Read Riders of the Storm Online

Authors: Julie E. Czerneda

Riders of the Storm (9 page)

BOOK: Riders of the Storm
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The fire was banked; Enris had shown them how. The light from its embers bathed the low rounds of shoulder and hip, the huddles of blanket and coat that marked where Om'ray lay asleep. She was the only one awake.

A dream. That was all.

She was the only one awake, she realized a moment later, but not the only one disturbed. Sobbing, so quiet Aryl almost missed it over the breathing of the rest. Seru. Did she dream, too?

Someone else squirmed and whimpered. Aryl
reached,
careful to lower her shields only enough to seek outward, not to send and disturb.

Ziba?

She shouldn't be surprised. What they'd faced today would give anyone bad dreams, even a youngling with the courage of any Chosen—

Yet another soft complaint. Aryl
reached
again.

Juo.

Even easier to explain, she decided. All the bedding they'd carried couldn't counteract the hard cold pavement beneath, cracked and heaved into sharp edges. Hardest on poor Juo, swollen with her unborn. Wise Husni had refused to lie on the stones, instead curling against her seated Chosen, who, to everyone's amusement, had began to snore at once. There they were on the other side of the fire, like a pair of ancient rastis whose fronds had intertwined until neither could fall alone.

There was light, similar to the radiance that found its way through curtains. A soft, comforting light.

Nothing was wrong. She'd dreamed.

That was all.

Aryl started to close her eyes, settling back down. She was so tired…

…light took a red tinge, like blood bathed the walls, then suddenly faded.
Darkness
assumed movement and form to tear at her consciousness, like a wind trying to tear her from a safe hold.

…Aryl thrust herself from the
other place,
her heart pounding, eyes wide. She sat up.

Impossible. It hadn't been real. Couldn't be real. Her mind couldn't slip into that
place
while she slept. She was safe.

She had to be.

They had to be—

She'd dreamed.

That was all.

Words formed, as if echoing her thoughts…
Bad dream?

Bad rock,
Aryl managed to reply, careful to add overtones of rueful amusement as she settled back down. She pretended to fidget and forced a smile in case Myris could see her face.
My bones need more padding.

Her aunt couldn't afford to use her Talent until she healed, not that Aryl would have a choice if Myris detected turmoil. She had to trust her shields, being unable to move out of contact without disturbing Veca, close behind her.

A pillow would be nice.
A flash of
pain,
quickly hidden. Ael groaned in Joined empathy but didn't wake.

Aryl cupped her hand against her aunt's soft cheek. Too warm.
Rest,
she sent, along with a careful sharing of her own strength, and felt more than heard Myris sigh in relief.

She waited until sure her aunt slept. Longer.

Then she lay back, eyes open, to wait for daylight.

When all darkness would be gone.

 

Despite breath-fogging cold at firstlight, no one lingered in their shelter. Their still-warm bedding went to the injured, while Ael and Weth rebuilt the fire. There was no question of leaving today. Myris was feverish and too quiet. Chaun had roused to open his eyes and smile, nothing more. Husni chided her daughter's Chosen for lying around while others worked, but when she turned away, her face showed every Harvest. They all shared the involuntary waves of
agony
when he moved; only Weth could persuade him to swallow. He was worse.

Sona was worse by the light of day, too. They used the name, though no one could give good reason beyond a wary look toward Seru Parth. In turn, she remained obstinately herself and refused to talk about what she called “yesterday's weather.” That weather had blown itself over the mountain ridge and away, its clouds a tatter of wisps in the sky, its snow and rain little more than dark stains. In this valley, stone shed water or dirt sucked it down. As well, they'd collected what they could before truenight, Aryl thought, licking always-dry lips.

A long night indeed. She hadn't slept again for fear of dreams—in revenge, her mind might have been a wing on the M'hir for all the control she'd had over the direction of her thoughts. Seru. Ziba. The
darkness.
Bern and his Chosen. Myris. This place—its past. Her mother. Yena. The strangers. The headdress and bones. Tomorrow.

Enris.

No more of him, Aryl vowed, tightening her belt to silence her empty stomach. With daylight had come common sense, or its kin, pragmatism. The Tuana was a stranger, on Passage. Their paths had crossed, to the exiles' benefit. If he felt the need to continue his journey alone, it was his right and obligation. However long he remained, they'd take advantage of his strength and knowledge.

If she could avoid him this morning, all the better.

The exiles divided into groups to search for their most pressing need: food. Aryl had hoped to go with Seru, to talk to her cousin. Haxel and Cetto claimed her first.

“Reminds me of the nekis that fell one M'hir,” Haxel said finally. “Took a good portion of Parth grove with it. Remember, Cetto?”

The former Yena Councillor stood with one hand shading his eyes, though the rising sun—and Amna—was behind them. “Wasn't this bad.”

The three of them were atop the highest beam roofing last night's shelter, its wide surface secure, if tilted. It provided a useful viewpoint. Aryl found its height a comfort. She pursed her lips and surveyed their surroundings once more, this time looking for detail rather than absorbing the shock.

The valley narrowed here to perhaps an easy half-day's walk from one formidable cliff wall to the other. It drew tighter still not far ahead, where another twist hid what might be its beginning.

Two lines scored the valley floor. One, the dry riverbed, its pattern of tumbled stone hinting at the force which had once scoured its width; the other, matched to the river's course though set high above its bank, what had been a roadway of pale, cut stone, now fragmented and heaved. Aryl's gaze followed the ruined road and empty river to where they disappeared from sight around the valley's bend. Where did they go?

As for where they were…the road cut through what had clearly been a village, between this side of the river and the cliff, from its extent, more populous than Yena had ever been. The violence from beneath that furrowed and tossed the ground of the valley mouth hadn't so easily erased Sona itself. The buildings, though small, had been sturdy. From what she could see from this vantage point, most had been attached to one another by low stone walls and rooftop beams, providing extra strength.

Not unscathed, however. Most of those beams had come free of their supports, to lie like tossed sticks. Some of the stone walls had crumbled; others stood seemingly straight and untouched but spanned dark pits where the ground had been eaten away from below.

Homes, she guessed. Om'ray homes—another guess—of a style unknown to the exiles. Each opened to a narrow roadway off the main one; each shared walled open space with their neighbors, now choked with dead vegetation. Aryl watched Syb and Taen try to force their way through one such space. They soon gave up and rejoined the rest, searching what homes remained accessible.

“Can we be sure this was once Om'ray?” Cetto rumbled. “There's no Cloisters.”

“Here,” Haxel pointed out.

She was right, Aryl agreed. Though Grona's Cloisters sat near their homes, Yena's was a good distance from their village—why, no one knew or wondered. “That could have been their meeting hall.” The First Scout indicated a mound of shattered wood across the main road, half buried in soil and stone. A large building, set to overlook the river. If these had been Om'ray, it would have hosted every gathering of importance, as well as those for the joy of being together.

Aryl shuddered. Then her attention was caught by a gleam across the river. The rising sun had reached an area filled with white straight stalks—stalks with, she squinted to see, familiar branched tops. Many were toppled, most leaned in disarray, but she knew what she saw. “Nekis!” She hadn't been completely wrong.

“We looked.” Haxel made a gesture of disgust. “Dead, like the rest of this place.”

“How?” Aryl stared at the plants. She could understand those broken or buried failing to survive, but these were the canopy's most common growth. Nothing stopped young nekis surging from the ground, or regrowing in their multitudes from a fallen parent.

“In the groves, their feet are in the Lay Swamp,” Cetto suggested, his low voice somber. “Perhaps when the river failed, these did, too.”

Could strong, towering nekis—though none of these had been tall—be killed so easily? Aryl found the parched grove more a blow than the village. She'd thought of the groves and canopy as permanent fixtures of the world. Her home. At best, the swamp beneath them had been a nuisance, a threat to the careless. A new notion, that its black and dangerous water had been necessary to the growth above.

“Firewood.” With that practical dismissal, Haxel directed their attention closer to hand. “There's something I don't understand. Those lines—they go under the buildings. See?”

Obviously something other than the crumbling walls or roadways. Puzzled, Aryl followed the scout's impatient finger as it indicated where they stood, the remains of the next building, then jabbed over to one closer to the other end of the village. At first, she saw nothing but the confusion of debris and time.

Then, she saw it. Haxel's “lines” weren't walls, but narrow depressions. They bounded the village, a course of small, similar stones. Once she recognized them, she saw they ran everywhere. If they'd been connected before the destruction, they would have formed an intricate network of shallow ditches. Some went beneath each home, reappearing on the other side.

Aryl's eyes flashed to the dry riverbed. She laughed, overjoyed by the simple elegance of it.

“I fail to see anything amusing about this place,” Cetto grumbled.

She gestured apology. “It's only an idea…”

“What?” demanded the First Scout.

“When the river was full—” Aryl used her hands to mimic that flow, “—it would spill over at that point.” She indicated where the boundary depression cut through the riverbank, what would have been upstream of the meeting hall and village. “Remember the ravine, after the ice rain? Water takes the low path. It would flow into all of these lines.”

“Why?” Haxel asked. Both older Om'ray were frowning. “There are better ways to bring water to a home than this.”

Aryl thought of her brother Costa, and the containers of growing things in his room. How they needed water brought to them to survive. “Not to the homes,” she thought aloud. “To the spaces between them. This is a dry place—too dry for plants.” The rightness of it made her heart pound. “Maybe these Om'ray grew their food like the Grona, but instead of fields and the chance of rain, they grew it here, between their homes, and took water from the river.”

Haxel wasn't slow. “There are stone ditches like these through the nekis grove.”

Om'ray who grew their own grove? Aryl's eyes widened. She couldn't imagine living like the Grona—or Enris' Tuana, for that matter. But this? “What if we could bring the water back?” she asked abruptly.

Cetto's deep astonished laugh lifted a few heads their way. “You never think small, Aryl Sarc.”

Haxel didn't smile or say a word. But as they climbed down to rejoin the rest, Aryl noticed the scout lingered to look up the valley for a good long time, to where the outthrust of cliff hid the river's source.

Interlude

T
HEY WERE GOING TO STAY.

Enris stepped onto what had been a narrow, long porch and ducked to enter through what had never been a door.

They were going to make these ruins into homes and stay.

Carelessly he shouldered aside a half beam, dust and debris raining down on his head. His feet crunched something in the gloom.

There was nothing here, he fumed, nothing worth their lives or his to find. Nothing to sustain them, even if they'd be tolerated by the Oud. Broken pots, shattered sticks, anything and everything else rotted or carried away.

There was no future here. No answers.

“Any luck, Tuana?”

Enris bit back what he might have said. Gijs didn't deserve his frustration. “Not yet. You?”

The other Om'ray joined him, coughing despite the gauze they'd each wrapped over their mouths. Fine dust coated every surface; once disturbed, it hung in the air. “Nothing.” Gijs began poking at a pile at the far end of the room. “Haxel claims we can boil our boots. Not ready for that meal, I tell you.”

Enris' stomach chose that moment to growl and he was grateful the light was too dim inside to show his blush. “Baked glove for me.”

Gijs laughed. “Don't worry. You've no bones showing, unChosen,” as if this would be a comfort.

What it was? A reminder, Enris thought, of how tough and resilient Yena were. The longer he was with them, the better he understood how they'd survived life suspended in the canopy—and on rations scant for a child, let alone an active adult. But it was one thing to be a survivor and quite another to recognize your own folly. Coming here was bad enough.

Staying?

He had to talk to Aryl—they should be scouting the best way to Vyna together; instead, here he was, choking on dust.

Dust that turned darker as the light from the one window was abruptly blocked by a pair of white-clad legs. The legs were followed by a wriggling form in yellow who dropped to the floor with a cascade of pebbles—and more dust—to stand erect with a grin. “Did you find it yet?”

Trust the youngster to make a game of this grim search. Ziba Uruus was a match for his little brother, Worin, all right: a disarming mix of mischief and innocence. Enris grinned back, dust stinging his cracked lips. “Find what?”

“Breakfast!” With that, the tiny Om'ray marched confidently to a spot on the bare stone floor. She was still an instant, head cocked to the side like a curious loper, then began to move her hands in midair as if shaking something out and pressing the result flat on an invisible, waist-high surface.

Enris looked a question at Gijs. The other Om'ray shrugged and said gruffly, “This is no place to play, Ziba. Go outside. Find your mother.”

“I am not playing,” she retorted. “Everyone knows you have to squeeze the seeds out first.”

Fascinated, Enris watched as her small hands mimed collecting something apparently sticky and then shaking it free over another invisible container. She wiped her fingers on her coat, leaving streaks of nothing but dust. “There.” With relish. “The seeds are for planting,” she explained, pointing to midair. “This is the good part.” At “this” Ziba held up both hands, cupped as if supporting a round mass. “There's enough fresh
rokly
for you, too. I'll share.”

Gijs appeared at a loss for words. Wait till Juo produced their firstborn, Enris thought with amusement. Well used to the antics of the young, he smiled and held out his hand. “Thank you. I'm hungry.”

Instead of playing along, Ziba's smile faded and she took a quick step back. “You can't have any. You're not one of us.”

“Ziba!” Gijs gestured apology at Enris. “She's repeating old lessons. Don't be offended. Ziba—” sternly, “—Enris Mendolar is no ‘stranger.'”

A foot smaller than his palm stamped the ruined floor. “He is so!”

An unChosen arrived on Passage was by custom avoided by younger unChosen, watched by Adepts, assessed by all; he remained a stranger until the moment of Choice, when he would assume the name of his Chosen, Joining not only her life, but her family and Clan.

None of the exiles, not even Husni, that stickler for tradition, had made him feel like a stranger. The past fist of days? He'd forgotten his lack of official status. Someone hadn't, someone whose opinion mattered to Ziba. No need to ask who, he thought unhappily. Seru Parth. She had reason; nothing he could change.

The Tuana dropped to one knee, a move that brought his gaze level with Ziba's. Her eyes were huge and dark and challenging. “I'm not of Yena,” he agreed. “But we aren't in Yena any—”

“This is Sona,” she interrupted with scorn. “Everyone knows that.”

Did they now? “What else does ‘everyone' know, Ziba?”

“The Buas live here. They grow the best rokly of anyone.” The words tumbled out, glib and confident, but Ziba stopped and looked startled, as if she hadn't expected to have an answer. “I want rokly for breakfast,” she finished less certainly. “That's why I came through the window. But…there's no rokly here.” With a glower, as if the empty room was his fault.

“Of course not, young fool,” Gijs burst out. “There's no such thing. There's no family named Bua. Don't waste our time with your nonsense!”

Wait. Let me talk to her,
Enris sent urgently, sure there was more going on. Too late. Ziba fled into the bright sunlight. The flash of
INDIGNATION
she left behind made both Om'ray wince.

“I'll make sure her parents hear about this.”

“Someone should.” And soon, the Tuana thought, staring out the doorway. This wasn't normal play. This was something else. “I'll—”

A pebble bounced along on the stone floor. Enris turned, half expecting to find Ziba back at the window, making faces. But it wasn't the child, he realized in horror as more pebbles and a choking dust began to rain down. It was the support beam he had so casually shifted from its ages-old rest earlier. A beam about to drop.

No time, no way to know how the beam would fall, or if the entire rotten structure might collapse with it. Grabbing Gijs, Enris flung the smaller Om'ray toward the opening. At the same time, he
pushed
at the wood and stone overhead with all his inner strength. Wanted it
away!

As Gijs scrambled to his feet outside, Enris found himself bathed in sunlight.

There was no stone or wood overhead.

He grimaced. The pieces had to come down somewhere. Hopefully not on an Om'ray head. He
reached
anxiously.

No pain or alarm.

“Where did it go?” he wondered aloud.

“It's gone—the entire roof. Gone.” Gijs stood in the doorway. His hand stroked one of its large stones, as if for reassurance. “You did that. I felt—I felt Power.” He stepped back inside, staring at the sky before gazing in wonder at Enris. “What did you do, Tuana?”

Not quite what he'd intended? Enris shrugged. “I
pushed
it away from us.” He stopped there.

Show me how.
This with fierce determination.
TEACH ME!

Stung and repulsed by the raw
need
of Gijs' sending, Enris slammed down his inner shields to keep the other out.

Was this how Aryl felt?

“Now's not the time,” he said aloud. “Unless you want those boots for supper.”

Gijs sketched a gracious apology through the air, but his blue eyes glittered like frost.

 

“What's she done now?” Taen looked more harassed than worried. Dead leaves snarled her hairnet and one cheek was scratched.

Enris changed his mind. If Ziba wasn't with her mother, no point—as
his
mother would say—stirring that pot. Instead, he put on his widest smile. “Nothing at all. Do you need help?”

“Think you can get in there?”

“There” was one of the gaps between ruined buildings, on this side bounded by a waist-high stone wall. Beyond the stone was another wall, this of vegetation grown—and died—into a dense mass of vines.

With thorns.

“Why,” Enris asked reasonably, “would I want to?”

“Aryl thinks these were fields, like the Grona's. If they were, maybe there's—” this with weary doubt, “—still something in the ground worth eating.”

Fields? Enris studied the gap with this in mind. Had it once been filled with rows of crops instead of this wild tangle? A couple of narrow beams crisscrossed overhead, both wrapped in brown stems. He'd wondered about those. The wood was too thin and flimsy to take weight. Most had snapped and fallen long ago. But they could, he realized, have supported vines. He'd seen plants thrive in midair for himself in the canopy, strange as it seemed.

If there was anything left to harvest, though, it would be buried. Enris scuffed his toe against the hard packed dust and stone underfoot. The Grona had nice, sturdy digging blades. Almost as good as Tuana's. A shame neither he nor the exiles had seen fit to bring one of those awkward-to-carry tools along. He pulled his short knife from his belt and promised it a sharpening, then eyed the thorns. “I'll give it a try. Where's Aryl, anyway?”

“She's gone looking for Seru. Our Chooser.” Taen's delicate stress of the last word sent Enris crashing forward, thorns or no thorns.

He was more than aware the Yena Chosen waited for him to pay court to their one and only.

They could keep waiting.

Forearms up so his coat sleeves protected his face, he drove his legs into the mass, letting momentum gain territory. The thorns snagged on the fabric and in his hair. Their source was brittle and dry, stems that snapped as he pulled free. Four steps…another two and a forward stumble…he was through the thickest part. He stopped to look around, sneezing at the inevitable dust.

Fields, indeed. Away from the overgrown outer edge, order was still discernible. Stalks with stubby tendrils at their top made one line, clumps of leaves with wrinkled pods another, parallel to the first. Dead vines hung in rows, too, a once-living curtain that might have protected the plants beneath from the hot summer sun.

“We need Traud,” Enris muttered to himself. Traud Licor and his family tended Tuana's vast fields, and knew every kind of plant.

He'd just have to dig and…

Something wasn't right. Or too right.

The rows were straight. Straight and level. Ditches of small stones ran between each, themselves straight, level, and undisturbed. The destruction that had heaved roadways and buildings everywhere else had bypassed this place.

Not a good sign. Not good at all. A general reshaping was Oud negligence, a threat to be ranked with flood or storm, impersonal and relentless. But this? This could only happen if—Enris made himself think it—if the Oud had attacked Sona's Om'ray.

The bones in the valley hadn't been those of a fellow unChosen, leaving on Passage, but of someone desperately running from death.

Long ago. Enris brushed thorns from his hair and made himself focus. Long ago. Sona had broken the Agreement, for what reason he couldn't imagine, and the Oud had reacted.

Those Om'ray were no longer
real
. What they'd done or not done no longer mattered. Only the living counted, and they were hungry.

Guessing that a plant with pods above ground wouldn't have a tuber, Enris went to his knees beside the tendrilled stalks and lifted his knife.

The Oud were below.

Sweat stood out on his brow. He couldn't bring the knife down.

Oud were below and all Om'ray stood on this shell of a world, pinned between sky and dirt, the only safety an Agreement older than them all, a promise not to change. But nothing stayed the same.

Which meant nothing was safe. Nothing.

Enris drove the knife into the hardened soil with all his might. It snapped below the handle.

A wave of concern.
What's wrong?

Ignoring Aryl, he stabbed the broken blade into the ground, over and over again. With each stab, he made a vow.

He would find a better way. Stab!

He would find a Clan who didn't live in fear. Stab!

He would go to Vyna.

BOOK: Riders of the Storm
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Richard II by William Shakespeare
Queen of Swords by Katee Robert
Showstopper by Lisa Fiedler
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
White Lady by Bell, Jessica
Delectable Desire by Farrah Rochon
Perfect Timing by Spinella, Laura
Time's Witness by Michael Malone
Darkfire: A Book of Underrealm by Garrett Robinson
Security by Mike Shade