Carnivores of light and.., p.1
Carnivores of Light and Darkness, p.1Alan Dean Foster
THE SKY BEGAN TO DARKEN AND A VOICE BOOMED BEHIND THEM
It was the lament of something that was less than a beast and more than a natural phenomenon, the unnaturally drawn-out moan of a fiend most monstrous and uncommon. The fleeing travelers turned, and saw at last what had tried to ambush them.
It advanced not in the manner of a living creature but in the manner of sand. It had no arms and then a hundred, no feet but one as wide as the base of the advancing dune itself. Everywhere and all of it was dark red, like all the rust that had ever afflicted the metals of the world squeezed into a swiftly shifting pyramid of rage. The dune howled and moaned and bellowed like some sky-scraping banshee unwillingly fastened to the Earth.
And in the midst of all that geologic fury, two-thirds up the face of the oncoming mountain, were two eyes . . .
“This odd and engaging fantasy has an apparently African setting, but . . . owes far more to Grimm’s fairy tales. . . . It’s a wondrous journey.”
“Top-drawer Foster, featuring a fast-paced mix of wry humor, high fantasy, and amazing new places and creatures.”
“Combines the flexibility of a picaresque adventure with the simplicity of a folktale. . . . This promising series opener belongs in most libraries.”
“Etjole’s quest is reminiscent of The Odyssey.”
Also by Alan Dean Foster
THE I INSIDE
INTO THE OUT OF
THE MAN WHO USED THE UNIVERSE
SPELLSINGER II: THE HOUR OF THE GATE
SPELLSINGER III: THE DAY OF THE DISSONANCE
SPELLSINGER IV: THE MOMENT OF THE MAGICIAN
SPELLSINGER V: THE PATHS OF THE PERAMBULATOR
SPELLSINGER VI: THE TIME OF THE TRANSFERENCE
SPELLSINGER VII: CHORUS SKATING
TO THE VANISHING POINT
CARNIVORES OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS. Copyright © 1998 by Thranx, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
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For Absalom . . .
Who burned to know how to read.
Cape Cross Station, Skeleton Coast, Namibia
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 air as 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 shorte
“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 it—or 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 shark—or 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 fro
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.
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