Part I of a major new fantasy trilogy.
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It was the morning after the sensuous second full moon of Telengarra, which heralds the coming of the spring rains, when little Colai came running into the village to cry that there were dead people washing up on the beach. And not just dead people, but people of unnatural aspect attired in strange clothes, whose pale faces were unmarked by ritual scars yet sometimes overgrown with hair.
Most of the village was not yet awake when the frantic boy came running and shrieking past the houses. At first his mother thought it was a trick. She caught him and shook him, angry that he should disturb everyone's morning for the sake of a joke. Then she saw something that, like a piece of grit, had become caught at the bottom of his eyes, and stopped shaking him. Together they hurried to the house of the chief.
Asab was just emerging as they arrived. He fumbled to adjust his fine musa-skin cloak with the impressive dark blue stripes and the phophilant headdress with its sweeping crest of intense red and yellow feathers. He was clearly upset at having been rousted from his sleep before normal cockcrow. Hastily donned, his headdress kept threatening to slip from his head.
"I saw them, I saw them!" In addition to Asab, a crowd had begun to gather around Colai and his mother as the boy declaimed breathlessly.
"Now, child," the chief intoned solemnly, "what is it you think you have seen?" Other men and a few of the women clustered close, rubbing sleep from their eyes while fighting back the sour morning taste of recent dreams. "Dead people, Chief Asab! Many of them, very different from us." The boy barely paused for airas he turned and pointed. "On the beach. Above where the mussels and the tyrex shells grow!"
Sleepy faces glistening with a reluctance to believe turned to the tall, lanky head of the village. Asab briefly considered the child's harangue before finally frowning down at the anxious, panting youth.
"We will go and see. And for your sake, boy, there had better be something on the sand besides shells and dried sea noodles!"
While barren of all vegetation save a little grass and a few hardy weeds, the beach was not devoid of wood. Gigantic logs cast ashore by the cold Samoria Current littered the sand and protruded from rocky outcroppings where they had been hurled by violent storms. Interspersed among the unbranched, well-traveled forest giants were the whitening bones of demised sea creatures large and small: whales and serpents, birds and batwings, fish and stoneaters. From such bountiful detritus did the villagers recycle useful materials for their homes and barns.
"There!" Colai pointed, but the gesture was unnecessary. Everyone saw the hungry dragonets circling over the spot.
There were a dozen or more of the little black scavengers. Wings folded, another four or five sat on the sand picking at irregular lumps that on closer inspection resolved themselves into perhaps a dozen human figures. Ululating and waving their spears as they approached, the villagers frightened the carrion-eaters away. Hissing their displeasure, the raven dragonets rose into the transparent air on noisome, membranous wings, content for now to circle slowly overhead. They would wait.
Truth to tell, if anything Colai had understated the matter. The bodies were more than passing strange. Just as he had claimed, several showed faces matted with hair, mostly black or brown but some as yellow as the gold that Morixis the Trader brought from the far southern mountains. The figures were clad in an excessive amount of clothing, all of it dyed overbright and some fashioned of cloth so fine it was soft as a little girl's tears.
On top of this barbaric display of color most also wore armor of heavy cured leather of a type unknown to Asab or any of the other village warriors. Scenes that showed men fighting with one another and strange animals and buildings were deeply embossed on breastplates and leggings. With so much weight to carry it was a wonder that any of them had been washed ashore.
Asab and two of his best warriors knelt beside one man. With one exception, all the bodies on the beach were shorter and stockier than the average villager. They were also exclusively male.
"See." Tucarak ran a finger along the dead man's exposed cheek. It was cold with the damp of the sea and infused with death. "How smooth the skin is. How untouched." With his other hand he traced the curving scar, a sign of manhood, that decorated his own cheek.
"And how pale," added a disapproving Houlamu as he rose. "Who are these men, and where do they come from?" Raising his gaze, he squinted out to sea. Nothing was to be seen save the dark, chill water, not even a lingering cloud. There were only the endlessly rolling waves and the amazingly homogeneous deep blue of the morning sky.
"Well, they are dead, and I am sure they would not want their dying to be wasted." With that Asab ceremoniously began the salvaging of the deceaseds' belongings, beginning with their curious apparel and assiduously examining every bulge and pocket for anything, however foreign and exotic, that might prove useful to the village.
"Can we safely eat them, do you suppose?" Tucarak held a blood-and-salt-water-soaked shirt up to the sun. "They look like men. So they should taste like men."
"Ho-yah," agreed Asab. "We will let old Fhastal try a bit of leg. She will eat anything." The chief chuckled softly. "If it does not kill her, we will know it is safe for the rest of us."
Houlamu contemplated the proposed dismemberment with distaste. "You can eat them if you wish. I only eat what I know. Or who I know." He nudged another of the limp bodies roughly with the butt of his spear.
"These are plumper folk than the Koipi or the Nalamhat." As he spoke, Tucarak was tugging hard on the corpse's unusual footgear. It was much too awkward and heavy to be worn on Naumkib feet, of course, but cut into pieces it might provide the makings for a couple of pairs of serviceable sandals. "If anything, I would think they would taste better than our neighbors."
While the chief and his warriors debated the deceased visitants' suitability for the cooking pot, other members of the tribe wandered up and down the waterline in search of other bodies. Among the searchers was a particularly tall warrior, tall even for a Naumkib, whose somber aspect was the subject of much good-natured gibing among his peers. In response to the frequent jokes made at his expense, Etjole would always smile tolerantly and nod. He was not one to spoil the fun of his hunting companions even when he was the butt of their entertainment.
"Help . . . me. . . ."
The words were barely audible, and for a moment Etjole Ehomba thought they were only subtle distortions of the surf-music, sprinkled upon his innocent ears like wind-blown foam. Having paused momentarily, he started to resume his walk, convinced he had heard nothing.
"Please . . . by whatever god you pray to . . . help me. . . ."
Not foam, not wind, but the dying utterances of a man very like himself. Halting, Ehomba looked northward along the shore with a tracker's experienced eyes, sweeping the rocks and sand for signs of life. Eventually, he found itor what was left of it.
The man was younger than himself, sturdily built, and clad in the most elaborate garments anyone had yet seen on the bodies on the beach. His fine leather armor extended down to cover his upper arms and legs, but it had not been enough to preserve him. There was a great hole in his right side, through which glistening red flesh and pale white bone were clearly visible. Ehomba wondered how he had survived even this long with so deep a wound. It was ragged around the edges, clear evidence of a bite. Whatever had done it had bitten clean through the thick, tough armor. A big shark might have made such a wound, he knew. There were many sharks in the waters offshore from the village. Yes, it might have been a sharkor something else.
The man's hair was straight, shoulder length, and golden. Very different from the thick braids that were bound up in a tight bunch at the back of Ehomba's neck. He marveled at the wispy strands. Leaning forward, he wiped sea slime and sand from the pallid face. At his kindly touch, the other's eyes opened. They were a delicate, diluted blue, but not yet entirely dimmed, and they focused immediately on him.
"You . . . who are . . . ?"
"I am Etjole Ehomba, of the tribe of Naumkib. You and many others have been cast ashore on the beach below our village. Your companions are all dead." His gaze flicked briefly over the cavity in the younger man's torso. "You are dying too. I know a little medicine, but not enough to help you. Not even the old wise women of the village could help what I see. It is too late."
The stranger's reaction was not what Ehomba expected. The man's eyes grew suddenly, shockingly wide. Reaching up, he clutched the taller man's wool overshirt and used it to pull his ruined, bleeding upper body off the sand until his face was only a foot away from that of his finder. In light of the terrible injury he had suffered, the effort of will required to accomplish this feat was nothing short of astonishing.
Staring straight into Ehomba's eyes, he hissed in his odd, uneven accent, "You must save her!"
"Save her? Save who?" Ehomba's bewilderment was absolute.
"Her! The Visioness Themaryl of Laconda!" Remarkably, and with what invisible reserves of strength one could only imagine, the man was shaking Ehomba by the front of his overshirt.
"I do not know of what, or of whom, you speak," the herder responded gently. Exhausted by this ultimate physical exertion, the wounded stranger collapsed back on the sand. He was breathing more slowly now, and Ehomba could sense Death advancing fluidly across the surf, choosing as its avenue of approach, as it so often did, its friend the sea.
"Know that I am Tarin Beckwith, son of Bewaryn Beckwith, Count of Laconda North. The Visioness Themaryl was my countess, or my countess-to-be, until she was carried off by that pustulance that walks like a man and calls itself Hymneth the Possessed. Many"he coughed raggedly, and blood spilled from his lips as from an overfull cup"many of the sons and masters of the noble houses of Greater Laconda took a solemn oath never to rest until she was returned to us and her abductor punished. To my knowledge, I and my men were the only ones to track the monster's ship this far." He paused, wheezing softly, praying for breath enough to continue.
"There was a battle this morning, on the sea. My men fought valiantly. But Hymneth is in league with the evils of otherness. He cavorts with them, delights in their company, and calls upon them to help defend his miserable self. Against such foulness and depravity even brave men cannot always stand." Once more the watery blue eyes, the life fading from them, fastened on Ehomba's own. "I pass on the covenant to you, whoever you are. I charge you, on the departure of my soul, to save the innocent Themaryl and to restore her to the people of Laconda. With her abduction, the heart has gone out of that land, and all who dwell within it. I, Tarin Beckwith, place this on you."
Ehomba shook his head slowly as he gazed down at the stranger. "I am but a simple herder of cattle and harvester of fish, Tarin Beckwith." He gestured with the tip of his spear. "And this is a poor man's land, spare of people and resources. Not a place in which to raise armies. I would not even know which way to begin searching."
Raising himself off the sand with a second tremendous effort, Beckwith turned slightly at the waist and pointed. Sunlight glistened off his visible intestines. "To the northwest, across the sea. There! Having defeated the only ones capable of following him, Hymneth the depraved will feel safe in returning now to his home. I am told it lies in the fabled land of Ehl-Larimar, which is far to the west of Laconda. Seek him there, or find another who will." Once more, clenching hands clawed at Ehomba's simple attire. "You must do this, or the innocent Themaryl will be forever lost!"
"You expect too much of me, stranger Beckwith. I have a family, and cattle to watch over and protect, and"
Ehomba halted in midsentence. His encumbrance delivered, the life force spent, the spirit of Tarin Beckwith of Laconda had at last fled his body. Gently but firmly, Ehomba disengaged the insensible fingers from his shirt and laid the upper part of the destroyed body down upon the cool sand. It lay there, teal blue eyes staring blankly at the sky, as the herdsman rose. It would be a privilege, he knew, to consume a chop cut from the flank of so brave and dedicated a man. When the time came for the sharing out of the food, he would make a point of making this claim to Asab.
As to the dead man's trust, there was nothing he could do about it, of course. He had spoken him the truth. There were family and herd and village responsibilities to look after. What matter to him the troubles and tribulations of a people from far away, or the carrying off of one woman? Suarb and Deloog came running over. They were young men, not yet acknowledged elders, and they nodded to him respectfully as they knelt by the now motionless form at his feet. There was excitement in their voices, and their eyes were alight with the pleasure to be found in something new. "Etjole, you found this one, but you do not take his belongings." Suarb eyed him uncertainly while Deloog gazed at the heavily embossed leather armor, openly covetous.
"No. I have no interest in such things. They are yours if you want them." Elated at their good fortune, the two youths began to strip the body of useful material. As he yanked on a pants leg, Deloog watched the taller, older man curiously.
"These are fine things, Etjole. Why do you not take them?"
"I have been given something else, Deloog. Something I did not ask for and do not want, and I am not sure what to do with it."
The youths exchanged a glance. Ehomba was known for sitting and saying nothing for long periods of time, even when he was not guarding the herds. A peculiar man, for certain, but kindly and always helpful. The boys and girls of the village, and not a few of their parents, thought him peculiar, but nice enough in his own quiet fashion.
So the two young men did not make fun of him behind his back as he walked away from them, up the beach toward a point of rocks. Besides, they were too excited by their booty.
Working his way up into the rocks, Ehomba found a flat, dry place and sat down, positioning his spear in the crook of his right arm and resting his chin on his crossed forearms. Small waves broke themselves against the cool, gray stone. Farther up the coast, seals and merapes played in the surf, occasionally hauling out to dry themselves on the sun-warmed beach. The merapes would crack clams and abalone to share with the seals, who did not have the benefit of hands with which to manipulate rocks.
Out there, somewhere, lay lands so distant he had never heard of them, exotic and alien. A place by the name of Laconda, and another called Ehl-Larimar. A woman being taken from one to the other against her will. A woman many men were willing to die for.
Well, he already had a woman worth dying for, and two children growing up strong and healthy. Also cattle, and a few sheep, and the respect of his contemporaries. Who was he to go searching across half a world or more on behalf of people he did not know and who would probably laugh at his untutored ways and plain clothes if they saw him?
But a brave and noble man had charged him with the duty as he lay dying. As it always did, the sight of the sea and the waves soothed Etjole. Yet he remained much troubled in mind.
Half the day was done when finally he rose and started back to the village. All the bodies had been removed from the beach, leaving only the dark stains of blood to show where they had lain. Come high tide, the sea would cleanse the sand, as it cleansed everything else it touched.
That night there was a solemn feast in honor of the strangers who had died on the shore below the village. Everyone partook of the cooking, and it was agreed without dispute that wherever they had come from, it was a land of plenty, for their flesh was sweet and uncorrupted. As he ate of Tarin Beckwith, Ehomba pondered the unfortunate man's final words until those around him could no longer ignore his deep concern. Not wishing to lay his melancholy on them, he excused himself from the company of his wife and their friends, and sought out old Fhastal.
He found her by herself off to one side of the central firepit, sitting cross-legged against a tired tree while chewing with some difficulty on the remnants of a calf. Though white as salt, her hair was fastened in neat braids that spilled down her back, and she had decked herself out for the evening in her finest beads and long strips of colored leather. She looked up at him out of her one good eye and smiled crookedly. The other eye, blinded in youth, gleamed chalky as milk. Given her few remaining teeth, it was no wonder she was finding the meat tough going.
"Etjole! Come and sit with an old woman and we'll give the young girls something to gossip about tomorrow!" Her grin fell away as she saw that his expression was even more serious than usual. "You are troubled, boy. It clouds your face like smoke."
Crossing his own legs beneath him, he sat down beside her, waving off her offer of meat, broiled squash, or bread. "I need your wisdom and your advice, Fhastal, not your food."
Nodding understandingly, she picked at a strip of gristle caught between her remaining back teeth as she listened to him tell of his encounter with the dying stranger on the beach. When he had finished, she sat silent in contemplation for a long moment.
"The stranger placed this burden on you as he lay dying?" When Ehomba nodded, she responded with a terse grunt. "Then you have no choice." Idly she fingered the lightly browned slices of squash in her bowl. "Are you or are you not a man of conviction?"
"You know that I am, old woman."
"Yes, I do. So we both know what this means. You must finish this man's work. One who dies in another's arms is no longer a stranger. Like it or not, he bound himself to you, and in so doing, his mission was bound to you as well."
The man seated across from her sighed heavily. "That is also how I interpreted what happened, and it is what I feared. But what can I do? I am only one. This Tarin Beckwith had many warriors with him, and they were not enough to save him or allow him to succeed."
Fhastal sat a little straighter. "They were not Naumkib. They were from outside the stable world."
He was not persuaded. "They were still men. That is all that I am."
"No it is not." A gnarled fist the color of spoiled leather punched him several times in the upper arm. "You are Etjole Ehomba, herder, fisherman, father, warrior, and tracker. The best tracker in the village. Can you not track that which is not seen as well as that which is?"
"That is not so great a skill. Tucarak can do it, and so can Jeloba." "But not as good as you, boy. You know that you must do this thing?"
"Yes, yes. Because this Tarin Beckwith, whom I do not know, put it on me as he died. This is not fair, Fhastal."
She snorted, her nose twitching. "Fate rarely is. If you want me to, I will explain it to Mirhanja."
"No." He uncrossed his legs preparatory to rising. "I am her husband, and it is my responsibility. I will tell her. She will not take it well." "Mirhanja is a good woman. Give her more credit. She understands honor and obligation." She fumbled a slice of fried pumpkin into her mouth. "How old is your boy?"
"Daki will be fourteen years next month."
Fhastal nodded approvingly. "Old enough to do a turn or two looking after the herd in your stead. Time he started doing something useful. The little girl will have a harder time accepting this, but her tears will pass." Reaching down, she removed one of the many colorful fetishes that hung in bunches around her neck. It was a fine carving of a woman, done in the shiny gray horn of a stelegath. As he leaned forward, she slipped the cord from which it hung over his head.
"There! Now I can go with you. I have seen the Unstable Lands in my dreams, and now I can travel with you to see them in person."
He smiled fondly as he studied the figurine hanging from its cord of sisal fiber. "Youmean that this image can go with me."
"Oh no, big handsome!" She cackled gleefully. "It is the image you are speaking to right now, the image that the village children make fun of and call names behind my back." She pointed to the necklace. "That is the real me."
For just an instant, he thought he saw something in her blind eye. Something flickering, and alive. But it was only a trick of the weak light, distorted by the cook fire.
"I will carry it as an amulet," he assured her, not wanting to hurt her feelings. Fhastal meant well, but she was a little crazy. "So that it will bring me luck."
"If you'd carry it somewhere else on your body, it might bring me luck." She laughed madly again. "I hope that it will, Etjole." She made shooing motions at him, like a mother hen guiding one of her brood of chicks. "Now thengo and see to your wife, so that you may lie with her before you leave. Make your farewells to your children. And be sure to stop by Likulu's house. She and the other women will gather some small things to give you to take on your journey. Meet me tomorrow by the stone lightning and I will set you on your way. I can do no more than that."
He straightened. "Thank you, Fhastal. With luck, I may be able to return this woman to her people and return home in a month or two."
He did not believe it as he spoke it, but that did not matter. Fhastal did not believe it either. Without discussion, they chose to connive in the illusion.
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