Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

The Wild: Chapter 18

May 10th, 2013

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.

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* * *

The Tree; artist: Sarah AdamsChapter 18

The sun returned in the morning. The shutters were thrown open. Adrift between waking and dreams, Bennek felt the pressure of light on his closed eyes and imagined himself as thistledown lofted high above the land on a gentle breeze. Only slowly did the sounds around him bring him back into the world: the soft prattle of the men, their footsteps as they came and went, the breathy voice of the fire, the sizzle of breakfast cooking.
A soft hand touched his cheek. “You are wakeful,” Lanyon said happily. He felt her lips warm against his ear as she whispered, “Bennek, I know you hear me. You must thrive, for I need you to be well. Do not break my heart.”

A heavier hand rested on his forehead. “His fever is all but gone,” Pantheren said, “and his breathing has eased.” Bennek felt the touch of cool air as the blanket that covered him was lifted aside. “Even the swelling in his leg has subsided. You have called him back to life, Lanyon.”

“He has much life in him, do you not, Bennek?”

Bennek did not remember how to make an answer, but Lanyon touched his cheek again, saying, “Do not fret. You will be well soon, and then I will teach you the fire spell, as I promised.”

“He is a good man,” Pantheren said in humor. “Do not corrupt him with magic.” Then came the sound of his footsteps moving away to the other side of the fire.

Bennek could not tell if Lanyon was still beside him, but when he blinked, a gentle hand wiped his eyes with a damp cloth. The door opened, and Jakurian came in with a blaze of sunlight at his back. Bennek closed his eyes again against the glare. “Ah, Lanyon Kyramanthes,” Jakurian said in a hushed voice, “how does Bennek fare?”

She answered merrily, from somewhere just out of sight, “He is well, War Father . . . considering.”

“All thanks to the spell worked by you and the Snow Chanter. It has filled this house with wholesomeness. Infection has not touched the wounds of any man here. Pain has been eased, fever quenched, and while I should be sore in every limb, I feel refreshed, as if with many days of rest.”

“I am pleased to hear it, my Captain.” This was said by Kaliel, who had passed a quiet night despite the grave bite wound he had suffered on his thigh. “Let us then return all the sooner to our homes. This sorcerer we pursued is dead and his arowl are slain. Our task here is done.”

Bennek blinked and looked up. The Habaddon captain loomed above him. He saw that Jakurian was surprised by Kaliel’s words. Jakurian was even more startled when the other men in the house swiftly voiced agreement. He said to them, “I confess it has not been in my mind to turn back so soon. I have seen wonders in Samokea and I have heard mention of more. As for the sorcerer”—Bennek closed his eyes again as sleep tugged at him—“I think his fate is not certain, and neither is his name. There is a strange story being told here. This morning I asked Kit what had brought him north and he said it was first to rescue the Snow Chanter, and now that is accomplished, to slay Siddél. To slay Siddél! I have never had the temerity to even imagine such a thing, but Kit speaks of it so matter-of-factly I begin to believe it’s possible . . . especially when I hear Pantheren has given his support to the deed. Tell us, War Father, do you truly see hope in it?”

Bennek was startled back to awareness by Pantheren’s sharp response. “It is not a question of hope. It is only a deed we must try.”

“So it is true.” Jakurian sounded pleased. “Pantheren of Habaddon has resolved to meet the monster in his lair.”

“I am the one resolved to it,” Lanyon said softly.

Bennek opened his eyes, but she was still behind him. He could not see her, though he could see Jakurian looking on her with a thoughtful gaze. “There is a strange story here,” he said again. “I think we should hear it in full before judging if our task in Samokea is done.”

“Summon the men,” Pantheren said. “I would hear the full story too.”

Bennek tried to stay awake, but the sounds around him blurred and for a time nightmares flitted through his mind. In these visions it was night. He heard the rumble of thunder, and Siddél’s mocking voice on a storm wind. In a dark bedchamber the only light came from a stray flame flickering on a hearth. In that faint glimmer he saw a woman waking with a start. He could not see her face but he knew it was Lanyon. She had gone to sleep with her babies beside her but now the bed was empty.

Her hand touched his cheek. He heard again the sounds of the cottage: water boiling on the stove; Kina pacing the porch; and Lanyon speaking in a soft, reluctant voice. “From that chamber a stairway went up to Édan’s study. The door to it stood open just a little and around its edge a blue-gold light flickered—”

Her breathing was ragged with fear as she raced up the staircase. The door opened easily, and in silence. She looked in on a long table covered in blue and gold flames. No heat was emitted from the burning—it was not a natural fire—the smoke that rose from it was a shimmering vapor, like unformed ghosts.

She stepped closer . . . but then she spoke again, and once more the night receded. Bennek felt the pressure of daylight on his closed eyes. “If a warrior dies a shameful death, do you describe his cowardice to the widow who loves him? Or do you tell her he was a brave man who did his best?”

“No one goes forever untouched by fear,” Pantheren said. “We remember the best of a man.”

“I know Jahallon loved Édan. He loves him still. Édan’s deeds still inspire men. He is the pride of Samokea. So when Jahallon and Pantheren came upon me this summer, I did not tell them all that I knew of that night. Let Édan be loved! That’s what I thought. No good could be served by soiling his memory . . . and in truth I was ashamed that anyone should know what really happened. But now Édan is alive, and you War Father, and these men, and Jahallon—all of you!—before you seek him out and beg him to again ride at the head of your armies, know this—”

Bennek gasped as darkness closed in on him again. Blue-gold fire shimmered and danced on the table top. And half-hidden within the flames he saw them: the infant wrapped in the small boy’s embrace. Not burning. They were fading, transforming slowly into a shimmering vapor. A single arrow pierced both their hearts. Its shaft was carved with prayers and its spindle-shaped arrowhead was beaded with droplets of blood like red sweat.

On the other side of the table, gazing at Lanyon across the fire, was Édan, his face youthful and unscarred. “They were born to war,” he said gently. “They were born to the service of the people.”

Then Bennek fell away into a deeper darkness and far away he heard a woman screaming, but close beside him he heard Édan speaking again, “I have sacrificed what I love only to end this war.”

The blue-gold fire licked away the last evidence of Lanyon’s children, leaving only the arrow behind. The night went silent. Édan set the arrow against the string of a heavy bow, gazing up another staircase that led past a wooden door to the roof. Seconds passed. Then all the dogs in the city howled as a blast of lightning blew the door asunder.

Édan was ready, but Siddél did not come just yet. Instead, a second stroke of lightning exploded against the rafters. Part of the roof collapsed. At the same time all the books and furnishings, the wall hangings and the curtains, burst into flame.

Lanyon spoke, but this time the darkness did not recede. “He was crushed and dying beneath the fallen beams. You have heard of Édan’s voice? He could speak as the Inyomere do with one another—silently, within the mind. So he spoke to me then. He told me to find his cursed arrow. He passed this task to me! And Siddél came. I saw him beyond the flames at the top of the stairs. I was afraid, and I retreated to the inner door.

Grathrak! Bennek flinched as the Inyomere’s deafening voice spoke this single word and all the fires died. Choking black smoke filled the chamber. Nothing could be seen. Then a rush of wind stirred the smoke and there was a great clash and clatter.

Lanyon said, “I aimed Édan’s arrow at the noise. I guided the flight of the spell it carried so it would not go astray. But I mistook my target.”

From across the room, Bennek saw an enchanted flame flare along the arrow’s shaft, illuminating its victim. It was Édan. He was held up by his hair in the great fist of the Inyomere Siddél, who was so tall he hunched beneath the broken rafters. The arrow was sunk so deep in Édan’s chest that it must have pierced through to the other side. Édan was certainly dead. Bennek could not doubt it.

Then the darkness drew away and daylight took over. Bennek blinked, seeing again the cottage, crowded with men.

Lanyon said, “I think Siddél sensed his peril. It may even be that the arrow pricked him when it passed through Édan, for he dropped Édan’s body and fled howling through the broken roof. I pulled the arrow from Édan’s chest. The arrowhead does not have hooks and it came out cleanly—but he did not gasp or flinch. War Father I swear to you he was dead! You would have thought him dead.

“I could not flee, for the room below was on fire. I could not breathe for all the smoke and the heat—and I heard Siddél returning on the stairway.

“So I spoke the spell of time that Édan had taught to me.

“But I was enlivened with a power that was not my own, and also I held Édan’s arrow in my hands. The spell came with a force I never imagined possible, and it carried me through all the years since that night.”

Again she touched Bennek’s cheek. “Be at rest,” she whispered. “I will say no more on it.”

* * *

Pantheren looked around the cottage where all the men were gathered. It seemed to him it should be dark night, but the morning was bright despite the lateness of the season. “Something of life must have been left in Édan when Siddél returned. I have seen it before—mortally wounded men holding on past all expectation.”

“So it is true then,” Jakurian mused. “Édan is still in the world. How did he escape from Siddél, I wonder?”

Bahir said, “No doubt he corrupted the arowl that guarded him. Aidin or Édan—he could command the arowl to do what he required.”

Pantheren walked to a window; he looked out on the fields. “Siddél did not even know Édan had escaped him—the great blundering fool!—until he discovered him yesterday.”

Jakurian joined him. “Siddél knows now. He will hunt Édan. It will be dangerous for him to move about, even with a pack of tame dire wolves to protect him. Why didn’t he return to my father? As Lanyon has said, his name is well-loved in Habaddon. He would have been embraced as a hero.”

“He is ashamed,” Pantheren said. “He spent the lives of his children, he failed to defend the Citadel of the Snow Chanter, he lost Samokea—and all for nothing, because Siddél still lives. The shame must burn in him.”

“You think he is capable of feeling shame?” All turned to look at Lanyon. “It’s not shame that drives him. He is not ashamed of what he did. He believes he made a great sacrifice and we should love him for it. No, it is something else that drives him. Kit! Marshal—do you remember what happened when I used the arrow to break the ice that held the Snow Chanter?”

They both looked confused, but Tayeraisa answered. “The cold of the ice followed the spell’s path back to you. I felt it.”

“Yes. The arrow drinks from its victims and some of that power it keeps, but the rest rolls back to the archer. Yesterday Édan said to me these words, ‘You have taken enough from me already.’ I am remembering how I felt that night after the arrow killed him. I was flush with power. His power, drained from him by the spell of the arrow. Yesterday, Édan stopped me from slaying Siddél. He spoiled my shot. And he said to me, ‘It is not for you to become the storm.’ War Father, do you understand? It is not his wish just to end the Long War, just to see Siddél destroyed—”

“He would become the storm,” Jakurian said. “He would take for himself the power of Siddél.”

Bahir added, “And him a man who would murder his own children.”

Lanyon nodded. “I will not let him have the talisman. It is not his task anymore.”

* * *

Afterward, Lanyon helped Bennek to eat some porridge, while the other men went out to enjoy the sun. Before long, Kit came in through the back door, bringing Kina with him. The hound went straight to Bennek, lying next to him with her chin resting on his pallet. “She has been so worried for you,” Lanyon said. “I think she is happy now.”

Bennek tried to smile, but it came out as a grimace.

“Ah, Bennek,” Kit chided, “you should not make such faces at a pretty woman.”

Bennek slipped in and out of sleep, but he suffered no more dreams of the Citadel. Kit kept watch, peering out the window every few minutes until after a time he called to Kina and shooed her out the back door. A moment later the front door opened and Pantheren came in with Marshal. “We will tell him now,” Marshal said. Lanyon nodded. They sat together around Bennek. Lanyon took his hand, rousing him from sleep.

He looked at her and smiled. But then he noticed the others and he did not like what he saw on their faces.

“Bennek, we are going on tomorrow,” Marshal told him. “The land has been mostly emptied of arowl, so there’s a chance we may journey far unhindered—but we must go at once, before more come over the mountains.”

Pantheren wanted the full truth out. “Bennek, you will go south with Jakurian’s men.”

So Bennek understood what they intended. He whispered a hoarse, “No.” He tried to sit up, but he could not. Lanyon eased him back to the pillow.

“Jakurian’s men will care for you,” Pantheren went on gently, remorselessly. “They will bring you safely to Habaddon. You cannot ride, so you must return by the river. The Snow Chanter has promised to provide us a boat. The horses will follow on the shore.”

Bennek shook his head. His eyes were pleading. “I must go on,” he whispered. “You will need me.”

Marshal took his hand. “We will need you. But we will have to make do just the same. Jakurian will come with us—”

No.” Bennek tried to sit up again, and again he failed. “Marshal, do not send me away. A few days rest, and I will be well.”

“There is no choice in it,” Pantheren said with finality. “It will take many times more than a few days for you to heal. When you are well though, you may offer your oath to Jahallon. Then Bennek, I think you will see enough battles to satisfy even your warrior’s heart.”

* * *

So the next morning they bade the Snow Chanter farewell. Kit pleaded with her to come north with them, but she declined. “I must return to the peaks and dwell there until the winter has filled me and I am myself again.” But she stayed to watch them as they set out over the field.

Four men went on foot, carrying Bennek’s litter. All the others went on horseback. It was three miles through the grasslands to the River Talahnon. Here the river slowed after its sprint from the mountain, and among the reeds they found two canoes as the Snow Chanter had promised.

Jakurian had his men test the canoes, and when they were satisfied, they returned to the riverbank. The first task was to ferry the supplies of those who would go on, to the river’s northern shore. Horses were unsaddled; gear and baggage was stowed in the canoes. It was the work of a few minutes to cross the river and unload the cargo on the other bank. Then the canoes returned.

The moment of parting had come. Jakurian spoke quietly with his men, while Marshal and Kit tried to comfort Bennek as they could. The vigor that had only begun to return to him had drained away, and he seemed stricken with a terrible sadness, so that Marshal feared again for his survival. “You must not grieve, Bennek. We will be together again, in this world or the next.”

“I am not grieving,” Bennek said to him in a whisper. “I never am sad. I only hope that you will come back someday.”

Marshal kissed his forehead. Then he turned quickly away.

Kit squeezed Bennek’s hand. “You must represent us well in Habaddon, my cousin. Remember that Pantheren said the captains thought us somewhat odd and addled. You must not disappoint them!”

“I will try to live up to your example.”

“There’s my lad.”

Kit started to rise. “Where is Lanyon?” Bennek asked him.

Kit looked around, and discovered her standing at the water’s edge, gazing across the river, with Kina at her side. He sighed. “I think she is not sad, like you.”

As if sensing his gaze, Lanyon turned, her coppery hair blowing in long ribbons about her face.

“Take care, Bennek,” Kit said.

“And you,” he whispered. Then he was alone, but only for a moment. Next he knew Lanyon was kneeling beside him. He reached up, past the blowing strands of her hair to touch her cheek. “You are here.”

She smiled. Then she caught his hand, and kissed it. “You will thrive, Bennek.”

“You must come back and teach me the fire spell.”

“Do you remember the chant I spoke over you?”

He nodded.

“That is a better magic. Practice that instead.”

She started to rise, but he gripped her hand more tightly. “Take the pendant from around my neck. I want you to have it.” With his other hand he started to reach for the leather thong that bound it, but the pain from his ribs made him cry out.

“Bennek stop!” She cupped both his hands to restrain him.

“Please wear it, Lanyon. Let me be with you still.”

She shook her head. “It’s your mother’s and it belongs with you.”

“You will forget me,” he said in sudden anger.

She looked on him with a wistful smile. “No, I do not think I will.” Then she was away, running down to the canoes.

Finally it was only Kina who waited at his side. Bennek scratched her ear and stroked her head. Then Pantheren whistled for her to come. At first she did not listen. So Pantheren called her again, and then a third time. Finally Bennek told her she must go.

The horses were driven into the water. They swam across the river behind the canoes and Kina swam with them.

After a time, the canoes returned. Bennek was laid in one, with saddle blankets to pad his head and back. Gear was stowed around him. A man named Meriton had the task of handling the canoe. “Are you ready, son?” he asked Bennek.

“I am ready,” Bennek assured him. It was only the brightness of the sun in the noontime sky that made his eyes water.

* * *

On the north bank no one hurried.

The horses were left unsaddled so that they might roll in the grass and sun themselves after their river crossing, but the animals took no ease. They were restless and unhappy, tugging at their ropes and neighing loudly to their friends left behind across the river. Kina shared their mood. She trotted back and forth, back and forth at the water’s edge, her gaze fixed on the canoe where Bennek had been laid.

“You would do well to leash her,” Jakurian advised, but Pantheren made no answer. No one else spoke.

Across the river, Alhimbra and Kaliel were assisted into the second canoe. Then the boats were launched. On shore, the five who would ride mounted their horses. They waved a final goodbye, calling out good wishes that were mostly caught on the wind and carried away. Then they set out south and east along the river, following behind the boats.

Kina could bear it no longer. With a frantic yelp she leaped into the water and set out downriver, swimming hard, with the current at her back. Lanyon started forward in shock. “Kina! Ki-na!” The hound refused to hear. Lanyon turned to Pantheren, to find him watching the dog with a cold gaze. “War Father, you must call her back before she has gone so far she cannot hear you!”

Pantheren shook his head. “Bennek is her master now.” He turned his back on the river. “Jakurian, Marshal, Kit—our task lies before us. Let us ready the horses.”

Lanyon left them the work of grooming and saddling the animals. She stayed by the river’s edge, watching Kina until, far down the river, the dog reached the southern bank and vanished into the tall grass. A moment later the canoes, tiny with distance, disappeared from sight. The horsemen had become dark specks that bobbed and floated in a steady retreat into the green, until finally they too were swallowed up by the vastness of the plain.

Marshal brought the mare that had been given to Lanyon to ride. “Lanyon? All is ready.”

“Then let us find Siddél,” she said softly, “as we found the Snow Chanter.”

* * *

For most of that afternoon they rode in silence, with the foothills of the Tiyat-kel on their left, and the lush grasslands reaching to the eastern horizon. They saw rabbit and pheasant, and once they came across the burrow of a fox. They saw no living arowl, but twice they passed the remains of the beasts: broken skulls, scattered bones, and poorly made weapons rusting under the open sky. “The bones look gnawed,” Kit observed. “Perhaps they consume one another?”

“I have little doubt of it,” Jakurian answered. “Though such appetites are forgotten if ever they catch the scent of the people.”

In the evening they made camp beside a small stream that came down from the foothills. They made no fire.

* * *

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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.

Posted on: Friday, May 10th, 2013 at 12:05 am
Categories: Read THE WILD.

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