THE GODS RETURN – Snippet 26

Three large antelopes whose horns curved like the arms of a lyre stood on the bank and stared wide-eyed at the riverboat as the Dalopans rowed past. They seemed terrified.

"Captain Sairg?" Ilna said. "There's a chance for some fresh meat."

The captain's face was set in a rictus of anger; he pretended not to hear her. The crewmen may really not have heard. They'd been stroking with the regularity of a waterwheel ever since the land started to quiver a little after dawn.

The sky was pale and its tinge reminded Ilna of a frog's yellow throat. She disliked it, and she disliked the vibration even more, though she didn't suppose it hurt anything. Instead of being muddy and opaque, the river's surface had become as finely jagged as the blade of a file. It was still opaque, of course; not that she thought there was much reason to want to look at the bottom of a river.

Ilna didn't know where they were beyond that they'd come several days north of Pandah; she'd never had much concept of geography. That had puzzled some folk when she was growing up, because Ilna os-Kenset had the most connection with the outside world of anybody in Barca's Hamlet. Her fabrics were sold in Sandrakkan, Ornifal, and even to the Serians who spun silk from the nests of caterpillars and shipped it to nobles throughout the Isles.

Merchants told her the size and thickness of the cloth they wanted for the places they would sell it. The patterns were Ilna's own, and the names of the islands to which the cloth went were merely that, names, to her.

Ingens muttered numbers as he laid down the cross-staff with which he'd just taken a sight on the rocky hill to the northeast; it was the first real feature the landscape had displayed since they pulled away from Pandah. He extended the parallel lines he was drawing on a strip of paper and added a note in the margin.

"It's a map of the river," he muttered to Ilna. "For later voyages."

"I see," said Ilna, then frowned because she wasn't sure that was true. She understood that the markings on a map told people where things were in the world – but they didn't tell her anything. She was always aware of direction, but place – here rather than there – had never been part of her world.

Ingens pointed to the hill which seemed to Ilna to be in their general course, though the way the river twisted across this flat landscape kept anyone from being sure. "That's Ortran," he said. "The island of Ortran before the Change. It didn't have anything on it but fishermen then. I don't know what they do now that the sea's gone. Fish in the river, perhaps, since they're in a bend of it."

As he spoke, Ingens was unrolling the strip between two sticks like an ordinary reading scroll. The portion he'd already written on was an ell long, the width of the largest loom Ilna kept at home. Kept wherever she decided home was at the moment, that is.

"Is it going to be helpful?" Ilna said. "Because it appeared to me that the river bed's changing constantly. Even in the center of the channel we've gone aground."

Underscoring what she'd just said, a section of the bank ahead of them toppled slowly into the river, carrying with it a pin oak of considerable size. Foaming water lifted and swelled outward, though it didn't seem that it'd be any danger to the vessel. The tree twisted and rolled as it moved downstream; mud was slumping off its roots and unbalancing it.

"I don't know!" the secretary said. Then he grimaced and continued more calmly, "It's something to do, mistress. This sound is, is very disturbing."

"Was it like this when you were coming upstream?" Ilna said. She'd never been on this stretch of the river before and she'd assumed the way everything shook was normal. It was unpleasant, of course, but that wasn't unusual.

"There was nothing like it!" Ingens said. "I thought, I wondered I mean . . . .

He composed his expression and met Ilna's cool gaze. "I wonder if it has anything to do with Master Hervir's disappearance, mistress?"

Why in the world should it? thought Ilna, but she decided it was a legitimate question. She began plaiting the cords already in her hands into an answer. Everything was connected with everything else, of course, but it didn't appear that Hervir had any more to do with the shaking than he did with the price of wool on Sandrak –

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pried into your affairs," snarled Ingens in a tone of embarrassed anger. He uncapped the brass inkwell pinned to his collar to resume writing on his map.

Ilna looked at him more in surprise than anger. Oh, he thinks I ignored his question and started weaving instead even of telling him it was none of his business.

"I'm sorry, Master Ingens," she said. She was sorry: she hadn't communicated adequately, which was a problem she regularly had when dealing with people. That was a good reason to avoid dealing with them, of course, but there was no excuse for doing a bad job of what she'd started. "I've been looking for an answer if the pattern here. It doesn't seem that -"

Ilna lifted the loose fabric which her fingers had continued knotting as she spoke. As she did so, she looked at it –

And looked again. The pattern which she'd seen initially had formed into something quite different because she'd continued it beyond what she'd normally have done.

"There is a connection," she said. She hoped she hid the anger she felt. It was entirely directed at herself for having seen a pattern merely by good luck. Her anger was usually directed at herself, of course, but other people didn't generally understand that. "But it's distant, and they're both parts of a whole that's very much larger. Two knots in a carpet, so to speak; but there is a carpet and -"

The vibration stopped. The river was as still as the pond which drove the mill in Barca's Hamlet. A dozen lightning bolts ripped across the southern horizon, brightening the yellow sky to the color of melting sulfur.

One of the Dalopans in the bow dropped the oar and jumped up, shouting in a language that sounded like the chattering of a magpie. Ilna looked over her shoulder at him. All four crewmen were yammering now, looking more than ever like birds as they hopped about. They didn't disturb the balance of the boat, though.

Sairg called to the Dalopans in their own language; they ignored him. He let go of the tiller and rose to his feet, holding the short, broad-bladed spear which Ilna must've missed among the spars and cordage of the stowed rig.

Ingens started to get up also, but he paused when the boat began to wobble. From a half crouch he cried, "Sairg, what's going on?" Pointlessly, it seemed to Ilna, but most of what people did seemed pointless to her.

As though the secretary had shouted an order, the Dalopans dived into the brown water as gracefully as so many kingfishers. A violent tremor to the south sped across the flat landscape, lifting land and water as high as the waves of a winter storm. A line of alders, spared by the eroding riverbanks, jumped skyward and toppled flat.

Ilna tucked the yarn into her sleeve and tugged loose the silken cord she wore in place of a sash. Sairg was blind with terror: she'd seen the signs too often not to recognize his condition. She rose to her feet unwillingly, hoping she wouldn't upset them but certain that even for her – she couldn't swim – a ducking wasn't the worst present danger.

"Wizard!" the captain screamed. He raised his spear. "You've done this!"

How he'd come to that conclusion was beyond Ilna's imagination, but the fellow was mad now or the next thing to it. She took the cord's running noose between her right thumb and forefinger, holding the remainder of the lasso looped against her palm.

"Sairg, put that -" Ingens said.

The captain cocked the spear back to throw. Ingens lunged, grappling with him as the wave struck, lifting the riverboat on its crest.

The first wave. What had been the flat plain to the south now rippled like brown corduroy. It was sprinkled with vegetation uprooted when the ground itself flowed.

Ingens and Sairg pitched over the side, their legs flailing in the air. Ilna spun her lasso out sidearm.

She drew back, tightening the loop around the secretary's right thigh, and threw herself into the belly of the ship. Though she braced her heels against the gunwale, for a moment she felt her buttocks lifting from the wet planks: she was fighting the weight of both men. She wouldn't let go while she still lived, but all the determination in the world couldn't prevent them from pulling her into the pitching river with them.

The boat slid off the back of the wave. The flat bottom slapped down with what might've been a deafening crash if it hadn't been for the overwhelming roar of the world shaking itself like a wet dog. Ilna bounced as if she'd been struck by a swinging door. Ingens' head and torso lifted over the gunwale; he'd shaken himself loose from Sairg. His face was white and empty.

The boat rose again on the next tremor. The lashings that held the rigging had loosened, so the mast was jerking about. Ilna grabbed Ingens' collar with her left hand and leaned back, bracing her feet again on the side of the boat.

Ingens' eyes had no more intelligence than those of a fish, but his muscles moved with an instinctive urge to survive. His right hand scrabbled blindly in the boat until it closed on a thwart; then, with a colossal lurch, he rolled over the gunwale and into the belly of the vessel.

Ilna toppled back, but her grip on the lasso kept her from falling over the other side. The humor of the thought struck her. She didn't laugh often, but she barked one out now.

The boat crashed down, bouncing Ilna upright again. Ingens had his arms and legs wrapped around the mast as though he was adrift in the waves.

The boat scudded forward more swiftly than any normal current could drive it, lifting on the next throbbing pulse. The landscape was brown and splashed to either side, mud-choked water merging imperceptibly with land shaken to a liquid.

The earthquake throbbed, mastering the land the way a winter storm rules the sky: harsh, merciless, overwhelming. Ilna gripped the thwart she'd been seated on and looked in the direction the cataclysm drove them. Ortran was a rocky wedge thrusting from a landscape that otherwise was no more solid than the sullen yellow sky.

A pulse lifted the Bird of the River again, rushing the vessel toward an end of the disaster's own choosing. Ilna thought of a squirrel being sucked slowly and inevitably down the gullet of a snake.

The dark mass of Ortran loomed close ahead. Ingens' eyes were closed as he prayed in a singsong; Ilna could hear his voice only as rhythm woven into the roar of the earth tearing itself apart and reknitting.

Her own face was calm. If this was death, well, then she'd die. She'd have regrets, but the thing she'd regret most was that she'd ever been born. When she was dead, she wouldn't have to remember Chalcus and Merota laughing, or Chalcus stabbed through a dozen times and falling beside the corpse of Merota.

The boat scraped and skidded up the slope of coarse gravel which had been Ortran's shoreline. The shock didn't break Ilna's grip, but it lifted her over the thwart and slammed her numbingly to the planking on the other side.

Like a squirrel going down a snake's gullet . . . .