Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

The Wild: Chapter 37

September 20th, 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 Adams

~ Part 7: Far Father ~

Chapter 37

On a summer evening, when the last light of the sun still lingered over the western ocean, a woman on watch upon the walls of Habaddon caught sight of two riders as they emerged from the forest. They came slowly, as men will do when they want to bring their horses cool into the stable. The hound that was with them ran ahead to greet the farm dogs guarding the fields of wheat and barley.

“It is Uleál and Bennek,” the sentry called to her captain, and word was sent to Jahallon.

Bennek had been one-and-a-half years in Jahallon’s service. He was seventeen now—Marshal’s age, when Bennek had last seen his brother. Not a day went by that he didn’t think of Marshal, and of Kit and Lanyon and Pantheren and Jakurian too—but Lanyon was gone away, and no news of the others had ever come out of the north. Bennek still longed to go after them, but the way north was impassable. No matter the number of arowl that were slain by Habaddon’s warriors, ever more came forth to do battle.

In the first year of Bennek’s service, the army had crossed the Glycian on a floating bridge made by the artisans of Habaddon. At Jahallon’s command Bennek had directed the movement of companies up and down the riverfront, and he had beguiled the arowl as well, at turns summoning them into fury, or sending them howling away in panic, until the forest on the northern bank was scoured of arowl. A line of stockades was constructed where the trees gave way to grassland.

But they dared not push farther into Samokea. Day after day, season after season, the arowl swept down from the northern plains in numbers never seen before. The Long War had become a fiercely-fought stalemate with Édan the only winner—for Jahallon could not bring war against the sorcerer while all his men were needed in the defense of the Protected Lands.

Yet Jahallon saw success in the very passion of Siddél’s assault. “We must not confuse Siddél’s fury with strength,” he told his captains. “The monster is afraid. He fears the return of the talisman. He puts all his strength against Habaddon, determined to keep Samokea for himself, against the day the talisman returns. But Siddél’s strength is less than it once was. He suffers from arrow wounds that will not heal, and the many prayers for his demise surely weigh on him. He is afraid—because not even the great spirit of storm can rage forever without cease. Soon now, soon, all this will change.”

Bennek did not doubt Jahallon’s prediction. Change was already upon them. He knew it by the dread that had been growing for days within his heart as he accompanied Uleál on an inspection of the stockades. There was a change in the air, in the very temper of the wind. Riding beside Uleál in the twilight, Bennek looked ahead to Habaddon’s dark walls standing high against a deep purple sky, the prayer flags flying bravely above them. Stars shone out overhead and crickets sang amid the wheat, but dark clouds were gathering behind them, and the north wind smelled of rain.

“I fear this storm,” Bennek said softly.

Uleál turned to him, his lined face shadowed by twilight. “Is there something more to it than rough weather?”

“Not that I can see. Yet some dire change is upon us. I sense it. Though what it is I cannot say.”

They reached the city, and the gate was open for them. They left their horses with the young girls who kept the stable. Then Bennek went to Mari’s house, while Uleál went to find his wife in the rooms they shared within the keep.

Mari had received word of his homecoming. She had a bath ready. But Bennek had only just slipped into the delicious hot water when word came from Jahallon that he should come to the keep. He dressed quickly in the tunic and pants and soft boots Mari laid out for him. He was grateful he’d persuaded her to cut off his long hair. For the past year he’d kept it cropped close to his head in the style of Jahallon, Uleál, and Pantheren, so in little more than a minute he was ready to go.

Mari met him in the courtyard with a loaf of freshly baked bread. “Jahallon will feed you more,” she assured him, and sent him off with a kiss on the cheek.

Then Anjella stepped out of the kitchen, with her baby on her hip. Melanni was ever a wonder to Bennek, for she looked nothing at all like him, and only a little like Anjella. Mostly, she resembled Anjella’s oldest son, Teller, who was said to look exactly like his father, killed in battle years ago. Bennek blew in Melanni’s ear and kissed her cheek, so that she laughed. “May I hold her?”

“You have to go.”

“A moment only.”

So she handed Melanni to him and he cuddled her, while Melanni patted his face. Anjella watched them together. “You are melancholy, and that is not like you. Is there some dreadful news?”

“No, there is no news, only a dread I cannot explain.”

“A sense that something comes?” she asked him in a whisper.

Bennek looked into her eyes, saw the fear there, and knew she had sensed the same thing. “It’s something I cannot name and do not wish to face.”

Anjella gazed at Melanni, so happy in Bennek’s arms. “I fear that all we know will soon change.” Then she shook her head. “Oh, Bennek, do not listen to me. Do not lose heart.” She took the baby back. “Go. Jahallon is waiting.”

* * *

The first drops of rain began to fall as Bennek reached the keep. Many of Jahallon’s captains were already there, ascending the stairs to the council room. Bahir was among them. “Bennek, what news have you brought from the Glycian to prompt this sudden council?”

Bennek shook his head. “Sir, I don’t know. The fighting goes on as it has this past year. Nothing is changed. Not yet.”

The council room was brightly lit by candles and oil lamps and low flames on the hearth. Jahallon stood beside the fire, in quiet conversation with two of the women who oversaw the provisioning of the men in the field. With them was Uleál, unwashed and unchanged, still smelling of sweat and horses. The rain fell harder as the captains took their seats at the long table. Bennek stood to the side as he was accustomed to do. Jahallon waited until all were gathered. Then he stood before them and delivered news none had expected.

“We are no longer alone in our battle with Siddél. Our emissaries in Hallah have told the story of the talisman, and of the hard fighting that has fallen to us since Édan was discovered again in the world. Today news has come that some nine hundred warriors of Hallah are even now riding north, to set their strength of arms beside our own.”

A murmur of surprise ran round the table. Warriors from Hallah were not unknown—a few came to Habaddon every year, some out of curiosity and some to test their mettle on the battlefield—but never before had Hallah sent an army north. “Can there be nine hundred men in Hallah who know how to fight?” one of the captains wondered. Another answered him, “If they do not know, they will learn.”

Jahallon looked at Bennek, standing on the side. “There is reason to think Siddél has espied this new force”—he turned back to the men gathered around the table—“and there is reason to think it does not please him.” Grim laughter followed these words. “Dread flows out of the north. Fear takes root in our hearts. Do not heed it.” And the captains answered him, “We stand with you, Jahallon! We stand firm.”

“Siddél will expect these new forces to be arrayed against him, and he will sweep down upon us in redoubled wrath—but he does not understand my heart. The time has come to engage Édan. At last we will have men enough to do it.”

Jahallon paused that they might consider his words, and for many seconds there was only the sound of falling rain and the crackle of the fire. Then a murmur of approval was heard as the captains began to nod.

Jahallon said, “We will divert the warriors of Hallah. Three of you, my captains, will go forth tonight. You will seek out our friends from Hallah and you will lead them east through Fathalia, and if need be into Ohtangia, making a threat of force against Édan.

“Hear me carefully when I say a threat of force. It is not my intention to sacrifice Hallah to Édan’s witchcraft. He will see our numbers and know that he cannot win, and he will flee. He will be forced into the open, where we will meet him. He will be caught between Habaddon and Hallah and he will surely fall.”

Jahallon then looked at each one of his captains, and when he spoke again, his tone was somber. “Never before have the people warred against the people. It is our burden that we must be the first. We must engage Édan. We must bring him down, for our own defense. Never forget that Édan conjured the dire wolves—and that he has made were-beasts of a new kind, endowed with self-mastery, that they may stand guard in the company of the people and not go mad. Such creatures must prove far more dangerous to us than the unthinking beasts we are accustomed to fight.

“But we also must act in defense of my far daughter, Lanyon. Édan must be gone from the field when she finally returns. We cannot allow him to interfere with the talisman again.”

The captains spoke their agreement, and discussion followed. Many questions were asked and answered. Then those captains were selected who would leave that night to meet the men of Hallah.

Jahallon told the others to prepare their men. All companies would ride out an hour after sunrise—whether they saw the sun or not. They would cross the Glycian, and some would be assigned to reinforce the stockades against Siddél’s renewed wrath, but the greater number would ride east, in the expectation that Édan would be driven from his stronghold.

* * *

The planning went on late into the night. Bennek tried to follow all the details. Jahallon required him at such meetings so that he would know and understand the tactics they would use—but he was weary. He had been afield for days and in the saddle since before the sun rose, and after a time he found himself nodding. He did not remember sitting down, but when he awoke much later he was huddled in a chair beside the fire. Rain was still hammering down outside, but the captains were gone. Only Jahallon remained at the table, engrossed in some parchment spread out before him. But even as Bennek looked, the single candle that remained lit on the table was caught by a stray breeze and went out.

In the ruddy light of the low-burning fire Jahallon eyed the thread of smoke curling up from the wick. Then the firelight faded, and Bennek could no longer see Jahallon’s face. He could see nothing at all. Darkness enfolded them. Bennek felt its gravity, its will. He did not dare to move or speak . . . but Jahallon was not alarmed. He laughed softly, and then he said, “So . . . do you come again at the bidding of Mukarigenze?”

“I come with a warning,” the Darkness said, in a voice so low it vibrated in Bennek’s bones. “Siddél is desperate. His strength fails him, and he has become afraid.”

Jahallon answered with satisfaction in his voice. “I know it. His dread taints the very air. The monster senses what many have sensed . . . this dark presence, looming in the Mere. The talisman returns to us.”

“It comes,” the Darkness agreed.

Jahallon asked, “How soon?”

“You may not live to see it,” the Inyomere warned. “Long ago, Siddél spoke his curse against you. It was his will that you should endure the grief of countless years and that finally you should stand alone, as the last of the people within the Wild . . . but Siddél’s fear has lately grown stronger than his hate. He rues the spell that holds open the gateway through which your life flows. He has sworn to unbind it when next he meets you . . . and when next he comes upon Édan.”

Jahallon laughed again, softly. “It has always been in my mind that Siddél would call back his curse if I hurt him deeply. You have not taken me by surprise.”

“Mukarigenze says if you flee now into the south you may live on for some long time.”

Jahallon answered curtly, “If it was my will to flee, I would have gone long since. I will stay.”

The pressure of the Darkness eased. The fire flickered again, and Jahallon struck a flint. He lit the candle.

Bennek stirred, feeling as if he had been released from a spell. “Sir—”

“The night is nearly gone,” Jahallon said. “Return now to Mari’s house. There is only a little time to prepare.”

“But, sir! You have spoken to the Darkness. Will you not heed his warning?”

“It was not a warning, Bennek. It was a test of my resolve.”

“Then you don’t believe Siddél will unbind his curse?”

“I do believe it. I have long believed it. Did I not just say so?”

“Sir, you did,” Bennek admitted.

The candlelight did little to soften Jahallon’s stern gaze. “Do not be afraid. Even for Siddél, releasing such a curse will not be an easy thing to do. He must find me first. He must descend upon me . . . and that is always a danger for him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Bennek, say nothing of what you heard tonight. Do not give the men cause for fear.”

“I will say nothing of it . . . but, sir, what did you mean when you said the talisman is coming? Have you sensed Lanyon’s return? Is it time?”

Jahallon nodded. “It will not be long. The talisman has set a dark gyre turning within the Mere. Siddél feels his fate unraveling in its current. Édan must sense it too.”

“We will defeat Édan, sir, just as you said.”

“That we will. Now go, and prepare.”

* * *

Anjella was awake when he returned to the house. She met him at the courtyard gate, Kina at her side. “What news?”

“The army is to set out an hour after sunrise.”

She stood in the door of his room, holding a candle while he packed his gear and prepared his weapons. There had not been time to wash his things, but Mari brought him a fresh shirt and trousers, and brushed his coat clean. It all took but a few minutes. “Come to the kitchen and eat,” Mari said.

The children were still asleep. Anjella sat at the table, watching in silence while Mari served Bennek breakfast enough for three men, with another generous portion going to Kina.

Then he was ready to go. Mari and Anjella went with him to the courtyard gate. A lantern hung on a post, and in its flickering light Bennek saw tears in Mari’s eyes. She hugged him and kissed his cheeks. “Know that I count you among my own sons, Bennek, my dear. Take care. Take care.” She could say no more.

Anjella’s eyes were shining too. “I do not know when I shall see you again, Bennek. Your path is strange, and haunted, but it is not all dark.”

Bennek realized, “You do not think I shall return.”

“No, it is just that I cannot see that far.” She kissed his mouth. Then she let him go. Yet as he started to turn away, she reached for him one more time. “Remember the fire spell.”

Bennek nodded. Then he said goodbye to them, and he went with Kina into the keep, to await Jahallon.

* * *

It was a storm out of season, refusing to relent when the sun rose. The wind howled in violent gusts and the rain made assault from every side as the men of Habaddon rode north in a long line of horses that churned the trail into mud.

Bennek rode beside Jahallon. They were first to cross the floating bridge. As his mare set foot on the rough planks she made a display of worry, rolling her eyes when she felt the bridge sway and tilt in the grip of the wind and the river’s churning current. But she had crossed many times, and at Bennek’s urging she hurried on, stepping out into the muddy yard of the stockade that guarded the crossing.

Log walls towered above them, with bowmen on watch upon the walkways. Across the yard, the north gate stood open. They rode past it, into the forest beyond.

* * *

All that day they rode east, keeping beneath the trees. The wind tossed the branches and rain fell on them in heavy drops, but the canopy of summer leaves still promised to hide them from Siddél. Bennek stayed beside Jahallon, as was his duty.

In the evening, they came to the easternmost stockade. Rain was still falling, though the wind had eased. There was not room enough for all the men and horses to take shelter so they scattered through the forest, pitching tents or building rough huts where they could sleep.

Jahallon had many couriers with him and most of these were women. These, and several of the captains, were assigned to stay with Jahallon in the stockade’s lodge. One of the women offered to take Bennek’s mare to the stable. He was bone-weary, so he thanked her and went early into the lodge to dry his soaking coat beside the fire.

It was a dark, smoky room, and though herbs had been mixed into the green straw that covered the floor, their scent could not mask the odor of old meals and the toil of men. No one was about. Most of the captains had not yet arrived, the couriers were busy, and Jahallon was outside, speaking with the men assigned to the stockade’s walls.

Bennek sat cross-legged beside the fire. Dread still haunted him. Jahallon said it came from Siddél, for the monster feared the hour when Lanyon would return with the wicked talisman. But when would that hour be? How would they know?

Bennek was determined to seek her.

So he closed his eyes and turned within the Mere. He gazed north across the Wild as far as his spirit sight could reach . . . and there at the edge of his perception he saw a shadow. He could not tell what it was, but when he looked west he saw another. Time passed, and slowly, slowly the two shadows drew closer, until he saw them for what they truly were: arowl, vast hordes of arowl, more than he had ever counted before, coming out of Nendaganon and Samokea. They were stampeding toward the line of stockades. He felt their desperation and their despair. All of them were starving. Siddél had held them in the pits, locking them in cages, maybe for months, as he prepared for this day.

Bennek realized he could not fill up the minds of such beasts with fear, so full of fear were they already. Their only hope at life was to feed on the corpses of the men they killed in the coming battle. Such beasts could never be persuaded to retreat.

Bennek was taken over by his own fear and he trembled, until from far away he heard Jahallon calling him, Bennek, Bennek, come back to us now.

He turned his sight away from the Mere, and with a shudder, he opened his eyes.

Outside he heard the rain still falling. The lodge had grown steamy with the heat of the fire, and the presence of fifty or more men and women, seated in small groups, or sleeping on the straw floor. Wet coats hung from the rafters, steeping in smoke. Over the fire, stew pots sent up wholesome fragrances.

None of it seemed real after the terror he had just seen.

Jahallon was crouched, studying his face. “You have seen them. Did I not tell you Siddél would redouble his assault?”

Bennek’s heart was racing. “It is too warm in here. I cannot breathe.”

Jahallon put his hand on Bennek’s shoulder. “Do not let our friends see your distress,” he said softly. “It will wound their confidence.”

Bennek nodded. Then he arose. Jahallon signaled to his captains who were present that they should follow. Bennek was comforted to see Bahir among them. The other two captains he knew only from their attendance in Jahallon’s council room. They were Kreskin and Gyellen. Both had the weathered faces and grizzled hair of veterans who had fought the Long War even before Bennek was born. He shook their hands. Then together they went into the stable.

The stable was as full with horses as the lodge was with people, but the horses were quieter, and the smoke was less. They squeezed between the animals, following Jahallon to the lee side, where he propped open a window on the night.

“How many arowl did you see?” Jahallon asked him.

“Many! Many, many hundreds, though I have not counted them up yet.” He looked down at his fingers, running through the guesses he had made. He had not had much use for large numbers before he served Jahallon and he was still uneasy with them. When he was done, he was sure he had made a mistake. “A hundred hundreds?” He looked questioningly at Jahallon. “Can there be such a number?”

“Ten thousand,” Bahir said in a quiet voice.

Kreskin was defiant. “We have faced as many before! At Nendaganon, seventeen years past. It was the same. Ten beasts for every man.”

Gyellen’s expression was stony. “There are not many of us left who saw that campaign. Let us not forget all those who did not come home again—among them young Bennek’s father and his uncle.”

Bennek turned to Gyellen in great interest. “Did you know them, sir?”

“Not well. They rode with a Samokeän captain. Still, I remember them.”

“Let us never forget the fallen,” Jahallon responded. “Nor will I forget the blood that is on my hands. That campaign in Nendaganon is called a victory because some among us were still standing when the last arowl fell. But it was my loss. Three hundred twenty-two men did not return to Habaddon. This time, our victory will be real.”

Jahallon cleared straw from the stable floor, and in the mud that lay beneath it Bennek sketched a map, explaining the numbers of arowl he had seen to the west, and to the north. “They are coming fast, but they’re still far away. They can’t reach us before the middle of the day, tomorrow.”

“We will not wait for them,” Jahallon said. “Not here.” He looked at his captains. “We leave at midnight. The rain will wash away our scent and drown the dust and noise of our progress. We’ll lie in wait for our prey, and with luck, this battle will be ended while the morrow is young.”

The captains returned to the lodge, to explain to their men what would be asked of them, while Jahallon called on his couriers to relay his plans to the other stockades. Bennek helped to ready the horses, wishing each man and woman farewell as they set out into the storm. Finally, he closed the stable door, and there was only Jahallon left among the horses. “You are weary and famished,” Jahallon told him. “Go rest, so you’ll be ready when we ride out tonight.”

But Bennek was troubled by a question he had not considered before. “Sir, there’s something I would understand. Why are there not even more arowl in the Wild? If Siddél may draw them forth at will from the pits, why doesn’t he fill the Wild with them?”

Jahallon sighed. “There isn’t time enough tonight to teach you all you should know of the arowl, but I’ll tell you a little of their history, so you’ll better know your enemy.”

Bennek was pleased; Jahallon did not often have patience for his questions.

There was no place to sit, so they crouched beside the wall, and Jahallon began his tale. “The arowl were first spawned long ago within the pits of Nendaganon, when Siddél persuaded the Inyomere of that place to help him in his vow to drive the people back into the sea. Those Inyomere never suspected the terrible loss they would soon suffer. Understand that arowl are not made by the sorcery of Siddél alone—he does not have that power. They are made by drawing life out of the land itself. So in time, the land dies. You have been to Nendaganon.”

“It is barren,” Bennek recalled. “Almost nothing is left there. It’s the same in western Samokea. I’ve looked on that land from the summit of the Tiyat-kel. Nothing grows there. Lanyon said the wind wails with the lamentation of the Inyomere.” Bennek could not truly grasp such evil. “Siddél would destroy the Wild, rather than let us live in it.”

“There are spirits more powerful than Siddél,” Jahallon said softly.

“Do you speak of Mukarigenze? He whom the Darkness serves?”

“I do.”

“When we were at Kesh, the Snow Chanter spoke his name. I was wounded then and did not hear her words, but Bahir told me later.”

“Then you know what is at stake—as does Siddél. The monster sends all his arowl against us. He seeks to overwhelm us. But in the end his fury will serve our cause. Tomorrow, when we have concluded all battles, there will be no arowl left in the north to hinder Lanyon’s return.”

Bennek’s dread did not abate, but he knew he must not give in to it. “No matter what happens, we must have victory tomorrow. We must slaughter Siddél’s hordes, and we must defeat Édan.”

Jahallon nodded. “There is no choice in it.”

* * *

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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, September 20th, 2013 at 12:01 am
Categories: The Wild.

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