by Pati Nagle
The First Sword
Ghaláran awaited the kobalen attack beneath tall pines, gripping his longknife and shield, palms slick with dread. Beside him stood his friend Jhirinan and the others—twenty in all—who had remained in defense of the ælven village of Highglen.
Their homes would be raided, looted for food and whatever else took the kobalen’s fancy, if they should fail to turn back the attack. Kobalen were as savage as animals, and wasteful. They would ruin anything whose value they did not understand at once.
Ghaláran drew a breath, smelled the kobalen’s pungent odor, and grimaced. They were near. Dawn was coming, and with it the attack would fall.
They would strike from uphill. Kobalen always did so, since the raids had begun two years ago. Nothing like the attacks had ever been known before. The first villages to suffer had been completely destroyed.
Well, that would not happen here. They were warned, and prepared.
Ghaláran took a firmer grip on the hilt of his longknife. He had made it himself—he was a bladesmith, and made all the knives for the village—and he had already slain many kobalen with this knife.
A shift in the khi of the forest brought the ælven defenders alert. Jhirinan’s lips parted and Ghaláran heard his sharp inhalation. The kobalen were coming.
“Spirits watch over us.”
Heavy tread sounded, and a wild, wordless cry rose up in the forest ahead. Dark, fur-covered shapes emerged between the trees, running toward the line of ælven. The next moment a flight of darts whistled through the air.
A grunt nearby; someone was struck. Before another thought could form, Ghaláran saw a kobalen hurtling toward him with its spear aimed at his chest.
He raised his shield, took the shock of the blow and heard the splintering of the ebonglass spearhead, then glanced around the shield and aimed a blow at the attacker. The kobalen hopped back, taking only a scratch from Ghaláran’s knife, though it howled as if it had been gutted.
More howls filled the air, answered by the enraged cries of the ælven. So far the defenders were holding.
The spear came at Ghaláran again, its broken stub as fearsome as the point. He ducked, raising the shield, his heart pounding.
A glimpse of the kobalen’s furry legs; he aimed a blow there. This time he felt the knife sink deep into flesh.
His attacker was down, shrieking. He stepped to the side, seeking the next.
Jhirinan was beset by three kobalen; Ghaláran took one from behind with a cut deep into the shoulder. Another turned to face him, swinging a club of heavy darkwood.
Ghaláran brought his shield up scarcely in time. The blow shuddered through him. He stabbed at the kobalen and missed, then ducked and sidestepped to evade another blow.
Someone screamed—an ælven voice, not kobalen—a cry of pain and terror. Ghaláran’s muscles tensed at the sound.
The kobalen facing him grunted as it raised the club high and brought it down, trying to get over his shield. Ghaláran sidestepped again, turned his knife with a flick of his wrist and drew it across the creature’s arms from below. A shower of blood followed.
A blow fell across the top of his shield, knocking him off balance, nearly pulling the shield from his arm. He drew back and stabbed wildly at the new attacker, blinded by the shield’s protection.
His shield arm was aching, trembling. A glimpse of more dark forms in the woods beyond, still coming on, lit fresh fear in his heart.
Too many. There were too many.
Two were on him now, the one with a club, another wielding a spear and what looked like a longknife, dark and dull with neglect.
Another blow with the club, again on the top edge of his shield. That kobalen was trying to drag the shield aside so the other could stab with its spear.
Ghaláran yanked the shield free and turned it to take the spear thrust. A crash and a shower of glass fragments told the fate of the spearhead. One shard stung his cheek as it flew, a bright kiss of fear.
When the club rose again he stepped back and spun, catching the kobalen from the side as its blow fell on emptiness. The knife went deep and Ghaláran turned it as he pulled it free and the creature fell.
Glancing up, he saw the enraged grimace of the spear-wielder, and the spear’s shaft swinging toward his head, then no more.
Pain woke him. His neck ached, and his shield arm was numb. He tried to move and nausea swept through him. He held still.
His head swam with sickening waves of anguish, then settled to a sullen throbbing centered on one side of his skull. He waited for the sensation to subside. A bird called somewhere near, a hesitant chirp, seeking an answer that never came. Ghaláran listened to the silence, trying to remember what had passed.
Fight. The kobalen raid.
A flood of returning memory made him gasp and struggle up despite the pain. His arm was caught on something. He opened his eyes and saw that it was his own shield holding him, his weight atop it. He slid his arm out of the straps and pushed himself to his knees.
A voice called out from behind him, some distance away. The words were the crude tongue of the kobalen, the voice too rough to be ælven.
They were in the village.
Gasping, he sought his knife and found it on the ground nearby. Not yet claimed as spoils of the fight. The kobalen must still be looting.
Milari! He hoped his partner had escaped. She knew to flee if she heard the defenders signal defeat; she had fled one raid already, last year.
He had not heard the signal, but perhaps it had been given after he fell.
The throbbing in his head worsened as he moved. He wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, but he knew that would be his death. Soon the kobalen would return to claim the weapons of the dead. If he were found like this, he would be slain.
He struggled to his feet, barely able to stand. His right foot refused to take his full weight—he must have turned his ankle as he fell.
He looked over the carnage of the fight. Many kobalen slain, but also many ælven. He did not seek to count them, but a glance told him most if not all of the defenders had fallen. Already the stink of death rose all around him, ælven and kobalen mingled in a welter of spilled blood.
He limped toward the denser trees nearby, paused when he came across Jhirinan. The shield-maker’s face was battered, but his pale gold hair in the hunter’s braid and the tunic Velashi, the village’s weaver, had made for him marked him. Ghaláran could not pause to grieve.
Beside Jhirinan lay a kobalen, Jhirinan’s knife still in its gut, its dead hand curled around a darkwood club. Ghaláran frowned, anger rising at the sight of the weapon that had killed his friend.
He reached down and took Jhirinan’s knife, then picked up the club as well. It made little sense, but he wanted it. He claimed it. His small prize for a small victory—that of surviving the fight.
That survival was yet in question. He heard a crash of breaking pottery from the village, and rough voices raised in argument.
He knew an urge to run to his home and seek Milari, but that was folly. He would only be caught and killed. He could not even flee far or quickly in his present state.
He limped into the woods, away from the carnage of the fight. When he was beyond sight of it he stopped, hid his two knives and the club beneath a scrubby oak, then chose a tall pine and climbed it, slowly and painfully, favoring his injured foot.
The tree was a vulnerable refuge, but the best that offered. If the kobalen did not notice him he would be safe.
He climbed into the highest branches that would bear him, then clung against the trunk and closed his eyes. The smell of pine sap cleared the uglier scents of the battleground from his senses.
He let out a long breath, at last acknowledging the horror of what had passed, the dread he felt for Milari and the others of Highglen. How many had survived? From the look and the sound of it, the village would be thoroughly ravaged.
He did not know if he could bear to rebuild again. Perhaps he and Milari would leave, find a better place lower in the mountains, or even out upon the plains. He loved his lifelong home high on the slopes of the Ebon Mountains, but the kobalen had brought dread in place of the peace he had once known here.
His head throbbed. He raised a hand to the wound and gingerly touched it, gasping at the sharp pain that resulted.
His fingers came away wet with blood. Perhaps he was killed after all.
Bleeding! The kobalen could track him here by his blood!
He opened his awareness and found the bright splashes of his own khi lingering in the drops of blood that marked his passage to the tree and up it. Kobalen did not sense khi but they could track by scent.
Ghaláran closed his eyes and strove to concentrate. First he blended his khi with that of the pine tree that held him, to mask his presence. Then he sent his thoughts outward and, one by one, singled out each spot of blood he had left behind. He used khi-shaping to shift them to blend with their surroundings, bark and needle or leaf and mould. The technique was similar to the way mages laid blessings into their work, and he sometimes used it to purify the knife-metal he worked with.
When the trail of drops brought Ghaláran back to the battleground, he left off, exhausted. He did not care to touch the muddled, fading khi of the fallen.
He let the cleansing tears come, now, and silently named each of the villagers who had stood with him, commending them to the care of the spirit realm. Easiest to name them all, for he could not know which of them had survived, if any.
Did any remain to make a conce of stone and carve it with the names of the dead? It would have to be much larger than the conce commemorating those who had fallen in last summer’s raid.
His thoughts drifted for a time. He was vaguely aware of kobalen still wreaking havoc in the village, shrieking in anger as they squabbled over some prize.
Slowly the throbbing in his head subsided. He ought to tend the wound, but it was not bleeding profusely. Better to wait until the kobalen had gone. He needed water to cleanse it, and a clean cloth, if he could find such remaining in Highglen.
Gradually he became aware of a heavy silence. Something had shifted. He extended his awareness, warily searching for sign of kobalen. None remained that he could find, but a new restlessness of khi swirled in the village.
Copyright © 2010 by Pati Nagle. All rights reserved.
Stories of the Ælven
by Pati Nagle
$4.99 (Collection) ISBN 978-1-61138-023-1