Read Sword Play Online

Authors: Clayton Emery

Sword Play (3 page)

BOOK: Sword Play
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Sunbright saw himself in his dream, a skinny lad with hair so blond it looked white, reaching for the sword month by month, measuring his height until he was tall enough to cut his finger on the blade and so share his father’s blood, then tall enough to take Harvester down and practice with it, though it hadn’t yet been granted to him.

He saw himself besting the other boys and girls in combat with swords sheathed in reindeer hide, being first the best fighter in the Raven clan, then the best among all the youths of the Rengarth tribe. He relived the night by the ritual fire, the flames heaped with all his childhood possessions and clothes, and the scalp of an enemy, a hated Angardt tribesman killed by his own hand. At this final test of manhood his mother had granted him his father’s sword, Harvester of Blood, and gave him a new name. No longer would he be called Mikkl, for “Scrawny One,” but Sunbright Steelshanks, for his hair so bright and legs so sturdy that he could outrun everyone in the tribe, youths and adults alike.

That had been a year ago, but only seconds in dream time, for the past was always with him, as was the scowling face of Owldark, the tribe’s new shaman, given to fits of rage when his head throbbed so mightily his eyes bulged and his face turned as red as a sunset. Owldark, who’d watched the boy with envy and hatred, who sensed the youth’s shamanism, mighty like that of his father, Sevenhaunt. Owldark, who cried one night that he’d seen a vision of Sunbright standing over the tribe with a bloody sword in hand, fire and smoke filling the horizon, even the livestock slaughtered, and Sunbright the cause of the destruction. How the village elders had conferred then, smoking rank sumac leaves and red willow bark day and night, arguing whether Sunbright should be killed outright or sacrificed to the gods, for Owldark’s prophecies always came true.

And so had come the night, only six past, when Monkberry had awakened him, hissing, “They come! Take this and depart!” She kissed him and pushed him out a hole cut in the yurt’s leather side, while she remained to face the council and their wolf-masked executioners.

For days Sunbright had fled over the tundra and, coming to the mountains, had crossed them and entered the lowlands. Friendless, clanless, miserable, a burning thirst for revenge was now his only companion.

He tossed in his sleep and would have cried out had not the need for silence been beaten into him during his early years. The pictures, the sights and smells of his people’s lonely encampment on the gray, flat, unending tundra, rose and swirled and blurred together. Sounds of shouting, or wood crackling, or bones splintering grated in his ears, came closer, louder…

Sensing an enemy, Sunbright jerked upright.

But it was only a murder of crows, nine or more, winging low over the gorge, cawing and croaking and carrying on.

But a flight of disturbed crows often meant something on the move, and so the barbarian, still sitting, nocked an arrow and waited. And more came. From the south, where the gorge followed a jut of the Barren Mountains and scrub forest continued, a badger scuttled to the top of a flat rock, boldly sniffed the air in front and behind it, then slid around the rock and out of sight. Two snakes, intertwining, spilled over the edge, into holes and out of them, still traveling, a very odd thing. Even an owl winged from the forest, silently, and sought another patch of shadow in which to hide.

What could be pursuing them? A forest fire? Sunbright covered his mouth and sniffed deeply, but sensed no tang of smoke. What else, then? Some magic? A wolf pack? Another orcish patrol?

Debating whether to stay and watch or go, Sunbright detected the faintest of footfalls up on the forest flat. That sound he knew. Leaning forward for a better shot, he drew his bow to half-nock, made sure he could draw fully …

Here they came, bounding over the edge like a river of tawny bodies: roe deer, shaggy and dappled white on their red backs. There were a dozen at least, leaping high but barely skipping as they landed, like stones across water, bouncing like heath hares.

Pulling to full nock, Sunbright instinctively aimed for the longest-bodied animal with the knobby horns. An elder male, past its prime. The gods would not begrudge him that. He aimed for the spot where the buck would land, loosing an arrow at nothing. The string kissed his cheek, the arrow vanished, and the deer leapt full into its path. With a thunk the arrow slapped through the stag’s heart. Stalled in its leap, the animal banged its jaw on the earth as it somersaulted. By the time Sunbright was upright, the other deer had disappeared down the gorge.

Running, skidding to a halt, he did a dozen things at once. He whispered a prayer to Moander, beast-lord, for sending him this bounty. He added a prayer to the deer, thanking it for giving old flesh to feed the young, and hoped in the spirit world it was young and healthy and fat, with good teeth and many does to mount. All the while, he was flipping the animal, awkward now in death, over by its long legs and plying his flaked-flint knife to slice out liver and kidneys and lungs, stuffing the bloody gobbets inside his jerkin. He only half-watched himself work, despite the danger of slashing his hands, for he also nervously observed the forest flat to see if whatever marauders had driven the beasts were still coming on.

Yet no one appeared at the lip, nor any more animals. The disturbance couldn’t be far off, if only those few had been pushed. Knife in bloody hand, Sunbright crept up the rocky slope and peered over the edge, keeping a tuft of yellow-green grass before his face.

The forest was red pines, thick trees with scabby bark and round clusters of short green needles.

There was little undergrowth amidst the trunks. Only more rhododendron and granite ledge showed. No animals, no monsters, no men. What, then, was out there?

Whatever, Sunbright took advantage of the lull. Returning to the deer, he sliced the hide around the neck and legs, slit it where needed, and with strong fingers yanked the hide off like a sticky sock. Artfully, the tundra native, who’d grown up on reindeer and musk-ox meat, sliced off lean steaks and heaped them into the hide on the fatty white side. Making final slits, he tugged a handful of red hide through itself, forming a pouch and a loop to slide over his shoulder as a makeshift strap. He’d need his hands free for any fights to come.

For he meant to find out what haunted the forest.

Not wasting an opportunity to eat—for any minute he might be fighting or fleeing—Sunbright shaved slices from the deer liver as he set out across the forest floor. The deer had been old, and the liver was tough and shot with worms. He’d have preferred to light a fire and roast it but didn’t dare, so he munched as he walked.

If there was one thing his barbarian upbringing had taught him, it was that no matter how bad things were, they could always grow worse, and so he should enjoy any good times. Right now Sunbright had food, was alive and healthy and free, and had mysteries to investigate, so he could have been much worse off. The only thing he really missed was not having someone to talk with. Rengarth tribesmen lived off their herds, which spent the day foraging, so the barbarians had plenty of time for talk and stories and gossip and jokes. Sunbright missed company, and for the first time wished he had at least a dog to talk to.

That he walked into danger made him wary but not particularly afraid. Life was full of hazards, some a man could flee, others he could not. And he had to admit that this time of loneliness and seeking would have come eventually anyway. Young men and women of his tribe went out alone after sixteen summers to seek wisdom, a totem animal, guidance from the gods, and whatever else they could learn. Sunbright, then Mikkl, had done all that, but for him there had always loomed more. Since his father had been a great shaman and medicine-healer, Sunbright would be expected to go forth on another solitary quest to find his own shamanistic powers, else he would never become a spirit warrior.

Perhaps, he realized, this adventure was his spirit journey, and the gods had simply propelled him into it earlier than he’d planned. If so, perhaps he’d learn some of the gods’ secrets. Perhaps he could return to his tribe someday and prove Owldark’s dream of destruction false, and so take his place among the elders, and be a healer and teacher. Perhaps not.

In either case, he recognized visions when he dreamed them, and signs when they overran his crude camp. Whatever had roused the animals to flee had roused Sunbright’s curiosity.

Now, ahead, the forest growth parted. Bushes were ripped up, the pine needles scoured away so that dusty brown earth showed. Here was the disturbance, and he stowed away his bloody breakfast to skulk from tree trunk to tree trunk. Circling, watching both ahead and behind him, he spiraled in toward the spot of churned earth.

Finally, sure he was alone, he crept up on the spot.

He found a hole.

An odd hole, to be sure. It was neat, an inverted cone dug into the earth, as if someone had twirled a great shovel. Dirt and rocks from the hole were scattered evenly around it, as neat as a dike. Earthworms still twitched on the churned soil. Whiskers twitching, a befuddled mouse scuttled along a tiny balcony where its burrow had been shorn in half.

Leaning over the dike, Sunbright laid his hand on the cut soil. It felt warm, but that might just have been the warmth of Earthmother. He sniffed, smelled only dirt. Obviously this was a magical hole, for he knew no beasts that could dig this way, and the hole ended seven feet down at a point. As if, his mind toyed, as if a giant icicle had fallen from the castle of Delia on high, then vanished. Could that be?

Then he started as dirt suddenly spilled down the side of the hole. Under his hand, the earth moved, not in a jump, but uneasily, roiling, like a beast turning in its sleep. Some great earth-spirit was stirring. Sunbright whispered a protection spell and the rumbling subsided, though he doubted he could credit himself for its dying down.

Waiting in the still, eerie forest from which all animals had fled, the boy felt the hairs on his arms and neck rise. Yet still he waited, to see if any guidance came.

He waited until he grew bored. The hole told him nothing, didn’t seem to be part of his spirit journey.

To show he wasn’t afraid, he checked around for enemies one more time, then pissed into the hole.

Then he pushed on through the forest.

Thousands of feet below, in the blackest cavern, yet only half in Sunbright’s dimension, a clutch of strange creatures felt the human’s footsteps recede. They returned to their conversation.

Bad, thought one. Words, for it, were useless. Too bad. Dead.

The magic storms come more and more frequently.

More and more the fault of the Above-World.

Neth, they call themselves. Wizards, toying with magic, squandering it. We starve for magic they waste.

We must tell them, warn them not to trifle. We learned long ago.

We cannot tell them. One of us just exploded trying to do so.

Adding its dweomer to the magic storms raging everywhere, and aggravating the problem.

The beings resembled animate tornados, upright cones with stinger tails formed of polished diamond. They were the phaerimm, the oldest race on Abeir-Toril. And as might be expected, there were few of them. A handful.

Men did not know the phaerimm existed, though some had been seen now and then, observers mistaking them for dust devils. Or upon discovering their true identity, being eaten. The phaerimm had slits all the way around their middles, slits lined with ridges harder than diamond, which could gape to suck in nourishment of a wide variety: tree roots, certain rocks, reptiles, insects, groundhogs, humans—all as easy to ingest as a bowl of mush. Phaerimm chose not to reveal themselves, for they feared slavery, though all were more powerful wizards than any humans that dwelt above ground.

Phaerimm could move through their own ancient passageways and chambers, or even through soil and rock almost as easily, for then they slipped into another dimension, leaving only a fragment of themselves behind for a toehold. Yet if one of the phaerimm blundered into a magic storm near the surface, it was immediately—and violently—shunted wholly into this dimension. Where soil and rock already existed, the phaerimm ceased to exist, and left only a cone-shaped crater.

Nothing works. We tried astral visitation and only drove wizards mad. They clawed out their eyes, tore out their hearts, killed their fellows until at last they killed themselves. We tried visions, we tried lifedrain. Now we’ve tried direct visitation.

And failed.

Maybe more than failed. Perhaps our efforts fuel the magic storms.

Impossible. We know magic. We invented it.

Untrue.

Cease to argue. Back to the reason for this conference. How next shall we experiment to stop the Neth from spinning magic into storms?

We cannot.

Then we will die.

And they.

And the whole world.

I have a suggestion.

Yes?

Let them squander more. Encourage them to squander.

Why?

Humans expending magic have generated magic storms, and the more humans working magic, the more storms, true? Were they to accelerate the pace of magic use, the humans might destroy themselves all the more rapidly.

And us, mushmouth.

Perhaps not. We can move humans hither and thither, we know. Already our lifedrain spells have caused their wheat to rot on the stalk. Starving them sets them moving, searching for food.

Too slow. The high wizards who fritter the magic are the last to suffer hunger.

Still, the spells work lifedrain. And the drain grows, feeding itself to spread and drain yet more life.

But not down here, one hopes.

As I was saying… If we can make the Neth squander magic faster, grow ever more reckless in pursuit of who-knows-what, perhaps only their immediate area will collapse. Perhaps they will destroy themselves in one final cataclysm, a hellfire to scour the earth and leave us masters again! Well?

It… is a thought.

No, it’s foolishness.

It is fighting fire with fire, as humans say.

BOOK: Sword Play
10.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Final Murder by Anne Holt
EdgeofEcstasy by Elizabeth Lapthorne
Alibi by Teri Woods
One Hot Daddy-To-Be? by Christenberry, Judy
The Visconti House by Elsbeth Edgar
Return of the Viscount by Gayle Callen
Wishing for Trouble by Kate Forsyth
The Italians by John Hooper
Billion Dollar Cowboy by Carolyn Brown
Flirting With Fate by Lexi Ryan