Chapter 45 Read Along: Tendrils of Darkness
It took three more days to climb the mountainside where the Rulakon made their home, days that would have been better spent marching the clans toward Asormo. Azren would not welcome the delay, though Pa’hu could hardly care. He’d come to dislike Azren and his minions almost as much as the ghasiv.
His appointed emissary to the Northerners, Kreeb, was crafty like a fox. His shrewd moves had so far worked to Pa’hu’s advantage, but he knew this would not always be the case. The feelings of Azren and his kind were ephemeral. Friend could turn to foe as quickly as an ice storm came and went, and favor would go to those most accommodating to Azren’s demands.
For now, an alliance was necessary, but Pa’hu envisioned a time when Azren would be the target of his people’s aggression. And for such a bold move, he would need the might of all five clans.
So here he was with a dozen of his best men on a snow-covered plateau near the suemil, the highest point on the tallest mountain. He waited for the rocca between himself and Vergud, hoping that the chieftain of the Rulakon would not simply bring his warriors to slay them all.
“Schie Bura!” called Cawa. “Tril has spotted them.” The snowy white owl sat on Cawa’s shoulder, resting its wings after hours of vigilance.
Pa’hu’s men pulled bows from their shoulders.
“Lay your weapons down,” commanded Pa’hu. The Capcecka warriors looked at him, confused. It was an act of surrender. “Do as I say. We are not here to make war.” They put down their bows, knives, and swords with obvious discomfort. Pa’hu laid his own weapons on the snow before him.
He knew Vergud would bring a large contingent of clansmen, enough to slaughter the Capcecka. But if he were to attack an unarmed group of Northerners, he would lose the respect of his clan. No, there would be a rocca this day, with the winner gaining command of all five clans and becoming Schie Kalro, a title not held for over two hundred years.
It took some time for Pa’hu’s eyesight to catch up with that of the snowy white owl. Vergud was first to appear above the rise. He wore a fur vest over a bare torso, despite the freezing cold, and stood a full clean-shaven head taller than any man present. Strapped to his back was a great axe with crescent-shaped blades facing away from each other, a weapon so massive it was hard to imagine him lifting it above his head, much less wielding it with speed and accuracy.
Vergud strutted across the plateau ahead of row upon row of his men—at least five Rulakon warriors for each Capkecka. He stopped directly in front of Pa’hu and laughed heartily before addressing him. “I did not realize you would submit so soon.”
“We leave our weapons at our feet to show we are here only for the rocca.”
“As we both are,” responded Vergud good-naturedly, but his wily eyes conveyed a cunning underneath. “I see you have made preparations.” He nodded toward a rectangle outlined in the snow with a torch at each corner. The rules were simple: a combatant would lose if he called for surrender, left the rectangle, or died. Death was the most prevalent outcome.
“‘Time, like food, should not go wasted,’” quoted Pa’hu from an ancient saying.
“Then we shall begin,” said Vergud. “As the chieftain of the Rulakon, I call forth a champion to fight in my place.” He put a meaty hand on the shoulders of a skinny young warrior whose head did not quite make it up to Vergud’s biceps. “This is my champion.”
What is this game he plays? Pa’hu hid his shock beneath a placid nod. Why would Vergud appoint a champion when his own skills in battle were said to be without peer? More befuddling was his choice of champions. Pa’hu would slice the youth to pieces within seconds. Did Vergud believe him too righteous for the task? This was for the leadership of all five clans. If the death of this young clansman was required, then so be it.
“I will champion myself,” he said.
The Rulakon champion stepped forward and sneered at Pa’hu before making a guttural, beastlike sound. The men behind him shuffled to the side to create a path in the snow, and an uoko emerged.
Several feet taller than Pa’hu and twice as wide, it had four stubby fingers that ended in two-inch claws used to rend flesh from bone. No mouth, nose, or ears could be seen among the bush of white hair that covered its face and body. Large, round eyes were inset in its head like black rocks pressed into the face of a snowman—an enormous, ferocious snowman.
The uoko stopped just short of the young warrior, and it became clear: this youth Pa’hu was about to fight was the beliei of the Rulakon, the Clan of the Uoko. As Tril served Cawa, the uoko served him. More than that, a beliei’s animal servant, known as a nihini, was considered one with its human counterpart, and thus the uoko would be allowed to fight inside the rectangle.
Pa’hu did not flinch. His men were watching. If he was mauled by this creature, so be it. He would not tremble in fear. He bent down and picked up his broadsword, leaving his hunting knife in the snow. Against the uoko’s thick fur and hardened skin, it would be near useless.
He stepped into the rectangle along with his opponent, who stood at the farthest edge. In response to a few spoken words, the uoko took up a defensive position a dozen feet in front of his charge. Men from both clans crowded around for a better view.
“Saruun!” yelled Vergud, and the battle began.
Pa’hu expected the uoko to come at him straight away. While its hulking frame looked clumsy, their kind were surprisingly swift over short distances. He had once seen an uoko chase down a mountain lion. This one did not seem so inclined. Maybe domesticated as it was, it had taken on some human traits—in which case it was for Pa’hu to be the aggressor.
Bending his knees experimentally, Pa’hu bounced up and down twice as he forced a deep breath through clenched teeth. He had never known another to purposely rush an uoko. Best not to think twice about it.
With a war cry on his lips, he sprinted toward his opponent. The scene blurred. A shaggy arm ripped the air; Pa’hu ducked below it, stepped forward, and dragged his broadsword across the uoko’s chest. Skin split. Black blood bubbled to the surface.
He twisted, changing directions. A slice left to right should have severed the uoko’s neck. A raised elbow blocked. The sword lodged against bone as wide as a wolf’s jaw.
A paw came swiping in. Pa’hu took the full force of the attack against his ribs and chest. He stumbled backward, losing his sword but keeping his feet. The uoko made only a cursory swat as he retreated.
Surely now, aggression would serve the creature well, thought Pa’hu. It might have finished him if it had not stepped back to its original position, as if it were tethered to the beliei. Pa’hu took measure of the Rulakon with the power to control this savage beast. The young man stood awkwardly, his hunting knife tied to his belt in a spot that was not optimal for drawing quickly. Pa’hu doubted the beliei had killed either human or animal with his own two hands.
Could that explain the uoko’s fighting style? Perhaps the nihini served as more than a servant to its handler. It was his protector. Keeping its beliei alive was paramount to the creature, more so than tearing Pa’hu apart.
One of his men tossed him a fresh broadsword. He caught it midflight, then bent down to pick up a handful of snow to press against his injured torso. While the wound was not severe enough to hinder him this early in the battle, its longer consequences would not be so readily dismissed. Already blood was seeping through the snow pack, draining Pa’hu’s strength one droplet at a time. He would have to stay on the offensive, keeping in mind there was a line between aggression and foolhardiness that only the dead fearlessly crossed.
He darted in, lashing out then retreating before a counterstrike could be mounted. He jabbed at the uoko’s burly chest, skipped backward out of range then thrust at its shoulder before dancing away unharmed. He continued these attacks, chipping away at the beast and occasionally drawing more black blood. All the while, the anger of the uoko grew.
The men of the Capkecka tribe gave short cheers as Pa’hu stung his adversary time and time again while the Clan of the Uoko watched with stony eyes.
“Night will surely come before this battle ends,” griped Vergud.
Pa’hu did not agree. He clapped another fistful of snow to his abdomen. He would bleed out long before then.
With that thought, he sent a brutal jab at his opponent. Claws sped toward his retreating form—a narrow miss, but a harrowing reminder of what could happen if the uoko lost its temper. If only it would, I might get somewhere.
The idea stuck with him. To provoke an uoko was dangerous. On one hand, an angry beast was a vulnerable beast, but Pa’hu risked being torn apart in the process.
He traded his weapon for a longsword, the better to stay out of reach while continuing his infuriating thrusts and jabs. He pressed forward. A feint was followed by a stab to the face. The uoko clawed the air, its retaliatory strikes becoming predictable. A barrage of harassing thrusts later and the creature was roaring to the heavens. It wanted to be free to tear the limbs from Pa’hu’s body.
Any time now and it would attempt just that.
Or so he thought. Several minutes later, several minutes of careful footwork and precise strokes as the snow between their feet became a slush of black and red, little had changed. Pa’hu did not fool himself: the wounds he inflicted were needle pricks to a beast of the uoko’s size and strength. It would take a hundred if not a thousand to score a kill. He didn’t have the stamina to prick it to death, and despite the beast’s obvious frustration, it stayed true to its intent of protecting its beliei.
The shouts of encouragement had died down. Onlookers took seats. Some glanced down the mountainside at the expanse of rock and snow below. Pa’hu’s own men had tired of this contest with no winner. That would change, one way or another.
Pa’hu delivered his next sword slap with a chuckle. He snickered after jabbing the beast and whooped at the uoko’s clumsy counterattack after it was slashed in the knee. Bored Northerners turned in puzzlement at the display.
Another slice, another bellyful of mirth. Pa’hu infused every movement with his amusement. The uoko seemed more perturbed by the sword pokes than the mocking at its expense. Its young master, though, felt differently.
“Why are you laughing?” he demanded.
“It’s such a pitiful thing,” said Pa’hu. “It’s hard not to laugh.”
The boy curled his lip in anger. “It is an uoko, the most powerful creature to roam these mountains. Lay yourself at its feet and I may let you live.”
Pa’hu gave a derisive snort. “This one is no wild beast to fear. This one acts like you are its dirksa.” The comment elicited laughs from those watching.
In a show of bravado, Pa’hu double-jabbed the uoko’s midsection before leaping out of the way, all the while looking as if he could barely keep from rolling around the snow in delight.
“Stop that!” demanded the beliei.
But this only made Pa’hu laugh harder.
“I said stop it!”
By now, Pa’hu was in the throes of such mirth that he wasn’t even attacking anymore. He was bent over, almost on his knees in hysterics. The boy growled at the top of his lungs in a language only an uoko would understand. But Pa’hu could tell it was a command, a harsh command to be followed without question. Like an unchained rabid animal, the uoko thundered toward Pa’hu. No more a protector, it came to destroy its prey.
Pa’hu had been waiting for this moment. The nihini had proven too loyal to abandon its defensive stance, no matter its anger. But by goading the boy, Pa’hu had gotten his wish. Seeing the uoko bearing down upon him, he wondered if he’d made a terrible mistake.
The creature was on top of him in a flash, tearing hunks of flesh from his shoulder and scraping the surface of his neck, spinning him sideways. Another swipe caught the crown of his head. Nails raked at his skull, and blood soaked his flowing locks.
He fell backward, regaining his balance at the edge of the rectangle. Should he fall out, the battle would be over. His men looked ready to catch him, perhaps even to pull him to safety. A part of him wondered if that would be best. He had fought bravely. Should he be knocked out of the rectangle, instead of being brutally killed inside, he would lose no respect.
He dismissed the momentary weakness. If he were to back down, all the other clans would serve at the feet of Vergud. Already there had been too much sacrifice, too many generations filled with cold, hunger, and desolation. When Pa’hu became Schie Kalro, he would lead his people to the ghasiv lands where they would have their revenge. They would live and hunt on the warm plains, and the cycle of clan killing clan would at last come to an end.
A giant paw swung at Pa’hu, intended to decapitate. It was the move he had been waiting for—an attack meant to finish him without regard to what would happen should it fail. The air whooshed; he somehow dodged. Adding a second hand to his sword hilt, he shoved it forward, connecting with the uoko.
The momentum of the creature’s attack added to the devastation. The blade stopped only when the handguard pressed against the beast’s body. At last, Pa’hu’s pin became a spike, a prick became a stab. Black blood flowed freely.
If Pa’hu had been fighting another human, even one so large as Vergud, the battle would have been over. His adversary would have already fallen into death’s shadow. An uoko was a different matter. Massive and resilient, a creature of the hunt, it would not even register its wounds until all of its enemies were dead.
The uoko sent a shaggy mitt across Pa’hu’s jaw. His neck wrenched in agony. He fell to the snow, ears ringing. A dull echo came to him—his name was being called; hands tried to pull him up, but he collapsed to his knees. His weapon had been yanked from him, but somehow a broadsword ended up in his hand. The shape of an enormous foot crashed into the snow before him and a bellow split the air, startling him from his stupor.
Now to end this contest.
Pa’hu raised his sword hilt first as a giant paw came slicing in. He brought the blade down, piercing a shaggy white foot, and drove it deep into the snow. Diving, rolling, he scythed between the uoko’s legs as it stripped flesh from his backside. He rose and sprinted toward the beliei. He could hear the beast behind him, yanking at its stuck foot, wailing in anger.
For the first time, Pa’hu came face-to-face with his Rulakon opponent. The young clansman reached for his hunting knife. Pa’hu needed no weapon. With his bare hands, he clasped the head of the youth and twisted hard to the left. The boy’s neck swiveled and broke with a loud snap. He crumpled to the ground. Dead.
Unfortunately, no one told the uoko it was over. Upon seeing its master fall, the nihini became frenzied, ripping its foot from the snow, oblivious that a chunk of itself was still pinned by the blade. A fountain of black poured onto the snow as it loped toward Pa’hu with single-minded intent. By the time Pa’hu had grabbed the beliei’s hunting knife, the uoko was already within killing distance.
A Capkecka warrior leapt onto its back, saving Pa’hu from certain death. Massive claws peeled the clansman off. When its gaze returned, the uoko found its prey was missing.
Pa’hu’s men picked up their bows. Arrows struck the creature in the head and chest. Its hardened skin kept them from piercing deeply, even at this distance, and whatever pain it felt seemed buried well below it consciousness. The maddened uoko spun around, searching. It spotted Pa’hu at the other end of the rectangle and charged once more.
This time, he was ready. The uoko barreled forward carelessly in its lust for vengeance. Pa’hu drove his knife upward. Steel hit its mark beneath the uoko’s chin. Snow-white arms slick with black blood wrapped around Pa’hu in a deathly embrace. He felt the air leave his body. Ribs cracked. The world became hazy. He let go of the dagger.
The beast flung Pa’hu to the snow. More feathered shafts punctured its fur. As Pa’hu struggled for consciousness, he saw blood-soaked claws and then a glint of steel. The uoko fell onto its back, the enormous blade of a great axe protruding from its chest. Arrows rained down upon it, this time from every direction as the Rulakon bowmen joined in.
For several moments, the uoko lay unmoving. The hairs on its face were parted, revealing a dark eye softening in despair. Somehow the creature staggered to its feet, lust no longer in its heart. Instead, it stood with hunched shoulders, gazing at its master. It took two laborious steps toward him before being buried under the barrage of arrows. A final whimper could be heard, an arm reached out toward its beliei, and then the uoko went still.
Pa’hu lay in a powdery bed wet with blood. He heard the voice of men offering words of congratulation. The pain was tremendous. He could not speak.
The sun shining above him became blocked by the bald head of the man who had saved him. “I live only to serve you, Schie Kalro,” said Vergud, chieftain of the Rulakon clan.
And then pain won out, and darkness claimed him.
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Tendrils of Darkness: Book 1 of The Black Trilogy comes courtesy of a partnership between Will Spero and YA Book Central.
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