Assail: Book Excerpt

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North territory of a new land
Of the Jaghut wars:
Seventh century of the 12th Lamatath campaign
33,421 years before Burn’s Sleep

THE WOMAN RAN at a steady unhurried pace. Her breath came as long level inhalations through the mouth and out through her wide nostrils. Sweat darkened the front and back of her buckskin shirt. Her moccasins padded silently over stones and pockets of exposed sandy soil. That she was running up a wide rocky mountain slope, and had been for most of the day, attested to iron strength and endurance. She dodged round slim poles of young pine, white spruce and birch. She jumped rocks and slid and scrambled up steep gravel talus fans. She knew she could outpace her pursuers, but that she would never shake them from her trail. Yet still she ran on.

She knew that once they tired of the chase, they would take her. She judged it ironic that the same desperate urge to continued existence that drove her also lay behind their relentless pursuit—though they had relinquished their claim to it long ago.

Still she scrambled on up the slope, for one hope remained. One slim unlikely chance. Not for her survival; she had given that up the moment she glimpsed the hoary eldritch silhouettes of her pursuers. The one slim chance lay for vengeance.

Knife-edged broken rock cut her fingers as she scrabbled for handholds. It flayed her moccasins. The surrounding steep slopes of tumbled stone and talus heaps were just now emerging from winter; ice clung to shadowed hollows and behind the taller boulders. Snow still lay in curved dirty heaps, almost indistinguishable from the surrounding gravel. She took vigour from the chill bite of the high mountain air, knowing it perfectly natural rather than any invoked glacial freeze. Taking cover in a stand of pine, she paused to risk a glance behind: no movement stirred upon the slope below, other than a smallish herd of elk just now clattering their way down-valley. No doubt disturbed by her passage.

Yet she knew she was not alone. She also knew her pursuers need not show themselves to run her down. She’d hoped, though, they would at least grant her this one small gesture.

A lone figure did then step out from the cover of tumbled glacial moraine. It was as if she’d willed its appearance. The tattered remains of leathers flapped about its impossibly lean frame. A dark ravaged visage scanned the slope, rising to her. The white bear hide that rode atop the head and shoulders hung as aged and wind-dried as its wearer. She and he locked gazes across the league that separated them—and across a far larger unbridgeable gulf as well.

So far behind? she wondered. Then she understood and in that instant threw herself flat.

Something shattered against the rocks next to her. Flint shards thinner than any blade sliced her buckskins and flenced the skin beneath.

She jumped to her feet and returned to scrambling up the slope. She reached a ridge that was a mere shoulder of the far taller slope: a jagged peak that reared far above. Here she paused a second time, exhausted, her lungs working, drawing in the icy air.

Then she screamed as a spear lanced through her thigh, pinning her to the bare stony surface. She fell back against a rock and took hold of the polished dark haft to draw it. A skeletal hand knocked hers aside.

The same fleshless visage that had caught her gaze below now peered down at her. Empty dark sockets regarded her beneath the rotting brow of a white tundra bear. Necklaces of yellowed claws hung about the figure’s neck—presumably the claws of the very beast it wore—while the scraped hide of the beast’s forelimbs rode its arms down to the paws tied with leather bindings to its own hands. Ribs darkened with age peeked through the mummified flesh of its torso. Rags of leather buckskin lay beneath the hide, all belted and tied off by numerous leather thongs. A long blade of knapped flint, creamy brown, its tang wrapped in leather, stood thrust through a belt. ‘Why flee you here, Jaghut?’ the Imass demanded.

I flee destruction,’ she answered, her voice tight with suppressed pain.

Others of the Imass warband now walked the ridge. The bones of their feet clattered on the rocks like so many stones. ‘Caves above, Ut’el,’ one of their number announced, pointing a flint blade higher up.

The Imass, Ut’el, returned its attention to her. ‘You would seek to lure us to ambush,’ it announced.

‘If you say so.’

‘I am disappointed. You have brought death to your kin as well.’ It faced one of the band. ‘Take scouts. They are occupied?’

This Imass dipped its hoary skull where the flesh and hair had fallen away in patches. ‘Yes, Bonecaster.’

Bonecaster! the woman marvelled. A mage, shaman, of the breed! If she should bring this one to destruction then all would have been worth the struggle.

The bonecaster returned its attention to her. She sensed its mood of disappointment. ‘I had thought you a more worthy prize,’ it murmured, displeased.

‘As we had hoped for more worthy successors.’

‘Victory is the only measure of that, Jaghut.’

‘So the victors would soothe themselves.’

The undying creature raised its bony shoulders in an eloquent shrug. ‘It is simply existence. Ours or yours.’

She allowed herself to slump back as if in utter defeat. ‘You mean the elimination of all other than you. That is the flaw of your kind. You can only countenance your family or tribe to live.’

‘So it is with all others.’

‘No, it is not. You are merely unable to see this.’

‘Look about, Jaghut. Raw nature teaches us …’ Ut’el’s whisper-faint voice dwindled away as he slowly raised his fleshless face to the higher slope.

‘How fare your scouts, Bonecaster?’ she asked, unable to keep a savage grin from her face.

‘They are gone,’ he announced. His gaze fell to her. ‘Others are there.’ He now shook his nearly fleshless head in admiration, and, it seemed to her, even horror. ‘My apologies, Jaghut. I would never have believed any entity would dare …’ He drew his flint blade. ‘You are a desperate fool. You have doomed us all—and more.’

‘I am merely returning the favour.’

All about, the remaining Imass warriors flinched as if stung, drawing their blades of razor-thin flint. ‘Purchase us what moments you can,’ he told them flatly. His brown tannin-stained visage remained fixed upon her.

The warriors dipped their heads. ‘Farewell,’ one answered, and they disappeared into snatches of dust.

Above, figures now came pouring from the cave mouths: stone-grey shapes that ran on oddly jointed legs, or all four limbs at a time.

‘I am tempted to leave you to them,’ Ut’el said. ‘But we Imass are not a cruel people.’