Mistress of Animals (excerpt) – Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1

“Demon, I swear I’m going to eat your ears for breakfast.”

Penrys halted her horse, dismounted, and stomped back past her three pack horses to the beginning of the string of seven donkeys, the first of which had dug in his feet on the trail of the High Pass and was bawling like three demons instead of one.

The other donkeys fidgeted nervously and seemed inclined to join him, so Penrys probed to see if there was anything more than a fit of donkey sulks responsible.

Demon’s dominant mode was generally offended pride, but this time his mind showed her something different.

*Najud, something’s wrong. I think he’s afraid of something.*

Her companions mental voice chuckled. *Sure it’s not you he’s afraid of, Destroyer of Demons?*

After three weeks, the joke had worn thin to her. Perhaps the wizard they had destroyed had deserved the name, and maybe this donkey did, too, but she found the full title, applied to her, both ridiculous and embarrassing.

Guess Najud’s not going to bother to dismount and leave his own string to take a look.

She ran her hands over Demon and scratched under his chin in the spot he liked, and gradually he calmed down, placated by the attention. The others took their cue from him and settled.

She looked down their back trail. The view of the southern part of Neshilik, laid out below them, had been lost two days ago. Now only the steep scrambling slopes on either side were visible, along with the winding trail itself.

Footsteps behind her made her turn. Najud had come back to check on the donkeys, after all.

“Is he all right?”

“See for yourself.”

Najud had been making progress on his mind-probes of animals. He was cautious about relying on it—as he said, “I can see the start of a pack sore before the beast begins to feel it.”

“He’s calmer now, but you’re right, I think. Something alarmed him,” he said. “You can see why many clans put donkeys with the sheep herds, to act as guards against wolves.”

“Do they fight the wolves, or is it just the braying that makes them run away?”

Najud snorted.

Penrys scanned the area. “There’re no other large animals around, except our own.”

“The wind has shifted. Maybe he smelled something, and now he doesn’t.”

Despite the rock walls, the pass was high and fairly exposed, significantly colder and windier than the sheltered, settled land behind them. And it would only get colder, the further south they went, with the autumn solstice two months past. Penrys had never experienced winter in the south of the world and was still adjusting to the concept that “south” implied “cold.”

“Let’s get going,” Najud said. “We’ll see the other lud, late today, if we don’t keep stopping.”

“How do you know that? I thought you’d never taken this route before, over the border between Kigali and your sarq-Zannib?”

Najud grinned at her. Since the weather was dry, if cold, he still wore his small turban, the blue one today. Penrys was grateful for the wide-brimmed hat pressed upon her by the tailor back at Gonglik—it kept her shoulder-length hair from blowing in her face.

“It’s described in one of the travel stories,” he said. “Each landmark is a part of the tale.”

He waved his hands in the air. “We tell each other these stories so that we can know a place before we see it. The lud are some of the characters.”

The little gods, the Zannib called them—the special places or objects, a crooked tree, a rock formation.

It sometimes seemed from conversation with Najud that the lud were everywhere. She wasn’t sure how seriously he thought of them.

“Remember the one we passed two days ago, the last spot for a view?” he said.

There had been something unusual about that lone, massive rock that seemed to keep watch over the trail.

“She’s a character in the story. When you come from the south, she opens the door so the traveler can finally see the green of Neshilik spread out in front of him. Coming this way, she waves farewell. See?

“The travel story of this trail starts in the south, in sarq-Zannib, and it helps you find the exact spot where the trail to the High Pass begins. Going the other way is simple—just start at Jaunor, and that’s easy enough to find—so that’s where the way-back story starts, in the inn-yard.”

Jaunor was part of the circuit of market inns that surrounded the southern cove of Neshilik, named “Cold Wall” for the border range at its back and the chilly winds that plagued it when the weather was bad.

“They told us there’d been no travelers through here for a couple of years.”

Najud shrugged. “They don’t come every year. The Kurighdunaq clan holds their tarizd below, the route of the migration, unless something has changed.” He hooked his thumb south, at the trail ahead of them. “It’s their young men who would get together and make an unplanned visit, during the taridiqa, to pick up courting gifts and special supplies for the zudiqazd, the winter camp. Not a formal trading caravan.”

“Like the kind you’re thinking of setting up,” Penrys said.

“That’s right.” He smiled at her. “Besides, it’s too late in the year to meet anyone up here. The Kurighdunaq would have started their kuliqa, their turn-home, two months ago. We’ll have to make very good time to join a zudiqazd once we get down, the nearest we can find, and not be too picky about whose clan it belongs to.”
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“There it is.”

At Najud’s call, Penrys lifted her head from her horse’s footing. His string of four horses some distance in front of her had stopped, but the leader was out of sight around yet another bend in the enclosed trail.

There was still light in the sky, but no shadows were cast in the narrow passage, the sun having been invisible for a while. She hoped for a wide spot for their camp. Bad enough that they had to pack fodder for the animals all the way from Jaunor to make up for the bare, rocky, trail—the limited water they could carry was running low. Najud had told her of an unfailing spring just the other side of this next lud, this landmark, and she hoped they could make camp there.

Najud’s horses didn’t move, so Penrys dismounted to walk up and join him. He hadn’t seen the view before, either, and she could share that with him.

After she passed the horses, she found him, bent over a pile of something on the east side of the trail. When she raised her eyes, she saw that the trail curved to the left, and the western rock face fell away from a wide and level extension of the trail, leaving the lowering sun free to illuminate the corner of the eastern wall where the trail passed it, where Najud stood. The texture of the stone changed in that spot, and small embedded crystals sparkled in a patch twice the height of a man.

This must be the lud.

As she reached him, her eyes were carried involuntarily to the promised view. The trail curved down to the left and turned again, out of sight, but nothing blocked her sight to the south and west. The sun blanketed a soft and rolling land with broad strokes and long shadows. On either side, low spurs of the range extended.

She couldn’t see directly below her, where the pass began, but Najud had told her there was a sheltered cove there, and those spurs must be the arms around it.

“You’re right,” she said aloud. “It’s a wonderful view. Looks like there’s even a good spot for a camp.”

Najud’s silence drew her from the view and she turned back to him. He hadn’t moved from his spot and was still staring at the base of the lud.

Am I disturbing something… religious for him?

She was reluctant to intrude, but his posture conveyed worry or even alarm to her. She walked over to see what he was looking at.

There were half a dozen packs on the ground, ordinary trail packs, like a man might carry, not the large packs used for animals.

“Are they gifts for the lud, those packs?” she asked quietly.

He shook his head. “The lud don’t need gifts, just respect. Sometimes a flower, or a pebble, maybe a bit of honey—simple recognition.”

He straightened and looked down the short fragment of trail that was visible before the next bend.

“This is wrong.”

His taut posture declared his uneasiness. “I’m going to look down the trail before we stop for the night. You stay here, with the animals.”

Penrys raised her eyebrows but took the order in silence, and Najud walked down and out of sight.

She checked for mind-glows around them, but there was nothing except themselves for a mile or two, other than the small creatures that managed to live in this barren place, and the larger ones that lived on them.

The packs on the ground were not all the same, she realized. One was quite small, the size a child might carry. But Najud said it was just the young men who used this trail, not families.

They looked relatively fresh—she couldn’t imagine they had already experienced a winter here. But in Jaunor they said no one had come over the trail for two years. Where did these people go? Didn’t they need what was in those packs?

Najud reappeared, ascending the trail. His face was troubled.

*It’s bad, but whatever happened, it was at least a couple of months ago. Nothing we can do about it tonight.*

“Demon had cause, this morning,” he said, as he joined her. “Dead horse. The wind must have brought him the scent, before shifting.”

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