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The Reign of King Doni'Jazzan'Nebazz 'Dayona
First Descent Moon
The wounded man had no shadow.
Challen paused in the tower doorway and stared out into the sun-hot daylight, positive she had been mistaken. Mackal, her father's apprentice, knelt on the hot stones of the courtyard, tending to the wounded stranger. He dusted healing powder into the bronze basin, dipped up hot water from the kettle always steaming over the coals in the courtyard firepit, and carried the basin to the man. He had come in only five, maybe ten minutes ago, saying his horse threw him as he rode into the trading village at the Oasis of Benetheer.
The stranger's desert robes were dusty, clinging to him with sweat, worn from travel–and who traveled the desert in the middle of the day, in the hottest part of summer, just after solstice? He was alone, and only fools and madmen traveled alone.
Or men with evil on their minds.
Challen flinched when Mackal glanced up from washing the man's bleeding leg and called for her. She felt a chill run down her sweaty back when the stranger lifted blank black eyes and gazed at her. The chill turned into a queasiness in her gut when the man smiled, creating black crevices around his too-full mouth, sifting dust from his dirty beard.
"Do you think we'll need the numbing dust?" Mackal asked. He gestured for her to look at the man's leg, which had bits of grit, wood and even a few pebbles ground into his flesh by the force of his fall.
"Most definitely." Challen raked her fingers through her ember-colored hair and retied the head cloth that kept coming undone. Inanother moment, her hair was covered, neatly tied off her neck, letting the warm afternoon air suck away the sweat almost as it formed.
"I'm a lucky man, to find a healer and his pretty wife so quickly," the stranger said.
"We're not married," Challen hurried to say.
"Yet." Mackal winked at her before turning back to picking the debris out of his patient's leg.
Four years ago, when Mackal came to apprentice with the healer, Shazzur, Challen might have laughed with him, and let him believe such comments were funny. Four years ago, at age sixteen, she might even have been flattered that such a talented, handsome man was interested in her. In four years, Mackal had hinted too baldly at his desire to marry her, but never spoke directly to her of the matter.
How could Challen tell him that she would not marry him, when he never outright asked her?
It didn't help that her father found it amusing.
Challen looked at the ground one more time, just to be sure of what she had seen. The stranger still had no shadow, though the afternoon sun hung at enough of an angle to throw a distinct, hard-edged shadow. She had a shadow. Mackal had a shadow. The bench the stranger sat on had a shadow. The table full of healing supplies, the courtyard walls, the awning stretching from the doorway, and the tripod holding the kettle over the coals–they all had shadows.
"I'll fetch the powder." Challen forced a smile before turning to go into the house.
She took the winding steps up to the tower three at a time and didn't care that she was dripping wet and gasping in the scorching heat by the time she reached the top. Her sleeveless tunic stuck to her skin and her loose, open-weave trousers tried to climb up her legs. She slipped on the top step, her worn sandal strap breaking at the worst possible moment. A lean, steady, wrinkled hand came from seemingly out of nowhere to grab her arm and keep her upright when she would have fallen.
"My dear?" Shazzur tugged on her arm and led her to his worktable, gently pushing her down onto the bench.
"There's a man–with no shadow in–in the courtyard." Challen shook her head when he would have put a cup of watered wine into her hands.
"No shadow?" His thick eyebrows rose and gray eyes widened. A smile parted the tangled curls of his silver-streaked red beard. Then the smile turned into a frown. "Fascinating, but not welcome in the least. Come." He stepped to the wide window that looked down from his tower room, over the courtyard of their house at the edge of the trading village.
Challen joined her father at the window. The silvery-pink stone of the ledge scorched her hands when she leaned out to look down. At this time of the afternoon, there were no gentle breezes to counter the oppressive heat. She wished everyone had the sense to sleep through the hottest part of the day–including the stranger below. He sat on his bench, leg propped up, watching Mackal fuss with bandages at the table strewn with ingredients for a salve he had been trying to improve for the past three moon quarters. Despite the way the man's dun-colored desert robes draped around him, Challen could clearly see he still had no shadow. She shivered, wondering what it portended.
"Why can't Mackal see? Surely he isn't that dense?" she muttered.
"Dense might not be the question, my dear." Shazzur glanced at Challen, then looked at the stranger again. "He has a shadow."
"I do not doubt you. Your mother had many gifts, many ways of seeing, which were beyond my experience. She never told me of seeing anyone without a shadow, but then…perhaps she never had need of the gift."
A pot shattered on the paving stones of the courtyard. Challen glanced down again. The stranger was on his feet, moving without a limp, and that sent another chill up her back.
"Mackal!" she shouted almost before realizing that glint of sun on metal was a knife in the stranger's hand.
Copyright © 2004 by Michelle L. Levigne