Preview of Elven Dogs
Two sections from Chapter One
(The remainder of Chapter One is available as a download)
7  
spear
 
This was his second time around.
He halted at the edge of the stream where he had paused four days before. He drank again, inhaling the same odours of crushed grass and deer. He had been running for seven days: never very far from the city of Oeclen; running in one great circle, unable to escape.
Looking down into the stream, he saw his own face looking back, his own lips curling in disgust.
Dog.
The trees around him whispered that word: dog dog dog.
A snake, disdainful, slid past him, down to the edge of the stream. It slithered away along the sinuous line where water and moss and stone fought one another for supremacy.
The snake’s movement reminded Spear of the man Stanislav. He remembered, beside the stream’s edge, the indifference on Stanislav’s face, the casual gesture of dismissal. He remembered Stanislav’s bodyguard escorting him to the kennels.
Dog.
Abruptly he crouched down, his belly against the cold grass, his head erect, staring sightlessly before him.
Another scent slipped through the air between the trees.
It had not been there before.
A wolf howled. Another, closer, answered.
Spear sensed fear in their voices.
He leapt lightly across the stream, followed the woodland path north, deeper into the forest.
The forest air grew still, the scents more complex. Fetid odours mingled with the smell of rotting leaves. Strangely frequent was the scent of recent kills.
On the path behind him the wolves again called out. The fear in their voices was diminishing – bloodlust had taken its place. Spear grinned. He had never liked wolves; less still would they like him. He increased his pace – became an arrow, a spear, willow thin.
Thin as bone, a feral key, he slipped inside the world’s lock….
                      
                                       clicked
 
….and vanished amongst the vertical laminations of the forest.
 
                Even to the invisible, the scent of death is inescapable.
Carcasses littered the forest. Some were in the undergrowth; some lay abandoned beside the path. Spear’s nose twitched. There was a smell about the corpses, as if a machine had precipitated their killing. There was another smell. Acrid. Fermented. Something he could not place.... Ah, yes: the scent of a two-legged breed.
The nape of his neck tingled with premonition.
The path forked.
Spear headed west of Mouse Hill. Overhead the trees thinned. Undergrowth crowded the path. Taller, thinner trees fought upward: yew and ash.
The smell of machinery was here too; and here too were carcasses. Deer, fox, woodfowl – half-eaten, discarded.
The howling of the wolves rose again behind him.
Spear stopped and turned, the hair of his neck and shoulders bristling with threat.
He was ready to leap.
No one was there.
No sound of pursuit.
Just the scent – drifting past him, on into the forest.
He began to walk more slowly.
His pursuer slowed its pace behind him.
He paused.
It paused.
Leaves were compressed, almost silently. A stem flicked back.
Above the trees clouds obscured the sun.
Spear’s mind, undoglike, began to work.
The wolves were no longer howling. His pursuer had killed them. The kills had been sudden…. silent….
It was large, the creature. He could tell that from the pattern of its movements. And now it knew he knew it was behind him. He could tell that too. It no longer tried to conceal the sounds of its passage.
Spear padded on.
There was a clearing ahead, rich with the smell of nettles.
From behind him came the stink of his pursuer.
Spear stepped into the clearing. He glanced over his shoulder. The path behind him was clear.
He began to walk across the grass. If he could reach the opposite side, his pursuer would be forced into the open. He would see its face.
He had expected the attack to come from behind.
It came from his left.
Something hit his shoulder, throwing him sideways. Teeth closed upon the raised hair of his neck. Foul breath engulfed him.
Elven dogs can roll like cats.
He rolled before the onslaught.
He hit the nettles and briars at the edge of the clearing and was up, turning on his pursuer.
Then they were there, face to face.
His pursuer was something like a lion. It was something like a mountain lion – but it had an eagle’s head.
Its tail, armoured with iron spikes, lashed behind it as it hissed. Leather sheathed its ankles and neck. Insane eyes projected a name: devil.
The devil crept towards him, ready to leap. Vestigial wings lifted from its spine.
Spear knew that he should turn and run. Back into the forest. Into the undergrowth where his smaller size would help him.
Elven dogs do not turn and run. The priest, Craith, had told him that. Elven dogs – like Miramene priests – recognise fear and use it as a weapon. The hair on his spine stood on end. Fear doubled his size. He echoed the creature’s snarl, feinted a charge.
The creature smiled.
Leapt.
Spear dropped to the grass, belly down, teeth up, reaching for the throat.
The creature, faster, darted forward, its throat beyond his reach, its toothed beak clamping on his neck.
It lifted him into the air. Effortlessly it threw him aside.
He felt a rib snap as he hit the ground. He rolled, then was up again, on his feet, running forward. This time speed was with him as he leapt, smashing tooth to beak into the spitting fiend. Then he had its tongue between his teeth. Grinning, he jerked his head abruptly to one side.
The creature reared up, clawing at his belly. With a shake it sent him cartwheeling through the grass.
When he staggered back to his feet, the devil stared at him, then lifted its face to the sky and screamed.
The stink of blood clung to him. Blood, pouring from the wounds on his chest and belly, dampened the grass where he stood.
He inched toward the devil, then –
– then the wolves, ten or twelve, stepped into the clearing behind his attacker. Their hackles raised but bellies low they slunk toward the devil.
The devil did not see them.
Its gaze was fixed on Spear.
Spear curled the corner of his lip – snarled. He snarled from way back in his throat. He snarled from the tail-end of his life.
He could tell that the wolves would help him. They had found a common enemy. They were ready to charge. He stepped closer to the devil. He needed to distract it. It was preparing for its final onslaught. It was complacent in its kill.
A bitch, her fur like shining mail, leapt forward – sank her teeth into the creature’s haunch.
The devil swung round. The other wolves charged, darting beneath the sudden maelstrom of claws.
Spear lunged forward, low against the grass. He sank his fangs into the muscles of the creature’s gut – in a single convulsive movement opened up its belly, venting its intestines amongst the flowers and grass. As the devil screamed, the wolf pack fell upon it, yammering and yelping with delight.
Then Spear took the impact of a retaliatory swipe.
…Sank into a darkness blacker than the grave.

8  
feast
 
His hands trembling, Craith clipped the Book of Nine to his belt. Burnt into the leather of the belt were the faces of Nethros, Shall, Bid, Fill, Lute, Seth, Roth, Ire. The buckle was the all-devouring mouth of Grist. Craith lowered his borrowed shield to the boards at his feet. Looking up, he found Lain’s gaze upon him. He saw himself reflected in her eyes: horse-faced, tall, thin. He said, ‘My assessment of what lies before us is the same as yours.’ He rose to climb from the cart. ‘The table is set for the feast. You and I are invited.’
As he spoke, the region of pressure within his head increased. It had seeded itself behind his eyes during his visit to Stanislav’s cell. It had spread, implacable as cancer, for the duration of their journey from Oeclen. His vision darkened. For a moment he held himself motionless. When the darkness cleared, he lowered himself to the ground beside the horses – turned to survey the Selean Cemetery.
The convoy had stopped fifty metres short of the cemetery’s entrance. The cemetery appeared to have been abandoned. Gravestones marched in ranks towards the eastern wall. Birdsong sounded in the forest beyond.
The squad leader from the head of the convoy ambled back to stand beside Craith. Colonel Slan breathlessly joined them.
Craith looked down into the colonel’s face. The man’s features were scarred, weather-beaten, uncomfortable. Craith found a certain distraction in the soldier’s discomfiture.
‘Where’s Boaten?’ Slan grated. ‘I told him to wait here.’
The squad leader, Andide, said, ‘We’re late for our appointment, Colonel.’ Andide’s casual salute had gone unnoticed. He leant forward to intercept the colonel’s gaze. ‘Boaten has done his job and returned to Oeclen, sir.’
Craith would have smiled if his lips were not already taut with premonition. He knew Slan loathed him. Slan, no friend of the Miramene, had become almost powerless with Morg’s accession. He was powerless here, awaiting Craith’s decision. Craith said, ‘There are two obvious theories, Colonel. The first is that Boaten and his men, having completed their task as evidenced by the new graves,’ he raised a finger towards the cemetery, ‘have returned to Oeclen, possibly by way of the GrInn at Oeclen Village. That is your squad leader’s belief.’ Andide nodded. ‘However, the leader of your archers, Lain, will put forward an alternative view.’
Lain, seemingly indifferent within her aura of calm, said, ‘Would you like to hear my opinion, Colonel?’
Slan spun on his heel to face the cemetery. He set his broad shoulders against an unimagined enemy.
Lain said, ‘I know Boaten’s second-in-command, Colonel. John Miller. He’s a good man. He would not have disobeyed your orders. I believe Boaten and Miller are dead, sir, and have been thrown into the graves which they themselves dug.’ Lain pointed towards the southern end of the cemetery where an oak towered above the gravestones. ‘There is evidence of a fight.’ The horses stamped their hooves, moving the cart forward a few inches. The sound echoed inside Craith’s skull, much louder than the voices around him. The zone of pressure within him continued to expand: down his neck, into his arms, coiling and uncoiling in the palms of his hands. Soon, like a bomb, he would explode.
He stepped around Slan. ‘Then we had better go in,’ he said. ‘Andide, prepare your men.’
‘Prepare your men,’ the colonel ordered – but Andide was already hurrying forward, calling out to the soldiers at the head of the convoy.
Sour-faced, Slan turned away.
Craith walked forward to join Andide. Lain jumped from the cart and followed.
Craith composed himself, controlling the pressure within him by sheer force of will. He addressed the soldiers. ‘What we are about to do was long ago predetermined,’ he called out. ‘Nothing now can alter the events that lie before us. The gods have made their plans – they take great pleasure in an ambush. Now we must occupy the positions that they have set for us.’ He scanned the faces before him. ‘However, we are able to defeat the gods even as we submit to fate: through consciousness of what we do. Self-consciousness gifts us our humanity.’  He drew his sword. The blade was Miramene, its serrations glittering in the sunlight. ‘The loyalists are few. Their weapons are poor. Let us meet the gods in the place where they feast – in the battles of men. The gods will be diminished and we will come away the stronger.’ Gesturing for the convoy to follow him, Craith strode towards the entrance to the cemetery.
They had barely stepped between the great stone obelisks guarding the gate when Andide took an arrow meant for Craith. The soldier staggered, collapsing onto the stone embedded in the ground between the two obelisks. Each obelisk bore the faces of four of the nine gods. The round stone on which Andide fell displayed the hostile visage of Grist.
Craith stepped quickly to one side, taking shelter behind the northern obelisk. He turned to see Lain step behind its sister. ‘Lain,’ he called out. ‘Where are the enemy archers?’ The pressure within his skull was taking over: it was moving his lips, wagging his tongue.
Lain held out her hand, palm up. She had not seen.
Andide’s soldiers lay crouched against the ground. Those with shields held them on the ground before them. Beyond, on the Slith Road, Craith could see Colonel Slan talking quietly to his soldiers. ‘Colonel!’ Craith called. ‘Colonel!’
Slan turned his back, moving to stand beside the axeman Stone.
Lain stepped out into the open, then retreated as an arrow flickered past her head. Her movements were exact, her manner calm. ‘The archers are in the graves, priest,’ she said. ‘Shall we wait for Colonel Slan, or shall we retreat?’
Craith felt the blood within him rebound from his fingertips, ricochet along his veins. ‘Neither of those options are available to us,’ he said.
‘Are available to you, you mean.’
Craith shrugged, fighting within himself the threat of chaos. He removed his cloak; folded it at his feet. Feeling pain in each movement, he lowered himself to the ground, rolled to lie beside Andide. Andide still breathed, though the shaft of an arrow protruded from his chest. Craith reached over and pulled the soldier’s shield from beneath him. ‘You have been useful, Andide,’ he murmured. ‘May the gods be restrained in your slaughter.’ Using Andide’s shield for cover, he crawled back to where the sergeant’s men were waiting. ‘Form three chains,’ he hissed. ‘Move forward at a crawl.’
Behind their shields the men snaked forward. In their wake came their shieldless comrades. Lain followed with the seven archers she had summoned from the convoy.
In relays the enemy bowmen raised their heads above the graves, released their arrows, then ducked again behind the piled earth.
The first line of men faltered as an arrow found its way between the shields and through the ribs of one of the soldiers. Then the chain moved on, foreshortened, the injured man curled behind a gravestone muttering curses against the gods.
Craith had followed close upon Lain’s heels. Twisting round, he again called out to Slan. The colonel again ignored him. Craith felt his lips tighten against his cheeks – felt the immanence of unclean rage.
An arrow whistled close over his shield. He crawled forward, finding Lain waiting for him. ‘Why should Stanislav’s men take and protect these graves?’ she murmured. ‘Slan is right to wait.’
The advance chain drew close to the first grave. Craith could no longer restrain the rage within him. He rose to his knees. ‘Charge!’ he screamed. ‘Charge!’  An answering shout rang from the forest. Loyalists – far more than he had expected – flooded over the cemetary’s broken eastern wall.
The pressure within Craith straightened his legs. He rose from his knees. The pressure within him said, ‘It is time. It is time to submit.’ He sought inside his head for the mechanism of submission….
But release was not – had never been – in his control.
He merely stood there, his limbs shaking, his two score soldiers quailing before an enemy three times their number. Only Lain’s archers remained calm.
‘Slan!’ Craith screamed, turning his back upon the loyalists, feeling his lips retreat into his face, feeling his jaw pressing forward like the jaw of a snake. ‘Slan!’
Then their enemy were upon them. They were out-numbered. They were betrayed. And the gods – ah the gods! – had played their trick again: creating conflict not between opponents but between brethren. Between him and Slan. Betraying trust, betraying –
– but he could not bear the depths of his betrayal –
– he could not bear –
He screamed, ‘Aaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaa –’
Then
 
light
 
light – beautiful beyond beauty – irradiated the world.
– the world transparent, clear, clean, untouched –
the world – total, complete – his world.
Craith began to spin, his Miramene sword a triumphal claw, its blade an inspired interpretation of the Book, unveiling weakness in the enemy, reaping radiant death.
A girl painted in black, wielding a double-bladed axe, weeping as if for some lost companion, died first.
An archer with the face of a troll died next.
Two women bearing narrow steel swords recognised too late the fitting of the beserker.
A goblin soon lost his head.
Like stalks of wheat loyalists fell before the onslaught.
In his rage Craith heard Slan’s soldiers charge to join them. Somewhere in him he saw Andide’s squad clear the graves and race beyond them. He saw Lain’s archers take their places in the diggings, shooting at the loyalists charging forward from the forest.
Closer to the surface of his mind he saw the loyalists drive his soldiers back, leaving him trapped behind their ranks.
Transcendent, he brushed aside an enemy’s blade, hacked shear from its shoulder an opponent’s arm, howled like a dog as he turned to fall on his attackers from the rear.
He saw Morg, arrived late to the cemetery, his armour glittering like ice, his sword shining like fire, charging on his steed between the entrance stones, sweeping down upon the enemy.
He saw Colonel Slan, his temerity forgotten, run forward, a mace larger than his head whirling at his side, the axeman Stone close beside him.
A loyalist, armed with dagger and whip, spun round and danced towards Craith. The whip snapped and hissed. Almost with delight Craith took the lash around his neck – let it pull him forward toward the loyalist’s dagger. Knocking aside the dagger, feeling no pain as it cut him, Craith’s own blade curled gently into his opponent’s stomach, tearing open his chest as he pulled it free.
Craith saw – but in his rage he did not see – Slan look up towards him, a smile almost of compassion upon his face. And then he spun east towards the forest, as a handful of loyalists ran forward to support their comrades. He saw – but in his rage he did not see – Morg leap from his horse to fight beside him, to fight as they had so often fought before, side by side, ice and fire, warrior and priest.
The loyalists broke at last and ran, bleating like sheep.
Those that reached the forest found themselves pursued even there, the priest whirling like a top amongst the trees, the bearer of kryos, Morg, following in his wake.
When the battle was over, when there was no one left to kill, the shining light within Craith’s mind began to dim.
He wandered at the forest’s edge, transparent as a wraith.
He had been taken by the god’s and used.
His cause had been just – oh yes, its very object to defeat the minions of the gods – but its means had been sin.
The time had come to repent.
He pulled his hood over his face, turned, as if defeated, to walk between the gravestones towards the Slith Road. The dark mood that always consumed him following a battle wrung from him the last vestiges of rage. He stopped beside the body of the archer, Lain, and knelt down stiffly, resting his curved sword upon the grass beside her.
‘She is alive.’
Craith looked up. One of the drivers stooped beside him. ‘Help me carry her to the cart,’ the driver said.
Craith stood. He waved to a nearby soldier. ‘Help him.’
He turned to watch as the bodies of the loyalists were piled against the far wall, near to the forest from which they had sprung. Someone would return later with tar. There would be a fire after the feast.
As Morg joined him, his face creased with distaste, the coffins of Lord Stanislav and the elves and the others who had been brought from Oeclen in the second convoy were lowered into blood-stained graves.
The priest turned to look upon the gathered survivors of the battle. He met Morg’s gaze, then Slan’s, then each soldier’s and archer’s and axeman’s in turn. Then even the drivers’ of the carts. These were men. Mortal men. They had encountered the gods and had remained human.
Morg summoned the standard bearer to stand beside them. The crimson flag bearing the number ‘9’ fluttered in the breeze. Craith drew the Book of Nine, damaged long ago, from his side – but he did not read from it. ‘We are joined here today,’ he said, ‘to witness the great feasting of our enemies: the gods.
‘All nine have taken pleasure in our battle.
‘Not least Roth, the god of deceit. Not least Seth, the god of malice. Not least Shall, the god of cruelty.
‘Not least Ire,’ he said, ‘the god of fear and rage.
       ‘With the nine gods sitting in the saddles of our souls, how could we fail but fill this Earth with shame?  How could we ever say, “No!”?
‘Today as every day the gods have taken what is theirs – using, as they always use, the weakness that is ours.
‘Only in calm detachment can we become truly human, throwing off the gods’ vile yoke. Calmly, then, let us bury these men in their multitude. Perhaps men they are not: instruments they are, forsaking the Miramene creed.
‘Let these instruments of the gods be blunted by the earth.’
He lifted his book towards the graves. ‘The great god Grist shall receive Lord Stanislav, and to the other eight graves eight others go. In darkness and despair let the gods consume them.’
Then Craith stopped speaking, and after a moment raised his head to look into the bleached transparency of the sky.
Morg shouted a command. The soldiers began shovelling earth into the graves.
Then the screaming…. and then the silence…. began.
 
 
© 2013 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.