On a Crooked Track (excerpt) – Chapter 1

on-a-crooked-track-full-front-cover-widgetWood everywhere—the solid pier on which Penrys was trying to find her land legs, the ship moving gently beside it in the harbor at Ellech after almost two months at sea, and the entire forest of a city spread out before her, topped by the clusters of signals towers like groves of mountain spruce trees.

It smelled like home, all that wood—weathering away in the buildings, or freshly cut in the long arm of the hoist that was even now swinging cargo off the ship, or burning as firewood and flavoring the crisp spring breeze.

Home was in the woolens everyone wore, retentive of the odor of hard work and dinners long past. It was in the hair and beard dressings of the dock workers, leavened by the exotic aromas of some of the southern cargo, destined for the perfume manufactories.

Penrys inhaled deeply, feeling the rightness of the environment deep inside her. She hoped they’d have a few days to spend in the harbor cities at the base of the two rivers before moving upriver to Tavnastok so she could get started doing her research at the Collegium, but that would depend on her mentor, Vylkar, visible on the wharf at the end of the pier making arrangements for their cargo.

Najud and Munraz were having troubles of their own adjusting to an unmoving surface. “Come on,” she said, picking up her pack. “The sooner you start walking, the easier it will get.”

“Does it work that way for you?” Munraz asked, gamely lifting his own gear.

“Don’t know—I’ve only read about it.” She chuckled at his outraged expression. “I’ve never been on a ship before, not at sea. Never been in Stokemmi, either.”

Striding off down the pier, she called over her shoulder, “Let’s go explore.”

She made a game of anticipating exactly where her feet would meet the planks until her body adjusted to the change of terrain and she stopped stumbling. Her footing wasn’t improved by her hard-soled boots, donned for the first time in a while after the bare feet or soft shoes of shipboard life.

The three of them clattered to a stop behind Vylkar. Two piles were accumulating before him as they came off of the hoists. The larger one, goods destined for trade here in the city, were to be stored in the warehouse used by the Collegium for its own supplies. Cargo handlers were stowing the horse packs onto two wagons to move them there, and the draft horses waited patiently, their breath visible in the chilled air.

The laborers joked with each other as they worked, swapping insults that would bring a blush to a hardened campaigner. Many ships were in harbor, and this wharf, one of several, was busy, filled with people earning a living and working up a sweat doing it.

It was noisier, smellier, and far more vivid than the river harbor at Yenit Ping, and Penrys wondered what Najud and Munraz made of it. Except for the sea at their back and the size of the city, it could almost be Tavnastok, two hundred and fifty miles upstream from the mouth of the Lodentaf, just visible as a gap in the wharves far to the west along the shoreline. She’d seen sights like these there, running errands for the Collegium.

Their personal bags went into a hired two-wheeled pony cart. They would walk alongside it toward the center of Stokemmi to wherever they took rooms.

“We’ve fallen into the hands of talking bears,” Najud muttered. “Loud, smelly bears. Great big tall ones.”

“I warned you about the beards.” Penrys surveyed the wharves with a stranger’s eye and noted how many people were clearly natives (most of them), male (most of those), and bearded (all but the children). The few men of other nations, mostly officers from some of the ships in harbor, looked astonishingly youthful with their shaven faces.

“You’ll find plenty of foreigners here, and they shave,” she told them. “I was never sure if that was out of fastidiousness, or because they couldn’t raise a competitive beard and were afraid to try.”

Some wore their beards in braids, or loose down their chest. Others had neatly trimmed, no-nonsense specimens. And here and there, especially for the citizens who’d come down from the city on business, elaborate grooming and stiffening fashions were on display.

“Do they breed for it?” Munraz asked, in a hushed tone that said he wouldn’t be surprised by an affirmative answer.

“Hard to say. The boys compete with pride to see who can sprout first, and survey their fathers and older brothers with envy. Maybe the less hairy ones have had a harder time finding a bride, and so they’re all bearded now.”

She smiled at the open alarm on his face. “Don’t worry, you can keep a beardless face and foreign clothing—no one will think it strange. Foreigners mean money, here—trade and business and interesting foods.”

Najud looked unconvinced. She wondered if he thought he had to cultivate a beard to measure up, and then she wondered if he could. She’d seen him in stubble, but she’d never seen a bearded Zan, just the somewhat patchy results of a couple of months of neglect. That would never work here, in Ellech, and they didn’t expect to be here any longer than that. Better to choose a different display of manhood.

Ah, but how do you tell a man that? She suppressed a smile.

“What will you wear?” Najud asked her. “Ellech or Zannib clothes?’

And then it hit her. When Najud met her, she wore Ellech clothing, the same sort of work clothes she’d worn for the three years since Vylkar found her. The only years she had memory of—all her life, as it were. She’d adopted local clothing in sarq-Zannib, and her life was with Najud now. She’d never expected to return to Ellech, so the matter had never come up.

“Zannib,” she said, firmly.

Najud eyed her skeptically. “You should use Ellech styles if you like, might be a nice change for you. Might make it easier to work with the Collegium.”

She wavered. “Well, maybe—I’ll find something I can wear at need. But with my foreign face, I’ll never pass for Ellech anyway.” Unlike the tall, fair Ellech, Penrys was brown of hair and eyes, round of face, and below middle height. The two men with her had the olive skin and loose curly black hair of a typical Zan.

Only Vylkar, just concluding the cargo assignments, looked at home with his tidy graying scholar’s beard. He turned now to survey his companions.

“Ready?” he asked.

They added their packs to the cart so they could walk unencumbered beside it. The small piebald cob leaned his shoulders into the load, and the carter clucked encouragingly from his well worn perch behind him.

“Is it far?” Munraz asked. He was tall, for a Zan, and not quite at his full growth yet, but Vylkar topped him by almost a head.

“We’ll stop at the trade hall in the central square, up near the bridge, and take rooms nearby for the night. You’ll want to see the trade goods properly stowed, too, before looking at what’s left of the day’s markets.”

Vylkar glanced over at Penrys, and added, “You’ll find it not too different from Tavnastok, I think.”

She shook her head. “In Stokemmi, with no deadline, no errands for others, and my own money in my pocket—I think I’ll find it very different indeed.” She could feel Najud’s amusement through the light link she held with him.

The cartwheels rumbled up the wooden road, adding their bit to the resonant din of all the traffic to and from the wharves. Their own footsteps were drowned out.

The harborside warehouses and trade offices along their route gave way to a sort of seamen’s district of rooming houses, taverns, and shops, with open street markets visible down some of the cross streets. The faces on the streets there were of many nations, including the bearded Ellech, but she looked in vain for anyone resembling herself or the Zannib beside her. The smells of the food were of as many nations as the men, and her own stomach made its presence known as she inhaled sharply.

They saved their breath as the street continued to climb, not very steeply, away from the harbor, and gradually the main core of the city began to grow around them like a maturing forest—first the many craft shops, most of them integrated into the first floor of the dwellings they passed, and then some of the craft halls and larger markets. Up ahead, the street opened up even as the buildings gained in height, rising to three and four stories, or even higher. The decorative flourishes carved into the doors were matched by touches of wooden inlay for variety, or even painted color and gilt.

Traffic in both directions was brisk, but no one gave their party much of a look, even with the exotic Zannib robes three of them wore.

Penrys displayed her chain openly. When she’d left Ellech a year and a half ago, she was the only chained wizard anyone knew of—a seemingly unique and local specimen.

That had all changed, drastically. Her chain meant nothing to this crowd, but it was the reason she was here—to chase down a possible lead on who might have been involved in the creation of dozens of wizards like her, chained wizards, from all nations, scattered where they didn’t belong about four years ago, with no knowledge of who they’d been before.

Two months of shipboard speculation were past, and now it was time to get to work.

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*There are wizards here, lots of them.*

Penrys smiled at Najud’s startled thought.

*I warned you. Ellech, land of wizards, they say.*

She spoke aloud. “So many wizards, that most of them earn a living just like any other craft, and the craft is large and varied.”

A shop on their left provided her with an example. “See the power-stone on the sign, there, over the door? Cradled between two hands?”

Munraz nodded, conserving his breath for the long uphill walk. They couldn’t stop—the horses pulling the wagons behind them couldn’t afford to lose their momentum.

“That’s a power shop. The wizards there, they recharge power-stones for other people. Power-stones are embedded in all sorts of devices, and non-wizards can’t renew the power in them without help. So you can either bring your device here, or someone from the shop will come to you. For regular businesses they set up a schedule.”

Vylkar added, “There’s a place like this every few blocks, and more in the industrial districts. But once you get out of the cities, well—not many powered devices in use outside a wizard’s household. Though that’s been changing, over the last several years. More wizards of a middling level getting an education, more power-stones—means more devices and wider usage. No turning back to the old days, I keep telling my colleagues.”

He chuckled. “The Kigaliwen are in for a surprise once their new wizard guilds settle down and start becoming productive.”

Looking down at Penrys, he said, “I overheard Najud’s question. You’ll get further with Ellech clothing if you want to do research and interview people. It’ll reassure them about your intentions. And your rank—blues, now, mind you. No more greens. First stop,” he told her, and turned back to concentrate on the climb.

Blues! Penrys glanced at Vylkar’s robes, the dark purple of a senior council member. He’d worn them in Yenit Ping, as a representative of Ellech there, but they’d been packed away for travel until today. The sleeves stopped well short of the wrist, giving free rein to the under-layer, a lightweight wool knit tunic to turn away the spring chill.

The informal robe fell to mid-calf, and hung open for ease of movement, but she’d seen his formal robes before, the floor length belted versions he wore in his official business. Most of the staff at the Collegium wore blues, and the rest of the robes varied between visitors in borrowed greens and students in shades of yellows and reds. Reds for the youngest, the least able to control themselves.

She’d been too old to be classed as a student when Vylkar placed her there, and her mind too blank for wizardry ranking, so Vylkar had argued for greens, during her three-year stay, since she was clearly a wizard of some power, whatever the damage was that stripped her of memory.

Penrys mulled over the statement Vylkar wanted to make with the choice of color. Blues were reserved for wizards as members of their institution, which was in her case the Collegium, where they were bound in a few days. But was she a member? She was committed now to Zannib, with Najud. She was still a visitor, and green made no comment about her rank, other than declaring her beyond her student years.

He knows what he’s doing. But do I agree with it? She bit her lip, and watched her footing as the cart creaked beside her.

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