The dervish stepped from a swirl of sand, appearing on the edge of the village like a mirage taking form.
A boy herding goats was the first to see him. The boy clucked his tongue, using a switch to prod the animals back to their pens. All at once the animals began to bleat, their eyes rolling as if they had caught the scent of a lion. Usually a lion would not prowl so near the dwellings of men, but the springs that scattered the desert--which had never gone dry in living memory--were failing, and creatures of all kinds came in search of water and food. It was said that, in one village, a lion had crept into a hut and stolen a baby from the arms of its sleeping mother.
The boy turned around, and the switch fell from his fingers. It was not a lion before him, but a man covered from head to toe in a black serafi. Only his eyes were visible through a slit in the garment, dark and smoldering like coals. The man raised a hand; its palm was tattooed with red lines. Tales told by the village's elders came back to the boy--tales about men who ventured into the deepest desert in search of forbidden magics.
Obey your father and your mother, the old ones used to tell him when he was small, else a dervish will fly into your house on a night zephyr and steal you away. For they require the blood of wicked children to work their darkest spells.
"I need . . ." the dervish said, his voice harsh with a strange accent.
The boy let out a cry, then turned and ran toward a cluster of hovels, leaving the goats behind.
". . . water," the dervish croaked, but the boy was already gone.
The dervish staggered, then caught himself. How long had he been in the Morgolthi? He did not know. Day after day the sun of the Hungering Land had beaten down on him, burning away thought and memory, leaving him as dry as a scattering of bones. He should be dead. However, something had drawn him on through that forsaken land. What was it? There was no use trying to remember. He needed water. Of the last two oases he had gone to, one had been dry, and the waters of the other had been poisoned, the bloated corpses of antelope floating in its stagnant pool.
He moved through the herd of goats. The animals bleated until the dervish touched them, then fell silent. He ran his hands over their hides and could feel the blood surging beneath, quickened by fear. One swift flash of a knife, and hot blood would flow, thicker and sweeter than water. He could slake his thirst, and when he was finished he would let the blood spill on the ground as an offering, and with it he would call them to him. They would be only lesser spirits, enticed by the blood of an animal--no more than enough to work petty magics. All the same, he was tempted. . . .
No--that was not why he was here. He remembered now; he needed water, then to send word, to tell them he was here. He staggered toward the circle of huts. Behind him, the goats began bleating again, lost without the boy to herd them.
This place was called Hadassa, and though the people who dwelled here now had forgotten, it had once been a prosperous trading center built around a verdant oasis. Over the decades the flow of Hadassa's spring had dwindled to a trickle. The merchants and traders had left long ago and had not returned; the city's grand buildings were swallowed by the encroaching sand. Now all that remained was this mean collection of huts.
When he reached the center of the village, the dervish stopped. The oasis, once a place of sparkling pools and shaded grottos, was now a salt flat crazed with cracks. Dead trees, scoured of leaf and branch, pointed at the sky like burnt fingers. In their midst was a patch of mud, churned into a mire by men and goats. Oily water oozed up through the sludge, gathering in the hoofprints. The dervish knelt, his throat aching.
"You are not welcome here," spoke a coarse voice.
The dervish looked up. The water he had cupped dribbled through his fingers. A sigh escaped his blistered lips, and with effort he rose again.
A man stood on the other edge of the mud patch. His yellowed beard spilled down his chest, and he wore the white robe of a village elder. Behind him stood a pair of younger men. They were stunted from a poor diet, but their eyes were hard, and they gripped curved swords. Next to the man was a woman who wore the red serafi of a seeress. In youth she had been beautiful, but the dry air had parched her cheeks, cracking them like the soil of the oasis. She gazed forward with milky eyes.
"The cards spoke truly, Sai'el Yarish," the woman said in a hissing voice. "Evil flies into Hadassa on dark wings."
"I cannot fly," the dervish said.
"Then you must walk from this place," the bearded man said. "And you must not come back."
"I come only in search of water."
One of the young men brandished his sword. "We have no water to spare for the likes of you."
"It is so," the old man said. "A change has come over the land. All that is good dwindles and fades. One by one, the springs of the desert have gone dry. Now ours is failing as well. You will not find what you seek here."
The dervish laughed, and the queer sound of it made the others take a step back. "You are wrong. There is yet water to be found in this place." From the folds of his serafi, he drew out a curved knife. It flashed in the sun.
"Do not let him draw blood!" the blind woman shrieked.
The young men started forward, but the mud sucked at their sandals, slowing them. The dervish held out his left arm. The knife flicked, quick as a serpent. Red blood welled from a gash just above his wrist.
"Drink," he whispered, shutting his eyes, sending out the call. "Drink, and do my bidding."
He felt them come a moment later; distance meant nothing to them. They buzzed through the village like a swarm of hornets, accompanied by a sound just beyond hearing. The men looked around with fearful eyes, and the blind woman swatted at the air. The dervish lowered his arm, letting blood drip from his wound.
The fluid vanished before it struck the ground, as if the hot air gobbled it.
"Water," the dervish murmured. "Bring me water."
A moment ago they had been furious in their desire. Now they were sated by blood, their will easy to bend. He sensed them plunge downward, deep into the ground. Soil, rock--these were as air to them. He felt it seconds later: a tremor beneath his boots. There was a gurgling noise, then a jet of water shot up from the center of the mud patch. The fountain glittered, spinning off drops as clear and precious as diamonds.
The village elder gaped while the young men dashed forward, letting the water spill into their hands, drinking greedily.
"It is cool and sweet," one of them said, laughing.
"It is a trick!" the blind woman cried. "You must not drink, lest it bring you under his spell."
The young men ignored her. They continued to drink, and the man in the white robe joined them. Others appeared, stealing from the huts, the fear on their sun-darkened faces giving way to wonder.
The seeress stamped her feet. "It is a deception, I tell you! If you drink, he will poison us all!"
The village folk pushed past her, and she fell into the mud, her robe tangling around her so that she could not get up. The people held out their hands toward the splashing water.
The dervish bound his wound with a rag, staunching the flow of blood, lest the bodiless ones come to partake of more. Morndari, the spirits were called. Those Who Thirst. They had no form, no substance, but their craving for blood was unquenchable. Once, he had come upon a young sorcerer who had thought too highly of his own power, and who had called many of the morndari to him. His body had been no more than a dry husk, a look of horror on his mummified face.
Water pooled at the dervish's feet. He bent to drink, but he was weak from hunger and thirst, and from loss of blood. The sky reeled above him, and he fell. Strong hands caught him.
"Take him into my hut," said a voice he recognized as the village elder's.
Were they going to murder him? He should call the morndari again, only he could not reach his knife, and he was too weak. The spirits would drain his body of blood, just like the young sorcerer he had once found.
The hands bore him to a dim, cool space, protected from the sun by thick mud walls. He was laid upon cushions, and a wooden cup was pressed to his lips. Water spilled into his mouth, clean and wholesome. He coughed, then drank deeply, draining the cup. Leaning back, he opened his eyes and saw the bearded man above him.
"One such as yourself came here not long ago," the old man said. "We feared him, but he worked no spells. He babbled that his power was all dried up like the springs, that magic was dead."
"Did you kill him?" the dervish said.
The other shook his head. "He was mad. He ran into the desert without a flask of water. The ground shook when you worked your spells. We have felt many such tremors of late. Some have been strong enough to knock down all of the huts in a village. Do the spirits cause the trembling?"
The dervish licked blistered lips. "No--perhaps. I don't know."
The morndari were attracted by the tremors, that he did know. That was how he had followed them. How he had found it.
The old man set down the cup. "All the tales I know tell that a dervish brings only evil and suffering. Yet you renewed our spring. You have saved us all."
The dervish laughed, a chilling sound. "Would that what you say were so. But I fear your seeress was right. Evil does come, on dark wings. To Hadassa, and to all of Moringarth."
The other made a warding sign with his hand. "Gods help us. What must we do?"
"You must send word that I am here. You must send a message to the Mournish. Do you know where they can be found?"
The old man stroked his beard. "I know some who know. But surely you cannot mean what you say. Your kind is abomination to them. If they find you, your life is forfeit. The working of blood sorcery is forbidden."
"No it isn't," the dervish said. He looked down at his hands, marked by fine white scars and lines tattooed in red. "Not anymore."
It was the quiet that woke Sareth.
Over the last three years he had grown used to the sound of Lirith's heartbeat and the rhythm of her breathing. Together they made a music that lulled him to sleep each night and bestowed blissful dreams. Then, six months ago, another heart--tiny and swift--had added its own cadence to that song. Only now all was silent.
Sareth sat up. Gray light crept through a moon-shaped window, into the cramped interior of the wagon. She had not been able to make the wagon any larger, but by her touch it had become cozier. Bunches of dried herbs hung in the corners, giving off a sweet, dusty scent. Beaded curtains dangled before the windows, and cushions embroidered with leaves and flowers covered the benches against either wall. The tops of the benches could be lifted to reveal bins beneath, or lowered--along with a table--to turn the wagon into a place where eight could sit and dine or play An'hot. Now the table was folded up against the wall, making room for the pallet they unrolled each night.
The pallet was empty, save for himself. He pulled on a pair of loose-fitting trousers, then opened the door of the wagon. Moist air, fragrant with the scent of night-blooming flowers, rushed in, cool against his naked chest. He breathed, clearing the fog of sleep from his mind, then climbed down the wagon's wooden steps. The grass was damp with dew beneath his bare feet--his two bare feet.
Though it had been three years, he marveled daily at the magic that had restored the leg he had lost to the demon beneath Tarras. He would never really understand how Lady Aryn's spell had healed him, but it didn't matter. Since he met Lirith, he had grown accustomed to wonders.
He found her beneath a slender ithaya tree on the edge of the grove where the Mournish had made camp. A tincture of coral colored the horizon; dawn was coming, but not yet. She turned when she heard him approach, her smile glowing in the dimness.
"Beshala," he said softly. "What are you doing out here so early?"
"Taneth was fussing. I didn't want him to wake you." She cradled the baby in her arms. He was sound asleep, wrapped snugly in a blanket sewn with moons and stars.
Sareth laid a hand on the baby's head. His hair was thick and dark, and when they were open, his eyes were the same dark copper as Sareth's. However, everything else about him--his fine features, his rich ebon skin--was Lirith's.
The baby sighed in his sleep, and Sareth smiled. Here was another wonder before him. For so long, Lirith had believed herself incapable of bearing a child. Years ago, after her adoptive parents were murdered by thieves in the Free City of Corantha, she had been sold into servitude in the house of Gulthas. There she had been forced to dance for the men who paid their gold--and to do more than dance. Countless times a spark of life had kindled in her womb, only to go dark when she consumed the potions Gulthas forced all the women in his house to drink. Finally, no more sparks kindled.
Lirith had wept the night she finally told Sareth these things, thinking that once he knew what she had been in the past he would turn away from her. She was wrong; her revelations only made him love her more fiercely. That she could endure such torture, yet remain so good, so beautiful inside and out, showed there was no one in all the world more deserving of love than Lirith.
Excerpted from The First Stone by Mark Anthony. Copyright © 2004 by Mark Anthony. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.