Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
Auum listened to it all as if he were walking in a dream. Only at the last did Koel’s desperation leak through. The two of them had walked a way into the canopy, and Auum indicated they should return to the clearing.
‘How many logging gangs are there?’ asked Auum.
‘Thirty. We are destroying the forest much faster than it can regrow. Beeth screams his pain. Appos roars his fury.’
‘But not at you. At man.’
Koel shrugged. ‘We could refuse to raise our axes.’
‘No, you couldn’t,’ said Auum. ‘I see that now. Gather your people. Let me speak to them before you go.’
Back at the clearing, the gang was making ready while food was being prepared. Barges had sail canvas ready to fill. The smells of roasting meat floated on the light breeze. Koel called his people to him, and Auum watched them come: Apposans, Beethans and Orrans for the most part but two he recognised as Ixii. Their exhaustion was plain in every pace they took and in every stumble on the uneven ground. All of them wore the same expression, one which told of an inescapable fate approached with courage. Auum’s heart swelled with pride.
‘It is for you that I do what I do each day,’ said Auum. ‘The strength of the elven race lies in our spirit and our faith. In a hundred and fifty years they have not broken your spirit. And in that same time you have learned to love elves of every thread.
‘I am proud that I have met you and spoken to you. And I shall speak of each one of you in my prayers. I shall use your strength and your determination to inspire all free elves I meet. Your story will be told throughout the rainforest.
‘But even as my spirit soars with the dream of freeing you, I must urge you to remain strong. Do not lose faith, even in the years that might pass before you are freed. We know we can beat them blade on blade but we have no answer to their magic. Until we do, we cannot hope to rid Calaius of man.
‘Speak, any who will.’
For a time there was an awkward silence but then a hand went up. Others followed. Auum picked one at random. He was a Tuali, sunken-eyed and pale with a fever.
‘What was it that attacked the masters?’
Every other raised hand was lowered. Auum gave a rueful smile. In their captivity they had missed the evolution of a whole new breed of elf.
‘You knew them as Silent Priests, though even then they were seen rarely enough. Now, they call themselves the ClawBound. They have reverted to nature and run with panthers.
‘Today’s attack followed a human raid on Aryndeneth. Many good elves were killed, elves who had been training to help free you. But the ClawBound do not take orders from the TaiGethen. They exist to cleanse the forest, to return it to its pure state.
‘To them, humans are a disease, a fungus that must be eradicated from the canopy. And while they would never harm an elf themselves, they are deaf to the consequences of their actions. They understand what we are trying to do, and why we are waiting until we have sufficient strength, but man crossed a line when they attacked the great temple of Yniss and we could not stop the ClawBound.’
A mutter ran through the gang. The sentiment was plain, but Auum could not understand much of what was said. Koel helped him out.
‘Too many of the humans now know some elvish, so we’ve developed something else. We’ve had plenty of time to, after all.’
Auum smiled. ‘The will to win is greater than the desire to surrender. What are they worried about?’
Koel shrugged. ‘They want to know if the ClawBound will strike again.’
Auum sighed. ‘I have no reason to think they will stop now.’
Hearing his words, a collective gasp went up from the gang. Koel’s voice was hollow.
‘You have to stop them. We told you what will happen. Two hundred elves will die as a result of this attack alone. The humans do not care if we all die; they will simply accelerate the influx of human workers. All the ClawBound will achieve is to bring more humans to Calaius. Don’t let them waste all we have lived and suffered in hope for. We want to die free.’
Auum shook his head. ‘I cannot believe they would slaughter their entire slave workforce merely to replace it with humans. It makes no sense. It goes against all reason.’
‘You don’t know them,’ said Koel. ‘We do. Our lives mean nothing to them. The moment we fall sick or are deemed too old to work, we are taken away to die in the cells beneath the temple of Shorth. We are no more than animals to them. And they would kill us all if they thought it would draw you into a fight to the death.’
Auum closed his eyes briefly in silent prayer before looking to his left where Malaar stood waiting.
‘Where did they go?’ asked Auum.
‘The tracks are separate but all head north and seem to converge on the same point. They never move in a pack unless on the hunt.’
‘Yniss bless our limbs, may they be swift and sure.’ Auum turned to Koel. ‘Do you have other gangs further upstream?’
‘No. We are the northernmost on the Ix.’
‘Then they are tracking gatherers. Koel, have your people eat their fill then go with the blessing and prayers of the TaiGethen. Catch up with the human the ClawBound let escape. Take the logs too. Perhaps bringing them will speak for you. I swear that I will stop the ClawBound, and if I fail, I will break into your compound and rescue you myself.’
‘Appos bless you, Auum, all of you,’ said Koel. He made a circling gesture with one index finger and his gang began running for the barges. ‘Somehow, we’ll let the others know, and urge them to keep the faith.’
‘Do that,’ said Auum. He drew Koel into an embrace. ‘Man will die. You will be free. But eat first, please.’
Koel smiled. ‘We’ll eat on the move.’
Auum watched Koel climb onto the lead barge and order the sail raised. The flotilla was soon sailing, the nets holding Beeth’s hewn trees strung between them, the cargo rumbling and splashing as it began its journey downstream to Ysundeneth.
Elyss came to Auum’s side. Malaar extinguished the cook fires.
‘Those are bold promises, my Arch Auum.’
‘And I will keep them,’ said Auum. ‘Tai, we move.’
The elven strength of will is simple to exploit. They do not seem to realise that their extraordinary determination to survive until that mythical day when they are liberated is exactly what I desire from them
Diaries of Ystormun, Lord of Calaius
Serrin rested beneath the beauty of the canopy, hearing Gyal’s tears pattering against the broad leaves above his head before finding their way to the ground to bless the undergrowth and all the creatures living there. With his brothers and sisters gathering around him, he led their prayers. The Bound elves knelt in a circle around the great bole of a banyan tree, their panthers by them, guarding them.
When prayers were complete, Serrin sat with his back to the tree and savoured the taste of human blood on his lips and fingernails. It was the taste of the first blow struck against man in a hundred years. It was a breaking of the shackles imposed by the TaiGethen.
Serrin grunted his pleasure. Above his head, a broad leaf collected water, directing it onto the ground in a steady stream. Serrin moved his head and drank the water, its sweetness diluting the salty taste of blood on his tongue. His panther sat by him, sampling the air. Her whiskers twitched and sought alien movements in it, her nose held high.
Serrin breathed in the scents she detected. The freshness of the rain was everywhere, covering those thousands of Tual’s denizens sheltering nearby. The richness of the earth and the sweetness of sap and nectar were stained with the stench of man.
Serrin stroked his Claw’s head.
They are hiding behind their magic. Wait, joy of my mind, and they will tire. Their bodies will sate your hunger soon enough
The panther relaxed and lay down on the soaked ground, grumbling in her throat. Serrin scratched her beneath her chin and then settled back himself.
The sleep of the ClawBound is cleansing and replenishing. Tual keeps us free from harm while Yniss wraps us in his embrace. We are the children of the rainforest and we are the keepers of Beeth’s realm. We are the righteous. We are the just
Serrin awoke. His Claw was standing, her body tense, flanks rippling. She sniffed the air and Serrin experienced a flood of odours. Most were pure, blessed by Beeth or Tual, but one was sick and acrid: their prey had stopped, either to rest or to steal. Serrin rose fluidly to his feet. In the shadows around him, five ClawBound pairs moved with him. Serrin inclined his head; time to hunt.
Serrin’s Claw moved ahead by thirty or forty paces. Her whiskers filtered the air as she determined the distance and location of the intruders. Six of them. Two stank of metal and muscle and fear. The other four carried that unique complex odour, part poison, part beguiling. It meant mages, dangerous but weak of body. Serrin clicked his tongue and gave an avian whistle.
Tread slow, strike silent
Auum ran. Malaar and Elyss followed in his boot prints. His eyes were everywhere. The rainforest had no time for the careless. He ducked low branches, hurdled dense scrub, pounded up shallow streams and whispered between the packed trees and vines that choked the space all around him. One slip in this race and they would fail. Auum dedicated his soul to Yniss for the thousandth time.
Ahead and to their left the ClawBound were closing on their victims. Rain suddenly plummeted around them, an extraordinary downpour, blotting out every other sound.
‘Bless you, Gyal,’ he whispered.
He glanced over his shoulder. His Tai were with him, concentration pinching their faces. They were good, these two. Sure of foot and trusting in their instincts. Auum trusted them. It was the greatest compliment he could pay them.
About thirty paces away, through the gloom of rain and shadow, Auum saw the dull sheen of metal. A glimpse was enough, caught in the dim light as the raindrops struck it. A blade, presumably meant for comfort and convenience, which had become a careless marker attracting a hunter’s eyes.
The merest hint of movement to his left stilled his own. He turned his head very slowly, his eyes meeting those of a panther. The animal’s gaze penetrated his soul. She growled at him, focused her attention on her prey and bolted.
‘Run!’ shouted Auum.
All pretence at quiet was gone. Auum sprinted headlong through the forest. His blade hacked at liana to clear his path, his feet kissed the sodden ground, every step like a clap of thunder to his ears. Elyss was just beyond him on his right, her speed prodigious. Malaar was just behind him, his breathing measured and his movement fluid.
Ahead, the humans were moving, panicking. The rainforest had exploded with sound all around them and yet they could see nothing. Their eyes, poor enough in the daylight, were hopeless in the gloom. So they stood, and the mages began to construct their magic.
‘Elyss, Malaar, get amongst them. Weapons sheathed.’
The two TaiGethen cruised past Auum. To his left, panthers roared and Bound elves shrieked and hollered, sending Tual’s denizens scampering in panic in all directions. Auum re-sheathed his blade, ducked his head and powered through the undergrowth, desperate to stop the Claws ripping the throats from men and so spilling the blood of innocent elves.
A sleek black panther ran by his side, eyes fixed on her target. Her teeth were bared, her body tensed to spring. Auum could see the humans clearly now. They stood in a circle among a tangle of vines, not knowing which way to look. The warriors, each flanked by two mages, were shackled by their fear while their charges were lost in concentration, trying desperately to cast before it was too late.
‘Serrin!’ yelled Auum. ‘Draw back. Please.’
But they would not hear him. A mage cast. Flame lashed into the forest to the right. Tree trunks were scorched black, branches and leaves were turned to fire and ash. Creatures screamed and ClawBound pairs cried their fury. The panther by Auum leapt.
Auum dived headlong, bursting through the veil of liana in front of the terrified group of men. He could feel the panther next to him, smell her raw scent. One of the mages opened his eyes to cast and screamed instead, seeing what approached. Right before his eyes, Auum and the panther collided.
The beast’s weight spun the TaiGethen out of control. Auum crashed flank on into the mage and the warrior standing by him, knocking them to the ground. The panther’s claws missed the mage by a hair and she yowled in fury. Her shoulder struck the ground and she ploughed into the mud, scrambling back to her feet in an instant.
Chaos fell on the tiny circle of Calaian rainforest. Auum rolled across the bodies of the humans he’d just saved, hands and feet pushing away while he called for them to put up their blades. Elyss flew straight over his head, cannoning into two mages and knocking both to the ground. Malaar turned a forward roll in the air, landing in front of Auum, trying to shield him from man and ClawBound alike while he got to his feet.
He saw paws swipe at enemies and heard a human cry of pain. The white-painted faces of Bound elves loomed into his vision, lips drawn back over sharpened teeth and snarls issuing from throats. The pairs crowded in, seeking clear targets as the TaiGethen cell tried to cover every angle and simultaneously protect themselves from the humans, who would have no idea who was attacking them and who, confusingly, was defending them.