttered a prayer and snatched up the pennant, wrapping herself in its folds.
The troops burst inside to find the hall empty. Not satisfied, they ransacked the holy place, smashing the cedarwood cases, spilling unbound pages underfoot, even beating the caretaker. One of the soldiers grabbed the limp flag and, with a frustrated shout, tossed it to the floor. There had been nothing in his hands save some fabric. Of Bibi Siti there was no sign.
They say Bibi Siti eventually perished during the conquests of the accursed Taimur in 1383. Her story has been recounted in the Memorial of Lovers and Knowers and other trustworthy books. But one thread in the tapestry of her tale is less well-known.
It is said that when Bibi Siti wrapped herself in the pennant, the cloth was soaked by her blessed sweat and warmed by the prayers she breathed into it. Overflowing with her wild graces, the pennant pledged itself to the same way of truth and righteousness, out of adoration for the saint who had held it close.
In the chaos that followed Bibi Siti’s escape, the pennant felt the air stirring with the last winds of summer, rolling warm over the near hills. It surrendered to that gust, letting itself be blown toward the shrine’s courtyard and then out into the streets, ready to make of the country a Paradise.
Such were the auspicious beginnings of Khaja Bairaq, pennant-saint of Zabel.
Following the raid, Zareen Taj fled to her friend Fatima’s house and did not come out for a week. There was no telling if someone had given her name to the king’s men. There was no one in her own home to worry about her, anyway. Her husband had become mortar for Darwesh Ali’s wall, entombed there after he protested the king’s corvée. She slept through the days, her dreams stained by hungry fears. In the nights, she stole onto the rooftop with an old sword lifted from beside Fatima’s grandfather’s pallet. There she sparred with the firmament, slashing at Canopus, dancing away from moon-cast shadows. Zareen Taj dreamed better with her eyes open.
In Zareen Taj’s abandoned home was a folded taweez given to her on her wedding night. Though she could not read, her husband had recited the verses scrawled upon it with warmth enough to melt bones. After his death, she had passed hours staring at the cinnabar letters flowing across that creased Khujandi paper, remembering the slow lilt of his voice. In hiding, the heart of Zareen Taj became a meadow chewed up by the gazelles of longing. One afternoon she decided to chance returning home, only for a moment, to retrieve the beloved talisman.
As she approached her blue-painted door, Zareen Taj felt the shapes of men closing in from the street corner. Gritting her teeth, she tore her heartstrings free of home and ran for it. The air thickened with angry commands and the drumbeat of soldiers’ boots. Sweat stung Zareen Taj’s eyes and terror churned her innards. She took a wrong turn toward what she recognized, too late, to be a dead end.
Her gaze caught on a peculiar sight: a red cloth stitched with black patterns, hanging from the doorway of the neighborhood’s ruined dovecote. The squat tower had been burnt by the Mongols during their conquest. The neighbors had never rebuilt it, for the air inside still echoed with evil voices. Yet what choice was there? Muttering the Kalima Taiba, Zareen Taj pulled the cloth aside and ran in—only to find herself emerging onto a sunlit corner of the Crossroads Bazaar, in the Old Quarter, not far from Fatima’s house.
Back in her old neighborhood, soldiers rounded the corner and stared wide-eyed at the empty lane. They checked the rooftops and scoured the ruined dovecote, all in vain: there was no trace of the fleeing girl.
Hanging in the ruin’s doorway, Khaja Bairaq rippled with pride. The soldiers’ bewilderment was sweeter than birdsong. Let their hearts quiver! There was cause for it. For all their hard cuirasses and sharp Tatar blades, keen enough to cut water, they were only creatures.
It occurred to Khaja Bairaq that Darwesh Ali’s men would do well to remember that fact. Their leather carapaces, the stone ramparts, and the unseen wingbeats fouling the air had tricked them into a sense of superiority. Peace could only return to Zabel if they were made aware of their fragile true natures.
Still milling about, Darwesh Ali’s soldiers did not notice an old red cloth peeling away from the dovecote and fluttering down the alleyway.
In the belly of night, Zareen Taj took Fatima aside and told her an extraordinary story about a pennant.
Hearts were rent in the Old Quarter by news of the mufti’s ruling. Draped across the mudbrick wall of a café, Khaja Bairaq listened to the people discussing it by lamplight:
“May God have no mercy on a man who robs us of our roofs!”
“By what right does he order our houses destroyed, houses that suffered the Mongols and still stayed standing?”
“I’ve never heard a revelation from God or saying of the Prophet that lets a king turn people out to expand his own walls.”
“It’s written in the Quran to ‘Obey God and the Prophet and the people in authority among you.’”
“It’s true: the duty of people is to endure their kings. Justice comes in the next world.”
“How easy it is for people to speak of the next world’s justice when it is not their roof coming down atop their heads!”
“I’m no fool, I know my roof might come down tomorrow; but keep talking like that, and Darwesh Ali’s men will certainly come tonight.”
“These are the signs of the Apocalypse.”
“Let it be so: then perhaps the Ghayib Mahdi will appear and put an end to this king.”
“Yes, but what are we supposed to do until then?”
The talk ran long, and the evening breathed a gentle wind. The smoke wafting atop the water-pipes’ embers bowed before it. It was a subtle breeze, typical of late autumn, yet the red hanging on the café’s wall suddenly came undone. Khaja Bairaq took flight in silence, a falcon loosed by an unseen huntsman. Eyes noted the incident but few hearts perceived its reality.
It happened that the mufti who deemed the king’s decree lawful was working in his sitting room. The decision had not been an easy one. Announcing it had robbed the sleep from his eyes and badly upset his stomach. The mufti reminded himself that he had done the right thing. He had been studying the law since boyhood, listening to scholars debate at the mosque while he lit its lamps and swept its floors, dreaming of one day sitting among them. Everything he knew pointed toward the principle that the object of the law is the common good. The king’s safety was the highest common good, was it not? Without a king above the people, the strong would devour the weak: so said the Prophet, peace be upon him. The king’s safety mattered most. There had been evil mutterings of late. The expansion of the wall was necessary. Necessity makes lawful what is forbidden: it was a firmly established principle.
The mufti bent further over his page. He was working not on a legal treatise but his true passion: prosody. He hoped one day to leave behind this gut-roiling business of jurisprudence and sit in the mosque of his boyhood, teaching what truly mattered to his young sons and daughters, asleep that very moment in their second-story rooms.
It was those children who found the mufti’s body at dawn, a red cloth knotted about his throat, its edge drenched in spilled ink.
Other incidents followed in swift succession. A police chief fell from the observatory’s rooftop after a red pennant flew into his face and blinded him. In the outlying districts, a corrupt tax-collector was found hanging from a mulberry tree, caught by a similar sort of cloth. The stories flitted from mouth to mouth, reaching Zareen Taj in the marketplace. She did not fail to remember what she herself had experienced. On Fatima’s rooftop, in the public bath, at the poor-kitchens of shrines, she recounted the red pennant’s miracles to a slowly growing audience—and urged them to ready their own banners.
The reports reached Darwesh Ali as well, sealed in his stony fort behind iron-barred planks of cedarwood. He banished his guards and stepped off his cushioned marble throne, spreading the ratty reed-woven prayer mat he had carried with him since his rebellion against the Mongols. His father had been a landless farmer, and he had not grown up expecting to be more. He had revolted only after the Great Khan’s messengers had lashed his father for not moving swiftly enough out of the road, crippling the old man. Darwesh Ali had sworn to do anything to keep his country free of their cruel rule. Anything, including using the Mongols’ own tactics.
When the Mongol armies had first come to Zabel, they tore its walls to pieces, burned the fields, and piled the resisting soldiers’ heads into a gruesome tower. When word of the town’s fate trickled into the countryside, the neighboring villages and towns sent tribute to the Great Khan without breathing dissent. In such a way were many innocents spared.
Darwesh Ali bent himself on his prayer mat for two days, trying to ignore the way the reeds splintered across his brow. Then, with reddened eyes, he rose to give his command. He could almost feel his heart’s blood filling his mouth as he spoke it.
On the next day the village of Qalandargai was blotted out from the page of worldly existence. There was no one left from it to bear witness to what had happened, but everyone knew. Even if they themselves had not seen the column of flame spearing the houses, they could read the truth in the ashes readily enough. There was not enough left of Qalandargai’s inhabitants for the stomachs of dogs and the gizzards of crows.
A few hearts flared with anger. In the eyes of many others, freshly-kindled hopes went dark. Upon a quiet rooftop in Zabel, Fatima held Zareen Taj in her arms as the latter shook. A pennant tumbling rogue against the constellations watched them and sorrowed.
Khaja Bairaq floated listlessly down the Arghandab River, soaked in confusion. Its efforts to bring peace to Zabel had come to naught. Criminals had been brought down, true, but how could any of it be worth what had befallen the innocent? Yet was one to do nothing before a tyrannical king? There were no answers in Zabel, where the sun-drenched walls all turned to gold in the moment before sunset. Gorgeous Zabel, where a handful of leaves clung to the earth and called themselves a garden. Zabel had broken Khaja Bairaq’s heart. There was no course but to travel to the House of God in faraway Mecca and beg for answers at the angels’ threshold.
As Khaja Bairaq drifted, it became aware of the sounds of prayer coming from above. In the air nearby, a number of djinns were circumambulating a certain spot. Khaja Bairaq snagged on the riverbank and, when it was dry enough, flew up to ask the djinns what they were doing. The djinns replied that they were paying respects to a great saint living in the town below. The saint was called Khatakay Baba, and the town Kandahar.
Now this Khatakay Baba, as can be inferred from the name, was a petrified melon. The story goes that one day, the Holy Prophet’s son-in-law, Hazrat Ali, had visited Kandahar to try its famous fruits. However, the season was late and there was only one good melon left. Hazrat Ali had only taken one bite before his treacherous enemies, who had been hounding him for years, appeared on the horizon. Hazrat Ali had been forced to flee, but before doing so, he turned the once-bitten melon to stone, so as to deprive his foes of the joys of Kandahar’s fruits. The same melon became Khatakay Baba, one of the greatest friends of God known to history.
Not wishing to be rude, Khaja Bairaq flew down to Khatakay Baba’s perch. The two embraced and exchanged warm greetings. Khatakay Baba, who rarely managed to get out of Kandahar, grew excited at meeting someone from another country, asking about the land of Zabel and its state. Khaja Bairaq deflected with questions about Kandahar which Khatakay Baba was happy to answer. For a long time they spoke of the latter’s town: what the waterfowl gossiped about on the riverbanks, the purpling of the mountains at sunset, the varieties of chintzes sold in the markets, the singing of the Hindu bankers during Diwali, the ragged quiet after the Shia processions every new year, the malangs calling for alms outside the shrines, the stray dogs walking calm through the streets.
But Khaja Bairaq could not deceive a saint so mighty as Khatakay Baba for long. The latter could sense the threads of sadness shot through its guest’s being. Eventually, after a polite span of conversation, Khatakay Baba broached the matter.
“My friend,” Khatakay Baba said, “I can tell there is some secret troubling your being.”
“I have lost the way,” Khaja Bairaq admitted, explaining the situation.
Khatakay Baba stayed silent for a while, and then said: “I too have often felt this pain. The Mongol king who rules in this land reaches for everything he can grasp. He has even changed the town’s name, though we who remember do not use it. Yet how many like him have I seen go before, and how many will come after? This is merely the way of things: the decree of the One King against which there is no resistance and no appeal.”
“I cannot accept that. Why should we yield the world to tyrants when all might live at ease in it?”
“Even if this king of yours falls, my friend, another will someday rise in his stead. I have learned this by sitting in place for centuries. You will learn it by soaring across the seven climes. It makes no difference in the end. This is as it has been and always will be.”
“Yet you yourself continue healing the sick, helping the impotent and infertile conceive, interceding for rain when the farmers’ lips crack with thirst. You are not so aloof as you claim.”
“I do not meddle in the affairs of kingship.”
“Yet you do meddle,” Khaja Bairaq insisted.
“It is different. Kings are different creatures.”
“They are only creatures, like any others.”
Khatakay Baba was troubled. Clearly Khaja Bairaq was not going to leave the matter be. There was only one person who might help the restless pennant find relief. Khatakay Baba had never spoken of that person before, for it was not supposed to be done until Judgment Day was burning upon the horizons; but Khaja Bairaq’s need was great.
Quietly, so quietly that even the dust motes hanging between them did not notice, Khatakay Baba told Khaja Bairaq where to find the Ghayib Mahdi.
Few know that the Sulaiman Mountains, that ancient range where prophets once sang, where humanity sprang up anew after the Flood, where there will be refuge at the end of time, are hollow.
It was the Prophet Solomon himself, whose name the mountains proudly bore, who made them so. By his command the men and djinns of his army carved out great corridors and halls underground, strengthening them with pillars and adorning them with the delights of the world. It was for this purpose and this alone that the Prophet Solomon was granted dominion over the seen and Unseen worlds: to leave these mountains thus veined with passageways. He looked out over his servants for the forty days of their labor, leaning on his staff. On the forty-first, as the sun rose over the completed work, his spirit departed from the caravanserai of his ephemeral body.
One evening among the evenings, the nightingales of the Sulaiman Mountains observed a stray red pennant whispering along the olive groves. The cloth was ragged at the edges, ink-stained and slightly torn. The pennant approached a narrow cave which most creatures in the mountains shunned. It caught itself on a bough, hesitating. Then, as the winter wind bit at the vale, the pennant whispered free and vanished into the cave.
Khaja Bairaq followed the passageway deeper and deeper, guided by the rivulets of melted gold. It passed the abodes of demons older than humanity and through a gloom that had never known any light. Down through pearl-studded sandalwood arches, below ever-burning fires caged in white jade, between iron hoops still thrumming from the blows of an ancient blacksmith’s hammer, the red pennant plummeted toward the heart of the world.
For days, Khaja Bairaq traveled under the Sulaiman Mountains, emerging at last into a cavern aglow with the light of one hundred twenty-four thousand forges. Its length was that of a sprawling city, its shadowed ceiling a full day’s journey away. Next to each forge was a metalsmith at work and a host of warriors in training. The warriors were mounted upon swift-legged mares which only the wind itself could have birthed. Their helms were damasked with kings’ ransoms in gold; at their waists hung sabers sharp as lovers’ dreams.
Khaja Bairaq fluttered in near silence down the length of the hall. The soldiers below barely heeded the pennant’s passing. They marched about and wheeled their steeds and kept their eyes fixed on the war for which they were meant, the last war that would ever be. Khaja Bairaq considered them more keenly, only looking away as the hall’s end came into view.
There was a sheepskin rug spread on the rough stone, cut long ago from the back of a golden ewe outside the sanctuary of Illumined Medina, where a scrap of Paradise had fallen to earth from the angels’ workshop. The forty glass lamps set around it, shaped like tears, burned with oil from blessed olives picked from outside Adinapur. Upon the rug sat an aging man in a patched woolen robe, counting prayer beads. He looked up at Khaja Bairaq’s approach.
“Peace unto you,” the Ghayib Mahdi said.
Khaja Bairaq did not reply.
If the Ghayib Mahdi was offended, he did not show it. He was cocooned in a serenity spun from centuries of uttering holy remembrances. “Your good name has preceded you here,” he said to Khaja Bairaq. “It is an honor to host you. If it is a place among this army you seek, it is already yours. Every legion needs its banners, and what banner could be more fitting for ours? Stay, pass the days in worship until the appointed Hour approaches. Be welcome among us.”
Still Khaja Bairaq said nothing. Now the Ghayib Mahdi did frown. He expected more courtesy from any petitioner, and especially one so knowledgeable as Khaja Bairaq.
“How dare you?” Khaja Bairaq said at last, with quiet fury. “How dare you sit down here with your thousands, your swords and horses, your provisions and prayers? Do you not hear the voices above you calling out for the sake of their children, their parents, their neighbors, their flocks, their crops, their lives?”
“We pray for them with each breath we take.”
“And how do your prayers excuse you from coming out to give them succor?”
“If we were to do that, who would be left to guard people at the end of time?”
“Who are you to guard people at the end of time, if you do not ride out now?”
“Remember to whom you are speaking.” The Ghayib Mahdi did not raise his voice as he spoke the reprimand, but he felt something ripple near his spleen, where he had tucked away his spirit.
“I am speaking to a coward.”
A vein in the Ghayib Mahdi’s brow pulsed. “I excuse you only because you are a guest.”
“You think to excuse me,” Khaja Bairaq said, “but will all those suffering even now just above your head ever excuse you?”
“In patient endurance is a blessing and reward.”
“There will be a reward, too, for the evil of refusing to help.”
“I obey the decree which has placed me here.”
“You are disobedience itself, to ignore creatures’ suffering.”
The Ghayib Mahdi came to his feet. His blood burned from Khaja Bairaq’s insolence. When he spoke, his voice was layered with divine promise and threat, edged with prophecy. “For what you have done today, you will feel the touch of Hellfire in this world and the next.”
“How much better that is than being like you,” Khaja Bairaq said, and left.
The wall of Darwesh Ali’s fort devoured half the Old Quarter and was not sated. New decrees flapped from the town criers’ mouths. More houses were to be demolished, more men to be pressed into the corvée. Some found themselves piling the ruins of their own houses onto the king’s swelling ramparts. Those schoolteachers and preachers who protested during Friday congregations were thrown into prison. Their words only convinced Darwesh Ali that his wall needed to be stronger still.
The superintendent of construction shared his king’s sentiments. He had already survived three attempts on his life and was intent on preventing a fourth. Those workers who resisted him were sealed up in the wall. It had not taken him long to see sluggishness as a form of protest. The superintendent was convinced that anyone not working at the right pace was plotting his demise. The hearts of too many men burst in their chests while trying to appease him. It was not enough.
It happened that one day, while the superintendent was surveying the work on his mule, he noticed one of the builders bent double, coughing uncontrollably. A handful of others were standing around him, offering what water they had. The superintendent’s heartbeat drummed as he ordered the men back to work. The builders protested that their friend could not take the dust clouds, that he had been so afflicted since his boyhood. In reply, the superintendent drew his iron-capped club and repeated the command.
The sight of the club snapped the spirit of one of the coughing man’s friends. He raised his hammer without thinking, as if to defend himself. The superintendent was quicker. The club came down on the builder’s arm, splintering bone. The superintendent opened his mouth to give an order. In that moment, a battered red pennant flew into his face, stealing his speech and sight alike.
The wounded man’s companions dragged the superintendent down from his mule and put their feet on his throat. Before Darwesh Ali’s guardsmen could do more than draw their weapons, they were swept into the fray. One of the builders clambered onto the unfinished ramparts and began singing an untimely call to prayer. The sigh of revolt rippled through Zabel.
When the sound of it reached Zareen Taj, she did not hesitate. She drew her borrowed sword and made for the street. Fatima grabbed her arm on the threshold. “Are you certain this the right time?” she said.
“If not now, when?” Zareen Taj answered.
Fatima’s liver was torn up with worries, but she followed Zareen Taj out nonetheless.
From the Old Quarter and the surrounding neighborhoods, men and women trickled toward Darwesh Ali’s unfinished wall. The gap in its length was thick with builders and guards, heaving against one another in waves. It would have been a simple matter for the soldiers to quell the revolt, had they only been directed to do so. But most of the captains hesitated, not wishing to act without Darwesh Ali’s express command, fearing the king’s anger if they did so. So the rebellious builders held on as Zabel’s angry, hopeful hearts raced in to help them.
Some of them came holding banners prepared long ago for such a day: not proper pennants but leather aprons, old shawls, saddle blankets, and whatever else they could find. Seeing the approach of these makeshift flags, the soldiers atop the wall raised their bows, though no orders had come from the fort’s innards. As they loosed, many of the rebels fell before the volleys. Yet amidst the pouring rain of arrows, a peculiar thing also occurred.
It is reported that one of the rebel pennants was a stained, torn red cloth. The men and women gathered beneath it were no better armored than any of the other contingents running toward the fort. Yet when arrows were fired against them, all flew into the ground, or struck each other midflight, or broke against the rebels’ few drawn blades. This group of rebels made the gap in Darwesh Ali’s wall and pushed deep into the melee.
Among them was Zareen Taj, swinging her blade and shouting to the heavens. She felt the straps of one sandal come undone, the sole flapping against her foot. She kicked it free and forged on, reaching the fort’s courtyard as a thunderclap sounded and a great shape blotted out the sun.
Guards, builders, and rebels all scattered. Though the dragon had never been turned on Zabel before, everyone knew what it could do. The rebels scrambled away, as if there was any shelter against the power brought against them. The soldiers bent behind stone fortifications, looking away.
Zareen Taj stood stunned in the courtyard. She had never before seen the fort itself: the gentle swoop of its arches, the ivy tumbling across its doors. She could not accept that they had at last reached its gates only to be faced with this fate. Her spirits spiraled into the depths of her rib cage even as she raised her sword. Fatima grabbed her hand and tugged once, as if asking a question. When Zareen Taj did not move, Fatima tightened her grip and stood fast.
The dragon landed before the two girls. Its vast wings were stitched of shadows, its eyes twin embers from a giant’s forge. There was fire cradled in its maw. The dragon looked down at Zareen Taj and Fatima with the expression of a being that had long ago forgotten both hunger and fear. It did not bear Zabel’s people any particular grudge. It had gone there simply to keep itself well-fed. Darwesh Ali had been the most hospitable of hosts. The dragon would repay his kindness and keep him safe. So it bent its head toward the two girls and, with utter dispassion, spilled out its flame. It did not see the tattered old cloth flutter atop them from above, slipping between the fire and the girls’ heads.
Zareen Taj opened her eyes to find herself still alive. In place of the fire’s teeth, she had felt only an embrace: gentle and warm, and somehow familiar. Later, whenever she would tell the story, she would often add: “It was like being held by someone who loved me.”
When the dragon’s fire ran out, in place of two charred corpses, it beheld Zareen Taj and Fatima standing safe before it. The air was filled with smoldering pieces of red fabric. The dragon, shocked by what it saw, hesitated for a moment. A fleeting moment, but one long enough for Zareen Taj to leap forward and plunge her sword into the dragon’s eye.
For ages after, the people of Zabel would speak of how at dusk, in the ruins of the old fort, it was still possible to glimpse a black serpent with only one burning eye, reduced to this humbled form by the stroke of Zareen Taj’s sword. They would bless her name, and that of brave Bibi Fatima, and those of all the other wondrous spirits who bloomed in their time, who overthrew the unfortunate Darwesh Ali and swept fear from people’s hearts. Few today know to add the name of Khaja Bairaq.
They do not remember, as they should, that as the dragon collapsed before her, Zareen Taj was not looking at it. She gazed instead at the red scraps drifting in the warm spring breeze. She reached out for one of them with a child’s reverence. Even as her fingers brushed the burning cloth, it turned to ash and was scattered to the winds.
Thus ends the miraculous account of Khaja Bairaq, pennant-saint of Zabel—though God knows best.