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Dusk

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Dusk

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Author: Tim Lebbon
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2006
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Kosar the thief senses that Rafe Baburn is no ordinary boy. After witnessing a madman plunder Rafe's village and murder his parents, Kosar knows the boy needs his help. And now, for a reason he cannot fathom, others are seeking the boy's destruction.

Uncertain where to begin, Kosar turns to A'Meer, an ex-lover and Shantasi warrior whose people, unbeknownst to him, have been chosen to safeguard magic's return. A'Meer knows instantly that it is Rafe who bears this miracle of magic. Now Kosar and a band of unexpected allies embark on a battle to protect one special boy. For dark forces are closing in–including the Mages, who have been plotting their own triumphant return.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

When Kosar saw the horseman, the world began to end again.

The horse walked toward the village, the rider shifting in fluid time to his mount's steps. The man's body was wrapped in a deep red cloak, pulled up so that it formed a hood over his head, shadowing his face. His hands rested on his thighs. The horse made its own way along the road. Loose reins hung to either side of its head, its mane was clotted with dirt, and its unshod hooves clacked and clicked puffs of dust from the dry trail. Only one man on a horse, and he did not appear to be armed.

How, then, could Kosar know that death followed him in?

With a grimace he stopped work and squatted. A warm breeze kissed the raw flesh of his fingertips--the marks of a thief--and took away the pain for a few precious moments. Blood had dripped and dried into a dust-caked mess across his hands and between his fingers, and they crackled when he flexed them. The unhealing wounds were a permanent reminder of the mistakes of his past.

Kosar decided that the irrigation trenches could wait a few minutes more. It had taken two years for the village to decide to commission them; another moment would make no difference to the crops withering and dying in the fields. Besides, they needed much more than water, though most would refuse to believe that was so. And now there was something more interesting to grab his attention, something that might bring excitement to this measly little collection of huts, hovels and run-down dwellings that dared call itself a village.

He stared along the road at the figure in the distance. Yes, only one man, but a threatening pall hung about him, like shadowy echoes of evil deeds. Kosar looked the other way, past the old stone bridge and into the village itself. There were children playing by the stream, diving and resurfacing in triumph if they caught a fish between their teeth. Elsewhere, drinkers sat silently stoned outside the tavern, mugs of rotwine festering half-finished in the sun, the other half coursing through veins and inducing a few cherished hours of catatonia. It was a false escape that he, Kosar the thief, would never be permitted again. At least not where any form of law still applied.

The market was small today, but a few traders plied their wares and squeezed tellan coins and barter from the village folk. Skinned furbats hung from hooks along one stall, their livers intact and ripe with rhellim, the drug of sexual abandonment. He had already seen three people skulking away, a furbat beneath their shirt and their eyes downcast. Their children may not eat tonight, but at least the parents would be assured of a good screw. Another trader sold charms supposedly from Kang Kang, banking on the fear and awe in which that place was held to make the buyers see past the trinkets' obvious falseness. There were food sellers too, offering fruits from the Cantrass Plains. But the journey from that place was long, the route difficult and most of the fruits had lost their lively hue.

Kosar turned once again to the stranger. He was much closer now, and the sound of his progress had become audible in the heavy air. The figure raised his head almost imperceptibly. The cloak shifted to allow a sliver of the falling sun inside, and Kosar squinted as he tried to make out what it revealed. His eyesight was not as good as it had once been, scorched by decades in the sun and weakened by lack of nourishment, but it had never misled him.

The stranger's face was as red as his cloak.

Kosar stood and shielded his eyes. His first impulse was to grab the pick he'd been using, so he could swing it up in a killing arc if necessary. His second urge was to turn and run, and this surprised him. He'd always been a thief but never a coward. It was why he was still alive now, and it was the reason he could live among people, even with the terrible unhealing brands on his fingers.

He also listened to his hunches. Instinct was for survival, and Kosar followed his as much as possible.

But not this time. Instead, he crept back along the trench toward the bridge. Every step felt heavy, each movement against good sense. Something inside shouted at him to turn and run, abandon the village to whatever fate this red man brought with him. The place had never really done anything for Kosar. Acceptance it had given grudgingly, but never affection, never any true sense of belonging. They'd put up with him because he worked for them, nothing more. He'd spent the last mid-summer festival skulking past the stone bridge while the town cabal handed out ale and food. The revelry had jibed at him as he watched the setting sun alone, even though the jibing was mostly his own.

Turn and run.

But he could not.

Turn and run. Kosar, you bloody fool!

Even though instinct urged him to flee, and good sense told him that death's shadow was already closing over the village, there were children here, playing in the stream. There were a few women in the village that he liked, or would like to like, given the chance. And more than anything, Kosar was a good man. A thief, a criminal, branded forever as untrustworthy and devious, but a good man.

The horseman was no more than two minutes away from the village. Kosar had almost reached the end of the trench where it joined the stream, the bridge a hundred steps away. The children had finished their fishing and playing and climbed the bank, and now they sat on the bridge parapet, swinging their legs over the edge, laughing and joking and watching the stranger approach. Such trust, in a world where hunger and fear made trust so precious.

He was about to call out to the children, when the horse broke into a gallop.

He could have warned them. He should have shouted at them to turn and run, go to their homes, tell their parents to lock their doors. Kosar had seen enough trouble in his life to recognize its flowering, and he had known from the instant he'd laid eyes on the horseman that he was not here for a drink, a meal, a bed for the night. He could have warned them, but shouting would have drawn attention to himself. And in this case, instinct won out.

The man in red dismounted on the bridge and approached the children. His horse remained where it had stopped, head bowed as if smelling the water through thick stone. The children stood, jumped around, giggled. Kosar glanced across into the village and saw several people looking his way, a couple of them striding quickly toward the bridge, one woman darting into the brothel where the three village militia spent most of their time.

For a moment all was still. Kosar paused, unmoving. The breeze died down as if the land itself was holding its breath. Even the stream seemed to slow.

The man in red spoke. His voice was water running uphill, birds falling into the sky, sand eroding into rock. Where is Rafe Baburn? he asked. The children glanced at one another. One of the girls offered a nervous smile.

Later, Kosar would swear that the man never even gave them time to reply.

He grabbed the smiling girl by her long hair, pulled his hand from within the red robes and sliced her throat. His knife seemed to lengthen into a sword, as if gorging on the fresh blood smearing its blade, and he swung it through the air. Three other children clutched at fatal wounds, shrieking as they disappeared from Kosar's view below the parapet. The two remaining boys turned to run and the hooded man caught them, seemingly without moving. He beheaded them both with a flick of his wrist.

Kosar fell to his knees, the breath sucked from him, and rolled sideways into the irrigation ditch. He cringed at the splash, but the hooded man strode across the bridge and into the village without pause. Kosar peered above the edge of the trench and watched through brown reeds as the man approached the first building.

The village was in turmoil. A woman screamed when she saw the devastation on the bridge, and others soon took up her cry. Men emerged from doorways clutching crossbows and swords. Children ran along the street, their eyes widening with a terrible curiosity when they saw their dead friends. Goats and sheebok scampered through the dust, startled to the ends of their tethers, crying and choking as leather leads jerked them to a standstill. The man in red walked on, the robe still tight around his body, hood over his head. From this angle Kosar could see only his back, and for that he was glad. From the glimpse he had caught of the red face, he had no desire to see beneath that hood again.

A woman, mad with grief, tried to run past the man to hug her dead child. His arm snaked out and buried the sword in her stomach. He jerked it free without breaking his step, the woman's blood splashing his robe. Her scream wound down like an echo in a cave. There was another shout from the village, and the whistle of a crossbow bolt boring the air.

It struck the man in the shoulder. He paused momentarily--

This is when he goes down, Kosar thought, and then they'll fall on him and he'll be torn to shreds.

--and then continued on his way. The bolt protruded from his shoulder, pinning the cloak tighter to his body. The shooter reprimed his crossbow, loaded another bolt and fired again, his eyes blinded with grief but his aim still true. This one struck the man in the face. Again he paused, his head snapping back with the impact. And again he went on his way once more. His pace increased, dust kicking up from beneath his red robe, clotted black with his own spilled blood.

Someone stumbled from the door of the brothel farther along the street. It was one of the three militia, naked, flushed and erect from his regular afternoon dose of rhellim, yet still of sound enough mind to bring his longbow with him. A whore staggered out after him, frenzied from rhellim overdose, grabbing at the soldier's crotch even as he strung an arrow and sighted on the red-robed man. He nudged the whore aside with his knee. She sprawled in the dust and...

Copyright © 2006 by Tim Lebbon


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