Read Dawn of the Flame Sea Online

Authors: Jean Johnson

Dawn of the Flame Sea (8 page)

“Some of these customs are restrictive, but many are more open-minded and welcoming than others,” she added. “In some lands, we have found that the males and the females are separated by what they can do. Among the Fae, it is the opposite; each side is encouraged to try whatever task or skill they might wish to learn, from raising children to hunting beasts, cooking food or crafting items. It is only the mere physical differences that separate us. Men find it very difficult to breast-feed, for instance, though they are still welcome to
try
,” she added with a smile that invited him to share in the jest.

Halek did chuckle a little at that, though even he had heard of legend-stories of fathers with young who had been desperate enough to try. Still, her offer seemed generous, but fraught with unknowns. “If there is a custom of yours my people do not like, is there room for discussion, and perhaps a change?”

“Our way is the way of discussion and reason,” Djin-taje told him. “Our ways are often ones that have been tested by time, almost all of them backed by good reasons and thus rarely ever changed. Sometimes . . . sometimes, some of those reasons do not suit a new location, and we are known to bend and reshape ourselves, growing in a new direction. Growth with a purpose is usually good, so we are willing to discuss each time.”

He considered that and looked at his people. The men, the women, the elderly, the young. The healthy and the injured. He and his tribe had been forced out of their homelands, away from the wood that had given them the fire to bake the quartz that had given them the beads to trade, away from the sands of their very name. But they were no longer White Sands. They were . . . something else. Nameless. Identityless until they could find a new niche for themselves in the world.

“You will adopt us into your tribe if we agree to obey?” he asked her. “With the right to discuss?”

She smiled but shook her head. “We are Fae. You are Shae. You will have your own identity, but you shall be our allies, and under our protection.”

Halek sighed. He knew it wouldn't be that easy. Her answer both pleased and disappointed him. Disappointed, because it meant his people had to find a new identity in this place. Maybe spices, if they could learn to grow those plants. Maybe other things, or maybe a place-name, or a blend of both like their old name. But her answer pleased him because it spoke of her true intentions. She would impose order but would treat those under her with respect.

As much as he knew he was a good leader in most circumstances, Halek knew he was not the kind of taje who could comfortably lead others to war. It was why he had ordered his tribe to leave, rather than fight to the last of them. A full third of the adults had died in those first skirmishes with the Spider Hand people, led by its creepy six-fingered taje. He was not willing to lose any more.

“Do you make war on others?” he asked. “Do you go forth to hunt people without being provoked by them?”

“Never.” It was a flat, hard denial. “We
never
start a fight in strange lands, save only by sheer accident. We will defend ourselves, however, and defend with great ferocity. If a war is started by accident, then we try to arrange that both sides make amends.”

The man Ban nodded in agreement, his dark eyes soft rather than hard. The contrast was odd, since until now, Ban had projected an air of danger and ferocity. It gave Halek an insight into the strange, extra tall male. Once again, he looked at his tribe. Even at Eruk, who slept on the ground. Eruk, who was fierce, who wanted to fight, who wanted the leadership of the tribe, either as its chief warrior or as its taje. But fighting was shortsighted in Halek's opinion. Fighting consumed more food and water and other resources than it ever gave back, for it also consumed the bodies and thoughts of its warriors with injuries and pains, hatreds and grievances.

For the most part, his people were tired. They needed a home. “Very well. We will be your allies,” Taje Halek stated. “And we shall follow your rules, Djin-taje-ul—provided you share with us your water right now, to prove you have that much water to spare. And that you heal our injuries, as an act of good faith on your part. We are many, we are weary and hurting, and we are thirsty. It is much to demand of you right now, but you ask much of us over time.”

“Of course. Parren. Kaife. Build a fountain for our new Shae friends,” she instructed. “Give it plenty of good shade from the sun, to make it a gathering place for this tribe.”

The two scaled figures on the right murmured for a moment, then gestured for one of the other two to join them, while the fourth stood watch. They moved into a triangle with their backs to each other, and sat, linking hands. Djin-taje-ul eyed them, then gestured off to one side, to a point many yards away. “We should all move back out of the way. I will stand over there, and you will bring your injured to me to be healed. Begin with those who are suffering the most.”

“Animadj . . . Djin-taje-ul,” Zudu spoke up. “May I and my acolytes watch your spells? We would learn from you if that is allowed.”

“Of course, though how we Fae craft our spells will be different from how you Shae use yours,” their new leader-over-all cautioned her fellow mage. “You may not learn much, but you are welcome to watch whenever we are outside our stronghold. Ban, lift and move the fallen man, please. I suspect Kaife wishes to put the fountain pavilion where we now stand. It is a spot that has the room for it, at least.”

Bowing his head, the dark-haired man stooped and scooped up the fallen warrior as easily as he had lifted the tribe's leader. Halek stooped as well, picking up crutch and spear. With a gesture, he led his people off to the side. Just in time, too: as soon as the last person cleared, the ground trembled a little, then parted with a rumbling rasp of shifting dirt. Granite rose gradually up out of the hard soil, shedding clumps of earth and rock. Halek slowed for a moment to watch, then hurried to catch up with the others, though he continued to look that way, unnerved yet fascinated by how fast these Fae could work their will on the land.

By the time Eruk roused, three more had been healed. He was not pleased to learn of the bargain, until he saw how swiftly all injuries were being mended. While the pavilion structure grew at an unhurried pace, Djin-taje-ul finished mending the last of the actual injuries—she eyed all simple scratches and bruises as “a lesson of being more cautious next time, which each body needs to learn on its own” and refused to heal them.

At the end, a huge expanse of whitish rock speckled with darker crystals stood on matching ground. The granite structure formed a great, multisided canopy made of stone, one with two rows of columns to support the roof, and two layers of that roof to shade it: a smaller roof raised above and overlapping the outer, greater one by a good arm's length in the center, all of it stone that spanned enough room to have sheltered the entire tribe from a hard desert rain. Not their beasts, but the whole tribe at the very least.

Thick, graceful pillars etched with lines and curves rose up to support it, with a network of pointed arches along the underside. The outer ring, delineating the space between the columns, arched between themselves and the next pairs to either side. For the inner dome, each rib that came down from the edge of the ring between lower and upper roof either landed on a support column of the inner ring or had a rib that speared down into the center post.

A strange stone ring hung suspended from those arch-ribs. It dangled from Y-shaped supports also formed of seamless stone, supported underneath by more struts angling down to the ranks of outer and inner columns. The center post in turn went up to the peak of the inner roof, where it supported that roof by small columns that matched each point of the arches below and shared a half arch with the stout, fluted center post.

That innermost post was not just a support; it formed the center of the fountain, which flared out like a strange, graceful, conical tree. Layers of petal-and-leaf-shaped basins overlapped each other until they formed a pool at the base. Even as Halek watched, water welled up out of several openings near the top, first trickling, then splashing down and down, pouring eventually into that bottommost basin. Where it went after that, he did not know, but the water looked clear and clean right from the start.

The last of the touches, he saw, were how the roof grew a little bit more, extending past its outermost posts, and how the bases of several of those posts along the inner ring swelled and raised up, forming curved, leaflike seats in round benches around the foot of every alternating column. The others remained clear of seats, but along the outer ring of pillars, curling stone vines bulged and rippled up the sides of the supports, forming loops and twists on every alternating post. Belatedly, Halek realized one could use those loops to attach the halter of a beast.

The space between those inner and outer posts was wide enough to easily drive two score of sheep or goats; the space between the inner ring and the base of the grand pool was wide enough to accommodate three times that many. How the whole thing stood without collapsing, Halek did not know. The widest he had ever seen a flat stone roof span was as wide as three people holding hands and stretching out their arms. This shelter stretched farther than that between its pillars.

The trio of scale-clad Fae released each other's hands and stood. All three removed their helmets, showing that two were male, one was female. All bore the pointed ears and the same shades of gold to their hair, their skin, even their eyes, with subtle differences that Halek could not easily separate right away. He was used to seeing shades of brown and hazel for eyes, brown and black for hair. A woman like Siffu, with her curly blond hair and blue eyes, stood out from the rest of the White Sands, but she still looked like one of them. Like a fellow human. Not these tall, thin, golden, ear-pointed strangers.

But he was not afraid of them. Cautious, and respectful of their great animadj abilities, but not fearful. Halek moved closer to speak with them, glancing between the trio and the water trickling and splashing down from the midpoint of that innermost pillar.

“The water is safe to drink,” the female stated as he drew near. Parren, that was her name. She strolled to the fountain, dipped her hand in the water, and drank from her palm. One of the two males sighed, gestured, and the solid-granite floor under the stone shelter rippled and separated in lumps that rose up, formed bowl shapes, and turned themselves into large stone mugs with handles curving outward along one side.

Granite mugs, Halek realized. “Why so much granite?”

“It polishes well, it is reasonably hard, and it conveys very little taste to the water. I am Kaife,” the man who answered stated. He scooped up two of the mugs, dipped them, then offered both to Halek. “Pick whichever you like, Taje. As my mate says, it is safe to drink.”

A courtesy, Halek realized, reaching for the mug on the left. One steeped in a past that had to have known poison and treachery several times to have included a way to negate such suspicions in said courtesy. “You have met those who are suspicious, or those who are untrustworthy?”

“We prefer to be kind and courteous. Civilized,” Kaife stated with a slight smile. “This does not, and never has, made us blind to the less-than-civilized ways of others.” He lifted his mug to his lips and drank, then sighed and looked around. “This new land is harsh, yet beautiful. We understand you were pushed out of your own home not long ago. Was it anything like this in appearance?”

“Not really. There were more hills than canyons,” Halek admitted. “Some streams that ran all year, but many wadijt—a wadij is a mostly dry streambed that can flood without warning. I am a little nervous about these canyons, but we need the shelter and the greenery. Our former home had more bushes, even a good stretch with many trees, particularly around our oasis—there was a generous spring that fed our lake. But also sand that was pure and white, made from wind-broken bits of quartz,” he told the young-looking Fae. All of them looked young, actually, their faces smooth and adult, but unlined with age. Lifting one side of his outer vest, he displayed the beads stitched to it. “We made fajenz from it, we of the White Sands Tribe.”

“We do not have these beads,” the second male stated, a mug of water in his hand. Others from the White Sands were drawing near, picking up more of the generously summoned cups to try the waters of the fountain. They did so cautiously, keeping an eye on the Fae and their taje. The male eyed the drifting natives, studied the beadwork on their leather clothes, and shrugged. “They are a possible point of trade.”

“We do not have access to the necessary sands anymore,” Halek admitted reluctantly.

Kaife grinned. “Sand is but tiny pieces of stone, and you said it was made mostly from quartz, which is just a specific kind of stone. And stone
I
can give you in abundance, specific or otherwise. Granite itself contains a great deal of quartz, among other minerals. It would be easy enough to separate out what you need.”

“Then we would need the salts to color it, and the wood for the fires to harden it,” Zitta stated, joining Halek, who quickly introduced them.

“Kaife, Parren . . . and Adan,” Halek dredged up out of his memory of Djin-taje-ul's introduction. “This is Zitta; he is our second strongest animadj, and a keeper of the secrets of fajenz making. Everyone knows that fajenz is made from quartz and hardened like clay in a fire. But the exact secrets of the colorings are just that. Secrets.”

“Every trade has its secrets. The Fae Rii, the Fair Traders you would say in your tongue,” Adan offered, “have and keep many of our own. If we learn any of yours, we will keep them secret as well, as we have kept the secrets of others.”

Halek couldn't think of anything to say. He turned his attention to the fountain, then up to the broad stone ring circling the midrange of the roof. Unlike the rest, it was almost pure white, rather than speckled white and gray. “What is that ring for?” he asked. “It is not supporting anything, so why is it there?”

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