Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


The Wild: Chapter 23

June 14th, 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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* * *

Owl on branch. Artist: Sarah AdamsChapter 23

Zavoy slept little that night, and when he arose he went at once to the library, where he took out The Journal of Days that had been kept by his people since they crossed over the mountains. His father had never learned to write, and had assigned the keeping of the book to another, but Zavoy had learned reading and writing at an early age, and The Journal was his passion. By the blue glow of a witch light he began to chronicle the past night’s remarkable events, writing in tiny characters to make the most of each page of precious paper.

After a time the door opened and thirteen-year old Lehe peeped inside. Zavoy smiled. Lehe was his cousin on his mother’s side. She did not care for the hunt, and rarely went outside the cavern, but like Zavoy she loved to read the old manuscripts, and hear the words of the far fathers and far mothers of long ago. “Everyone is still asleep downstairs,” she said with a pout.

“Come in then, and read.”

Zavoy sat at a table to do his writing, but Lehe preferred a cushion on the floor so that she could lean against the warmth of the chimney that carried smoke up from the hearth in the great hall. Lehe read a bound manuscript that she held balanced in her lap, and the occasional rustle of a turning page became a quiet accent to the scratch of Zavoy’s quill—but at last he looked up from his work. “Lehe, I have decided you must keep The Journal of Days when I am gone.”

She gave him a dark look. “That cannot be. It will be your son who keeps The Journal, when he becomes the next chieftain.”

Zavoy was startled. He forgot sometimes that Lehe was still a child. “I don’t think so,” he said gently. Their people were so few in number and their kinship so hopelessly intertwined that no marriage prospect remained among them. It was not a subject they spoke of often, but their rules of kinship were strictly enforced, and in the Journal of Days were recorded terrible stories of banishment and death for those who had turned to their cousins or other close kin for love. “Lehe, you know I will have no wife, and without a wife I will have no son. You will keep the journal after me, and—”

A ghost took shape between them. Zavoy was in a fluster as it delivered its silent message. Then it was gone again. Lehe’s mischievous expression did nothing to put him at ease. “You have been waiting for Édan’s witch to awaken! You set a ghost to watch her!”

“You should not call her that. Her name is Lanyon.”

“And do you like her very much?” Lehe wondered with an arch look.

Zavoy laughed nervously. “I should not dare too! As you said, she is Édan’s woman.”

“Édan is long dead and gone from the world,” Lehe pointed out in her practical way—and Zavoy had to agree that this was true.

* * *

Pantheren awoke with a start.

He had slept near the hearth with his companions around him. Most of the Samokeäns of the Cavern had also slept in the great hall. That was their custom, and only a few would retire to the upstairs rooms. The ghosts kept watch.

Pantheren lay still, listening. The hall was dark, lit only by coals dusted with ash. From around him came the soft snores and vague stirrings of people asleep. He felt confused, uncertain if had slept for one hour or many. What had awakened him?

He stood up, counting the shapes around him: Jakurian, Marshal, Kit . . . but Lanyon? She was gone, her blanket left draped against her field bag.

Stepping past the sleepers, he went to look in the kitchen. There he found an older woman playing a game of blocks with a small child. She smiled when she saw him and arose. “Good day, War Father,” she whispered.

He answered her softly in turn. “Good day to you, if indeed the day has come.”

Her smile grew brighter even if the light did not. “The sun is near noon outside though its joyful light does not reach us here. Would you have some breakfast?”

“I would know where Lanyon Kyramanthes has gone.”

“She awoke only a little while ago, and like you, she missed the sun’s light. If you would find her, climb the stairs to the top of the keep and cross the bridge. She is at the windows.”

Pantheren thanked her, but she remembered there was more to say. “War Father, Beyna Forest is overrun with arowl this day. Zavoy has said no one is to leave the cavern.”

He bowed to her, and went quietly to the stairs.

* * *

Lanyon was illuminated by a beam of sunlight spilling through the cliff window closest to the bridge, but she drew back into the shadows at Pantheren’s approach, until she saw it was him. “War Father.” With a meaningful glance she made sure he took note of the ghost sentry at the far end of the ledge.

Pantheren joined her at the window. From that vantage he could see the meadow at the foot of the cliff, the forest beyond, and a haze of green that might have been the plains far to the east. All was still, but it was not quiet. Up from the trees came the hunting cries of a multitude of arowl—some near, some distant. The clamor set his nerves on edge. Lanyon said, “There are a hundred arowl out there, by the sound. I don’t know if they pursue our scent or the scent of the horses, but they are mad with hunger.”

Pantheren nodded. “I was suspicious when I heard we were not allowed outside. Now, I understand.”

“Do you?” She moved closer to him and her voice grew very soft. “War Father, I don’t wish to linger her. I am afraid. Zavoy has promised our safety, but these people are Édan’s closest kin and not all are willing to forget the teachings of their ghosts.”

“Patience. We will not be here long.”

“I want to leave tonight.”

This startled him. “You fear these people more than the hunger of these arowl?”

“Yes. Some among them anyway, and their ghosts even more.”

The chance creaking of a rope made them both look around, to find that Zavoy had just stepped from the swinging bridge. He walked with the lightness of a cat. “Forgive me, I’ve startled you. I hope you slept well.”

“Very well,” Pantheren said, “thanks to the security of your keep. But how is it the arowl have come overnight in such numbers?”

Zavoy shrugged. “It’s their way, and while the day lasts we can do nothing to stop them howling in Beyna Forest. But when darkness falls and they are soothed to sleep—then we will hunt them, and punish them for their trespass.”

Lanyon looked up at Pantheren. “Then we should leave tonight, when the hunt has commenced and the arowl are distracted.”

It was Zavoy’s turn to be startled. “We cannot make the way safe for you all in one night!”

“The way will never be safe.”

“That is true, but while the arowl are always plentiful, they are not always in such overwhelming numbers. Lanyon Kyramanthes, the ghosts acknowledge your magic is powerful, but even you—”

Lanyon turned away.

“Lanyon? Have I offended you? That was not my intention.”

She would not look at him as she answered, “Do your ghosts still argue against me?”

Heat touched Zavoy’s cheeks. “They are ghosts,” he said helplessly. “They are only memories.”

Lanyon turned again to Pantheren. “What shall we do, War Father?”

He shook his head, unhappy with their choices. “Let us be patient. If we hunt the arowl tonight, tomorrow they may be gone from the forest. Then we’ll be free to leave.”

* * *

At the dinner hour, Zavoy stood before his people and announced a night hunt. Marshal, Kit and Jakurian were refreshed from their sleep and at once they volunteered, but Pantheren said that one of them must stay with Lanyon in the keep. The Samokeäns of the Cavern were bemused by this, especially the women. They asked Lanyon why she would want to stay behind, and if she did not like to hunt? “I am not accustomed to it,” she confessed, and though they tried to persuade her to venture out with them, she would not be convinced.

Oddly, Zavoy seemed impressed at her refusal. “It is well if you stay, and you are safer thus. My cousin Lehe will remain with you, for she also does not care for the hunt, and would rather look after her sister Krispin.”

Pantheren saw that Marshal, Kit and Jakurian were all determined to go, so he announced that he would be the one to stay with Lanyon. Zavoy insisted the keep was secure and Lanyon would need no guardian, but in the end he bowed to Pantheren and accepted his decision.

* * *

As Marshal was checking his weapons, Luven came and called over him the hunter’s veil, so that he would be hidden from the arowl. Zavoy did the same for Kit and Jakurian. It reminded Marshal of the time Lanyon had prepared them for a night hunt—only then they had hunted with Bennek and not Jakurian. To Marshal, that time seemed long ago.

The Samokeäns donned their costumes, but instead of calling the hunter’s veil, they called the enchantments that enlivened their masks. Marshal suffered a shiver of real fear as he looked at them, for though they spoke quietly together in the manner of the people, they looked so much like arowl his nerves were raw.

The ghosts of the cavern made perfect scouts. They could not be harmed by the arowl; the beasts did not even seem to perceive them. So they left ahead of the hunting party to scout the forest, reporting back to Zavoy that the arowl packs had come together at sunset, bedding down on a hillside not two miles from the keep. Zavoy gave the beasts time to settle, waiting until full dark before he set out. Half an hour later the Samokeäns were creeping through forest shadows, surrounding the arowl’s position.

Marshal’s placement was at the foot of the hill. Among the trees to his right he could just see a vague shimmer that he knew to be Kit. He could not see Jakurian, who held the next position over.

On Marshal’s other side there stalked a squat, black-furred, hideous arowl with the sagging lips of a monstrous dog. It was Luven of course. Her enchantment made the costume all too real. Marshal worried that in the heat of battle he would strike out against one of her kin. Again, he reminded himself to look for their hands. Despite their spells, their hands were always the hands of people.

A peaceful chirping came faintly from the hilltop. Marshal recognized Zavoy’s signal and readied his bow, though without Bennek at his side to describe the position of each arowl, he felt blind.

The chirping sounded again, just as he caught the foul scent of arowl on the night air. Luven froze. Marshal fitted an arrow to his bow and crept forward a few steps more. Beneath a shadowy thicket, starlight gleamed on gray fur. Moving only his eyes, he looked around and found two more targets. The chirping sounded a third time. Smiling, Marshal drew back his bowstring and let his arrow fly.

The hillside erupted in chaos. Howls and screams from the terrified arowl mixed with throaty shouts from the hunters. “There! On your right!” “Do not let it slip past you.” “A fine shot!” “Beware!”

Marshal dropped two arowl without taking a step. Three more erupted from the thickets. Two of these fell to arrows from Luven and Kit, but Marshal took the third. Then he bounded past the fallen beasts, pursuing the glimmer of another arowl fleeing up the hill. He caught up with it and killed it. Then he looked for another, but the beasts that remained all had the hands of people, and they spoke to one another in the giddy excitement of a successful hunt.

Was it over?

Surely not. At least one arowl was still alive. Its terrified yammering flooded the night, a high-pitched keening unlike anything Marshal had heard before. He set off to find it and in a few minutes he came to a thorn tree at the very summit of the hill. Several of the Samokeäns of the Cavern were gathered beneath its spreading branches. They had removed their masks and dismissed their enchantments.

At their center was Gorem, the eldest of the Samokeäns of the Cavern and Gonly’s wife. In her hand she held a long-bladed knife, dark with blood. Two arowl writhed at her feet. They snapped at the air, screeching in the horrible tones that made the night seem evil.

The hunter’s veil still concealed Marshal. No one noticed as he pulled an arrow from his quiver and set it to his bowstring. “Why do you leave them alive?” he asked.

They turned to look for him. One among them was a warrior named Halméd who was Lehe’s brother and Zavoy’s cousin too. “Marshal? Ah, there you are . . . tirvallian.” The spell of concealment fell away and Halméd saw the arrow in Marshal’s bow. “Stay your hand,” he said quickly. “There’s no need to fear these arowl. Gorem has cut their tendons. They cannot walk.”

“How were they taken alive?”

“With the darts,” Halméd said. Then he added merrily, “We don’t use our darts only to abuse travelers from the south.”

Marshal lowered his bow, even as a sickness stirred in his belly. “Why do you want them alive? Why don’t you kill them?”

“We would have them speak to us. Do you not question the arowl?”

“No! Never. They are beasts. They don’t speak.”

“They don’t speak with the words we use,” Halméd conceded. “Renthian, though, has learned their speech and he’s taught it to some of us. Gorem is especially skilled. Now and then, there are useful things to learn.”

Marshal could not imagine what useful knowledge an arowl might have to share, but Gorem set to her task. Kneeling beside the first beast—a weasel creature with a face too much like a man’s—she set to slicing its hide between its shoulder blades, as if to remove its skin while it was still alive. The beast howled out anew, and Gorem withdrew her blade until this fit subsided. Then she made sounds of spitting and growling, amid a string of guttural syllables. The arowl mewled as if in reply, a pain-filled lament. Then Gorem looked up, to meet Marshal’s shocked gaze. “Would you learn this skill, southerner? I will teach it to you, though it’s not for the faint of heart.”

Marshal shook his head. The arowl was mewling piteously. He could not abide the sound of it, or the foul smell of its blood. “No, ma’am, I will kill the arowl as I find them. This art I leave to you.”

She smiled at him as if he was a small child. Then she slashed again at the beast and its howls renewed. Marshal turned away. He did not want to see the arowl flayed by Gorem’s knife. He needed clean air to breathe, that did not stink of blood.

“Marshal!”

He jerked around, to see Kit climbing the hill with Jakurian and Luven.

Kit grinned. “Never have I seen a pack fall so quickly!”

Luven met him with a happy smile. “You took four! That’s one more than any of us can claim.”

But the keening was going on and on, and Marshal did not understand how they could be smiling. Kit drew near. “Marshal?” He peered at him in the starlight. “What is wrong? Has someone been wounded?”

“No one that I know. I’m going to look about.”

He set off, but Jakurian stayed him with a gentle hand. “Luven said the arowl are being questioned. It’s an ugly thing, but my father will do the same when chance allows. They don’t feel pain as we do.”

“I do not care for their pain!”

Jakurian nodded. “I too hated to be there when Jahallon would do this. It made me feel as if their evil was slipping inside me. Still, it is necessary.” Then he went on to the hilltop, and Kit followed after him, for he was curious.

Luven though, stayed behind. In a soft voice, she said, “I would stay to watch Gorem question these beasts, but there are fish traps in the southern creek that I have not tended in three days. Now that the night is made safe, I would visit them.”

Marshal felt a rush of concern. “Luven, we don’t know that all the arowl are killed. You shouldn’t go alone.”

“I won’t be alone if you come with me.”

Then he understood she was doing him a kindness. “I thank you, ma’am. It’s my honor to accompany you.”

* * *

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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, June 14th, 2013 at 12:01 am
Categories: Read THE WILD.

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