The Darkness Before the Dawn - By Ryan Hughes

Chapter One

The air was thick with the smell of burning caravan. The enormous house-sized wagon had met its end in the deep desert, and wood, leather, dead bodies, and anything else not valuable enough to carry away now joined together in a crackling bonfire. Athas’s coppery sun, slipping behind the western horizon, tinted the roiling column of smoke bloody red, sending a signal across dozens of miles of desert: Here there be death.

The fifty or so Jura-Dai elves who cavorted before the flaming wreckage of the enormous wooden merchant wagon didn’t seem to care. Their brightly colored cloaks and shirts and loose, blousy pants flapped gaily as they spun and danced in the flickering light, and their voices rose in laughter and song. Of course, they were the victors. The losers—slave runners who had made the mistake of taking one of the tribe captive—were inside the caravan, the smoke of their flesh and bones adding to the wagon’s in a single enormous funeral pyre. The few who hadn’t died in battle had been driven along with the slaves the elves had freed out into the desert to fend for themselves.

Jedra, a half-elf who had been imprisoned along with the Jura-Dai tribesman, watched the party from partway up the flank of a nearby dune. He could feel the heat of the flames on his face even there, but he was out of the elves’ way. That seemed safest, even though he and the human woman, Kayan, had been invited to travel through the desert with the tribe in repayment for their help in psionically guiding the rescue.

Kayan sat beside him on the dune, her elbows on her knees and her rounded chin resting in her hands. The ends of her brown hair shifted in the breeze, but after eight days in the hold of the slave wagon the shoulder-length strands were too sweaty and greasy to be lifted much by a mere air current. Her skin was smudged with dirt and soot as well, but Jedra didn’t care. They shared a bond much deeper than the mere physical; he had only to close his eyes to see how beautiful she was.

“The elves certainly seem uninhibited,” she said.

Below, some of the elven warriors stood only a few feet from the flames, their backs to the watchers on the dune, but from their stance it was obvious that they were urinating on the fire. Or trying to. The rest of the tribe—women and children as well—were cheering and heckling as first one man, then another, leaped back from the intense heat before he could accomplish the job. A few of the more inebriated managed weak trickles before they, too, were forced back, finally leaving a single warrior standing before the burning wagon. He was tall, and burly for an elf. His only clothing was a pair of bright red pants, and his glistening back rippled with muscle as he calmly went about his business, then buttoned his pants and turned around to receive riotous applause. Jedra noticed with chagrin that the elf had more hair on his chest than he himself did. Half-human ancestry evidently didn’t give him the advantage even there.

“He’s one of the ones who freed us,” Jedra said. “He fought all the way through the caravan to the slave hold. I guess he’s entitled to cut loose a little.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

The elves had appropriated a haunch of meat from the wagon before torching it. It looked like either a leg of mekillot or maybe a whole ink; whichever it was, they had tied it on a spit and were slowly roasting it beside the fire.

The champion elf was impatient, though. He swaggered over to the meat and carved off a fist-sized hunk of it with his sword, then skewered the flesh on the end of the blade and held it closer to the flame. Jedra winced. He could almost feel the heat curling the hair on the elf’s arm.

Almost? Suddenly he realized that he was feeling it. His wild psionic talent had linked him empathically with the elf, and Jedra was feeling the other man’s pain. He hastily broke contact. The elf suddenly jerked his hand back as his own mind bore the entire sensation again, and the other elves laughed. Fortunately nobody—not even the warrior—suspected Jedra’s role in his embarrassment. Jedra vowed to keep a tighter rein on his talent, though. He had known for only a few days that he had any psionic ability at all, and he was still learning

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