The Wild is my one and only attempt at high fantasy. It’s written in an old-fashioned, formal tone, with old-fashioned heroes, and is quite different from anything else I’ve done. Except for a handful of printed advance-reader-copies (ARCs) created in 2011 to test the market, it’s never been published—until now. I’m serializing it on my blog, one chapter every Friday. I hope you enjoy.
* * *
Though she had been afoot all night she showed no weariness, walking at a fast clip to keep up with the boys’ longer strides. The hem of her night-black robe trailed in the grass, its dense weave sliding over sticks and brambles without catching. A flush of exertion highlighted her cheeks. Her eyes were bright and warm, and Bennek was not unhappy to find himself the subject of her gaze as they walked.
Bennek touched the pendant—a blazing sun rising into a shallow triangle of twining vines. “My far mother wore this as she fled the Citadel.”
“Ah, it is old then . . . and you have brought it back to Samokea. Bennek, your far mother would be proud.”
He grinned. He could not help himself.
* * *
The gray clouds that had begun the day grew heavier as the hours passed until their soft bellies brushed the hilltops and the early afternoon was cast into gloom. Yet the mood of the boys remained bright, for in Lanyon Kyramanthes they had found something strange and marvelous.
Still, Marshal felt obliged to remind them of their peril. “Don’t forget we have an unfinished battle. Just because we hope to put off our hunt until the evening, that doesn’t mean the arowl won’t try to find us sooner. Don’t allow yourselves to be distracted.”
Kit glanced at Lanyon and laughed. “Your warning comes too late, I think.”
But Lanyon was puzzled. “Marshal, do you still intend to hunt those arowl?”
“Indeed. We won’t leave off until the task is done.”
“But the survivors fled south, while we’re going north. You’ll never catch them this way.”
“They will come after us,” Marshal assured her. “They ran because they were panicked, but even now the lure of our flesh is working on them. Sometime today they will circle around, hoping to take us by surprise, but once again, we’ll have a surprise for them.”
Lanyon cast an uneasy glance behind them. “And why should you wait until evening? Surely it’s harder to hunt them in the dark?”
“No, it’s easier,” Bennek insisted. “As you have said, the night is their time to sleep and they become sluggish, so it’s less work to run them down—though they see better than we do. There is a danger from their bows.”
“But they can’t shoot if they’re running,” Kit amended. “So we make sure to keep pushing them.”
Bennek flashed a bloodthirsty grin. “Eventually one will stumble.” He reached to his shoulder and seized the hilt of his sword, sweeping it out of its scabbard and making as if to hack at the ground. “They don’t get up again.”
* * *
Bennek puzzled over the mystery of her, and the more he thought on it, the more peculiarities he found.
There was her sorcery. Bennek was Samokeän and had his own gifts, yet he had never heard of anyone who could slay the arowl with only a thought, except for the Chieftain Édan.
There was the evil talisman she carried. Even now its wicked presence was like a shadow lurking at the edge of his mind.
There was her lineage. Kyramanthes was the most ancient clan to descend from the children of Jahallon-the-Undying, but in Habaddon that bloodline was said to have died out over a hundred years ago, in the days when Édan was still chieftain in Samokea.
Next there were her garments, which looked as if they had been made for the death rites of a beloved chieftain, and not for an expedition in Samokea. Her shoes were slight, without hard soles, like the house slippers worn by some of the wise women of Habaddon.
And then there was the strange lilt of her speech.
And her size—she seemed slight and fragile when measured against the women of Samokea and Habaddon.
Finally—but certainly not least of all these things—there was her bold venture through the arowl-ravaged lands of Samokea, where her path by chance had joined that of the only three men to venture so far beyond the Glycian River in years upon troubled years.
* * *
In mid-afternoon they climbed to the top of a ridge where they could rest with a good view of the surrounding land. Lanyon shared out dried venison from her field kit, while Marshal told her of their family, and of the summer his father and Kit’s had not come home. “They had gone crusading with Jahallon in the spring. Bennek was born in the early summer. He was only two days in the world when my mother’s brother came to tell us that both men had fallen in battle.”
Lanyon looked to Bennek, who sat on the side, honing one of his knives. “So he never saw you.”
“We were never in the world together. He was already dead when I was born.”
She nodded her sympathy. “And your mothers? What became of them?”
Marshal said, “They stayed on at our family keep. My uncle begged them to come away and live with him in his own keep closer to Habaddon, but they refused.”
“They were strong,” Kit said. “They knew how to defend our keep. They taught us to fight.”
Marshal nodded his agreement. “And they taught us the history of Samokea, and how to read and write . . . but finally they fell to the arowl.”
“They were consumed by the arowl,” Bennek amended, each stroke of the knife precise against the whetstone.
“Bennek saw it,” Marshal acknowledged. “He was eight, and they had taken him hunting. They were following a family of forest buffalo . . . but an arowl pack had lately come into Fathalia, and it was stalking the same prey.”
Lanyon turned a troubled gaze on Bennek. “How did you escape?”
His hands held to their steady rhythm. “They told me to run to the Glycian River and throw myself in. So I did it. The river was a torrent. It took me a day and a night to walk home.”
Marshal watched his brother closely. Then he shook his head. “Bennek will never admit to being sad.”
“I never am sad. What is there to be sad about? My mother and father are together, and someday I’ll be with them. In the meantime, I kill arowl.”
“Is that when you learned to confound the arowl?” Lanyon asked him. “When you were fleeing to the river?”
Bennek finally stopped his grinding, looking up at her in surprise.
“Is this true?” Marshal asked him curiously. “You have never said.”
“It’s not something I think on.” He returned to his work.
Lanyon told them, “My story is not so different from yours, though I was eleven when my father died. We lived in Ohtangia then, in a fort in the high mountains. He too had gone with Jahallon to campaign against the arowl, and all my brothers went with him. None of them came back.”
“I am sorry for your family,” Bennek said. Setting the knife aside, he went to work polishing its scabbard. “Do any of Clan Kyramanthes still live in Ohtangia?”
“No, I am the last. So you were nearly right that Kyramanthes is extinguished.”
“How is it the talents of the Inyomere are so strong in you?” Kit wondered. “Could you be Samokeän, at least in part?”
She shrugged. “The descendants of Samoket and Kyramanthes have mingled many times.”
Once again Bennek stopped in his work, but now he looked at her in delight. “Then you are our far cousin! You have Samokeän blood, and are a descendant of the Snow Chanter too.”
She smiled politely and made a little bow. “I offer greetings to my far cousins.”
Bennek was thoughtful. “So you have the blood of the Snow Chanter, but you are also Kyramanthes, and that is the oldest clan, descendant of Jahallon’s first child . . . and the curse of the Inyomere Siddél is on Jahallon-the-Undying and from him it passed in greatest force to Kyramanthes, and through that bloodline some great talent has come to you . . . and will descend through you.” His mood shifted to one of speculation. “You are not married yet?”
“Bennek!” Marshal protested.
But Lanyon pressed a hand against her mouth and laughed. “That is blood lust.”
“So you are not married?”
“You ask very many questions.”
“Then you are married,” he said with disappointment.
“I have been married. I am married no longer.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means we offer our condolences,” Marshal said.
For a moment, Bennek looked shame-faced. “Truly, I am sorry for your loss . . . but I am wondering too—is this fire spell something you can teach?”
“It was taught to me.”
“I would learn it.”
She nodded. “When there is time, I’ll teach you its name.”
* * *
They came upon the River Talahnon in late afternoon. Its course had turned northwest so they followed it, walking on a low bluff above a floodplain filled with rustling cane grass. They saw many birds and a few rabbits, and once they saw a small wildcat, but there were no signs of larger creatures. The horses and deer, the antelope, the hardy cattle and the buffalo that had once grazed the green fields of Samokea were gone. The arowl had run unopposed in that land since the fall of Édan, hunting to extinction the vast herds that once lived there.
The bluff came to an end, and they found themselves walking along the edge of the cane, with the great stalks swaying and rustling above their heads. As the afternoon waned the air grew heavy and cold, and from it a mist was born. It came out of the cane and up from the ground in drifts and tendrils that blended together, enveloping them. Fine droplets of water gathered on their hair and eye lashes. They couldn’t see far so they took care to step softly, listening for any sound more mysterious than the call of birds or the rustle of rats.
Bennek had still not discovered any arowl and this seemed strange to him. He asked to stop. And while Marshal and Kit stood watch, he sent his spirit-self wandering farther than he had before. He searched among the hills and along the riverbanks. But he couldn’t find arowl anywhere within his reach and the effort left him dizzy, as if he had leaned too far over a fortress wall and nearly tumbled off.
He was still feeling muzzy-headed when they set out again. It didn’t help that the mist blurred the landscape and lent his ears a ghostly imagination, so that he heard all around him a sourceless whispering, a faint, frantic warning, repeating, repeating, over and over again.
Lanyon stopped. She gazed at the cane, her eyes wide with fright. “Do any of you hear her? Can you hear the mist speaking?”
“Is she real?” Bennek asked in surprise.
Kit was following behind him. “I can hear her. She is a morbid Inyomere, though I don’t think she means us harm.”
Marshal nodded. “Let her do no worse than this and we won’t complain.”
Lanyon shook her head. “We must not disregard her. I will not do so again.”
“But what does she say?” Kit wanted to know. “I can’t understand her.”
Indeed, the Inyomere spoke so softly her words blended together so that it was maddening to hear her murmurous voice and yet hear no meaning.
But Bennek heard it differently. In a puzzled voice he told them, “He is coming. That’s what she says. She repeats it over and over. He is coming. He is coming. He is coming.”
Lanyon stared at him with wide eyes.
Then from deep in the cane there came a sudden loud rustle.
Marshal swept his sword from its scabbard. “Bennek?”
“It is not arowl.”
Kit hauled out his bow and nocked an arrow. “A tiger, then? They will most often dwell beside the water.”
Bennek slipped his spear from its scabbard and twisted on the extension. “I will look.” He advanced on the cane. Marshal stepped up beside him—and at once they heard the sound of a large beast crashing away toward the river.
Bennek started after it. He wanted to know what it was. But Lanyon was suddenly beside him, holding onto his arm, speaking nonsense. “Please stop! Don’t kill him.”
She pushed past, plunging ahead along a path of broken cane that marked the creature’s retreat.
What madness had come over her? Was it her purpose to come up against a tiger unarmed? He darted after her. He didn’t dare call out—it was not their way to imitate the hue and cry of the arowl—but as he ran to catch her he begged her silently to stop, stop, stop!
And it seemed she heard him. She turned around with a look of astonishment; and he caught her. He seized her arm as she had seized his. “Do not go on!” he commanded in a fierce whisper.
She didn’t speak. She made no sound. Yet very clearly he heard her voice inside his head asking, Who are you?
Marshal slipped past them and Lanyon turned, reaching out as if to stop him. But just then there was a splash and Marshal froze. He stared ahead, but nothing could be seen except the cane and the mist. “It has gone into the river.” He turned a mistrustful gaze on Lanyon. “Did you see what it was?”
She too stared ahead, at nothing. “I thought I saw someone. It was what the Inyomere said. ‘He is coming.’ It made me think someone was there.”
Kit came up behind them. In his fingers he held a few strands of downy gray hair. “I think it was a wolf.”
Lanyon looked as if she had a different opinion, but all she said was, “I am sorry to have caused you trouble.”
“The Inyomere has made us all nervous,” Marshal told her gently.
“I wish she would relent,” Kit said. Then, with an irreverent grin, he called out to the mist, “Blessed One, we understand he is still coming, whoever he might be.”
* * *
They went on. Bennek walked with Lanyon. He wanted to ask what it meant that he had heard her unspoken voice; he wanted her to say she had heard his; but he didn’t want Marshal or Kit to know it, so he kept his silence.
The day grew old, but the mist did not recede and neither did the Inyomere’s tedious, whispered warning. It wore on their nerves so that they all were badly startled when a distant baying arose from beyond the river. Bennek insisted it was not arowl. “Perhaps it’s a wild dog, though I don’t know.”
“And where are the arowl?” Kit wondered. “They’ve tarried so long I expect there’s some mischief in it.”
Evening was not far off when the cane gave way to a rocky shoreline. Before long, they came on a steep bluff looming out of the mist. It was clothed in scattered groves of small, hardy trees and sweet-smelling shrubs. A narrow beach divided it from the water. Marshal said, “We can make a defense here, if we need to. At the least we should be able to find some sheltered place to spend the night.”
So they climbed the bluff and as they got higher the mist thinned. Soon they had climbed above it. From the top they looked out on the mist-shrouded line of the river, and the dark plains beyond. Bats fluttered in the twilight and crickets sang an evening chorus. The river murmured in its bed. And far off, faint, there only when they held their breath, was the howl and yammering of a distant pack.
“Ah, there they are,” Kit said softly. “They’re warming up. Working up their rage. They will be silent soon, when they begin the hunt.”
Bennek closed his eyes and slipped into the spirit-world, but he could not find them, they were that far, and again he was left with the dizzying feeling that he had pitched himself over a precipice. Still, he did not doubt that they would come. They were a corruption made to prey upon the people, forever driven by a fierce desire for the blood of men and women. They could not resist it.
* * *
The preceding excerpt is from THE WILD by Linda Nagata. Copyright © 2011 by Linda Nagata. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or republished without permission in writing from the author.