Authors: Holly Lisle
Tags: #Holly Lisle, #fantasy, #magic, #Arhel, #trilogy, #high fantasy, #archeology, #jungle, #First Folk
Arhel Book 2
Throughout Ariss, the first bells of morning began to sound. The heavy fog that shrouded the city muted their clamor—still, they were loud enough to warn the whores who plied their trade in the street beneath Roba Morgasdotte’s window their night’s work was done. They were loud enough to rouse the musician who lived in the next apartment; through the thin walls, Roba heard him shuffling about the room, then out and down the hall to the communal water closet. After a few moments, his door slammed again and he began sawing away with great energy but little skill on his violetto. The poor instrument’s squeals and shrieks and coughing stutters set Roba’s teeth on edge. She clenched her fist around the pen and wrote faster.
The sheer incompetence of the violettist next door didn’t bother Roba as much as her suspicion that he was making more money butchering music than she was teaching.
He’ll still be killing Mambrmsorme’s “Apprentice of Dherolg” long after I’ve starved to death and blown away to dust,
she thought, and glared at the wall.
She had no more time to polish the student’s paper. Her landlady rose with the bells. At any moment, the woman might arrive at her door and begin bellowing like a fishwife after the money Roba still owed her—and then Roba would have to climb out her window and down the stone-and-daub wall again to avoid the harridan.
I nearly broke my neck last time.
She shoved the paper into her bag, grabbed her cloak, and swung it haphazardly over her shoulders as she ran for the door. If she were lucky, she’d get out before Madame Greldene caught her; if she were really lucky, she would find the student whose paper she’d edited before antis. The four copper hidaros he owed her would buy an entire loaf of two-day-old bread, a flask of watered wine, and a small pot of fish paste—awful fare, but enough to keep her on the right side of starvation for another day.
she thought, as she crept down the rickety wooden stairs to the first floor,
tomorrow I attend the secret meeting of the Delmuirie Society. If afterward I don’t get thrown out of the city for being a subversive, maybe Thirk will give me that raise he mentioned.
She was nervous about any association with the Delmuirie Society—from her department head’s whispered comments, she gathered that it was dangerous to be a member—maybe even to associate with members.
I don’t care anymore, though. I’ll be a subversive if it gets me enough money to pay my rent.
Two whores, hard-eyed and thin-lipped, swung into the dark, narrow hall from outside and headed for their room. Roba gave them both a polite, silent nod of greeting. The first merely nodded in return.
The second, with a malicious smile, yelled, “Ho, Teach-er! Madame said if I saw tha’ I was to tell tha’ she wants her money by th’ morrow—or she will take tha’ rent out in trade. If tha’ canna pay her, tha’ can stand onna corner with me, Teach-er!”
Behind Roba, Madame Greldene’s door flew open with a crash, and the landlady roared, “I want mah money now, you! Today—or I’ll throw you into the street!”
Roba didn’t waste time looking over her shoulder. She could hear the woman’s thundering footsteps behind her. She bolted.
SEVEN-FINGERED Fat Girl tested the soothing hush of wind through the trees, the soft murmur of a nearby brook, and the restful whispering of leaves—and found the jungle a liar. Jungles were never gentle. Thick loam on the woodland floor muffled the measured tread of big maneaters like roshu and koriu—the pleasant rustle of leaves covered the hiss of leather-winged dooru as they stooped to kill. Delicate greenery gave hiding places to smaller assassins; sometimes the greenery was the assassin. Prickling hairs on the back of her neck told her the jungle was hiding something now.
She had the point, leading the band of tagnu far from its last trade stop at Five Dots Silk. They were upland and deep in unknown terrain; and here, in a valley with the bony spines of mountains rising on either side, the trees were shorter, of smaller girth, and farther apart than those around the villages where they traded. The underbrush was heavy; the canopy above thin and in some places nonexistent. Everything about this place conspired to expose them to the things that hunted humans. The band roved in a pack, wary.
Seven-Fingered Fat Girl fought to slow her ragged breathing. She tightened her grip on her dartstick and shifted her dart packs to a more accessible position. “Myed on the right,” she snapped at her followers. She trotted around the coils of vine draped over the branches ahead, bare feet padding noiselessly.
Whitened bones gleamed from beneath the myed’s glossy leaves and told a truth the gaudy, sweet-scented flowers would have hidden. But the myed was merely a little danger to those who remembered to watch for it. The bigger dangers were not so easily avoided.
And with that thought still fresh in her mind, she heard it again—a subtle click, a near-silent cough more nerve-wracking than the most violent face-to-face confrontation. Without a doubt, something was stalking them.
Behind her and to her left, Dog Nose pulled a hurlstick from his carrier and twisted the rawhide thong in a spiral to the middle; he picked up the pace of his lope. “They’re on both sides.”
“Ya. Close in. Weapons ready.” Seven-Fingered Fat Girl shoved a poisoned dart into her dartstick, never missing her stride. Her nerves stretched taut. Behind her, all six companions moved closer to her and to each other. The tagnu increased their pace to an easy run, eyes scanning everything.
At that moment, she could even have welcomed the hated tree-paths of the Silk People. If the tagnu had been on such a tree-path, there would have been only one direction from which the skulking tagnu hunters could have attacked—impenetrable walls of trees would have guarded their sides, and the villages of the stinking Silk People would have protected their backs.
Ahead, the trees thinned further, and the underbrush became sparser—and in a beacon of sunlight, she spotted a point where the ground rose perceptibly into an artificial-looking mound. This mound was less overgrown than the surrounding terrain. She knew from experience that it was better to fight from high ground, so she nodded sharply in the direction of the rise, and the band, swarmlike, shifted and reformed and surged forward on its new course.
From both sides, the jungle echoed with the scurrying of heavy feet. Underbrush cracked as the unseen hunters maneuvered to cut off their prey. Then one of the stalking beasts emitted a low, rolling trill, followed by a bass hiccup. Fear hit Seven-Fingered Fat Girl like a gut-punch.
“Kellinks!” Toes Point In gasped. “Oh, Keyu, we’re going to die!”
“Blast Keyu!” Fat Girl yelled. “Run faster!”
Any of a handful of predators
have been after them. That kellinks were the beasts on their trail, however, was an evil omen. Seven-Fingered Fat Girl cursed Keyu and her stupid ambition and sheer bad luck—bad fat. Four Winds Band could have stayed on the cleared paths—they had nearly enough to eat most days, and they probably would have scraped by without new trades. They didn’t have much chance to scrape by against kellinks, however. The six-legged beasts were fast and tough and mean. They inhabited the deep jungle, ran in packs large enough to surround the herdbeasts they favored, and killed by darting in at their prey one at a time, nipping and snapping.
One bite was all a kellink would need against them; its spittle was deadly to humans. Seven-Fingered Fat Girl got her name because she once scratched her hand on a thorn on which a kellink had drooled. If Dog Nose had not sliced off three of her fingers with his dagger the day they turned red and started to swell, she would not have lived to run with Four Winds Band. For all the good it will do now, she thought.
Runs Slow made whimpering noises and stumbled along at the back of the pack, losing ground. Laughs Like A Roshi dropped back with her and urged her on. They would have made easy targets for their scaled-and-fanged pursuers, but kellinks corralled their prey.
If they weren’t herding us into a trap,
Fat Girl thought,
those two would be dead already.
Fat Girl ignored the stabbing pain in her left side and the breath that burned her lungs and whistled through her pursed lips. The mound was close, almost within reach. She quit pacing herself and bolted. If she could just get to that high ground—but to her right, a sudden flash of sunlight dappled a kellink’s green-gold scales as it charged in to cut her off. She saw the beast and put her dartstick to her lips and blew.
The dart, like a deadly bird, homed in on its target and landed silently. The kellink roared. She caught a glimpse of the beast twisting, trying to bite her missile out of its shoulder. Then the poison hit the creature’s bloodstream, and every muscle in its body went rigid. The dead kellink crashed to the ground just as she reached the slope of the mound.
She found the going steeper than it had looked from the distance. The mound was a rubble of scree and square-cut, massive, tumbled stones. She scrabbled her way up, using the sparse, scrawny trees that grew among the rubble as handholds. Rock shards scraped her knees and the palms of her hands, while big stone blocks tripped her and bruised her shins. She loosed miniature avalanches of whitestone talus with each upward move, and as often as not, she slipped down a span for every two upward spans of progress she made. At the top, she turned and crouched and panted. Below, the rest of Four Winds Band scrambled behind her, still alive. All her people might yet survive—kellinks could run forever, but the beasts couldn’t climb.
Dog Nose had kept up with her and was near the top of the rubble mound. Fat Girl reached down from her perch and gave him a hand up. He, in turn, assisted Three Scars and Spotted Face to safety.
The four tagnu at the top pelted the kellinks while the last three tagnu climbed.
Dog Nose muttered something as he buried one of his hurlsticks in the chest of a big kellink.
Fat Girl reloaded her dartstick. “What?”
“I said Runs Slow is going to get us killed one of these days.” He launched another throw into the swarming kellink pack, and the nearest of the monsters roared and snapped at the hurlstick. Fat Girl hit that one with a dart, and after an instant, the beast fell to its side, arching its spine and foaming around the mouth. The rest of the kellinks edged backward toward thicker cover.
“Na!” Fat Girl snapped. “She’s going to get
killed—and maybe take Laughs Like A Roshi with her. But you shouldn’t complain about her. She hasn’t slowed your feet.” Seven-Fingered Fat Girl refused to dwell on Runs Slow’s unfitness to be tagnu. It was a problem that would resolve itself eventually. In the eight or nine season cycles Fat Girl had been tagnu, every original member of Four Winds Band—except herself and Dog Nose—had been killed. Most of the fresh recruits the band picked to replace them were also dead. Runs Slow was simply one of those people Fat Girl didn’t intend to get to know very well; there wasn’t much point.
She blew a series of hard, short puffs through her dartstick and a stream of tiny red missiles skimmed over the heads of her band. Three kellinks bucked and died, and the rest edged just out of range and started up a hideous keening shriek that made Fat Girl’s teeth hurt.
Meanwhile, the last three tagnu made progress. Toes Point In, who was a poor climber, was finally near the top. Laughs Like A Roshi had braced against a huge block of stone halfway up the mound; he threw his hurlsticks at any kellinks who ventured too close, protecting Runs Slow, who climbed and cried at the same time.
Finally even Runs Slow was out of danger. Fat Girl whistled shrilly, and the tagnu held their attack.
No sense wasting ammunition
, she thought. The kellinks dropped out of sight in the underbrush. They would crouch there, waiting, until the dead kellinks began to rot—or until the tagnu grew unwary or desperate for food and ventured within their reach. The big beasts snarled and trilled, and Fat Girl frowned. The kellinks would wait a long time for her tagnu.