Kindred and Wings
A SHIFTED WORLD NOVEL
By Philippa Ballantine
Prometheus Books Copyright © 2013 Philippa Ballantine
All rights reserved.
THE HUNTER MUST HUNT
It was always about proving herself. Standing in the pale moonlight on the hilltop, her hand on an unfamiliar sword, Talyn felt the irony of that sink into her bones; she had traded in proving herself to the Caisah to proving herself to some new masters. In a world of chaos like Conhaero, it was strange to have everything stay so much the same. She pushed her dark and now damp hair out of her eyes, and kept her gaze fixed on the road.
It was a symbol of permanence on the ever-changing face of this world, where even mountains could not be relied on to be permanent from one week to the next. It was not a symbol she welcomed, since the Caisah had placed all the roads here. That tyrant who sat on the throne at Perilous and Fair was still her enemy.
The hill on which she had taken up position looked over a town, though it was now shrouded in mist, so that even the pinpricks of light from the buildings below dwindled to nothing. The chill damp of it clung to her skin, but the Third Gift of the Vaerli stopped it going any further. Her new masters, like her old one, had seen that some of the gifts taken from her people clung to her.
Still, it was not as it had been. Her lungs sang with the cold.
The mist had another effect: every sound was muffled, so even her sharp ears could make out no hoof beats on the road below.
The courier had not come this way yet—she was fairly certain of that. Talyn's jaw clenched as she checked the powder in her pistol. It was the one the Caisah had given her on entering his service, and yet she couldn't bear to part with it. Considering how much she had once loathed it, Talyn knew this was a curious reaction. She liked to think that it reminded her of what had happened to her before.
Still, if she stayed in this mist much longer the powder would be too damp to be of any use at all.
Finally, it was the faintest of shudders running up from the ground that told her that a horse was galloping up from the village below. It wouldn't take him long to crest the ridge. From there it was a straight shot down the valley, and in another two days he would reach the capital of Perilous and Fair. That couldn't be allowed to happen. If he arrived there, the item she needed would be totally out of reach, so she had to hurry.
Racing along the top of the hill, pumping her arms, Talyn caught a glimpse out of the corner of her eye: the flash of a gray horse with a caped figure clinging to its back.
Lowering her arm, she fired her pistol at the courier, but she dared not stop to aim properly. Without all of her Kindred gifts it was an awkward shot, almost backwards from the direction in which she ran, so of course it went wide. The gallop now sounded broken, as if the mount was spooked, which in this mist was understandable. Horses were fine animals, but they were not native to Conhaero, and therefore not used to the shifting of the land. It tended to make them stressed and unreliable.
"Hah!" the rider yelled at his mount, probably unsure just how many people were accosting him. If he'd been able to make out the small female figure he'd have been a little less worried, but if he'd recognized the erstwhile Caisah's Hunter he would have been terrified. Talyn had plenty of experience working with the terror she generated.
The Vaerli, though, knew she was not what she had been, and she also knew there was no way she was going to be able to catch the man if he got much further away from her. Just as that realization hit her, a prickle of heat ran up her spine and sudden energy filled her limbs. Her breath caught in her throat. This was the third time in as many months that she'd been made aware that her new masters were keeping an eye on her.
It was an unpleasant thought, but she shoved it to the back of her mind as she crouched low and leapt from the slope. Talyn had judged it perfectly. She landed behind the courier just as his horse surged forward. She did not have enough mass to unseat the man, but the mount reared as her weight came down on its hindquarters, frothing and snorting at this sudden disruption. Vaerli generally unnerved animals, especially when they jumped on them from out of nowhere.
The courier swore, struggling to both keep his seat and reach the knife at his side. Her gifted strength would usually have allowed Talyn to dispatch him quickly, but she found herself floundering to hold him off. The strength her new masters gave was a fickle thing—not nearly as reliable as the Caisah's.
The courier's elbow caught her in the diaphragm directly below her rib cage, knocking the wind out of her. When the courier kicked his heels, the horse surged forward. Talyn grabbed a second too late for the saddle, and she was jolted off the haunches of the creature.
Some small portion of her previous talents kicked in, so she landed on her feet, more frustrated than hurt as the courier galloped off once more into the mist. Pushing her hair out of her face and stuffing down her rage, she considered her options. There were not many.
A sudden nudge in the small of her back made Talyn whirl around, her hand going to her sword, but the green hairy face with the flaming eyes was not what she'd been expecting. It took a heartbeat for her to recognize it.
Talyn's lips lifted in a rare smile, and something unclenched deep down within her.
"Syris," she whispered, eyes burning with threatening tears. Her fingers immediately found the razor wire that was his hair. The tangled green strands of it drew blood, and just as she had many times before, she held out her fingers to let her mount lick the scarlet drops from her skin. The great dark eye regarded her while his neck tossed proudly, saying that their reunion was on his terms, and taking all the credit for it. Taller than any mere mortal horse, Syris contained chaos and was bound to her in ways that remained mysterious to Talyn. It was odd to find that one of the many things she'd thought lost was found again. It felt a little like hope.
The last time Talyn had seen him it had been on the edge of the Salt Plain. Yet she'd never meant to lose him; she'd reckoned on coming back to him, or perhaps ending up dead. It was always an option.
As it turned out neither of these things happened. Her new masters had come and taken her, and she'd never been able to get back to him. When she had thought of the nykur she'd imagined him returning to the chaos that was his home. It had been a form of comfort for her.
Having lost her direction, her people, and her place in the world, to find Syris here at her back was deeply moving. Her hand bunched around those dangerous strands of hair, and she did not care how deep they cut.
However, Talyn couldn't afford to savor it as she might wish. Saddle-less as he was, she still mounted him, feeling his sharp hair slice her thighs even through her pants. It was a good feeling to be on his back again. She'd had too much of no feeling at all recently. The thick, seaweed smell of the nykur was cloying and wonderfully familiar. Despite her age and her predicament, Talyn let out a whoop of excitement. Let the courier wonder what that meant.
Unlike her prey, she had no need to urge her mount forward. Just as it had always been, the great beast of chaos followed her thoughts. With the sound of his saber teeth sliding against one another, he wheeled about and followed after the courier, great muscles bunching and firing under her. It was the essence of raw power.
As the Caisah's Hunter, Talyn had undertaken many pursuits. This one was pitiful compared to those. Even if the courier's horse had been the finest in Conhaero it wouldn't have mattered. The nykur's broad cloven feet pounded like rapid drum beats even on the unnatural road. It was the symbol of permanence the Caisah had carved on the heaving face of a world never meant to be still. Certainly there was irony that a creature of pure chaos was using it.
Ahead in the mist, she could once again make out the courier's cape flapping wildly, and then the sound of the horse's heavy breathing. Syris, by comparison, raced almost silently; head down, great green ears folded against his head. Talyn knew for sure that he was enjoying the race.
It was a taste of the power that had once come so easily. By the time the courier had heard their approach and glanced around, she and the nykur were on him. This time she leapt true and stuck.
Talyn and the courier crashed together, and her momentum unhorsed them both. He landed hard, all the breath expelled in one sharp gasp, and then she was on top of him, knife drawn. He never had any chance to recover.
The moonlight fell on his face and she realized how young her prey was. It had never mattered before, and it didn't matter now. In the past, the Caisah pointed and she obeyed, dishing out death as required. This time she needed his dispatch—not his life.
"The Hunter," the young man whispered his recognition, his eyes wide and terrified. It was the expected response. He smelled of sweat and fear. Syris, rearing and stamping behind her, must have also had made quite the impression.
Talyn smiled and did not correct him. Her own particular history with the Caisah was not one she was going to share with this, his smallest of minions.
"Give me the scroll," she hissed over her teeth, hand clenching on his shirt. His fingers scrambled for the bag over his shoulder, but she was pressing him down and the knife at his throat was distracting.
Finally seeing his problem, Talyn slid to her feet and pushed him over on his stomach. Slitting open the bottom of his bag, she took out the long wrapped shape of the scroll. Even bundled up like this she could smell the musty paper that suggested it was indeed as old as she'd been told. She itched to open and read it. As ancient as she was, she could still be excited and curious, thanks mostly to the memory discipline she practiced. Nemohira meant she could pick and choose which memories she kept; it made her always acquisitive for new things.
Straightening, Talyn—once called the Hunter—looked down at the form of the shivering courier. The man had his face pressed into the ground and would not meet her eye again. As soon as he'd recognized her, the fight had seeped out of him into the hungry earth. He should be killed, as the Caisah would be eager to hear of her whereabouts, and this man would carry word of her. With the magical bonds broken, he could no longer track her, and Talyn wanted to remain elusive. This trembling man would race straight to the nearest outpost, and the Caisah would know her location by the morning. Undoubtedly there was a bounty on her head, so she had enough to worry about. She didn't need the Rutilian guard tracking her down, too.
The weight of long-bladed knife in her hand told her what really needed to be done. In her time as a Hunter she'd done worse than kill an unarmed man in the dirt. It would be stupid to change her methods now.
Her fingers tightened on the hilt in preparation for the blow, and then the world dropped away.
Finn was lying on his stomach on the edge of the stream, stripped to the waist, his bare feet muddy while he concentrated on his outstretched hands in the water. Talyn laughed at the deadly serious expression on his face. The light slanting through the trees dappled over his back and lit his hair up all gold and foxy red. The laughter dried on her lips as she realized how beautiful that moment was. The kind you'd trap in amber and keep if you could. Just beyond the curve of the river, she could hear the sound of the surf. The trout Finn hunted were nearly home.
Talyn's body still tingled with their afternoon of love, the places that had been scratched and licked remembering. It was strange to be so aware of her flesh. It made her feel normal—maybe even mortal.
The man glanced over his shoulder at her, his smile quicksilver and pure joy, before wriggling his fingers in the water some more. She was just about to say something, maybe make a joke at his expense, when Finn threw up his hands, letting out a whoop of delight. A gleaming brown trout flicked through the air, twisting and turning.
Together they raced to get hold of it, scrambling in the leaves, gasping and giggling. Talyn felt her breath choking with laughter. His fingers and hers got about the fish at the same time. Finn's hazel eyes met hers with the kind of directness that rooted her to the spot. "You'll remember this, won't you, Talyn ... I know I will ..."
The accusatory tone of her love's voice was the last thing she heard before the after-time let go of her. She came back to the present with a jerk. The courier was motionless on the ground, only now trying to glance out of the corner of his eye; trying to ascertain if this breath would be his last.
Talyn swayed slightly on her feet, considering with horror what had just happened. She cleared her throat. "Get up, get on your horse and ride for your life. If you're not gone by the time I get to Syris ..." She paused, hearing his shuddering breath, and went on. "Well, you understand the rest, I am sure."
The mad scramble that followed Talyn was only barely aware of. The courier moved fast for one of the Manesto, catching his horse, mounting, and racing off in admirable time.
Talyn didn't even turn her head to watch him go; her own thoughts were too big to entertain anything else. She was nemohira; it was one of the memory disciplines that made immortality possible to bear. Talyn had deliberately discarded all memories of loving Finn. They should never have been able to come back. They should have been lost forever.
Shakily she turned and walked over to Syris. The nykur's hot breath on her neck was intensely real and helped drag her back from the edge of panic. Pressing her fingers in among his razor hair, she at least knew the present had her for the moment.
The nagging question remained: how had Finn done this? He was only a man, only a stupid Manesto talespinner, and yet he had returned memories she had chosen to throw away. It was impossible!
"By the Flames," Talyn swore, spun around and, leaning against the burning heat of Syris, looked up at the stars. Finn had to be more than he seemed, and the most infuriating part was that she had no idea why. The more she tried to stuff down thoughts of him, the more the images bubbled up. None burned more brightly than the recollection of him Naming a Kindred, making him dragon. Of all the Names he could have given that primal creature of chaos, he had given him the greatest and most dangerous one.
It had been thrilling and terrifying, and it was something she had not revealed to her new allies, the Phage. It was a weakness she was not willing to expose to anyone—especially when she wasn't sure what it meant.
Syris jogged sideways, his teeth making sounds like knives being sharpened as he curled his head about to regard her. Then he lowered that head and kicked with his back legs, as if to emphasize something she was missing.
Talyn flicked her head up, eyes suddenly darting around the trees, looking for shadows that might be holding gun or sword, or something far worse. For a long moment she thought the nykur was just riled up by the race and being reunited with her. Then the sky began to dance above them.
The former Hunter tilted her head and watched the clouds gathering above. She had seen every kind of weather in her time, and Conhaero's skies could be almost as tumultuous as the land below, but she had never seen such a strange thunderhead. It was higher in the sky than was normal, and though it was flickering with blue light, no rumbling reached her.
Syris rolled his eye and stamped, narrowly missing her foot. By the time she jigged back out of the way, the odd formation had slid and rolled away with startling speed. It was almost as if it were being pulled by some enormous hand. She watched it for a few more moments, her insides twisting almost as much as the clouds. The clouds moved off beyond the mountains, flickering with occasional light.
Tilting her head, Talyn wondered what signs she wasn't seeing. When the Harrowing had come upon her people, she had been young, not yet taught all the ways of the Vaerli. Not for the first time did she wonder what she'd missed. It mattered little now. Should she touch another of her kind, both of them would burn thanks to the curse placed on the Vaerli by the Caisah. It severely limited how much she could learn. However, there were some of her kin that she could ask.
Excerpted from Kindred and Wings by Philippa Ballantine. Copyright © 2013 Philippa Ballantine. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
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