Valley of shields, p.1

Valley of Shields, page 1

 

Valley of Shields
 



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Valley of Shields


  Dedication

  To all my friends who have helped me

  on this journey and on my travels around

  Australian bookstores

  Contents

  Cover

  Dedication

  Map

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  Chapter 40

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgements

  About the Author

  Books by Duncan Lay

  Copyright

  Map

  1

  This is the true story of how we came to be here, and how we came falsely to be called elves. Once we were called Elfarans, and one day we shall take our real name back.

  Sendatsu’s song

  ‘Kill the humans,’ Hanto ordered.

  Sendatsu’s heart turned to stone as he saw Jin and Taigo release their bowstrings. Time slowed and he desperately tried to summon his limited magic to stop the deadly arrows. But, like always, the magic slipped away from him and he knew he would see his friends die, his hope snatched away, and the horror of that was a shaft of pain sharper than his wounds.

  And then the arrows simply burned up.

  Everyone stared at the two small patches of ash that hung in the air for a moment before falling to the ground. It was hard to tell who was more surprised. Sendatsu gasped at what happened — and the incredible surge of magic he had felt coming from Rhiannon.

  ‘Aroaril! He’s using magic on us — take him!’ Hanto yelled, releasing his own arrow at Sendatsu in the same breath.

  Again, the arrow disappeared, blowing away into a puff of ash.

  Jin and Taigo grabbed for fresh arrows but Rhiannon was too fast for them. Branches snapped off trees, dropped through the air and then accelerated at the three elves.

  ‘Watch out!’ Hanto cried, dropping his bow and diving for his life, reaching for his magic in a frantic attempt to force the branches away.

  Jin and Taigo were neither fast nor strong enough. They tried to jump away, hands held up in a futile attempt to deflect the missiles. But branches ten feet tall and as thick as their legs picked them up and flung them a dozen feet through the air, their blood spraying high onto the trees. Hanto gritted his teeth and used every last bit of his magic ability to change the final branch’s path, gasping as it brushed past him and slammed into the ground, knocking him down and sinking half its length into the hard earth.

  ‘You’ll pay for those deaths, traitor!’ Hanto snarled, using the branch to haul himself back to his feet.

  Sendatsu ignored the challenge and instead dived for his sword, left lying on the ground when he surrendered it to Hector and Broyle. He had to finish Hanto off. Aroaril knew how much Rhiannon had left, or whether she could continue performing magic at such a high level. Nothing of what she was doing should have been possible, so it was ridiculous to try to predict her abilities now.

  But when Sendatsu rolled to his feet and ran at Hanto, sword held high, he locked eyes with him and saw the elf’s bemusement. Sendatsu realised he had made a terrible mistake. For why would someone with so much magical power turn to the sword? For a long moment, as he raced across the ground, he dared to hope Hanto would never get the chance to work out what was really going on. But then, as if in a bad dream, he saw Hanto’s gaze turn to Huw and Rhiannon. The expression on Hanto’s face would have been comical had this not been so serious.

  For the second time, Sendatsu felt helpless to stop what was happening right in front of him. The Council Guard glanced from Sendatsu to Rhiannon, disbelief and horror warring for supremacy, then Sendatsu felt, rather than saw, Rhiannon reach into the magic and send it at Hanto, making the grass and plants he was standing on writhe upwards to bind him. Hanto’s face hardened as he fought back, trying to drive the plants down again, but he was being swiftly overpowered by Rhiannon’s greater power and Sendatsu felt a surge of triumph, thinking he would be able to reach Hanto. The desperation — and growing fear — on Hanto’s face told him the elf had come to the same conclusion.

  Then Rhiannon collapsed — and the plants melted away from Hanto.

  Sendatsu was still a dozen paces away but Hanto had time to free himself, lean on the branch still quivering in the ground beside him for a moment — and look at the fallen Rhiannon — before racing away.

  ‘Come back, coward!’ Sendatsu yelled, but he knew it was hopeless. Hanto had no intention of facing him. Hanto ran and Sendatsu, the burns the Forlish had seared into him feeling like liquid agony with every step, could not catch the Council Guard. He lost sight of him, only hearing small noises as Hanto rushed through the trees.

  ‘I will get you!’ he roared after Hanto, not knowing if the warrior could even hear him. He staggered to a stop, cursing the wounds that had sapped his strength. He had to get back to the nearby village of Patcham and get riders out to find Hanto. Apart from everything else, if Hanto returned to Dokuzen with the knowledge a human could do magic …

  Gasping for breath and groaning every time his torn tunic brushed across one of his burns, he hurried back to the clearing, where a terrified Huw kneeled above the fallen Rhiannon, calling her name and trying to stir her.

  ‘She’s not waking up — what shall we do?’ he called desperately as Sendatsu walked back.

  ‘Try to give her something to eat. What do we have?’ Sendatsu sheathed his sword, the movement making his burned ribs explode with pain.

  ‘Food? But she’s asleep,’ Huw said doubtfully.

  ‘Trust me. I have seen this before.’

  ‘When? Where?’

  ‘Dokuzen.’ Sendatsu did not have the energy to make up a lie. ‘She has been doing too much magic and it has drained her energy.’

  As he feared, Huw wasted time staring in shock rather than acting.

  ‘I’ll explain later. Just get her something. If you care for her, get it quick!’

  That had the desired effect, and Huw raced over to the horses. Sendatsu kneeled by Rhiannon and stared at her face. She looked so peaceful in sleep but he wondered what was going on inside her head. Previously he had only seen two other elves able to use so much magic with such control — Sumiko and Asami. And only after they had studied for years. To think Rhiannon was able to match them right away was shocking, almost as shocking as realising the answers he sought had been right next to him all these moons. The pain and stress of the past turn of the hourglass were making it hard to think but one thing was clear: the lies told about the history of the elves and humans were just the tip of the iceberg. If humans could do magic, did that mean they were also elves? Or were the elves also humans? That would burst upon Dokuzen like a thunderbolt.

  He looked around but Huw was still busy over at the horses. Should they even revive her? Her life would never be the same;
every human would want her power, every elf would want her dead — and that was even before you considered what she had just gone through in killing her father to save them all. But it was a fleeting thought. She had saved their lives. She was his way home. He had to keep her safe.

  ‘Here — will this do?’ Huw was beside Rhiannon again, holding a small clay jar. ‘I’ve got water or there’s honey — we were going to leave it as an offering to the sun …’

  He trailed off as they both realised there was no chance of him and Rhiannon Walking The Tree and returning to the village as husband and wife now.

  Sendatsu looked into Huw’s battered face and sighed. Talk of lies, elves and humans would have to wait for a while.

  ‘That’s perfect. Mix the two and see if we can get some down her throat.’ He cradled Rhiannon carefully, easing her head up, while Huw mixed some water into the honey jar and tipped a little into her mouth.

  ‘A bit more. We need her to wake up, because we have to get riders and stop that elf from getting back to Dokuzen with news of Rhiannon’s magic,’ Sendatsu said impatiently.

  ‘You keep saying that. But how can she do magic? Only elves can —’

  Sendatsu signalled for more honey to be tipped into Rhiannon’s mouth. ‘She can do more magic than almost every elf,’ he said flatly. ‘Haven’t you been watching what’s happening? She saved our lives not once but twice.’

  ‘But why do we need to stop that elf? Why did they attack us?’ Huw asked.

  ‘I told you — there are elves who want me dead. Hanto is one of them.’ Sendatsu waved him away.

  ‘But what can he do —’

  Huw was cut off as Rhiannon choked a little then opened her eyes and sat up.

  ‘What’s happening?’ she asked, eyes darting around the clearing.

  ‘They’re all gone. You defeated them,’ Sendatsu said soothingly. ‘Using magic has exhausted you, as your own energy has been taken to replace what you did. You need to eat some of this — it will give you back strength.’

  She took the honey jar and waterskin from Huw and tipped them to her mouth, one after the other. For a long moment she swallowed, then she paused, wiped her mouth and focused on the two of them beside her.

  ‘Get away from me!’ she screamed.

  ‘Are you all right?’ Sendatsu asked urgently. ‘Do you feel dizzy —’

  Rhiannon pushed away his hand and shoved herself to her feet, backing away, eyes glaring.

  ‘Rhiannon, we are here to help,’ Sendatsu said softly.

  ‘I don’t want your help. You’ve both already done enough to me!’

  ‘Rhiannon, you can do magic. You are the hope of these lands,’ Sendatsu said. He could sense how on edge she was, how close to flying apart. With her newly discovered power, that could lead to anything.

  ‘What does that even mean?’

  ‘You’re the first human with magic in three centuries. You need to come back to Dokuzen with me —’

  ‘And why would I want to go anywhere with you?’ Rhiannon demanded.

  She turned away from them. If only the ground could just swallow her up, so she did not have to feel this way. She could do magic. Huw had betrayed her. She could do magic. Her father had betrayed her — her father, who lay dead a few paces away. She did not know whether to dance with joy or weep her heart out. Her gaze fell on his body, still twisted by the way she had killed him when the magic had been unlocked in her, triggered by his lies and betrayal, and she could not stand it any more.

  ‘Leave me. I want to bury him,’ she said abruptly.

  ‘At least let us help you,’ Sendatsu offered.

  ‘No. I don’t want your help. You two have done enough for me already. More than enough!’

  ‘We need to get back to the village and hunt down that last elf who attacked us. He cannot be allowed to escape,’ Sendatsu insisted gently.

  ‘I’m doing nothing until I have buried him,’ she said flatly.

  Sendatsu hesitated a moment longer, then nodded. He did not want to force her to do anything — mainly because he was not sure he could force her.

  ‘We’ll go and collect Glyn,’ he said. ‘We won’t be far.’

  He grabbed a dazed Huw and steered him out of the clearing, back down the trail, to where the horses waited and Glyn’s body lay. He had been killed by the Forlish, who had ambushed and tortured them before being killed themselves by Rhiannon’s magic.

  Every part of him was aching and the burns across his ribs burst into pain with every step. But his mind was racing. Huw and Rhiannon may not have Walked The Tree but Huw would still not want to see Rhiannon leave Vales. Apart from his love for her, she was the first human with magic and could save the Velsh from the Forlish. He had to persuade Huw that Rhiannon should travel with him to Dokuzen now, when Huw was not just hurting from the torture but in agony from Rhiannon’s rejection. He had to show him how much Rhiannon needed elven help with her magic, how it might even take her mind off her betrayal and loss.

  ‘Huw …’ he began.

  ‘I don’t want to talk.’ Huw groaned then stopped as they came across Glyn’s crumpled body lying in a thick pool of blood. Sendatsu stepped in quickly.

  ‘I told you to tell her the truth before now,’ Sendatsu said brutally.

  ‘I should have listened to you! I should have told her everything!’ Huw slumped to the ground, tears pouring down his bloodied and bruised face. ‘Now she hates me!’

  ‘True,’ Sendatsu admitted. ‘But things can change. I’ll speak to Rhiannon when we travel to Dokuzen and, by the time she returns, she will understand better what you did.’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Huw sat on the rough, muddy trail, staring at Glyn.

  ‘What I said. I have to go back for my children. And Rhiannon needs to come with me, for she needs to learn how to control her magic. Without training, she could harm herself, or others.’

  Huw stood up then. ‘Back to Dokuzen? But the elves are the only ones who can do magic. Some of them just tried to kill us. What will they do to Rhiannon if she goes there?’

  ‘Some elves will not want to see her powers but there are others, the Magic-weavers, who have been searching for humans such as Rhiannon. They will protect her and help us as well,’ Sendatsu said briskly, hoping it was true.

  ‘I cannot let her go. Her life will be in danger. You were the one telling us the history of humans and elves is a lie. You’ve been saying there were other reasons for the elves locking themselves away in Dokuzen.’ Huw glared at Sendatsu. ‘That man we spoke to down in Rheged was right, wasn’t he? The elves killed humans, destroyed all of us with magic, so they would be the only ones with the power. If Rhiannon goes back to Dokuzen, she will be killed!’

  ‘No!’ Sendatsu protested, as much about Huw’s insights as anything else. ‘We don’t know what happened —’

  ‘She cannot go with you. Not only will it be her death sentence, but we need her here. Her magic could save my people from the Forlish.’

  Sendatsu fought back a rising tide of nausea, only partly caused by his burns. ‘She has to go back with me. Her magic is without control. You saw how she collapsed after fighting off those elves. She’ll try something and it will kill her. And let me tell you, watching someone eaten up by magic is a sight even more horrible than the one we faced at Hector’s hands. They die screaming in agony,’ Sendatsu declared, not even sure if this was true but it certainly sounded good. ‘And,’ he added, struck by sudden inspiration, ‘if I take Rhiannon back to Dokuzen, then I promise to not only bring her back but to return with an army of elves and elven Magic-weavers to save your people. We’ll bring back the worship of Aroaril, show you the wisdom of the elves — everything you need.’

  ‘And you can do that?’ Huw asked sceptically.

  ‘Now we have Rhiannon, I can do all that and more,’ Sendatsu lied with confidence.

  ‘And what about Rhiannon?’ Huw said. ‘Will she return to help us, or will she hate me ever more?’

&nb
sp; ‘She will have to wait for later. Anything you do now will be useless. Save Vales first — and then maybe you can think about Rhiannon,’ Sendatsu said, hiding his triumph but unable to resist rubbing it in a little. ‘You had your chance with her — and it’s your own fault you lost her.’

  ‘It was her bloody father that did all this — I just tried to save her.’

  ‘And you think she will see that now? I told you to tell her the truth —’

  ‘You are a fine one to talk, after what you did to her! At least my lies were to protect her, not to trick her into bed!’

  Sendatsu decided this was going down a dangerous path.

  ‘You need to accept Rhiannon will hate you for the next few moons. But she will understand and accept you, if you give her the time. She has suffered two massive shocks, her whole life has been turned upside down — and she has magic as well. It is too much for anyone to take in. Give her time, give her space, and things will change.’

  ‘All right. I shall wait and hope. But I just wish I could be with her now. She hates the sight of me but she needs me more than ever,’ Huw said.

  Sendatsu turned, looking back down the trail to where they had left Rhiannon with her father’s body.

  ‘You are right. I don’t think there is a worse way to discover you have magic. And then killing her own father — the man deserved it but what she must be going through …’

  ‘How is it possible she can do magic?’

  Sendatsu took a deep breath — and winced as his ribs burned.

  ‘That is the real question,’ he admitted. ‘We have all been taught that we are two completely different races, except I keep finding common ground. And if humans can do magic as well —’

  ‘There is only one answer,’ Huw interrupted. ‘There are no elves and humans. We are one and the same. The only difference is you have all the knowledge, kept it all to yourselves. The magic is fading within elves but now it is growing within humans. You killed many of us to take away our memories, probably stole Aroaril from us as well. You tried to hide the truth and it has been lost in the dust of history. But Rhiannon will destroy all those lies and prove that —’

  ‘You can’t go around saying that!’ Sendatsu warned.

 
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