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Authors: Troy Denning

The Parched Sea

BOOK: The Parched Sea
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The Parched Sea - by Troy Denning

Forgotten Realms

Harpers Series - Book 1

 

Lander glimpsed a dark figure rising out of the sand. It was about the size of a man, but its legs and arms seemed to stick from its body at peculiar angles, like a reptile’s.

The Harper needed to see no more to know that Musalim, and probably Bhadla, too, had ridden into an ambush. He slapped the flat of his sword against his camel’s shoulder, but the sluggish beast refused to charge. The shadow raised a crossbow, and a pair of yellow, egg-shaped eyes flashed in the dark night.

The bolt took Lander below the right collarbone, nearly knocking him from his saddle. His arm went numb, and the sword dropped from his hand. Two more shadows rose out of the blowing sand.

 

Is 0 19 Ž THE HARPERS A semi-secret organization for Good, the Harpers fight for freedom and justice in a world populated by tyrants, evil mages, and dread creatures beyond imagination.

Each novel in the Harpers Series is a complete story in itself, detailing some of the most unusual and compelling tales in the magical world known as the Forgotten Realms.

 

THE HARPERS

Ruha woke abruptly, unsure of what had disturbed her languorous nap. The young woman lay next to her sleeping husband, their bodies touching at the hip and shoulder. She turned to look at his weathered -

face. Ajaman had the rough skin thick mustache of a mature man, but his hairless chest was young, lean, and muscular. He was the only man Ruha had ever seen undressed.

As the young wife gazed at her husband, her vision suddenly blurred. An instant later, it cleared and the face of another man appeared in place of Ajaman’s. She gasped in astonishment, but did not cry out.

The stranger’s visage was unlike any she had ever known. His skin was red and sun-blistered, with a creamy white underlayer showing through where he had peeled. A black patch covered his right eye, and his left eye was as blue as the desert sky. Though his features were drawn and haggard, they were not so careworn that he could have been more than twenty-five.

Any other bride would have run screaming from her new home, concluding that her father had married her to a djinn-but not Ruha. She had been suffering visions since before she could walk, so she recognized the image for what it was: a mirage from tomorrow. Sometime soon, the

: stranger would appear. What would happen then, Ruha could not say, though she knew it would be some mishap or catastrophe. She lacked the talent to interpret the mirages, but nothing good had ever followed one.

Her first vision had been of thousands of butterflies. The butterflies had turned out to be moths, and within two months every yard of cloth in the tribe was full of holes. < Another time, during a terrible drought, she had seen a vast green meadow to the south of the tribe. Her father, the sheikh, had taken the herds in search of the fresh pasturage. After a week of thirsty riding, they had finally found the meadow. It was on the edge of a contaminated pool, and half of their camels had died from drinking poisoned water.

Not surprisingly, Ruha had come to regard her premonitions as more of an affliction than a gift. Without giving the vision further thought, the young wife shut her eyes tightly and hoped it would pass.

Ajaman stirred beside her. “Is something troubling you, my wife?”

The heat rose to Ruha’s cheeks, for being addressed as “wife” gave her a capricious feeling that she found embarrassing.

Opening her eyes, she was relieved to see Ajaman instead of the oneeyed man. The young bride sailed and answered, “Nothing we should worry about:’

She said nothing of her vision, for she did not want Ajaman to blame her for whatever misfortune the oneeyed stranger was bringing. Besides, the desert tribes were wary of magic, and if her new husband suspected her of being a witch, he would cast her from his tent.

Abruptly Alamn &mced at his nude body, then blushed. He reached for his aba, the loose-fitting robe of the Bedine tribes, and pulled it over his head: The couple had only been married for two days, and the bride knew it would be many weeks before they felt completely comfortable.

Rnha sat up and pulled her own aba over her nakedness, then studied her new frhreima with a warm feeling of satisfaction The dimly fit tent was nearly empty, for she and her husband had not yet acquired many possessions. A dozen cushions lay scattered over the ground carpet, her loom and cooking pots rested in one corner, and Ajaman’s weapons dangled from hooks on the wooden tentpoles.

The afternoon breeze drummed gently at the khreirna, and Ruha heard feet scuffling outside. Several men began whispering to each other m jocular tones, probably speculating as to why the tent was closed on such a hot day. Irritated by the men’s presence, Ruha lifted her chin toward the enbunce.

“We have visitors,” she said. By the custom of her people, only her husband could welcome guests to their khreima

Ajaman nodded. “I hear them:’ Turning to the entrance, he called the host’s traditional greeting, “Has somebody come to my khreima in need of help?”

“Time for the watch,” came the reply. Ruha didn’t recognize the deep voice, but that was to be expected. She had not been a member of the “tan tribe until her marAjaman scowled. “It can’t be dusk so soon:”

“You have the night watch?” Ruha asked, frowning at the memory of her premonition. “We’ve only been married two days. Let someone else take the duty.”

“And shame our family so soon?” Ajaman replied, rising from the carpet. Given her husband’s reply, Ruha knew arguing the would do no good. If Ajaman considered the watch a matt of family integrity, even the certain knowledge of impending death would not have stopped him from going. Like A, Bedine, he considered honor more important than his life: “Besides,” Ajaman added, “there is danger of a raiding tonight. The Mtair Dhafir is not the only khowwan within riding distance, you know:’

The Mtair Dhafir was the tribe of Ruha’s father. Her marriage to Ajaman had sealed an alliance between their tribes. There would be no raiding between the two khowwans while both Ajaman and Ruha lived. Unfortunately, there were many other tribes with whom the’ Qahtan had no such ties.

It was not a raiding that worried Ruha, however. By his pale skin, she knew that the oneeyed foreigner did not belong to any Bedine tribe. Whatever his reason for coming to the camp of the Qahtan, it was not intertribal raiding.

“Come, Ajaman,” grumbled the deep voice outside. “We’re due at our posts:’

Ajaman took his keffiyeh off its hook and slipped the white head-cloth over his hair. Ruha stood and straightened it so the long apron hung square across his shoulders. “Stay alert, Ajaman;” she said. “I would be disappointed if you let some boy cut your throat:’

Ajaman grinned. “Have no fear of that, Ruha;” he replied, reaching for his scimitar. “I watch from El Ma’ra’s crown. I’ll see our enemies from miles away:’

Ruha knew the place to which her husband referred. A mile outside the oasis, a lonely spire of yellow sandstone towered more than one hundred feet over the desert. That pinnacle was El Ma’ra Dat-ur Ojhogo, the tall god who lets men sit upon his head.

Keeping her voice low so she would not be overheard, she said, “After dark, I’ll bring you apricots and milk:’ Ajaman nearly dropped his scabbard belt. “You can’t do that!”

“Why not?” the young bride demanded: “Is there any shame in a wife bringing food to her husband.”

Ajaman scowled at the challenge to his authority. “There is enough shame in violating your purdah,” be countered. “The purdah is to keep frightened young brides from returning to their father’s khawwan;’ Ruha said. “I am hardly frightened, and I have no desire to go back to the Mtair ‘ Dhafir. You have no need to isolate me:’

“I know,” Ajaman whispered, his tone losing its earlier sternness. “But if someone should see you-“

“I’ll say you told me to bring you supper,” Ruha responded slyly.

Seeing that his wife would not be denied, Ajaman sighed. “If all women of the Mtair Dhafir are this willful, perhaps they are the ones who should pay camels the next time , they send us a bride:’

Ruha smiled, pleased that her new husband was not the type to bully his wife. The young bride had no idea how she could safeguard Ajaman from whatever the vision presaged, but at least she would be with him to watch for ominous signs.

As Ajaman fastened his scabbard belt, Ruha kissed him. “How much supper should I bring?”

“What you can carry easily;” Aisman answered, still whispering.

Outside the tent, the deep-voiced man called, “Ajaman, quit your bed games and come to the watch! ” The exhortation brought laughter from a dozen throats.

“How many men does it require to fetch you, my husband?” the bride asked, irritated by the intrusive gathering autside the khreima. Though Ruha had addressed Ajaman, she had intentionally spoken loud enough for the men to hear. They tried to pretend they had not heard her complaint, as it was forbidden for a bride in purdah to speak directly to any man except her husband. Despite their efforts, several men could not stifle snickers.

Ajaman raised an eyebrow, but did not seem upset by Ruha’s audacity. He covered the appearance of impropriety by repeating her question, “My wife wishes to know how many men are required to summon me:’

“More than we have brought, apparently,” the deep voiced man returned. “To keep you from your duty, she must truly be as beautiful as her father promised.”

Ruha smiled at the man’s comment. Her father had also promised her that she would be pleased with Ajaman. So far, it appeared that her sire was as skilled at matchmaking as at camel herding.

Picking up his quiver and bow, Ajaman beamed at his new bride. “Indeed, my wife’s father comes from an honorable family,” he called. “It is a pity you cannot see how well he keeps his promises, Dawasir. My words cannot describe her.”

Ruha’s smile vanished with her husband’s words. The comment made her feel as if she were on display. Like all Bedine women, Ruha reserved her beauty for her husband’s eyes alone. Outside her home, the curves of her firm body would always remain concealed beneath her baggy aba. A shawl and veil would hide her sable hair, her proud nose, and the strong features of her statuesque face. All Dawasir or his comrades would ever see of Ruha were her sultry eyes and, perhaps, the crossed hash marks tattooed on her regal cheeks. She could not help feeling betrayed by Ajaman’s boasting.

Ruha caught her spouse by his sleeve and pulled his ear close to her mouth. “If you don’t watch your tongue, my husband,” she whispered, “your friend Dawasir is not the only one who won’t see how well my father keeps his promises:’ Her tone was serious enough to make Ajaman heed her words, but also light enough not to sound like an insult or challenge.

Ajaman clutched at his breast, feigning a wound: “Your words have pierced me deeper than a -raider’s arrow;’ he responded, his mouth upturned in a roguish smile. “I shall die with your name upon my lips:’

Laughing, the bride pressed her mouth to her husband’s. “I’d rather you die with my kiss on your lips than my name:’

Ruha retrieved Ajaman’s amarat from its hook. Before giving it to him, she stopped to run her hand along its handcarved curves. The horn was already the source of her fondest memory, for when Ajaman had come to claim her as his. hride, he had announced his arrival by sounding the arnarat a mile outside the Mtair Dhafir’s camp. Its brazen tones had been Ruha’s first hint that she would like her new husband, for she had not even met him before he came to take her away.

Their marriage had been arranged by fate, or so her father claimed. A waterless summer in the north had driven Ajaman’s tribe, the Qahtan, into the sands traveled by the Mtair Dhafir. Instead of chasing the strangers away, Ruha’s father had proposed an alliance. In return for the Qahtan’s promise to return north at summer’s end, the Mtair Dhafir would share their territory for a few months. The bargain had been sealed by Ruha’s marriage to Ajaman, the son of the Qahtan’s sheikh by his second wife.

What the Qahtan had not realized was that they were solving another problem for their new allies. Witches were no more welcome in the Mtair Dhafir than any other Bedine khowwan, and Ruha had always been a problem for her father. When the strangers wandered into Mtair territory, the sheikh seized the opportunity to marry his daughter into a tribe that had no way of knowing about the visions she suffered. Of course, her father was risking a blood feud if the Qahtan ever found out that she was a witch. Since it was in the best interest of everyone involved in the deception to keep the matter hidden, he was willing to make the gamble. It was a risk that Ruha intended to see that he never regretted.

As she hung her husband’s horn around his neck, Ruha pushed him toward the khreima exit. “You’d better go before Dawasir comes in to get you;’ she whispered. “I’ll join you after dark:’

“Don’t let anyone see you,” Ajaman said, turning to leave. “It might not dishonor our family, but it would embarrass me:’

Ruha shook her head at his unnecessary concern. Ajaman had no need to worry, but could not be blamed for his apprehension. He did not realize that his wife could shroud herself in the shadow of a dune, or that an owl would envy the silence with which she slipped through the desert night. The young husband could not have known these things, for he did not know of the magic that made them possible or of the old woman who had taught Ruha how to use the spells.

Ruha’s marriage to Ajaman was not the first time her father had tried to find another place for her to live. Her mother had died when she was only five. Because of her premonitions, none of the sheikh’s other wives would agree to raise her. Her father was left with no choice but to give up the young girl. He led the tribe to a remote watering hole where an old witch lived in exile.

Like most “shunned women;’ the witch was lonely, so she gladly agreed to take the child as her own. With a peculiar blend of love and forgetful indifference, Qoha’dar set about teaching Ruha how to survive alone in the desert, a talent that relied heavily on the use of magic. By the time Ruha reached the age between childhood and womanhood, she could conjure sand lions, summon wind dragons, and scorch her enemies with the heat of the desert.

BOOK: The Parched Sea
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