Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
‘Are we bottoming out?’
Liun shrugged. ‘The depth is fine. If I know this river at all there’s a fathom beneath the keel for the next twenty miles. I’d love that to be our biggest problem.’
Liun said no more, merely pointed to the starboard bank ahead of her. Koel could see nothing but the forest crowding the river’s edge. Branches leaned out from bowed trunks, leaves kissing the water. On closer inspection, though, Koel could see a bubbling and frothing, the water boiling beneath the broad leaves of an evergreen.
‘Piranha,’ he whispered and he hurried across to the rail. Before he got there, he saw the remnants of their feast. ‘Yniss preserve us.’
A disembodied head was bobbing on the surface. Much of the flesh was gone and when it rolled in the water under the weight of attack, it revealed a torn ear. It was a human head. Remnants of bloodied clothing were trapped within a net of small branches. A larger mass bobbing under an overhang of the bank revealed itself to be a limbless torso. Other scraps could be seen among the frenzy that would ultimately leave no trace at all.
Koel sucked at his bottom lip and looked into the forest beyond the water’s edge. Elves knelt there, praying. He counted seven and there would be more. He knew them. They were a search team, scouting for new logging sites and clearing any settlements they found. It was the harshest of the slave duties; no one wanted to come upon one of their own and end their freedom.
Koel rubbed his hands over his face.
‘Launch a boat!’ he called. ‘Pick them up, any who will come with us.’
He turned away, catching Liun’s eye.
‘Why?’ she asked. ‘We will just transport them more quickly to their own executions.’
Koel spread his hands and shook his head.
‘Because we have to stand as one. And die as one if we must.’
Auum’s mind was clouded. He ran knowing he risked injury to himself and those who followed him. He ran hard down stream beds, through the grabbing, clawing undergrowth and across abandoned hamlets and villages lost to the voracious growth of the rainforest.
The haunting cry of the ClawBound calling the TaiGethen to muster still echoed in his mind. It had split the forest, reaching into the highest boughs of the canopy and penetrating the deepest valleys and most distant caves. Auum had stopped running only when fatigue forced him to rest.
‘Tai, we pray,’ said Auum.
They knelt facing each other. Rain drummed on leaf and tree. Mud on the ground moved under the weight of water draining through it. The dark of the night was complete, cloud blotting out any hint of light from the heavens. Gyal was crying in the darkness, and the gods were listening.
‘Yniss hear me, your servant Auum. We seek your blessing for the task set before us. We seek your guidance. We are few and we are alone. Cover us with your embrace as we strive to free the enslaved and rid our country of the evil of man. Deliver our souls to Shorth should we fall. Secure us from harm, guide our blades and our limbs.
‘We do your work. Hear us.’
Auum kept his head bowed for a few moments, aware that Malaar and Elyss were staring at him. He did not look up when he spoke to them.
‘You want to question me. Disagree with me. Perhaps rebuke me. But you think you do not have the authority. Fear has no place within our calling. It does not matter who I am. What matters is that I am TaiGethen and if you believe I am in error, you must challenge my decisions. I already know that you think I am taking the wrong path. Speak. My respect for you can only grow as I hear your words.’
‘You are the Arch,’ began Malaar.
‘I am elven first, Ynissul second and TaiGethen third. None of us is infallible.’ Auum raised his head and found he could give an encouraging smile. ‘Go on, before I tell you what you are thinking.’
It was Elyss who spoke, her words gushing out like water bursting from a dam.
‘Your anger has stopped you thinking clearly. Your fury at the ClawBound and your guilt over Koel’s likely fate is leading you to sacrifice all of our lives. You have schooled us in the virtue of patience for so long and yet now it seems that is all gone, washed away in a desire to prove yourself to a Bound elf. Don’t let this setback take us from our plan. We have time. The humans do not.’
Auum raised his eyebrows. ‘It should have been obvious to us, for a long time, that this thinking is just plain wrong. Serrin has learned as much and so must we. Individual humans certainly have little time, but we aren’t fighting one generation. They are endless. And with every year we get weaker while they grow stronger.
‘They are not going to get bored and they are not going to become careless. Ystormun is as strong as he is untouchable. His revenge for the ClawBound action will be merciless. The only way to hurt him is to prove we can take our people back from under his nose.’
‘That was always our plan,’ said Malaar. ‘But we have no magic to aid us.’
Auum nodded. ‘But what choice do we have? You know how many humans the ClawBound plan to kill and what that means for the slaves of Ysundeneth, or perhaps those of Tolt Anoor or Deneth Barine. Knowing that can you, with Yniss as your witness, turn your back?
Elyss and Malaar looked at each other. Their expressions were unsure and their camouflage, streaked by sweat and rain, gave their faces a mournful aspect. Auum understood their doubts. Throughout their run towards Aryndeneth he had asked himself the same questions.
Elyss was going to try just one more time. ‘We are not ready to mount such an offensive. We are not strong enough to attack them.’
‘If there is one thing the attack on Aryndeneth has taught us it is that the humans will never let us be ready. And our people will start dying again in mere days. You and I know that we have no choice.’
‘You and I know that most of us will not return, if we do this,’ said Elyss.
‘We should eat,’ said Auum. He sniffed the soaking air. ‘Guarana pods west, acai berries too. Malanga roots are all over the place here, boniata too. Gather what you can quickly. We can’t rest for long.’
The night darkened still further and the rain fell in an unrelenting surge that set the ground running with a thick and treacherous sludge. It was as if Gyal was already mourning what was to come and was pouring out her heart across the vastness of the forest.
Yet, even through the thunderous downpour, rain and echoes bouncing all around them, Auum fancied he could hear men’s screams. Fractured sounds, filtering through the deepest valleys and falling like dust from the steepest slopes. Screams of terror as unseen assailants delivered death before melting away, leaving their kills to be reclaimed by Tual’s denizens.
A new beast strode through the undergrowth. It moved with grace, it wore the forest like a mantle and it was utterly without mercy. The ClawBound had come of age.
Ystormun placed the plump cushion on the table in front of him and waited. His heart raced and he could feel the pulse in his neck thudding like a muscle tick. Although he knew it was time, he still wished that there was some warning before the actual connection, a build-up of pressure or a rising intensity of sound. Anything rather than—
Ystormun’s body jackknifed where he sat and his forehead slammed into the cushion placed on his desktop. He gasped for a breath and forced it into his lungs while the echoing clamour of voices in his head resolved into a coherent stream. He considered lifting his head and sitting upright but instead turned his head to the right so he could lie in a modicum of comfort and look through the panoramic windows.
The pressure in Ystormun’s head faded as did the pain from his impact with the cushion and the desk beneath it. He felt cold and began to shiver with the force of the wills joined with his own in the imagined halls of communion. The atmosphere reeked of disappointment and cynicism. This was not going to be an easy debate.
‘My lords,’ said Ystormun. ‘Your contact is welcome.’
The lords of Triverne were ancient and steeped in magic and its lore. Their power had gone unchallenged for decades, but now they were under increasing pressure to open their circle to change, and to include representatives from the other three schools of magic. They were a circle of six, including Ystormun, and their names ran like a threatening mantra for parents trying to scare disobedient children. If only they knew the half of it.
Pamun, Arumun, Belphamun, Weyamun, Giriamun, Ystormun.
‘We care little for your platitudes and much for news of progress.’ Pamun’s cold voice cut across Ystormun’s mind like the slap of thunder against bare rock. ‘Detail your achievements.’
‘Our experiments on tracking the use of elven magic are complete. And the destruction of much of their magical strength has taken place,’ said Ystormun.
‘ “Much”?’ asked the dry mind that was Weyamun. ‘Your reports are that inaccurate?’
‘We have had no reports at all,’ said Ystormun. ‘I tire of reminding you that this is not Balaia.’
‘Meaning?’ demanded Weyamun.
‘No members of our strike teams survived to give me accurate numbers.’
‘Yet you are certain of at least partial success,’ said Arumun, his tone dripping with contempt. ‘How so?’
‘My sources are none of your concern,’ said Ystormun sharply. ‘Trust that I am correct and that there is currently no magical strength to threaten us.’
There followed the silence he had grown to hate. When Ystormun had left Balaia he had been the strongest of them. Now he was looked upon as a mere digit on the hand of the greater body that was the other five. He had been gone for far too long.
‘We feel resistance,’ said Giriamun. ‘We sense the next logical step is not forthcoming. We have heard nothing to suggest that a change in the ultimate plan is necessary. What we glean from you is all obfuscation and delay. That cannot continue.’
‘Any of you is welcome to travel here to advise me in person.’
‘You are the appointed representative of the cadre on Calaius,’ said Pamun immediately.
Ystormun laughed and felt the righteous anger flowing across the Southern Ocean to drown his mirth. Despite the pain he felt, Ystormun spoke with as much force as he could muster, hoping to send some small part of that pain back.
‘I will continue here as long as I deem it necessary. I am here not because I am the junior partner but because I am the most capable among us. I will decide when and if the remainder are to be hunted down, and I will decide how it is to be done.’
‘Your isolation can be made permanent,’ snapped Belphamun.
‘Calm yourself,’ said Pamun. ‘Ystormun. We are a collective. None of us acts in isolation. You must hear us.’
‘I hear you far too often and with excessive volume. Before you think to instruct me, do any of you deny that this facility works? Deny that the products and resources I export to you have made you wealthy beyond your most fevered dreams and have allowed you to increase our standing army to an unheard-of level in peacetime Balaia. Do you deny that continuing our mission here will further increase our strength, wealth and influence?’
‘We deny none of these statements,’ said Belphamun. ‘Your problem, Ystormun, is your ignorance of the changing situation here. You are correct that our standing army is large, but you control more than a third of it at any one time. Those soldiers and mages are required here.’
‘The rotation must continue,’ replied Ystormun. ‘The security of this facility depends on it.’
‘Then amend the situation so your security can be maintained using hundreds, not thousands, of souls.’
‘It is not that simple.’
‘It is that simple!’ Pamun’s voice blared across the divide and every muscle in Ystormun’s body spasmed. ‘Seek them out and destroy them. They are so few and you are so many. Stop hiding inside your palace and do what you were sent to do.’
Ystormun was exhausted. The stamina required to maintain Communion over such a vast distance against minds as strong as the five lords’ was considerable. He fought to remain calm. He had to win this argument with reason.
‘One does not simply dispatch a force into the rainforest. It could swallow Balaia whole. I am already working to uncover their most secret hiding place, but to march before I have confirmed my information is foolhardy. Add to that the issue of the enemy. They are few but their skill is legendary and we have no idea how many of them now have the run of the rainforest.
‘I will not burn the forest indiscriminately to drive them out, because that robs us of resources. I will operate this task to a timescale dictated by the situation on the ground here. There is, my lords, no other way to proceed.’
‘You are afraid,’ said Giriamun.
‘I am cautious,’ said Ystormun. ‘And I am right to be. Our current understanding with the enemy means I can work against them without striking out at them, and in the meantime I can continue to harvest the forest unmolested.’
‘Your time is up,’ said Belphamun. ‘We are under threat. Our enemies know the size of our commitment in Calaius and will soon believe themselves strong enough to challenge us. You will receive no more military support and indeed you must prepare for the recall of the bulk of your army.’
‘You still don’t understand,’ said Ystormun. ‘If I embark on an undirected attack there might be no army to be recalled. Our enemies remain the masters of the forest, and there is a balance between us. Recruit more men for yourselves. Don’t threaten this facility with precipitate action.’