Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net


The Wild: Chapter 41

October 18th, 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 Owl. Artist: Sarah Adams
Chapter 41

The owl was a distant presence, watching over them as they rode north. They would glimpse her soaring far out over the plain or rising through the misty air behind them. Sometimes her shadow swept over them, swift and silent. She flew in the daylight, but she also flew at night. Lying half-awake in the darkness Bennek heard her calls, and the terrified cries of the small wild things she took for her pleasure.
She cast a subtle veil within the Mere so that when Bennek looked there for Pantheren he saw him as the faintest of shadows, perceptible only because they rode side by side. “Don’t leave me,” Bennek joked. “I think I would have a hard time finding you again.”

“Your eyes don’t remember how to follow a horse’s trail?”

Bennek glanced behind them, awake to this new worry. “If Édan finds our trail he will follow us.”

Pantheren shrugged. “Kit and Jakurian pursued him from the battlefield. Let us pray they forced him to flee far to the east . . . and that they paid no great cost to do it.”

It was Pantheren’s plan to ride north until they found the mists of Beyna Forest, and thence to strike out across the plain to that place where Lanyon had left the world. “She’s not going to be there,” he warned Bennek. “She won’t wait for us, and nor will she seek us out in Beyna Forest. Her mood was dark in that winter she left us and it will seem likely to her that we have died in the time she was away.”

“She knows I am alive,” Bennek countered. “She knows I will come.”

Pantheren shrugged. “We will seek out that place. Let us pray she has left some message there for us to find.”

But it proved no easy thing even to find Beyna Forest. Pantheren had left that land only days before in the company of the Samokeäns of the Cavern. He thought he knew well the way back. But when they crested a low hilltop and he looked ahead, expecting to see the dark line of trees marking the forest’s edge, he saw instead only a few groves of stunted oak scattered in the grassland. “I have misjudged,” he muttered.

Disappointment washed over Bennek. He had begun to believe they might find Lanyon on that very afternoon or at the least discover some sign of her, but if they had not even come to Beyna Forest, it might be another day, or many more.

Pantheren’s eyes narrowed as he studied the land. “And yet this is the place,” he growled. “I know it is . . . can it be that our sight is veiled by sorcery?”

Without waiting for an answer, he sent his horse cantering down the slope. Bennek followed close behind. They had not gone half a mile when the warning snarl of a leopard rose from the grass ahead of them. Bennek’s mare shied at the dreadful sound. He had to pull up tight on the reins to keep her from fleeing. Precious seconds passed before he got her under control, and by the time he looked back the world had changed. Where before there had been sunny grassland, Bennek now looked on a wall of dark mist that veiled the looming silhouettes of mighty trees.

Even as he cried out in wonder he saw the leopard, a black shape prowling at the mist’s edge. It called to them with a rumbling purr that sounded to him more invitation than threat. He coaxed his mare closer, but Pantheren held out a hand, saying softly, “Lanyon is not here and the temper of the mist is fickle. It’s enough that we have found our way here. Let us ride around the forest, rather than risk becoming lost within it.”

He bowed to the leopard. “You honor us, Blessed One, but our duty calls us on.”

The leopard withdrew into the mist, but as they made their way along the forest’s edge its chuffing growl sounded from time to time as it watched them from within the trees.

In the late afternoon they turned east, heading out into a plain lush with tall, green grass. “It was hard winter when she left us,” Pantheren reminisced. “All this land was snowbound but I remember perfectly the trail made by those cursed arowl.” They went on, with the owl shadowing them a quarter mile to the south. Evening was nigh when Pantheren finally reined in his horse. “Here is the place we met the arowl as they came searching back down the trail. Lanyon was already gone.”

To Bennek’s eyes they had not arrived at any particular place. Here the grassland looked the same as anywhere else. But as he turned his mare to circle the area, he saw a weathered skull hidden in the grass. He slipped off his horse and picked it up. Never had he seen such a skull before. Its face was flat, with wide eye sockets like those of the people, but the dome of its head was small while its jaw was large and set with wicked teeth. He shuddered and cast it aside.

They rode on to the place where Lanyon had dropped her glove. They searched the ground until the light grew too dim to see, but they found no token, no tracks, no trace of her at all. The grass grew tall, and it was undisturbed except for a single small poplar taking root in the plain. “She must have been here,” Bennek said. “But it’s been three days, and time has hidden her trail.”

“Time?” Pantheren wondered. “Or the spells that are hers to command?”

The owl swept over them, soaring north. Bennek watched its flight, wishing he could cross the land with such speed, but the horses were tired, and full darkness would come soon. “We don’t need to see her trail. We know where she’s going, and she’s on foot. It won’t be hard to catch up with her.”

Pantheren nodded. “We’ll camp here, and leave late tonight when the horses are rested.”

* * *

The next day Kina ran ahead of them, intrigued by the scents she discovered, but if ever she found a trail she lost it just as quickly, circling back to meet them with an anxious glint in her dark eyes.

The owl too was on the hunt. It soared close to the clouds, coursing east and west as it watched the land below. But when nightfall came they still had found no sign of Lanyon.

That night they heard the faint baying of arowl far to the east. The sound set Bennek to worrying. Could the howls mean Édan was drawing near, accompanied by a hunting pack? With such thoughts in mind sleep refused to come, so once again they saddled the horses under starlight and set out in the middle night. At first the wind carried to them an occasional wail, but the lamentations passed away to the south, and finally the evil howls could be heard no longer.

Three more days passed, and but for the owl they were utterly alone on the plain. Bennek fretted. “We should have caught up with Lanyon long since. What if she’s sleeping in the day? What if we’ve ridden past her? Should we wait a day to see if she comes behind us?”

Pantheren suffered no such doubt. “The owl hunts at night. She would have sighted Lanyon if she were anywhere about. I think it more likely Lanyon is walking through both the day and the night and resting only a few hours at a time.”

Bennek made no further argument, yet doubt plagued him. That night while the horses rested he wandered far from camp, calling softly in the faint hope that Lanyon might hear him . . . but his was the only voice speaking in the darkness.

They set out again before first light. The Tiyat-kel still marched north beside them, its high peaks white with a heavy blanket of snow, but as the sun rose another range was revealed to the north. It stood like a wall across their path, its western limit abutting the Tiyat-kel while on the east it ran beyond the reach of their sight. Its summits were not so tall as the Tiyat-kel’s, but they were high enough to hold snow even in the summer.

Within the wide embrace of these dovetailed ranges the land began to change. Streams grew more abundant, watering wide green meadows that wound among groves of shapely trees. Many of the trees were of kinds unknown to Bennek or Pantheren, but most of the flowers they could name—azaleas, lilac, fallen stars, buttercups—with irises growing in abundance on the verge of every stream.

Bennek looked on it with wonder. “This is the loveliest land I have ever seen.”

“It’s possible we’re the first of the people ever to come here,” Pantheren mused. “I don’t think the Samokeäns of old fared so far north, for the maps in Habaddon do not know this land. These mountains that loom before us are not drawn on any parchment in Jahallon’s library.”

Bennek was still troubled by doubt. “We would not be the first if Lanyon truly is ahead of us.”

“May it be so. May she be the first of the people to look upon this wondrous place.”

Bennek wanted to ride in the open, on the hilltops and through the wide meadows in the hope that Lanyon would see them, but Pantheren would not allow it. “Édan might be about. We can’t know if he is ahead of us or behind. We must be cautious.” So they kept close to the trees while Kina hunted the land all around.

Early in the afternoon Kina grew restless. She coursed east and west, testing the wind. After a time she startled a small herd of deer. Both Pantheren and Bennek were filled with wonder. “How is it the arowl have not hunted them from existence?” Bennek asked.

Pantheren looked at him with a raised eyebrow. “And how is it you let them surprise you? Why were they not revealed to you by your spirit sight?”

Bennek shrugged. “It’s hard for me to see animals, unless I know just where to look. They belong to the Wild, and do not stand apart from it.”

“Unlike the people and the arowl? Since neither of us truly belongs to the Wild?”

Bennek was thrown into confusion. “I did not mean it that way!”

Pantheren chuckled. “And the Inyomere?” he asked. “May you see them?”

“They are wrapped in the same confounding glamour that hides our own spirits in the Mere.”

“I wonder if there is some great Inyomere that tends this land? It has been some days since I’ve heard the arowl. Perhaps they’re not allowed to trespass here.”

Bennek had been so wrapped up in his worries that he’d hardly considered the arowl . . . or their absence. He spoke in sudden excitement. “Surely such an Inyomere would be aware of Lanyon?”

“That is my thought. I would speak with it if I could.”

They shared a stark tension, despite the tranquil landscape. Every sound, every shadow, every scent that wafted past them was noted and weighed for some hint of Lanyon’s presence, some sign that Édan had passed this way, or for evidence that a great Inyomere truly did stand guard over these lands. But as the morning grew old they discovered only more deer, and near noon, a small herd of forest buffalo grazing quietly in a sunny meadow.

But as the sun slid into afternoon they made an intriguing discovery. In soft ground amid a patch of iris blooming beside a stream, were the tracks of a great bear. Bennek’s heart quickened. There had been bears in Fathalia, but there should have been none north of the Glycian, not since the arowl hunted out all game from the plains of Samokea. “This land is blessed, nurturing both hunter and hunted.”

Pantheren got down from his horse. He stooped to measure a track left by the bear’s front paw. It was wider than the reach of his hand, and the marks left by the claws showed them to be as long as his fingers. “He is a grandfather bear, maybe as old as I am.” He chuckled.

The owl was suddenly with them, drifting past on her wide wings. Pantheren arose, his gaze fixed on her as she turned in her slow flight, alighting on the ground just a few feet away. Even before her wings were folded she became again the little girl. “He watches you,” she said.

“Do you mean the bear?” Pantheren asked. “Is he the spirit who protects this land from the arowl?”

She rolled her eyes, clearly irked at such a display of slow wits. “Do you not know that the arowl belong to Siddél?”

Pantheren traded with Bennek an annoyed glance. “Are you saying it is Siddél himself who has forbidden the beasts to come here?”

The owl spirit shrugged. “The bear has seen our little sister.”

When Bennek heard these words he slipped off his horse to kneel before the little Inyomere. “Where did he see her?”

Pantheren asked, “How long ago?”

“Not long, not far.”

“This day?” Pantheren pressed.

She shrugged again. “One day or another as the sun rose he spoke to her.”

Pantheren was thoughtful. “A bear spirit is a wanderer. He may have seen her far from here. Still, I am cheered!”

Bennek felt his own heart pounding with excitement. “We should seek out this bear spirit. Perhaps he has more to tell.”

Pantheren was agreeable, so as the owl took flight they set Kina to follow the bear’s trail.

At first she was willing, but before long a breeze sighed out of the north, bringing with it a new scent to claim her attention. Her head rose high, her ears were pricked, and her nostrils trembled as she searched the woodland, but whatever she sensed was well hidden within the azaleas that flowered so prettily beneath the trees. Pantheren shrugged. “She used to be keen to hunt deer, when she was young.”

“I want to follow her,” Bennek decided. “She is faithful in her duty, and I’m curious to know what would distract her.”

“For myself, I’ll seek out this bear-spirit. If it’s willing to speak, this is not a chance to waste. Let’s meet as the afternoon wanes, there by those hills.”

So Bennek set off through the woodland with Kina, while Pantheren continued along the stream.

Kina went with her nose low to the ground and after several minutes she flushed a doe with its fawn. She lunged at the fawn, and she would have brought it down if Bennek had not called her sharply, “Kina, no! There is no time for that! Come. Come back to me and we will follow Pantheren.”

But already she had found another trail pleasing to her, and without warning, she took off into the woodland, running full tilt. Bennek called after her in astonishment—“Kina!”—but she paid him no heed, and in moments she vanished among the azaleas and ferns.

He sent his mare cantering after her, but the horse couldn’t match Kina’s pace between the trees, and to Bennek’s consternation Kina ran in silence, so he couldn’t follow her by sight or by sound. All he could do was look for swaying branches in the woodland ahead, and hope the motion was not caused by the wind.

Before long though, he heard rustling foliage, and Kina’s plaintive whine. He found her in a small clearing where ferns grew thigh-high. She had lost the scent, and was dashing about, turning one way and another as she tried desperately to recover it.

“Kina.”

At the sound of his voice she left off her frantic hunt. Her eyes pleaded with him to explain this mystery. She was trembling. “What is it you seek, Kina?”

Her answer was a plaintive squeak, and a swift wag of her tail.

This stirred in Bennek a memory of the first time he had seen Kina, when the hound had plunged across a stream in pursuit of Lanyon’s scent, and only Pantheren’s command had stayed her. His heart was suddenly aboil with hope and fear. He stood in the stirrups, looking everywhere around, but there was only the forest, and the blooming azaleas beneath the boughs. He looked with his spirit sight, but even Pantheren was hidden from him. Yet he did not believe himself alone.

He jumped down from the mare. “Lanyon!” His shout shattered the quiet beneath the trees. “Lanyon, I know you are here!” Birds took flight. When they were gone he held his breath to listen, but he heard only a shocked silence. “Lanyon, come back! Show yourself, I beg you. Do not hide from me.”

She made no answer. Yet she was there—or she had been there—he was sure of it. Kina had followed her scent to this clearing, but Lanyon must have sensed pursuit and hidden herself from Kina, just as she would hide from the arowl. Why? Didn’t she know it was Bennek who followed her?

He studied the trees, looking for a nodding leaf, a stray glimmer, or a misplaced shadow . . . some sign of her passing.

He saw nothing.

Lanyon, Lanyon.

He called to her silently, until he remembered Édan might be near. Then he called out loud again— “Lanyon!”—gambling the sorcerer was too far away to hear. In a fury, he shouted at the woodland, “Lanyon, do not leave me here! Do not be angry because I took so long to return from the south. I beg you, I beg you to forgive me—”

A shadow loomed in the corner of his eye.

He turned, to see a hooded figure where none had been before, standing at the clearing’s edge and framed by pink azaleas. The hood was pulled so low he couldn’t see her face, but he knew her all the same. He knew the brown coat she wore—the very one the Snow Chanter had made for her—and he knew the leather case with its fur-lined strap that held the talisman, still secure against her back . . . and he knew the cold weight of the talisman’s wicked presence that touched him as he stepped toward her. “Lanyon.

He rushed on her as if she were the enemy. He heard the sharp intake of her breath. She pulled back, but he already had a hand on her arm. He swept the hood from her head. “It is you!” he cried in triumph. “I knew it must be you, and no Inyomere.”

She was so much the same as he remembered, fragile and lovely, her coppery hair escaping in loose strands around her face—only the fury in her eyes was new.

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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 18th, 2013 at 12:05 am
Categories: The Wild.

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