After a meteor explosion, Rikardon wakes in a new body—and in a strange desert land named Gandalara, where a sacred gem known as the Ra’ira grants its owner the power to rule—or to destroy . . .
Rikardon and Tarani have the Ra’ira in their possession and plan to return it to the Council at Raithskar. But before they reach their destination, Rikardon is dealt a savage blow—Keeshah, his giant war cat, leaves to reunite with his own kind in the Valley of the Sha’um.
Newly vulnerable, Rikardon and Tarani are captured and brought back to Eddarta, where Tarani is forced to surrender the Ra’ira to the vicious High Lord Indomel. As Indomel’s older sister, Tarani has a claim to his throne—and the gem. But to win the support of the other Lords, Rikardon and Tarani need more than birthright. They need an ancient talisman that can only be recovered by traveling to the poisonous crater known as the Well of Darkness—a journey that will test their courage and bond to the breaking point.
Praise for the Gandalara Cycle
“Entertaining and well-paced.” —Theodore Sturgeon, The Twilight Zone Magazine
“This series as a whole is possibly the best of its kind in many years.” —SF Chronicle
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I breathed a sigh of relief when the la farmland at the outskirts of Eddarta fell behind us.
It wasn't that I found the desert attractive — quite the opposite. Our hurried exit from the city hadn't allowed us time to bring provisions for the desert crossing, and Tarani and I could look forward to being slightly uncomfortable before we reached the nearest Refreshment House, where the Fa'aldu would provide us with food, water, and shelter.
Keeshah would have the worst of it, I was afraid. The big cat's body was even more efficient than ours at conserving water, but he was going to carry two people across nearly two hundred miles of hot, totally waterless desert. If I pushed him, we could make the trip in less than three days, but by the time we reached the Refreshment House at Iribos, he would be badly in need of food and rest.
The hardship ahead of us notwithstanding, being out of Eddarta was like no longer having a toothache. Now that we were safely out of Idomel's reach, I realized that I had felt oppressed and burdened during the time we had spent in Eddarta. The pressure to accomplish our purpose had contributed to that sensation, and my confused feelings for Tarani hadn't helped any. The city itself, however, had disturbed me — it had a character that was distinctly distasteful.
As Rikardon, I was a blending of the Gandalaran memories and abilities of a native with the perceptions and attitudes of a stranger. Ricardo, the stranger, viewed all Gandalaran things from the perspective of a twentieth- century American. Young Markasset, the native, hadn't known a whole lot about his own world. His strong points had been physical skills and emotion, not intellectual curiosity. He had been aware of the fact that slavery was practiced in Eddarta and had, in a general way, disapproved.
Eddarta, however, was all the way on the other side of Markasset's world from his home city of Raithskar, and both cities had been centuries developing their styles. Slavery in Eddarta, though regrettable to Markasset, had seemed as much a fact of life as the beneficial bureaucracy ruled by the Council of Raithskar.
Ricardo Carillo, had studied languages for most of his life. Inseparable from that study was an awareness of the history through which languages developed and changed. Ricardo had a healthy respect for every man's right to choice; he had invested a few years of his life, through military service in the U.S. Marines, in support of that ideal.
Eddarta didn't fit directly into any historical pattern I could identify from human history, but it had the unpleasant elements of several unappetizing periods.
Revenue from land or service didn't belong to the producer, but to his or her "landpatron" — a member of one of the seven ruling families. In feudal Europe, the rise of the guilds had helped break down the feudal system. Crafts hadn't been tied to the land, and a Guildsman had been able to take his art out of range of an ungrateful sponsor.
Travel wasn't all that easy in Gandalara, where everyone except Sharith (which meant nearly everybody) walked, and everywhere they walked was mostly desert. In Eddarta, craftsmen continued to be identified by their work location, just like food producers. A part of their revenue went to their landpatrons, and craftsmen could be called upon for special service with no payment. If a Lord wanted to throw a special party, the fresh fruit and a new set of bronze tableware were equally available to him on request from his landservants.
The Lords of Eddarta, while unlikable, were no dummies. They knew better than to ask of the people on whom they depended for their comfort to do certain kinds of work for them. Slaves were bought, conquered, or condemned to do those jobs.
Besides being useful as personal servants and heavy laborers, the slaves provided Eddarta with a lowest class, so that the landservants could think of themselves as farmers or craftsmen or merchants. While the slaves were totally under the control of the Lords, landservants had the illusion of freedom, though they seldom tried to leave Eddarta.
Their freedom was a political illusion much like the psychic ones Tarani could project. I'm sure that my sense of relief included a feeling of gratitude that we had never been truly a part of Eddarta, and so could truly escape the city.
At least I could.
I wasn't sure what Tarani was feeling, except that the heaviness of her body against my back told me of her weariness. She had managed to nap, now and again — a remarkable feat for one riding second place on a sha'um. I, at least, had the security of direct contact with Keeshah's furred back. Tarani's position, riding the cat's hips, her legs bent and tucked inside mine, was more precarious and less comfortable. That she had been able to sleep spoke eloquently of how tired she was.
We had been traveling for several hours, and had a substantial head start on any possible pursuit from Eddarta. The moon had set; since little starlight could penetrate the continuous cloud cover, Keeshah was finding his route through scent, memory, and an innate sense of direction. He ran through an eerie silence, his breathing and the whisper of sand under his big paws the only sounds we heard. He seemed tireless.
*Stop, Keeshah,* I said to the sha'um, through the telepathic linkage we shared.
*No.* Keeshah's thought was abrupt, preoccupied; his body continued its pace without hesitation.
*What? Don't you want to rest?* I asked him.
*No.* Again that scary sense of distance, as if he were responding automatically to a routine question that didn't really require his attention.
I had been half asleep myself, dozing with my face pressed into soft fur. The strangeness of Keeshah's mood pulled me fully awake.
*Hey,* I said. *It's been a long night, Keeshah. You may be indestructible, but we're not. Let's stop and catch a few hours' sleep.*
*Don't want to,* he said, finally focusing his attention on me.
Something was still strange, and it was a minute or two before I could pinpoint what it was. Keeshah seemed to be speaking to me from only the surface of his mind. Our usual close contact, that occurred on a deeper level as shared thinking, rather than shared thought, was closed off, blocked.
*Is something wrong, Keeshah?* I asked him.
Hesitation, then: *No.*
He must be more tired than he wants to show me, I decided. He's hiding it because he's eager to get home.
Me, too, I sighed. Markasset loved Raithskar, but he hadn't seen much of the world. I haven't been everywhere in, Gandalara myself, but I've covered a large chunk of territory these past weeks, and I'm in a better position to appreciate Raithskar's beauty, cleanliness, and peacefulness.
I thought of what lay within the leather pouch that rode within the crook of my hip. After I deliver the Ra'ira to Thanasset — and take a week-long bath — I'm going to show Tarani the city. I know she'll love it as much as I do.
Thoughts of Tarani reminded me of what Keeshah's odd mood had distracted me from: the need to get some rest.
*Please stop, Keeshah,* I said.
He didn't answer me for a few seconds, and I found myself considering the astonishing possibility that the big cat might refuse — something that hadn't happened since Markasset and Keeshah, both of them youngsters, had formed their unique bond.
Markasset may have thought that he gave Keeshah orders, but I'd never had that delusion. From the day I had awakened in Gandalara, I had been awed by the big cat, and delighted by our partnership. Keeshah had done some things that went against his own wishes, but out of friendship, not in obedience.
Keeshah was three times my size. His razor-sharp claws were as long as my own fingers.
Question, I thought. What does a sha'um do when the carnival comes to town?
Answer. Anything he wants.
I knew the sha'um would never hurt me, but a wave of apprehension swept through me. Keeshah had challenged an ordinary, sensible suggestion. In spite of what he had told me, I knew something was wrong — but not what. That troubled me more than anything else. After all our close sharing, I couldn't tell, automatically, what was troubling him.
Keeshah slowed down, solving at least one problem. *All right,* he said. *Rest. But go soon?*
It was less a question than an ultimatum. I checked my convenient Gandalaran "inner awareness" and realized that dawn was only a couple of hours away.
*As soon as it's light,* I promised. It was far less rest than Tarani or I needed, but I wasn't sure Keeshah would allow a longer delay. The uncertainty was awkward and unsettling.
Keeshah crouched down to let us step off his back. Tarani was still mostly asleep; I heard the raspy sound of shifting sand as she staggered a bit. As Keeshah moved away from us, I reached out to steady her, and she fell into my arms.
I felt a surge of protectiveness and tenderness as I held her. Protection she didn't need; we had been through too much together for me to underestimate her toughness. But the tenderness seemed to be welcome.
Tarani was taller than most Gandalaran women, her body slim and supple from years of dancing, a little thin now from the past several days of hurried travel. I stroked her headfur with my cheek. Her body tensed; she raised her head and brought her hand up to find my face in the darkness.
I pulled her more tightly against me as we kissed. I wasn't thinking of the night in Eddarta, or of the reasons I had turned away from her then. I wasn't remembering her association with Molik, or her engagement to Thymas. I wasn't even aware, consciously, of what Thymas had said just a few hours ago, right before he had left us: "She loves you."
I was just holding her, and it felt good. Then she moved in my arms, stepped away, tugged at my hand. It was too dark to see her face, but I had no trouble reading the invitation.
I had the same trouble accepting it as I'd faced in Eddarta.
Tarani was two women — but she didn't know that, and I couldn't bring myself to tell her.
Whatever force had snatched Ricardo Carillo's personality from the deck of a Mediterranean cruise ship had also brought Antonia Alderuccio, a sophisticated, worldly, and wealthy young woman with whom Ricardo had been talking. Antonia's personality had arrived in Gandalara four years, objective time, before I had awakened in Markasset's body:
More than the time factor was different. I had replaced a Gandalaran personality that had died only moments before my arrival. Tarani had been sixteen years old, and very much alive, when Antonia took up residence.
This was all deduction, based on what I knew of the disruption that had changed Tarani's life at age sixteen, and supported by one startling piece of evidence. In Eddarta, moved by passion, Tarani had spoken my human name, Ricardo. She hadn't heard the difference from Rikardon, hadn't noticed the absence of a final consonant, characteristic of Gandalaran names for men. The realization had hit me in a shocking flash of intuition, destroying the mood between us.
Now, as then, I struggled with the conflict. Which woman attracted me, Tarani or Antonia? Could I risk telling Tarani the truth, when doing so would expose the lie which had lain between us since we met? Tarani, like the other few Gandalarans who knew I was no longer Markasset, believed that I was a "Visitor" from the ancient past of her own world, not an absolute stranger. I couldn't discuss Antonia without introducing her to Ricardo.
Entirely aside from how she would feel about me, however, my primary question was: how would she feel about Antonia, the alien personality which had detected the sexual value of Tarani's illusion skills, and had guided the virginal sixteen-year-old into a profitable, but life- marking liaison with a powerful roguelord? Tarani had been well taught by Volitar to despise any means by which one person controlled the life of another. I could only think that, if she knew about Antonia's presence and subtle influences, she would feel manipulated, degraded, and furious.
Rejecting Tarani without giving her any reason wasn't honest, or even nice — but ...
"Keeshah's restless," I said, hanging back from her tugging. "We only have a few hours to sleep —"
She stopped, and we stood silent for a moment, barely visible to one another, our hands touching in a carefully neutral manner. At last she asked: "Will it be like this all the way to Raithskar?"
I hesitated. "I don't know," I said.
She released my hand. "The answer, then, is yes," she said, impatience plain in her voice. "I do not know how it is that you can bear the continual pressure of this need, Rikardon, but I cannot. It must either be satisfied or set aside entirely. You have made that choice for us."
"I have no choice," I said lamely. "If I did ..."
"Speak not of caring," she snapped, then her voice softened. "Not until this — restriction which I cannot understand has left us." An awkward silence followed. "Rest well," she said at last, and moved away from me.
The soft whisper of cloth against cloth helped me follow her movements as she settled herself in the sand and rocked back and forth to dig out a body-shaped groove. After once more fighting and controlling the impulse to join her, I pressed out my own sleeping area.
She was right; the choice was made. And I was no happier with it than she was.
I reached out to Keeshah for comfort, and found him still restless, the odd blockage still present. For the first time since I had arrived in Gandalara, I felt lonely.CHAPTER 2
I woke up to a sense of panic. The cloud layer above us was luminous with the spreading waves of color that marked sunrise in Gandalara, and a sleek shadow wheeled overhead. Part of my mind recognized the shadow as Lonna, the large-winged bird who was Tarani's companion, while another part rejected it as the source of the panicky feeling. That disturbance came from inside, and it wasn't entirely my own.
*Keeshah!* I called. *What is it? What's the matter?*
I looked around for the sha'um and saw him, several yards away, looking tense and restless. His tawny fur rippled with color and muscle as he paced beneath the reddening sky.
It was an ordinary sight — usually the sha'um was ready to travel before I was, and his impatience often made itself known to my sleeping mind and awakened me. But this was far from an ordinary morning.
For one thing, Keeshah's movement had a different character. This was no graceful, leg-stretching, wakeup kind of activity. Keeshah took only a few quick steps in any one direction before whirling to start in another. His tail whipped back and forth as he walked, now and then kicking up little puffs of sand where it lashed against the ground.
The most significant change was in the silence. There was usually a soft, growling mumbling noise, as though the huge cat were talking to himself. Often, too, through our sometimes subconscious telepathic link would flow a stream of good-natured banter of the "move it out, sleepyhead!" variety.
Both of Keeshah's voices were missing.
It scared me.
There was urgency in Tarani's voice, and I forced my attention to focus on her. She was sitting up in the sand not ten feet from me. The big white bird had settled, wingtips crossed at the base of her tail, on Tarani's outstretched leg, and was crooning softly under Tarani's caressing hand.
"Lonna tells me that we are being followed."
"How many?" I asked, rather sharply. Keeshah's silence was omnipresent, a weight on my spirit. I had to struggle to control the panic that swelled within me — I couldn't tell whether it was Keeshah's feeling, or merely my own reaction to his oddness. "How far away are they?"
Tarani slipped into communication with the beautiful bird, using a mindlink that was only barely similar to what I shared with Keeshah. Tarani had told me that theirs was primarily an exchange of images. The bird could hold images of where to go or who to find, and remember what she saw, so that she had been useful more than once as a messenger and scout. She had also, under Tarani's direction, saved my life in Dyskornis and helped us fight off wild vineh on our trip toward Eddarta. The few seconds Tarani communed with Lonna seemed an eternity.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Well of Darkness"
Copyright © 1983 Randall Garrett and Vicki Ann Heydron.
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