Carnivores of Darkness and Light: Journeys of the Catechist, Book 1 by Alan Dean Foster

“On the contrary,” Loswee proudly disagreed, “we have more than ample stocks. We don’t lack for food, and we’ll be pleased to share. If not magic, then maybe you can give us some advice. Having come from the south, you must at least be the bearers of new ideas.” Extending his arm, he pointed with his spear. “It’s not far, and I promise you will be warmer in the castle than out here in this ravine.”

Ehomba beckoned to Simna, and the swordsman was at his side in an instant. The two men conferred briefly.

“What do you think?” the herdsman asked his friend.

Simna exhaled softly. “Any free food, however small the amount, is welcome. Especially if I don’t have to carry it. If they mean treachery, then their brains are as small as their fingers. You or I could probably give their whole army a good fight, and Ahlitah would simply stomp them at his leisure. Since I don’t see them being that stupid, I expect that their offer is genuine.”

Ehomba nodded. “Those are my thoughts as well.” He turned back to the bird rider and smiled. “We accept. Give us a moment to gather our things, and to untie our water, and we will come with you.”

“Excellent!” While Loswee’s mount could not rear back in the manner of a horse, it could mirror its rider’s enthusiasm by hopping about jerkily. “Wherever else you go and whatever else happens to you, you will never forget Swick hospitality.”

The riders waited patiently for the travelers to collect themselves. A number occupied themselves hunting along the base of the dunes for edible insects and plants. But they had little time for scavenging, because Ehomba and Simna were packed and ready to go within a very few minutes. Ahlitah, of course, was always ready.

The Swick troopers led the way down the gulch. Expecting to have to moderate their pace so as not to overstride their diminutive hosts, the travelers found themselves having to hurry to keep up, so swift were the Swick’s feathered earthbound mounts. They hardly had time to take note of their surroundings as the line of mounted warriors turned down a much narrower wadi between massive slopes of sand, and then just as rapidly down another.

Panting, Simna looked uneasily back the way they had come. “All these dunes look alike. Many more of these twists and turns and we’ll never be able to find our way back to the main canyon.”

“What makes you think it was the main one?” Ehomba was striding along easily beneath his pack. “Another day or two’s walk and it might have become as narrow and winding as this one.” He spared a glance at the sky. “At least we are still moving in a more or less northerly direction.”

“Hoy,” the swordsman agreed with a nod. “Didn’t they tell us that’s where this Dunawake was coming from?” He surveyed the encircling dune walls uneasily.

“Relax, my friend. I do not think they would run us right at their nemesis without any warning. I think they are taking us to their community, as they promised.”

The swordsman squinted ahead, past the double line of mounted Swick speeding along in front of them. “I’m looking for tents or huts, but I don’t see anything yet.”

He still saw nothing when the troop piped to a halt and Loswee trotted back to alert them. “We have arrived. Welcome to the castle.”

Simna’s eyes widened as he surveyed the moonswept sand. A few ragged bushes puffed branches into the night sky. It was almost morning and he was freshly tired. Too tired for jokes.

“Castle, is it, wee bruther? I see no castle. I see not even an outhouse.”

“Come around this ridge of sand.” Oblivious to the swordsman’s sarcasm, Loswee beckoned for them to follow. To their left, the rest of the Swick troop lined up, wing to wing, forming a guard of honor. The travelers, after securing their floating water supply to a well-rooted nearby bush, marched on past, trailing Loswee.

The entrance was far larger than any of them had expected, a dark, gaping hole in the side of the dune. Why the shifting sand did not spill down to cover it they could not understand. Though it was difficult to tell anything for certain in the dim light, it was clear that something was holding the sand above securely in place and keeping it from tumbling down to block the opening. Provided that he advanced in a hunting crouch, it was even large enough to admit Ahlitah.

While the mere existence of the unnatural ingress was unexpected, it hardly harmonized with Loswee’s description.

“I was wrong,” Simna declared churlishly. “It could serve as an outhouse.”

“Come inside.” Unperturbed and at ease, Loswee led the way.

Equally as remarkable as the undisturbed, unblocked entrance was the depth to which it penetrated the dune. Bending double to keep from bumping his head against the ceiling of the tunnel, Ehomba and his companions were uncomfortably aware of the many tons of loose sand that loomed overhead. But though walled with the same grains that constituted the shifting slopes outside, the tunnel showed no signs of instability.

After a while, the soft babble of many voices became audible. Light appeared ahead. Loswee straightened in his saddle, a miniature portrait of satisfaction as he chirped to his soldiers.

“Heigh up back there! Ware your posture!” In a less martial tone he explained to his guests. “We are coming into Barrick, and the castle is waking up.”

Simna grunted. “Good for it. Me, I’m going to sleep.”

Close behind him, Ahlitah growled warningly. “This better be good. I didn’t trot all this way for a breakfast of beans and berries. On the other paw,” he added after a moment’s consideration, “some of these Swick look quite nutritious.”

“Ahlitah!” Looking back past his hunched-over shoulder, Ehomba glared at the big cat. “We are guests here. Mind your manners.”

“Hoy that, long bruther,” Simna admonished him. “Etiquette’s not my style, but even I know the idea’s to dine with one’s hosts—not on them.”

“But I’m hungry.” Irked by the early morning run, the hulking feline did not try to conceal his displeasure.

He forgot it, as they all did, when the tunnel made an abrupt turn to the left and they found themselves gazing at last upon the castle itself. Outside, it would have been a wonder. Here, in the deep heart of the dune, its existence was nothing short of miraculous.

Simna’s anticipated tents and huts were nowhere to be seen. Instead, it was a true castle that rose before them, complete to external battlements and towers, minarets and multiple keeps. Off to the right were commodious stables where the prized running birds were quartered. In place of miniature wagons, cleverly made sand sleds were parked neatly side by side, and blacksmiths were arriving to begin the day’s work with tiny bundles of wood and bands of black iron.

As they entered, advancing down a central avenue just wide enough to accommodate Ahlitah’s bulk, awakening Swick appeared on the innumerable side streets to gawk at them. Smoke rose from dozens of cooking fires, trailing out tall, crooked chimneys as it curled toward the high dome of the great artificial cavern that had been hollowed out of the inside of the dune. Holes bored in the ceiling drew the smoke, allowing it to find a way out.

Pens held captive food animals: mice and rats, lizards and snakes. There were tanneries and slaughterhouses, farms exuberant with domesticated mushrooms and other edible fungi, kitchens and schools, workshops and apartments. Ehomba marveled, Simna was struck dumb, and even Ahlitah, though he gave little sign of it, was impressed. Expecting to find an unpretentious encampment, they found themselves instead in a veritable underground city. Prepared to deal with a few dozens of Swick, they instead were confronted by the People of the Sand in their teeming hundreds, perhaps thousands.

Looking past the main castle, Ehomba found that he could not see to the far end of the chamber, so extensive was the excavation. There were side galleries as well, similarly quarried from the dune, that were home to still more of the same. And everywhere rose miniaturized battlements and towers from which hung innumerable flags and decorations. Despite its reduced size, the citadel had been constructed on a grand scale, notwithstanding its implausible location or the diminutive size of its inhabitants.

He found himself smiling at no one in particular. In actuality, he was thinking of Daki and Nelecha. Because they would prize this place as no one else could.

Who else but children could truly appreciate the grandest of all sand castles?


THEY WONDERED WHAT HELD IT ALL TOGETHER, MUCH LESS kept the dune from collapsing in upon them, until they saw the first of many eternally busy construction crews. Secure in their saddles, Swick engineers directed dozens of domesticated slugs and snails as they worked at maintaining and adding to the buildings and walls.

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster