Jadde ndash; the fragile.., p.16
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       Jadde – The Fragile Sanctuary, p.16

           Clive Ousley
 
Four days later Malkrin, Halle and their new companions bade farewell to Seara, the Senate and the Brightwater people. With them was Eighth of the Senate once the Brightwater’s greatest hunter, but now past his prime. He and Talgour represented their people and would confirm the demon hordes’ progress for the Senate. Seventeen Wolf warriors stayed behind to guard the rabid quarter-man and of the six accompanying the reconnaissance party one constantly stared at Malkrin with eyes of fire.

  Not only was it a Brightwater tradition to welcome people along the Lighthouse Bridge, but it was also custom to wish them a farewell in the same manner. The people threw rose petals at the party for this was a token of favourable luck for a good journey.

  At the far end of the bridge Halle left the party briefly to kiss Seara goodbye. Malkrin hesitated and did the same. Seara handed them each a lucky charm, it was a corn dolly woven around a sparkling yellow marble from the glass workshops. Malkrin kissed it and put it safely in his goatskin backpack. Momentary guilt washed over him as if he were betraying his beloved Cabryce by accepting the gift. He turned abruptly from Seara wishing he knew how his wife was fairing.

  He rejoined the party without looking back.

  Inevitably his thoughts returned to immediate danger. He could not relax whilst one of his Wolf warrior allies held a grudge against him. Malkrin felt the waves of animosity beat against his highsense. He signed mentally to tune it out, but left a background alert within his mind should the waves of hatred sharpen to a surprise attack. He would have to confront the man shortly. An enemy in such close proximity was not the best way to begin an important reconnaissance. Their first stop would be the Wolf people’s encampment. Malkrin hoped that the grievance filled warrior would then stay behind with his people.

  Slowly the hot sun rose and scorched them as they ran. Malkrin and Halle kept up with the arduous pace but in the midday heat Eighth-of-Senate and Talgour began to gasp in ragged heaves then stumble, forcing BerantWolf to slow the pace.

  At last in the cooling evening, the scent of wood smoke and cooking food registered on Malkrin’s senses, indicating the Wolf tribes close proximity. Minutes later an encampment emerged through dense woodland. A huge conglomeration of flapping fabric and waving banners formed a camp beside a fast flowing brook. Behind the assembly a dense wood of ancient oak and spruce trees shielded the camp. To another side a wild orchard of apple and pear trees provided a ready food supply that young children enthusiastically harvested. The tents were laid out in a vast temporary village, beside each stood a sturdy wooden wheeled cart. Malkrin surmised they held the tents and belongings of the occupants during their endless journey. People milled around, cooking food, repairing carts and tents and organising belongings.

  Chief BerantWolf was met by three burly warriors, their headdresses only slightly less ornate than Chief BerantWolf himself. They exchanged a greeting ritual of wrestling arms then listened intently as BerantWolf briefed them about events preceding his return. Occasionally the chief gestured to Malkrin’s companions. His explanations seemed to unsettle his officers and they stomped away. One gestured to another man dressed in the obligatory Wolf skull headdress but with bones hanging from his shoulders and waist in rattling strings.

  BerantWolf ignored them and led his new companions to a huge cooking fire with an ancient sooty pot suspended above, from which aromas nagged Malkrin’s stomach.

  Looking around Malkrin noticed bands of men debating fiercely, and highsensed the gathering tension. He trusted BerantWolf’s authority, however something wasn’t right. He spotted the plaited haired warrior; he was part of a particularly outspoken debate going on around the bone decorated man. Malkrin focused his inner ear on the men’s discomfort: it was their deeply held tradition again. All the men were taking the ritual journey for granted. It was the Goddess given problem he had feared would be a huge barrier to the reconnaissance. The Wolf tribe could not stop their journey either for man God or demon. He tried to figure out why they could not just pause and wait.

  Malkrin sat listening intently, amplifying the voices with his highsense. He looked up for a moment as Halle shook his head unable to summon his own highsense.

  Then he had it.

  The men refused to re-walk the ritual journey back the way they had already travelled. For timeless generations they had headed in the direction of sunrise at this point and to head toward the setting sun was against tradition. Malkrin glanced at BerantWolf; he was standing expectantly to one side as if awaiting a challenge. Again Malkrin admired BerantWolf’s ability to circumvent convention. He had proposed a change to generations of chiselled-in-stone journeying and was preparing to meet the consequences. Malkrin highsensed the plaited haired warrior arguing for BerantWolf. It was a surprise to Malkrin: a sign of the man’s loyalty.

  Some men approached BerantWolf and spoke in urgent whispers. The man with the bone lines hissed and gestured in the direction of the Brightwater mountains. Others backed him up by pointing as well. BerantWolf stood arms folded and shaking his head, loyal warriors joined him and stood immovably either side of him. The plaited haired one stood firmly on BerantWolf’s right side.

  Malkrin gripped Palerin’s pommel, things looked as if they were about to get out of hand. Eighth-of-Senate looked uneasy, although exhausted he drew a curved and polished sword and moved to join the confrontation. Malkrin wondered if it had ever slain another man and doubted it. Talgour held Eighth-of-Senate back with a hand and shake of his head then whispered forcefully.

  ‘Not our argument.’

  Malkrin added, ‘I see now how BerantWolf will resolve it. We will be safely on our journey tomorrow, do not fear.’ It was a bluff but he needed to keep his companions from adding to the dispute.

  People in the camp were running to alert other warriors, who soon appeared out of the woods and from tents. They ran over, Wolf tribesmen who knew the reason for the confrontation explained the dispute and the newcomers joined whichever side their loyalties lay with.

  The odds appeared stacked against BerantWolf as crowds of men debated. Then the women joined in, their higher pitched voices added to the mayhem.

  Malkrin was amazed the chief allowed the debate; the many raised voices seemed a cacophony of rebellion. It was impossible for his inner ear to work out who was saying this and thinking differently, or who was playing true. Most surprisingly, with all the weaponry on display not a single drop of blood was being shed.

  Then above the outcry BerantWolf’s voice rose in a single command.

  ‘Enough.’

  And an expectant hush transformed the crowd, leaving only birdsong in the trees and the bleating of the tribe’s goats.

  BerantWolf continued in a smoothing tone. ‘Cast your bones Seer, and read the Goddess’s wishes.’

  The bone-thrower gyrated in a twirling dance. His bone strings clattered and shook rhythmically. He spun faster on his heels, gradually lowering his body as if he were willing himself to drill into the ground. Then in a blur of movement, when Malkrin was sure he would overbalance in a tangle of limbs, he threw the bones in an arc around him. The bone-thrower crouched as still as a poised snake and hissed a prediction in an unearthly call that pierced Malkrin’s inner ear and sent a shiver down his spine.

  ‘If forward is chosen then doom awaits all. But if a group travel backward some will not return. Of these, some will be lost, some will live to travel again, and some will gain honour. But all that are to die will rest in the soil of a distant land. A stranger will also journey with you carrying the seeds of victory in his head. Choose right and within three moons the Wolf Tribe’s honour will be defended. A great tale of sacrifice will be told, but the Goddess’s rule will wither.’

  The bone-thrower shook like a dog shedding water and his eyes refocused. ‘That is the Goddess’s warning and her true words.’

  Reverentially the crowd fell silent. BerantWolf considered the counselling for twenty breaths, his massed companions waited quietly and expectantly. Then BerantWolf spoke.


  ‘BalthWolf has predicted doom for a few when returning along the sacred route to learn more of the demons. But the Goddess predicts doom for all if we do not act. I am convinced it is necessary to our very existence to discover how to destroy this terrible new enemy.’ He looked from one to another of his company of warriors, his eyes laden with responsibility. ‘The Goddess’s wrath will not descend on us just because we are forced to break our sacred duty for a vital task. If we do not confront the demons then none will survive to do her will – and she has assured us a courageous tale will be added to our story telling. So we will prevail.’ BerantWolf looked around his warriors and seemed to stare into each of their minds. ‘I take with me two hands of warriors. These warriors will accompany me freely of their own choice because she has decreed some will not travel the sacred route again. The rest of my people will continue the hallowed journey to the bridge of the Brightwater people and await my return. BalthWolf will guide you in my absence.’ He turned to the bone-thrower, ‘honour my decision – do not continue the sacred route past Brightwater. Send a patrol ahead toward the Seconchane to report whether demons have already passed along our sacred route.’

  BalthWolf nodded in quick agreement. Malkrin could detect no duplicity behind the seer’s agreement. He glanced at the plaited haired man, who turned to glare sparks at him and Malkrin’s concerns over the man’s hidden agenda resurfaced.

  BerantWolf stepped to one side, his features hardened and he spoke with the dread of a father asking his sons to die.

  ‘Ten loyal warriors join me here – but prepare for death as well as honour.’

  Murmurs rose and men began to discuss the situation with each other again. The muttering rose again to full debate, then in ones and twos warriors stepped to BerantWolf’s side.

  ‘Stop, I have more than enough for the quest.’ BerantWolf examined each volunteer then spoke to two of them.

  ‘Loyal ElroomWolf, you are advanced in years; and you will I fear falter with the pace we must maintain. Step back and help guard the women and children against the demons that will soon arrive to test us.’

  ElroomWolf bowed and rejoined the main group.

  BerantWolf put his hand to the shoulder of a young warrior. Malkrin thought he was the same age as Seara.

  ‘Brave Eutola, you will be as fearless as your father. But for the skirmishes we may be forced to fight. We need an experienced warrior’s strength and guile. I fear you must maintain your training with the warriors that stay. But fear not – the time to prove your worth is not many moons distant.’

  Eutola bowed and walked back to the other warriors.

  BerantWolf turned to BalthWolf, ‘Carry out my instructions tomorrow at dawn. I go now to gather information to preserve all our futures.’

  Malkrin stared in amazement at the obedience that transcended the near rebellion. BerantWolf certainly had supreme authority after all. The men dispersed and resumed their various tasks as if the dispute had never happened.

  BerantWolf walked to Malkrin and his companions. ‘Brothers,’ he began, ‘we must march at speed now, lest my people become agitated by our hesitation.’

  Then he returned to his warriors, ‘The sooner we accomplish our task the sooner we can return to our families.’

  They gathered backpacks and weapon bundles and BerantWolf led them at a fast trot with the plaited haired warrior at his side.

  Malkrin surmised the man was high in the Wolf Clan hierarchy – which made his hatred harder to fathom given his Chief’s dedication to the reconnaissance. Malkrin feared a confrontation that night when they stopped to rest. He kept close to BerantWolf to try to force the plaited haired warrior to make a move there and then. His highsense detected only background hatred, the man was not ready.

  The Wolf warriors were at the peak of fitness but not Talgour who staggered and lost pace. Malkrin fell back to encourage him.

  ‘As a court official . . . I do not normally need . . . physical exercise,’ he gasped to Malkrin’s silent query. Seeing his predicament Malkrin took his backpack adding it to his own, and then supported Talgour. The official’s chest was heaving and spittle was foaming around his mouth. After a short break, BerantWolf continued at a pace Talgour could maintain and with the lighter load the Brightwater official found hidden reserves of energy to keep up with them. A few days would see him fit, Malkrin guessed – by the look of his determination he may be at the front of the column by then.

  The repetitive rhythm of the march left time for Malkrin’s mind to wander. He viewed the setting sun as he ran and smiled at remembered text in the Brightwater library. It told how the land and sea formed a globe that revolved around the sun creating the seasons and the moon revolved around their globe. It had been a revelation but Malkrin had instantly picked up the idea along with the purpose of clocks and time divisions. He thought of his previous ignorance. Especially how Seconchane folk believed that the setting sun fought with the moon in the ground below them before the moon rose victorious. Then they considered that with the break of dawn the sun rose to show how invincible she really was. The Brenna and the priesthood had deliberately kept the people in ignorance.

  They camped that night under a small stand of trees. Malkrin and Halle had a small cloth cover each that pegged into the ground; it was a Brightwater adaptation of the Wolf people’s night protection and was lighter and easier carried. Talgour assured them they were waterproof and windproof. A text in the library had called them tents.

  Malkrin confided his fears about the plaited haired man to Halle. They decided to keep alternative watch through the night, it meant each had half the sleep of the rest of the group but it was the only solution until Malkrin found the right opportunity to confront the Wolf warrior.

  The next day the band was travelling soon after the sun climbed crimson hued beyond the eastern mountain ridges. They needed this early start before the late summer sun heated the land and dehydrated them. It was a decision Malkrin would have taken and he envied BerantWolf’s detailed knowledge gleaned from lifetimes of endless travel.

  They continued at a fast jog. Soon Talgour was running like a living corpse, already he was sweating out the extra fat and was panting less. Malkrin carried his backpack anyway; tomorrow he hoped Talgour would be able to take half of his pack’s weight.

  BerantWolf carried on the fast pace, Malkrin quizzed the chief as they ran. Apparently this next night’s camp would be near the grave of the Goddess’s war-bird. He learnt how the Wolf people paused in their journey to worship at the grave every time they passed the dead War-bird. It was an important shrine to them and signified Jadde’s celestial fight with the dark night.

  A flock of honking geese flew past and a flight of Wolf arrows brought down four. Malkrin looked forward to a filling meal that evening. Later the sun flashed on something amidst the boulder strewn valley they were passing through and BerantWolf stopped the group. As the men came to a respectful halt the Chief put his fingers together before his eyes to encapsulate the spear of light. He chanted tunefully, later explaining this was to ask the war-bird’s ghost permission to approach. The song was too much for one of his warriors, he’d only ever heard the greeting sung when travelling from the opposite direction. He howled and sank to his knees as if in pain.

  BerantWolf interrupted his welcome song at the second cry.

  The shaking warrior held his head between his arms and shrieked, ‘a curse is on us – we should never view the great Goddess’s war-bird in this way.’ His muffled words slid from tightly wrapped hands covering his face. ‘It will mean our doom.’ Suddenly he leapt up and ran back the way they’d come, howling as if he were being chased by a mountain banshee. Malkrin assumed he would run until he rejoined his tribe.

  The other warriors looked shaken and began muttering to each other again. The weight of change challenging their ingrained tradition, for once Malkrin was glad of his and the Brightwater’s beliefs.

  Malkrin, Halle and the two B
rightwater Officials sat on nearby boulders and let BerantWolf suppress his men’s superstitions. They passed around a goatskin of water and listened quietly to the ensuing argument. It reached a high pitched crescendo and BerantWolf shouted an ultimatum. Malkrin peered over the large boulder in time to see two more warriors returning the way they’d just travelled. They looked relieved, presumably because they were running in the correct direction.

  BerantWolf came over.

  ‘The faint-hearted have left. My bravest remain and have given an oath to continue and face any ordeal we meet.’

  ‘The war-bird shrine must have powerful magic to place fear in brave warriors,’ Malkrin sympathised.

  ‘Maybe,’ was BerantWolf’s simple answer and they all set off again. BerantWolf’s seven warriors were re-energised; the plaited haired one still ran at BerantWolf’s side.

  An hour later they reached the war-bird shrine. Malkrin had expected an effigy of a giant eagle or a large bird skull with an elongated beak. But his every imagined image paled in comparison to what lay on an upraised ridge. It appeared to be a pile of tangled metal, but as they drew alongside, sleek lines emerged from the confused muddle. He followed the contours of one shining wing and a long crumpled body with a central eye made of starred and broken glass. The eye’s interior was a shadowed hollow. A spindly pine sapling spread from within and shielded the metal shrine from the blazing sun like a Brenna noble woman’s sun-umbrella.

  BerantWolf snarled assertively, ‘you will not take any bone from the war-bird. You will not shout or otherwise disturb the war-bird. You will not touch with hands or feet lest the Goddess’s wrath falls on us all.’

  ‘Am I permitted to approach and worship the ghost up close Sire?’

  ‘You may, but should you violate the holy shrine then we will sacrifice you to placate the ghost-guard that inhabits this place.’

  Malkrin nodded and bowed his acknowledgement. With Halle he walked to the bird sculpture, for that was the only explanation he could assign to this extraordinary tomb. They locked their hands behind their backs in a reverential sign that they would obey BerantWolf’s instructions.

  They stopped a warrior’s height away from the main body where the one intact wing joined the main Bird. It was obvious that someone had been keeping the war-bird from becoming overgrown with grass and debris, for a bank of dead grass and bracken lay beyond leaving the area around the sculpture clear. Only a thin film off dust covered the shadowed contours with visible surfaces mainly bright but pitted. Malkrin walked up to the tree filled eye and looked within. A shout from a Wolf warrior forced him back – but not before he’d glimpsed more intricate decoration between the roots and weeds. Circular glass covered lenses were filled with mildew. Glimpses of lettering behind the lenses had stared back at him. The eye also contained a metal seat-shape with a grass cushion. It was obvious the Wolf Tribe’s external care did not include the interior of the bird.

  A suspicion formed in his mind, it fitted in with Jadde’s legend in some way, but how? Amongst the smashed interior he had spotted thin coloured ropes with jewelled boards laced into them. They felt dead, the pulses and long streets of energy had left them long ago. Jadde had deserted this war-bird in times long past.

  Suddenly he knew – it related to Jadde’s altar somehow. He could remember only too well what he had viewed all those years ago when he was alone beside her edifice.

  He looked at the bird’s one remaining wing where it joined the body. It was one solid structure – but how could such a complex and heavy bird ever have flown? The Goddess’s presence was here although not as active as in her altar. Had she actually flown within it? The matter would need great thought.

  Halle interrupted his contemplation. ‘I can feel the ghost of this place, for this war-bird did indeed fly. It did not have its own life for in that tree-pit a man sat and I felt him leave the stricken bird. He had nursed it to the ground believing he could save it, for it was one of the last of its kind. But as it extended its feet to land a wing dipped and caught a rock and it died here in a cruel landing.’

  Malkrin nodded intently, Halle’s intermittent highsense was indeed a valuable gift.

  ‘Do you see anything else my friend?’

  ‘The man was called Lieutenant-Pilot and he was important to Jadde in a way I find confusing. I must think on the other images for they are foreign to me. A presence hovers here; it has great fear of beings called quarter-men and a great sorrow for what had already been lost.’

  ‘If the great bird lost a wing then somewhere out here it must lay undiscovered and unsuspected by the Wolf people.’

  ‘That makes sense Sire. But we have not the time to look for it. The wing will have been lying beneath the grass for a considerable time and will be hard to find.’

  ‘Yes indeed. ‘Many Millennia’ are the words I found used in some Brightwater texts relating to how long ago a tribe called Sioux existed, I wonder if this war-bird was theirs?’

  ‘It would require a lifetime of study to unravel its secrets Sire. I respectfully propose we leave it at that.’

  Malkrin finished in frustration, ‘everything we read, and lots of what we see and hear relates back to the fight of the ancient people with quarter-men. I believe they are the same creatures as the Archgry.’

  Deep in thought, he wandered back to the group, and thanked BerantWolf for his permission to worship the great bird closely.

  Too soon it was time to move on. BerantWolf’s urgency to reach the quarter-men was urging them all to dig deep into reserves of stamina. According to BerantWolf’s estimates they would reach the lands of the Sylva tree-dwellers in three days run.

  Talgour made it, but only just. Malkrin helped him stumble over undulating hills, through dense woodland, boggy ground and through fast streams. It took all Malkrin’s strength and wits to support him as they traversed a heart thumping rope-bridge over a roaring torrent. Talgour was too busy mumbling and groaning to notice the flood below; it stretched Malkrin to within a bear’s fur of his strength to guide him. Then the band negotiated more streams with placed stepping stones. They mounted a hill via a wide spiral path and scrambled down the other side on scree broken with boulders and crevasses. By now Malkrin and Eighth-of-Senate each supported an arm and half carried Talgour for the last day’s journey.

  Malkrin marvelled at Eighth’s easily regained stamina, for as the Senate member explained, he still regularly led hunting parties. He could just have lounged with the Senate discussing policy, procedures and laws, but preferred the exercise and the excitement of the chase. Malkrin sensed he would be a valuable warrior should a confrontation with quarter-men arise.

  They ascended yet another hill and at the summit the view tipped down to the tops of giant trees below. Their size drew Malkrin’s and Halle’s breathe away, for the trees were twice as high as the largest they had ever seen. The topmost boughs and canopies of large emerald green leaves flowed in a complex ripple in the breeze and seemed to be waving in welcome. They started down the slope along a well trodden path with worn steps chipped into occasional steep banks. Halle was supporting Talgour with a Wolf warrior to give Malkrin and Eighth a break.

  Suddenly Talgour became aware of his surroundings. He had been here before and it seemed to reinvigorate him. ‘The Sylve, the Sylve, my friends, my friends,’ he kept repeating, then insisted on tottering downhill unassisted. It was a firm footing so Malkrin indicated Halle to release him. He noted a surprising flash of concern from the strange plaited haired warrior. They locked eyes and the concern was replaced with a stare filled with spears.

  ‘Sylva. I’m here, I’m back.’ Talgour shouted. But The Sylve weren’t listening.

  The steep slope and twisting path concealed the massive trunks. As they progressed downhill they swelled to a girth Malkrin would not have believed, he now knew what an insect felt like scurrying between trunks and roots. The behemoth trees were each the breadth of his home in Cyprusnia and seemed to spread further above
them as they drew close, as if they were expanding to defend the band. Soon small windows carved into the hollowed trunks could be seen. Some windows were hinged and open to allow the breeze to filter into the hollow spaces within. Other windows moved unrestrained in the cool breeze as if waving a welcome. Well kept paths around the boughs and small cultivated patches of fruit trees and vegetables filled the ground between the paths.

  Now they were level with the tree trunks and Malkrin noted wooden doors flapping on sturdy hinges. As they neared the first tree-home the expected welcome never formed in Malkrin’s highsense. Then Halle pointed to trampled vegetables and drew his flint dagger. An unnatural inactivity seemed to overlay the wood village. Malkrin gripped Palerin ready to draw him hissing from his scabbard.

  Halle massaged his temple, ‘something’s wrong Sire,’ he hissed, ‘the Redwoods are saddened.’

  Malkrin’s highsense remained alarmingly empty with the absence of thoughts emanating from any human or domestic animal. An evil seemed to lay stagnant below the shadowed leaves. The whole party fingered their weapons expecting a horde of rabid wildcats or wolfs or bears to leap from the deep shadows.

  They reached a central paved area where the tree roots retreated underground to provide a gathering place for the community. The space was bordered by curved stone benches forming a rough circle that could comfortably seat a hundred people. A statue of a large woodsman with raised axe lay in pieces in the centre of the clearing. The bad atmosphere congealed into hideous reality.

  The surrounding tree homes seemed to droop in failure. Their lower branches hung shredded, the beautiful emerald foliage reduced to withered brown. The bark around doorways, once intricately woven around living wood, was slashed and injured. The ground was covered in wrenched and splintered boughs, and beneath the foliage crumpled shapes lay. BerantWolf threw shattered branches from the corpse of a grey-haired woman. Malkrin noticed a broken branch had been rammed with inhuman force through her stomach, pinning her to the blood sodden ground.

  ‘This was Trisher. She was mistress of these trees and governess of the tree-dwellers,’ announced Talgour sadly.

  Malkrin looked around as his companions exposed more corpses. All had been slain in similar barbaric manner. He glanced over to where the piled remains of the tree-dweller men lay. His tracking skills told him they had run to engage the threat. All had been decapitated as they fought to protect their brethren. Silently the warriors strode amongst the tree homes, noticing severed heads, arms and legs scattered through the trees and vegetation. Malkrin’s hunter’s eyes interpreted a circle of male corpses protecting a rough ring of dead women. Then at the centre the sad jumbled corpses of elderly and children lay amongst stone seating. It had been a scene of frantic defence against a pitiless foe. Malkrin estimated there must be at least two hundred dead people here. A beautiful place had been desecrated and a valuable tribe destroyed. He hoped some survivors had fled the barbaric wrath.

  A shout rose from one of the Wolf warriors who had bent to a sprawled shape. Malkrin and BerantWolf ran over.

  BerantWolf swore in disgust as the attackers’ identity was confirmed. It was as they had all dreaded and not dared mention. ‘Demons,’ he spat the foul word.

  It lay there with ferocity frozen on its face and with an arrow skewering its windpipe. Malkrin drew Palerin and stepped aside from the black carapaced body to scan the nearby boughs lest quarter-men were about to return. His inner ear extended through the giant boughs into the small rooms within, then beyond. The spaces were clear; nothing malevolent moved, laid waiting or seethed. He finished the search and looked back to the hideous form half expecting it to leap up and behead BerantWolf with its evil bone talons. Two spears were imbedded in the joins around the carapace, but he surmised the arrow had finally brought it down. It appeared to have taken a huge effort in energy and weaponry to kill just this one creature. He counted seven crumpled and dismembered men scattered around the demon and fully realised now why BerantWolf had made such an effort to alert other tribes by capturing their quarter-man.

  ‘We must prepare, for they can’t be far away.’ BerantWolf stated. ‘But first we should look for Sylve survivors in the depths of these great roots.’ He turned to Malkrin, ‘you and your companion have great tracking skills. Circle the tree village to find in which direction the creatures have gone.’

  Malkrin nodded.

  ‘My men – search the village. You two Brightwaters climb into tree-homes either side of the village and keep watch for a renewed assault.’

  Malkrin called over Halle and silently they spent two hours circling the huge settlement. Bodies lay everywhere and Malkrin feared none of the Sylve had survived. They soon found traces of an approach and a later return through flattened grass. Splatters of fresh blood told of injured creatures returning the way they had come. Unfortunately this would be the direction BerantWolf’s band must follow to observe the main host.

  They were about to turn back when the sound of whimpering touched on Malkrin’s highsense ear. He paused and raised his hand for Halle to stop. He pointed to where the sounds were emanating, and began perceiving the nooks and crannies amongst giant roots. He directed Halle, whose intuition then led him to the exact spot. Halle spoke soothing words into a black recess between roots. Deep within, Malkrin saw a pair of frightened eyes and was impressed; Halle was learning to use his intuition gift in conjunction with Malkrin’s highsense.

  Halle continued in a fatherly voice and soon with soothing persuasion a small blond haired boy emerged. He was shaking, covered in dirt and had a cut along a tearstained cheek but otherwise appeared unhurt. Malkrin guessed he was of about seven years, well nourished and with calm eyes in spite of his recent ordeal.

  Malkrin grinned encouragement but the boy clung to Halle who ruffled his hair and offered him an oatmeal cake from within his cloak. The boy cheered and Halle led him back to the gathered warriors.

  With BerantWolf was a badly shaken young woman, she had a serious gash in an arm which Eighth-of-Senate had just stitched with cat gut. He was applying a tight bandage to help protect the wound as Malkrin and Halle reached him. The girls name was Tabra and she had helped her husband and father battle a quarter-man. When they were slain she had glanced at her people dead and dying everywhere, and in her dismay had lost courage and ran. The demon creature had followed slashing at her. An arrow had lodged in a seam in its carapace, distracting the creature long enough for it to stop and rip it out. She had fled uphill and had kept running, only returning when she’d spotted BerantWolf's party arriving.

  The girl’s language was again a variation on the Brightwater dialect and Malkrin was beginning to get a feel for the way the Seconchane-Brightwater language linked tribal dialects enabling them all to understand each other. The exception had been the fleeing Skatheln probably because they had travelled from a far distant land.

  The boy ran to Tabra and she comforted him. Both relieved to have found another of their tribe. With daylight fading the whole party withdrew to the safety of the largest tree through an entrance door reached by a wooden ladder. They hauled up the ladder after them for security. Lookouts were posted at the three small windows giving coverage of the whole tree village. Tabra explained it had been the home of Trisher the Governess and was the most well appointed tree-home in the community. They cooked a meal of rabbit and vegetable stew on a brick range. Malkrin observed how the smoke was sucked into a wide orifice of carved stone then up a circular earthenware tube. This led out of a closely fitting hole in the tree to the outside air. Ingenious, he thought. Another innovation the Seconchane could have used to make their smoke filled hovels more habitable.

  ‘We continue tomorrow to seek the main horde of quarter-men,’ stated BerantWolf. ‘We must attempt to ascertain their main direction of travel. Then estimate their strength and whether they appear organised or a leaderless rabble.’

  ‘We must not venture too close. We are too few to offer more than a token resistance
,’ Eighth-of-Senate added to a subdued chorus of accord.

  ‘Someone approaches,’ a lookout shouted from the winding stairs above them.

  Malkrin withdrew Palerin from his leather scabbard and cracked open the main door. Below was a dishevelled figure.

  ‘I am Palreth of the Sylva, and mean you no harm.’

  Tabra pushed past Malkrin and lowered the ladder in greeting. ‘Palreth, I had thought you slain.’ She exclaimed.

  ‘I too, when I wounded a demon and others came for me,’ Palreth panted as he climbed. ‘So I ran, for I believed our tribe all lay dead and I could be of no more aid.’

  They helped Palreth into the dwelling and introductions were made.

  ‘Can you estimate how many quarter-men raided your people?’ Talgour asked.

  ‘I counted two short of four hands, one was slain and five were wounded but could still travel. I followed the demons for a while until I knew they would not return. Then I ran back to bury my dead friends and family. I saw the light in Trisher’s windows and here I am with you.’

  ‘Will you join us to observe the main host of quarter-men?’ BerantWolf asked.

  Palreth thought for a moment, ‘yes, if you first help bury my people. But I have further news to report.’

  Palreth had their undivided attention.

  ‘In the distance from the hill of the fallen monument I have seen demons encamped and stopped for the night. Three separate bands of them and they’re less than a day’s travel away.'

  CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 
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