Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
‘Other than talk to your pet elf?’
Garan sank back in his chair. Pains thrashed through his body and tortured his mind. One secret, everyone was allowed one secret.
‘You are pouting like a girl,’ said Ystormun. ‘After so long, you surely knew that nothing escapes me here.’
‘He leaves no trace,’ said Garan.
‘As a warrior, no. But as a mage, his imprint is loud and lingering. What did you just say?’
‘You heard.’ Garan pushed himself to his feet, swaying and retching at the pain ricocheting through his body. ‘I’m going. I’m tired.’
Garan’s head was thumping. He felt violated, exposed.
‘Tell your pet to keep his minions in check. They are walking a narrow path and I am all that holds back the tide.’
‘You make it sound like you are doing them a favour,’ said Garan.
‘Just tell him.’
‘No. He has other things he must hear.’
‘Don’t push me, Garan.’
Garan laughed. ‘Or what? Save your threats for someone you can scare.’
You are wrong to think of it as a sudden change. I suspect they had been evolving for hundreds of years. Perhaps from the moment we set foot on Calaius. The arrival of man was a catalyst, there is no doubt about that, but it would be a mistake to think the bonding would not otherwise have occurred. Fascinating, aren’t they? But take care around them. Their minds are no longer elven. I fear they will grow ever more unpredictable.
ClawBound and Silent
, by Lysael, High Priest of Yniss
Serrin, for he still thought of himself as Serrin though it was a name from another life, only remembered in dreams, crouched next to his Claw. He felt the warmth of her body beneath her sleek black coat. He felt the movement of her chest with every breath. He shared everything he saw with her and she shared every scent that entered her nose with him.
Their minds were one and it was a state of joy that should never have been threatened. The fact that his joy had been dimmed by reminders of his past added extra bite to his fury. For his Claw it was something far simpler: an invasion of hunting grounds that had to be challenged.
They had heard the harsh sounds of man and the forced destruction of the rainforest by elves well before they could see or smell anything. Five other ClawBound pairs were with them, each watching from deep enough in the canopy that man’s simple senses could not detect them.
What they could see and smell was a defilement greater than any of them could have foreseen: an organised clearance of the canopy, leaving the rainforest gasping its last over huge areas that would take decades to regrow. The River Ix was clogged with barges, nets and logs ready for transport north to Ysundeneth. Men were driving their slaves to hack the life from the gift Yniss had bestowed upon the elves.
Serrin had counted around a hundred elves, plus twenty men and mages. His Claw growled deep in her throat, her eyes playing over the scene and her nose sampling the air. Serrin caught the foul stench of man and felt the simplicity of her desire. Her head moved to the elven slaves, whose every axe blow was accompanied by prayers for forgiveness.
She focused on the humans. Her body tensed and her hackles rose.
Serrin stroked her flank and rested a hand on the top of her head. Rain began to fall. It was heavy and the darkness of the cloud cover suggested it would be prolonged.
‘I hate this.’ Jeral stared up at the sky, revealed now that the trees had been cleared back from the river bank in a growing swathe cut into the forest. He shouldn’t have bothered. Though it was daytime, the mass of black cloud had obscured any hint of sunshine or warmth, leaving the world grey and dismal. ‘I just fucking hate this.’
‘Well, that’s good to hear. Again. Because having counted almost as far as ten since you last opened your fat mouth to moan, I thought you’d changed your mind, I really did.’
Jeral glanced to his left. He couldn’t see Nuin’s face. The mage was staring at the logging operation, his features hidden by the deep hood of his cloak. His hoarse voice was just audible over the sound of rain hammering on the deck of their barge, spattering off Jeral’s bald head and the leather of his high-collared coat.
‘Well, you don’t have to be scared, do you? One whiff of them and you can just fly off.’
Nuin turned to him, his features still hidden but this time by the gloom of the day. Jeral could just about see his mouth move and the dark gleam of his eyes.
‘You really think I’d abandon you?’
‘I would,’ said Jeral.
‘You worry too much.’
Jeral gestured beyond the stern of the barge. They were anchored midstream, flanked on either side by similar barges. A net was strung between the vessels, holding back the growing mass of logs harvested from the forest. This stretch of the River Ix had been chosen for its particularly sluggish flow but, even so, the mass of wood floating in the water worried Jeral.
On land a working party of a hundred and five Sharps felled timber as slowly as the whips and threats of their guards allowed. The Sharps never spoke. Their eyes, though, spoke enough. A crime was being perpetrated here and they were complicit in it. Jeral didn’t get it. Big forest, countless trees; a few hundred less was like taking a single drip from the Southern Ocean, and he was bored to tears by their endless bloody praying.
‘Yes, really,’ said Nuin. ‘Three days, no sightings. They don’t know we’re here.’
‘They don’t know we’re here
‘You’re such a pessimist.’
‘And you’re just an idiot. By your reckoning, the longer we stay here, the more likely it is they’ll never find us. Me, I believe the opposite. That’s why I fucking hate it here. Not because of the rain, but because
, anytime, they could appear and slaughter us all.’
‘But they don’t, do they?’ said Nuin. ‘They just watch. It’s been like that for decades. Since—’
‘I am well aware of Ystormun’s interesting reprisal rules, thank you. But you feel something’s changed, don’t you?’
Nuin shook his head. ‘Frankly, no. It’ll be like every other time. They’ll show up, posture a bit and we’ll pack up and move on when the Sharps get too twitchy. It’s a big forest and it’s a very, very long river.’
The rain thrashed across the deck of the barge. Jeral stared at the Sharps again and for a moment he was in sympathy with their mournful expressions. The sounds of axes hammering at the base of another trunk fell into rhythm with his heartbeat, or so it seemed. It was mesmeric. Then an order was barked out by one of his men, followed by a shout of warning.
With attendant cracking, splintering, rustling and rushing, the great tree fell, toppling to land with its crown in the water. The thump of the trunk hitting the ground reverberated across the river, spray flew up in a shroud and ripples rocked the barges at anchor. A team of Sharps moved to divest the tree of unwanted greenery. The sound of multiple small axes striking wood filled the air.
One more down. One more towards the moment they could leave. Jeral shuddered. Even then their safety was hardly guaranteed. It was a long slow trip to the logging station built to the south of Ysundeneth, at least two days on the river – and all the while prey to the TaiGethen should they choose to break their decades-long abstinence from slaughter.
‘Never mind prey, think I might just pray,’ muttered Jeral.
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing, my magical friend. Just a hilarious play on words designed to kill the merest fraction of time.’ Jeral stared into the sodden gloom of the rainforest. ‘I just fucking hate this.’
The sky darkened further. The rain intensified. Jeral closed his eyes while the water slapped onto his skull and poured down his face. He shook his head, wondering if it could really get any worse. He opened his eyes again to see Nuin’s pained expression. He found it lifted his mood just a tiny bit.
‘Guess how close I got to ten, that time,’ said Nuin.
‘Amaze me,’ said Jeral and found himself smiling.
A shadow flashed across his vision and Nuin was gone. Jeral stumbled back a couple of paces, registering the panther’s roar. Nuin had been carried right into the middle of the deck. The panther was on top of him. Jeral saw its claws rake and its jaws bite down hard. Blood spurted from Nuin’s neck.
Jeral shouted to distract the animal, drawing his sword and advancing across the deck though he knew he was too late. The panther turned its head towards him, bared its fangs and sprang away. Jeral tracked its movement, watching it skip across the treacherous log jam and back to the river bank.
Jeral looked back at Nuin. ‘Why you?’
The river bank was cluttered with humans and elves. All easier, closer targets, none of whom seemed to know what had just happened. And Nuin had just been, well, executed for want of a better word.
Jeral looked back towards the panther. The animal had stopped at the edge of the forest not fifty yards away, where the trees met the river on the border of the cleared land. An elf stood there, at least Jeral assumed he was an elf.
His face was painted half white. The other half was covered in piercings and tattoos. His ears and nose were pierced, his teeth filed to points as were his fingernails. His body, naked but for a loincloth, was densely stitched with tattoos.
Jeral, rain beating on his head and leathers, shivered. The elf opened his mouth and uttered a guttural cry. It was taken up across the forest surrounding the clearing and the roars of panthers joined it. As one, the Sharps downed tools and gathered together, kneeling in prayer.
Jeral went cold. He began to run, vaulting over the rail and onto the treacherous logs, which rolled and sank beneath his feet, heading for the river bank. That panther had taken Nuin out because he was a mage, and because he’d been separated from the others. It was a ridiculous notion but he could find no other explanation.
‘It’s an attack! Guard the mages. Get to barge one now!’
Tall, white-painted and tattooed elves melted out of the forest. Each had a panther by his side. At a single call, they began to run. Fast. Impossibly fast, to Jeral’s eyes. He watched them break, elves and panthers streaking towards their targets.
‘It can’t be,’ he breathed. ‘It can’t be.’
Jeral’s feet hit the river bank.
‘Barge one. Run!’ he yelled, sprinting along the shore towards the muster point. ‘Get the mages behind you.’
His message wasn’t getting through above the tumult of the downpour. No one else could see it: the panthers and elves were working together. It was like they could read each other’s minds. Jeral ran past the barge towards a knot of soldiers surrounding two mages. They were standing still.
‘Move! Back away,’ he ordered. ‘To me.’
A panther roared and attacked from the right. It leapt at the head of one warrior, bearing him back into the knot of men. Three went down, three still stood, disoriented. Two of them were mages. A second panther was coming from the left flanked by two elves.
‘Cast something, damn you,’ Jeral roared.
The first elf stepped in and lashed his hand across the face of one mage, tearing four gashes in his cheek, ripping his nose to shreds and skewering an eye. The mage screamed and raised his hands. The elf dragged his fingers clear, moments before the second panther tore the mage’s throat out.
Jeral shuddered and slowed. He was only ten paces from them and he was already far too late. The three on the ground were already dead. A second elf grabbed the surviving mage by the sides of his head. As the mage wailed, begging for mercy, the elf tipped his head back and buried his teeth in the exposed neck. Blood fountained into the dark sky.
Jeral cried out, he couldn’t help it. He cast around for more survivors. He saw a mage and warrior running towards the forest, chased by an elf and panther pair. He had to watch, couldn’t drag his eyes away, as the panther pounced on the warrior, jaws grabbing the base of his skull and front paws thudding into his shoulders. The elf ran on another pace and leapt into the air. He cycled his legs, reached out with one long arm and lashed his needle-sharp nails down the back of his victim’s neck. The mage fell face first into the mud, twitching momentarily, and it was over.
Jeral turned again, a full circle this time. His breathing was ragged and he couldn’t keep the heat from his face or the thundering from his chest. He gasped in air. The rain was getting lighter. The ground was covered in bodies, drenched with blood mixed with water and mud, and the last of his men had been slaughtered.
There was nowhere to run.
Jeral backed away towards the river. Maybe if he jumped in . . .
Elves and panthers watched him dispassionately. All but one pair disappeared back into the forest, ignoring the elves they had presumably come to save. One pair remained. They walked towards him. The elf, his teeth and fingers glistening with fresh blood, had one hand on the panther’s head. The animal was growling deep in its throat.
Jeral felt water swirling around his feet and heard the splashes of his boots in the shallows. He stopped; it was pointless to attempt an escape.