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Darkness Before the Dawn, The - Ryan Hughes

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Darkness Before the Dawn, The - Ryan Hughes

    The Darkness Before the Dawn

    Chronicles of Athas

     Book Two

    Ryan Hughes

    First Printing: February 1995 Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 94-60838ISBN: 0-7869-0104-7

    Table of Contents Dedication

    Chapter One

    Chapter Two

    Chapter Three

    Chapter Four

    Chapter Five

    Chapter Six

    Chapter Seven

    Chapter Eight

    Chapter Nine

    Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve About the Author

For the Thursday night brainstorming gang with special thanks to Steve and Chris York for the

piles of bones.

    Chapter One

    The air was thick with the smell of burning caravan. The enormous house-sized wagon had met itsend in the deep desert, and wood, leather, dead bodies, and anything else not valuable enoughto carry away now joined together in a crackling bonfire. Athas’s coppery sun, slipping behindthe western horizon, tinted the roiling column of smoke bloody red, sending a signal acrossdozens of miles of desert: Here there be death.

    The fifty or so Jura-Dai elves who cavorted before the flaming wreckage of the enormous woodenmerchant wagon didn’t seem to care. Their brightly colored cloaks and shirts and loose, blousypants flapped gaily as they spun and danced in the flickering light, and their voices rose inlaughter and song. Of course, they were the victors. The losers—slave runners who had made themistake of taking one of the tribe captive—were inside the caravan, the smoke of their fleshand bones adding to the wagon’s in a single enormous funeral pyre. The few who hadn’t died inbattle had been driven along with the slaves the elves had freed out into the desert to fendfor themselves.

    Jedra, a half-elf who had been imprisoned along with the Jura-Dai tribesman, watched the partyfrom partway up the flank of a nearby dune. He could feel the heat of the flames on his faceeven there, but he was out of the elves’ way. That seemed safest, even though he and the humanwoman, Kayan, had been invited to travel through the desert with the tribe in repayment fortheir help in psionically guiding the rescue.

    Kayan sat beside him on the dune, her elbows on her knees and her rounded chin resting in herhands. The ends of her brown hair shifted in the breeze, but after eight days in the hold ofthe slave wagon the shoulder-length strands were too sweaty and greasy to be lifted much by amere air current. Her skin was smudged with dirt and soot as well, but Jedra didn’t care. Theyshared a bond much deeper than the mere physical; he had only to close his eyes to see howbeautiful she was.

    “The elves certainly seem uninhibited,” she said.

    Below, some of the elven warriors stood only a few feet from the flames, their backs to thewatchers on the dune, but from their stance it was obvious that they were urinating on thefire. Or trying to. The rest of the tribe—women and children as well—were cheering andheckling as first one man, then another, leaped back from the intense heat before he couldaccomplish the job. A few of the more inebriated managed weak trickles before they, too, wereforced back, finally leaving a single warrior standing before the burning wagon. He was tall,and burly for an elf. His only clothing was a pair of bright red pants, and his glistening backrippled with muscle as he calmly went about his business, then buttoned his pants and turnedaround to receive riotous applause. Jedra noticed with chagrin that the elf had more hair onhis chest than he himself did. Half-human ancestry evidently didn’t give him the advantageeven there.

    “He’s one of the ones who freed us,” Jedra said. “He fought all the way through the caravanto the slave hold. I guess he’s entitled to cut loose a little.”

    “Mmm-hmm.”

    The elves had appropriated a haunch of meat from the wagon before torching it. It looked likeeither a leg of mekillot or maybe a whole ink; whichever it was, they had tied it on a spit andwere slowly roasting it beside the fire.

    The champion elf was impatient, though. He swaggered over to the meat and carved off a fist-sized hunk of it with his sword, then skewered the flesh on the end of the blade and held itcloser to the flame. Jedra winced. He could almost feel the heat curling the hair on the elf’sarm.

    Almost? Suddenly he realized that he was feeling it. His wild psionic talent had linked him

    empathically with the elf, and Jedra was feeling the other man’s pain. He hastily brokecontact. The elf suddenly jerked his hand back as his own mind bore the entire sensation again,and the other elves laughed. Fortunately nobody—not even the warrior—suspected Jedra’s role

    in his embarrassment. Jedra vowed to keep a tighter rein on his talent, though. He had knownfor only a few days that he had any psionic ability at all, and he was still learning how touse it. He could get himself into trouble very easily if he wasn’t careful.

    The breeze shifted, and the aroma of cooking meat drifted across the dune. Kayan’s stomachrumbled. She smiled and patted herself on the bare skin between her halter top and breechcloth.“I could certainly use a few bites of that,” she said.

    Jedra nodded. “Me, too. That slop they served us in the wagon was even less than I used to geton the streets in Urik.”

    “It was far less than what a templar’s assistant eats,” Kayan said, a note of sadness in hervoice. Her former life had gone up in flames as surely as the caravan before her. Born into anoble’s household, she had become a psionic healer for the templars, a position she’d helduntil she crossed someone in power. Overnight she’d found herself in the hold of a slave wagonbound for Tyr. The elves had rescued her from that fate, but even so she would no longer eatgood meals every day, nor live in a spacious apartment near the sorcerer-king’s palace, norhelp control the resources of an entire city.

    Jedra’s life had changed also, but not to the same extent. He had been one of link’s myriadstreet people before he had been enslaved; he had always foraged for his meals and shelter.Here in the desert both were more scarce, but even that would not be true tonight.

    Standing, he said, “I think we should take the elves up on their offer before they decide towithdraw it.”

    Kayan held out a hand for him to help her to her feet. “Yes,” she said, brushing the sand offher breechcloth, “I suppose even associating with boisterous elves is better than starving todeath.”

    They descended the sandy slope hand-in-hand, using one another for support, obviously notaccustomed to desert travel. The loose sand rubbed uncomfortably between their sandal strapsand their feet, and Kayan kept stopping to shake it out. It wasn’t so bad when they reachedlevel ground.

    They approached the party with caution. They had watched the elves chase away other survivorsfrom the caravan when they drew too close. Even with their invitation, they weren’t sure howthey would be received. They were right to be cautious; the elves looked at them suspiciouslyand whispered among themselves in their own language, and three warriors—one with a sword andtwo with longbows held ready—moved to intercept them. Before the warriors reached them,however, Galar, the elf who had been enslaved with them, spotted them and held out his arms,saying in the common tongue, “Aha, my friends, you have decided to join our celebration!”

    “We don’t want to intrude,” Jedra said diplomatically, “but the smell of food has overcomeus.”

    “Intrude! Impossible!” Galar spoke loudly for all to hear. Shaking his head until hisreddish-blond hair fell into his eyes and had to be shaken out again, he said, “It was you wholed the tribe to us, and who fought the slave master with your minds. Without your psionictalent I would still be in the slave hold, another day closer to Tyr, and the Jura-Dai wouldstill thirst for their revenge. You cannot intrude upon a celebration held in your honor.” Hereached down for Kayan’s arm and led her into the midst of the elves, calling out, “Let’sshow our friends the hospitality of the Jura-Dai. A pint of mead for each of them, and the bestcut from the roast. And if we don’t hear a song about their exploits by the end of the feast,I’ll have the bard’s head on a pike!”

    Galar’s enthusiasm amused the other elves—save for the bard, whose eyes bulged as he realizedhe now had to come up with an amusing ditty or face the taunts of his drunken tribe. Jedracaught his eye and shrugged in silent apology for his inconvenience, but the bard didn’t lookmollified.

    Jedra didn’t have time to worry; within seconds a smiling elf maiden shoved a mug of mead intohis hands, slopping a fourth of it over his forearm in the process, and Galar led him on toward

    the crowd gathered near the cooking spit. Jedra’s mouth watered at the wonderful aroma thatwafted from the dripping carcass. Inix, it looked like from his closer vantage.

    The warrior who had been roasting his own meat had taken refuge behind a shield and edged upclose to the burning wagon. The gobbet of steak impaled on his sword hissed and sputtered inthe flame, and the warrior would occasionally pull it back to take a bite from it beforethrusting it out into the fire again. He scowled when he noticed Jedra watching him, untilJedra raised his mug in toast to his benefactor. Then the elf nodded curtly and turned back tohis show of bravado.

    “That’s Sahalik,” Galar said softly as he led them onward. “He’s our best warrior, andnext in line to be chief.”

    Jedra glanced over at the current chief, a battle-scarred elf a foot shorter than Sahalik andthirty pounds lighter. He walked with a limp and his face bore a haunted look, as if he knewhis time was almost up. “Ah,” Jedra said, unwilling to gamble on a more informative reply.

    What’s Sahalik’s problem? Kayan mindsent to Jedra.

    Elves don’t like half-elves, he sent back, trying not to speak aloud at the same time. He wasstill unused to their mental rapport. They think we’re impure.

     Kayan sent. Then she shrugged. Oh, great,Well, at least I don’t have to worry about the men

    here, then.

    Jedra laughed. Where do you think half-elves come from? Elves don’t mind associating withhuman women, so long as the humans don’t expect their children to be accepted by the tribe.

    Oh.