Only in harmony can we build. Only in trust can we fulfil our destiny.
They had been tracked for the last five miles of their approach. Sildaan had sensed them but even she had not seen them. Those she brought with her were completely oblivious. They had no conception of the risk they ran. Of course they didn’t. Typical of men. Strangers. Puffed up with notions of their own strength and power. Ignorant. And alive only because she was with them.
Yet she had placed her life squarely in their hands. She sighed to herself. Here, just beyond the sanctuary of the rainforest and gazing on the majesty of the temple of Yniss at Aryndeneth, it seemed a wholly ridiculous decision.
The great green and gold dome of the temple rose over two hundred feet into the air. The dome sat on a circular stone structure. Both dome and walls held multiple windows in coloured glass to beam in light across the rainbow spectrum. Every stone in the walls was carved with one of Yniss’s gifts, whether it be light, water, animal, vegetable or mineral. Great iron-bound wooden doors overlooked a carved path that ran through a grand stone apron and out into the forest.
It was on this carved path that they stood, the thirty men grouped behind Sildaan, staring out, mouths open at the sight of the temple. For a while, they barely registered those that stood on the apron in front of it.
Nine TaiGethen. Three cells of the elite warrior class of Yniss, father of the elven race. The cell that had tracked them joining the two others. Their faces were painted in green and brown camouflage and they wore clothes that mimicked the colours of the rainforest floor. In the shadows of the canopy, they were simply invisible.
Sildaan had never been on this side of them before. Their stillness was unnerving. Their unwavering gaze bored holes in her courage. Swords were sheathed in back-mounted scabbards. Jaqrui throwing crescent pouches were clasped shut. Perhaps that was why the humans appeared unworried. She pitied them their ignorance. A TaiGethen needed no edged weapon in order to kill.
‘Stop, Priest Sildaan,’ said Myriin. ‘They will not desecrate this temple.’
Sildaan felt the first ugly cut of guilt through her soul. She steeled herself. What they had come to do had to be done. She clung to that certainty as if it might escape her grasp and blow away above the canopy, taking her courage with it.
‘Myriin.’ Sildaan bowed her head and touched fingers to her forehead. ‘These are unusual times. Yniss forgive me for the company I am forced to keep.’
Myriin raised her eyebrows fractionally. ‘Unusual indeed. We noted you travelled here free of duress. As if you chose to bring them here.’
‘I did,’ said Sildaan. A ripple of anger spread across the TaiGethen. ‘Because we have no other choice.’
‘There will never come a time when elves will stand side by side with men. And these have seen Aryndeneth. You have brought them to their deaths. Why?’
‘They are not dying at your hand,’ said Sildaan quietly. ‘They are staying. This temple needs greater protection than even you can provide.’
A growl emanated from the throat of each TaiGethen. Behind Sildaan, the men tensed. Hands went to sword hilts and there was a whispering of words that she could not understand.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ hissed Sildaan in the tongue of men. ‘You cannot defeat them with blades.’
‘I will not leave my people defenceless,’ said Garan, the leader of the men.
Sildaan glanced at him, standing just behind her and in front of all of his charges. He was ugly, his chin obscured by coarse hair. He was covered in the sores and blisters of exposure to all the rainforest could throw at him, as were they all. Sildaan could have helped them but she chose not to. It was a fitting reminder of where they were and where the power truly lay.
‘You have no idea, Garan.’
‘I know they cannot beat magic.’
‘You’d better be right,’ said Sildaan. ‘Or we’re all going to die.’
‘Just do what you feel you must,’ said Garan. ‘This talking seems an unnecessary risk.’
Sildaan ignored him and turned back to Myriin. The TaiGethen warrior had moved a pace away from the others.
‘I will speak with you.’
Sildaan felt a shiver run down her back. She prayed Garan’s words would not turn out to be prophetic. She walked out onto the apron, feeling the eyes of the TaiGethen on her. Anger, deference and suspicion. They were sworn to protect the priests of Yniss but were ready to kill her on the instant she proved herself a traitor. She could feel it through her feet and smell it in the air. Close to, she could see the fury in Myriin, evidenced by the slightest tremble in her hands.
‘I bring them here with the purest of intentions,’ said Sildaan.
‘You are a priest of Yniss!’ Contempt flashed across Myriin’s face. She shook her head. ‘You contradict yourself.’
‘And you have spent too long hidden in the rainforest. A thousand years of stability are about to be swept away and the Ynissul are not numerous enough to combat what will inevitably come at us.’
Myriin straightened. ‘You’re speaking of the denouncement of Takaar?’
‘You doubt it will happen?’
‘I doubt Aryndeneth will be a target for Tuali mobs if it does.’ Myriin stabbed a finger at the men. ‘What are they doing here?’
‘Myriin. You know I respect you as I do every TaiGethen. Without you, the Garonin would have killed so many more in the last days on Hausolis. But that was ten years ago and the mood has turned against Takaar. For all those you saved, he cost all of those lives when he fled. His was the backward step. Elves of every thread are shouting betrayal. It was never possible to hide the truth. These men are here to protect the Ynissul and our faith.’
Myriin’s eyes were cold. ‘Takaar’s legacy is a thousand years of unity and harmony. Only the faithless will turn against him. We do not need the protection of men.’
‘Yniss is at the centre of our faith. Not Takaar.’ Sildaan found her anger eclipsing her fear. ‘The faithless are those who revere one elf above their god.’
‘Takaar saved the elven race. Not just the Ynissul thread. Every elf owes him a debt they can never repay.’
‘You don’t sit in the Gardaryn to feel the public fury. Neither do you hear the words spoken in every temple in Ysundeneth. You are out of touch.’
‘Clearly,’ said Myriin. ‘I missed the moment when it became acceptable for a priest of Yniss to bring heretics to the home of our faith.’
Sildaan saw the smallest tension flow through Myriin’s facial muscles. Time was short.
‘Because I care for you and your people, Myriin, I will give you this one chance. Stand down and leave the temple grounds. You cannot stop what is coming. Only those I have with me can do that. Gather your people and go. Disappear. It is the only way to save yourselves.’
Sildaan could see the word coming and it brought tears to her eyes and a veil of guilt across her heart.
TaiGethen blades whispered from scabbards. The warriors moved. Myriin held up a hand. They paused.
‘Sildaan, you will consider yourself in my custody, there to await trial for your crimes.’
Sildaan squeezed her eyes shut. She had known it would come to this but she had had to try anyway.
‘I’m sorry, Myriin. Yniss will bless you on your journey.’ She bowed her head. ‘Garan.’
‘Go prone,’ said Garan.
Sildaan dropped. She felt the TaiGethen surge towards the company of human warriors and mages. The temperature plummeted all around her. A howling wind roared over her, chilling her body. She felt ice crowding her hair and blocking her nostrils. Her mouth was raw with frost when she inhaled.
She could hear nothing but the gale of ice. She kept her face close to the freezing stone of the apron. If there were screams, they were lost to her so she added her own. Her voice sounded like her throat was being dragged over rocks. And once her breath was exhausted, pulling in another was agony.
Sildaan thought the gale was brief. Garan had said that most magic was. Yet it seemed a lifetime before the din subsided. Sildaan lay unmoving, waiting for the swift death of a TaiGethen blade. Yet all she heard were the footsteps of the men advancing towards her and her temple.
Sildaan pushed herself away from the ground, her arms unsteady beneath her. She was stunned by the cold and turned a numb face towards the temple. She barely recognised it. Ice sheathed it, obscuring the stone and hanging in spears from ledges and sills. Frost rimed the stone apron and threw a shroud across the canopy at the edge of the temple clearing. All was white.
Sildaan felt a strong hand under her arm and allowed Garan to help her to her feet.
‘Careful,’ he said. ‘It’s slippery.’
Sildaan nodded, watching the frost begin to puddle and run away to feed all of Beeth’s roots and branches. It melted from the bodies of the TaiGethen. Sildaan put a hand to her mouth. Their faces were blackened, ruined by frostbite and burned beyond all recognition. They lay in pieces. Like statues pushed violently onto their backs. Limbs had sheared from bodies, whose attitudes at the moment of their deaths relaxed as the ice deserted them.
A bird called across the apron. Sildaan started.
‘It’s so quiet,’ she breathed. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them to try and get some feeling back. ‘What did you do?’
‘I told you our magic was powerful,’ said Garan.
‘Not the half of it,’ said Sildaan. She managed a timid smile and looked at her hands. The trembling had nothing to do with the cold. Her voice fell to a whisper. ‘Still. It looks like this might be easier than I thought.’
Auum hissed in a breath through his teeth. The damage was an affront to Beeth, the god of root and branch. Crude, careless, ugly. Split branches, broken vine and trampled brush. Caused by those not born to the forest. Those whom the TaiGethen were blessed by Yniss to hunt down.
Auum knelt and traced his fingers over ground that still retained the faintest vestiges of heavy-shod footprints. Here in the middle of the rainforest. Almost as far from the coast as it was possible to get. Auum left his hand in the dirt while the rain cascaded over his body from a huge leaf just above his head. He let Gyal’s tears refresh him and the sounds of the downpour rush through him.
He stood and faced his mentor, the Priest Serrin, whom it had been his honour to protect these ten years since his escape to Calaius. The priest was tall. His head was shaven. His body, naked but for a loincloth and leather shoes, was painted entirely white. Studs and rings adorned his ears and nose.
Serrin was one of the Silent. Dedicated to mute observance of Yniss in his temples, a keeper of archives and relics.
‘Strangers,’ Auum said, rising to his feet. ‘Closing on Aryndeneth.’
Serrin’s large oval eyes narrowed. Auum could see him weighing up a decision to speak. Out here it was permitted, though the Silent struggled with the occasional necessity nonetheless.
‘Which?’ asked Serrin, his voice hoarse and quiet.
‘This is not the Terassin. It’s too clumsy for them. Men. Fifteen at least.’ Auum spat. ‘A thousand years of blessed isolation. Why couldn’t they leave us alone?’
Serrin’s eyes betrayed his concern. The first sails had been spotted fifteen years ago. Men. Promising friendship and stinking of treachery and deceit. They had been warned away from the forest. It seemed that warning had gone unheeded.
‘We’ll catch them long before they reach Aryndeneth,’ said Auum. ‘This trail is fresh and they’ll be slow. They’re carrying too much weight.’
Auum moved off along the trail. The day was half done. Rain had been falling incessantly, feeding the ground and filling the leaves of the canopy that reached up high to grab Gyal’s tears as they fell. Down on the ground it was dark. Banyan, balsa, fig, liana and vine choked the forest floor. Dense low bush spread thick tendrils that snagged the careless foot. Too much had been hacked aside. A pathway had been cut wide enough for three walking abreast.
Auum growled. It was time.
Serrin reached into a pouch on his belt and pulled out a small lidded clay pot, closed with a leather band. He opened it and dipped two fingers of his right hand into it. Keeping his face to the ground he smeared the white paint across his cheeks, nose and forehead, working it to re-cover every pore.
Auum watched him for a moment, seeing the deliberate movements and the intensity in every stroke before re-applying his own camouflage. The brown and green paints felt cool against his skin. And empowering. Auum sent a prayer to Yniss to guide his hands and keep his senses sharp. When he had finished, he saw Serrin watching him. The priest, face startling white and eyes gleaming with passion, nodded.
‘Now we hunt.’
‘Move on, it’s nothing,’ said Haleth, scratching ineffectually at his sword arm through his leather. ‘Just one of those stupid little pig things.’
‘Tapir,’ said Arshul, the whisper-thin assassin.
Haleth shrugged. ‘If you say so.’
‘No,’ said another. Herol, it was. Called himself One-Eye. Confusing considering he was blind in neither. ‘I saw something. Just a flicker. Pale like a spirit.’
‘I saw it too,’ said Rissom, the big bull-headed Racheman.
He was suffering with a fever after a bite from something horrible. He wasn’t alone of course. But at least he wasn’t whining about it though the discharge from his nose and one ear looked bad. Haleth grimaced.
‘All right, you saw it. Congratulations. But let’s move on. Unless you want to be chasing your phantom until you drop dead from snake or frog or burrowing insect. The temple is still a day away. But if it makes you feel better, Herol, drop back twenty. Take three others with you. Rissom, take two and flank right. Kuthan, do likewise on the left. Keep in sight, keep calling out what you find. And nothing heroic, all right? This is a dangerous place. Let’s go.’
Haleth set off, hacking aside the dense trailing vines that grabbed and snagged at clothing and face. Thick branches hung low from trees to grasp them and the damn roots formed hoops to trip them. On Balaia, roots went underground. Haleth cursed the Calaian rainforest, its thick sludge underfoot and its blasted insect life. Why did he ever agree to come back?
His face was a mass of bites despite the poultices and drinks the elves who’d met their ship had given them. And there were eggs in his arms and legs. Apparently, there was something at the temple that would sort that out. A leaf not present in this part of the forest. There was something particularly hideous about having insects hatching under your skin, feasting off your flesh. Haleth shuddered and scratched. He’d rather get snake bite.
‘Fucking place gets worse by the hour,’ said Arshul. ‘Don’t the rain ever stop?’
‘Stop your moaning and get up here and help me,’ said Haleth. ‘I can barely make out which way the sun is going. Your eyes are better than mine.’
‘Well you’re going to have bugs coming out of yours soon, aren’t you? No wonder they’re failing you.’ Arshul came up to Haleth’s left and chopped away with smooth movements of his blade. He looked at the light and shade ahead. ‘We’re still going in the right direction. Mainly.’
‘Good,’ said Haleth. He tripped on a hidden root and stumbled, bracing himself against a balsa trunk. ‘Bugger it.’
‘What happened to our guide? Sildaan promised us one.’
‘Sharp ears are good at promises, not so good at delivering,’ said Haleth.
Something rushed across their path, perhaps ten yards ahead. Light and shade. Quick and gone as soon as he had seen it. Arshul pointed.
‘That’s it,’ he said, voice trembling. ‘A ghost in the trees.’
‘Sighting dead ahead,’ called Haleth, his heart thudding hard in his chest. ‘Ten yards moving left to right. Heads up, One-Eye, coming your way.’
‘I hear you, boss.’
The company was still moving but very slowly. Every eye strained to see whatever it was. Haleth had a nagging feeling he recognised it, but in the downpour and almost lost in the shadows and ridiculously dense vegetation, there was no telling for sure.
He could sense the nerves of those around them. This was not in any of their experience. They’d all been on Calaius for over a hundred days, trying to acclimatise. But there was no getting used to the rainforest. Rumours had run riot about what travelled inside the canopy. Haleth knew.
‘Nothing yet,’ said One-Eye. ‘Wait. Movement. Up ahead, fifteen yards. Haven’t we – ’
The shriek from Haleth’s left was drawn from the deepest well of fear. Birds took flight and a rush of movement was heard in the canopy all around them. There was a crashing on the forest floor. Haleth, Arshul and the eight others in the central group turned, holding their swords ready. Haleth already knew it wasn’t an enemy coming. But an enemy might be right behind the runner.
A young man appeared, his face white in the gloom, his weapon gone and his mind with it. He burst through the vines and fell to the ground just in front of Haleth.
‘Kuthan!’ he wailed. ‘Kuthan’s head… So quick. Nothing to see. Nothing to hear.’
‘Talk to me, Ilesh. I need more sense than that.’ Haleth dropped to his knees and grabbed Ilesh’s shoulders. The young man looked up. ‘That’s better. Speak.’
‘There is nothing more. Kuthan’s dead. Beheaded and I didn’t even see anything. But there was something there. And then gone.’
A keening wail carried over the drumming of the rain. For a moment, Haleth thought it had to be a wounded animal. Then he heard the slicing of vegetation, terribly close. He jerked back reflexively. Ilesh’s head jolted violently to the left. Blood sprayed out over Haleth’s face. He dropped the man and scrabbled back to his feet, grabbing his sword from the mud.
Something jutted from Ilesh’s neck. A crescent blade with indented finger grips at one end. It had carved deep, slicing the jugular and lodging in the windpipe. The poor fool juddered and slumped sideways. Haleth didn’t take his eyes from the weapon. Sildaan had spoken of these things. Jaqrui, she’d called them. A signature weapon.
‘Shit,’ he breathed. ‘TaiGethen.’
A scream rang out from behind them. Shouting followed it and cries for help floated across the forest floor. Haleth turned full circle, seeing another glimpse of the ghost in the trees.
‘Everyone to me. Now! I want a circle. Clear some ground, dammit. And stand together. Stand. Arshul, behind me. One-Eye, get back here. Archers and mages in the centre. To my left. Move!’ Haleth could see fear in every face. Action helped, but only a little.
His men chopped at the vegetation at their feet, desperately trying to make enough space to stand and defend. The rain still rattled down and the gloom had deepened if anything, meaning there was yet more to come. One-Eye was leading his two back to the fold. They were trying to cover every angle, hacking at the foliage in front of them to make a path.
‘We’re watching for you,’ said Haleth. ‘Come on. Quickly.’
A shadow flashed behind One-Eye. Haleth’s throat went dry. The man to One-Eye’s left pitched forwards. Haleth saw the pale gleam of a blade. Gone in an instant.
‘Run, One-Eye!’ he yelled. ‘Run!’
Around him his men were jittery, staring out into the forest, trying to pierce the impenetrable. The ground around them was still treacherous but it would have to do. Tree trunks, vines and thick branches were going to get in the way of free swordplay. And the circle was too small. Haleth could understand their reluctance. Still…
‘Move out. Give the mages and bowmen some space. Don’t wait for a command to shoot or cast. Come on. Space. Space to fight.’
Haleth took two deliberate steps forward and gestured with his arms for those to his left and right to come with him.
‘How many of them are there?’ asked one.
‘Do I look like a seer?’
One-Eye and his sole charge ran into the rough circle. Survivors of the left flank and rear joined too. Seventeen stood and waited. Three of them with bows. Two mages. There was the sound of feet seeking firm purchase. Muttered curses and demands for more room. The whisper of spell shapes forming.
Yet around them, barring the dripping, drumming and splashing of rain, the forest had fallen silent.