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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.

    “What do you find funny?” Galar asked, and Jedra realized he had laughed aloud.

    Thinking fast, he said, “Oh, just the sudden reversal of fortune. A week ago I would neverhave guessed I’d be dining with elves by the wreckage of the slave caravan that was taking meto Tyr.”

    A murmur of laughter spread among everyone within earshot, and Galar explained. “You citydwellers expect too much certainty in your lives. We nomads of the desert know that life isharsh and unpredictable. We have learned to deal with each day as it comes to us. We have asaying: ‘Hope for the best, but expect the worst; that way all your surprises will bepleasant.’”

    An elf maiden wrapped in a bright blue cloak added, “We also say, ‘Live for today—tomorrowwill be trouble enough when it arrives.’”

    “Wise counsel,” Jedra said. “I’ll try to remember it while I travel the desert.”

    “Oh, that’s nothing. I could teach you all sorts of things,” she said, batting her eyelashesand thrusting her hips to the side. “I like ’em young and naive.”

    Jedra blushed while the elves laughed, and the woman said, “Come on, honey, let’s get you andyour friend here some food before you faint on us. There’s plenty of night left foreducation.”

    I bet there is, Kayan sent sarcastically. If you touch her, I’ll—

    Don’t worry, Jedra told her. She’s just playing with me. I’ll get away before anythingcomes of it.

    You’d better, Kayan warned.

    Jedra felt a mixture of alarm and security at Kayan’s obvious jealousy. They had known eachother for only a week, and though they’d become close friends while chained side-by-side inthe slave hold, even their mental communion couldn’t guarantee commitment now that they werefree.

    Gratefully, Jedra let the elf woman carve a slice of roast for him from the spitted inix. Foodwould still many tongues, at least for a while. And the woman was right, there was plenty ofnight left. Anything could happen to distract her.

    He watched her prepare the food for him. She laid the slice of meat on a slab of unleavenedbread and smothered it in some kind of shredded, pickled vegetable, then folded the whole worksover and handed it to him, both ends dripping fat and pickle juice. Jedra looked at itdubiously, but when he bit into it he nearly melted.

     he sent to Kayan, then when he’d chewed and swallowed he echoed the sentiment aloud.Wow!

    “This is wonderful!”

    “It should be,” the elf woman said. “It was all headed for Kalak’s table before weappropriated it from the wagon.”

    Jedra shuddered to think that he was robbing Tyr’s powerful sorcerer-king of his dinner, butthen the elven part of him evidently accepted the advice he’d been given and he closed hiseyes and savored the moment. Yes, he enjoyed dining from a king’s larder. With a beautiful ex-templar woman by his side, at that. Things didn’t get much better than this.

    He was wrong. True to his word, after the meal Jedra circulated among the elves, removinghimself and Kayan from the woman who had propositioned him, and presently they heard anothersource of laughter and good spirits among the tents the elves had pitched a hundred feet or sofrom the burning caravan. When they went to investigate they found an incredible sight: theelves were taking baths. The caravan had reached an outpost only a day before it was attacked,so its storage tanks had been full, and since there was more water than the elves could carrywith them they were using two barrels of it for the greatest of luxuries.

    This group had a bit more modesty than the warriors. They had set the water barrels inside twotents, one for men and one for women. Jedra and Kay an braved the elves’ good-natured jibesand joined the lines, and when their turns came they were each given a full minute to climbinto their barrels and soak off the grime of captivity.

    A water vendor had once let Jedra reach an arm all the way to the bottom of a full cask toretrieve a ceramic coin; until now that had been his only experience with immersion. When heuntied his breechcloth and climbed into the barrel, the sensation of cool wetness sliding uphis legs and chest was at once the most alarming and most sensuous thing he had ever felt. Hetook a few seconds to savor the experience, then quickly scrubbed himself with one of thecloths draped over the barrel’s side, ducked his head under and swished his hair around, andclimbed back out again.

    He dripped dry while the next person bathed, all the while marveling at how strange andwonderful his life had become.

* * *

    Kayan smelled of flower blossoms. The women had added perfume to their bathwater, and now everytime Jedra drew close to her he noticed it. He worked up his courage and took her hand whilethey explored the rest of the elf camp.

    Beyond the tents they found post-and-rope pens holding fifteen or twenty kanks, the long,beetlelike creatures the elves used for pack animals. Kanks also produced honey in melon-sizedglobules on their abdomens; when one of them brushed by the edge of the pen Jedra reached outand grabbed a small nectar sack.

    “Here, try some,” he said, squeezing some of the sticky green honey out onto Kayan’s palm.She looked at it dubiously, but when Jedra began licking the sweet fluid from his own fingersand saying “Mmm,” in obvious ecstasy, she gave it a cautious lick.

    “Oh!” she said in surprise. “This is good.”

    “Of course it is,” Jedra said. “I wouldn’t give you anything that wasn’t.”

    “Of course not.” She smiled and took his hand again, and they walked slowly back into camp,eagerly finishing off the rest of the honey like a couple of children.

    As darkness fell and the flames died down the air began to grow colder. The elves all worebrightly colored cloaks that they wrapped around themselves when they began to feel the chill,but Jedra had only his slave-issue breechcloth and Kayan her breechcloth and halter so theyfound themselves drifting back closer to the fire as the night wore on.

    That turned out to be a bad idea. Under the flickering firelight, Kayan’s freshly cleaned anduntanned temple-dweller’s skin shone like a white beacon, and as the only uncovered womanthere, her ample bosom drew every male’s attention. Jedra put his arm around her for warmth,but also to let everyone know they were a couple. Even so, it seemed as if every pair of eyeswere focused on them.

    I think maybe we should try to find a place to settle down for the night, Jedra mindsent to

    her.

    Someplace warm, Kayan sent back. She shivered within the circle of his arm.

    I’ll ask Galar where we can sleep. Jedra scanned the semicircle of faces for their friend,but he was nowhere to be seen. He cast his consciousness outward psionically, and eventuallyfound the elf off in the direction of the tents set up near the slip face of a dune a few dozenpaces from the caravan. He couldn’t sense which tent the elf was in or what he was doing, butthat didn’t matter. Galar? he sent. Sorry to trouble you, but Kayan and I are cold and

    tired. Is there somewhere we can sleep?

    He didn’t expect a reply; his sending talent didn’t include mind reading as well. He knewGalar had heard him, though, so he settled in to wait.

    But the burly elf warrior, Sahalik, found them first. Jedra heard footsteps behind them, then adeep, hearty voice said, “Huddling close to the fire won’t keep you warm for long. Fires burnout—even one as big as this.”

    Jedra turned to see Sahalik standing with his hands on his hips. He, too, had draped a cloakover his shoulders, but he wore it pulled back to expose his hairy chest. The hilt of his swordstood forward at an angle that insured instant readiness, and the pommel glittered in thefirelight.

    “We’re discovering that,” Jedra said. “We’ve asked Galar for a place to—”

    “Galar! Hah, you won’t see him for the rest of the night. He’s got some catching up to do,if you follow my meaning.”

    “Oh,” Jedra said, suddenly embarrassed. Of course Galar had better things to do than lookafter Jedra and Kayan. He was a full member of the tribe; he probably had a lover or even awife here, maybe even a whole family. He had been away longer than just the few days in theslave caravan, too; during their long hours of captivity he had described how he’d been forcedinto the gladiator games in Urik for at least a month, fighting for his life against wildanimals and other gladiators, some willing, some not. If Jedra were in Galar’s place, heprobably wouldn’t surface again for days.

    “Well, then,” Jedra said, “maybe we can ask the same thing of you that we asked of Galar.”

    Sahalik laughed. “Seems to me you turned down the best offer in the camp earlier tonight. Youshould’ve thought of that before it got cold; Rayna’s already found another.” He shifted hiseyes to Kayan and grinned widely. Two of his teeth were missing, one upper and one lower on theright side. “As for you, pretty one, I might be able to find a warm spot for you tonight.”

    “I imagine you could,” Kayan said sarcastically, “but I prefer to stay with Jedra.”

    The elf frowned. “Don’t be so hasty. I’ve got a fine tent all to my own, and a soft—”

    “I said no.” Kayan’s voice cut through the night like a thunderclap. All conversationstopped. In the sudden silence, a burning timber popped, sending a shower of sparks into theair.

    Sahalik stood like a statue, completely taken aback. Evidently no one had ever refused himbefore, at least so publicly. He opened his mouth to speak, but could find no words to say.

    Galar saved them all from further embarrassment. He skidded into the circle of firelight, hisclothes in disarray and his hair sticking out in all directions, and took in the scene in aglance. Then he whirled around and shouted into the darkness, “Where’s that lazy bard? Thenight’s nearly gone. We’ll hear your song now, bard!”

    The rest of the tribe picked up his cue. They cheered and stamped their feet, shouting, “Song!Song!” and eventually the bard stepped into the firelight. He carried a harp under his rightarm, and a sheaf of parchment in his left hand. He looked less worried than when Jedra hadfirst seen him; in fact, now that he was the center of attention he walked with a cocky springto his step and when he spoke his voice was full of mischief.

    “I thought you’d never ask,” he said, waving the parchment. “I’m up to seventy-threeverses now and still have more tale to tell.”

    The elves groaned, and someone yelled, “Save it for the trail tomorrow. Give us the shortversion.”

    The bard shook his head. “Nay, nay, that would slight our guests, and our illustrious Galarwhose misadventures in Urik brought us to this glorious feast. I shall give you the longversion, and make up more as I go along.”

    There was quite a bit of good-natured groaning, and someone whispered loudly, “Be ready withthe rotten fruit.”

    The bard pointed at a water cask that someone was using for a stool and said, “I appropriateyour seat for the cause.” When the elf had vacated it, he set his right foot firmly on thecask, placed his harp on his thigh, and gave the strings a strum. The air filled with resonantsound, and the babble of voices hushed. The bard picked out the beginnings of a tune, then whenhe had built it into a recognizable melody, he began to sing in a rich, carrying voice:

    Oh, the Jura-Dai tribe is a wandering one

    And our exploits are marry and true,

    But the exploit I sing of tonight is so dumb’Tis a deed only Galar would do.

    The elves burst into laughter, and Galar took a deep bow. All through the exchange Jedra hadbeen painfully aware of Sahalik’s rigid presence at his back, but now he felt motion behindhim. He couldn’t hear footsteps in the din, but his psionic sense told him the elf warrior wasleaving. Jedra let out a deep breath he hadn’t even been aware he was holding.

    The bard waited for the laughter to die down, then sang:

    The big city drew him with promise of fame

    And of fortune beyond an elf’s dreams,So he set out with high hopes and soon

    enough came To the city of Urik, it seems.

    But what he found there wasn’t quite what he’d planned

    When he left all the comforts of home.

    No, instead of the riches he’d heard he would find,

    He wound up on the streets, all alone.

    Now that in itself wouldn’t be such a fright

    For an elf as resourceful as him,

    Save for one crucial error he made that first night,When he misplaced his brain at

    an inn.

    The bard had to wait nearly a minute for the laughter to die down before he could continue, buteach verse drew more merriment as he detailed Galar’s descent—through swindles and gamblinglosses—from cocky freeman to a lone elfin heavy debt, fighting as a gladiator for money. Atlast, hounded by creditors and fearing for his life, Galar had used the last of his money in adesperate scheme to sneak out of the city undetected: he had bought his way onto a slavecaravan leaving for Tyr. No one would think to look for him in the slave hold, and once theywere free of the city, the wagon master would release him.

    Of course the wagon master had taken his money and left him in the slave hold, where he metKayan, who had been taken there when a powerful lover had become jealous of her attention toUrik’s king Hamanu.

    That’s not true! Kayan mindsent to Jedra. I was enslaved because I refused to use my psionic

    healing power to kill a man.

    I know that, Jedra replied, but the bard doesn’t so he had to make something up. This makesa better tale anyway.

    So you say, Kayan sent. She scowled as the song continued to portray her as a reckless wantonwho had slept her way to the bottom of society.

    A few stanzas later Jedra found himself agreeing with Kayan when the bard began detailing how

     wound up enslaved. The bard portrayed him as a thief and a brawler who had finally met hishe

    match, rather than as a curious young man who had accidently stumbled upon a magical talismanthat a real mage had sold him into slavery to obtain. Jedra wasn’t sure he wanted the truth tobe known, but he didn’t want everyone to think he was a thief, either.

    All the same, he smiled bravely through the verses about him, wanting least of all to offendhis hosts.

    He tried to listen psionically to find what the elves really thought of him, but he justdidn’t have that power. He could send, but not eavesdrop. He could sense when someone waswatching him, though, and although everyone was doing so now, he detected one source ofinterest much stronger than the rest. He looked across the fire toward the source of thesensation, expecting to see Rayna, the woman who had propositioned him earlier, but instead hefound Sahalik staring back at him, his face as cold as the night.

    Oh, wonderful. Of all the people to be on the bad side of, Sahalik was the absolute worst.Jedra looked away, careful not to make eye contact again throughout the rest of the song.

    Fortunately, the bard had exaggerated the number of stanzas as well. He was only up to forty orso when he finished with a rousing description of Galar’s rescue and the heroics of the Jura-Dai warriors. Sahalik figured prominently in the end of the tale, and Jedra was relieved to seea crowd of well-wishers gather around him afterward.

    Galar took Jedra and Kayan aside after the song and led them toward the tents. “My apologiesfor not thinking of it earlier,” he said, “but now I will find you some spare clothing and aplace to sleep.”

    “Thank you,” Kayan said, her words nearly lost in a wide yawn.

    Jedra was afraid that he and Kayan would be imposing on Galar all night, but the elf led themto an enormous tent wherein dozens of elves had already rolled out sleeping mats and weresnoring softly. Candles glowed in protected alcoves at either end of the tent, providing justenough light to see by but not enough to keep anyone awake. In their soft light, Jedra couldsee that the tents, unlike the clothing the elves wore, were grayish tan, the color of sand, sothey would blend in with the desert.

    More sleeping mats waited in a pile near the doorway, each tucked into a knapsack with a nameor a design woven into the closing flap at the top. Galar searched though the stack, pullingtwo knapsacks from it and handing them to his friends. They were made of heavy, durable cloth,and the mats rolled up inside them were even thicker. Both showed signs of wear along the

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