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more fic for a fandom of 5.

A Spark in Drought
by Branwyn

fandom: Mary Russell
pairing: Russell/Mahmoud
setting: Justice Hall
notes: Sequel to my other R/M story, "A Thousand Times"


...I wanted only to die, moon-dark, blessed,

Poised beneath the driest arrows of my suffering,
Far from the flocks of burning, singing gulls,
Face to face with the God of my childhood.

Noelle Kocot


Sometimes, Marsh wonders whether Mary and Holmes would have married if Holmes had lived. She has hardly spoken his name half a dozen times during the five years since his death, but Marsh doesn't take that to mean she doesn't think of him. In Palestine at night, when he keeps watch, he sometimes hears her talk in her sleep. He knows that Mary feels and thinks much that she does not say.

He never knew, for instance, that she was friends with Peter Wimsey, until the man turned up, her invited guest, to Justice Hall, two weeks after she and Ali followed him to England. For what futile purpose she is here, or Wimsey, or any of them, Marsh doesn't care to reflect. He is becoming skilled in the art of pushing unwanted thoughts from his mind before they have a chance to take root. The drinking helps with that.

Some facts, however, can't seem to be gotten over even with total drunkenness. Not even unconsciousness is a remedy for his dreams, where the desert wind beats against the sides of his tent, and the call to prayer wakes him in the dark of night. It doesn't help him to forget that he is marooned here on this damp, foggy island, all escape cut off, as surely as though all the oceans between England and Palestine had dried, leaving immense dark canyons behind. And it doesn't blind him to the keen way Peter Wimsey watches Mary from across the dinner table, his eyes alight with curiosity, the corners of his mouth turned up, smiling like a cat smiles.

Marsh cannot tell if she is returning Wimsey's looks. Even if she welcomed them, she would never look back at him so keenly. She is no longer the disputatious girl of eighteen who took her first steps in Palestine stumbling. The desert has darkened her skin, lightened her hair, and stolen most of her words. Peter Wimsey knew her in another lifetime. Perhaps he only looks at her now because he is searching for a hint of her old self. But then, perhaps, he would not smile so much.

All at once, Marsh can bear no more. If he is indeed anchored to this place, then he is the Duke of Beauville, and he will do as he pleases. He pushes back from the table; his guests, and his sister, look at him, confused, while Ali and Mary tense automatically, from habit.

"Don't mind me," he says. "Not feeling well. Carry on."

Silence fills the hall behind him as he strides toward the door. Just before he slips outside he hears conversation resume, Sydney taking over his duties as host. He pauses a moment, wondering if he should wait in case Mary or Ali come to join him. But he can't think what he would say if they did, so he walks on.


He walks out to the gardens at the back of the house and lights the cigar he took from the box over the mantle in the study. He doesn't hear Mary's footsteps behind him until she is near enough to plunge a knife into his back. He wonders if she can tell how insensible he has grown, as though being here in England has caused moss to grow over the instincts that served him in Palestine. Probably she would say it was only the drink. Probably she would be right.

"A fine night," he says meaninglessly, to stave off whatever speech she has planned for him.

"I have seen finer," she says, and sits on a bench behind him. He turns and stands facing her. She is wearing an evening dress of red silk, a garment which, on her, is far more exotic than the eastern clothing she is accustomed to wearing. She plays the boy, more often than not, but sometimes when a woman's role is needed she is his sister, once his wife. He had dressed her in a caftan of silk and gold bangles and Ali had laughed until tears streamed down his face. She had blushed, for reasons that eluded him at the time, but she had looked very becoming. Strange, to remember that now.

"Why is Peter Wimsey here?" he says. He is more interested in the answer than he wishes to convey.

"To help us investigate Gabriel's death," she tells him flatly.

He knew this without being told, but somehow hearing her say it is a different thing. Anger flares in his chest. He takes a step toward her. "I don't want my affairs made known to a stranger."

"He is not a stranger to me," says Mary.

Marsh feels his face twist into a sneer, and without thinking he mutters an aphorism in Arabic about the looseness of women in foreign lands. Mary strikes his face, not a lady's slap, but as hard a blow as Ali might deal him under the circumstances, and just as clean, with no tears following. He flinches backward by a step and drops the cigar.

"What's wrong with you?" she demands, her voice harsh.

"I don't want him in my house," he says, his own voice rough. "I don't need to watch him watching you in addition to everything else."

"My God." Mary becomes still for a moment and looks at him with open content. "Have you really become such a fool?"


"Do you intend to divorce Iris, Mahmoud?" she inquires in a high, biting voice, her sardonic tone calling Holmes to mind more vividly than anything had in years. "It's true, she would never consent to be your companion in martrydom. Perhaps you think I could bear what she could not, and spent the next ten years watching you die by inches?"

She spins on her heel and begins to stalk away from him. Without thinking, Marsh leaps forward, takes hold of her arm, and pulls her back to him. He catches her other arm with his free hand and bends his head to kiss her. For several heartbeats she is still as stone beneath him. Then her hands come to rest on the sides of his head, and she holds him with a fierce, warm grip, kissing him back with a singlemindedness that makes him wonder if she is trying to breathe life back into the part of him that is dying in this place.

When they break apart, he sees that she is crying, her cheeks and eyelashes damp. Her hand rests on his shoulder a moment, then falls to her side.

"There is a man called Mahmoud Hazr. He travels with his brother Ali and a boy, Amir, who is learning from him to be a scribe. He has earned the right to ask whatever he wants of me."

She turns and walks quickly back into the house. Marsh watches her go. Head to foot, he is burning, and the pain is the first proof he's had in months that he is alive all the way through.

He goes to bed that night contemplating the emptiness of the desert, large enough to swallow the emptiness in a man and make it something new.




( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 1st, 2009 01:50 am (UTC)
It's been a while since I've read any of the Russell stories, but I do admire your having depth with an economy of words.

One thing you might like to change, however, is the frontspiece poem. If this is a fic set in the 1920s, then something contemporary to the time or before-- like how you chose the Rumi poem-- would be a better choice, I think.
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you. Regarding the poem, however, I feel that finding a poem that expresses what you might call a foundational sentiment for the story I'm writing it more important than find a poem contemporaneous with the period the story is set in.
Jun. 1st, 2009 04:51 pm (UTC)
Lovely and sad. I'm glad you wrote more. It's an interesting AU, and you've treated it concisely and beautifully.
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:27 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I just finished rereading O Jerusalem and found myself amused by Laurie's blatant Lawrence fangirling. It was more blatant than I remembered.
Jun. 4th, 2009 04:34 pm (UTC)
Ah, yes. Though as a huge fangirl myself, I could not find it in my heart to begrudge her the bits with Lawrence in them.

The parts that seemed too obviously cribbed from the film, however...
Jun. 4th, 2009 11:08 pm (UTC)
you mean like how the whole plot is basically her taking revenge on the villain from the movie? it's among her weaker plots, no doubt.
Jun. 5th, 2009 12:14 am (UTC)
Yessssss. That would be it.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 4th, 2009 02:34 pm (UTC)
Thank you. :-)
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )