Read Dawn of the Flame Sea Online

Authors: Jean Johnson

Dawn of the Flame Sea (7 page)

“It's Taje Halek,” one of the fire tenders scolded. “You will treat him with respect, or . . . or . . .” He trailed off when Ban turned and rose to his full height, towering over the young man. The same young man who had foolishly charged at him days ago.

Without a word, Ban stared him down. The youth retreated half a step, wary of that steady, flat stare. His spear rose defensively under its weight.

“Hunter Lutun, do not threaten our visitor,” Halek ordered. “Visitor Ban, do not threaten my tribe.”

Turning, Ban dropped gracefully back into his crouch. It was a half-forgotten act of courtesy, to not make the injured man crane his head back just to look him in the face. “That remains to be seen, taje of the White Sands. When the sun strikes the third band from the top of our ravine, Jintaya will appear there,” he repeated. “As will the others of our pantean. You will then be given the chance to find a peaceful way to convince her that your tribe should stay and share in the bounty of this region.

“Jintaya wishes to discuss your tribe staying.” Rising, he turned and headed for the cave mouth. “Be grateful it is not to discuss your tribe
leaving
.”

He did not have to step over anyone as he left the cavern, for those in his path had moved. Then again, most everyone was awake now, watching him warily. Crossing into the cool, gray light of morning, he continued on his way toward the pantean ravine, noting the subtle and not-so-subtle changes Kaife and his companions had wrought.

The granite dredged up from the depths of this world had been used to create covered troughs and gutters that followed the somewhat meandering walls, only to end in deep-carved pools scattered at intervals that would eventually fill with water from the few rains and flash floods that always plagued a desert environment. Off in the distance, uphill from where he walked, the ground had been scored with channels that would divert those flash floods.

Most of the channels were covered to keep the water that would eventually flow through them clean and free of debris, but for now, they were empty, awaiting Jintaya's decision on whether this White Sands Tribe should be allowed to stay or encouraged to go. Ban knew that Kaife had designs for fanciful little bridges, drip-irrigated planters, and other means of turning this place of raw stone and gritty dirt into a lush oasis. It was considered quite the coup for the relatively young man to be selected as the chief architect of the pantean stronghold, and he had worked up layer after layer of designs meant to be implemented in stages. But that was for a stronghold that was strictly Fae, not Fae and Shae.

So far, what Ban had seen was not aesthetically displeasing, but it was still mostly Fae in appearance and influence: pointed arches, graceful curves, interlaced lines, and a motif of thin spreading out to wide, like stems spreading into flowers and leaves, though that was mostly inside the caves that had been resculpted into their stronghold.

For a few moments, Ban wondered what these White Sands people would bring to the designs of this place if they were permitted to stay. It wasn't the Fae way to segregate the locals in areas where they cohabited—aside from the sanctity of their actual stronghold—or to impose their own culture on the natives. However, he hadn't seen much in the way of overt decorations among these White Sands people, aside from the bits of dyed leather and beading on whatever they wore.

Then again, that was the lot of a refugee; they were lucky to have food, clothing, weapons, and each other. Some years, some worlds . . . he hadn't even had clothing to call his own. It was not a set of memories Ban cared to remember right now.

***

Year 0, Month 0, Day 7

The season for this patch of the world was still months away from high summer, but the day had already started to warm by the time Halek gathered his tribe members outside the ravine, marked by its sandstone-turned-granite walls. He arranged them in a semicircle, warriors and hunters with bows in the middle, flanked to either side by the elderly, the young, and the mothers burdened with children, and those with spears at either end. That was a defensive tactic, as were the quintet of youths stationed so that they faced away from the ravine, their eyes scanning the cliffs, the other canyons, looking for anything and everything that might spring an ambush.

Aside from those precautions, the taje had decided to treat this meeting as a formal occasion between potential allies. Everyone had scrubbed away what they could of the dirt of their travels and had donned what little finery remained to the White Sands—most of it portable in the form of fajenz beads and amulets strung on leather cords, but some still had other valuables. A bit of beaten gold, some actual cloth, white-dyed leather carefully wrapped against the grit and grime of the desert.

Halek himself wore a long vest in somewhat creased white leather, decorated with patterns of fajenz beads in blue, green, reddish and brick brown, with a brown leather kilt decorated in blue, green, yellow, white, and cream. Some had worried over whether it was safe to display their beads, for fear that these new strangers would try to steal them as had the other tribes, but Halek wore his proudly. If the strangers were strong enough to steal their fajenz, then there was nothing his people could do about it. They were too weary of travel, too much in need of a new home to posture in the wrong ways.

The sun touched the top of the ravine, the slightly taller side, as they dressed. That beam of light crept its way down through the first band to the second while they gathered and now brushed the third striation coloring the rock in shades of orange, cream, and brown. Movement drew their attention to the shadowed cleft, and the middle-aged leader strained to peer into the cool shadows. At first, he thought a strange golden mist had sprung up. Then the mist became humanoid shapes, but they still flowed as smoothly toward him as a leaf caught on the surface of a meandering stream.

When they reached the opening of the little canyon and spread out to either side, still moving with inhuman grace, Halek found he had forgotten to breathe. Sucking in a deep breath, he focused on the figures. One by one, the eight figures were impressive; taken as a whole, they almost overwhelmed. He focused on the individuals as best he could, starting with the familiar one.

The stranger named Ban, Death, no longer wore loose garments of black, finely spun cloth that covered all but his hands and his head. Instead, he had donned a black kilt or loin-wrap of some sort, pleated many times and buckled around his hips so that the folds just reached his knees. His feet were bound in sandals that covered the tops and sides in flaps and laced up to just below his knees but left most of his calves bare to the view. He bore no other ornaments but needed none; his hide alone, covered in intricate, colorfully painted images, some familiar and many strange, was more than decoration enough. Halek could only marvel at how long it must have taken to dye all that skin.

Turning his attention to the others, the taje noted that some were scaled over their arms, legs, and torsos like lizards, but the scales were made out of what looked like shades of gold ranging from pale cream to a ripe yellow. Armor, he realized, not natural scales.

Their heads bore strange pot-like things, embracing their skulls with little wings of sculpted metal. The helmets guarded all but a pair of slits for their eyes, with tiny, regularly spaced holes where their mouths and half their cheeks should have been, and their feet were encased in full metal boots. Each bore weapons also made of the golden metal. It was not bronze—he knew that by instinct—but instead was some other metal, something that polished so well, he could see reflections repeated in each and every scale. They were distracting to watch, so he pulled his gaze away.

Of the remaining three, one stood in the center of their formation with Ban; the other two flanked the ends of their own modest arc, in a reverse of what the White Sands had done to protect itself. One of the end figures wore layers of long garment that covered the person from shoulders to golden-covered toes, loosely sashed and bloused at the hips in a deceptively simple style. The outermost layer was so well spun, it was sheer, revealing hints of the arms that lay inside the sleeves. The fabric underneath was . . . amazing. Somehow, tiny flowers and other things had been woven into the pale, golden material so that it caught the light at different moments in different ways. A male, he realized belatedly, tall and slender with hair that fell like golden grain to his sashed waist. He carried a crystal sphere in his palm instead of a weapon.

The other end figure wore odd gathered leggings, a vest that hugged her breasts and bared the muscles of her stomach, sandals with soles that curled up at the toes, and a garment he finally recognized as a variation on a proper desert poncho, if just as sheer as the man's outer robes. It fell to her inner elbows at the sides, and dipped low in front and back to her hips. She leaned on a staff, her dark gold hair plaited and coiled around her head in a way that suggested a flower, and she leaned on a staff. No, a farming tool, he realized belatedly. White Sands had done some farming—who didn't when they had a healthy oasis to claim?—but they had gained more in trade from their beads before their exile than they had grown as food.

The final figure, the centerpiece next to Ban, was a tall, stately woman who when she moved flowed like a gentle breeze and when she stood still resembled a sculpture. Her robes were a variation on the man to Halek's left, save that hers were layered like the petals of a flower, all in shades of cream and gold and subtle variations between. In fact, they all—Ban excepted—were nothing more and nothing less than gilded, sun-colored statues. Even their eyes were some shade of yellow or beige, camel or dun, the taje realized with a shiver.

Of all of these strangers, it was ironic that the one who had introduced himself as Death looked the most familiar and the most normal. He had brown eyes, not some unnatural shade of yellow. Colorfully, subtly painted skin, but deeply tanned skin all the same, not golden. Black, normal hair, not sun-and-sand hued . . . and the moment he thought that, Taje Halek wondered with rising awe and a touch of fear if these . . . people . . . had come
from
the desert sands themselves, shaped by the anima as the adults in his tribe could shape little figurines in crushed, moistened quartz.

The woman Siffu, a former slave they had accepted into the tribe, claimed that happened in the lands south of the southern mountains, living beings made from the anima itself. He didn't quite believe in such things. Fajenz was a crude art compared to a living being, and the anima was not a thinking thing . . . but there was something sculpted about these people. Something alien and eerie.

It took a whisper from animadj Zudu to pinpoint what it was, beyond their unnatural coloring and unusual eyes. “Their ears,” she muttered, her words seeming loud in the silence between the two groups. “Their ears have points, like animals!”

“Their eyes are like sand and sun!” someone else exclaimed softly.

“Siffu, are these your anima-beings?” a third asked; if the mother of three replied, Halek didn't hear it.

“They move like they have no bones,” a fourth offered, fear in her voice. “Unnatural!”

Halek didn't think they were boneless; he could see their limbs were shaped like, well, arms and legs, and not the ripplings of some sinuous snake. But he was unnerved by their suppleness, their stillness, and their strangeness. And then the woman in the center spoke, in a voice that conveyed all the warmth and patience of the dawn, which sent a chill down the Taje's aching back. Not one of fear, but a shiver of awe.

No one should have a voice that beautiful. Not without being made of . . . of anima itself—it was that magical to listen to. He did not believe in such things, though. He did not.

Chapter Four

“We are the Fae Rii,” the central, golden woman stated, her voice as rich as warm running water, a soft alto that felt like a finely woven shawl being wrapped around her listeners. Halek had not asked a question, nor had the others, yet the tall woman with the very long hair answered them as if they had. “Our ears, our eyes, our hair . . . These are simply how our people look, where we come from.”

“That one does not look like you,” Eruk, one of the spear wielders on the right-hand end of the tribe's curve, stated. He pointed at Ban, his voice rough by comparison. “He has eyes and ears like ours, hair like ours, though I can see someone spent too much time painting his hide.”

“Eruk, you do not speak for this tribe,” Halek asserted, drawing himself up as tall as he could, given he was leaning on a crutch for the support to stand for any length of time. The warrior subsided, but not without a dark look. “
I
speak for the White Sands Tribe. I am Taje Halek. Which among you speaks for your . . . Fae Rii?”

“I do,” the woman in the center stated.

“Taje Halek,” Ban stated, gesturing at the white-vested man across from them, then gestured to his tall, slender companion. “This is Taje Djin-taje-ul, leader of the pantean.”

Halek had no idea what a
pantejan
was, other than perhaps their word for
tribe
, but he was determined to be polite. And anyone with a name that translated as
mother
couldn't be too awful . . . could they? “I greet you, Taje Djin. Where are the others of your tribe?”

“I am Djin-taje,” the woman corrected gently. “Not Djin, but Djin-taje. Please give me the courtesy of using my proper name . . . though you may dispense with formal titles.” She gestured to her right. “As for any others, at this time, there are none. We do not yet need them, though one day we will summon, and more will come. To settle,” added the woman who insisted her title was a backward part of her name. “Not to conquer. That is not the way of the Fae Rii.”

“If
you
are here to conquer,” Ban spoke up, his deep voice echoing slightly off the canyon walls, though he didn't shout in any way, “I suggest you change your minds. A single Fae is worth one hundred of you in battle . . . and I alone am more powerful than one hundred Fae.”

Djin-taje rested her hand on the painted man's shoulder. “Ban is Shae, like yourselves in that he is not Fae, but he comes from farther away than we Fae do. He is my protector, and he does not boast of his skill. Please do not test it in seriousness. He does not have much of good humor in him, so do not test it in jest, either.” Gesturing to the woman on her left, she continued smoothly. “Parren is a Fae Gh'vin, a warrior of our people. She specializes in the movement of water. Beside her is her mate, Kaife, also a Guardian of our people. It is he whose skill with stone shapes and reshapes our stronghold, including the new stone that you see. Beyond them is Rua, who manages our crops and our animals.”

Again the lady with the hoe gave a little bow. Halek realized belatedly the hoe was wrapped in a crisscross of golden metal bands that ended in the golden metal of the blade; the creamy gold wood picked for the shaft blended readily, making such details hard to discern. But she seemed more friendly and approachable than the others.

Djin-taje continued. “Beyond Ban are Adan, another Guardian who manages our needs for things hot and cold, from fire to ice. His is Fali, a Guardian who studies the ways of wind and air. And our last but not least member of the pantean is Éfan, whom you would call our animadj, though all of us can manipulate your anima-energies.”

All four clad in scales continued to stand like statues, though Halek could tell they breathed and blinked. The man with the crystal in his palm and the long, sheer overrobe eyed his orb, then eyed them and dipped his head slightly, remaining aloof. They all studied the White Sands Tribe, some with curiosity, some with neutrality, and Ban with suspicion, but Halek expected that. He debated how much of his tribe to introduce and decided a short round would be appropriate.

“Our animadj is Zudu, and her acolytes are Zitta, Keppa, and Zuki. Our hunt leader is Puna, whom your Ban has met. The rest . . . you may meet if you remain friendly,” he added daringly. “If not, you will have to remain ignorant.”

The woman, Djin-taje, smiled politely. “We would prefer to remain friendly. It is the Fae Rii way to seek polite interactions with others. We are here to learn of this land, to explore it, and to seek what trade might be beneficial to all sides . . . but we were here first. These canyons in the immediate area, and as far as you can walk for the distance the sun travels in the width of two fists stacked one atop the other, is all Fae Rii territory. There is water here, as you have seen, but beyond two fists' worth of time, for over a day, there is very little water at this time of year. What water there is here must either be guarded carefully against waste or summoned via the anima until such time as the winter rains come.

“You have many people, and some animals. All of you are thirsty, and the water on the ground is not enough to nurture you all,” Djin-taje added. “Do you have the ability to summon great amounts of water?”

“We would, if you had not stolen all the anima,” Zudu stated bluntly. “The wisps fly from our grasp and go straight to your caves. I would demand what you have done with all of it, but the very stones have changed—something even I would struggle to manage. It is obvious you have been using it.”

“Do you seek to deprive us of the water we need?” That came from Siffu, one of the mothers to Halek's left. Siffu, whose dark blond hair was the closest anyone came in the White Sands Tribe to the coloring of these strangers. She had come from a land far to the south, from beyond the mountains, a war slave raided and traded repeatedly since she was a child.

Djin-taje smiled gently. “No, youngling. If the decision we make is to have your people leave, we will ensure you have as much clean water as you can carry, but I should like to think we can get along. There is room in these canyons for many of us, after all.”

“Room, yes, but what about food?” Puna asked, speaking up for the tribe's hunting-and-gathering needs. “This soil is rocky and sandy, not good for growing. There is grass, but we cannot live entirely on meat . . . and we do not have many herd animals left. The Spider Hand Tribe stole most of our goats and donkeys when they stole our lands, expanding to take our water sources to feed their growing numbers.”

“Have you eyes?” the Fae Rii named Rua asked. “Have you hands? The ways of plants and animals can be studied to learn what they need. When you have seen what they need, you simply work with your hands to give them that.”

“Spices and herbs can be grown in the desert, with care and tending,” Djin-taje added. “Sweet-smelling resins. These things are often considered valuable to others who live far away, and they will be willing to trade large amounts of food in exchange for smaller amounts of seasonings to flavor their meals and resins that will perfume their fires—that is why we are here, to see what is valuable to trade.”

“We made beads, until the Spider Hands tried to steal the secret of that from us, too, along with our food and our land and our herds,” Halek stated flatly. It hurt to put it that way, in the past, but the rocks and sand around here were not the right kind for making the trade of his tribe. “We did not grow spices and herbs . . . though I suppose we could learn. But it is food and water we need right now.”

Eruk broke his position at those words. Striding swiftly behind the others, he reached Halek in moments and grabbed his leader's arm, whispering in his ear. “You make us sound weak! They are only eight, and we are two hundred! We do not
beg
for food and water—”

Halek gripped the younger man's fingers with his free hand, replying just as intently, if quietly. “Your
eyes
are weak, Eruk. Weaker than mine, for I at least can see these people have the leisure to weave the finest cloth and craft garments like metal lizard skin. Leisure comes only with prosperity. We used to have it. Now we do not. They have it. We
need
it. There is no shame in admitting our needs. There is shame, however, in letting the heat of the sun rule your head, as it so often does Lutun's.”

The warrior flushed. Being compared to that hotheaded youth was no compliment. “I think of our people. If we seem weak, they may think we are conquerable. Or do you wish to end up their slaves, as we almost did to the Circle Fire Tribe? How do you know they are not planning just that? How do you know they don't have five hundred lurking in the shadows, waiting to seize us?”

“Our hearing is quite good,” the center woman stated, startling both men. “We do not
ever
trade in slaves. It is forbidden, against the law of our kind. Each sentient being is precious and entitled to basic rights, which all such thinking beings share.” She paced forward with smooth grace, like a fog pouring down a valley. The dark-haired one, Ban, moved like a shadow at her side while the others stayed back. “It is true that, should you decide to stay here, you must agree that
I
will be the ultimate authority in this place. You, Taje Halek, will still lead your people personally, but final decisions will be brought to me when it is something that will affect this place, my people, or involve contact with others.

“The pantean is Fae Rii territory. Everything within two fists' travel is ours to rule and to decide. We do not allow outsiders to rampage through our territory. But those who agree to abide by our rules may live next to us, and they—your people—shall know prosperity and leisure in time.” She smiled slightly, her sun gold eyes all but glowing with wry mirth. “Of course, it is a new pantean, so there must be hard work to establish it firmly first.

“But here, I give you a gift so that you know the value of what the pantean of Fae Rii could bring to your people,” she added, and lifted her hand toward Halek's face.

Eruk tensed, gripping his spear with both hands. Ban locked gazes with him, backing him off with a simple narrowing of his eyes. Distracted by the exchange, Halek was startled when those golden peach fingertips brushed his cheek . . . and brought a billowing gust of relief through his body, chasing away the pain. He gasped, back arching, and collapsed.

Faster than a blink, Ban caught him, scooping Halek off his feet with no grunt from the effort while his crutch clattered onto the ground. Those golden fingers came back and touched him again. Eruk lifted his spear menacingly. The taje managed to get his hand up, pushing it aside. “No—no! She gives me . . .
relief
from the pain . . .
Ah!

His body jerked as his thighbone snapped back into its socket. The milky film cleared from his injured eye, making him blink and weep tears of pus as it was ejected from the wounds.

“I don't care! Stop hurting him!” Eruk demanded.

Djin-taje lifted her other hand, fingertips brushing the warrior's knuckles. Eruk's jaw dropped, the spear fell from his grip, and he sagged, first to his knees on the sandy, gritty ground, then to his hip, his shoulder, his face. She held up her hand, warding off the others who reached for their weapons. “He is merely asleep and will waken feeling very refreshed in a finger's width of your sun's traveling time, what we Fae call a quarter hour, for our hands have four fingers, and the width of our fist is considered to be one hour.”

“It is not wise to threaten Djin-taje,” Ban added while her right hand continued to make Halek's body twitch. Bones realigned themselves and wounds continued to heal. “She is a healer, not a fighter, but she is well guarded by those who can and will kill.”

“Ban,” the golden woman chided softly. He fell silent.

Zudu, watching them, lifted her hands and frowned thoughtfully, concentrating. Anima gathered between her cupped fingers, forming a wisp of her life force, her will; the moment it coalesced fully, it zipped free of her fingers and sped straight into the Fae woman. Djin-taje sucked in a breath when it hit, and smiled. Halek felt a stronger pulse of those soothing-mist energies filling him a moment later. He struggled to sit up in the man's arms as the last of his pains faded, but it was only when Djin-taje removed her fingers that Ban set Taje Halek on his feet.

As he did so, Halek realized the man wasn't even sweating, never mind trembling, despite having held another fully grown man aloft for several minutes. Steadying himself while the tall, dark man stepped back, he looked around at his wide-eyed, worried tribe. Then looked down at his body. Two straight legs, skin that was whole and unscarred. Two eyes that could see well . . . and better than well, for his vision had started to suffer the plagues that came with advancing age. His eyes saw with the clarity of youth, now.

Hesitantly, he took a step, then another, and another, until he found himself running. Not far, just along the arm of the tribe only to circle back around again. His wasn't the only face grinning, he saw, and he came to a stop in front of the golden-eyed, golden-haired, golden-clad woman. Hope lay in the eyes of the other injured members of his tribe, hope for cures their own animadj had not been able to achieve.

“Can you do this for everyone? At any time?” he asked, elated at being pain free and fully mobile.

“If all of you were injured all at once, it would be difficult. But your anima strengthens the ways of my kind to an astounding degree, so it would not be impossible,” Djin-taje allowed.

“And food and water?” he pressed. “Would you give us that?”

“It would need to be supplemented for a long while with hunted meat, but water, we can give in some abundance right now,” she allowed, glancing at the six who had remained by the ravine entrance. One of the three on the right nodded her metal-covered head. Djin-taje looked back at him. “In exchange, we have certain rules of behavior and customs. Habits of cleanliness, how to dispose of waste, properly handle food, who is allowed to go where—our stronghold is our private space, meant for the Fae and Ban alone—and we have certain customs of how we interact with each other.

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