We stopped mid-day just before the time of the eclipses. Salib hammered a stake into the ground and tied his dresarge. Fatu did the same with the cart team. Salib uprooted a dead bush and found a dead tree where he was able to remove a branch. He built a fire. Fatu rolled three large stones into position around it. Salib and I picked seats across from each other and sat down.
Fatu retrieved a sack from the cart. He cut cheese from a half-round and passed us each an apple. Salib tore off a hunk of bread for each of us from a loaf wrapped in cloth. We ate in silence as the time for the eclipses approached.
Salib threw another branch on the fire.
“Think we have enough wood?” Fatu asked.
Salib poked at the pile he gathered earlier. “We could use more.”
Fatu rose. He drew his scimitar and went to forage.
I wanted to learn as much about this dark period as I could. In my original plan I was going to take advantage of this time to escape with Keela. Now that Fatu seemed to be at least partially in the picture I might have to adjust.
“Do you fear the followers of Parnac here?” I asked.
“The followers are Altans. They do not venture beyond the wall of the city during the dark time. It is not Parnac’s followers you should fear out here, it is Parnac himself. His home is the desert during the dark time,” Salib informed me.
Fatu returned with another bush he hacked off at the base and some more dead wood from the fallen tree Salib scavenged from earlier.
“Then you two were brave to volunteer to deliver me to TiSenge when you knew you would be out here during the dark time,” I said.
“You do not refuse Aldobi-rand when he asks you to do something,” Salib answered before tearing off another hunk of bread.
“Even if it is a fool’s errand,” Fatu groused as he sat back down at my side.
“Silence,” Salib ordered.
“You and I both know this will never work,” Fatu went on, ignoring his senior’s command. “No amount of your persuasive talk will convince TiSenge this is not a trick. He is going to see right through Aldobi-rand’s deception.”
“I said quiet,” Salib said through clenched teeth as he rose to his feet.
Fatu came to his feet too. “She doesn’t deserve this,” he countered. “She thought she was delivering a picture. Instead, she is sucked into a bid for power. You and I both know she most likely will not make it to the harem, instead she will end up in the inquisitor’s hands and from there the executioner’s.”
Salib looked up at the moon cluster as the smallest moon started slowly to black out the sun’s light.
“You are affected by the dark time,” he said with resignation. “I will excuse your insolence.” He threw another branch on the fire and sat down closer to the source of light.
“Perhaps,” Fatu acknowledged as the light dimmed further. He too sat and huddled closer. The approaching darkness brought an unexpected chill to the air.
The light breeze that was with us all day seemed to abruptly stop. The air was still and everything was silent. The chirping of the insects which I only subconsciously heard earlier was gone. The rhythmic flap of the material of the cart cover in the breeze was gone. The constant background noise of the dresarge talking to one another was gone. It was creepy. The hair on the back of my neck and arms lifted involuntarily.
Salib heaped another pile of brush on the fire. The flames licked up and sent a shower of sparks into the air. Fatu sat with his sword across his knees. Salib drew his and placed it beside him leaning on the rock he was perched on. I wished I had a sword, or better yet, my blaster. These two men didn’t make this seem like superstition at all. The fear in them was palatable.
The sun was fully behind the small moon by now. There was still dim light during this eclipse because of the moons size. Once it passed and the sun went behind the two larger moons there would be total darkness for nine minutes and thirty-two seconds. I timed it yesterday.
The sun started to uncover. It was as though everyone, including the dresarge took a deep breath, but then the sun started to slip behind the larger moon closest to it…and the light began to fade.
There was part of me that wanted to move away from the light. My instincts told me I was a target out in the open next to the only light, but these bold men only hugged the fire tighter as the eclipse grew darker. As the last bit of light faded I heard all three dresarge growl deep in their throats then fall abruptly silent. The rumble seemed to vibrate the ground we sat upon. If they could truly smell fear, as Aldobi-rand told me, then they were reacting to us. I kept telling myself it was only superstition, but what did I know. This was an alien planet. Home rules did not apply.
We all three sat huddled around the fire. The only movement was when one of the men tossed more fuel on the blaze. My pupils were so contracted from staring into the flames that I couldn’t see anything beyond the fire. Even though I told myself it was foolish I couldn’t help being jumpy.
I cleared by throat and would have said something except for Fatu’s silencing hand on my knee. He shook his head when I looked at him.
I looked at my watch. The chains of my shackles rattled. Salib reached over and grabbed them to silence the sound, than leaned back again to be closer to the safety of his sword. Just a little over six minutes left.
I felt a slight movement around my ankles. I sprang to my feet with a yelp. Both men jumped up. When I looked down there was nothing to be seen, but I could have swore there was something slithering around my ankles. Fatu pulled me back down to my seat on the stone beside him. Five minutes left.
Off in the distance I could hear moaning. I could see that the two men heard it too. They exchanged fugitive glances before Salib made some gesture I did not understand and Fatu grabbed me from behind. He lifted me bodily and ran toward the cart. He pushed me to my knees.
“Get under and don’t come out until it’s over,” he hissed.
I crawled under the cart as Fatu pulled the canvas sides down and secured them quickly to the wheels of the cart by their corners. Meanwhile Salib was doing the best he could in the dark to hammer in some sort of stakes that hooked over the cart wheels and secured the vehicle to the ground. Fatu brought all three of the dresarge over and placed them on the far side of the cart, the side toward the moan which continued to grow louder by the moment.
I looked at my watch. I could barely see it in the dim light thrown by the fire several feet away, but I thought there was only three or four minutes to go before we would start seeing light again. What was that awful sound?
A few moments more and the men joined me beneath the cart, one on either side. Fatu tore a strip off the bottom of his robe. He wet it from the water skin Salib handed him. He handed it to me.
“Tie it over you face, quickly,” he said in an urgent voice.
The moan built into a roar. I could feel the ground shaking.
Salib was wetting the end of his robe which he pulled up over his head.
Fatu just managed to get his robe in place over his head when the sandstorm hit. The cart rocked violently over our heads. I buried my head in an air pocket created by Fatu’s robe and his protective outthrust arm over me.
It was over relatively quickly, though it seemed forever. As soon as the light began to filter through the floor boards of the cart above the sandstorm started to die. By the time it was totally light again it had stopped.
Salib, who was on the side facing the storm’s approach was totally buried. The fabric of the cart had ripped and the sand was dumped on him in a dune. I dug frantically at where I knew his head should be. Fatu clawed his way out on the far side and circled around in hopes of getting to Salib from outside, but the smaller dresarge were there and piled deep below a dune of sand against the cart wheels. Fatu couldn’t reach him. When I finally managed to uncover him I could see he was gone. His face was shoved down by the weight of the sand. He was without air for easily ten minutes. There would be no bringing him back.
The two small dresarge were dead, also smothered by the sand. The larger dresarge that Salib was riding rose and shook off the sand blanketed over it. It pawed at its face trying to clear the sand from its eyes, nose and ears. If the sandstorm was somehow generated by the eclipse it was a good thing it had not come sooner. If it was longer in duration we would not have survived. We all would have smothered.