Linda Nagata: the blog at Hahví.net

The Wild: Chapter 21

May 31st, 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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Snowy Mountains. Artist: Sarah AdamsChapter 21

Marshal wakened to deep night, and the powerful withers of a horse beneath him. His head nodded and swayed with each step the horse took. His mouth was so dry he could not swallow. Someone rode behind him, lean arms embracing him so he would not fall from the saddle.
With astonishment he realized death had rejected him.

He remembered the assault of the beast people and the dart that struck him in the neck. He remembered falling. He had felt himself drawn down into lightless waters that froze his breath and stilled his heart.

Yet he lived. He could not doubt it, for termites tunneled within his skull and his belly felt at once knotted and dead, and aboil with a sickly heat. Such evil had entered into him that he knew he must still be in the world.

Marshal groaned softly. The arms that held him tightened against his belly, but that slight touch was more than he could bear. He thrashed and broke his captor’s grip. He threw himself from the horse, and the next he knew he was on his hands and knees in the forest mulch, retching until the evil that was in him began to fade.

When he grew quiet, someone wiped his face with a moist cloth. “You will not escape into death tonight, Marshal.”

It was the voice of the wraith woman who had commanded him to come down from his horse. She spoke to him intimately, her mouth just inches from his ear. “I heard your heart stop, but I commanded it to beat again. Here, take a little water.”

He drank thirstily. In the distance he heard the howl of a single arowl, and then the baying chorus of a hunting pack.

“It was Gonly’s dart that brought you down,” she said. “I have been told he is my cousin—the son of my father’s brother—but I don’t believe it. He’s too much the fool and I hope the arowl take him before another season goes by.”

“You must not say such things,” Marshal warned her hastily, his voice hoarse and low. “Especially of your kin.”

“I say what is true. There would have been no harm if you had only been pricked like your companions, but Gonly made sure his dart struck deep in your neck and all its poison swirled between your heart and your head.”

A breeze sighed past them. Marshal’s head began to clear. “The evil is leaving me.” He could just see the milky blur of her face, the gleam of starlight in her pale hair. “Ma’am, where is my cousin, Kit? Where is Pantheren?”

“They have gone ahead with the others. They wait for you in the keep. I could not match their pace, and still keep you in the saddle.”

“You stayed behind to care for me?”

“Gonly would have left you and taken the horse. He cursed me when I called on your heart to beat again. May the arowl take him.”

Marshal flinched at the harshness of her words. “I wonder that your own heart may be so warm and so cold at once.”

“You are mistaken. It has ever been cold.”

“It does not seem so to me. Will you tell me your name?”

“I am Luven, and my brother is Zavoy, who is the Chieftain of Samokea.”

“Of Samokea?” Marshal echoed in surprise.

“Samokea is his by birthright,” she said bitterly. “Now come. Get up. We must be off before the arowl discover us.”

He made himself stand up. He went to the horse. It was his horse, but all the weapons had been taken from the saddle. He looked around at Luven. She carried neither spear nor sword nor bow.

“Hurry, Marshal. You must climb back onto the horse yourself. I cannot lift you.”

“How are we to defend ourselves?”

“By swift flight. We must reach the keep or we will die.”

“You feared I would attack you,” he realized. “So you sent the weapons on.”

“You’re stronger than I am. Will you take back your horse and flee?”

“I would not abandon you to die.”

“You would be a fool to do so. You need me, Marshal. Without weapons, you have no defense against the arowl and only I can show you the way to the keep. Remember that. Now climb up. We have tarried too long, and the arowl are hungry.”

He hauled himself into the saddle and she climbed up behind him. Now he had the reins, so he set the horse walking. “Where are we going?”

“Just this way.”

“You were wrong to attack us, Luven.”

“That is still to be judged.”

“I do not submit myself to your judgment, but I will see you safely to your keep.”

“I would have us both safe. Can this horse go no faster?”

“If you would go faster, then hold onto me.”

He waited until her arms were tight around his waist. Then he gave the horse his heels.

* * *

Luven guided them by starlight into the western hills, even as the baying of the arowl drew ever nearer. Listening to their lamentations, Marshal was sure they followed a scent; yet they were too far north to have found his track.

“Luven, what became of Jakurian and Lanyon? I saw them flee from our—” He caught himself. He would not say battle. The people did not bring war against the people. “. . . from our meeting.”

“Zavoy is seeking them. If they are lucky, they will be found.”

Before long the trees came to an end. There was a span of open ground, and then a precipitous cliff rising black against the stars. Marshal reined in the horse. He could see nowhere that they might go, and he was reluctant to leave the shelter of the trees.

“Why do you stop?” Luven asked him. “We are nearly safe. Ride on.”

“There is no shelter here.”

“Ride closer and I’ll show it to you. Our keep lies within a great cavern, but you won’t see the entrance until you’ve come upon it.”

So Marshal urged the horse into the open. But as he drew near the cliff, a chill touched his heart. “There are ghosts here.”

“They keep the watch,” Luven said. She pointed to the cliff looming above them. Against its black face Marshal spied even blacker slits that looked to be narrow windows. Framed in one, he saw the gleam of a luminous face. A shiver ran through him. Luven said, “Our ghosts know of all that passes, both here and in the forest. They told us of your coming.”

“Your dead do not depart?”

She lowered her voice. “It’s the old ghosts of the Citadel who will not leave.” But though Marshal pressed her, she would say no more on it. “Come, let us walk from here. The tunnel is low, and I think it will be better to lead the horse.”

Marshal still did not see an entrance, until Luven took a step into what seemed to him solid stone. Then he realized there was a narrow opening, as black as the windows above them. He reached out to feel its edge. “It’s dark within,” Luven warned him, “but the floor is smooth. There’s nothing to trip you, and there is light farther inside.”

So Marshal went forward, while the horse followed with tentative steps. The clip-clopping of its hooves echoed against hard stone. The walls felt very close.

Before long the tunnel turned back on itself and he was able to make out a glimmer somewhere ahead. He feared they were coming upon a ghost, but then the tunnel turned again, and the light grew brighter. It welled up from a hollow stone holding a pool of luminous light, like the witch light ignited by the ghost sorcerer.

The tunnel ended, and they came out into a cavern that was shallow from front to back, though very tall. The floor had been smoothed so that it had the appearance of a courtyard. On the other side of this narrow space was another witch light that cast its cold illumination on the face of a keep that rose three stories to the cavern’s jagged roof. The keep was fitted into the cavern so that there were no side walls, and the roof of the cavern was also the roof of the keep. Windows looked out onto the courtyard from the upper floors. Most of these were dark, but those few that had light glowed with the same ghostly illumination as the stones.

Marshal turned to look behind him. Above—as high as the third story of the keep—were the narrow windows to the outside, filled with stars. A ledge passed beneath them. It could be reached by a notch ladder cut into the rock, but also by a swinging bridge that spanned the gulf to the keep’s third floor. Standing motionless on the ledge was the ghost he had seen from outside. Its back was turned to them, and it did not acknowledge them in any way as it kept its gaze fixed on the forest.

Save for the ghost, no one was about, and all was silent within the cavern.

“Luven, you said Kit and Pantheren would be here.”

“Let us look inside.”

The keep’s heavy wooden doors were shut but not barred, for when Luven pushed on one it swung open onto a hall illuminated by the warm light of a natural fire burning on a wide hearth. Leather chairs and soft furs were scattered near the fireplace. A long table stood at the hall’s center, and tapestries on the walls eased the hardness of the stone. Luven said that Marshal should bring the horse inside. It nickered a greeting that was answered by the two horses Kit and Pantheren had ridden, for they were tethered at the back of the hall.

Marshal took his horse to meet them. At first there was no one about. Then a girl of perhaps thirteen years, emerged from a farther room that Marshal guessed to be a kitchen. “Luven!” she called in delight. “You have brought still another horse!” She had eyes only for the animal, and did not notice Marshal in the shadows.

“Has Zavoy returned?” Luven asked her.

“No, he is gone to kill the witch.”

Marshal stepped forward, horrified at these words. “Luven, what does she mean? Your brother cannot mean to kill Lanyon!”

The girl fell back in terror at the sight of him. Never before that night had she seen strangers in her house. In high excitement, she had watched as Kit and Pantheren were brought in under guard and locked away. Gonly had given her warning: such men were dangerous! And now here was Marshal, with no guard around him. “Luven, will he kill us?”

“Lehe, he is a man, not an arowl.” Then she turned to Marshal. “Be calm, I beg you. Lehe has misspoken—”

“As have you! I don’t see Kit and Pantheren anywhere about. Was it only the horses you wanted to take?”

“Your kin are here!” Luven insisted. “Lehe, where are the men Gonly brought in?”

But Marshal had already stridden past her, in haste to find Kit and Pantheren. Lehe fell back with a scream. “Luven! Do not let him harm little Krispin!”

Marshal went first to the kitchen. It was warm and dark. A child slumbered in a crib, her face lit by a red flame from the stove. He stepped past, to look into a pantry. Then he came out again.

Luven met him. “Marshal, be calm.”

He looked past her, and his gaze lit on a narrow stairway near the horses. He bounded toward it. “Kit!” he shouted, as he ascended. “Pantheren! Are you here?” A faint voice answered from somewhere overhead. “Call out again that I may find you!”

A ghost appeared on the stairs, gleaming in familiar outline. With dread, Marshal recognized it as the sorcerer Renthian of Samokea. Still, he continued. The ghost said nothing, but as he drew near, it raised a hand. Marshal felt his heart grow cold. Dizziness came over him and he had to brace himself against the wall to keep from falling. Luven ran up to him. She placed herself between him and the sorcerer’s ghost. “You may not assail the living!” she cried. “Leave off or I will banish you.”

The ghost said nothing that Marshal could hear, but Luven spoke as if in answer to an argument. “He is of the people and you will not cause him harm! Now go! Find Zavoy and tell him I am safely in the keep.”

The ghost made her a short bow. Then it drifted away through the stone wall. Marshal felt his heart warm again. “Come,” Luven said, taking his hand. “Lehe has told me where to find them.”

At the top of the stairs was a passage lit by a single witch light. Marshal heard Kit’s muffled voice call to him from behind a heavy wooden door. He pulled the latch and heard the sound of a bolt sliding, but the door would not open. Luven said, “Gonly has sealed it, but his spells are like a child’s.” She placed her hand on the latch and spoke in whispered syllables. Marshal heard a sound like an escaping breath. Then the door swung inward.

Kit bounded into the hallway. “Marshal! I thought you—” He saw Luven. The joy that had been on his face turned to fury. He seized her and shoved her hard against the wall; he pressed his forearm against her throat so that she could not speak. “Marshal, I thought you were dead,” he said coldly. “Killed by the companions of this pale wraith.”

“Kit, leave her! I am alive. She has seen to it that I live. Do not give into evil!”

“All these people are evil,” Kit said, but he released her. Luven turned away, her hand at her throat as she gasped and coughed.

“They have forgotten that it is the way of the people to help one another,” Marshal conceded. “Though I think they have been alone a long time.”

Pantheren limped to the door. His face was bruised, and there was a cut on his cheek. “Why are there no warriors here?” he asked, as he looked up and down the hall.

Quickly, Marshal told him all he knew.

“So they brought us here and left again to hunt Jakurian and Lanyon.” Pantheren looked at Luven, but before she could speak, a clatter arose downstairs. The horses whinnied, and a chatter of excited voices announced a sudden homecoming.

“Come,” Luven said, a hand still pressed to her bruised throat. “My brother is returned.”

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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 31st, 2013 at 12:05 am
Categories: Read THE WILD.

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