(Winner of the 2016 Aurealis Award, Best Fantasy Novella)
There are many ways to kill an elephant. When that mountain bears down on you, shaking the earth and screaming for your blood, show no fear.
Only without fear will you see the truth. They are quick, even draped in chain and iron, but you are quicker by a whisker. They fight like devils, but it only takes three people who know what they are doing to bring an elephant down.
They are afraid of you.
All elephants can die.
I bring you two things today. Iron, sharp and true, and a story. If you don’t gain the truth of things from this, you would best drive these blades into your own hearts.
I have slain many enemies, both grey and pale. I’ve learnt things in that awful quiet, the moments of pain and sorrow after the fury, where men like me pass over the dead and dying. The road that brought me here is slick with blood, and if you do not listen to me carefully, your own deadly road will wash you away.
I was born a slave, like all of you. My master was a hoary old bull known as Ascaro, one of the Bull-King’s champions. Twenty feet high at the shoulders, and even past his prime he was a quick devil, though old muscles were turning into fat.
Where other elephants cover themselves in tattoos and silk and let the scriveners carve boasts upon their tusks, Ascaro only ever wore his scars. The end of his right tusk was shattered from an enemy axe, and a lucky blow had taken his left eye long before I ever drew breath.
I spent many hours scouring his hide with brushes and bronze scrapers, and I knew that grey map of his battles well. He drank melon wine during his mud baths, and when his one eye turned red and crazed, he played his favorite game with the house slaves. Without warning, his trunk would flick backwards, and those of us cleaning his back would have to dodge his drunken fumblings and try not to slip and fall. The first slave to fall into the mud bath was the one that he would kill that day. He would pin them down with his foot, exerting just enough pressure to hold them under the mud.
I would stand on that heaving back with perfect balance, and not once did I cease my endless scrubbing, staring only at my broom as someone else drowned in the mud.
His lieutenants and lackeys would cheer him on while he murdered a human being for no reason. Even the house poet would stop plucking the bouzouki with his trunk and join in the laughter. Just before the bubbles finally stopped, Ascaro would step down hard, crunching bones. He would pluck each corpse out of the mud, tossing it across his great hall. Each body fell with a meaty smack, arms and legs a muddy broken tangle. The elephants would roar and laugh at the sight, each of them screeching that horrible deep-throated rasp that every man loathes.
I survived the bath game longer than any of the other slaves in the house of Ascaro, and only then did my master look upon me with value. He took the broom from my hands and gave me to a man named Mouse.
“This one dances well,” Ascaro told Mouse. “Teach him to dance with a knife.”
Mouse was a hulk of a man, almost as scarred and grizzled as our master. He took me away from that miserable house, from all I’d ever known.
He led me across the streets of Tusk, through the plazas and across the causeways. It is a city built to the scale of our masters, already old when the elephants learned script and set their histories down. I felt like an ant, just another attendant below the notice of our grey kings. Here the wealthy promenaded, draped in silk and gold-dust, and each elephant carried a dozen slaves armed with fly-switches and scratch-sticks.
“You will be dead within a week,” was all that Mouse said to me during that long journey. “I will call you Ghost, just to save time.” It was as good a name as any I’d been called.
We passed through the deep throat of a gate, dwarfed by the walls no siege engine could level. I saw a field of sawdust below, bordered by the city wall and the dark murk of the Indus River. Hundreds of slaves worked the field, scattering fresh sawdust like they were sowing seeds. Longhouses ran level with the edge of the field, mud brick daubed with red ochre. One of these was marked with the sigil of House Ascaro.
“Welcome to Blood Meadow,” Mouse said.
The longhouse of Ascaro was rude but functional. In the gloom lay a hundred empty slave pallets, bare slabs of wood. A handful of people huddled around a firepit.
“What is this you’ve brought us, Mouse?” one of them called out.
“A ghost,” Mouse replied, and the group chuckled.
The slaves were devouring some small animal cooked on a spit. Their sharp knives flickered over the carcass, reducing it to bones in minutes. One scarred woman flicked a morsel of meat directly into Mouse’s open mouth, and the group roared with laughter.
Like Mouse, these people were hard-edged and confident and drank their master’s melon-wine with gusto. They did not act like any of the house-slaves I’d ever seen.
“Sit down, Ghost,” one of them said, pushing over a chunk of log with a boot. “You’re not dead today.”
I shared their meat and their grog, quietly taking in my new home. As the sun set and the lodge filled with shadows, I stared at the racks of elephant weapons on the walls. Oversized javelins, spiked maces, and battle-axes no human could even hope to lift. Two great swords rested in an iron bracket, crafted to fit the exact curve of our master’s tusks.
Beneath this lay the thick iron shell that Ascaro wore into battle, heaped into a pile of plates and links and buckles. I saw the face plate, battered in dozens of places, the spot in front of his dead eye covered by an extra layer of iron and rivets. The empty eye socket watched me as I ate his food and drank his wine. I shivered.
I learned the others’ names as the wine flowed. A man with a great grey beard and no hair, who they had called Boy. Two women with muscles like hard wood, twin sisters called First and Second. A giant of a man, muscled like an ox, with only a stub of tongue. Punishment from speaking ill of Ascaro. They called him Lucky.
“When does it begin?” Boy asked.
“One week,” Mouse said.
“Time enough to train your Ghost?” Second said.
“No,” Mouse said. “He’ll die, or not, and it’s nothing on us.”
Ever since I could toddle, I’d been a slave. I knew my own utter lack of worth. Even as they talked about my death, I stared into the flames and ate every scrap of meat from the bone in my hands. That was another day’s problem, and tonight I was free.
“Come here, Ghost,” Mouse said, and stood me up in front of the firepit. The others jostled together, all glee and nudging elbows.
“You’ve the look and stink of a house slave,” Mouse said, his eyes boring into my own. “We don’t mix with pot-scrubs here.”
“Stinking pot-scrub,” First hissed, and the others hooted.
“You’re dead meat,” Mouse continued. “I’ll give you five minutes out on the sawdust. You’ll beg for a broom in your hand, Ghost.”
“Probably wet himself,” Boy grunted, and the twins howled with laughter. Even Lucky joined in, barking out his own tongueless enjoyment.
“Changed my mind. The slave dies here tonight,” Mouse said. Seizing me in his hands, he tore my tunic from me with one swift motion. It was the last thing I owned, and he threw the filthy fabric into the fire. I stood before these people, naked and defeated.
“You’re dead,” Mouse said, and held a knife to my throat. It bit into my adam’s apple as I swallowed, but when I looked up from the blade, I met his eyes calmly, without fear. At that moment I was empty of everything, and he raised an eyebrow, seeming to approve of what he saw.
He stepped back, raising his knife in salute. That was when the water splashed me, soaking me from head to toe. Coughing and wiping my eyes, I saw Boy and Second, holding a dripping half-barrel.
“Is this slave dead?” Mouse asked.
“He’s dead. Dead as dead,” Boy said. They surrounded me, clapping me on the shoulders, and bidding me welcome. Lucky attacked me with a rough scrap of towel. First brought out a cloth undershirt and pants, and Second helped me put on the first pair of boots I’d ever worn.
When I was dressed, Boy filled my hands with a square parcel, a heavy bundle of metal links and leather. A chain-mail shirt, reaching down past my groin but split up the sides for mobility.
They fitted it to me, Mouse tutting and making measurements. They spoke of a blacksmith, expected any day now.
“Bring it out, Lucky,” Mouse called, and the one-armed giant put something into my hands. It was a sword in a sheath, curved like the master’s tusk blades. The handle felt old and worn, and the leather scabbard was scratched in dozens of places.
I drew the sword in one movement. The blade was battered and rough, more of a tool than a weapon. When I tested the edge, it sliced open my thumb with no effort.
“This belonged to Pup,” Mouse said. “Pup ended up with a tusk in his guts, so now it belongs to you.”
I learnt that we were called Rothai, and in the longhouses all around me, other teams of Rothai were gathering. In one week, they would all do their best to kill me.
Other slaves came, to fill the bunks. House slaves from the city, shuffling in by the dozen. Already I looked down on them as animals. Pot-scrubs. Next came the blacksmith, making the long-house unpleasantly hot as he banked white-hot coals in the forge.
My hours were filled with swordplay, as the Rothai played at killing. Mouse carried the twin of my sword – our two curved blades represented the twin tusks of our master. The twins First and Second wielded the kontoi, double-handed lances with iron points two feet long. Boy had a battle-axe, while Lucky swung a flail with enough force to crack skulls.
All about us, the Rothai of the other elephant houses made their own practice in the sawdust. Each was armed in an identical fashion to us. This was because of something called the Concord, Mouse said, and that was all the explanation he offered.
It wasn’t enough to learn the death skills; we sparred on log frames ten feet above the ground, leaping across tightropes and netting, all while our fellows jerked at the workings to test our balance. We Rothai would ride out on the backs of our masters and fight on the move.
I felt a stone twisting in my guts whenever I looked at the other warriors. We had no quarrel, but any of these people would end my life and think nothing of it.
Mouse studied my form with the sword. He declared me fit enough to not embarrass him but still unlikely to live out the first day. I spent the last night hunched over the latrine pit, purging from both ends. The twins and Boy laughed and called out encouragement.
When dawn came, we heard the poets bawling out on the sawdust, paid to recite elephant lineage and exaggerate their patron’s deadliness. Then came the hammer of drums, the call of a hundred conch shells. Elephants roared with anger and blood lust.
Ascaro finally arrived, stinking of grog and covered in his own filth. He berated and abused the house slaves as they got underfoot, killing two before Mouse could quiet him.
We hauled on ropes, lifting the chain-mail skirt up and over Ascaro’s back. Two dozen big men sweated and heaved on a pulley, hauling the inch-thick chest plates up and into place.
Next came the iron greaves around his legs, laced up with leather trusses. A team of children climbed up and down a rig, deftly connecting the dozens of segmented pieces that made up the trunk armor. Ascaro tested his trunk for flexibility, and the pieces rattled as he gripped an enormous axe.
“My swords!” he roared, stamping impatiently.
As another crew winched the enormous face-plate into position, we ran up with the swords. It took three of us to lift each blade up to our master’s tusks, nine feet of solid iron. The blacksmith threw the hasps over each tusk, and swiftly hammered in metal pins to hold the blades fast.
We swarmed over our elephant like birds looking for ticks. Everywhere was a pair of hands tightening a buckle or a rope or setting the iron plates. Planks were passed across and lashed into a rough platform for us Rothai to walk upon. Finally Ascaro had enough of this fussing and started to move, shedding slaves with every lurching step. They wriggled down ropes and fell to the dirt floor until the only humans who remained on Ascaro’s back were those of us clad in leather and chain.
We Rothai took up our positions, each of us lashed to a rail that ran up the center of Ascaro’s back. Long knives at our belts had the sole purpose of severing this rope – or someone else’s.
As Ascaro burst through the doors of his longhouse, I saw the Blood Meadow in all its awful glory. I vomited over my master’s side, and the twins laughed all the way into battle.
Everywhere, elephants encased in metal, hundreds of iron mountains at full gallop, and they raged and clashed. Iron struck iron, and already the sea of sawdust was spattered with blood.
“Be ready,” Mouse shouted from his perch just behind Ascaro’s head. Second stood above Ascaro’s shoulders, her long kontoi at the ready, calmly watching the thunderous murder that we were racing towards. Her twin sister paced around above Ascaro’s rump, watching behind for sneak attacks.
Our master veered around a whirling knot of combat where three elephants fought each other, enormous maces and axes rising and falling.
Ascaro made a sudden left, and my feet nearly slipped out from beneath me. Two elephants lay tangled in death, their tusk swords buried in throat and breast. The downed Rothai crews fought to the last on that grey hill, swords and flails flashing. Someone hoisted a lone kontoi with a red pennant tied to the shaft.
“No point waving the blood flag,” Boy laughed, and sure enough the flag-waver was butchered by his enemies. Moments later, another elephant ran past in a rage, blinded from a head wound, and slammed into the dead elephants at a full charge. When the wounded elephant rose, I saw that he’d crushed the surviving humans into paste.
“Stay off the ground, Ghost,” First shouted. “If your rope gives, you’re dead.”
Ascaro weaved through the melee, smashing his axe to left and right, forcing his way through like an unstoppable force. Then, he shrieked with glee, and his nimble maneuvering became a charge.
“Ghanghil!” he shouted. “Face me!”
He bore down upon an elephant in black iron. This new enemy had been in combat for some hours now. His plates were heavily dented and his chain skirts torn and dangling in several places. Ghanghil looked upon my master with undisguised hatred. He raced towards him with fresh energy, raising a bloody mace high into the air.
“Rail!” Mouse shouted, and we knew to drop low, holding onto the middle rail for all we were worth. Ascaro and Ghanghil met with a deafening crash, and we were flopped around on his back like landed fish.
The two bulls strained at each other, tusk-swords scraping and rasping. Between this, their armored trunks twisted like great serpents, the big axe and mace rising and falling.
Over Ghanghil’s head, we saw his Rothai rise, and Mouse screamed, ordered us to our feet. Second was up and lunging, batting aside the enemy kontoi that sought out her heart. Ghanghil’s second kontoi came out of that press of faces, but Lucky wrapped his flail around it, pinning it down for Boy to snap with his axe.
I waited at the back with First, sword at the ready. Two other warring elephants passed us by in a deadly race, and a man with a kontoi took a quick stab at us, trying for a sneak kill.
First simply ducked, but I was not quick enough. The iron lance-head caught me in the shoulder, snapping through the chain-links and pushing me straight over the side.
“Ghost!” First screamed, and then I was falling towards the sawdust. Then the rope caught, and I was a dangling dead weight, swinging just short of the ground. I swayed and lurched as Ascaro shifted. It was all I could do to hold onto my sword.
Around me, elephants thundered, and a passing axe-man took a swing at my rope. If I didn’t get up soon, someone would sever my rope and I’d die on the sawdust.
“Hold on,” First shouted. She held her kontoi over the side of the elephant for me to grab. When I snatched it with my free hand, she drew me up slowly, grunting with my weight.
First helped me to my feet, grinning with relief, when a blur over her shoulder made me cry out. We turned just in time to see a second elephant, in the same black iron as Ghanghil, crashing into our master at a full charge.
His tusk-swords buckled Ascaro’s rear plates, one of them reaching through leather and chain to cut deeply into our master’s rump. We barely had time to regain our footing when Ghanghil’s axe came smashing down.
It was only the skills learnt in the bath game that saved my life then. The axe blow split the plate where I’d stood a moment earlier. A flood of enemy Rothai leapt over the elephant’s head, hooting and hollering as they slid down his trunk. Six warriors, each of them trailing a flapping length of rope.
“They’ve cut cords! Mouse, help!” First shouted, trying to keep them at bay with her lone kontoi. I hovered at her side, swatting away the second one with my sword, even as the enemy rushed us.
Then Ascaro turned, withdrawing and fighting his way free of Ghanghil. The three elephants circled, the two in black iron fighting as one.
“Grengkil and Ghanghil,” Ascaro snorted. “You bastard brothers in black. I’ll bleed you today!”
Grengkil’s entire crew were on Ascaro’s rump now, forcing us back towards Ascaro’s head. First lost the head of her kontoi to an enemy axe-man, and she retreated with a curse, left with only her rope-knife to fight with.
I took a spear to the thigh and was fighting a losing battle against two swordsmen when Mouse and Lucky came to my side. In moments one foe was dead, another dying, and then Second was there with her kontoi to prod the survivors backwards. The last man fell bleeding from the gut, to the sawdust and certain death.
Ascaro was holding his own. He’d crushed Ghanghil’s trunk armor with one lucky blow, and Ghanghil bled deeply. His Rothai raised the blood flag, and he retreated from the melee in defeat.
Grengkil had done his best to smash Ascaro’s blind side, but now it was one on one. My master shrugged off half a dozen deep wounds, driving the black-armored elephant back with his superior size.
Their axes came down with fury, sparks flying from each crash of metal. Finally Ascaro twined his trunk around Grengkil’s own, holding the smaller bull’s axe in place.
“Now, cut cords!” Mouse shouted, and it was our turn to slice at our ropes. We leapt from one elephant to another, and no one was there to oppose us as we sliced away buckles and straps, stripping away layers of chain and plate.
“Mercy!” Grengkil cried. “I show blood flag. Please!”
But there were no Rothai on his back to raise the red blood flag of surrender.
“Master?” Mouse asked. The glare in Ascaro’s eye was instruction enough. We struck at the base of Grengkil’s skull, knives and blades seeking out his veins and spinal cord, and we robbed this giant of his life.
It was a great victory for my master. Ghanghil and Grengkil were two of the Bull-King’s favorites, and to slay one and humiliate the other had raised Ascaro in that complex hierarchy.
But Ascaro was furious. Even as the dead elephants were carved apart and put on wagons for interment in the Memory Hall, he lined us up in front of his longhouse. Six Rothai, most of us still bleeding, but we stood as straight as a row of nails.
House slaves swarmed over Ascaro, pasting on unguent with trowels and mops. Two were trained surgeons, stitching up his wounds with foot-long needles and cord.
“That wretch Grengkil got the jump on me,” Ascaro rumbled. “If I wasn’t faster and stronger, those brothers would be pissing on my corpse right now.”
We stood silent. Next to me, First flushed, and I saw her tremble slightly. If she hadn’t been saving me, she’d have spotted Grengkil attacking from the rear and would have been able to give the warning.
“I am the greatest on Blood Meadow. The greatest!” he said. His trunk snaked sinuously; his great ears flapped. From hours of scrubbing this monster, I knew every sign, every little twitch. Our master was at his most dangerous.
“So why have I got a gaping hole in my backside?” he roared. “Who was meant to be watching back there?”
It was always up to those with kontoi to watch, front and back. The elephant loomed above the twin sisters, all grey wrath and vengeance.
“It was me,” Second said, and First cried out in disbelief. The sisters both tried to accept blame, and Ascaro stamped at the ground, losing patience. Elephants, as you know, have trouble telling humans apart, so it would have been impossible for him to pick out which twin was which.
Mouse stepped forward, and with no expression he pointed at First. The sisters gave up on all self-sacrifice, and First waited for her master’s judgment.
“You will die,” Ascaro said, and First bowed her head. “You have served well until today, so I offer you a choice. Put your head beneath my foot, or fall on your sister’s blade.”
“No!” Second said. “You cannot!”
“Hold your tongue,” Ascaro said, “or Mouse will find two new Rothai tomorrow.”
The twins turned from the elephant, and I saw Second draw her rope-knife with a shaking hand. The sisters kissed and touched brow to brow, tears mingling across those mirror-image faces.
“Enough! Do it!” Ascaro roared, and First pushed herself forward, the knife biting deep into her chest. Sobbing, Second thrust up with her blade, again and again, until her sister finally stopped twitching and screaming.
Mouse brought a replacement to the longhouse the next day, a Rothai with a dead master. Mouse named her Nails, and as always the joke of this new name was something he kept private. We threw water on her, and drank, and pretended that First had never walked amongst us.
We had many victories that season on the Blood Meadow. Ascaro began taking more risks on the field than ever.
I gained confidence with the sword, and soon I was at Mouse’s elbow whenever the call came to cut the cord, to take the fight across to another elephant. Each fight brought another scar, and more memories of carnage. I tried to wash them away with melon-wine.
I drank, I slew, and I survived.
Men faced me over bare blades, and I struck them down first, drove the life out of them with urgency. Each one was a poor slave like me, but one thought drove my sword-arm: Better you than me!
One day, the madness stopped. Like my master I woke up with a hangover, but instead of combat, we were kneeling in the sawdust, paying obeisance to the Bull-King, the most perfect of all elephants.
A pair of palace elephants waited behind us with maces, ready to crush any human who dared to look upon the Bull-King’s radiance. I caught a perfectly painted foot but dared not look any higher.
The Bull-King spoke for many minutes, praising Ascaro, offering him titles, more slaves, new land. When he paused, soaking up the polite trumpeting that passed for elephant applause, Ascaro said “No.”
“No?” the Bull-King said, somewhere between amusement and displeasure. I felt the Bull-King’s elephants close in, and I knew that they would beat us all for Ascaro’s disrespect.
“Bull-King, I ask only one thing. Make me the Scourge.”
“But... you are old now, Ascaro,” the Bull-King said. “That should be borne by a young bull.”
“I have won Blood Meadow by strength of arms,” Ascaro said. “Your young bulls quiver before me and raise blood flag before I can close with them. I am the best, and I must be the Scourge.”
A conch horn sounded, and more elephants came running. Advisors to the Bull-King. They spoke on the sawdust for many minutes before the Bull-King gave his grace.
Our master now commanded the Legion and brought fire and iron in the Bull-King’s name. You know what Ascaro did, if you’ve ever walked past the poets or scurried through the Memory Hall on some errand. We brought war to the Bull-King’s enemies, brought rebel villages under his rule. We fought the mammoths of the North and the skulking creatures of the Eastern Waste, but Ascaro did not meet his end in a glorious battle.
Three long years I painted the land with the blood of the enemy. Each season we returned to Tusk and to Blood Meadow, wondering if that was the year the sawdust would drink up our lives. None were able to snatch the Legion from Ascaro, once he had his trunk firmly wrapped around that prize.
When our vassals paid their taxes and our enemies wintered away from the front, we hunted runaway slaves. The Marchlands were thick with wild tribes who’d never lived under elephant rule, but these barbarians were wily and hard to track. Worse still were places like Deeping Forest, craggy and thick-grown, hard for elephants to enter.
We spent endless hours in that damp wood, on elephant back or loping alongside, shivering and wet from the daily downpour. Everywhere I looked, I could see the shape of elephants in the trees, pushing through the thick growth, hacking branches with their axes. If there were runaway slaves here, they’d have already fled from that endless chopping sound.
Each mile was hard won, and evening brought us to a sulking camp. Scores of elephants jostled around the wine cart, snarling at each other and cursing Ascaro when he wasn’t within earshot. We Rothai huddled around the baggage train with our own beetroot grog, all the elephants were allowing us on this trip.
“We will find nothing,” Boy said, his white beard stained red from weeks of drinking the rotgut stuff. “One campfire, and it was cold ash.”
Later on, the elephants grew drunk and boastful. One of Ascaro’s lieutenants fancied himself as a poet. Even though he was so drunk he could barely stand, he belched and farted his way through a grotesque recital of the mammoth wars. This sparked off an all-out brawl between the poet and half a dozen of his listeners.
Trees fell, and blood was spilt by the time Ascaro intervened. Laying about with his armored trunk, my master separated the brawlers. “Have some pride!” he shouted. “You are Legion. Find some other way to occupy yourselves!”
By way of example, Ascaro snatched up a Rothai trying to sneak away from the melee. Gripping him by an ankle, he tossed him across the camp. Another elephant caught the wailing man, and then others joined in, tossing the warrior back and forth.
We watched in horror as first the flying man screamed in terror, then in pain as the exuberant elephants dislocated all his joints, then in horror when they simply decided to pull the man apart and see who got the biggest piece.
“No. That’s not right,” I said to Boy. “He wasn’t a pot-scrub. Rothai don’t die that way. They just don’t!”
“We die however our masters decide we die,” Boy said. “Tomorrow that could be you, or I, and that’s the way of it.”
That was the moment that I knew Ascaro would, sooner or later, turn on all of us. Better you than me, I thought. Silent and thoughtful, I considered the gloomy depths of the forest.
I did not trust anyone outside of my own Rothai crew. I sounded out my thoughts with Second, waiting until she was so drunk that I could deny the conversation.
“I want to see that devil bleed,” she whispered. “If you are serious, I’m with you.”
I did not trust the woman named Nails, First’s replacement. Mouse had claimed her as his wife, and she ran to his ear over the slightest things. I took care to approach Boy when neither Nails nor Mouse were around. To my surprise he wasn’t even concerned to hear about the planned murder of our master.
“You mean for us to live in that?” Boy said, eyeing off the damp forest with distaste.
“There are people in there, and they are free,” I said. “Second says she saw a boy in a tree, just watching us.”
“She saw a runaway, and didn’t say anything?” Boy said. I nodded, and knew this was the moment that the old man would either turn us in or chew the idea over in his mind.
There was the faintest of footfalls behind an old oak, the sound of a boot scuffing moldy leaves. I put a hand to my sword-hilt and Boy stepped towards the noise, baring his rope-knife.
It was Lucky who emerged from behind the tree, and who eyed us both warily. He’d have heard every word of our palaver, and knew enough to damn us.
“You tongueless mutt,” Boy spat. “Skulking around your own crew. Hear anything interesting?”
Lucky nodded. Boy looked at me, long, considering, then he sheathed his knife with a sigh.
“Ghost has the right of it. We can escape here, but it will be a red day’s work. Can we count on you?”
Lucky frowned, and looked to the main camp. Two elephants were sparring with broken tree trunks, and the Rothai were brooding lumps, huddled around the smoky campfires. A feeling of murder hung over Ascaro’s camp, and Lucky had worked the Meadow long enough to know when to tread lightly.
“What will he take from you next?” Boy said. “A finger? A hand? That grey bastard has already decided to kill you one part at a time. I’ve seen him do it before.”
Lucky wavered by the tree, indecision on his face. He worked his lips and grunted with frustration.
“It took ten years for the last one to die,” Boy said. “A mighty Rothai, whittled away until he was a torso and a head. The house-slaves fed him, and cleaned him, but every night Ascaro would come and watch that poor idiot, struggling to eat without hands, tongue, even lips. Our master there, he’d hold his foot above that bag of meat while he ate, waiting for him to nod.”
“That Rothai lasted one month before he asked for Ascaro to crush the life out of him. He begged for his own death, and don’t think you won’t do the same.”
Lucky barked and made a rude gesture. He didn’t believe Boy. He slunk back into the camp, body tense as he waited for us to rush him.
“Easy,” Boy said, and I let go of my sword. “He can’t tell Mouse anything, not if he tries.”
I saw Lucky approach the grog-cart, and he sat down on the same log as Mouse and Nails. Our crew leader was holding court with the other Rothai bosses, who howled with laughter as the ladle of beet grog passed around their damp circle.
“He’ll ponder it some,” Lucky said. “When the moment comes, he’ll either be for or against. If he hesitates, even for a moment, kill him.”
Over at the elephant camp, the sparring match turned ugly. Ascaro ended the brawl by burying his axe in an elephant’s face. Night fell in our dripping forest camp, even as a team of Rothai stripped the cold grey body of arms and armor.
Neither elephant nor Man rested easily that night.
No elephant who’d served as Scourge of the Legion had ever rooted out the human settlements of Deeping Forest. Ascaro blustered and raged during each night’s camp, vowing to be the first to end this haven for escaped slaves.
Deeping Forest clung to the back of a mountain range, affording few paths that an elephant to easily climb. Only Ascaro’s pride kept that force moving forwards and upwards, snapping trees every minute, trampling centuries of undergrowth beneath that inexorable advance.
We found what passed for a small village, long abandoned by the time Ascaro’s armored bulls reached the plateau. There were signs of a hasty evacuation and the ashes in the firepit were still warm.
We destroyed that rude place. There was a miserable vegetable patch, hard-won from the stony soil, and we took everything before we turned salt into the earth. There was a spring here, clean and pure, and Ascaro ordered the elephants to take turns fouling it with dung. Our grey masters trod the huts and lean-tos into kindling.
Finished from our work in the village’s gardens, we set torches to the ruined buildings. The elephants of the Legion relaxed, assuming their hard journey was over. Ascaro soured that idea the moment he heard it.
“We lose hundreds of runaways every year,” he grunted. “There were maybe twenty of the pink rats living here. We keep searching.”
The elephants held themselves a small feast, roasting vegetables and mash over the coals of the burnt settlement. The Rothai were sent up into the tallest trees to look down for smoke, for any movement. There was a larger settlement in Deeping Forest, and Ascaro meant to have it.
I clung to the tip of a pine and saw how the terrain grew ahead of us. Thickly wooded ridges, bunched up into folds of near-vertical rock.
“Tomorrow,” I whispered to Second that night. Boy nodded when our eyes met over the grog ladle, and that was all the planning we made. I took out a whet-stone and sharpened my sword with long slow strokes. Mouse and Nails returned from their latest tryst, sharing a jug of the good melon wine. Ascaro had been generous to his favorites that night.
“You expecting a fight, Ghost?” Mouse said. I grunted, and worked on the point of my blade, making sure it was sharp enough to punch through mail. Nails stared at me for a long time, lip curled into a sneer. If she thought I had ambitions on Mouse’s position, she was sure to cut me in my sleep.
“You’d be smart to bring down a runaway,” Mouse said. “You know that Ascaro is offering a brace of slaves for each one that we kill or capture? Our own slaves, Ghost! And the first Rothai to spot a large settlement will be given his own estate in Tusk! You could be a free man tomorrow!”
I paused. Ascaro’s offer was stunning in its generosity. Freedom for a human was a rare gift, unheard of in my lifetime.
I looked over at the drunken elephants. We were here for their pride, to punish those humans who’d dared to defy the grey kings. I drew on the whet-stone too hard, a squeal that drew a spark and left a burr.
“Perhaps I’ll let you visit my new house,” Mouse said dryly. “There’ll be blood on my blade before there’s any on yours.”
I drew the whetstone once more.
Morning took us down from the plateau and into the next valley, axes flashing as our grey lords smashed through yet more forest. The high rock at our backs held off the morning sun, and soon we were swallowed up by fog. I could barely see the elephants to our left and right, and soon even these rolling shapes were eaten up by the white.
I heard the sound of axes biting into wood, the creak and crash as the lesser trees were pushed aside, and could not have said whether this was ten feet away or a hundred. We were alone in a pale universe, with no witnesses. There would be no better time than this.
I tried to signal Boy and Second without alerting the others. When I turned to Ascaro’s front, I saw that Mouse was kneeling right his ear, holding a low conference – our master grunted, a tone of annoyance in the sound. I knew it well. Mouse always pushed his luck when he offered suggestions to the mad brute.
Mouse had picked a different railing order this morning. Lucky and Nails were up the front with him, the rest of us stationed from Ascaro’s midsection to where Second sat above his rump.
Even as Mouse steered Ascaro through the gloom, I slowly drew my sword. Boy nodded once, holding his axe low and ready, and from the corner of my eye I saw the tip of the kontoi that meant Second was at our shoulders. Our ropes traced along the center rail, and we made our move.
Perhaps it was the pad of our feet moving across the chain-mail and planks, or the whisper of the sliding ropes, but Mouse looked up. The moment he saw us running, he gave a whistle between his teeth and leapt out into the fog.
Lucky and Nails vanished just as fast, and I saw the flapping trail of severed ropes following them down into the mist. Beneath us Ascaro stepped up the pace, laughing as he crashed from tree to tree, trying to shake us off balance.
“A trio of villains on my back,” he roared, “and all day to kill them!”
His trunk flicked backwards then, axe held on the flat as he attempted to swat us. Second and I dodged that flurry of blows, but Boy was not so fast. I saw him crumple, and a red smear followed him as he slid out into space, bloody and limp.
“We need to cut ropes!” Second cried, but I ignored this. Reaching the base of his skull, I dodged the rolling metal serpent of Ascaro’s trunk, hacking away buckles and straps. Second fenced with her kontoi, lance head dancing up and down the trunk armor, searching for a weak spot.
I’d peeled away the chain skirts and neck plates, and only the leather undershirt held me away from Ascaro’s spine. I raised my sword. Then the world crashed around me.
Two other elephants had appeared out of the mists, drawn by Ascaro’s cursing. They held fast, and Rothai flooded onto Ascaro’s back, driving me away from the vital spot. Another swordsman slashed across my knuckles, and the sword tumbled from my hands.
I fought on with my rope-knife and sent away one or two of them bleeding, but the end was the same. I was beaten senseless and dragged down from my master’s back.
Through eyes half-closed by swelling, I saw Second dangling from her rope, the tip of a broken kontoi still lodged in her throat. Amazingly Boy was still alive, but he’d been broken grievously by the swat of Ascaro’s giant axe. The other Rothai cut him down and presented him to his master.
“You have served me for many years, Boy,” Ascaro rumbled. “So I shall show you mercy.”
Mercy was Ascaro stepping on each limb in turn, slowly grinding Boy’s body into paste. As the bones snapped I dry-heaved and begged my master to stop, but on and on he went, pushing his weight into my screaming friend. Whenever Boy passed out, Ascaro gave him time to revive. Once, he ordered the other Rothai to dose him up with rotgut grog, to dull the pain just enough that he would stay awake throughout the ordeal.
Finally, Ascaro wrapped his trunk around Boy’s neck and plucked off his head like a grape. It was my task to carry it the whole way home to Tusk, and every time I looked down into Boy’s horrified face, it was a reminder that my master was far from finished with me.
Once more I placed in Ascaro’s villa. I was the lowest of his house-slaves, and my drudgery was only interrupted by a daily flogging.
Each month, Mouse visited, and I lost something else to his blade. An ear, a toe, a finger. Each time, Ascaro and his cronies would laugh at my extended punishment.
“I taught Lucky to read and write the moment he lost his voice,” Mouse teased, flicking my severed pinky finger over his shoulder. “Passes on all sorts of interesting scraps to me, that tongueless bastard.”
I spent days scrubbing the latrine trenches and trod laundry in the putrid fullery vats. Over the months I was given every vile task Ascaro could dream up. My food was rotten and worm-ridden, if it arrived at all.
Then I was given a broom and pushed into the baths, and I knew it was all going to be over soon. I cleaned up the mud and helped to haul away dead slaves whenever Ascaro murdered one.
Mouse bathed with Nails, holding court with the other freed slaves. Emancipation was now the fashion, but it was rare, and those freed were always the worst examples of humanity. They played their own variety of the bath game, and it pleased the elephants to see humans drowning slaves in the baths over the smallest slight.
Yet none of them were permitted to touch me. I was Ascaro’s alone to kill.
Ascaro summoned me to the baths one night, after all of his guests had retired. My master stank of grog and vomit, and he had a look of madness in his one eye.
“Ghost,” he said. “I want you to scrub my back.”
He hooked his trunk into a kind of step and lifted me up and behind his shoulders. I trod lightly across his mud-slick skin, taking care to sweep deeply, watching for the twitch in his muscles, the sign that he was going to strike.
For long moments he sighed in contentment as I scrubbed, the bristles scratching and digging deep into his skin. It didn’t make sense that he would kill me this way. No-one was here to witness his ultimate triumph over my rebellion.
He moved fast then, but only to draw melon-wine into his trunk. He let it drain into his mouth and chuckled darkly when I flinched.
“Don’t let that broom slow,” he teased. “Keep me in a good mood, and you may live out the day.”
I pushed the broom again, and that was when he struck. He flicked his trunk backwards, a grey sinuous serpent that snatched for me, again and again.
I dodged, leapt, and slid around on his back. He grabbed again and again, but each time he was a second behind me. But for all my speed, I was tired, and there were no other slaves to hide behind. Since Mouse had taken some of my toes, my sense of balance was off. He’d snatch me up, and soon.
“Hold still, you damn slave,” he growled. I did just that, but even as his trunk snaked towards me, I broke the broom across my knee.
His trunk wrapped around my waist, but before he could plunge me into the mud, I rapped him across the snout with the broom handle.
“Face me, you fat old coward!” I shouted.
Ascaro brought me forward, the trunk tightening around me, squeezing the life out of me. He roared in fury, cracking my ribs and making my vision go dark, and then brought me in front of his face to watch me die.
I stabbed out with my snapped broom-handle and buried it deep in his eye. He howled in fury and tried to pull me away, but I clung onto the handle, twisting it, screaming my own defiance.
“You are killing me,” Ascaro cried, surprised and afraid.
I drove that stick deep into his brain. He sank down into the mud, twitching and gasping, and then finally he was still.
The murder of a master by his slave is not the point of my story. The elephants are monsters, but they are not for you to kill. If you fight them, they will break you, or kill you. Look on what they have done to my body, I who they have trained in the arts of death. You are pot-scrubs. Mark this lesson well.
There are others like me, others hiding in the in-between places. We slip in and out of Tusk like mice, and we nibble in the dark, bringing their city down one grain at a time.
No. Your place in this war is different. You must leave. In ones or twos, and never by the same way. Your job is to walk away from Tusk.
When you leave, we will find you. There is a human nation, hidden beneath the grey one. But the iron in your hands comes with a price.
That night when I left Ascaro’s body in the mud, I slipped into Mouse’s fine new house and left it a burning knackery. I murdered those collaborators, but this revenge wasn’t sweet. I was sad when I stood over their bodies, sad that it needed to happen.
Come to us with a bloody blade, or we will turn you away. There is someone near you like Mouse or Lucky. They are traitors to your people, and your true enemy. Be swift when you kill them, no matter how cruel they were in life. Take care that you do not linger long once your knives are wet.
For all that your masters strut and bully, they need your clever hands. Above all they need your fear. Fear gives them farms full of starving slaves, while the canals run choked with food barges and miserable wagoneers file into Tusk, hauling food they dare not touch themselves.
The elephant’s foul city only exists by our sufferance. Every day I picture that flood of wagons and barges slowing to a trickle, the ancient gates sucking at the last of the food like a dozen hungry mouths. I see their temples and pyramids overgrown in vines, forgotten in a jungle of our making.
Above all, I picture their bones in the plazas. Outside of their ruined city, I imagine our villages, huts made from their rib-cages and covered with stretched skin. I see their tusks used for ornaments and trade, but most of all, I dream of the day when those grey killers are fastened into the ploughs, urged on by a whip in a human hand.
Defy the grey kings. Our time is now.