Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


The Wild: Chapter 19

May 17th, 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.

Near slopes, far mountains. Artist: Sarah AdamsGo to: beginning | prior chapter | next chapter

* * *

~ Part 3: Ghosts ~

Chapter 19

On the third morning after the parting at the River Talahnon, the five companions left the green plains, entering a land where the stony soil supported only thickets and scattered groves of stunted trees. The weather had been fair, but on that day heavy clouds came up from the south and the wind grew chill. In the late afternoon they began to look for shelter.
Kit and Marshal were riding together well ahead of the others. Before Kesh, neither had much experience of horses, but in the days since, under the tutelage of Pantheren and Jakurian, their skills had grown rapidly. Near dusk Kit came galloping back with the news that they had discovered a small cave. “There is not much room, but except for some old bones it is empty, and with luck it will stay dry awhile.”

They hurried to tether the horses in a thicket as the first drops of rain began to fall. They hauled the gear inside. The cave was dark and cramped and cold. As the rain strengthened to a steady downpour, they ruefully recalled the comforts of Kesh.

“Would that we could at least make a fire!” Kit lamented. “But there is nowhere for the smoke to go.”

“Would that we had a light,” Jakurian replied, “for I admit a dread of the utter darkness that is almost upon us.”

He had no sooner spoken these words, than a pool of white light glimmered into existence on the surface of a hollow stone in the middle of the cave, illuminating rough walls and weary faces. Jakurian drew back in alarm.

“Do not be afraid!” Kit said with a laugh. “For Lanyon, the spell of light is an easy thing.”

She answered in a trembling voice, “This is not my spell.” In the weird light her face had the waxy pallor of death.

Just then Marshal uttered a cry of surprise. There was hardly room to turn around in the cave, and still he scrambled away from the back wall where he had been sitting. “There is a ghost here! I can feel its chill.”

“It’s a sorcerer’s ghost, then,” Pantheren said, rising from the seat he had taken at the cave’s mouth.

“There it is!” Kit cried.

A tall, glimmering figure now stood beside the luminous stone. The light bent around it and passed through it, so that its edges and angles were hard to see. Still, its shape suggested a proud warrior in battle armor. Its gaze was fixed on Lanyon, and though she had retreated as far as the tiny cave allowed, she met its stare with defiant eyes. Then she exclaimed, “You know what happened that night? You knew what he intended?” Moments later, fury overcame her. “I will not tell you anything! Leave me and do not come again! Be gone!”

Obedient to this command, the ghost vanished. The chill that had marked its presence also disappeared, though the pool of light remained. Lanyon huddled against the wall, looking stunned.

Jakurian crouched beside her. “Speak. Are you all right?”

“I did not know a ghost could work spells.”

“You sent it away,” Marshal said in admiration.

“I knew him in life.”

“Knew who?” Jakurian asked. “This ghost?”

She nodded. “He was once Renthian of Samokea, who was a skilled sorcerer, and also counselor to Édan. He was in the Citadel that night Siddél came.”

Pantheren’s suspicions were stirred. “Was this ghost sent by Édan?”

“No. Renthian believes Édan to be dead. He came because he sensed the talisman—he knows what it is—but he did not expect to find me.”

“So this Renthian,” Jakurian asked, “he knew what Édan had done? It was not a secret after all?”

“He suspected—they must have discussed it—but he didn’t know it as a certainty—not until now.” She rubbed at her eyes and sighed. “I am sorry. I let anger rule me. I should have questioned him more.”

“He put the blame on you, didn’t he?” Pantheren asked. “That’s what men will do when a chieftain fails them. They would rather have the unblemished legend than the truth.”

Lanyon admitted it was so. “He decided I must have stolen the talisman and fled, leaving Édan helpless when Siddél came. So it is my fault his kin are no more.”

Kit said, “It is insufferable to be so accused!”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lanyon assured him. “Renthian is a ghost and he has no power over me.”

“But why is he here?” Jakurian wanted to know. “So very far from the Citadel of the Snow Chanter?”

She shrugged. “He sensed the talisman and he came. That is surely how Édan found us too—but I cannot hide it.”

“Will he come back?” Marshal wondered.

“I do not know.”

Pantheren again took his seat by the cave mouth. Jakurian and Marshal set about organizing the gear, while Lanyon and Kit put together another cold meal. The lack of a fire was a trial, but the light remained steady, so at least they were not oppressed by darkness.

* * *

The dawn brought an east wind that drove away the mist and chased the clouds up to a great height. All the peaks of the Tiyat-kel glistened with a bright cap of new snow. They did not set out at once, but instead laid out their coats and saddle blankets in the sun, so it was late morning when they started north again.

They had been riding for awhile when Marshal asked, “How far is it from Habaddon to Ohtangia? Is it farther than the distance we have journeyed through Samokea?”

“Half again as far,” Pantheren said. “Like Samokea, Ohtangia is a vast land, and requires many days to traverse.”

“Have you been there?” Kit asked him.

“I have. I journeyed there once as a young man, and then went on south until I reached the walled city of Hallah—and that was many times farther still.”

Marshal shook his head. “I confess I did not know the Wild was so vast. Each day as we go north I keep thinking we must soon reach the edge of all things, but always there is more.”

“Far more,” Pantheren agreed, “though what lies to the north is mostly mystery.”

“Mystery?” Kit asked. “What mystery is there? We know Siddél’s home may be found in the north, this ‘Storm Lair’ . . . is it not so? Though perhaps we don’t know precisely where it lies?”

“No one knows,” Pantheren said. “None among the people have ever seen it.”

“Then how do we know there is such a place?”

“The Inyomere know of it,” Lanyon told him.

“Then the Snow Chanter has told you how to find it?”

“Oh no. The Snow Chanter is bound to her place and has never ventured from it. But there are many among the petty Inyomere who wander far. It’s my hope that before long we will find some willing to speak with us.”

“Other than the Snow Chanter, I have never met an Inyomere willing to speak,” Jakurian said.

“You have not ventured in Ohtangia,” Pantheren told him. “There the Inyomere lived long in the company of Clan Kyramanthes and many are interested in the doings of the people. Let us hope we find some like kind on the path ahead.”

They saw no Inyomere, but as they continued north into the afternoon, the trees grew taller and more abundant, and before long they found themselves riding through a forest, though it was not a lovely place. The trees looked broken and worn—heavy with dead branches—and some were half-fallen. Only the thorn trees appeared to flourish. No one had seen their kind before. They were not tall, but their trunks were thick and bore a pebbly armor pierced everywhere with long black thorns. Nothing grew beneath the wide reach of their branches, but everywhere else the weeds were tall and thick, and the horses were soon made fretful by the stickers that clung to their legs.

And as they went along they were met, more and more often, by the pungent reek of decay.

It did not take long to discover why.

Hidden among the weeds and disguised in the leaf-litter beneath the thorn trees was an abundance of arowl bones. Many were weathered and old, but many others were fresh, and a few still had shreds of skin and flesh attached. All were chewed and broken. Jakurian spoke in a hushed voice, “There is nothing left in this land but arowl.”

Pantheren also spoke softly, “It’s strange we have not heard the howling of any pack, but perhaps they were called away to Kesh, and died there. I pray it is so.”

No one wanted to linger, so they pushed on until the afternoon grew old. Then they found a hollow on the side of a hill and they stopped awhile so the horses might rest, but they were resolved to ride on past nightfall in the hope of escaping that unhappy land.

Lanyon put together another cold supper of dried fish and the last, stale remnants of the bread they had brought from Kesh.

The droning of flies surrounded them as they ate, calling attention to the odor of death they could not leave behind. Marshal shook his head in puzzlement. “I don’t understand it. This lands feels . . . oppressed . . . as if by silence. Or something like silence. And yet the birds sing and the flies buzz. Never have I seen so many flies!”

“This is a soulless place,” Lanyon agreed. “It reminds me of the ruins of the Citadel when I returned there in the summer past . . . but that was barren, and the Inyomere were gone.”

“I wonder if that’s it. I wonder if any Inyomere remain here. Though this forest is lush and green it still feels unloved and unkempt.”

“It surely does,” Lanyon agreed. “And yet I wonder if there’s a second cause of our discontent. We’ve grown so quiet and dull since we’ve been without Bennek.”

This inspired from Kit a dramatic sigh. “It’s true. I do truly miss him. And I feel it’s my duty to take over the task of asking you awkward questions, Lanyon, so we might feel more ourselves again.”

Marshal smiled—for the first time in days, or so it seemed. “Sadly, my cousin, we know you are too well-mannered for such a role.”

Jakurian laughed. “I regret there was not time for me to know your brother better . . . though I confess my feelings for him are not all fond. It’s a hard thing to know that Pantheren has allowed me here only as a poor substitute for Bennek.”

This ignited a rare, playful glint in Pantheren’s eyes. “Find me the arowl before they may be seen or heard, and then confound them. When you can do that, perhaps I will put you first again.”

Jakurian spread his hands helplessly.

Kit shook his head. “I fear we are all doomed to be bested.”

“This night we are doomed to go without sleep,” Pantheren answered. “Come. Darkness is not far off. Let us make ready to go.”

* * *

Nightfall showed them that the forest was haunted not just by the scent of death, but also by its memory. Ghosts were revealed, come to watch them pass. The specters appeared amid the shadows, each with a stern face and a cold awareness in its pale gaze. They lingered only a few seconds before disappearing again, but always there was another farther along, lurking in the deep darkness beneath the most ancient trees.

The ghost of Renthian of Samokea came again to watch them, and later the ghost of another Samokeän captain Lanyon had known long ago. After this, she pulled her hood over her head so that her face was hidden, and she refused to look about anymore.

The horses went quietly, one after another in the leaf-filtered starlight. After a time, a breeze stirred. For a few seconds branches rustled and murmured. Then the breeze died away and the forest grew still again, but now a new sound came to them: the quick, crunching, twig-snapping beat of tiny feet speeding through the leaf litter. A moment later, a knee-high, man-like silhouette burst into the starlight. “It’s an Inyomere!” Kit cried.

“Wait, sir!” Lanyon called to it. “Stay but a moment.”

It froze at the sound of her voice. It was a tiny thing, gazing up at her with luminous green eyes. Its garment was of autumn leaves, and its fingers were long, gray, and kinked, like roots that have been torn from the soil. “The hunters come, Blessed One,” it said, in a voice that was low and crisp like rustling leaves. “They seek to kill us. You must flee!” It darted beneath the belly of Jakurian’s horse and disappeared into the night.

Lanyon yanked off her hood and turned her head this way and that, but nothing could be seen, nothing heard. Then she gasped. “They are bespelled! They wear the hunter’s veil! Tirvallian! Part these veils now!”

Abruptly, the forest was awake with the rustle and crunch of feet running on fallen leaves. Figures darted between the trees. Here, starlight illumined the hideous face of a were-wolf. There, the light glinted off rows of needle-sharp teeth.

Kit and Marshal pulled their spears. Pantheren and Jakurian unsheathed their swords. But Lanyon stood up in her stirrups and cried out to them, “No, wait! These are not arowl. They are people. Do not hurt them! We do not war against the people!”

“I see no people!” Kit answered her. “They are only beasts!”

With a whoosh and a whir, a flurry of darts was launched from the forest. Jakurian urged his horse forward so that with his body he could block the darts from striking Lanyon, but she did not wait. She cried out the name of the fire spell and many of the darts burst into flame, falling like burning stars to the ground.

Jakurian was unscathed, but Kit was not so lucky. He shuddered as a dart pierced his coat to prick his right arm. At once the muscles in that arm became numb and useless and his spear fell from his hand.

Pantheren was struck in his hand and thigh, and then a third time in his chest. He clutched at his saddle, to keep from falling to the ground. “Run, Lanyon,” he croaked, in a voice that was almost gone. “Ride! Jakurian, defend her.”

“Please hear me!” she shouted. “We are not your enemies.”

Figures swarmed from the darkness. From atop his horse, Jakurian looked down on a sea of arowl faces, hideous in the starlight. Arowl! Hunting under the protection of an enchantment. He seized the bridle of Lanyon’s mare. She saw what he intended and tried to stop him—“Jakurian, no!” —but he did not heed her. Pantheren and Kit were already wounded and Marshal must soon be overwhelmed. Never before had Jakurian abandoned living men to the rampages of arowl. He was filled with horror. But his first duty was to protect Lanyon, and the talisman she carried. With a fierce cry, he urged both horses into headlong flight.

“Lanyon is away!” Marshal cried—but her warning stayed with him. These are people. Indeed, all these seeming-arowl had the hands of people. All of them spoke with the voices of people as they called tactics to one another, and yet they had the faces and hides of arowl.

Doubt restrained him. When he saw a small beast fighting to pull Pantheren from his horse, he used only the shaft of his spear to whack it on the back. The creature had a were-wolf’s head, but the hands it used to seize Pantheren were a man’s hands. The shout it uttered when Marshal’s blow struck was a man’s shout.

The people did not war against the people.

Marshal knocked another in the chest. He turned his horse in a tight circle, driving two more of the creatures back from Kit, but in the moment his attention was away, five more swarmed on Pantheren. Marshal shouted and drove his horse into their midst. He seized one by the coarse gray, wolfish hair of its head, intending to throw it back, but to his astonishment, its scalp slipped off in his hand. He was left holding a hollow mask made of arowl hide, while a lithe, smooth-skinned youth no older than himself spun away with a shout. The other beasts paid no heed as they wrestled Pantheren to the ground.

Marshal was filled with fury. “Stop this now!” he shouted. He spun his horse around again to see another pack of beasts swarming Kit. “Masks and skins and bestial enchantment do not make you arowl!” He flung the hideous scalp to the ground. “Stand off! Remember yourselves! The people do not draw weapons against one another.”

They heeded him not. Kit was forced to the ground and his horse spirited away into the darkness. Pantheren’s mount also was taken, and Pantheren himself lay bound in the mud. Fury glinted in his eyes, but a spear point rested against his throat and this kept him quiet. “If you kill him,” Marshal warned, “we are all doomed.”

He looked up, to find himself encircled by the beast people. He counted eighteen. Three stood with bows drawn, their arrows aimed at his heart. All of them were masked as arowl, save for the youth, and a slender man who wore the silvery face of an Inyomere of the stream.

One, who was robed in black fur, stepped forward. He was not so tall as many, but the mask he wore was more hideous than any other: a leering face, with wide eyes set too far apart in a flat, black-furred face. The broad nose looked decayed and the mouth was huge, with dog lips sagging around sharp white teeth. What creature Siddél had twisted to create such a beast, Marshal could not guess. How these people had contrived to animate such a mask was an equal mystery, for the eyes appeared full of life, the nostrils flared, and spit flecked the black lips.

But the wearer of this mask was done with disguise. Graceful hands reached up to remove it, and as the mask slipped free, the life went out of it. It became but a hollow skin, with painted eyes. A woman stood revealed. Marshal had never seen another like her. In the glimmering starlight she seemed to glow, so pale was her skin. She was terribly thin, almost wraithlike. Her hair, which was coiled in a tight braid behind her neck, seemed white in the faint light. Her eyes appeared hollow. In other circumstance he might have mistaken her for a ghost. Even so, he found her ethereally beautiful.

She smiled at him, but it was a hungry smile. “Dismount,” she told him.

Marshal drew himself up a little straighter. “The people do not war against the people,” he reminded her. Secretly, he hoped he had not struck her with his spear.

“Perhaps you are people, and perhaps you are not,” she said. “Dismount, and we shall find out.”

“Dismount, you fool,” Pantheren croaked in a hoarse whisper. “Or they will kill you.”

“Listen to your father,” the woman advised.

Marshal had not the chance. One of her companions was overcome with impatience. A dart hissed, striking Marshal in the neck, biting deep. Instantly, he felt himself adrift, his breath stolen away as he sank irresistibly into the frigid black waters of a midnight lake. Gazing back at the world from beneath the surface, he saw the pale woman leaning over the waters as if searching for something. Then she went away, and darkness slowly closed over the bright faces of the stars.

* * *

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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 17th, 2013 at 12:05 am
Categories: Read THE WILD.

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