Book 2 of The Chained Adept, Chapters 1-3
“Demon, I swear I’m going to eat your ears for breakfast.”
Penrys halted her horse, dismounted, and stomped back past her three pack horses to the beginning of the string of seven donkeys, the first of which had dug in his feet on the trail of the High Pass and was bawling like three demons instead of one.
The other donkeys fidgeted nervously and seemed inclined to join him, so Penrys probed to see if there was anything more than a fit of donkey sulks responsible.
Demon’s dominant mode was generally offended pride, but this time his mind showed her something different.
*Najud, something’s wrong. I think he’s afraid of something.*
Her companion’s mental voice chuckled. *Sure it’s not you he’s afraid of, Destroyer of Demons?*
After three weeks, the joke had worn thin to her. Perhaps the wizard they had destroyed had deserved the name, and maybe this donkey did, too, but she found the full title, applied to her, both ridiculous and embarrassing.
Guess Najud’s not going to bother to dismount and leave his own string to take a look.
She ran her hands over Demon and scratched under his chin in the spot he liked, and gradually he calmed down, placated by the attention. The others took their cue from him and settled.
She looked down their back trail. The view of the southern part of Neshilik, laid out below them, had been lost two days ago. Now only the steep scrambling slopes on either side were visible, along with the winding trail itself.
Footsteps behind her made her turn. Najud had come back to check on the donkeys, after all.
“Is he all right?”
“See for yourself.”
Najud had been making progress on his mind-probes of animals. He was cautious about relying on it—as he said, “I can see the start of a pack sore before the beast begins to feel it.”
“He’s calmer now, but you’re right, I think. Something alarmed him,” he said. “You can see why many clans put donkeys with the sheep herds, to act as guards against wolves.”
“Do they fight the wolves, or is it just the braying that makes them run away?”
Penrys scanned the area. “There’re no other large animals around, except our own.”
“The wind has shifted. Maybe he smelled something, and now he doesn’t.”
Despite the rock walls, the pass was high and fairly exposed, significantly colder and windier than the sheltered, settled land behind them. And it would only get colder, the further south they went, with the autumn solstice two months past. Penrys had never experienced winter in the south of the world and was still adjusting to the concept that “south” implied “cold.”
“Let’s get going,” Najud said. “We’ll see the other lud, late today, if we don’t keep stopping.”
“How do you know that? I thought you’d never taken this route before, over the border between Kigali and your sarq-Zannib?”
Najud grinned at her. Since the weather was dry, if cold, he still wore his small turban, the blue one today. Penrys was grateful for the wide-brimmed hat pressed upon her by the tailor back at Gonglik—it kept her shoulder-length hair from blowing in her face.
“It’s described in one of the travel stories,” he said. “Each landmark is a part of the tale.”
He waved his hands in the air. “We tell each other these stories so that we can know a place before we see it. The lud are some of the characters.”
The little gods, the Zannib called them—the special places or objects, a crooked tree, a rock formation.
It sometimes seemed from conversation with Najud that the lud were everywhere. She wasn’t sure how seriously he thought of them.
“Remember the one we passed two days ago, the last spot for a view?” he said.
There had been something unusual about that lone, massive rock that seemed to keep watch over the trail.
“She’s a character in the story. When you come from the south, she opens the door so the traveler can finally see the green of Neshilik spread out in front of him. Coming this way, she waves farewell. See?
“The travel story of this trail starts in the south, in sarq-Zannib, and it helps you find the exact spot where the trail to the High Pass begins. Going the other way is simple—just start at Jaunor, and that’s easy enough to find—so that’s where the way-back story starts, in the inn-yard.”
Jaunor was part of the circuit of market inns that surrounded the southern cove of Neshilik, named “Cold Wall” for the border range at its back and the chilly winds that plagued it when the weather was bad.
“They told us there’d been no travelers through here for a couple of years.”
Najud shrugged. “They don’t come every year. The Kurighdunaq clan holds their tarizd below, the route of the migration, unless something has changed.” He hooked his thumb south, at the trail ahead of them. “It’s their young men who would get together and make an unplanned visit, during the taridiqa, to pick up courting gifts and special supplies for the zudiqazd, the winter camp. Not a formal trading caravan.”
“Like the kind you’re thinking of setting up,” Penrys said.
“That’s right.” He smiled at her. “Besides, it’s too late in the year to meet anyone up here. The Kurighdunaq would have started their kuliqa, their turn-home, two months ago. We’ll have to make very good time to join a zudiqazd once we get down, the nearest we can find, and not be too picky about whose clan it belongs to.”
“There it is.”
At Najud’s call, Penrys lifted her head from her horse’s footing. His string of four horses some distance in front of her had stopped, but the leader was out of sight around yet another bend in the enclosed trail.
There was still light in the sky, but no shadows were cast in the narrow passage, the sun having been invisible for a while. She hoped for a wide spot for their camp. Bad enough that they had to pack fodder for the animals all the way from Jaunor to make up for the bare, rocky, trail—the limited water they could carry was running low. Najud had told her of an unfailing spring just the other side of this next lud, this landmark, and she hoped they could make camp there.
Najud’s horses didn’t move, so Penrys dismounted to walk up and join him. He hadn’t seen the view before, either, and she could share that with him.
After she passed the horses, she found him, bent over a pile of something on the east side of the trail. When she raised her eyes, she saw that the trail curved to the left, and the western rock face fell away from a wide and level extension of the trail, leaving the lowering sun free to illuminate the corner of the eastern wall where the trail passed it, where Najud stood. The texture of the stone changed in that spot, and small embedded crystals sparkled in a patch twice the height of a man.
This must be the lud.
As she reached him, her eyes were carried involuntarily to the promised view. The trail curved down to the left and turned again, out of sight, but nothing blocked her view to the south and west. The sun blanketed a soft and rolling land with broad strokes and long shadows. On either side, low spurs of the range extended.
She couldn’t see directly below her, where the pass began, but Najud had told her there was a sheltered cove there, and those spurs must be the arms around it.
“You’re right,” she said aloud. “It’s a wonderful view. Looks like there’s even a good spot for a camp.”
Najud’s silence drew her from the view and she turned back to him. He hadn’t moved from his spot and was still staring at the base of the lud.
Am I disturbing something… religious for him?
She was reluctant to intrude, but his posture conveyed worry or even alarm to her. She walked over to see what he was looking at.
There were half a dozen packs on the ground, ordinary trail packs, like a man might carry, not the large packs used for animals.
“Are they gifts for the lud, those packs?” she asked quietly.
He shook his head. “The lud don’t need gifts, just respect. Sometimes a flower, or a pebble, maybe a bit of honey—simple recognition.”
He straightened and looked down the short fragment of trail that was visible before the next bend.
“This is wrong.”
His taut posture declared his uneasiness. “I’m going to look down the trail before we stop for the night. You stay here, with the animals.”
Penrys raised her eyebrows but took the order in silence, and Najud walked down and out of sight.
She checked for mind-glows around them, but there was nothing except themselves for a mile or two, other than the small creatures that managed to live in this barren place, and the larger ones that lived on them.
The packs on the ground were not all the same, she realized. One was quite small, the size a child might carry. But Najud said it was just the young men who used this trail, not families.
They looked relatively fresh—she couldn’t imagine they had already experienced a winter here. But in Jaunor they said no one had come over the trail for two years. Where did these people go? Didn’t they need what was in those packs?
Najud reappeared, ascending the trail. His face was troubled.
*It’s bad, but whatever happened, it was at least a couple of months ago. Nothing we can do about it tonight.*
“Demon had cause, this morning,” he said, as he joined her. “Dead horse. The wind must have brought him the scent, before shifting.”
Penrys took her own look down the trail before the light faded entirely, after the horses and donkeys had been unloaded and fed.
A dead horse lay in its tack at the side of the trail, mummified in the drying winds and well-nibbled. That was bad enough, but it was the scattering of belongings that raised the hackles on her neck. Why were they abandoned there?
Najud was uncharacteristically quiet as they set up the camp at the wide spot, by its spring, overlooked by the presence of the lud on the far side of the trail. Its surface sparkled occasionally, reflecting the flicker of the fire. Their supply of wood was limited, carried all the way up from Jaunor and intended to last for three more days to get them through the pass, so the fire was just large enough to heat water for their meal and to take some of the chill off.
By unspoken consent, they’d set up their small tent, partly to keep the wind off but more, she thought, as a barrier against the sinister debris they’d found.
She wrapped her hands around the warm mug of trail stew and cleared her throat. “So, what are you thinking? Have you ever seen a horse and packs abandoned like this before?”
Najud looked up. “No, nothing like this.”
He bestirred himself to give her his full attention. “Of course. I forgot for a moment that you aren’t a Zan. You wouldn’t know.”
He glanced off into space to collect his thoughts. “This trail is used for trade between Neshilik and sarq-Zannib. And sometimes for refugees—Rasesni came this way when Kigali cleared out Neshilik, a couple of generations ago. But these are Zannib goods, all over the trail, so it’s not refugees from the north.
“No Zan would desecrate a trail. That horse should not be there. It would have been butchered for meat, perhaps, or at the very least stripped of its gear and pulled off of the trail and covered with rocks, as much as possible. And the tack would never have been abandoned. What you saw—there was no respect shown the animal. And men on the trail do not abandon useful things.”
“Maybe they had more than they could carry,” Penrys suggested.
“That’s not like the Zannib, either. We are nomads, we plan everything around what we can carry and what we need.”
He searched her face. “You saw the small pack, over there?” He cocked his head in the direction of the lud.
“That’s a child’s pack. From the day we can walk we begin to learn how to carry what is needful. And below, I found these.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out two small objects which he tossed to Penrys.
One was a cloth doll the size of her hand, dressed in a Zannib robe. The face had painted eyes and mouth, and bits of dark wool attached as hair. It was soft, easily stuffed into a pack or a pocket. When she sniffed it, no scent remained except the dust of the trail. The other was a dingy brown horse, the same size as the doll. Bits of leather were sewn on as a saddle, and a mane and tail of dark fleece had been attached.
He nodded. “I had toys like this, most children do. When I was, maybe, four or five years old. You don’t understand. It’s very rare to take children that young on the taridiqa. And no one would take them over the High Pass. So, what were children doing here?”
One obvious possibility suggested itself to her. “Could they have been fleeing something and forced to try the pass?”
“I thought of this, but where are they, then? And why are their goods still here?”
Penrys shifted her position uneasily. “Maybe they weren’t alone, Maybe someone found them and took them away.”
Again, he nodded.
“And left their goods behind. It’s possible. But who made the pile of packs at the foot of the lud? Only the Zannib would do that. If they were taken by other Zannib, why would they take people but not gear? And in either case, why involve the lud?”
“What does it mean, these packs to the lud?,” she asked. “You said they weren’t offerings.”
“They’re not. It’s hard to explain about the lud. They’re not gods, the way the Kigaliwen and the Rasesni think of gods—something that directs the world and may reward or punish them. The creator of our world does not take such an interest in us. He made our world good for us, and it’s up to us to keep it so.
“What the lud do is show us where the dunaq wandim, the world that surrounds, shines through for us to see, piercing the veil of illusion that is our life. Yes, I know that is just a rock formation over there. But it is also a hint of something…”
“Sacred?” Penrys suggested.
“Yes, sacred. A reminder. We owe it respect because of that reminder. We speak of the lud sometimes as if they were little gods. This one is the husband of the other one at the north of the pass. They’ve been married a very long time, hundreds of years, and they don’t talk much to each other any more, but they are still yuj, a married pair, and not separated very far. It’s a silly little story, and they are not little gods, not really, but it makes things more comfortable for people, stupid as we are.”
“I understand, I think. But what does it mean, then, those packs?”
Najud shook his head. “A plea for help? A pledge to endure?”
He lowered his voice. “A farewell to life?”
Penrys lay awake after Najud finally subsided into an uneasy sleep. There was no laughter under the robes tonight.
It was strange to her, this withdrawn mood of his. He was cheerful in the face of his own troubles, but the presence of children in this sinister scenario had been a blow to him. That, and the uncertainty over their fate.
All the way down through Neshilik for three weeks he’d been bubbling over with eagerness to get home, free for the first time in his ten years of self-imposed exile, even though the time of year would keep him from reaching his own clan’s winter camp before the snows set in. No one had bothered them as they moved south through the chaos in Neshilik—not the Rasesni occupiers, once they’d shown their safe conduct from Menchos, a high-ranking Rasesni officer now based in Gonglik, and certainly not the Kigaliwen who recognized non-Rasesni foreigners and were glad to be rid of them.
The bigger problem had been the occasional encounter with Rasesni priests in the towns they passed through, wherever a temple had been rededicated to Rasesni gods. The news of events at the north end of Neshilik, and the death of the Voice, the wizard-tyrant that had so threatened Rasesdad, had spread from the temple school in Gonglik, and along with it Penrys’s role in his defeat, the one that had led to a Kigali tailor referring to her as “Destroyer of Demons,” the somewhat comic title she was still living down with Najud.
These priests had wanted to make a fuss once they realized who they were, and more than once Penrys had been grateful to the tailor’s wife for the scarves she wore around her neck, obscuring the chain that marked her. She was very tired of explaining to them that, yes, the Voice had also worn a chain like hers but, no, she didn’t know who he was.
She hoped to spend a year or so in sarq-Zannib, some of it with Najud’s family, before deciding what she should do next. If Najud would have her that long…
Would their intimacy survive once they were back with his people and no longer alone on the trail? If she would be moving on in a few months anyway, maybe she should encourage it to attenuate into a professional relationship, one wizard to another.
That would be wiser—he would be settling with his clan, as most Zannib wizards do, now that he was a master wizard and no longer a journeyman, and what could she offer him that would fit his life? The endless circle of the annual migration? Children? Whatever she was, she doubted she could bear him children, and this was a man who wanted them, who had deferred them too long. She didn’t want to watch him make his choice of a wife, and she couldn’t stay indefinitely—there was no place for her there.
She wasn’t ready to give him up, not yet—she’d been alone far too long for that—but she was determined to try.
“We should bring what we can with us,” Najud said.
He was reluctant to disturb the packs at the base of the lud in the morning, especially since someone had gone to the effort to arrange them there, but there was no point leaving everything to rot, not when they had capacity in their pack train now that some of the fodder and fuel had been consumed.
“We can at least get it off the pass and take it to the clan.”
“Do you know which clan it is?” Penrys asked.
“I know the markings.”
He showed her the arc of the world-bow, the blessing after rain, cut into the leather of the packs. “That’s Kurighdunaq, my cousin Zaybirs’s clan. My mother’s sister Qizrahi married into it, to everyone’s surprise. It’s unusual to marry out-tribe like that—made quite a stir when she brought her herds into their bloodlines.”
“Is that the clan we were hoping to meet?”
He nodded, unhappily. For all he could tell, his cousin’s pack was here somewhere, and he among the missing. He’d never met the man, and now he feared he never would.
“You can see the zamjilah, the eye-of-heaven, on our goods, for my clan. That’s what we call the spoked ring in the center of a Zannib kazr, where the smoke rises up.”
He would be glad to shift to a warm, round kazr from the flimsy traveling tent they were using, once he could buy or make one. Waiting for one until he reached his family was not appealing, not as the weather got colder.
“I didn’t know what that was,” Penrys said. “Thought the symbol might be a wheel.”
He kept forgetting she was a foreigner to his land. The intimacy of the mind-speech and her fluency with his language made it seem as though they knew each other well and, of course, there was the sharing of their bodies. But she was still a stranger, not some Zan woman, considering a marriage. And he was years past the sudden, impulsive passions that snatched a woman from around the fire and arranged with the tayujdaj, the marriage broker, to speak with her family and count her herds.
And then, they were both bikrajab, wizards, and she something alien and strong and solitary, with that chain around her neck and her unknown origins.
There were so few woman like him. He could live alone, or try to make a life with a mind-deaf woman, one who would dislike and resent the differences between them, the way the old songs demonstrated. He’d always expected to end up unmarried, settled in his clan with all of its families and children, making a fuss over his nephews and nieces and maybe sharing time with a widow, now and then, to keep away the loneliness.
Penrys thought the donkeys he was bringing home, to breed mules with, were the main purpose of his present little caravan, and that she was just keeping him company to learn more about the Zannib and their practices. He didn’t dare tell her the rest of his plan, that he thought of her as a cautious wild creature that he was luring along, crumb by crumb, hoping to make her comfortable in the warmth of his family, since she had none, hoping she might stay and build something with him, anything.
And like any wild animal, he had to be careful not to alarm her. He didn’t want her to feel his attention on her, the way the hunted animal can tell it’s being watched. When they mind-shared, he sensed her withdrawing a little more each day, as though she were anticipating a parting, and it worried him—he wasn’t ready to bring a discussion about the future into the open, and scare her away.
“Come, help me stuff these packs into the donkey loads. We won’t look into their contents now—that’s the clan’s business, not ours. Then you can help me pile some rocks on that horse, once I cut its tack off and free it from constraint.”
“How’s your hand?”
Najud’s question was a welcome distraction from the mindless work of piling a rock cairn over a dead horse. They’d been at it for a couple of hours and were finally nearing the end. The tack Najud had cut off of the body made a forlorn heap near the road, ready to be stuffed into another donkey pack.
“It’s fine. The glove keeps it protected,” Penrys replied.
Her left hand was healing quickly. Though she was used to the speed with which her body healed, leaving no marks after the worst of wounds, it had been a surprise to her when her left hand began rebuilding the four fingers, lost in her desperate fight with the Voice only a month ago. The first two were already fully grown, and the third nearly so. The fourth was still a stub, since the slice that took them all had been diagonal, and it had the longest way to go.
How old am I? No marks on m’body at all, not wrinkles, not childbirth.
She had no memory older than three years, when she was found in far away northern Ellech, in the snow, naked except for the chain around her neck.
The Voice had also been chained, but she’d learned nothing from him—neither where he came from nor any information about his own past. She’d been brooding about it for weeks now. Someone must have made us, but why? Can he control us somehow, through the chains? Are there more of us?
She shook it off and stood up, bending and stretching to relieve her muscles. No point worrying Najud about it—not his problem. Just another reason to end it before it’s worse for both of us.
She’d been alone for three years, isolated at the Collegium in Tavnastok in Ellech. She could get used to it again. She shivered a little in the chilly air, and headed for her horse to tighten its girth and resume her cloak.
Najud placed his last rock, and then scooped up the stripped tack. The bright colors of the abbreviated Zannib-style saddle were dulled from a couple of months of outdoor exposure, but even so the day seemed a bit less vivid to her, once they were stuffed away into a pack.
Once they’d passed the debris in the general vicinity of the lud, there was nothing else to be found. After a couple of miles of trail, Penrys stopped looking for it and relaxed back into the work of the trail, keeping close behind Najud’s string and watching after her own.
From five horse-lengths in front of her, she heard Najud’s voice raised in a sad, solemn song. He stopped himself, abruptly.
“Join me,” he called. “Do the harmonies. The right ones, mind.”
Then he started over again.
She tapped him for his expertise in singing, to share the feel of how a song like this should go, how it should sound, and then she raised her own voice in wordless harmony to match his.
As she heard the words she could follow the meaning, but since she didn’t know what the words would be in time to sing them, all she could do was provide a counterpoint for his voice. Verse after verse it continued, a commemoration for the fallen.
To read more, look for Mistress of Animals from your favorite retailers.