Authors: James Barclay
Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #General
‘Then you must prove me wrong. And so must the people of Katura.’ Auum trotted away towards the forward rally point while below the human army resumed its march south. ‘Come on. We need to know what we have left.’
Praying for the best of news but fearing the worst, Auum led his Tai to meet the remains of the TaiGethen.
Jeral, Captain of Dead Company, felt ten feet tall and invincible. They had lost in excess of four hundred soldiers and mages in the elves’ failed ambush, but there was not a man walking the valley floor who didn’t realise how much worse it could have been.
He was receiving personal messages of thanks from individuals in every company. And, in the vanguard, Lockesh had taken a moment to congratulate him on his tactics and organisation while Hynd stared at him with something akin to awe.
But as the march continued into its second hour after the fight, with mages maintaining a single-skin shield and a moving guard of mana force playing over the lower slopes, a nag was growing in Jeral’s mind.
‘How long can we keep the protection up?’ he asked.
He looked down the column towards where the generals marched. None of them had sent so much as an aide to congratulate him. He knew he shouldn’t be surprised but the worry would not dissipate.
‘It’s one of those balancing acts you’re so fond of,’ said Hynd. ‘At this cripple’s pace, the mages can maintain their concentration fairly easily, but stamina will become a problem in a couple of hours and we have little in reserve. By my calculations and your scout reports, that means we will still be in this valley when the castings begin to break down.’
‘Well, my feted captain, I think we have beaten them back far enough that they will not attack us again – today, at least. Keep the shield skin but not all along the column, and drop the mana cones altogether.’
Jeral smiled. ‘And the mages will rest while the soldiers protect them.’
Hynd shrugged. ‘Well it’s not as if you’ve had a lot to do today so far.’
‘Let’s do it.’
Jeral flinched, he couldn’t help himself. Something about Lockesh’s looming presence did that to a man, even one who was apparently in his favour.
‘My Lord Lockesh . . . twice in one day. I am honoured.’
Lockesh moved alongside Jeral and waved Hynd back a couple of paces.
‘Do not take this as any sign of weakness,’ said Lockesh. ‘But I have enough respect for you to warn you of the consequences of your success. Hynd, disguise our conversation.’
‘Immediately, my lord.’
Jeral sighed and nodded. ‘The silence from my generals has been loud indeed.’
‘It is far worse than that,’ said Lockesh when Hynd had completed his casting. His face was hard and cold, his eyes fixed on Jeral while he walked. ‘They positioned themselves in the centre of the army believing it was the best place to survive the slaughter they assumed would be visited upon us here at the head. Now, they are stuck there, humiliated by your success and hearing words of congratulation for you from in front and behind.
‘Every man in this valley knows they had nothing to do with your plan and can claim no credit for it beyond putting you in charge and expecting you to die.
‘A slighted commander is a dangerous animal, Jeral, and the last thing they want is an unlikely champion rising from the ranks. Loreb has already tried to kill you twice and discredit you once. Now all three of them detest you in equal measure. You will need your friends. Keep them close.’
‘And are you a friend, my Lord Lockesh?’
Lockesh raised his eyebrows and barked a dismissive laugh.
‘Hardly, Captain. I am a man who desires to survive, and you currently represent my best chance to achieve that. Should someone supplant you, I will turn my back on you the same instant.’
‘Well, that’s honest at least.’
‘I am never anything less.’
Jeral was silent for a moment and Lockesh continued to walk beside him. The rainforest was regaining its energy. Animals and birds were calling again. Monkeys hooted and insects rasped. The order to reduce the weight of spell coverage had passed down the column and Jeral motioned for an increase in speed.
‘You think they’ll try to kill me?’ asked Jeral eventually.
Lockesh chuckled. ‘It is never quite as simple as that.’
‘Certainly not.’ Lockesh cleared his throat. ‘Our esteemed generals achieved their positions by basking in very public success, not by muddying their own hands with the unpleasantness of career-enhancing murder. At least, they have never been directly associated with one.’
‘So . . .’
Lockesh clacked his tongue and shook his head. ‘Dear god on a pyre, has Hynd not schooled you in the political machinations of achieving senior command?’
‘Probably,’ said Jeral truthfully. ‘But I’m just a soldier. I don’t suppose I listened.’
Hynd made a noise of complete agreement behind him.
‘Then listen to me, and when you have listened consign what I have said to memory and think on what it might mean for you,’ said Lockesh.
‘I appreciate your taking the time, my lord,’ said Jeral.
‘It is not altruism, it is self-interest, and that should be your first lesson, by the way. The generals are your commanding officers and you may not question their orders, though you have come perilously close to doing that more than once. In any case, you need not worry about being placed on a charge and executed for any trumped-up reason. That would be far too obvious.
‘Indeed you could argue that while we are travelling this perilous path, you are safe from any harm directed at you by Loreb. After all, you have proved yourself capable and they, like me, have a keen desire to survive, no?’
‘That is what I was thinking, yes,’ said Jeral.
‘Hmm. Naive, sadly,’ said Lockesh. ‘Firstly, having seen exactly how to conduct the defence of the army against the elves, they will assume, erroneously, that it is simple to replicate. Secondly, they already consider themselves safe. I’m sure it has not escaped your attention that each keeps mages around him tasked to fly him from harm should the need arise.’
Jeral shrugged. ‘Actually, it seemed quite sensible.’
‘And why do you not have the same insurance on your life?’
‘Because I will fight and die as a soldier. I am a leader, not a runner.’
‘Exactly.’ Lockesh glanced back over his shoulder. ‘And that’s something on which they will utterly rely.’
‘So they won’t kill me, they’ll merely put me in positions where I am likely to be killed.’
‘Now you’re getting it.’ Lockesh smiled for the first time. ‘And should you manage to make it all the way to this mythical elven city we’re seeking, then you will see how quickly an experienced general can take centre stage when victory seems assured. And how easily a figurehead such as yourself can find himself face down drinking his own blood.’
‘You think all three of them are incompetent as leaders, do you?’ asked Jeral.
‘I’m walking at the head of the column, not in the middle,’ said Lockesh.
‘But leadership is what this army lacks,’ said Jeral, finding himself exasperated and unsurprised in equal measure. ‘Surely I make them look better by doing their bidding and succeeding, don’t I?’
‘It depends on your point of view. If you are a genuine career soldier risen to the rank of general, then yes, absolutely. If, however, you are a political animal choosing the army as your route to power in Triverne, or indeed greater Balaia, then above all things you must not be undermined by any under your command. And you, my dear captain, have undermined first Loreb, and then all three of them in very quick order.
‘Now you are marked. Accept it. Check your food. Check your boots before you thrust your feet into them. And the moment we are out of this valley and in slightly less dangerous terrain, look behind every order Loreb gives you. None of them will be to the benefit of the army.’
‘I’ve always said the wrong people are in charge of this army. It needs changing,’ Jeral said and regretted his words instantly.
Lockesh caught and held his gaze and Jeral expected the rage he saw in the mage lord’s eyes be given voice. But instead Lockesh’s eyebrows lifted the merest fraction and his head inclined by the smallest degree.
‘I must return to the generals before my continued presence here is noted,’ said Lockesh. ‘And you, Jeral, must heed my words. And your own.’
Lockesh turned aside. Jeral fought not to watch him go, keeping his eyes on his feet.
‘Still got that spell going, Hynd?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ said Hynd, his voice small.
‘Did he really just suggest what I think he did?’
Hynd’s next affirmation was even smaller.
Today, I told Tulan and Ephram to forsake the Cloak and wait for the chance to strike back. It could be a long wait. I know what I must do to keep them alive. Methian tells me I will lose my sense but I have placed my trust in Tual. My soul is pure. I am strong enough to resist the nectar’s charms.
Final entry in the Diaries of Pelyn, Governor of Katura
Takaar stood for a moment to let his raging emotions subside. Of all the things he had expected to see in this room, this was not it. Ten days before, he had felt the sick rush of mass castings and had known the TaiGethen were failing against the might of human magic. He had known his path was the only one which could save the elves and that he must reach Katura quickly to remove those he needed from the enemy’s path.
So he had run as only a TaiGethen can, while the Senserii brought his young practitioners towards the agreed meeting point half a day shy of the palm of Yniss and hidden from the suspicious eyes of Katura.
Night had given him the anonymity he needed and his faded skills were more than enough to see him into the hall of the Al-Arynaar and unseen into the Governor of Katura’s chambers.
All for this. To have his brief flicker of hope crushed, leaving only emptiness and anger, disgust and betrayal behind. The stench in the bedchamber was dreadfully familiar. Smoke still rose from the pipe that lay discarded on a low wooden table by the bed and a small leather bag lay next to it, the merest hint of its contents sprinkled near the neck.
Pelyn lay on the filthy sheets. She was naked. One arm hung, elbow locked and hand limp, over the edge of the bed. She was probably unconscious but it was impossible to be sure with the three Tuali
obscuring Takaar’s view. Two watched the third abusing her body, which moved slackly in response to his thrusts.
All three had their backs to him and he crossed the floor in complete silence. Two paces behind the watchers, able to hear their repulsive comments over the sick grunting of the third, he stopped and drew his blades.
Let it flow.
For once, he was in total agreement with his tormentor.
‘I think you’ve seen enough,’ he said.
spun around, their mouths dropping open in almost comical synchronicity. One held out a hand in a placatory gesture. Takaar rammed a blade up through each chin, skewering their mouths shut. He left the swords where they were and walked between the
, who grasped at the hilts while blood trickled from their mouths, their voices silenced by desperate drowning gurgles.
was so focused on rape he hadn’t even realised his friends were dying. Takaar reached forward and clamped a hand on the back of the his neck, dragging him off Pelyn and throwing him to sprawl over the bloodied, still moving bodies of the others.
He screamed and scrambled off them, tried to cover himself while backing away towards the door and an unlikely escape. Takaar checked Pelyn was breathing before he pounced on the rapist. He pushed the Tuali towards the centre of the room and pulled a dagger from its ankle sheath.
‘This is how you choose to rebuild the strength of elves? By defiling my Pelyn?’
frowned, confusion briefly replacing the fear in his eyes. Takaar whipped a cut into his chest, drawing a line of blood. He yelped.
‘Do you know me, boy?’ bellowed Takaar into his face. ‘Do you know me?’
‘You . . . ? I—’
Takaar danced around him. He sliced the skin across his back three times before the
turned to face him. There were tears in his eyes and a dread fear caused his body to shake. He held out his hands, pleading.
‘I am Takaar, and though my crimes cost the lives of so many, I never stooped so low as you have.’
Takaar’s blade flashed across the Tuali’s abdomen. He cried out and tried to back away. Takaar capered about him, pushing him, cutting him.
‘That you dared defile my Pelyn earns you an eternity of torment before Shorth. But your crimes are far worse than that. Who do you represent?’
Takaar’s dagger hand twitched and a cut appeared above the ula’s eye. Blood beaded, ready to drip. He whimpered and lost control of his bladder.