Book 1 of The Chained Adept, Chapters 1-3
Penrys was crouched on one knee, slamming the rysefeol’s recalcitrant wooden joint with the back of her hand by way of a delicate adjustment, when the sudden transition hit.
“Oh, thennur holi,” she said, under her breath, but the oath that started in her well-lit workroom finished in swaying light and strong shadow. Already off balance, she tumbled on her backside. The soft surface took the sting out of it, and her hands, spread wide to break the fall, told her of carpet and, below that, uneven ground. A gust of wind blew smoke in from outside and the walls fluttered.
A tent, she realized, and a very large one.
She saw the people, then, and froze, stifling a sneeze, but they didn’t seem to have noticed her. No, that’s not it. They aren’t moving at all.
Perhaps no one’s moving but someone’s talking. She tilted her head and pinpointed the voice—it came from something like a mirror suspended from a metal stand in front of the nearest tent wall. She was too close alongside the same wall herself to see anything but the edge of the frame.
The flickering light from the glass-enclosed lanterns on the tables and chests in the tent cast moving shadows on the faces of the people. It gave the illusion of life, distracting her for a moment, and then the words from the voice in the mirror penetrated.
“…a field test like this is always useful for a new weapon. I look forward to greeting you in person, when you arrive for a permanent visit.”
She wrinkled her nose at the lazy baritone drawl. That can’t be good. What’s happened to them?
Glancing over her shoulder, she spotted a red lacquered chest along the tent wall and scooted back a couple of feet to set her back against it, taking care to stay out of the line of sight of the mirror. She crossed her legs and made herself comfortable on the rug, licking her dry lips as she tried to focus.
She steadied her breathing, then, and reached out with her mind to the people in the tent with her. She could only see a few of them from her position on the ground, but her mind told her there were seven. All the minds projected fury and fear, but one shone more clearly, aware of her, and able to respond silently when she focused on him.
*Who are you? No, never mind. Can you help us?*
That gave her pause.
What have we got here? Something from the mirror, smothering them all like a thick fog. But not me—probably doesn’t know I’m here. At least, not yet.
She braced herself, and then raised a mind-shield around the one who’d asked for help. Immediately she felt the force shift and bear down upon her, but she diverted it around them both and let it flow away.
*Much better. What about the others?*
She judged the force that beat at her. *Maybe one or two more.*
*The Commander, then.*
Penrys couldn’t drop her concentration long enough to look for him. *Show me.*
He gave her the flavor of the other man’s personality and indicated a direction. That matched up with one particular mind, and she extended her shield to him.
The lights dimmed for her as she took on the load. She closed her eyes to remove the distraction and listened to the muttered conversation in the tent.
“Not now, Commander-chi. Temporary defense. Pick one more man.”
Silence for a moment.
“Make it Kep, then.”
*This one, please.* Her first contact pictured another personality and direction for her, and she extended the shield one more time, hoping it would hold.
She gritted her teeth and focused on the task. At least the load was steady—she could bear the pressure for a little while, if it didn’t change. Why so few? I should be able to support more of them. But it doesn’t feel like that would work just now.
“I’m not sure what you hoped to accomplish, Menbyede, but I think you may have misjudged our strength. Kep-chi, see to the men and prepare for attack.” She recognized the voice of the second man.
“At once, sir.”
The air shifted as someone left the tent.
The voice in the mirror was quiet, but the force increased against her shield, probing and shifting. She strengthened the shield further, clenching it solid, until the sounds outside dropped away.
A finger tapped Penrys’s shoulder and the familiar mental voice that marked a wizard followed. *You can stop now.*
Cautiously, she loosened the shield enough to look, and found the pressure gone. Her whole body ached as she released the shield completely, and she slumped to loosen her muscles, her dark shoulder-length hair falling into her face as she rotated her head and felt the neck joints crack.
“You didn’t hear me speak to you,” the man said, his deep, resonant voice low and private against the bustle behind him in the tent. He crouched next to her on the balls of his feet.
Sandalwood? She sniffed again and lifted her head. The honeyed voice belonged to a smooth-shaven Zan traveler, his hair concealed under a small maroon turban. His dusky robes of an overall small-figured fabric had been shortened for ease of movement, and his loose breeches were bloused over decorated but well-worn leather boots. He regarded her soberly, and then his dark eyes widened. He reached out and pushed back her hair on one side to confirm his glimpse, exposing her ear—her shaggy, mobile, fox-like ear.
She jerked her head back and staggered upright. Glaring down at him, she shook her hair loose again to cover her ears.
He rose more gracefully and made her a sketchy half-bow. “Your pardon, bikrajti. I was just… surprised.”
Penrys looked beyond him and realized the tent was large and multi-part, four square bays surrounding a central square, the ties at the corner seams marking its origin as five separate structures. It was dark in the corners but full of activity. Uniforms. So, I was right—this is a military camp. But where? Her companion seemed to be the only Zan—none of the rest, bare-headed or not, showed the loose curly hair she would have expected. To a man they had short, straight, black hair, and several cultivated wispy beards. A glance out of one doorway confirmed that it was still nighttime.
A courier had arrived and was reporting to Commander Chang, easily identified by both his voice and his location—anchoring a wide camp chair, fronted by a large, portable table, little of which was bare of papers, and commanding a view of the tent entrance, where an armed man stood ready on either side. A quick glance confirmed that the mirror was gone from the stand by the tent wall.
The dark Zannib wizard followed her gaze. “Locked away it is, where it can do no more harm.” He paused. “We think it can do no more harm.”
“I’m called Zandaril,” he said. “We must talk, soon as he’s free.” He cocked his head over at Chang.
He drew her over to the Commander’s table and they waited for the courier to complete his report. The smoky cressets outside the tent flap still held the night at bay, but the clamor of a roused camp belied the darkness. Voices called back and forth, and hoofbeats pounded by. As Chang leaned forward in his chair for emphasis, it creaked and his black leather jerkin reflected the candle light dully.
Once Chang had dismissed the courier, he turned his full attention to Penrys. His lined face was impassive, the eyes narrow.
“Who are you? What just happened? And how, exactly, did you happen to turn up, in such a… timely way?”
It was clear from his face and the tone of his voice that he didn’t believe in coincidence.
“It’s complicated, sir.” She cleared her throat. “There was an accident…”
At the sound of her northern Ellech accent, Chang’s eyes met Zandaril’s. The Commander and the rest of the men in the tent, with the exception of Zandaril, had the look of the eastern Kigali folk, their eyes tightened against the ancestral wind and their beards sparse.
She forged ahead. “M’name’s Penrys, and I was in Tavnastok a little while ago. But not now, I think.”
“No.” Zandaril blinked. “Indeed not. It’s far from the Collegium you are, way up in the valley of the Mother of Rivers.” At her blank look, he added, “Near the western border of Kigali.”
Penrys closed her eyes briefly and shook her head. Thousands of miles if it’s a step, as much south as west. What have I done? How will I get back, with nothing but the clothes I stand in? How can I tell them at the Collegium where I am?
She studied the two faces before her, one stern, one curious. Well, that may not be my most urgent problem. They think I had something to do with this attack.
She straightened up. First order of business—stay alive and out of prison.
Penrys waited in Zandaril’s company while the Commander made certain that the threatened attack was not about to materialize, based on the reports of his returning scouts as they continued to come in.
She glanced at her oh-so-polite custodian. It’s not like I can go anywhere, from the middle of an armed camp. That they know of, anyway. Guess they don’t see it that way. In spite of herself, she yawned and belatedly covered her mouth.
At Zandaril’s raised eyebrow, she protested, “I’ve come west a great distance, so my night just got a lot longer.”
She left it at that, not wanting to admit that the shielding had also had its cost. And just why did I have to stop at holding three under my mind-shield? Where did that limit come from?
“Who was in the mirror?” she asked him, quietly.
“Menbyede of the Rasesni.”
“I’ve read about them—they’re your neighbors to the west, aren’t they? Who’s this Menbyede fellow?”
He narrowed his eyes at her suspiciously, without comment
“No, I don’t know,” she said, answering the unasked question. “Hey, I can name several colleagues from the Collegium who will vouch for me and where I was last night. Um, this night.”
“And what should we do with you while we wait for messages to go and return, all the long way?” Zandaril said. “Or perhaps you have a better means of communication?”
His eyes slid to the spot where the mirror had been.
She swallowed and decided to resume her silence. As if to contradict her resolve, the smell of the hot, bitter bunnas sitting untouched on Chang’s crowded camp table made her stomach growl, audibly. She was always hungry after a prolonged effort, but it was food she wanted, not that foul stuff.
That’s not actually a bad idea, though—using a mirror to cross distances. How did they attach sound to the vision? How do they focus it? How far can it go? And how do they send an attack through it, like the one I shielded?
She settled down to ponder ways and means, her fingers itching for something to write on.
With the camp on high alert until daybreak, but no enemy detected, Chang finally returned his attention to her. Two of his officers stood behind him and waited. She could feel the suspicion radiating off of them.
“I would like an explanation,” he said. It was little short of a command.
May as well tell them part of the truth, anyway. Not that they’re likely to believe it.
“I was at my workshop, at the Collegium. Working on my…” She paused. “You see, I made this bendu, a device, kind of a detector, a ryskymmer, like a bound-circle, only the reverse…”
They looked at her blankly. These are Kigaliwen, and they don’t have the terms.
She started over. “Look, if you take a defined space, like a big box, you can cancel out the magic inside the space.” She framed the concept out with her hands.
She glanced at Zandaril. He was nodding as if he’d heard of the theory.
“Most people stop there,” she said, “but I thought if you could set it up right, you could use it to find active magic somewhere else.”
Zandaril stopped nodding, but she pushed on anyway. “And if it’s big enough…” She spread her arms wide to illustrate. “You could maybe go where that magic is.” If you were fool enough to stand on the inside of it.
There was silence for a moment, broken only by the spitting of the cressets outside.
“What, seven thousand miles?” Zandaril raised both eyebrows this time.
“Well, I had it set up to look for the biggest activity it could detect. I didn’t think it would go further than the Collegium. After all, there’s plenty there for it to find. And besides, I wasn’t trying to use it—the full-scale version wasn’t working yet.”
Didn’t think about what I was doing. Idiot.
Zandaril said, “So the Rasesni tried out their new weapon, and…”
“It sucked me in. I was on the inside, tinkering with the framework’s joints, but then I, um, hit it and, wham, here I was.” She could feel her cheeks heating. “Guess it worked.”
Zandaril and Chang exchanged opaque looks.
Chang began again. “You sound like a Northener, but you don’t have the look.”
“No. No, I don’t.” She cleared her throat. “About three years ago, they tell me, there was a disturbance out in the forests of Sky Fang in the Asuthgrata region, enough to bring Vylkar, the local wizard, out to track it down.”
“You?” Zandaril suggested.
“Well, I’m what they found.” She raised a hand and fingered the heavy chain resting high around her neck like a collar.
Waking up at the base of a rough-barked tree, surrounded by torches and strange, armed men. Waiting for them to speak and then tapping them for the language.
“And where had you come from? How did you get there?”
“Wish I knew. That’s all there is, nothing further back.”
“But you knew the language?” Zandaril asked.
She compressed her lips. “I know all the languages. I get them from the speakers.”
She looked at them pointedly. “Yours, too, you may have noticed.”
Chang glanced over at Zandaril for confirmation, and Zandaril shrugged.
“I’ve never heard of that,” the Zan remarked.
“Yes, that’s what Vylkar said. It’s true, nonetheless.”
He let it pass, though his skepticism was plain on his face.
“So, you ended up at the Collegium.”
“They figured it was the best place to… examine me. They gave me a name and a bunch of tests.” She half-smiled. “Then they argued a lot.”
“You’re what, then? An apprentice? A nal-jarghal?” Zandaril asked.
She snorted. “No, they couldn’t really make me fit properly anywhere in their system. Old Aergon declared they should revive the ancient title of hakkengenni, um, ‘Adept.’ All I wanted was a place to work, and to persuade them there was no harm turning me loose in the library. Help ’em with the catalogue.”
“And they did? They just took you in and exposed everything to you? The Collegium, with its reputation for stringent qualifications?” Zandaril snorted.
“And what’s the first thing you did, eh?” Penrys said, and cocked her head at the corner where she’d arrived. “Tried to find out what I was and what I could do, didn’t you? You’re no different then the rest of your wizardly colleagues.”
She heard her voice rise. “Made m’self available for experiments, I did. That was the exchange. Made some devices, too, not that they’re any too eager to use ’em. Why? You want to come up with some tests yourself?”
“Enough,” Chang said, and she subsided.
“Sorry.” Don’t be a fool. Don’t alienate them—they may be your only means of getting back. She took a deep breath, and sneezed from the smoke of the cressets drifting inside.
“Whatever the Rasesni had in mind seems to have been called off. I’m going to stand down the camp.” Chang waved over one of the guards at the entrance.
“Take our… guest over to Jip-chi and have her assigned quarters for what’s left of the night.” He glanced at her. “Under guard, if you please.”
Zandaril stroked his beardless cheek as he settled back in the folding camp chair and watched Chang’s face. The quiet discussions elsewhere in the tent gave them a bit of privacy. “What did you think of her story?”
“She has to be a Rasesni plant,” Chang said. “Nothing else makes any sense. Accent or not, she’s certainly no Northener, not with that dark hair. Not skinny enough, either. Or tall.”
“She is what, then? Who are her people? Not the bandy-legged Rasesni.” Zandaril let that hang there for a moment.
Chang nodded, reluctantly. “No. Not a pure-blood anyway. Probably some sort of border family, mixed-blood. Or something else.”
“I know what I saw.” Zandaril shook his head. “I don’t know any border families with pricked animal ears, Commander-chi. Do you? Not even in the old granny tales.”
Chang glared at him. “You have a point?”
“You should believe her story for now, as long as it doesn’t disturb your mission.”
“And what’s to keep her from vanishing the same way she materialized?”
Zandaril had been facing that corner of the tent when he was locked in place by the Rasesni attack. He’d seen her arrival, tumbling on her rear with her arms flailing. That was the clumsiest entrance I’ve ever seen. Hard to associate that with a secret enemy.
He poured himself a mug of the still-hot bunnas, lifted it to his nose, and inhaled before taking a sip. “If she needs a large device to travel, as she claims, we can prevent it. If she lied about it, and needs nothing, how could we stop her?”
“Chains,” Chang said, with a frown.
Ah, yes, I want a closer look at that necklace she keeps fingering. I didn’t recognize the style.
He put the mug down on the ground beside his chair.
“I’ll take charge of her,” he said.
“What, in Hing Ganau’s wagon? And won’t that start rumors.”
“Oh, come now, a young girl she is not, Commander-chi.”
“As if that mattered.” Chang narrowed his eyes. “She’s young enough, and I didn’t hear mention of a husband. Still, the idea has some merit—who better than you to defend us if she’s not what she says?”
He thought for a moment. “All right. If she can ride, we’ll mount her, else she can bounce along in your traveling warehouse with the rest of the odds and ends. Think you can catch her if she makes a run for it?”
Zandaril raised one robed arm and let the sleeve flutter gracefully while his hand waggled in the air. “Outride me she will not.”
“Then she’ll be in your charge tomorrow. You’ve just made yourself responsible for her.”
Well, I asked for it, did I not?
“Stow your gear in the puichok. Hing Ganau will show you where.” Zandaril turned from the horse who was hitched to the side of the wagon and waved vaguely in the direction of a soldier in the process of loading up.
He returned to his task of checking the tack of his black mare. She was fit and energetic, though somewhat round and sturdy. Penrys did not recognize the pattern of the simple saddle. Except for the short stirrups there seemed to be nothing to it but shaped leather pads, decorated with punchings like his boots, and colorful wool fabric beneath, over a sheepskin.
Dropping her shoulder, Penrys shrugged off the worn pack Jip had issued her last night and set it down with a metallic thump. ‘A soldier’s gear,’ he’d called it. It seemed half empty, and the clanking of the eating kit had been an annoyance the whole way as she’d followed her guard to Zandaril’s place in the breaking camp. There hadn’t been time to go through it yet, though she’d been grateful for the blanket fastened to it, in the middle of the night. She was even more grateful for breakfast, salted dough on a stick with smoky bacon wrapped around it, shared by her escort at the cook-fire of a group of troopers.
She’d still been licking her fingers when she’d spotted Zandaril, supervising the loading of his wagon at the rear of the camp. Four mules had already been harnessed up to its shaft, the nearest one an elderly gray that was almost white, and the rest ordinary bays. The wagon looked like all the others she’d seen so far—tall iron-tired twelve-spoked wheels in back, with smaller ones in front, and a body about five feet wide and ten feet long. The wooden walls rose about four feet, surmounted by a high arching framework covered in canvas that was partially folded aside—only the long pole affixed to the side of the wagon-seat that flew a colorful pennant distinguished it from the rest of the nearby vehicles. She thought the device on it might be some sort of many-spoked wheel, when she tried to make it out as it flapped in the gusty wind.
The smell of tar wrinkled her nose—it looked as though the seams of the wagon’s boards had been tarred and caulked.
Her guard had handed her possessions over to the wizard and released her, and she tipped her head to him in farewell. Well-mannered he was, and he provided breakfast. Could have been worse.
She glanced at the older, uniformed man who was busy with the last of the gear, spry despite the splint and wrappings around his right leg. She surveyed the narrow wagon seat and asked Zandaril, “Will we all three be sharing that?”
“That depends. Can you ride?”
She smiled broadly. “Indeed. That would be much better.” She paused and looked down at her feet, shod for indoor activities. “Although boots would make it more comfortable.” At least I’m wearing my work clothing, not something more unwieldy.
“Maybe I can fix that,” Zandaril replied. “You’ll need some sort of coat or cloak, too. Any clothes in there?” He pointed at the pack on the ground.
“Not that I could see.”
He nodded, and called out to the man who was tying down the bundles in the wagon bed. “Hing-chi, errands I’ll have for you to the Quartermaster at our next stop. Meanwhile, please have someone fetch something suitable for our guest to ride before the Horsemaster gets too busy.”
Hing Ganau started a bow but converted it into a clumsy wave and limped off to corral an errand boy.
Penrys raised an eyebrow at the performance and Zandaril coughed politely. “I have here no official rank, but it seems to be hard for him to break the habit.” He paused. “Only three weeks ago I was assigned to him, when I joined the expedition at the Meeting of Waters. Posted he was to drive a wagon until he could ride again. Doesn’t like it much, and who can blame him? A kwajigomju is used to getting things done with his men, and frustrated at being alone.”
He looked down at the little bundle the guard had handed him—the pouch and knife that had hung at her belt. “Here, bikrajti. You’ll want these.”
That’s gracious of him. Also says something about how much he fears me, which is not at all. Is that a good thing?
“Thanks,” she said, and left it at that.
She attached both items to her belt and felt complete again, if somewhat under-dressed for the weather. As she recalled from the maps, Kigali was about as far south of the equator as Tavnastok was north, and autumn was starting in the south. She smelled a faint crisp chill in the air, under the blue cloudless sky, but there was nothing she could see along the horizon in any direction over the low, rolling grasslands, to account for it. If this was truly a valley, it was wider than she could see, and the actual Junkawa, the Mother of Rivers as they’d called it, could be anywhere out of her view.
We’ll be delayed waiting for the horse. Let’s see what I’ve got.
She knelt on the ground, on the damp grasses which had been trampled by the camp traffic and were still giving up their pungent juices. “Spoon, fork, metal cup and plate, well-scoured and well-used.” She ticked off the inventory and glanced up at Zandaril. “Might as well have been a set of bells for all the noise it makes.”
“I think the practice is to wrap each of those in articles of clothing. Muffles the noise, keeps it from shifting,” Zandaril contributed, gravely.
“Sounds right. Well, a nice big packet of salt, a bag of…” She opened it and sniffed. “Ugh. Bunnas,” she said, wrinkling her nose.
“Glad I would be to remove that burden for you,” Zandaril remarked.
‘That’s right—bunnas comes from your folk, doesn’t it? What’ll you trade for it?”
“Not very good quality that is, that they buy for the troopers.”
“No point bad-mouthing it to me,” she said. “I can just ask your Hing Ganau.”
A faint smile crossed his lips. “You can trust me for an honest price. When you find something you want, we’ll talk again about it.”
She dug through the rest of the pack. “Looks like wrappings for bandages, soap, and that’s about it. No clothes, like I thought. Not even a comb. Nothing to read.” She began to put everything back in.
Zandaril cleared his throat. “I may have a sushnib or two. Books.”
“Yes, a wizard would, wouldn’t he?” She tied the straps at the top of the pack and stood up.
“I’ll show you a bit tonight, when we camp up again,” he said. “In wirqiqa-Zannib they are written, so it may be they are of no use to you, bikrajti.”
She said to him, in his own language, “If I can speak it, then easily enough I can read it, with a little instruction in the script.”
He stared at her in silence.
“Didn’t believe me, did you?” she said, with a quirk of her lips, as she returned to the western Kigali-yat dialect she’d been speaking since her arrival. “There were a few wirqiqa-Zannib scrolls at the Collegium, but no native speakers, so I appreciate this opportunity to truly learn the language.”
Looking at her with interest, he said, “Do you retain the knowledge after your source departs, bikrajti?”
“Only if I’ve taken the effort to master it m’self, and make it my own.”
This was more than she’d intended to share, and the clop of hooves provided a welcome interruption as a young trooper led a saddled horse and hitched him to the cleats on the side of the wagon walls, next to Zandaril’s mare. The mules already in their traces turned their heads to watch.
She laughed out loud when she saw him—a piebald gelding, quiet and deliberate. She couldn’t picture him bestirring himself to a canter.
I bet that mare can run rings around him.
“Not taking any chances, eh?” she commented to Zandaril.
He bowed in her direction with a smile of his own, and she sketched him a comic salutation to honor his precautions.
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