Dawn of the Flame Sea (15 page)

His pile of clothes had included the fajenz beads of the White Sands Tribe, yet he claimed to now be part of a Flame Sea Tribe. And the youth displayed a level of courage in the face of his pains that Kuruk could not match to the timid, cowering refugees who had hidden behind the defensive powers of their animadj and her apprentices when they had retreated from the Circle Fire's oasis. Kuruk did not like these differences.

“I do not like this,” Koro said.

Kuruk started, glancing over at the animadj, who frowned at the whimpering victim. “I was just thinking that myself,” he murmured. “The new tribal name, the newfound confidence . . .”

“No, not that,” Koro dismissed. “His anima is wrong. It's going somewhere.”

“What?” The scouting leader frowned. “What do you mean, it's going somewhere?”

“There is something . . . like a cord, braided into his being. It is taking the pain that should have roused anima-sparks for me to capture and use and instead is sending it somewhere . . . and the strength of that sending is growing. At first it was thin, like a thong,” Koro told him. “But it has grown thicker, like a rope.”

“Yes! That is exactly it,” Pak offered, lifting his head from his fire-tending efforts. They had used burning embers to try to force the youth to tell the truth. “It thickens, because it is
shrinking
. Master Koro, I think whatever is on the other end is drawing close. Look, it thickens again and shifts its angle!”

The young animadj pointed, but while Koro nodded and grunted in agreement, Kuruk saw nothing. He had neither the patience nor the time to learn how to see faint emanations of anima. Still, he could act. “Charag! Stop torturing him. He hasn't told us anything new for a bit. Tureg, keep your hawk's eye on the horizon. Koro, point the direction this . . . rope is stretched, so he knows where to look.”

“I see . . . yes. Tiny specs on the horizon,” the archer stated after a long moment. He pointed, then frowned, shaded his eyes, and started. “My eyes! Whatever they are, they are moving
fast
! Faster than a stooping hawk!”

As soon as the keen-eyed man said that, Kuruk could see them, too. Golden specks that soared straight and fast, like birds stooping on prey. But instead of a steep, near-vertical dive, these two specks were moving along the ground. No,
above
the ground. Two golden, glittering figures, vaguely human shaped, both crouched and mostly still like statues, but each gripping what looked like a staff.

They grew steadily larger; then one of them pointed, the other nodded, and the pair split, swooping outward. Tureg quickly nocked an arrow to his string, turning to track them, but they moved too quickly for him to fire. The pair swooped around the scouting party, crossed behind them, and came back around to the front, swerving inward as they slowed down. In the span of five heartbeats, they had encircled the group, proving the pair could chase down any runners in a matter of moments.

Once again, they circled. They seemed to be human, albeit ones with winged head things made out of gold, and scaled shirts and gleaming legs and arms. Brighter than bronze, paler than actual gold, whatever the stuff was, it was a metal and would no doubt be difficult to pierce. But unlike Tureg, they carried only metal-wrapped staves, and one of them not only seemed to be female, but . . .

“A
pregnant
woman?” Kuruk scoffed as she drifted to a stop to one side of him. The male—or at least flat-chested—figure stopped several yards to the left. Kuruk eyed the woman and flipped his hand at her. “Is this what I am supposed to fear? You float like dandelion puffs, but you are slow and fat with child!”

“Release Lutun.” Her voice was smooth, strong, and disapproving.

“Who are you to make demands of me? I am Kuruk, master warrior of the Circle Fire, and this is our slave!” he challenged. “You're a slow, fat, pregnant woman with a single man who does not speak. You carry staves, and we carry blades and arrows.”

“I am Taje Djin-taje-ul, leader of the Fae Rii, leader of the Flame Sea, protector of these lands. There are no slaves within the lands of the Flame Sea, and there never will be. Leave now, and take word back to your taje and your people. If you try to invade, you will not succeed. However, if you approach in peace and are willing to trade, then your people will be allowed within our lands. Choose carefully.”

“Trade? Only in your people as our slaves. Burn them,” Kuruk ordered his animadjet.

Koro and Pak shouted, hurling balls of fire . . . which collapsed into anima-sparks and struck the two golden-clad figures, vanishing instantly without any sign of harm. The older of the two tried a shielding spell . . . and gaped as his magic broke free of his control the moment the gilded male held out his hand, somehow absorbing the energies.

Tureg struck next, firing off two fast shots, as fast as an eye could blink thrice—and both arrows thunked into the air a short distance from each figure. Neither of them blinked; neither of them flinched. A crunching thwack, wet and unpleasant, got a reaction however.


Lutun!
” The armored woman swerved forward on her floating lumps of not-gold, hands flinging out as she tossed something at the corpse, something that slapped golden light on the severed flesh and kept the two halves from bleeding out.

Charag yanked his axe free, backing up from the beheaded corpse. Whirling, he grabbed Pak by the elbow and shouted, “Run!”

Kuruk backed up, staring as the woman hopped off her chained pair of half eggs and knelt by the corpse. “What did you—”

“I bought us time!” the big warrior argued, and started running. Turning, Kuruk followed him, as did Koro.

“Djin-taje, do I kill them for this?” the other figure—male by the voice—called out.

“No!”

Kuruk stumbled and turned, moving backward and wondering why such a powerful animadj would forbid it. They had all the power, all the advantages . . .

“Take the water and follow them,” the pregnant woman called out, tossing a waterskin at her companion. “Drive them out of Flame Sea lands, but do not kill them. Not this time.
I
must stay and save Lutun.”

Save
him? When even from Kuruk's angle, the youth's head had clearly rolled away from the shoulders by a foot's length? Realizing the floating male was headed his way, Kuruk turned and ran. If
this
was what awaited them, then the Circle Fire might
not
be able to take on a tribe protected by two who could float like a dust mote in a sunbeam, who could drink in the anima as the sand soaked up rain, and who could stop arrows midflight without gestures or words. That alone was far more casual magic than anything the twelve animadjet, masters and apprentices alike, could muster in his own tribe.

The unnamed male decided Kuruk was running too slow, for with a flick of his staff, he shot a ball of fire of his own at the scout leader's heels. Feeling the heat, smelling scorched earth, Kuruk ran faster, desperate now to survive the long trek back to his home.

Their taje had to hear for himself how no open, straightforward attack could gain them what they desperately needed to know, how to defeat such powerful strangers.

Chapter Nine

Year 6, Month 1, Day 3

“And then, while I was suffering the shock of being released to my death, the glowing gold soul of Taje Djin-taje-ul took me up in her arms, and approached my body, and with her great magical powers, put my head back onto my neck, and made my bones all straight, and made all the scars and the pains and even the littlest of bruises go away,” Lutun recited to his daughter as he carried her into the underroom set aside for toddlers in the theater hall.

The tribe's adults were going to finish celebrating the start of low summer, heralded by the coming of the dry, hot winds that would blow away and evaporate all the clouds in the region, leaving nothing but at most a haze overhead. Lutun had fathered his child via the very willing Parren during a similar ceremony some four years before and was hoping to be so blessed again—if not a child by her, then by the lithe, graceful Fali, or maybe the curvaceous, strong Rua. He could not bring himself to look upon Djin-taje-ul in the same way as the other women, though. Not after having literally been brought back to life from a thorough beheading.

Djin-taje-ul—or Mother of All, as she was now being called behind her back—had claimed it was only possible because she had been right there and had “caught” his spirit and healed his body before his flesh finished bleeding and dying. Zudu claimed this was the truth; after a slow count to one hundred, those who had died from heart-stop could not be revived, no matter how hard one beat on their chest or blew into their mouth.

“Father, if Mother-All c'n make owies go 'way,” little Luti asked him as he lowered her onto one of the pallets provided for these festival nights, “why do I get 'em?”

“Because a little pain, a little owie, teaches you to be more careful, to be more cautious, and to pick your path through life with an eye on the consequences of your actions. It is only those who are in great need whom she will heal.” Brushing back a curling sun blond lock and tucking it behind her human-round ear, Lutun kissed her on the forehead. “Now, close your honey gold eyes, and dream of birds flying.”

Yawning, Luti nodded and closed her eyes. Her father stayed, watching her as she fell asleep. It didn't take long; she was still very much at an age where naps were a good idea. So were most of the others whom parents brought in to lay down to sleep. The elders of the tribe were happy to child-watch, while the adults and teens deemed old and wise enough were happy to celebrate, and the teens not deemed ready for adult love-play were given the solemn duty of standing guard on nights like this.

The tribe was expanding; their homes were growing more beautiful, their water supplies becoming more plentiful, if still carefully marshalled so that none of it went to waste. There was now a great, shaded watering fountain in the valley of the herds, with covered irrigation channels leading to watering pools, and three terraced hills with streams that flowed down through yet more ditches, watering each garden patch.

They had even settled on a name for their settlement: the land was called the Flame Sea and included all the way out to the sand dunes to the east, south, and west, and half the canyons and ravines northward, but the actual heart of the settlement was now being called Ijesh. It meant
bountiful blessing
, and it was an appropriate name. Children, fields, flocks, water. They even had visitors, actual peaceful visitors, come to trade for whatever they could find.

Somehow, the Fae had amassed a great stockpile of pure quartz sand for them to crush and form into fajenz beads, but there were more things to sell. Herbs and spices that normally could only be found in distant corners of the desert had been brought back as seeds by the far-traveling Ban and grew fairly well in the terraces. He had brought back seedlings of trees for growing olives and harvesting sweet-burning resins for incense, but those would still require a few more years to fully produce what they needed. Ores were being mined, but as they had no metalsmiths yet—other than Kaife and Adan—they were simply being reserved for local use. The bronzes those two forged were also of a much finer quality, and there had been much bartering for tools and blades made by the two men.

There was even talk of starting a second settlement, though Lutun couldn't think of them actually needing to for quite some time yet. The Fae were based here; Djin-taje-ul had claimed the pantean was their base, their home, and they would not move elsewhere. Visit, yes, but move, no. Lutun certainly couldn't imagine living in a place where the homes had to be built by hand, not by Fae magics. Not anymore. He intended to stay in Ijesh for as long as they would have him here.

A stir of noise outside the underroom drew his attention. Leaving his sleeping child, he hurried into the tunnel. The oil lamps had been lit, and bronze-backed wooden doors had been fitted over each opening to help keep out the sand and grit blown about by the winds of low summer. With the great doors closed, he could hear the voices in the main hall, agitated with an edge of worry instead of lively with anticipation and excitement.

Zuki stood there. She was now quite old enough to join in the adult celebrations but had chosen to stand watch as the animadj on scrying duty. She should have been in the animadjet hall. Next to her, Djin-taje-ul had her terrain illusion showing, and the young woman pointed at the glowing cliffs and valleys.

“. . . and another group from the north by northwest, with at least fifty warriors, if not more,” Zuki finished.

Fifty warriors? Another group? Lutun paled at the implications. He was a hunter and sometimes a farmer; after his ordeal, he had no stomach for battle. From the look on their leader's face, neither did she.

“Any sign of Ban in your scryings?” Djin-taje-ul asked.

Zuki shook her head. Djin-taje-ul looked a little lost at that. Drawing in a deep breath, she braced herself and nodded.

“Everyone, please listen!” Her sharp tone cut through the conversations. In the silence that followed, she outlined the problem. “As you have heard by now, there are hundreds of warriors headed our way. This explains why the visiting traders all packed up and left over a quarter-moon ago, and why no others have come to take their place.”

Taje Halek agreed. “It is clear to me now that they have not left us alone for the last six or more years out of the wisdom of their minds and hearts. Instead, they have plotted. They have spent the last half dozen years gauging our strengths, inspecting our terrain, and carefully making many alliances so that they can attack us with what they deem is sufficient force to overwhelm our magics, slay our warriors, and make the rest of us their slaves.”

“They will not succeed.” Rising, Djin-taje-ul banished the terrain illusion and addressed her tribe. Lutun felt a swell of faith in her, for she rarely spoke so firmly. When she did, things happened. “Tonight, instead of celebrating with our bodies, we will prepare with them. Éfan, you will do everything you can to contact Ban and bring him home as swiftly as possible. The rest of you, go to your homes.

“Bring your food here, and your valuables, in that order. Bring in the herds as well. We will not leave them any beasts to eat and grow strong. Kaife, Parren, Rua, make a connected set of tunnels and holding pens in the cliffs to the southwest, where the animals will dwell; then help bring in fodder and grain.”

“You plan for a
siege
?” Adan called out. Lutun didn't understand the word
seedj
, but it was explained with a nod from their golden-haired leader.

“I do. We will all retreat here to the theater with our goods and our foods and our beasts and wait them out. They have indeed planned well,” Djin-taje-ul admitted, her mouth twisting wryly at the admission. “There are enough sheer numbers approaching that the seven of us Fae would find it impossible to protect all the different valleys where people have settled for their homes. They think we will not have much in the way of food and only a limited amount of water.

“We will be as comfortable here as we would be when free-roaming, for we have water and food and plans. They may think they have us trapped and outnumbered, that they can force us to either fight or starve or surrender, but we need only wait for the return of Ban.”

“What can Ban do?” Eruk called out, frowning. “They have at least eight hundred warriors coming to overwhelm us, if not nine hundred or more. What can one man do against all of that?”

“If we cannot convince them to leave, then I will unleash him upon them.” Her tone was flat, firm, and unhappy. “I do
not
wish to unleash him against these attackers. It is hoped that they will agree to leave peacefully, but as the saying goes, I will not hold my breath until they do, for I should faint long before then. Zuki, Tulan, call in the sentries from their posts. I want everyone here by the middle of the night. If we have time, Kaife will seal your homes, but it is better for you to bring what you need to survive and what you do not wish these invaders to grab, than run out of time.

“You have your orders. Go.”

Bowing, Lutun turned and hurried back up the tunnel toward the doors. Food was a priority, but so were things that could be used as tools. There were five sets of grand doors into the theater on the ground floor, and five modestly large ones on the upper balcony. They were bound in bronze and made from stout palm wood, but Lutun could easily see them being hacked open by axes and the like.

He would trust Djin-taje-ul and try to trust her plan regarding the tall, absent man. But he would not trust his life to the coming army, and that meant hiding any advantage they might find.

***

Year 6, Month 1, Day 4

Taje Barrek, a large, heavily scarred man, scowled at his chief scout, Kuruk. “
All
of the cave-homes appear to be deserted?”

“Either blocked by stone, or stripped of all their food and at least half their goods, my taje,” Kuruk reported. “From the looks of things, the goods were taken recently,” he added. “A water jar had been knocked over; it had cracked, but only a thin line, and there was still water leaking out and evaporating.”

Barrek eyed the other tajet who had been brought together for this fight. It had taken six years not only to gather what everyone deemed an overwhelming number of warriors, but also to get the other tribes to understand just how dangerous these golden-skinned féj were. But now they all knew the dangers. These pointy-eared beings drank magic like fish drank water. They shaped stone faster than a potter could shape clay. They could fly like an insect, and stop arrows without effort, something that took the best animadjet years of training to master.

A few of the slaves from the southlands had warned against fighting them, but Barrek and the rest of the Circle Fire did not believe in beings made of pure anima. He lifted his chin at the other leaders. “They knew we were coming. The question is, where di—”

“I found them!” A firm female voice cut through the crowd, which parted to make way for a woman Kuruk recognized. Shuda, that was it, of the Water Spears. She lifted her bow and pointed with one of the ends off to the side. “There is a broad valley to the east with cliff buildings. Most have been stone sealed, but a lot of tracks point to one with a great curved front. Tracks that were made as recently as early this morning, if not late last night.”

“Show us!” Taje Garrin ordered his tribe's scout.

Nodding, Shuda hurried in that direction. Kuruk let the tide of weapon-clutching warriors stream around him. As far as he was concerned, those who were eager for a fight without pausing to size up an enemy were at least good for one thing: revealing the tricks and skills of their opponents as the frontline fodder died. He still owed Charag at least one war slave for splitting the attention of those two féj, and intended to survive so that he could claim one for himself as well.

Charag was now one of those who believed these were anima-beings. He had confessed to Kuruk that he had started believing when they had floated up before him with no sound and no effort. That was why he had chosen to slay one of their worshippers, in the hopes it would distract the god-being, since it was rumored some such creatures could indeed restore the recently dead. Given that such beings required the faith of their followers to exist—faith being willpower, the strength to shape the anima—then surely they would stop to revive the fellow . . . or at least be greatly weakened by the loss of his share of the will powering them to exist.

Following in the wake of the scores of warriors streaming toward the valley, Kuruk had to admit that the ruse had worked. Charag, the other scouts, and he were all still alive. He didn't know if it was because the féj needed to share anima to attempt to put the dead man's head back on his shoulders, or if they had lost energy, but the golden-armored man had followed them, harassed them with bursts of fire nearby whenever they stopped for more than a moment. He had not actually harmed them in their long retreat southward, but neither had he left them until they were two full selijm into the great dunes.

Exhausted and angry, his younger self had vowed to find a way to make the strangers pay. Wiser and wary, Kuruk now let the overeager move forward.
He
would hold back his energy, his strength, and remain strong and alive at the end, when the slaves were quartered out. The scouting parties, many posing as traders and the five members of his initial team especially, would all have first pick, as would anyone who could claim a death blow on the golden-haired people.

The canyon they were in opened up into a larger valley, room enough for all of them to spread out. Some of the ground was paved in the gray-white-speckled granite, some in ripples of golden red sandstone. Much of it, large swaths, in fact, boasted grasses and low-growing shrubs, and the paths held palm trees, still somewhat short but with the potential to grow and tower and cast their shade one day.

Even with all the bodies in the way, because he was coming from higher ground, Kuruk could see that all of it had been designed, not just randomly created. Benches for resting, pillars with roofs for shelter, room for grazing . . . Even the grass was still green, though it was beginning to wilt a little under the heat of the sun. It was an oasis of art as well as greenery, water, and shade.

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