The Questing Roadby Lyn McConchie
The coauthor of The Duke's Ballad and Silver May Tarnish returns with a new fantasy that captures the spirit of her successful collaborations with Andre Norton.See more details below
The coauthor of The Duke's Ballad and Silver May Tarnish returns with a new fantasy that captures the spirit of her successful collaborations with Andre Norton.
- Tom Doherty Associates
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The Questing Road
By Lyn McConchie, James Frenkel
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2010 Lyn McConchie
All rights reserved.
At dawn they came through the portal, although as yet they did not realize what they had done. An onlooker would have seen three people materialize, not present one heartbeat, then there and riding steadily on down the slope. They were led by a man in his mid-thirties, lean and tall, with a swordsman's muscular arms and a well-worn sword hilt jutting across one hip. He had a shock of black hair, keen hazel eyes, and a long white scar down the left side of his face. His mount was a dun gelding, Roman-nosed and wicked of eye.
A pace behind came a woman, of similar age, with the same black hair, longer and confined by a ribbon. Her brown eyes held a twinkle, but the hilt of her slightly shorter, lighter sword was also well worn, and the unstrung bow she carried showed signs of long use. The mount she rode was also a dun, this one a mare, clean-legged and wiry, an animal that walked with ears pricked forward in interest.
The girl who followed the pair was, at seventeen, a little less than half their age, and paler in coloring. Her hair was a light brown, her eyes blue, and the bow she carried, while of very good quality, showed less wear. She handled it with skill, however, and her eyes showed that she was alert. Her horse was dark chestnut, a mare, wearing expensive gear. A nondescript bay packhorse ambled behind them.
Yoros kept his mount a pace ahead of Kyrryl's horse, while their niece followed. This was a section of the country he didn't know well, and sometimes bandits lurked in such places. Ashara, watching about them with her bow drawn and an arrow nocked ready for any surprises on the trail they followed, was leading their packhorse, its lead rope tied lightly to the back of her saddle. All three were keyed up to shivering, gazes flicking constantly from side to side in angry anticipation. After all, the stolen Tarian tariling that they hunted was the offspring of Chylo and Razaia. This particular clan of the feline Tarians had shared grazing lands for two generations now, and the golden Razaia was a particular favorite among them.
"Kyrryl? Do you have any idea where we are now?" Yoros asked, gazing down the long slope. His eyes widened until white showed around the rims as he stared, abruptly frozen in shock, at a nearby clump of trees, until the other noticed his fixed gaze.
Kyrryl followed his gaze, her hand closing on the small glittering prism that hung about her neck on its chain. She stared at the trees. Then she spun in her saddle to look behind them, her face startled and afraid. "Beloved, I have no idea, but I'm scared." She held up the prism and turned it slowly. Light flared within it, died, and flared again. Kyrryl winced.
Ashara crowded up. "What is it?"
"The direction that this shows us, the way Tayio was taken, has completely changed. I felt nothing, but I've heard that a portal may be sometimes passed without warning. It's very rare but it can happen."
It was Ashara's turn to stare in horrified understanding. "We just crossed a portal? We're in another world?"
Yoros looked at his wife, who nodded slowly. "I think so," she said, her hand closing about the prism where it swung on the finely wrought chain. "I was careless. I watched for enemies, I watched for the path to lead us to poor little Tayio; it never occurred to me to look out in case we passed through a portal with no warning."
Ashara spoke again. "Why do you think we've done so now? I didn't see or feel anything. Are you sure we've crossed?"
Yoros pointed. "Have you ever seen trees like those?"
It was a tall growth, the branches odd elongated whips rather than true branches. They reached upward, divided from the trunk but not from each other so that the tree looked like a huge kindling stick, the kind made to start a fire by shaving curls from a short branch. It was certainly like nothing any of them had ever seen before. They were less than a week's ride from home, but a tree like that had never grown in Khaddishar.
Kyrryl watched her niece as Ashara considered the tree before shaking her head. "I've never seen one like it, no. But why does that mean a portal?"
Yoros answered that, mastering his own shock. "There are no trees like it anywhere that I have seen, and I know all of the trees within our country. On a trail Kyrryl and I know well we went from our own lands to some place where there are trees that I have never seen before. How else do you think it happened?"
Ashara looked tense, fearing the answer to her next question. "What about a portal to another land? One that's far away?"
Kyrryl replied to that, still staring about. "Look." She held up the prism, which was alternately glowing with light and dimming again. "This says that we've left our world, and so does the sun above us."
"Why?" Ashara asked, still trying to believe nothing so dangerous had happened.
"The prism shows the way we must go to find Tayio, but before Yoros noticed the strangeness of the trees, we were riding south. In a few paces we went from riding south to traveling east while apparently still riding forward. And that," Kyrryl said, her voice trembling a little, "is something no one could do normally. The worlds beyond a portal often have an orientation different from our world's — or so say the records. The only other possibility is that the people who stole Tayio have changed course that way, and that's no more likely. No, we've crossed a portal without knowing it — and that's almost unheard of. If it were so common or easy, half our people would be falling into other places."
Yoros straightened in his saddle. Kyrryl wasn't panicking, not yet, but he could see the fear in her eyes. Ashara was quite simply terrified. He must be strong for them, appear calm and confident.
"We have two choices. We follow your prism to find Tayio, then look for a way home. Or we try to return home now, leaving the tariling to those who stole him and whatever mercy they may offer." He managed a small grin at the immediate outcry. "I thought that would be the way of it."
Kyrryl reached out to touch his hand. She was really upset about having Ashara with them on a strange world. There were far too many dangers. And she worried about how Ashara's parents would react if they knew. Although there was a good side to that, she thought. Her brother and his wife hadn't expected to hear from Kyrryl, Yoros, and Ashara for several weeks — or even months — depending on where their search for the stolen tariling led them. If they could return within those months, her brother and her sister-in-law need not know, until the return, that their daughter had ever been in far more danger than had been expected.
"Let's ride on. The prism is still showing a direction. We'll trust to that but move more slowly. I want us all to stay really alert," Yoros said sternly. "We have no idea of the dangers here."
Kyrryl raised the prism, chanted the incantation for seeking in a voice that trembled very slightly, and heeled her mount into a steady walk in the direction that the small glow of light suggested. Behind her rode the other two, both quiveringly alert. They rode in silence for almost four hours, not wanting to talk in case they missed some sign of danger or distracted Kyrryl. Kyrryl's mind was a whirl of ideas and speculation, but she too said nothing, riding in silence, watching the prism's rainbow light brighten and dim while she followed the light that showed which way Tayio was being taken.
Her world had portals both to other lands and in and out of that world. But most required a mighty effort of will by someone with the mind-gift — often by a number of people at the least. Nor did she know of any portal in the lands that she and Yoros ruled in the name of their clan- family. Could it be a portal newly appeared?
Yoros brought his mount up beside hers. "Do you think we may have passed this portal so easily because of our seeking?"
"What? Why do you ask that?"
"Think about it, beloved. Someone stole Tayio, and I think there must have been more than one involved in the theft. Tayio is only three, but he's strong and healthy. He wouldn't have gone willingly and his parents were nearby. To enter the grazing lands unseen, to subdue a tariling so quickly and cleverly that he had no time to call for help, and then to spirit him away with no one knowing what had happened is not the work of an idle moment's amusement by some practical joker."
Kyrryl thought about that and agreed. "True. So you think then that perhaps his kidnappers came from this world? That because we are hunting them the portal may have let us pass?" She sucked in a breath. "Or is it that this was the portal they used? Could there be something in the way they opened the portal that allowed us to go through too?"
"It's possible." Her mouth drooped in sorrow. "But what worries me is why. Why would strangers go to all this trouble to steal the tariling of an intelligent people? What will they do with him? He has no control over what his mind broadcasts; he must be sending distress and fear so strongly that even we could hear him if we were nearby. They may kill him for that." Her hand reached out and gripped his fingers hard. "I don't think they're meaning any good to him and I'm afraid, Yoros. I'm afraid."
"Courage, love. We'll find him. A pity Razaia and Chylo couldn't come with us."
Kyrryl shivered. "Maybe not. An adult might be stronger than they wanted, but it's still possible that Tayio's kidnappers could prefer a Tarian adult instead of Tayio — or as well as. Bad enough we've lost Tayio, without losing his kin besides."
She looked up to gauge the time of day. "It will be dark in another two hours if this world keeps similar time. Let's watch for a suitable campsite and pray to Sekmet that in the morning the prism still shows the way."
Yoros nodded. "Watch for a stream. We'll need water soon. But don't forget to be on the lookout for dangerous beasts, and people too." He looked at Kyrryl. "That's odd now that I think about it. We've been riding half a day and we've seen no one."
He was studying her anxiously. She found a smile for him. "In how many places at home could you do that?"
"True enough. You think we may have arrived in an area where the land is thinly populated?"
"Or too dangerous to settle," Kyrryl said. "How would we know?" Her voice was wry, and as she continued she kept it low so Ashara would not hear her. "If nothing has attacked us in half a day, or comes sniffing around our campsite tonight, then perhaps we could consider that the land is thinly settled."
Yoros nodded, smiling at her. "I'd rather it was that. The main problem we will face, if we meet the inhabitants of this world, is that neither of us will understand the other."
His wife muttered irritably under her breath. "This is a huge mess. We're far from home with no certainty we can return. What will happen to us? How will we survive?"
"All we can do is do the best we can. We're alive, unhurt, we have several weeks' worth of supplies, we have weapons and good mounts, and we have each other."
Behind them Ashara squealed in fright, turned, and shot. A large black creature that had leaped, claws-out, for the packhorse reeled sideways in midair as the arrow struck, then fell over, kicked briefly, and went limp. The packhorse leaped sideways and bucked at the sight of the beast, then stood more placidly when he saw that the beast was no longer a threat. He was used to seeing arrows fly past him.
Kyrryl halted her mount and reined back, leaning over to consider her niece's quarry. She studied the odd blocky shape, the huge claws. She prodded it with the end of her bowstave, observed that it was certainly dead, and looked up at her husband.
"This animal looks like a cross between a mountain cat and a guard dog. It's like nothing I've ever heard of." Her gaze went to her niece. "Where did it come from?"
"From the taller grass upslope. I saw the movement in the grass and nocked an arrow. I shot at the last moment when it jumped for the packhorse."
Yoros dropped from his saddle to consider the dead animal more closely. "It looks likely it's an efficient predator, but it's rather thin. Maybe the hunting has been poor lately and it was desperate." He ran his fingers through the black fur. "The skin is poor; tanning the hide wouldn't be worth the trouble."
He jerked the arrow free, wiping it on the grass then returning it to his niece before swinging up on his mount again. Ashara rode in silence. She was pleased that she'd seen the beast in time to shoot. Deep in her thoughts as she was, with her keen eyesight she was still the one who noticed the smudge that showed a winding line of trees well off to their right.
"Yoros, Kyrryl. Look! Is that likely to be a stream or a river?"
Yoros nudged his horse in the direction she indicated, and the other two followed. It was closing on dusk, but so far they'd seen no campsite they'd find comfortable — or, more importantly, defensible. Kyrryl turned after him and moved to lead them downslope, as the land dipped slowly toward the trees. They stopped when they found they were crossing a wide beaten-earth road leading away at an angle.
"That's more than an animal track," Kyrryl observed.
"I know, it looks like a major trail, the sort made by people and wagons using it regularly. Let's keep a watch on it. If we can get a good look at anyone going by we may get valuable information about this place." Yoros agreed. "But let's find a campsite. Just now that's more important."
He noticed that up ahead the road looped by the stream in an area where the trees were farther apart and the streambed was shallower and wider. It gave better access to the water and looked as if it might be used by travelers to fill water flasks or barrels and to allow their animals to drink. Better to stay away from there. He reined his mount farther to the right into the trees.
In half an hour they had found a likely shelter. They changed course onto a narrow beaten-earth trail that showed small hoofprints in spots where the ground was soft. There they found the bank of a shallow, meandering tributary to the larger stream, lying within patches of heavier brush.
Yoros dropped from his saddle, tossed the reins to his niece, and strode to the edge of the water. "Firewood. Look, when this stream floods, lighter driftwood must wash up at the bend here." He began to gather dry sticks from the top of the drift, dropping them by a large patch of brush.
Kyrryl gathered twists of dry grass while asking, "What do you think about camping right here, Yoros? We'd be sheltered from any wind; there's wood, water — and good grass over there for the horses. There might even be fish in the water?"
"It's a good site. Yes. If no one has any objections then we'll stay for the night. But I want someone on guard all the time. Ashara, take your horse and tie him inside the edge of the tree line where the land rises. Climb a tree and watch all around, including across the stream. If you see anything we should know about, come and tell us at once. Keep a watch particularly for any campfire. We need to know if anyone from this world is nearby, and you should see a fire even if it's a long way off. Kyrryl, you'll be on guard after her. I'll unsaddle the packhorse and set up camp."
Wordlessly Kyrryl dismounted and unsaddled her own mount. The mare possessed a sensible nature, good speed and stamina, the ability to climb like a cat, and a willingness to do anything that she understood was wanted of her. Kyrryl had selected her for a riding mount four years ago, since they lived in dangerous country at home. She couldn't have a better mount here.
They were all experienced in what they did, although Ashara had some trouble climbing her chosen tree. It seemed to be inhabited by birds, large aggressive ones that protested her arrival until she chose another tree some distance from their colony. She must remember to tell her aunt when Kyrryl came to take her place, she thought.
After dark when her watch was ended she came to the fire with some information. "I did see a fire."
"That's what it looks like."
Ashara looked at her uncle hopefully. "Are we going over there to see?"
He grinned, a flash of white teeth in the moonlight. "No. What do we do if we do meet the locals? Almost certainly we won't speak their language, they may be hostile to strangers, and all we can do is give ourselves problems."
"What if they're the ones who stole Tayio?"
Yoros shrugged. "Kyrryl says that the prism indicates that the tariling is still a long way from here and not in that direction. It's possible that if those were the people who stole him they took him somewhere and left him, but we can hardly rush a camp of strangers whose language we don't speak and start asking if they're kidnappers."
Ashara smiled wryly. "Not if we won't understand a word they say and they can't understand the questions either."
"That's what I think, so we'll just keep watch. Maybe if they come closer to the cover here after daybreak we can see what they look like. They may not even be human."
Excerpted from The Questing Road by Lyn McConchie, James Frenkel. Copyright © 2010 Lyn McConchie. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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