Penric and the Shaman (Penric & Desdemona Book 2)

BOOK: Penric and the Shaman (Penric & Desdemona Book 2)
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PENRIC AND THE SHAMAN

A fantasy novella in the World of the Five Gods

Lois McMaster Bujold

2016

Copyright ©
2016
by Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover image:
Wikimedia

Author links:

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/16094.Lois_McMaster_Bujold

http://www.spectrumliteraryagency.com/bujold.htm

http://www.dendarii.com/

I

Five gods, but vultures were huge when seen at this distance.

The bird cocked its pale head on its sinuous neck, peering at Inglis like a nearsighted old man, as if uncertain whether he was its enemy or its… breakfast, judging by the graying of the scudding damp sky overhead. It shuffled back and forth, its pantaloon-feathers stirring on its legs as it raised one talon-tipped foot and contemplated its dilemma. The hooked yellow beak seemed to take aim. Inglis opened his parched mouth and gusted a harsh hiss, like the fire in a blacksmith’s forge when the bellows blew. The bird skipped back a pace, raising vast brown wings, as if it were a villain in a play swirling his cloak just before declaiming his defiance to fate.

Fate, it seemed, had Inglis at bay now. Run to ground. He scratched at that hard ground with a gloved hand, leather cold and stiff, but grubbed up only snow. Not enough light yet to see if there was much blood on it. The steep vale he had climbed out of last night was a shadowed gulf, the ice and the rocks a mosaic of white and black streaks, the scrubby trees vague claws. His head ached abominably. He had thought that a freezing man was supposed to go numb, but his trapped leg continued to throb. One last heave failed to shift anything. Angled downward on the slope, he had no strength left to pull himself upright and try to get some better leverage.

The vulture hopped again. He wasn’t sure what it was waiting for. Reinforcements? They contemplated each other for an unmeasured time.

A dog barked, getting closer. Not mere yaps, but deep woofs, as if sounding from a chest the size of a barrel. A sharper bark joined the first, and another. The vulture flapped and heaved itself into the air, retreating, but only as far as a nearby bare-branched tree, as the dogs rushed up. Surely he was hallucinating—there could be no Great Beast
here
, but the deep-voiced dog was the size and shape of a wolf, and the wolf in Inglis’s blood seemed to sing out to it. It shuddered in canine ecstasy, licking his face, rolling in the snow and waving its paws in the air only to jump up and lick again, as the other two swirled around him, whining and yipping.
Do you imagine I am your god? No gods here…

Voices.

“What is it?”

“Something dead, looks like. Arrow, you idiot beast! Don’t
roll
in it, you’ll stink up the hut fair fierce—again…”

“Oh. It’s a man.”

“Anyone we know?”

Shadowy shapes moved around him. Someone dragged off the dog, but with a menacing growl it wriggled free, then began nosing him again.

“…No. Traveler.”

“What’s he doing this far off the pass road?”

“Getting his fool self killed, looks like.”

“He took this track, alone in the dark, in this weather? Practically qualifies him for a suicide, I’d say. The Bastard’s bait for sure.”

“Should we haul his carcass down to Whippoorwill? Might be a reward or something.”

A thoughtful pause.

“Eh, nor there might not be, and where’s the point to that? Collect the reward now, save steps. Strip him and let the carrion birds give him a sky burial. It can make no difference to
him
.”

“Well, it’s about time somebody gave us a god’s-day gift…”

Ah. The vulture’s reinforcements have arrived.

Hands, plucking at his clothes. “Good cloth. Good boots—help me shift these rocks, and I bet we can get both of them.”

“Might have to cut off the smashed one.”

The leg, or the boot? No, they’d want the boot. Maybe the leg…

“Riding boots. So where’s his horse? Think he was thrown?”

“Figure we could find it? It might have a pack, with more goods.”

“He’d have to have been leading it, on this slope. Might have slipped… stupid to try to climb in those boots.” A pause. “I don’t see it down below.”

“It’d be dead meat if it were… get
off
him, Arrow, you fool dog!”

Hands at his belt. “There’s a purse! …Ah, piss. Not much in it.”

“Fancy knife hilt. Hey, think those’re real jewels?”

A snort. “Martensbridge glass, maybe.”

They pulled at the sheath, trying to tug it free. Inglis’s eyes unglued; he reached deep and found his last reserves, flinging his voice like a javelin:
“Don’t touch my knife.”

A mad scramble back. “Bastard’s teeth, he’s still alive!” The lesser dogs went into paroxysms, barking wildly, and had to be beaten off him. The great dog went flat, ears and tail down, whimpering, licking his face and neck with abject servility. But the hands that had been tugging at his knife did not resume their attempted scavenge.
Sacrilege
. His powers, it seemed, had not wholly deserted him in craven company with his hope, faith, and courage.

“Father and Mother.
Now
what do we do?”

The very question that had been plaguing him for five hundred miles. Scraping for the last residue of truth left in him, he got out,
“Take me home.”

He wept, he thought, but he no longer cared who saw it. Perhaps the gray dawn was false, because the world around him darkened once more.

II

“I’m
bored
,” whined Desdemona. “Bored, bored, bored.”

Penric, as soon as he regained control of his lips from her, smiled down at the page across which his quill was carefully making its way. “Destroy a flea.”

“We slew every flea in the palace precincts
weeks
ago. And all the lice as well.”

“And I’m sure everyone here would be grateful to you,” murmured Pen, “if they knew.” He had learned early on in his association with his demon, which had gifted him with the powers, though not yet the learning, of a Temple sorcerer, to be
discreet
about the deployment of their magics. He deployed his quill in the setting down of the next three words in Darthacan, glanced up at the volume in the Wealdean tongue he was copying, and translated the next line in his head, cross-checking to be sure it
was
the next line, and not one up or down from it. He’d ruined not a few pages by that inattention.

He pressed his lips closed to prevent interruptions while he unloaded the complex medical phrase, then rolled his shoulders and stretched. “Your part will come soon,” he said tranquilly. “Just three more lines and this page is done. You shall like that.”

“It was only diverting the first hundred times. After that, it was as bad as
worms
.”

Desdemona, formerly, had been the possession of a Temple physician-sorceress of the Mother’s Order, devoted to medicine and the healing arts. Two such women, actually, in her long succession of riders. Which was where she had picked up her mastery of the Darthacan tongue, passing it in turn to him, and of medicine as it related to sorcery, in which Penric was… making slower progress.

“I shall not make you treat people’s worms.”

“You made us treat
bookworms
.”

Penric arranged another sentence in his head, and studiously ignored her till it was transferred. She did not try to interrupt, having learned by experience that however droll fouling his lines might seem to a demon of disorder, it just sent him around to start over at the beginning, and then she had to endure her tedium
twice
as long.

At her next chance, she said, “At least ask the princess-archdivine if we can ride courier for her again this week.”

“Des, it’s
snowing
.” He glanced up at the fine glass window of his tiny, but private, work chamber on the palace’s fourth floor, which let the light in and kept the vile weather
out
. In his not-that-long-ago youth at Jurald Court, his family’s home at the feet of the great mountains that bounded the Cantons on the north, he’d been sent out in the snow to hunt or check the trap lines. Sitting indoors with a blanket over his lap, lifting nothing heavier than a feather, was
much
nicer, even as he’d discovered that the small muscles of the eyes and hands could get just as fatigued as big ones.

Last line
. He sat up, read the page down once and up from the bottom once, matching it almost line-by-line to the original—Darthacan was a
fluffier
, if more structurally logical, tongue than Wealdean—and rose to collect the next wooden printing plate from the stack.

He had devised this process while studying at the Bastard’s Seminary at Rosehall, adjunct to the great university in that Wealdean town. Poor scholars had to rent, and share, their frightfully expensive books, which had led to much brangling over turns, a couple of memorable fistfights, and one stabbing. Which Pen could never mix into because it would have been
unfair
, not to mention that few fellow students, once they learned of his sorcerous-if-untrained status, challenged him…

“…more than once,” Des murmured smugly.

Des was getting disturbingly good at reading his thoughts, these days.
Practice, I suppose
. He was a bit peeved that the process did not seem to be reciprocal, though he had certainly grown able to sense her moods—
so many, many moods
—and had become almost unthinkingly fluent in their silent speech. When they were alone, he tried to let her chatter on aloud with his mouth as much as she pleased, which seemed to help keep her in a good humor. Bad idea when
not
alone, since their conversations all took place in his voice. To the confusion, and a few times violent offense, of their auditors.

He pulled the next prepared wooden plate off the stack at the end of his worktable, and carefully arranged his new page face-down across it. As habitually as when sitting down to dinner, he blessed the work with the tally of the gods: touching his forehead for the Daughter of Spring, his lips for the Bastard, his navel for the Mother of Summer, his groin for the Father of Winter, and spreading his hand over his heart for the Son of Autumn. And then tapped his thumb twice more against his lips, for luck. Sitting up straight, he said, “Ready, Des?”

“You hardly
need
me for this, anymore,” she griped, but flowed into alignment with him nonetheless.

He passed his hand above the plate. A stink of wood rot and burning arose from it, along with a puff of steam mixed with smoke. His hand heated, pleasantly taming its cramping. His carefully calligraphed page grayed into ash.

He took up his brush and whisked away the ash and crumbs. Raised upon the surface was left a perfect mirror replica of his page, ready to turn over to the palace printer for making anything from a few dozen to hundreds of copies. The work would have taken an ordinary woodcarver the better part of a week, and wouldn’t be nearly so fine. He could produce ten plates a day, and it was only that slow because he’d not yet figured out how to perform it with anyone’s writing but his own.

The trick of it was in the destruction of the handwritten page, so that there was no net gain in order. Uphill, creative magic was costly; downhill, destructive magic was cheap. What happened to the plate afterward in the hands of ordinary men did not seem to impinge on this demonic summation. He could do this all day
long
.

The princess-archdivine had been delighted with his new skill, when he’d first shown it to her, and now used him regularly for her official pamphlets. In between those interrupting assignments, he was permitted to get on with the task of his heart, reproducing Learned Ruchia’s two-volume work on sorcery and medicine to be distributed to the Bastard’s Order throughout the Cantons and the Weald—and, soon, Darthaca and Ibra. (And after that, perhaps Adria and far Cedonia? Des moaned in prospect.) And to which he had added a short epilogue detailing his new technique—
A Codicil by Learned Penric of Martensbridge, Sorcerer
, he had proudly headed it—which should multiply its effect yet further. He owed Ruchia that living memorial, he thought, for death-gifting him with her demon, however inadvertently.

BOOK: Penric and the Shaman (Penric & Desdemona Book 2)
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