Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


The Wild: Chapter 39

October 4th, 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 Adams
Chapter 39

A bier was made, and Jahallon’s body was placed on it. The men of Habaddon and Samokea filed past their chieftain. Many wanted to believe he was not gone, that soon he would waken, but as morning turned to noon and graying death came over Jahallon’s face, hope left them.
Uleál was given the command by a vote of the captains. He was not pleased to learn that his brother Jakurian had returned from the north only to leave again in pursuit of Édan. He sent couriers after them to call them back. Other couriers were sent to Habaddon, while all along the battlefield the wounded were tended, and those who could not ride were carried on litters to shelter in the stockades.

During this time, Bennek was hardly aware of the world. He wandered away from the battlefield, without any thought save that it could not be that Jahallon was gone. It could not be, and yet it was.

Kina eventually found him. She shoved her head under his hand, waking him from his daze. He looked at her in surprise and then he looked up, finding himself in a little woodland between the hills. It was then he remembered Marshal. Hadn’t he seen Marshal standing beside the sorceress?

Bennek was suddenly afraid, imagining his brother must be angry with him for offering no greeting, for wandering thoughtlessly away. What if Marshal had left again, like Kit? Bennek turned, ready to run all-out back to the battlefield to seek for his brother, but there was Marshal standing in the woods beside him, studying him with a worried glint in his eyes. “Bennek?” he asked tentatively.

Bennek felt a deep, welling pain behind his eyes, and rather than show that to Marshal, he leaped on him in a bear hug. “I feared I would never see you again,” he whispered. “I feared we were parted forever.”

Marshal embraced him in turn, lifting him off his feet with a soft laugh. “You have grown so tall, Bennek. You are as tall as me, now. And you are so heavy! You must be strong.” He set him down again and held him at arm’s length. “What is that on your chin? Is that something like a beard? But you have cut off your beautiful long hair! Oh, you look like a man of Habaddon now.”

“You look just the same,” Bennek said. “I’m sorry I didn’t greet you before. I am so happy to see you again.”

“And I you.” Grief clouded Marshal’s gaze. “Lanyon is gone,” he said softly. “She was taken away from us.”

“I know it. She could not stay.” Guilt washed over him. “I’m sorry I didn’t follow after you. Jahallon wouldn’t let me go. He made me swear an oath that I would stay with him until the way north was made safe. I told him I could hide myself from the arowl as Samoket did, but he said Siddél would discover me, and set the packs to hunting me. I was so angry with him! And I gave him cause to be angry with me many times. I am sorry for it, now it is too late . . . but I should have gone north, whether he allowed it or not—”

“No, Bennek. Be grateful for his wisdom. You couldn’t have reached us, anymore than we could return south to you. We lived only because we found friends in the north.” Then Marshal told him of the Samokeäns of the Cavern and their sorcery, and also of the night hunts, and of their failed attempts to continue their journey north. “We couldn’t go on, for the arowl were everywhere. And then on the night of the Solstice a new kind of arowl came hunting us. They crept within our keep, and they stole Lanyon away.”

All the woodland sparkled as the sun glinted among the droplets festooning every leaf. Looking on it, Bennek felt a sudden, giddy joy. “She is coming back,” he whispered. Then he said it louder. “She is coming back! She will return to us very soon.”

Marshal drew back, a troubled glint in his eyes. “How do you know this?”

“Do not doubt me,” Bennek warned. “Jahallon foresaw it. Siddél has sensed it. Even the Darkness agreed it was so.”

“Be calm! I only speak my surprise.”

“Then you didn’t know it before?”

“No . . . or some among us would not have come south.”

Bennek laughed. “No matter!” Then he spoke swiftly, his words spilling past one another in a swift stream. “Lanyon is coming back, and I know we will find her, though Marshal, you must first help me find my horse. She is a mare and very light of foot, but she fled at the coming of the whirlwind. I won’t blame her for it. In most circumstances she is a good horse. I only hope she’s still sound.”

Concern showed again in Marshal’s gaze. “I’ll help you look for your mare, but first let’s seek my friends. They would meet you, and we must find Pantheren and offer him comfort.”

“Yes, let’s go,” Bennek agreed, having no objection to this plan. So they set off, with Bennek speaking in an ever more animated voice. “We’ll ride through Samokea this time, instead of walking. Siddél has emptied the land of arowl, so it should be safe enough, and we’ll come ever so much sooner to Kesh. Will the Snow Chanter still be there, do you think?”

“She greeted us there as we came south, and gave us boats to travel on the river.”

“I long to see her! I haven’t forgotten my devotion to her. I wouldn’t let Jahallon forget it, though he grew cross with me. Do you still have your horse?”

Marshal shook his head sadly. “We had to slaughter all the horses that first winter.”

“Oh. I am sorry for it. We can borrow more, I think. I would leave today, while the sun is still high. If I can find the mare, we’ll have food. My saddlebags are full and—”

“Bennek!” Marshal cried in exasperation. “I can’t go north with you. Not now.”

Bennek looked at him in puzzlement. “Tomorrow then? After we have rested?”

“No.”

“Marshal, you don’t understand. There’s nothing holding me here now. My oath was to Jahallon and Jahallon is gone—”

“Bennek, I have a wife. You saw her with me . . . there, when . . .” Marshal didn’t want to speak of Jahallon’s death, but Bennek’s thoughts plunged back at once. Kneeling beside Jahallon’s body, he had looked up to see Marshal with a woman standing beside him.

“The sorceress?”

There was dread in Bennek’s voice, for it was the sorceress who had summoned Siddél.

Marshal didn’t notice his consternation; his thoughts had already run away as evidenced by his distracted smile. “Her name is Luven and she is Chieftain of the Samokeäns. We have a daughter. You are an uncle.” Only then did Marshal notice the distress so evident on Bennek’s face. “What is the matter?”

Bennek had never had the skill to keep his thoughts hidden. In a hoarse voice he blurted, “Is she a good woman, Marshal?”

“Of course she is! Why do you ask such a thing?” And when Bennek hesitated, Marshal insisted, “Speak! I will not have your heart turned against her.”

“She is the voice that summoned Siddél. The monster came at her call, and fell upon Jahallon.”

Then Marshal was angry. “Luven would never do such a thing. She hates Siddél! I don’t know what you saw, but you have misconstrued it—”

“Marshal.”

Both brothers turned in surprise to discover they were not alone after all. Luven awaited them, her figure gleaming in a halo of sunlight as she watched them from the edge of the wood. She came forward, saying to Marshal, “Do not chastise your brother for speaking the truth.”

Marshal went to her. He took her hands. “This cannot be true!”

“It is . . . though I did not mean for it to unfold this way.” She confessed then her scheme, long in the making, and of how it had gone so dreadfully wrong. “Édan stepped away in time. I felt his spell.” She tapped her chest. “Here, like a great weight, just as I felt it when Lanyon called the same spell and left the world.” She looked at Bennek. “You felt it too.”

He nodded.

Her gaze fell. “Truly I am no ally of Siddél. It was my vanity to think I might use one enemy to destroy another, but I have only destroyed our own hopes through Jahallon’s downfall.”

“Luven,” Marshal whispered, taking her in his arms. “You could not have known. Bennek, you must forgive her.”

Bennek shook his head. “There is nothing to forgive. She didn’t mean for it to happen. Forgive me, if you can. I knew the danger, and still I couldn’t protect Jahallon. Yet I am puzzled. Luven? I saw you on the hill when you were a water spirit. How is it you could appear as one of the Inyomere?”

Luven left the comfort of Marshal’s arms. From a pouch at her waist she drew out the mask of the water spirit. Bennek recoiled from it. “Truly,” he whispered, “that is the flayed skin of an Inyomere?”

Luven’s hand trembled. “Take it. Marshal has told me of your talents. You will be able to use it.”

“No.” Bennek didn’t want to touch it. “It is an evil thing.”

“It is,” Luven agreed. “But so is Édan’s arrow. Bennek, Siddél trusts this being, more so, after today. Take it, and maybe you’ll find some good use for it, to allay the evil that went into its making.”

In the end Bennek accepted it, but only to please Luven. He knew he would never use it, and risk that Siddél would come again as the whirlwind. Still, he listened carefully as Luven taught him the spell to enliven the mask. “Will you try it?” she asked him. “To make sure you understand the spell?”

“No. There are people about.” He hid the mask away in a deep pocket of his coat. “I don’t think we should speak of the water spirit again.” He looked from Luven to Marshal. “I don’t think we should say anything of the chant that summoned Siddél.”

Luven closed her eyes, but Marshal nodded—and ever after the people of Habaddon believed it was chance that had brought Siddél down from the clouds that day.

* * *

They sought for Pantheren among the men gathered around Jahallon’s bier, but he was gone. Bahir said he had ridden west to see to the wounded in the stockades.

At this time a rider was sighted, coming from the east. She was a courier who had been with the men of Hallah on their feint against Édan’s stronghold, and she brought news out of Ohtangia.

She reported that the men of Hallah had ridden swiftly through Fathalia. They had already come to the border of Ohtangia when they saw ahead a great burning. As they pondered what it might mean, two Inyomere that had the shape of crows came to them and bade them to turn back to the west, saying, “Too late! Too late! Édan has perceived your numbers and he has fled. He burned his stronghold and set his arowl pits on fire. Nothing, nothing, nothing remains in Ohtangia! But in Samokea your arms may make victory out of defeat—victory!—in a great battle that will soon commence there.”

The men of Hallah were amazed to hear such tidings, and yet they didn’t trust the Inyomere. Even the captains of Habaddon who accompanied them were cautious, suspecting a sorcerer’s trick. So they waited until their scouts returned from Édan’s stronghold. Then they learned that the crows had spoken the truth, and the stronghold was in ruins. Of the settlement, only blackened timbers remained, reduced almost to ash, while the pits were still furiously burning deep underground, sending up a foul smoke that whirled and belched from their narrow mouths.

Even stranger, the scouts reported that scattered through the forest were the corpses of monstrous arowl, all of them hideously burned within the chest, as if their wicked hearts had caught fire. No living arowl were seen, or heard.

So the men of Hallah had finally turned west as the crows had counseled, and even now they were drawing near to the east bank of the River Talahnon . . . though with its waters in flood there was terrible danger in the crossing. The courier spoke of her own harrowing swim in the floodwaters, and of how her horse had been swept two miles south before it reached the western shore.

Uleál heard this news and at once he sent riders east to bid the men of Hallah to wait, for haste was no longer needed.

* * *

At noon a procession was appointed to bear Jahallon’s body back to Habaddon. Pall bearers were named, and two hundred horsemen were chosen to follow after them.

Uleál asked Bennek if he would like to be among this escort of men, but Bennek declined, saying, “I have not found my horse yet.”

“Another will be brought up for you.”

“No, I must find my own mare. She is used to a light hand and this has made her shy of other men.” Uleál wasn’t ready to let the matter rest, but at that moment Gyellen arrived to consult with him, and Bennek took the opportunity to slip away.

“Why don’t you wish to ride in honor of Jahallon?” Marshal asked him, as they set off in search of the horse.

“I love Uleál and all the people of Habaddon, but they don’t always remember to ask a man what he would like to do.”

Marshal was perplexed. “Uleál asked if you would like to ride in the escort.”

Bennek gave Marshal a quizzical look. “That is true,” he conceded.

“I do not understand you, Bennek.”

“Look there! It’s my mare, hobbled beneath the trees. Someone has already caught her for me.”

* * *

Not long after noon, all the men who remained in Samokea were gathered on and around the hill where Jahallon had fallen. They stood in two columns facing one another in the blazing sunlight. The ground steamed, and a fetid odor from the fallen arowl was thick on the air.

Jahallon’s bier was lifted onto the shoulders of the pall bearers. With the escort of riders following, they carried it between the columns of men. Many wept. Others strove against despair. Jahallon was their far father. From the day the people had set foot on the shore of the Wild he had defended their right to live in this land, but now he was gone, and somehow they must contrive to go on without him.

* * *

After the funeral procession had passed, there came the hard work of piling the arowl carcasses into pyres, for Luven, speaking as Chieftain of Samokea, insisted to Uleál that they not be left to rot upon the land and spread their pestilence into the soil and the air.

Uleál wondered, “Who has command of fire when all is sodden from the rains we have endured?”

Luven answered, “My people have command of fire at all times.”

Jakurian and Kit still had not returned from their pursuit of Édan, nor had any of the men who had ridden with them. But many more warriors remained, and these worked together to move the carcasses of the were-wolves, though teams of horses were needed to drag the corpses of the wear-bears and the dire wolves to the pyres. The meadows that had been green and lush with summer became seas of mud. Flies buzzed, and crows stood on the carcasses, though they didn’t eat.

In late afternoon, the labor was done. Luven had already sent her kin down the battlefront. At sunset they were to ignite the pyres and chant their prayers for Siddél’s downfall, and the renewal of the Wild.

Bennek and Marshal sat together on a hillside with Fen and Kaliel, as Luven went to light the easternmost pyre. As the warriors looked on, she began her chant. The sun descended among the peaks of the Tiyat-kel, and as it disappeared, the pyre burst into flame.

Twelve great fires were ablaze in southern Samokea that night, each sending up columns of prayers within their rancid smoke. In Habaddon the people saw the smoke rising to veil the stars, and many believed another storm was near, but the Inyomere of the east wind came and blew the pall toward the Tiyat-kel where Siddél was brooding. He was enwrapped in the smoke. The prayers against him were a poison in his soul. He sprang up in rage, yet he did not dare to approach the fires, fearing to breathe in even more of this virulent dream of his downfall. So the people saw him only at a great distance, in the form of dry lightning, and they heard him as nothing more than a faint and far-off rumble of thunder

Even that small sound though, made Bennek’s heart quicken.

* * *

As the pyres burned down, the people retreated, setting up camp within the woodlands to the south. Bennek sat with Marshal, Luven, and Halméd around a small campfire. Other golden points of fire could be seen all about them among the trees. They said little of their time apart. Bennek was made restless by the smoke from the pyres while Marshal fretted over Kit’s absence, starting at every sound of passing feet as he looked for him to return. “He is far away,” Bennek said softly. “I cannot see him with my spirit sight.”

Luven had been adrift on the edge of sleep but at these words she looked up. Her eyes glittered in the firelight. “Not one of my people has ever had such a far-seeing spirit sight.”

“It is a gift of Samoket,” Marshal whispered.

None of them was willing to name Édan.

Halméd stretched out beside the fire and after a few minutes, Marshal lay down too.

Bennek kept watch over the comings and goings of the camp, waiting for the others to sleep. The night was finally growing quiet when he noticed someone approaching, leading a large horse saddled and laden for a journey. “It’s Pantheren,” he whispered, before the others knew someone was there.

Bennek rose to greet him. “War Father, I have looked for you all this extraordinary day. In all my grief, there is still joy for me, to see you again in this world.”

“I thought I should leave the world before ever this day came,” Pantheren answered him. “Yet we go on.” He stepped into the circle of firelight.

“Is that Jahallon’s horse?” Bennek wondered.

“It is. I bred him, and trained him for Jahallon to use, but now he has come back to me.”

“Do you mean to ride him tonight?”

“I do. Uleál has asked that you and I ride together to Habaddon this night.”

“Tonight?” Luven asked in astonishment. “To what purpose?”

“He fears another wave of arowl may issue from Nendaganon. He would have Bennek help direct the defense of the city, in the way he learned from Jahallon. And he would flatter me by asking my advice on it.”

“Surely Uleál will understand if you wait until dawn?” Marshal asked. “Then we all might ride down together.”

Bennek’s head though, was still full of the scent of prayers for the renewal of the Wild. “I am too aggrieved to find sleep tonight, and it is many hours until the dawn. I don’t want to count them all. So I might as well be riding.”

He would not hear any protest, and set to gathering his things. So Marshal left to fetch his mare, and saddle her. When he came back, he handed the reins to Bennek. “I will see you again in Habaddon. Do not go astray.”

* * *

They went slowly, winding between the trees, their way lit by scattered campfires. Kina padded beside them. Several times they were hailed, and asked if there was still more trouble afoot, but Pantheren assured the men that all was well. After a time they entered a patch of dark woods, where no fires burned. Bennek reined in his horse. “I am not going south with you.”

Pantheren was a shadow among shadows, as he too brought his horse to a halt. “If we go on for another quarter mile or so, we will come upon a spur of this woodland that runs northwest. If we follow it to its end, we will be beyond the sight of the sentries.”

Bennek nudged his horse forward. “It is not your intention to go south to Habaddon?”

“I have a duty to Lanyon.”

“As do I!”

“I thought it was so.” Pantheren clucked to his horse.

Bennek heard the sound of it moving away, and he hurried to catch him. “Kit is already gone away and Marshal said he can’t return north just yet. I feared he would try to stop me if I went alone, so it was my plan to slip away tonight, when all were asleep.”

“Marshal is a light sleeper.”

“Your plan is better,” Bennek conceded. Then, after awhile, “Did Uleál truly command us to ride to Habaddon?”

“He did . . . though I did suggest it to him. We should have a full day—maybe two or three—before it’s discovered we have gone. We must be well away by then. I trust you spoke the truth back in the camp, and are not sleepy?”

“I have hardly slept these past days. I am riven with exhaustion, but no, I am not sleepy. I don’t want to close my eyes on this day, nor accept that it is real.”

Pantheren did not answer this, nor did Bennek speak again for most of an hour. They reached the end of the woodland, and then they rode side-by-side, passing north among the rolling, grass-covered hills.

“Tell me that Jahallon did not die for nothing,” Pantheren said at last. Bennek had grown so used to the silence that he flinched at the sound of a voice. Pantheren reined in his horse. Against the black hills, he was a blacker shadow. When he spoke again, there was an edge of anger to his words. “You were there, Bennek. You stood witness when Siddél called the spell that parted Jahallon from his life.”

“What is it you seek from me, War Father?”

“Surely the same spell could be turned against Édan? Bennek, did you learn it?”

Bennek caught his breath. His heart beat hard as he heard again in his mind the voice of the gale and the wicked name of the spell lying in wait within the Mere. “I remember it exactly,” he whispered. He urged his horse again to a walk. “Of course you’re right. Édan’s life must be guarded by a similar spell. I will find it and practice its name, and when I have learned it, Édan will be mine.”

Pantheren touched the pendant that he wore beneath his tunic—a tiny golden bird hanging on a fine chain. “You will have your chance,” he promised Bennek.

They rode on in silence until the sun was risen and the land had warmed. Then they set the horses to graze, and they slept, while Kina kept watch.

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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, October 4th, 2013 at 12:01 am
Categories: The Wild.

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