Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
Malaar and Elyss pushed the humans back, shouting for quiet, calm and stillness. Whether the humans understood the words or not was doubtful, but at last some of them were beginning to grasp the situation. A mage barked something at the warriors and both put up their swords.
Auum bounced to his feet and deliberately faced the ClawBound, who circled them, menacing and furious. He tried to meet Serrin’s eyes, and when the tall, tattooed former Silent Priest stopped in front of him he wondered if he and his Tai were about to die alongside the humans: Serrin’s eyes were barely elven at all.
‘Do not do this, Serrin,’ said Auum, holding out his hands to placate his erstwhile mentor. ‘All this will do is kill more elves.’
Auum was aware of the Claws positioning themselves for an attack. The Bound elves with Serrin stood back to let their leader decide the fate of them all. Serrin let his eyes travel over both man and TaiGethen, settling once again on Auum. The yellow irises inside bloodshot whites surrounded pupils which bored into him. Auum could feel the contempt radiating from him.
‘Serrin, please. I know I cannot stop you from killing these strangers, but I would be forced to try.’
Serrin growled, and Auum shuddered at the sound. His life and those of his Tai rested on how much of his old mentor had survived the last hundred and thirty years. Serrin clicked his tongue and motioned with a hand, and the Claws surrounding him gathered to spring. Elyss gasped. Malaar’s hands moved reflexively.
‘Don’t touch your weapons,’ hissed Auum. ‘Serrin, hear me.’
Serrin was studying him the way a predator studies new prey, weighing up risk and reward. The Bound elf’s fingers were latticed together, the long sharp nails itching absently at the backs of his hands.
‘Serrin, you know me. I am Auum. I am not trying to protect men. I am trying to save elves.’
Serrin hissed out a breath.
‘I need you to leave these enemies with me. They will steal nothing and they will never set foot in the rainforest again. This I swear, as I stand before you and Yniss. Call off your Claws. The deaths of these vermin are not worth the retribution we will suffer within the walls of Ysundeneth.’
When at last he spoke, Serrin’s voice was rasping and quiet.
‘Too late.’ He licked his lips. ‘Others run unchecked.’
Auum’s throat was dry. Around them, the rain fell harder still. Perhaps Serrin smiled, or perhaps it was the ghost of a memory.
‘Wherever men defile, we cleanse,’ said Serrin. The Bound elves in the abruptly tight space began to hum a single flat note.
‘Yniss preserve us,’ whispered Malaar. ‘There must be forty groups of men and slaves in the forest at any one time.’
‘At least,’ said Elyss.
‘Serrin, please, listen to me,’ said Auum.
The humans were growing nervous behind him, detecting the desperation that had crept into the voices of their unexpected saviours. Serrin stared at Auum for an eternity before he inclined his head.
‘Thank you.’ Auum took a breath. He had one shot at this. ‘I respect your tasks as set before you by Yniss. I love you for your diligence, and for the understanding and forbearance you have shown across the long years. You know my desire to see every human dead or fleeing north across the Sea of Gyaam.
‘But for every man you kill today, ten elves will die in the slave cities. Your actions cannot be justified under Yniss. Not until we are strong enough to liberate them all.’
Serrin merely shrugged.
‘That day is eternally distant,’ he said. ‘We will wait no longer.’
‘And those elves you abandoned on the riverside today. What of them?’
Serrin looked nonplussed.
‘They are free.’
‘They are not.’ Auum knew his tone was pleading but there was nothing else left. ‘I thought the same. But they have to go back.’
Another shrug. ‘They are weak.’
‘No!’ Panthers growled and the Bound elves’ flat humming ceased. Serrin’s eyes widened. ‘They are strong, stronger than you or I, and worthy of saving. If they do not return, they sentence hundreds to death. And so they are returning to face death themselves to save their fellows, while your slaughter of twenty humans today means two hundred elves will die. That is the measure of their sacrifice. And now you will render it pointless.’
‘They had a choice.’
Auum’s anger overcame his caution and he advanced on Serrin.
‘A choice? Whether to let those they love live or die? Yniss preserve me, that is not a choice.’ Auum gulped a breath. ‘Damn you, Serrin, you know I am right. You waited and watched for so long. Why act now?’
‘Because we cannot free them. But we can free our forest.’
‘Damn the forest! These are
not the branches of trees. Our people, with their souls in torment. We swore to free them. Have you no compassion? No mercy?’
Serrin frowned. Then he shrugged for a third time.
The bulk of a panther thumped into Auum’s hip, flinging him sideways and out of the ClawBound’s way. He raised his arms in front of his face, turning his head just in time to avoid collision with the broad trunk of a banyan, and fetched up in a heap with the panther sprawled across him but already moving away. Auum scrambled to his feet. He was just four paces from the humans but it might as well have been four hundred.
Serrin strode forward and stabbed the fingers of his right hand through the nearest mage’s neck. One of the warriors reacted fast. He was up, blade in hand, his mouth open to shout an order. It never came. A leaping panther locked its jaws around his skull.
The Bound elves moved in behind Serrin. One moved to block Malaar and Elyss. The other two launched horribly effective attacks. A mage screamed as sharpened teeth sank into his shoulder and he was borne to the ground. The lash of a claw silenced his cries. Another tried to cast but nails slashing into his face and eyes blinded him and ripped through his flesh.
Panthers howled bloodlust. Auum heard a skull crush under the pressure of immensely powerful jaws, and then the delirious shrieks of Bound elves admiring their handiwork. They licked blood-drenched fingers and palms and smeared the dark red of human life across their faces.
‘Stop! Stop!’ screamed Auum.
It was frenzied, more akin to a pack of animals descending on helpless prey than the precise attack of an elven elite. Beyond the brief orgy of bloodletting, Malaar and Elyss stared on open-mouthed. Auum seized Serrin by the shoulders and pulled him back.
‘Stop! Serrin, for the love of Tual, for the sake of your soul before Shorth, stop!’
Serrin spun round and bared his teeth. Blood streamed from his mouth and was smeared across his chin. His expression was blank, his eyes showing no recognition of Auum. The TaiGethen pushed him away, heedless of the risk he might be taking.
‘The Serrin I knew would never stoop so low. This slaughter is not elven. We are all equal in the eyes of Shorth.’
‘The Auum I knew would never hide in the rainforest while his people were enslaved by man. Perhaps you are the one who is no longer elven.’ He placed a bloody hand on his chest above his heart. ‘Perhaps, in here, you no longer have the will to fight.’
Even the panthers fell silent at his words. Auum’s eyes never left Serrin’s. Neither of them would blink. Auum considered their proximity, their relative speed of hand and he calculated the time it would take them both to draw sword or dagger. It was too close to know for certain.
‘Call the TaiGethen to muster at Aryndeneth.’ Auum tapped his head. ‘You do remember how to do that, don’t you?’
For a century and a half, the call of the ClawBound had summoned the TaiGethen to muster in the gravest of times. Without them, Auum did not know how long it would take to gather his people together or if he even could. Serrin stared at him a moment before inclining his head.
‘It will be done.’
Auum ran from the scene of slaughter, his Tai at his back.
When I first visited Garan, he thought I was there to kill him. He was wrong. I was there to kill Ystormun and had climbed into the wrong room. It was an error which saved my life in more than one respect
Takaar, First Arch of the Il-Aryn
Takaar scaled the wall and climbed through the small window left deliberately ajar for him. Night was full, clouds were gathering to disgorge new rain and the city was pitch black but for the torchlight illuminating the entrances to key buildings. He could smell the filthy conditions of the elven slaves even more clearly than the stench of man.
His eyes pierced the night, giving him a clean view of the bedroom he entered. It was large. One door led to a washroom, another to a landing where guards and helpers stood. Within the room, a plain single bed and a large threadbare armchair stood in the centre of a wooden floor covered in thick rugs. Tapestries hung on the walls to keep out the draughts, but the room was otherwise without furnishing or decoration, barring a pewter chamber pot and a mug of water at the bedside.
The man in the bed watched him drop lightly to the ground, his eyes shining wet. Takaar heard a gravelly clearing of the throat and a dry chuckle.
‘I wondered how long it would take you to get here,’ said Garan, his voice a rasping whisper that Takaar could barely hear. ‘I’m sorry about what happened.’
Takaar sat, as he always did, somewhere Garan could see him without having to raise his head.
‘Really? Is that why you forgot to warn me last time I was here?’
Garan sighed. ‘You have a rather exaggerated view of my influence and knowledge.’
‘You are not yet deaf.’
‘Nor are you a comedian.’
‘Spare me one thing in my ridiculously endless life.’
Takaar smiled. ‘Friendship with an elf?’
‘I guess that’ll have to do.’
Takaar knew that Garan could barely make him out, the natural human inability to see in the dark combined with Garan’s poor eyesight. In some ways it was a shame they could only meet during darkness. To Garan, Takaar was little more than a silhouette.
‘So? No need to be shy,’ said Takaar. ‘Tell me which new part of your body has stopped working or else dropped off entirely.’
Garan’s eyes closed for a few moments before he spoke. ‘Sadly, I am slightly recovered. A couple of days ago one of Ystormun’s researchers tried a new technique for cleansing my kidneys and it appears to have worked.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘Bullshit. If I died who on earth would you talk to?’
‘No, I meant it. But you’re right of course.’ After all these years, he still couldn’t reconcile his feelings towards this human. ‘And don’t deny you love being a paradox.’
‘I want to be dead,’ whispered Garan.
Takaar felt a squeeze on his heart. ‘Then let me kill you. Such a gift, to send you to Shorth’s embrace.’
‘I can’t let you. After all, then who would you have to talk to?’
‘Now who’s talking bullshit?’
Garan was silent for a while and Takaar wondered if he’d fallen asleep. But his eyes opened presently and when he spoke again, his rasping voice was softer.
‘Why are you really here, Takaar? Not to chastise me for the attack on your people, I’m sure.’
Garan gasped and Takaar tensed, but he knew better than to mop his brow or clutch a hand.
‘I thought you said you were improving?’
‘They haven’t quite sorted out my gut yet. Still dissolving in its own acid, or so it feels. So. Why are you here?’
‘I’m sure your mages have been able to detect the Il-Aryn and its principal location for decades. So this attack is . . . a change in strategy, isn’t it? It’s provocative. I expect humans across the rainforest are already dead as a result. And none of your temple attackers survived.’
‘Oh? I thought you always let one go to spread the fear.’
‘I changed my mind.’ Takaar shrugged. ‘I was going to, but I didn’t hear what I needed to.’
‘An answer to the question I just asked you. And I’m happy to kill you too, whether you answer it or not. Just say the word.’
‘I see I’m not the only one who’s not a comedian.’ Garan was wheezing. ‘Damn. Need to turn over. No muscle to speak of in the chest you see, so eventually my lungs slide together. Or that’s how it feels. Quite painful.’
‘I can imagine,’ said Takaar.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. And don’t even think about helping me or I’ll call the guards.’
Ah, another test for your oh so fragile emotions
‘Leave me,’ hissed Takaar.
I don’t think so. This promises to be such
Garan began to move and Takaar’s eyes brimmed on the instant. He couldn’t take his eyes from Garan’s face, twisted in agony. His features, so aged and wrinkled, his flesh so thin and loose that he was utterly unrecognisable as the man who had escorted Takaar, bearing the body of his beloved Katyett, from the city a hundred and fifty years ago. Only his eyes, which retained their cynicism and surprising intelligence, gave the man within away.