Last of the Wilds Excerpt
Reivan detected the change before any of the others. At first it was instinctive, a feeling more than a knowing; then she noticed that the air smelled duller and that there was a grittiness to it. Looking at the rough walls of the tunnel, she saw deposits of a powdery substance. It coated one side of every bump and groove, as if it had been blown there from a wind originating in the darkness ahead.
A shiver ran down her spine at the thought of what that might mean, yet she said nothing. She might be wrong, and everyone was still deeply shocked by their defeat. All were struggling to accept the deaths of friends, family and comrades, their bodies left behind, buried in the fertile soil of the enemy. They didn’t need something else to worry about.
Even if they hadn’t been all scurrying home in the lowest of spirits, she would not have spoken. The men of her team were easily offended. They, like her, nursed a secret resentment that they had not been born with enough Skill to become a Servant of the Gods. So they clung to the only sources of superiority they had.
They were smarter than average folk. They were Thinkers. Distinguished from the merely educated by their ability to calculate, invent, philosophise and reason. This made them fiercely competitive. Long ago they had formed an internal hierarchy. Older had precedence over younger. Men had credence over women.
It was ridiculous, of course. Reivan had observed that minds tended to become as inflexible and slow with age as the bodies they rested in. Just because there were more men than women among the Thinkers didn’t mean men were any smarter. Reivan relished proving the latter . . . but now was definitely not the time for that.
And I might be wrong.
The smell of dust was stronger now.
Gods, I hope I’m wrong.
Abruptly she remembered the Voices’ ability to read minds. She glanced over her shoulder and felt a moment’s disorientation. She had expected to see Kuar. Instead a tall, elegant woman walked behind the Thinkers. Imenja, Second Voice of the Gods. Reivan felt a pang of sadness as she remembered why this woman now led the army.
Kuar was dead, killed by the heathen Circlians.
Imenja looked at Reivan, then beckoned. Reivan’s heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t spoken to any of the Voices before, despite being part of the team of Thinkers that had mapped the route through the mountains. Grauer, the team leader, had made the task of reporting to the Voices his own.
She stopped. A glance at the men before her told her they hadn’t noticed the summons, or that she was falling behind. Certainly not Grauer, whose attention was on the maps. When Imenja reached her, Reivan began walking again, remaining one step behind the Voice.
‘How may I serve you, holy one?’
Imenja was frowning, though her gaze remained on the Thinkers. ‘What is it you fear?’ she asked in a low voice.
Reivan bit her lip. ‘It is probably underground madness, the dark upsetting my mind,’ she said hastily. ‘But . . . the air was never this dusty on our previous journey. Nor was there this much on the walls. The pattern of it suggests rapid air movement from somewhere ahead. I can think of a few causes . . .’
‘You fear there has been a collapse,’ Imenja stated.
Reivan nodded. ‘Yes. And further instability.’
‘Natural or unnatural?’ Imenja’s question, and what it suggested, caused Reivan to pause in shock and dread.
‘I don’t know. Who would do that? And why?’
Imenja scowled. ‘I have already received reports that the Sennons are causing trouble for our people now that the news of our defeat has reached them. Or it might be the local villagers seeking revenge.’
Reivan looked away. A memory rose of vorns, mouths dripping with blood after a final ‘hunting’ trip the night before they’d entered the mines. The goodwill of local villages hadn’t been a priority to the army — not when victory was so sure.
We weren’t supposed to come back this way, either. We were supposed to drive the heathens out of Northern Ithania and claim it for the gods, and return to our homes via the pass.
Imenja sighed. ‘Return to your team, but say nothing. We will deal with obstacles when we come to them.’
Reivan obeyed, returning to her place at the back of the Thinkers. Conscious of Imenja’s ability to read her mind, she kept alert for further signs of disturbance. It did not take long before she found them.
It was amusing to watch her fellow Thinkers slowly realise the significance of the steadily increasing amount of rubble in the passage. The first blockage they encountered was a small section of roof that had collapsed. It hadn’t filled the passage, and it was only a matter of climbing over the mess to continue on.
Then these obstacles became more frequent and difficult to pass. Imenja used magic to carefully move a boulder here and shift a mound of dirt there. No one suggested a cause for the disturbances. All stayed prudently silent.
The passage reached one of the large natural caverns so common in the mines. Reivan stared into the void. Where there ought to be only darkness there were pale shapes faintly illuminated by the Thinkers’ lamps.
Imenja stepped forward. As she entered the cavern her magical light rose higher and brightened, illuminating a wall of rock. The Thinkers stared up at it in dismay. Here, too, the roof had collapsed, but this time there was no way over or around the blockage. Rubble filled the cavern.
Reivan gazed at the pile of rocks. Some of the boulders were enormous. To be caught under a fall like that . . . she doubted there’d be time to comprehend what had happened. Crack. Squish.
Better than a stab in the guts and a long, agonising death, she thought. Though I can’t help feeling a sudden death cheats you of something. Death is an experience of life. You only get one death. I would like to be aware it was happening, even if that did mean enduring pain and fear.
A noise from Grauer caught her attention.
‘This shouldn’t have happened,’ he exclaimed, his voice echoing in the shortened cave. ‘We checked everything. This cave was stable.’
‘Keep your voice down,’ Imenja snapped.
He jumped, and dropped his eyes. ‘Forgive me, holy one.’
‘Find us another way out of here.’
‘Yes, holy one.’
With a few glances at the Thinkers he favoured, he gathered a small circle of men about him. They murmured for a small time, then parted to allow him to stride forward confidently.
‘Allow me to lead you, holy one,’ he said humbly.
Imenja nodded to the other Thinkers, indicating that they should join him. The passage became crowded as the army doubled back on itself. The air became noticeably stale, despite the efforts of Servants to draw fresh air down vents and cracks in the mountain above. Servants, soldiers and slaves alike kept a worried silence.
The passing of time was hard to estimate underground. The months Reivan had spent here helping her fellow Thinkers map the mines, natural cave systems and mountain trails had given her a knack of guessing the time. Nearly an hour had passed before Grauer reached the side tunnel he wanted. He all but dived down the new route, rushing in his anxiety to prove himself.
‘This way,’ he said, his gaze moving from the map to his surroundings over and over. ‘Down here.’ The Thinkers hurried after him as he turned a corner. ‘And then a good long walk along —’
There was a pause, then an echoing scream faded rapidly into the distance. The Thinkers hurried around the corner and stopped, blocking the passage. Reivan peered between two shoulders and saw a jagged hole in the floor.
‘What has happened?’
The Thinkers stepped back to allow Imenja through.
‘Be careful, holy one,’ one said quietly. Her expression softened slightly and she gave him a brief nod of acknowledgement before walking slowly forward.
She must know already what happened to Grauer, Reivan realised. She would have read his thoughts as he fell.
Imenja crouched and touched the lip of the hole. She broke off a piece of the edge, then rose.
‘Clay,’ she said, holding it out to the Thinkers. ‘Moulded by hands and strengthened by straw. We have a saboteur. A trap-layer.’
‘The White have broken their agreement!’ one of the Thinkers hissed. ‘They do not mean to let us go home.’
‘This is a trap!’ another exclaimed. ‘They lied about the traps in the pass so we’d take this route! If they kill us here nobody will know they betrayed us!’
‘I doubt this is their doing,’ Imenja replied, her gaze moving beyond the walls of rock surrounding them. She frowned and shook her head. ‘This clay is dry. Whoever did this left days ago. I hear nothing but the thoughts of distant gowt-herders. Choose another leader. We will continue, but carefully.’
The Thinkers hesitated and exchanged uncertain looks. Imenja looked from one to the other, her expression changing to anger.
‘Why didn’t you make copies?’
The maps. Reivan looked away, fighting down a rising frustration. They went with Grauer. How typical of him to not trust others with copies.
What will we do now? She felt a moment’s apprehension, but it quickly faded. Most of the larger tunnels in the mines led toward the main entrance. It hadn’t been the original miners’ intentions to create a maze, after all. The smaller tunnels, which had followed veins of minerals, and the natural cave systems were less predictable, but so long as the army kept out of them it would eventually find its way out.
One of the team stepped forward. ‘We should be able to navigate by memory; we all spent considerable time here last year.’
Imenja nodded. ‘Then concentrate on remembering. I will call a few Servants forward to check for traps.’
Though the Thinkers all nodded graciously, Reivan saw signs of indignation in their manner. They weren’t stupid or proud enough to refuse sorcerous help and she supposed they had also realised the Servants would share the blame if anything worse happened. Even so, the two Servants who stepped forward were ignored.
Hitte volunteered to lead and none of the others contested him. The hole was inspected and found to be a wide crack in the floor, ceiling and walls, but narrow enough to leap over. A litter was brought forward to use as a bridge, its burden strapped to the backs of already overladen slaves. The Thinkers crossed and the army followed.
Reivan guessed she was not the only one to find this slow pace frustrating. They were so close to the end of their journey through the mountains. The mines on the Hanian side were smaller and had brought them up to an otherwise inaccessible valley used by gowt-herders. A longer journey through large natural caves had avoided the necessity of climbing over a steep ridge.
From there they had travelled for a day along narrow mountain trails. On the way to battle they had travelled this section at night so the enemy’s flying spies would not discover them.
Now they had only to find their way through these mines on the Sennonian side of the mountains and . . .
What? Our troubles are over? Reivan sighed. Who knows what awaits us in Sennon. Will the emperor send an army to finish us off? Will he have to? We have few supplies left, and there’s the Sennon desert to cross yet.
She had never felt so far from home.
For a while she lost herself in early memories: of sitting in her father’s forge shop, of helping her brothers build things. Skipping the brief time of hurt and betrayal after being given to the Servants, she remembered the relish with which she had learned to read and write, and how she had read all of the books in the monastery library before she was ten. She had fixed everything from plumbing to robes, invented a machine for scraping leather and a recipe for drimma conserve that earned the Sanctuary more money than all other monastery produce put together.
Reivan’s foot caught on something and she almost lost her balance. She looked up and was surprised to see that the ground ahead was uneven. Hitte had taken them into the natural tunnels. She looked at the new leader of the Thinkers, noting the careful confidence of his movements.
I hope he knows what he’s doing. He seems to know what he’s doing. Oh, for the Voices’ ability to read minds.
She remembered Imenja and felt a flush of guilt. Instead of staying alert and useful she had lapsed into reverie. From now on she would pay attention.
Unlike the tunnels higher up in the mountains, which were straight and wide, these were narrow and twisted. They turned not just left and right, but rose up and down, often sharply. The air was growing ever more moist and heavy. Several times Imenja called for a stop so that Servants had time to draw fresher air down into these depths.
Then, quite abruptly, the walls of the tunnel widened and Imenja’s light illuminated an enormous cavern.
Reivan drew in a quick breath. All around were fantastic pale columns, some as thin as a finger, others wider than the ancient trees of Dekkar. Some had joined to form curtains, others had broken, and mushroom-like tops had formed over their stumps. Everything glistened with moisture.
Looking over her shoulder, Reivan saw that Imenja was smiling. The Second Voice walked past the Thinkers and into the cavern, gazing up at the formations.
‘We will rest here for a while,’ she announced. Her smile faded and she looked at the Thinkers pointedly before turning away and leading the army into the enormous space.
Reivan looked at Hitte and the reason for Imenja’s meaningful glance became clear. His forehead was creased with worry. As she watched, the Thinkers moved away from the line of people entering the cavern and began talking in hushed tones.
She moved closer and managed to catch enough words to confirm her suspicions. Hitte didn’t know where he was. He had thought to avoid further traps by entering natural tunnels, where interference by a saboteur ought to be more obvious, but the tunnels hadn’t joined with manmade ways again as he’d hoped. He feared they were now lost.
Reivan sighed and moved away. If she heard any more she might say something she’d regret. Winding her way through the formations, she found that the cavern was even larger than it first appeared. The sounds of the gathering army faded behind her as she made her way between the columns, climbing over uneven ground and wading through puddles. Imenja’s light cast all into either brightness or inky shadows. In one place the floor widened and pools had formed curved terraces. Reivan took note of openings that might be tunnels.
While examining one of these a low, wordless sound came from somewhere behind her. She froze and cast about, wondering if someone had followed her. The voice grew louder and more urgent, turning into an angry moaning. Was it the trap-layer? A local out for revenge — unable to attack an army but not afraid to deal justice out to an individual? She found herself panting with fear, wishing desperately that she hadn’t left the army or that her magical Skills weren’t so small she could barely make one tiny, pathetic spark.
If someone had followed her with ill intentions, however, they wouldn’t announce their presence by moaning loudly. She forced her breathing to slow. If this wasn’t a voice, what was it?
As the answer came, she laughed aloud at her own foolishness.
The wind. It is vibrating through these tunnels like breath through a pipe.
Now that she was paying attention, she could detect a stirring of air. She stooped to wet her hands in a pool, then moved toward the sound, holding her hands out before her. A breeze chilled her wet skin, leading her to a large opening at one side of the cavern where it became a stronger current of air.
Smiling to herself, she started back toward the army.
She was surprised to find she had wandered a long way. By the time she reached the army all five sections had arrived and were crowding about the formations. Something was wrong, however. Instead of wonder and amazement, their faces were tight with fear. For such a large gathering of people, they were too quiet.
Had the Thinkers let slip their situation? Or had the Voices decided to tell the army that they were lost? As Reivan drew near, she saw the four Voices standing up on a ledge. They seemed as calm and confident as they always did. Imenja looked down and met Reivan’s eyes.
Then the moaning sound came again. It was fainter here and harder to distinguish as wind. Reivan heard gasps and muttered prayers from the army and understood what had frightened the men and women so much. At the same time she saw Imenja’s mouth tighten with amusement.
‘It is the Aggen! The monster!’ someone exclaimed.
Reivan covered her mouth to hide a laugh and noted the other Thinkers smiling. The rest of the army appeared to give this idea credence, however. Men and women crowded together, some crying out in fear.
‘We’ll be eaten!’
‘We’ve entered its lair!’
She sighed. Everyone had heard the legend of the Aggen, a giant beast that was supposed to live under these mountains and eat anyone foolish enough to enter the mines. There were even carvings of it in the older mines with little offering alcoves below — as if something that big could be satisfied by an offering that would fit into such a small space.
Or survive at all. No creature as big as this Aggen could possibly live off the occasional foolish explorer. If it could, then it was a lot smaller than the legends claimed.
‘People of the Gods.’ Imenja’s voice rang out in the chamber and her words echoed into the distance as if chasing after the moaning. ‘Do not fear. I sense no minds here other than our own. This noise is only the wind. It rushes through these caves like breath through a pipe — but not as tuneful,’ she added with a smile. ‘There is no monster here but our own imagination. Think, instead, of the fresh air this wind brings. Rest and enjoy the marvel that surrounds you.’
The army had quietened. Now Reivan heard soldiers mimicking the noise or mocking those who had spoken their fears aloud. A Servant approached Reivan.
‘Thinker Reivan? The Second Voice wishes to speak to you,’ the man said.
Reivan felt her heart skip a beat. She hurried after the man. The other Voices regarded her with interest as she reached the ledge.
‘Thinker Reivan,’ Imenja said. ‘Have you discovered a way out?
‘Maybe. I have found a tunnel through which the wind is rushing. That wind may come from outside, but we will not know if the tunnel is passable until we explore.’
‘Then explore it,’ Imenja ordered. ‘Take two Servants with you. They will provide light and communicate to me if the tunnel proves useful.’
‘I will, holy one,’ Reivan replied. She traced the symbol of the gods over her chest, then moved away. Two Servants, a man and a woman, strode forward to meet her. She nodded to them politely before leading them away.
She found the tunnel again easily and entered it. The floor was uneven and they had to climb steep inclines in places. The moaning grew louder until the sound vibrated through her. The two Servants smelled of sweat though the wind was cold, but they said nothing of their fears. Their magical lights were perhaps a little too bright, but Reivan did not complain.
When the sound was at its most deafening she was dismayed to see the tunnel narrowed ahead. She waited for the wind to diminish, then moved sideways through the gap. The Servants stopped, looking uncertain.
The gap shrank until rock was pressing against Reivan’s chest and back. Ahead it curved into darkness.
‘Can you bring that light in further?’ Reivan called.
‘You’ll have to guide me,’ came the reply.
The little spark of light floated past Reivan’s head, then stopped.
‘A bit to the right,’ she called back.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ the other Servant called. ‘What if you get stuck?’
‘I’ll get unstuck,’ she replied, hoping she was right. Don’t think about it. ‘Forward and a bit more to the right. That’s it . . . now left — not so fast.’
With the light near the end of the curve, she could see that the tunnel widened again. It might narrow later, but she wouldn’t know until she got there. She pushed on, felt the constriction ease, shuffled around the bend . . .
. . . and sighed with relief as she saw that the tunnel continued to widen ahead. Within a few steps she could stretch her arms out and not touch either side. Ahead, it turned to the right. Her surroundings were no longer illuminated by the Servant’s magical light, which was still within the narrow gap behind her, but by a faint light coming from beyond the turn. She hurried forward, nearly tripping over the uneven ground. As she reached the turn, she gasped with relief. The tunnel walls ended at a patch of grey and green.
Rock and trees. Outside.
Smiling, she walked back to where the tunnel narrowed and told the Servants what she had found.
Reivan watched as the army spilled out of the tunnel. As each man and woman emerged they paused to glance around, relief written on their faces, before starting along the narrow trail leading to the top of the ravine. So many had passed she had lost count of them.
Servants had widened the tunnel with magic. The White Forest, as Imenja had dubbed it, would no longer be haunted by moaning winds. It was a shame, but few in the army would have been able to wriggle through the narrow gap as Reivan had.
A team of slaves began to emerge. They looked as pleased to be out of the mines as the rest. At the end of this journey they would be freed and offered paid work. Serving in the war had earned them a reduced sentence. Even so, she doubted any of them would boast about their part in this failed attempt to defeat the Circlians.
Defeat is probably far from anyone’s mind right now, she mused. They’re just happy to see sunlight. Soon all they will be worrying about is getting across the desert.
‘Thinker Reivan,’ a familiar voice said from close by.
She jumped and turned to face Imenja.
‘I’m sorry, holy one. I didn’t hear you approach.’
Imenja smiled. ‘Then I should apologise for sneaking up on you.’ She looked at the slaves, but her gaze was distant. ‘I sent the rest of the Thinkers ahead to find a path down to the desert.’
‘Should I have joined them?’
‘No, I wish to talk to you.’
Imenja paused as the casket containing Kuar’s body emerged from the tunnel. She watched it pass, then sighed deeply.
‘I don’t believe Skill should be an essential requirement of all Servants of the Gods. Most, perhaps, but we should also recognise that some men and women have other talents to offer us.’
Reivan caught her breath. Surely Imenja was not about to . . .
‘Would you choose to become a Servant of the Gods, if it were offered?’
A Servant of the Gods? What Reivan had dreamed of all her life?
Imenja turned to look at Reivan as she struggled to find her voice.
‘I . . . I would be honoured, holy one,’ she gasped.
Imenja smiled. ‘Then it shall be so, on our return.’