Authors: James R. Sanford
James R. Sanford
book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are
the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely
Copyright © 2014
by James R. Sanford
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without written permission from the author. This e-book has been published
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To Bill, for tolerating
my madness for so long.
Mahai of the Onakai woke in the night to the sound of his mother screaming. He
ran across the inner courtyard to his parents’ sleep house, his big feet
thumping a drumbeat on the wooden walkway. All around the sleep house a ground
fog had begun to thicken. The netting at the entry had been torn away. His
mother crouched in one corner, shakily mumbling a prayer, looking at a solid
white human shape rising from his father’s sleeping mat, a curling mist hanging
in the air where it passed.
was all over him,” his mother cried. “It covered him like a skin.”
crossed to the rack where his father’s war club lay. The entity turned slowly
as he hefted the weapon. It did have the look of a skin, wrinkled and creased
in the right places, with hollow eyes and an empty mouth, as if there were
edge of the club bristled with shark’s teeth, and Mahai swung
with all his
weight. It would have taken the head off any normal man, but the club bounced
back like it had struck stone. The skin casually backhanded him as it walked
out. Mahai caught the blow on his shoulder, the force of it spinning him into
the wall, and suddenly he was very cold, a stabbing pain where he had been
mother knelt over his father’s body. “He’s dead,” she sobbed. “It killed
him.” She laid her hand across his cheek, pulling it back in shock and turning
to her son. “What is this?”
touched him. He was colder and harder than any dead man should be. Though Mahai
had never seen it, the Onakai still told tales of a time when frozen water fell
from the sky. He looked at his mother, searching for the word.
sat in the shade on the outskirts of Tiah, the capital, and the only large town
in the Tialucca nation. He held a wet cloth to his forehead and watched Ellec
choose a new mast from among the seasoned poles lying in the lumberyard. Most
of them were for roof supports and were too small, but a few of them were stout
enough to serve as a new mast for
. Birds were clan totems to the
Tialuccans, and they erected tall poles along the shoreline, each one topped
with a massive carving of a bird head, all looking out to sea.
did a double take as she walked by, stopping in front of him. “Did you fall on
your face during practice? Certainly Aiyan wouldn’t hit you so hard.”
smiled thinly. “In a sense he did. He’s teaching me a new weird that he calls
the gait of the wind. You try to run full speed with your eyes closed and not
trip or hit anything. It’s kind of fun when you’re in the flat field.”
me guess. You tried to do it in the forest.”
told me to. And I was on a pretty good run, only I ducked just a moment too
called her over to him then, and she walked away saying, “See you at the king’s
house for afternoon coffee.”
had adopted a different air in the week since they had landed on Mokkala. She
had become more . . . distracted, or contemplative, or something like that — certainly
less passionate than she had been at sea. Sure, she was tired from the endless
work, but there was something more serious with her than her duties.
top of that, they slept apart a few nights ago because of Riankatta, and he had
another disturbing dream. He had been lost in a labyrinth, and someone had
been looking for him. He couldn’t shake a bad feeling about who it had been.
had run aground
only eight miles up the coast from Tiah, and some younger guys in outrigger
canoes came paddling up to meet them that afternoon. They used a form of
Cor’el that was different and hard to decipher, but Ellec managed to hold a
simple conversation with them. They came back the next day with more canoes
and plenty of strong fellows. Pallan dropped the anchor a few hundred paces
astern, ran the cable through a block, and at high tide they all heaved but still
couldn’t budge the ship. In the end, Ellec went to King Tonah, showed him how
to make coffee — the Tialuccans had nothing like it — and made a deal for transportation
and warehouse space along with the promise of trade. They used the Tialuccans’
biggest canoes to move everything but the ship’s cat from
to the town.
It took a couple of dozen trips, but they finally floated her.
far, Mokkala wasn’t what he had expected. When
had limped around
the headland on one sail and they sighted it, Ellec said that Tiah looked like
a Baskillian colony without the Baskillians. The wide, airy houses with roofs
covered in clay tiles, the graveled streets, the public rock gardens shaded by
trees that had been trimmed in ornate patterns — they had all seen it before in
paintings of Baskillia.
sat on the north side of a deep inlet, with a beach at the far end. At the
southern tip of the beach, an enormous outcropping of stone, perhaps an eighth
of a mile across, rose from the coast to dominate the skyline. Strangely, a
wide dock jutted out from the harbor below the town, sitting empty while the shore
to either side lay dotted with canoes resting in storage racks, as if the
Tialuccans expected the spice galleons to return at any time.
royal family, the chiefs, the priests and priestesses, and anyone who could be
considered educated spoke passable Baskillian. Ellec spoke it moderately well,
but Kyric’s was better and Aiyan used him as a translator when speaking to King
Tonah and his court.
royals lived better, but not immensely better than the average Tialuccan family.
Nor did they dress much different, the king in the same open vest and
wraparound kilt that the other men wore, and the queen in the typical long,
sleeveless dress. Aiyan liked this. He said that it spoke well of the
character of these people. Those who lived in the town were craftsmen, but
most Tialuccans were farmers. Everyone made their own cloth, even the royals,
and they dyed them in reds and yellows.
of the farmers grew spice plants. They didn’t need to. A few miles inland across
the coastal plain a forested mountain ridge rose sharply, and on its slopes grew
wild cardamom, far more than the whole of Mokkala could use. All they had to
do was go and pick it.
was woven into their lives at every fold. The little green pods were crushed
into their food, and ground in with their medicine. It was mixed into the
incense they burned in their ceremonies. And although King Tonah had ample
amounts of all the six spices of Mokkala, it was the Tialucca’s own that he
chose to stir into his coffee.
the early afternoons, when the daily rains came, King Tonah had begun hosting a
coffee hour for his court, and Aiyan was always invited. They gathered in
Tonah’s receiving room — you could hardly call it a throne room. It was
sparsely furnished with mats and low tables that were more like trays. A small
potted tree stood in each corner. Kyric had yet to see a chair anywhere in
Tiah. The bamboo-covered floor was raised three fingers higher at the end of
the chamber, where the king sat near a window, and that was the only separation
he made from his guests. Aiyan and Tonah would spar daily in a contest of
questions about each other’s people, while Ubtarune, the high priest, sat listening
in his cape of bird feathers.
Today Kyric and Aiyan would meet the
visitors who had arrived yesterday evening, a chief and a sorcerer from the
nearby Bantuan nation. Kyric had got a glimpse of them that morning. He
figured that they must be a poorer people. With their simple yellow tunics and
buckskin leggings, and wide straw hats made in the Baskillian style, he would
never have known that they were Bantuan elders. Unlike the Tialuccans, they
didn’t wear rings or bracelets or bangles, only a small medicine bag around
their necks. And they brought dogs — slender short-haired hounds that looked
like they could lope along for hours. The Bantuan were a herding people. They
kept cattle in the lower vales, and in the high valleys they herded agile
long-haired sheep native to the island. They never went anywhere without their
sat on rattan mats listening to the rain while the aroma of coffee filled the
room. Kyric gazed at the ceiling. It was covered with paintings of colorful,
almost mythic looking birds. Only the topmost leaders of the clan were there —
Tonah and his wife Opela, Ubtarune and his cousin Ilara, the elder priestess,
and an old bald man named Saloi, who wore a pair of shorts that looked like
pajamas with the legs rolled up past the knees. His title was Spice Master,
whatever that was. The Bantuan sorcerer was called Birjen. Naran was the name
of the chief, and Tonah spoke to him.
are welcome here. Please say what is on your mind.”
liked King Tonah. He had a broad face that seemed carved in stone. He wrapped
himself in dignity, but not the prideful sort, and he was more interested in
hearing your opinion than giving his. His feathered crown sat on a pillow next
to him, but he never put it on.
from the Silasese have come to us,” said Naran. He looked directly at Aiyan.
“They say a man has come from across the sea and made himself ruler of the
Hariji. He has laid a powerful magic on King Irogi and his advisors, and they
treat him as the son of a god. A Silasese priestess has read the sign of evil
in the stars. In their tongue they call him Soth Garo, the white warrior,
because his skin has no color. They say he is preparing the Hariji for war, and
that he will bring death to every nation of Mokkala.”
waited for Kyric to translate for Aiyan. Then Ellec and Lerica came in,
shaking the rain off. Ellec bowed to the room. “I’m sorry that we are late.”
smiled. Ellec was his favorite person these days. “You are welcome.”
he introduced the Bantuans, they rose to their feet. Birjen walked right up to
Ellec and Lerica, looking them up and down. Kyric wasn’t sure, but he seemed
to be smelling them.
look of revulsion slowly spread across his face. His mouth puckered in disgust
and Kyric thought he was going to spit on King Tonah’s floor.
,” he said. He looked to Tonah in appeal. He was obviously
surprised that the king would even let them in his house.
are welcome,” Tonah said firmly. “Sit now, or else go be with your dogs.”
they all had sat, Tonah turned to Chief Naran.
have heard a tale like this from the Manutu, who heard it from the Onakai. I
sent my son Caleem to the south with our best hunters to find the truth of it.
He has been gone a fortnight, so I expect his return any day now. Please stay
with us until then, so you may hear what he has learned.”
were some muffled shouts outside. The rain had stopped. One of Tonah’s
nephews came skidding to a stop at the entry.
Mahai is here,” he said between breaths. “I think something bad has happened.”
him here at once,” said Tonah, “and find shelter and refreshment for his men.”
nephew looked at his uncle for a moment. “There’s only one man with him.”
walked in then, wet and muddy and barefoot, with bandages on his chest and
arms. He was a large and heavy man, bigger than Aiyan, but he moved with
practiced grace. And he may have jiggled with some extra fat as he knelt
before King Tonah, but he was mostly slabs of muscle.
looked at everyone at the room in turn, then at Tonah.
Onakai nation has been destroyed,” he said. “And my father is dead.”
had a gentle face, and a gentle baritone voice. He wasn’t any older than
one spoke. No one moved. Mahai continued.
heard all kinds of rumors. A warrior of ashen face who carries with him a
strange mist. His bodyguard of death worshipers who carry the arms of war. We
heard that he forced King Irogi to drink his blood and thus enslaved him, that
the priests of the Hariji had abandoned their totems in favor of this ashen
one, and that he had enraged the Hariji hunters against us and made them ready
for war. But we heard all of this too late.
had only half a day’s warning of their attack. My father had been murdered the
night before, and our chiefs were forced to meet and elect a war leader. This
slowed us, and only half our warriors had gathered in Kai’no when the Hariji
charged from the forest.
fought like madmen, and it seemed to me that their whole nation had gone
insane. They did not fight in the usual manner, as when land or honor is
disputed. They fought to wipe us out, in a killing frenzy that did not stop.
They killed the wounded where they had fallen. They killed women who got in
the way. And they had no fear.”
paused for a moment. “There was this one. I had broken his arm and knocked
his spear away. He was backed up against a storehouse. I was angry. I kicked
him in the knee so he couldn’t run, and then I brought my war club down on his
head. I was looking into his eyes at the last moment. He wasn’t afraid.”
looked at Aiyan even as he translated this, and when he met his eye he saw an affirmation
there. His stomach went hollow. Soth Garo was a Knight of the Dragon’s Blood,
and had forced them all to drink from his vein.
Tonah asked Mahai, “How did your father die?”
ashen one, he possesses a demon.”
held up his hand. “Sorry. I don’t think I heard you correctly. Did you mean
to say that he is possessed by a demon?”
took a long look at him. It felt like a look of recognition. “No, I do not.
It is as I said. The demon is possessed by
. It is a skin that
walks, and it is cold as the darkness that lies beyond. It covered my father
and he was turned to ice.”
sat fully upright at this news, but held his tongue.
spoke up. “Perhaps he only means to recover the Hariji lands that were lost
when the Onakai families split away.”
not think this,” Mahai said.
said Ellec. “Men like this do not stop unless you stop them.”
must gather our clans,” Naran said to Tonah. “I will not wait for Prince Caleem.
Whatever this evil one’s intention, we must make war upon him for what he has
already done. It will take the better part of a month, but I will assemble the
dog warriors of the Bantuan and bring them here to join forces with the
are only one chief,” Birjen said to him.
will make them listen. I will see it done.”
let it be so,” said Tonah. “I will raise the spears of the Tialucca. Let all
the clans meet here before the next full moon.” To Mahai he said, “Are the Manutu
assembling their hunters?”