Authors: Julie E Czerneda
Tags: #Science Fiction
Reap the Wild Wind
Stratification # 1
Julie E. Czerneda
DAW BOOKS, INC.
DONALD A. WOLLHEIM, FOUNDER
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ELIZABETH R. WOLLHEIM
SHEILA E. GILBERT
Copyright © 2007 by Julie E. Czerneda.
All Rights Reserved.
DAW Book Collectors No. 1413.
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All characters and events in this book are fictitious.
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HE M’HIR WIND BEGAN OUT of sight, out of mind. It stirred first where baked sand met restless surf. It became fitful and petulant as it passed over the barrens, moving dunes and scouring stone. Sometimes it sighed and curled back on itself, as if absentminded. But it never stilled.
It only grew.
By the time the land raised its wall, the M’hir was a steady howl, wide as the horizon and heavy with power. Dust and sand marked its leading edge; thunder and lightning heralded its approach. It rushed into the mountain range, screaming through canyons until rock cracked from the sound. But the land would not be denied, forcing the M’hir up and up until the wind became chill and sullen and pregnant with cloud.
Rain came to the slopes; violent, driven rain that carved gullies and tumbled boulders. It washed everything from its path until, spent, it sprawled across the desert as thousands of dark, twisting rivulets that were sucked into the parched earth. Life ignited. For days and days to come, this place would bloom and crawl and flutter, turning the M’hir’s grudging gift into color and motion.
The M’hir itself roared up the mountains, what remained of its moisture released in blizzards of white. It ripped clouds as it crested the summits, then plunged.
Stripped of its moisture, heated as its air compressed, the M’hir Wind raced down the far side of the mountain range, faster and faster, its searing breath about to fall on new lands.
No longer out of sight, or out of mind, to those who waited; the first dry hot gusts of the M’hir signaled summer’s end and the Harvest.
If you were brave enough to climb.
LD, THESE MOUNTAINS. Old and beaten and scoured, until they were more a tangle of sharp ridges than peaks. The ridges plunged like greedy fingers into the swamplands owned by the Tikitik. Those swamplands, themselves an immense grove braided with open water and reedbed, extended from the mountains to the horizon; beyond, should any care, lay the sere plains and parallel mounds of the Oud. For Cersi was a world meticulously divided and ruled.
As it had always been. This was one of three points on which all who dwelled here agreed.
Next was Passage. The Om’ray, third of the races of Cersi, owned no part of this world. Once a lifetime, an Om’ray was entitled to trespass wherever he must over the lands of the others, to reach a mate or die in the attempt. It was an accommodation of instinct which pleased no one, beyond continuing the world as it was.
For that was the final point of agreement: what was and had been must stay the same. Cersi was in balance and at peace. Change was forbidden, for all sakes.
Old, these mountains.
And every summer here ended with the M’hir.
* * *
Aryl Sarc stared at the hand near her face. It was hers, the knuckles white with strain beneath smudges of dirt. She eased her grip slightly, looked ahead for the next. She’d never been this high before. Didn’t matter. Couldn’t matter. She took a deep breath.
“I’m going to fall, you know.”
Exhaling the breath in a snort, Aryl twisted to scowl at her brother. Costa Sarc, or rather Costa sud Teerac, might be bigger, stronger, and Joined— thus officially adult and her senior— but he clutched the stalk below her as if to embed himself in its bark. “I’ll fall,” he gasped. “Any— Oh, no! I’m slipping!” This a howl, as one arm thrashed wildly through the air.
Real fear? He was close enough. She lifted one brow and let her awareness of him become focused, easily breaching the barrier between the acceptable
of Costa and the private
It was rude and childish.
So, it turned out, was her brother. “Not funny, Costa,” she snapped, pulling free of his delighted amusement.
The flash of a wide, unrepentant grin. “Sure it was. Ease up, Aryl. I thought this was to be fun.”
“Only if you don’t get us caught,” she scolded. A full tenth of the day climbing and they were just at the third spool— the height of five clansmen, short ones at that— from the wide bridge suspended below. Below that support, it was a drop of twenty or more to the dark water glinting its menace between root buttresses and trunks. Young Om’ray were encouraged to drop scraps from such safe heights. The resulting boil of activity made this a good object lesson, for the Lay Swamp was home to many things; what didn’t have leaves, had teeth. Om’ray learned not to fall.
Rarely, anyway. Aryl pointed down. “Next time you feel the need to slip, dear brother, aim for the bridge. I’m sure Leri would love to help heal a broken leg for her beloved Chosen.” She lowered her voice to a fair imitation of Haxel Vendan, Yena’s First Scout. “ ‘Mark my words, young Om’ray. If you miss,’ ” she growled menacingly, “ ‘you’ll be eaten before you drown.’ ”
Costa chuckled. “Leaving you to explain to the family.”
“I’ll do anything if it makes you hurry, Costa! We don’t have time to waste. The M’hir’s coming.”
At this, his grin faded. He stared up at her, beginning to frown. “You keep saying that as if it’s true, Aryl. The Watchers haven’t called. You’re no—”
“They will soon,” she interrupted, unwilling to discuss the source of her impatience. Costa’s strange little sister kept such
to herself. This inner anticipation— half excitement, half dread— was never easy to interpret when it arrived. But she’d learned it meant change.
Change, today, could only be the M’hir.
“When the Watchers call,” she continued, “we’ll already be in place. No one will have time or breath to argue.” Aryl tucked her toes between the long, sturdy fronds and pushed higher. Until now, the passage had been easy. No need to use the ladder scars coaxed from the straight stalk. Besides, she thought, running her fingers through the soft gray down that coated the underside of the nearest frond, no one knew the lower reaches of this great old rastis as she did, her favorite of all those that towered in the Sarc grove.
Each of the great families of the Yena Clan had a rastis grove to hold its name and the essence of those who passed beyond flesh. So the Adepts taught, though Aryl couldn’t see how this possibly applied to lowland Om’ray, who certainly had names but would have to trek for a full fist of days to reach the nearest vegetation taller than their heads and had no swamp to take their smelly dead anyway. She didn’t raise the question aloud. If she did, she’d probably keep going. Several teachings of the Adepts failed to match Aryl’s observations. Not that she worried about the discrepancies; there were many truths clutched by the old the young could ignore.
Like who could climb to the top of the rastis to meet the M’hir. She was as good a climber as any; better than some. Aryl slipped between fronds and reached for the next spool, pulling herself up. “Hurry—” She closed her mouth over the words, tilting her head back as she tried to see through the latticework of fronds and leaves and branches.
They weren’t the only ones who’d guessed the wind.
“Oh, no,” she grumbled. “Ghoch’s here.”
“Where else would he be?” Costa puffed noisily, as if to prove he was doing his best.
“I mean right here. Above us in the grove.” She pursed her lips and blew a curious, bright-winged
away before it landed on her nose. Most of the smaller life high in the rastis took cover before the M’hir. It was one of the signs the wind was due— as well as the only time to climb without wearing every possible protection. A rastis had its earnest defenders and Om’ray flesh suited that vast array of biters just fine.
Costa pulled himself to where she could see his sweating face. And broad grin. “Naughty Aryl. This would be why no one plays climb and seek with you, little sister.”
Aryl grimaced. “I’m not a child.”
“You know what I mean. Who else can name anyone from a distance? Hmm?”
He sounded proud. She shot him a disturbed look from under her eyelashes. “Hush, Costa.” Their mother constantly warned her to be discreet; here was her brother, babbling at the top of his lungs.
She didn’t want attention. Any new Talent had to be examined by the Adepts— which could take years; only after agonizing debate would their findings be voted upon by Council; and only then, she fumed to herself, would that Talent be declared either so subtle and innocuous as to be unlikely to upset the Agreement and allowed— or, much more likely, Forbidden, just in case.
However harmless or convenient or hard not to use that Talent might be.
What they didn’t know she could do, Aryl told herself, they couldn’t forbid. She liked knowing who was who.
Costa leaned back to swing from one arm. “You started it.”
“So I’m stopping it. I’ve no desire to be sent to the Adepts.”
His big hand wrapped around her ankle, squeezed once, and let go. “There’s no need to fear your gifts,” he said mildly. “This one could be allowed.”
“Or Forbidden,” Aryl dared say. “I’m happy to be unnoticed, thank you.”
Her brother coughed. It sounded suspiciously like a stifled laugh. “This would be why you talked me into spying on the Harvest,” he pointed out. “Good thing I’ve you to blame for the trouble we’ll be in by supper.”
“We’ll only be in trouble if we’re caught at it. Hush!” she urged again, then tilted her head to look up, eyes narrowing as she tried to see through patches of overlapping green, yellow, and brown. There might be no sign of anyone else in the giant rastis or its neighbors, but she knew better. Ghoch and the rest were not far above now. She
them, as surely as she felt the great plant between her hands, as surely as she knew the direction and distance to her home, or to the Cloisters where the Adepts dwelled, or to the very edges of the world.
For the world of the Om’ray was shaped not by mountain or grove or sky, but by the Om’ray themselves. They felt their place within it from birth. Direction was the first awareness. Newborns would move restlessly in their sleep until facing one or another of the six distant clans, then still, soothed by knowing their place in relation to all others. This late in summer, the sun rose between Clans Amna and Pana. It set in line with Grona. If Aryl put Grona to her right hand, she would face Tuana, with her back to Rayna. Vyna lay directly beyond Rayna.
Distance came next, a sense honed by age and experience. Very young Om’ray couldn’t climb beyond their awareness of their mothers. Too far, and that tight comforting bond began to thin, sending the child back to safety as quickly as it drew the anxious mother. That bond loosened with age, replaced by the deep, constant awareness of those close by, the family and friends of one’s Clan, amid the faint comfort of those more distant. Aryl knew, as all of the Yena Clan, that Rayna and Amna were closest, Vyna farthest.
If she had to, she could find any of her kind.
So it was for all Om’ray. Those above would
her presence and Costa’s, though not who they were. Om’ray were never lost or truly alone. Clans stayed where they were, defining the world. Only Passage sent an Om’ray from home, to seek and answer the call of another Clan’s Chooser. Such strangers were welcome, though they rarely made it to Yena.
No strangers here. Not now.
Of course there were no strangers. She, of all people, could tell. Aryl shook her head.
More than where, she’d always known
was nearby, “nearby” being a nebulous measure she’d found increased with effort and practice. Costa was right. Oh, how it had bothered her playmates when she would call out their names, sight unseen. She suspected it troubled her elders even more; they buried their thoughts deep behind shields around her. Not that it hid their flavor in her mind, should she
Now, to Aryl, the canopy above glistened with more than sunlight. She
the seventeen permitted to be there and knew every one.
Including— she bit her lip and climbed faster— Bern Teerac.
It wasn’t Bern’s fault he’d been selected this M’hir and she had not. That they’d trained and climbed together for two seasons preparing for this day, neither besting the other, made no difference to the will of the Council. Afterward, he’d stammered all the things a heart-kin who was as thick as an Oud might say until Aryl had managed to escape.
She hadn’t spoken to him since.
She might not— for a while, at least.
Costa didn’t touch her feelings— she’d have felt it— but he didn’t need to. Her reason for this illicit adventure wasn’t a secret. “Aryl,” he said quietly as they resumed the climb, “being passed over the first time you’re old enough doesn’t mean anything. You’re not like me, too heavy for the ropes, slow as a pregnant
Thinking of the fat creature, which hung upside down for most of a season without moving while eggs warmed on her belly, Aryl’s lips twitched. “An aspird’s faster.”
It was true, not everyone could participate in the Harvest.
But Aryl couldn’t fathom why she hadn’t been picked, if Council considered Bern ready. They were reflections of each other. Closer than kin, in many ways. It was only a matter of time. . . .
She felt her cheeks warm and silenced her thoughts. “We’re almost there.”
“How can you—” Costa’s words were swallowed by an undulating moan, so loud it vibrated through the stalk holding them both. It was as if the mountains themselves had cried out. The sound diminished, only to come again.
“The Watchers!” Aryl shouted to be heard. “I told you. The M’hir is coming now! Hurry, Costa!”
She lunged upward. Her brother would have to follow as best he could. Her left hand closed on an
vine, its edges slicing through the skin, the tiny barbs taking hold on flesh beneath. A trap for smaller prey. Aryl tugged her hand free, leaving a splash of red along the green, and continued upward.
The higher she went, the brighter the world became. Patches of blue blossomed like flowers through the canopy. Sky. She’d seen sky before. A rastis older than memory had fallen last M’hir, tearing a hole to admit the hot blaze of Cersi’s sun. At firstnight, she’d glimpsed tiny lights, as if when it left Yena, the sun pulled a gauze screen over its face against the biters and peered through that mesh. A few fists later? The tumble of cloud, the flash of lightning, the sun and its curtain were hidden again behind the rush of new growth that filled the void. The Adepts claimed the grove kept the Om’ray safe.
Aryl had felt betrayed.
But not now, she told herself fiercely. Nothing was going to keep her from seeing sky again, seeing what lay above this place.
She pulled herself past the final spool of giant fronds only to find herself stopped. Ahead, the single great stem thickened into a bulb: the underside of the rastis’ crown. She couldn’t see past it. Worse, a dense collar of vines feathered downward, some bearing the yellow galls that warned of stingers hiding within, others pale and white with the sap Aryl knew to be glue and poison in one. Even without these hazards, none of the vines could support the weight of an Om’ray child, let alone an adult.
She wedged herself into the topmost spool, leaning back to study the problem. Flitters flew by, their small brightly colored bodies revealed by their clear wings. Her kin hadn’t flown up there. Aryl frowned, eyes searching the vines. There had to be a way.
Suddenly, she sensed her brother had moved above her. “Costa?”
“Here!” His call was triumphant. Aryl pulled herself to a stand to look for him, careful to keep her head well below the reaching tips of the vines.
At first, she didn’t see him, then glimpsed his brown tunic in the midst of the vines and stifled a cry of her own. Remarkably, Costa wasn’t waving off stingers or trapped in sticky vines, despite being halfway around the stalk and three body lengths higher. “How did you get up there?” she demanded.
“Here,” he repeated, this time pointing straight down.
Aryl worked her way around the spool until she was beneath where her brother so mysteriously hung in what should be midair— with vines. She looked up and laughed in surprise.
Mystery solved. Costa stood on a ladder of slats and braided rope. It hung free from the bulb, leading— she tilted her head— past the broadest portion. Any vines that might touch a climber if shifted by a breeze were carefully tied back, not cut. She assumed they’d be released after the Harvest, to hide the way up and protect the rastis’ tender crown.
To any Yena, such a ladder was as easily run as a flat bridge. Aryl’s brother eased to one side to let her rush past, but she stopped beside him to claim a quick one-armed hug. “I knew I brought you for a reason.”
Costa laughed. “Remind me later.”
Later, Aryl didn’t remember climbing the rest of the ladder, or the moments it took to pry open the door leading through the decking above.
For once she did, she was in a world none of the stories or shared images could have prepared her to experience.
The crown of the rastis— this one and those to every side— grew a grove of its own. Tall, slender stems rose upward, uniform and so densely packed Aryl couldn’t have forced her body between them. They sprouted dull-gray and straight, so thin her fingers met around them.
At waist height, they changed.
Aryl followed one of the stems upward with her fingertips, to where it thickened. What looked smooth to the eye felt woven, like cloth. No, not cloth, she decided, but a rope of the most tightly spun thread imaginable. The texture deepened into a spiral that wound up the remainder of the stem, its line traced in crimson that spread wider and wider until, overhead, the stems were vivid red and thick, edged in orange. They appeared taut, as if ready to burst.