Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
‘Please,’ he said in elvish. He dropped his sword. ‘Please let me live.’
Jeral had never thought of himself as a coward but the notion that he might attack this solitary pair to avenge his command never entered his head. The elf stared at him and closed to within a pace. Jeral’s nostrils were filled with the scents of blood and beast. He knew he was trembling. It took all of his courage to hang on to his bowels.
The elf reached out a hand, slowly and deliberately, gripping Jeral’s lower jaw. His fingernails cut Jeral’s cheeks and the pressure he exerted grew painfully intense. He pushed his face into Jeral’s. Jeral could feel his raw power and the enormity of his hatred.
‘We are ClawBound,’ he said, his voice hoarse and quiet. ‘Fear us.’
The elf relaxed his grip and released Jeral, letting his fingernails scratch deep into Jeral’s cheeks. Jeral felt the blood begin to gather and bead.
‘We will come. We will destroy you,’ he said, finding a modicum of bravado if his life was to be spared.
The elf cocked his head. ‘You are mistaken.’
They walked away back into the forest, which Jeral continued to watch long after they had disappeared. One last time, he let his gaze travel over the scene of slaughter. He tried not to focus on the dead. A hundred yards from him, the Sharps were still praying. Not one of them had moved.
Jeral shook his head. He felt sick. He turned back to the river, its barges and its nets full of logs waiting to float downstream. He wondered, bleakly, how hard it would be to steer a barge alone.
They are either examples of elven perfection and purity, or are symptomatic of our descent to inevitable extinction. They could very well be both.
Auum, Arch of the TaiGethen
Auum lifted the human’s head from the mud by his hair. He examined the wounds and let it drop. He wiped his hands on his thighs and stood up.
‘Five,’ he said. ‘Malaar?’
Malaar straightened from the body he’d been examining. He nodded.
‘One more,’ he said. ‘But that’s all.’
‘Six ClawBound pairs,’ said Auum, walking towards him. ‘And look what they did. This was no battle, it was butchery. Follow their tracks back into the forest, see if there’s a single direction or if they split.’
‘Or we could ask them.’
Malaar indicated the elven working party. Auum didn’t know whether to feel pity or contempt for them. Three hours and more must have passed since the ClawBound attack and the liberated elves still sat by their axes and the desecration they had been forced to wreak on the rainforest. They were watching the TaiGethen with a wariness that was close to suspicion.
‘I’ll speak to them,’ said Auum. ‘Follow the tracks. Tell me what you find.’
Auum turned. Elyss was staring down at the ground on the river bank. The hulks of barges sat in the water, ugly and with nets still bulging with stolen timber. Auum trotted over to her across the blood-soaked churned mud surrounding the multiple mutilated corpses.
‘What have you got?’
Elyss crouched and indicated a line of impressions in the silt leading north along the bank. After three hours, rain and river had erased most of the tracks but the story they told was clear enough.
‘They let one go,’ said Elyss. ‘He can’t be far away.’
‘Serrin, what have you done?’
‘We can still catch him. Stop word getting back to Ysundeneth.’
Auum looked at the three barges stretched across the fast-flowing river. Two had rowing boats strapped to their sterns. One did not.
‘He’s a lot further away than you think.’
‘We have to stop him. Don’t we?’ asked Elyss.
‘It won’t stop what’s coming,’ said Auum. He stared into the forest, his sense of frustration growing. ‘Our efforts would be better spent stopping the ClawBound repeating this. Though, Yniss knows, part of me has no desire to hold them back.’
Auum stood up, his gaze falling on the elves gathered near the eaves of the forest. Their prayers of lament had been like a murmur through the forest, leading the TaiGethen to this scene of carnage. They had not turned from their prayers in the time Auum and his people had been picking over the site.
Auum walked to them, for the first time listening to the words of the chant. He frowned. It was a lament for the lost. The ClawBound would not have so much as scratched an elf, so who was lost? Auum glanced over his shoulder at the flies clouding over the bodies now the rain had ceased. Surely not for their captors?
One elf, an Apposan by his broad back and muscular arms, was leading the service. Auum knelt by him, laying a hand on his shoulder and pressing the other to the mud.
‘Yniss blesses you and saves you for greater tasks than being the slave of man. You need not mourn them, no matter what they may have become to you.’
The Apposan turned his head but he would not look Auum in the face, keeping his eyes a little to the left and focused down at the TaiGethen’s shoulder level.
‘Humans defile the rainforest even in death,’ he said. ‘Their blood will poison our river. We do not mourn them. We mourn those this attack has condemned.’
‘Is it really so certain?’
‘Ten elves will die for every man lying here.’
’ Auum heard Elyss gasp behind him. ‘I am truly sorry we were too late to stop them.’
The Apposan nodded. Silence had fallen across the clearing. Auum lifted his head with a hand placed gently under his chin.
‘You can look at me,’ he said softly. ‘I am no human. I am Auum, Arch of the TaiGethen. And you are free, all of you.’
The elf shook his head. He had a powerful frame but his face held the stress of his captivity and the wrinkles on his face and thinning dark hair gave him age beyond his years.
‘I am Koel. I speak for this gang and we are not free. We will never be free.’
Auum pushed back so that he could see Koel’s eyes. A hundred and fifty years of captivity had beaten his will down to nothing but there was still something there that man could not kill.
‘You’re going back,’ said Auum quietly. ‘Aren’t you?’
Koel nodded and dropped his gaze to the ground once again.
‘You can’t!’ Elyss stepped up, her voice shockingly loud in the quiet before the rains came again. ‘You’re free. You can join the fight. Liberate your comrades!’
Koel looked back at Auum. ‘There have to be some left alive to liberate.’
‘How many will they kill?’
‘They kill ten for every one of us that escapes. Elves dragged from the pens and strung up in the Park of Penitence. Our people are eviscerated and left to die with the lizards, rats and birds feasting on them. The old, the sick and the weak go first. Those of us who can’t see them can smell them. So no one tries to escape. We must not.’
‘Then what are you doing?’ asked Auum, flicking a hand gesture at Elyss to stop another outburst. ‘How are you fighting to liberate yourselves?’
Koel shrugged. ‘We’re waiting for you, the TaiGethen. Only you can save us.’
Auum had never felt so humbled. He let his head drop while he composed himself, then stood so he could take in the whole slave gang.
‘Your honour and your strength take mine from me. You are the reason that the TaiGethen work every day to rid Calaius of man. No elf may rest until mankind is gone. Your task is to stay alive. Ours is to free you. You have the respect of the TaiGethen. You have my promise that we will fight to free you until the day Shorth takes us for other tasks.
‘But today we have an opportunity. Malaar, Elyss, a fire and hot food. Raid the barges or hunt for meat for our brethren. Koel, walk with me. Talk to me.’
So Koel spoke as they walked. And Auum listened.
All we had in the early days was hope. We hoped that the humans would grow bored or careless. We hoped the TaiGethen would free us. Especially as the penalties for resistance were so severe. Ystormun. That bastard. We waited for him to die because it was so obvious that without him the whole operation would fall apart. But he didn’t die. He just became ever more skeletal. More evil. I don’t know what he is but he is not human. I’d tell you to kill him, for that would solve everything, but he is untouchable. He is too powerful, even for the TaiGethen.
The humans are quite clever in some ways, though they had elven help.
Someone to tell thread from thread. Even though they had us all cornered, the ones they hadn’t already slaughtered, they still searched every building again, unearthed every hiding place.
They separated out the thread elves they didn’t want, the Ixii, Gyalans, Orrans, Cefans . . . and they murdered them. We managed to shelter a few but it was pitiful really. We were so helpless.
I remember so much screaming and crying. You know I don’t know how long it all took? I know we were all hungry and thirsty and herded here and there like pigs. They were dividing us up, you know? That was the clever part. Deciding what jobs we would do. Because that determined where we would live . . . exist.
I detest every cell that makes up their bodies; I wish the torment of Shorth upon them. But I can do nothing but respect their organisation and their attempts to divide us, flawed though they are. Funny really. They didn’t realise what a great job we’d done of dividing ourselves already, did they?
We built our own prisons then, each group. They’d mixed the threads to stop blocks forming and they made sure no group so much as saw another, let alone spoke. First we had to clear the ground. We know some were placed in the old Salt quarter, some in the Warren. Some were lucky and stayed up at the Grans. We had to clear the old boatyards, because they were closest to the river jetties and to the barges heading upstream to the logging areas.
Makes sense, there’s no denying that. We never see the rest of the city these days, unless we’re being herded to the Park of Penitence for an execution. That’s the Park of Tual to you, I suppose. At least they manage that properly. They picked the most hideous of the ancient kills of course. One of yours, I think. The old Ynissul sentence of Ketjak. Once they’ve staked out and eviscerated the poor victim, they take bets on which species begins to eat the entrails first and how long the unfortunate survives when the feasting starts.
It’s so quiet. Sometimes there are ten thousand of us and all you can hear above the rain are the victim’s screams and the taunts of a few humans. You’d think our silence was out of respect, but those who speak lose their tongues so you can understand a certain reluctance to speak, no?
Still, we have other methods of communication. The humans have never worked out the hand or head signals. Nor do they seem to notice the marks we make in the dirt or on the pens. We don’t know how much the other groups pick up but we’ve gained the odd bit of information that way. Appos knows, we have enough time.
I don’t know how much good communicating has done us. We know we all have the same conditions . . . latrine block, single dormitory, open-air kitchen and bamboo fence. One way in and one way out and all the fencing laced with wards that either shout or explode.
Anyway . . .
We live in the old boatyards because we work the trees, Appos, Beeth and Yniss forgive us. There are groups who work the timber for transport; build whatever it is Ystormun wants; farm the fields; work on the docks . . . you name it. Any manual labour. Ours is logging.
And there is one group that services the humans. Sometimes one or other of our group is taken. We used to think they were killed but we realise the truth now.
, man’s tastes are as depraved as they are godless.
We live in filth because they won’t give us enough water to wash, only to drink. We are hungry because the food they give us is insufficient and of the poorest quality. We sleep on sacking and dirt. We cannot even all sleep inside because the space is so limited. Our young ones are sick from the day they are born – we would not procreate but for the fact that Ystormun punishes us if too few are born into his workforce. We can only hold to the belief we will be freed.
That belief is being challenged. More men are arriving every day and often they are not soldiers or mages but workers. They will take our tasks eventually and then we will be superfluous. Ystormun does not want the elves to survive. We are only slaves until we are of no use, until there are enough invaders here to take our place. No one knows how long that will take.
Ystormun has only made one mistake as far as I can see, beyond not sweeping the forest to find and kill all who escaped the cities before they were closed. He thought that mixing the threads would weaken us, stop power blocs forming and lessen the chances of an uprising. For a decade, he was probably right. Not now. He has done more to strengthen the harmony between the threads than Takaar did in a millennium. Funny, isn’t it? We gather strength from each other, we pray together and we suffer together.
And we wait. We wait for you, we pray for you. You will come, won’t you?