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DART





Dale Renton



Dart, Dale Renton



Copyright John Dale Renton 2019



The right of John Dale Renton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him under the Copyright Amendments ( Moral Rights ) Act 2000.



All rights reserved under international copyright conventions. Apart from use permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part of this work may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, without prior written permission from the publisher.



This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.



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DART


Chapter 1



Don’t look down!

Isn’t that what they say? If you don’t have a head for heights. If the sight makes your head spin, or worse, tugs at you, makes you feel like you can fly…

Dart kept his eyes shut and pressed his cheek against the crumbling rock. Above him, on the edge of the cliff, the hovart bellowed and stamped its feet. Dust and pebbles showered Dart’s head and shoulders.

Don’t look!

The hovart fell silent. Waves broke against rocks, a long way beneath Dart’s feet. A gull cried, startlingly close, answered by a chorus of its kin. The air smelled of the sea, tainted by a faint, rancid wisp of hovart.

The thin ledge under Dart’s right foot gave way and his knee banged against the cliff face. He scrambled for purchase and the remainder of the ledge sheared off with a sound like a snapping twig. Dart held on by his finger tips.

A scraping noise came from above and more debris rained on him. Dart tilted his head back and opened his eyes. The sharp edge of the cliff severed a bright blue arc of sky. No sign of the hovart. The scraping resumed and directly above, the cliff edge changed shape, bulged outward…

Oh, crap!

Dart let go with his right hand and twisted to his left. A jagged rock fell past, missed him by a finger’s width. His left hand slipped as his wrist turned. He bent his knees, scraped the heels of his boots down the steeply sloped rock face. His right leg straightened but his left boot caught on something solid. Held. Dart pushed back against the rock, stared at the sky, gasping while his heart tried to punch a hole in his chest.

A white pebble bounced off his head and disappeared towards the waves. He fought the temptation to follow it. A second pebble struck him. Dart looked up. The hovart stared down at him, eyes black ellipses set in circles of gold. It bared an impressive row of pointed brown teeth.

“Had enough, yet?” Dart asked.

The ellipses narrowed, widened again and the hovart grunted. The tip of a pointed blade slid out between its teeth, followed by a gout of blood. Warm droplets spattered Dart’s face and he turned away, blinking. When he looked up again, the hovart’s eyes were closed and the blade had disappeared. A coil of rope flew out over the cliff’s edge, straightened and fell, struck Dart’s shoulder.

“Who’s there?” he called.

Gulls squealed in the distance and waves rumbled at the foot of the cliff but no one answered. Dart caught the rope and tugged. It held.

“I’m coming up.”

He looped the cable-vine rope around his wrist, held tight with both hands as he swung around to face the rock. The climb was no more than fifteen feet but by the time his head came level with the hovart’s, his knees were shaking and drops of sweat hung from his nose and chin. He reached over the edge, grabbed a handful of thick, yellow hovart pelt, dragged himself up and rolled onto his back beside the massive, stinking carcass.

He took a few moments to catch his breath before he propped himself up on his elbows. Knee-high blue moss grew to within a few feet of the bare rock at the cliff’s edge. A scar-line of broken, black soil led through the moss to a cluster of boulders--probably where the hovart found the rock to drop on him. A few paces beyond the boulders a dense growth of tall dapplewoods marked the beginning of the forest. Dart stood up and turned a full circle. He was alone with the dead hovart.

Dart knelt beside the corpse, breathing through his mouth to lessen the stench. One end of the rope he’d climbed was bound to the hovart’s leg, the knot a double hitch that would have taken only a few seconds to tie. Something caught his eye and he bent closer, heart pounding again. The strands of cable-vine were cleverly woven, leaf shapes worked into the surface of the rope every few inches along its length. His hand slid to the empty scabbard at his hip and he cursed under his breath. The urge to look around him was overwhelming, but he forced himself to stare at the ground.

Dart freed the rope, looped it and slung it over his shoulder. He stood and walked past the hovart. A leather strap lay half-buried in black soil and crushed moss--part of the travel bag he'd thrown at the hovart as it rushed him, bought himself the moments he needed to scramble a few feet down the face of the cliff. Several minutes searching among thick blue tendrils of moss were rewarded when he recovered his water flask and his throwing knife. He slid the knife inside his boot, all the while careful to avoid looking at the forest.

Dart stood for a time, staring out over the ocean but concentrating on the sounds of the breeze rustling leaves behind him. His mind worked through a tangle of contradictions. Sylthen rope. Surely that meant his rescuer was Sylth--but that made no sense. He drank from the flask. The water was warm from lying in the sun but Dart hardly noticed. He tied the flask to his belt and turned. Eyes fixed on the ground, he walked towards the forest.


~


You can run a long way with a hovart chasing you. Two of them can really make you travel…


Dapplewood shadows stretched in front of Dart when he stopped at the edge of the clearing.


The sun climbs high,

in the western sky.

In the east sets the sun,

when the day is done.


His lips moved to the childhood rhyme but the words sounded only in his head. He remembered dashing across the same clearing a couple of hours before, the raging hovart close behind him. Bright sunlight had flooded the area and he’d ignored the whipper-weeds. Now, wherever shadows touched, waist-high plants waved from side to side. A pandionfly, silver-veined wings larger than Dart’s hands, flapped into the air from the carpet of dapplewood seeds at the forest’s edge. The nearest whipper-weed straightened, black petals parted on its single flower and a barbed, golden whip lanced from within, tore through the pandionfly’s bloated thorax. The whipper-weed bent to feed.

If he still had his sword, Dart could have made it to the other side. Most likely. Whipper-weeds were damnably quick. But his sword was a few hundred yards beyond the clearing, jammed in the throat of a dead hovart, one of the pair that had attacked him. The knife tucked in his boot was too short to deal with the weeds safely. He’d have to go around. Dart moved off to his left.

A hint of movement between patterned tree trunks in front made him stop mid-stride. He turned and headed in the opposite direction. A few steps, a whisper of sound to his right, then something flitted behind hanging branches, straight ahead. Dart cursed. Keeping his eyes on the ground, he returned to the spot where he’d started.

Sylth or whipper-weeds?

He glanced up at the darkening sky then looked at the clearing again. It was the best part of fifty yards across and the whipper-weeds grew in clusters all over. The shadows seemed to lengthen as he watched, already close to the trunks of the dapplewoods on the far side. He bent and pulled the throwing knife from his boot, spun it into the air and caught it in a cutting grip.

Better than nothing.

Dart stepped between the bole of a dapplewood and the snagging leaves of a tanglethorn bush. A few paces to either side of him, black flowers swiveled to face him. He leapt forward, rolled as he landed, came up with the knife arcing past his face. Two lashing, golden whips parted as the blade caught them mid-strike. Dart was already gone, dashing past the cluster of weeds. He slowed, turned, stepped sideways between two larger growths of the deadly plants, flinching as the barbed whips from dozens of straining black flowers straightened and cracked, inches from his legs.

Half way.

Ahead of him, weeds barred his path, spread across the whole of the clearing. Black flowers burst open, spitting poison-tipped coils. The air filled with a continuous death-rattle of cracking whips. Dart stood still. A few steps to his right, fading sunlight fell on an area about four or five feet wide but extending to the trees on the far side of the clearing. The weeds within were stirring but their flowers were still closed. Dart ran through the sunlit path at a dead sprint. A large cluster of weeds to his right erupted, launching golden coils as he passed. He lashed out with the blade, felt pain as a barb tore the back of his hand.

One! One won’t kill me…

Five paces short of the trees, Dart slipped, stumbled sideways, felt two more stings, this time on his leg. He staggered under the branches and fell on his knees.

Three.

There were stories about people who’d taken one, maybe two whipper-weed stings and lived. Dart looked at his calf. Two red-stained puncture marks on his trouser leg where the weeds had got him. The back of his hand wasn’t bleeding but there was purpling around a red sting-hole, just above his knuckle. It was beginning to swell.

Congratulations Dart! Two nine foot hovarts, a thousand foot cliff and the damned Sylth can’t manage it--then you get yourself killed by vegetation!

His forehead burned and the back of his throat felt parched. Dart took a swig from his flask, leaned his head back and passed out.


~


If you think a live hovart smells bad, try killing one and leaving it out in the sun for a while…


The stench brought Dart back to his senses. He was still alive; the smell was real, and close. His shoulders and thighs were sending messages of pain, over and over, to a mind that received them with increasing awareness. Dart’s head hung forward, his chin resting on his chest. He couldn’t feel his hands or his feet. Gray light filtered past his lashes when he opened his eyes. It took a few moments for things to come into focus. He was looking down on the corpse of a hovart. Cause of death wasn’t hard to work out. The familiar hilt of Dart’s sword jutted from the hovart’s throat.

Why am I above it?

Dart turned his head, the movement surprisingly difficult until he understood what had been done to him. Cable-vine rope stretched from his wrists and ankles to trees on either side. He was suspended, spread-eagled and more or less upright, about three feet above the ground. He looked down again.

Naked, too.

“Surprised to be alive, hovart-slayer?”

The voice was scarcely louder than a whisper, directly behind. Impossible to tell whether it was male or female.

Dart licked his lips. “Life’s full of surprises.”

“The poison from the weeds was enough to kill you. I healed you, hovart-slayer.”

“Much obliged. Now, if you’ll cut me down and give me back my clothes, I’ll be on my way.”

Dart felt something cold touch his scrotum. He looked down and saw a gleaming, silver blade, its face worked with a pattern of leaves, jutting between his legs.

“Tell me your name.” The voice had hardened.

“Darthanil Black. My friends call me Dart.”

“You have no friends here, Darthanil Black.” The blade moved up and down, lifting his balls in cadence with the words. Dart strained against the ropes binding his wrists, tried to lift himself higher. His balls made a similar effort, all by themselves.

“Why don’t you tell me what you want? This isn’t doing it for me.”

The blade disappeared. Dart tensed, half expecting its point to burst through his chest. Moments turned to minutes. Flies buzzed around the dead hovart’s eyes and a clinger slap-slapped along a branch somewhere above Dart’s head. The adrenalin buzz the blade had caused started to fade and most of his world centered on the pain in his limbs.

“Are you brave--or foolish?”

Dart would have jumped, if he could have. The voice was closer, clearer. He was certain now that it was female.

“I’m naked and I’m hurting. Cut me down.”

“What makes you think I will do that?”

“You could have let the hovart get me at the cliff. You could have let the weed stings finish me. If you wanted me dead, I’d be dead. You want something from me.”

Dart heard footsteps, sensed movement to his right. He snapped his eyes shut. The voice came again, this time from in front of him.

“You may look at me, Darthanil Black.”

He shook his head. “You’re Sylth. I’m a Former. If I look at you, you will kill me.”

“As you pointed out-- if I wanted you dead, you would be.”

Hard to see how things can get much worse.

Dart opened his eyes.

Chapter 2



You spend years learning how to stay alive. Then you see a pair of long, long legs, and let it all go out the window…


Dart let out a low whistle.

“If you still plan on killing me, I just figured out my last request.”

The woman in front of him tossed her head and plaited brown hair fell across her shoulders. Her face was fine-featured with high cheek bones, lips that looked like they didn’t often smile. She wore a single, close-fitting garment that covered her from her throat to the tops of her cuffed boots, flowed with the contours of her breasts, followed the curve of her hips and the elegant lines of her legs. Leaves and vines were woven into the garment, blended together in a way that made Dart’s eyes slip out of focus. A little understanding crept into his mind.

“I healed the whipper-weed stings,” said the Sylth woman. She stared at him, emerald eyes intense, and Dart dragged most of his thoughts back up into his head.

“You’re not what I expected,” he said. “Not that I knew what to expect. I never met anyone who’d seen a Sylth and lived.”

“I healed the whipper-weed stings,” she repeated, eyes never leaving his. “Then I poisoned you.”

Dart felt ice-water trickle down his spine, but he kept his voice steady. She’d sheathed her sword, and he wasn’t dead. Not yet. “You don’t see the irony in that?”

Dart barely had time to flinch before her foot caught the side of his face. It rattled his teeth, set him bobbing up and down on the ropes again. He spat, and red flecks of blood speckled the dead hovart’s yellow fur. His head had to be close to nine feet off the ground and she’d tagged him from a standing start, faster than he could follow. The Sylth woman resumed her stance. Not even breathing hard. The pain in his shoulders and thighs grew worse. Behind him, the sun had cleared the trees and he could feel it burning the skin on his back.

“The poison is slower acting than weed venom,” she said, “but it will kill you within a week.”

“If you don’t cut me down from here, I won’t last that long.”

“You will feel very little for the first four or five days. Then it will begin to work on the pain centers in your brain. The last two days will be very unpleasant. Most people take their own lives.”

“Cut me down and you can tell me all about it.”

“You will not be able to identify the poison. It is native.”

“Are we having the same conversation, here?” Agony wracked Dart’s body and he wanted to scream at the woman. He saw her tense.

“Whoa! You don’t need to hit me again. Just tell me what you want.”

Her lips pouted a little, perhaps disappointed that he’d decided to co-operate. At any rate, she didn’t kick him.

“I have an antidote for the poison.”

“I like a girl who comes prepared.”

Her eyes grew distant and after a moment, Dart got the feeling he was mostly alone. He wanted to yell at her, to beg her, anything to make her cut him down. But she was Sylth. He let her be.

“You killed this hovart.”

She was with him again. It wasn’t a question, so Dart didn’t answer. She didn’t look to be half hovart like some of the crazy Sylth stories suggested, but no point antagonizing her if this was cousin Floyd lying between them.

“I’ve never seen one of your kind defeat a hovart before,” she said. “You fought two and killed one.”

“I skipped diplomacy in fifth grade and took extra fencing.”

“Are you trying to be amusing?”

“I’ve been giving you some of my best lines. It’s the naked-rope-suspension thing. This is a tough room.”

She folded her arms beneath her breasts, tilted her head to one side and her eyes narrowed.

“Have you killed others of your kind?”

If the body language hadn’t told him, the eagerness in her voice would have.

This is the question we’ve been headed for from the start. Fifty-fifty chance of getting it right.

“Yes.”

The Sylth woman’s hand moved to her waist and she slid the leaf-patterned blade from its sheath.

Wrong…

She sprang over the hovart corpse towards him and Dart jerked uselessly against the ropes. The Sylth woman stopped close in front of him, slipped a hand into a pocket on her leaf-and-vine leotard. She withdrew a battered photograph, stuck it on the tip of her sword and held it up in front of him.

“I want you to kill this one,” she said. “When you have done this, I will give you the antidote.”

The face in the photograph was almost as familiar to Dart as his own. Receding gray hair, angular jaw, steady, dark blue eyes that said ‘trust me’. Abram Wills. The most powerful man on Sylas’s World. Dart nodded.

“No problem.”

She moved past, not even looking at Dart. A moment later, the ropes binding his wrists snapped free and Dart pitched forward. His arms flapped uselessly as he fell, but he managed to cushion the impact on the hovart carcass with his face.


~


Waking up with a mouthful of dead hovart isn’t pleasant. But it wasn’t the taste, or even the stench that brought Dart to his senses. Blood was finding its way back into his feet and hands, marking its progress by reactivating nerve endings with messages of pain. Dart pushed himself up with his elbows.

His sword still protruded from the hovart’s throat. He looked around the small clearing. The Sylth woman was gone. A few yards from the hovart, his shirt and trousers lay on the ground, neatly folded with his boots and throwing knife on top. His flask was beside them, drops of water on the outside suggesting it had recently been filled. Dart crawled over on his knees and elbows, spent several moments cursing as he fumbled with the stopper. He gulped down about half the flask’s contents, splashed most of the rest on his face then dressed lying on his back. By the time he’d worked his boots onto feet that felt twice their normal size, the pain had eased. Dart clambered upright, took a couple of hesitant steps, stumbled and fell on his knees.

“How long before you can travel, Darthanil Black?”

Dart turned his head too quickly, sending fresh spasms of pain across his shoulders. She was standing at the edge of the clearing, but instead of looking at him, the Sylth woman appeared to be scanning the surrounding forest. Dart stood again, flexing his arms, curling his toes inside his boots.

“I'm good to go.”

“We must move quietly. You lead the way.”

“The way to where?”

She looked at him blankly for a moment, and Dart had the feeling again that her conversation with him was only part of what was going through her mind.

“Back the way you came.”

He shook his head. “There are some people there who don’t like me.”

Her green eyes blazed and he was the focus of all her attention again. “There are some people here who do not like either of us.”

“This is Sylth country. Who’d be crazy enough to come here? Present company excepted, of course.”

Something new appeared in her eyes. The same thing Dart had been trying to keep from his own since he first saw her. Fear.

“My people,” she said. “The Sylth.”

Didn’t see that coming.

The woman walked around the edge of the small clearing, stopping every few steps to stare into the forest.

“Mind if I take my sword out of Ol’ Yeller?” Dart asked.

She waved at him absently.

The sword pulled free with surprising ease considering how hard he’d jammed it in there. He wiped both sides of the weapon on one of the hovart’s massive legs then scratched at the stains on the blade with his thumb nail.

“We need to go now,” she said.

She looked nervous, which made Dart suspect he ought to be nervous, too. “As long as we’re going to be traveling together, why don’t you tell me your name?”

The woman didn’t answer. She was staring into the forest again.

“Okay--I’ll call you ‘Thuvia’.”

She continued to ignore him.

“I guess you don’t read the classics…”

Dart was flat on his back, a hand clamped across his mouth before he had time to be startled. Her green eyes were close to his and she smelled of dapplewood oil and hizel berries. A long, supple leg stretched across his belly. She touched a finger to her lips and shook her head. Dart blinked his understanding and she uncovered his mouth.

Somewhere nearby, a pair of clingers shrieked at each other. A pandionfly hummed around the dead hovart. Trees creaked and leaves rustled. He felt the muscles in the woman’s leg flex as she rose, motioning for him to follow. She moved swiftly into the forest and Dart hobbled after her.

Within a dozen steps he lost her. The strange garment she wore was slippery to look at in the sunlit clearing. Within the shadowed undergrowth, it rendered the Sylth woman all but invisible. Dart felt his pulse pick up speed. The story about the poison might or might not be true but he couldn’t afford to lose her until he knew for sure. He thought about calling out but she’d been pretty clear on that.

Dart held his sword out in front of him and started forward into the gloom. She had passed between two large tree trunks and vanished. He took the same path, letting the blade point the way, sliding his other hand across the waxy, ridged bark of the dapplewood. Beneath his boots, bright orange seeds sank into a carpet of dark green finemoss. He stared at the ground for a moment, looking for a trace of her passing. Nothing. When he looked up again, she was there.

“I think they have moved on,” she said.

“Who?”

She didn’t answer. She grunted and pitched forward as the crimson-bright head of an arrow punched through her shoulder. Dart half-caught her with one hand, slowed her fall. His legs gave way and he collapsed with the Sylth woman sprawled on top of him.

“Stay here!” she hissed in his ear. She rose to a half crouch, left arm hanging limply beneath her injured shoulder. Dart saw the glimmer of the leaf-patterned sword as she slid it free, then she was gone.

He hesitated, passed his sword to his left hand and took the throwing knife from his boot. The sun was almost directly above and a gentle breeze swayed the uppermost branches. Shadows of broad dapplewood leaves covered the ground in a shifting mosaic of light and dark. Every sound transformed itself into the snap of a bowstring, the hiss of a descending blade. Sweat beaded on Dart’s forehead. He stared unblinking, concentrated on finding a discordant visual message among the patterns on the forest floor.

Two dark shapes rose and converged, startlingly fast, at the edge of a clump of tanglethorns. Dart heard the beginning of a scream. One of the shapes fell and the other vanished behind the bushes. He stumbled forward, heart racing.

What if she’s dead?

The body had caught in tanglethorn branches, arched over backwards. A bloody hole gaped under the man’s chin where a sword had punched through on its way to his brain. His clothing looked a lot like the woman’s and a small crossbow hung from a strap tied to his wrist.

Dart heard steel striking steel in a rapid series of clashes and ran towards the sound. He burst into a clearing, larger than the one where he’d faced the hovarts, saw two figures at the forest’s edge some thirty paces from him.

She was down, a tall figure straddling her. Dart saw a glint of steel as she swung her arm. A foot lashed out and kicked the sword from her grasp. He sprinted towards them. A second blade caught sunlight as her attacker raised it above his head. Dart put on a burst of speed.

Too late.

The woman put a hand up in front of her face.

Too damned late…

Dart threw the knife.

Chapter 3



When you practise throwing a knife, you don’t do it with fingers so numb you can barely feel the haft. You don’t do it at a dead run through a strange forest on feet that can hardly support you. You don’t wager your life on a single throw…


The knife buried itself in the back of the man’s neck. He swayed and his knees bent. Dart’s shoulder struck him and he pitched forward.

Dart raised his sword, held back the thrust when he saw glazed eyes staring back at him. The man was Sylth--at least he was wearing the same kind of leaf-and-vine one-piece as the woman. The sword still clutched in his hand had a blade etched with what looked like a mixture of bird feathers and hovart claws. Behind Dart, the woman spoke.

“You are a skilful killer,” she said.

Dart looked over his shoulder. She was propped up on one elbow, watching him.

“I was aiming for you,” he said, and smiled.

Her eyes hardened and she opened her mouth to say something then scowled instead. She turned away. Dart moved alongside her. “Are there any more of your playmates around here?”

She shook her head. “If there were others, we would already be dead.”

“You’re going to wind up dead pretty soon if you don’t lose the arrow.”

“If I die then so shall you.”

Dart nodded. “I figured that out all by myself.”

He retrieved his knife from the dead man’s neck, wiped it on the leg of his trousers then pulled his shirt over his head.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m cutting the sleeves off my shirt to make bandages. When I pull the arrow out of your shoulder, you’re going to bleed some.”

Her face paled.

“I’m going to have to cut your suit, too,” Dart added. “but I think strapless will look good on you.”

Her eyes widened and she shook her head. “There is no need to harm the syl.”

She reached across, stroked the backs of her fingers over the leaves and vines around the jutting arrow head. They separated at her touch, slid away from the wound until her shoulder was bare. Dart stared. He was almost certain he’d seen tendrils pull out of her skin as the suit retreated.

“How often do you water your wardrobe?”

She looked at him like she didn’t think much of the question. “We are together. It is enough. Now, remove the arrow.”

Dart nodded. “One of us isn’t going to enjoy this.”

He grasped the feathered end of the arrow and began to saw through it with his knife. The Sylth woman chewed on her bottom lip, but she didn’t let out a whimper. When he’d worked his way through the shaft, Dart took hold of the barbed point and smiled at her.

“You’re a lucky girl, Thuvia. The arrow scraped your collar bone, but it didn’t slice through an artery. Tell me when you’re ready.”

“My name is not…”

Dart pulled the arrow through. The woman let out the beginnings of a scream and her eyes rolled up. He caught her as she slumped forward, held her while he took a close look at the entry and exit wounds. With water from his flask he cleaned up her shoulder then pressed wads of sleeve against the holes till the bleeding slowed. He laid her back gently and tied fresh wads in place with the remaining strips of fabric. She moaned a couple of times, but she didn’t wake.

Dart worked swiftly, running his hands over her syl. Apart from the single fold that held Abram Wills’ picture, there were no pockets. Her feet, sporting rainbow-painted toenails, were the only occupants of her boots. If she had an antidote for the poison, she wasn’t carrying it anywhere he was prepared to look--for now. It occurred to him that the male Sylth might be worth checking, too.

He knelt beside the dead man, reached out and stopped. There was something different about the man’s syl. The leaves had darkened a little, their edges curled back. Dart brushed his fingers across them. They moved at his touch and Dart felt a tingle along his arm. Interesting.

He took hold of the man’s wrist. The leaves at the syl’s cuff stirred and shifted. A runner slid across the back of Dart’s hand and he jerked away. Dart took the knife from his boot, held it ready while he reached out to the syl again. When the runner looped itself around his wrist, he let it be. It spiraled down his hand and worked its way along his fingers. The lingering pain from being strung up faded at the syl’s touch. Dart stuck the knife into the finemoss beside him and stroked the runner with the back of his hand, the way Thuvia had. The syl retreated, drew back until his hand was free again. The pain didn’t return.

He repeated the process with his left hand then flexed his fingers, enjoying the absence of hurt. After a moment’s hesitation, he pulled off his boots and propped his feet on the dead man’s leg. The syl responded, leaf-rich shoots encircling his ankles and snaking down to his toes. Dart lay back on the finemoss, relishing the sensation of wellness that flowed up through him. He’d been on the run for the best part of a week, skulking in native forest, pursued by hovarts, stung by whipper-weeds and finally, strung up and poisoned by the Sylth woman. It felt like forever since he’d relaxed.

Dart closed his eyes.

Just for a moment.


~


There are worse things in this world than waking up with a beautiful woman beside you. Even one who’s prepared to kill you to get what she wants…


She was leaning over him. It wasn’t dark yet, but both moons stood clear in a topaz sky, leaving her face in shadow.

“How’s the shoulder, Thuvia?” The wad of shirt sleeve had a red circle at its center but it wasn’t saturated.

“I am Amarth.”

“Nice name,” said Dart. “Is that the Sylth word for ‘poison dominatrix’?”

She cast her eyes up then fixed him with a determined stare. “I thank you, Darthanil Black.”

“Dart. And don’t thank me for patching you up. You have the antidote.”

She glanced at her shoulder. “I do not thank you for removing the arrow. I thank you for preserving the syl.”

Dart turned his head and looked at the dead man beside him. He was naked, pale skin shining in the moonlight.

“What…”

He didn’t finish the question because he caught sight of his own torso, covered in a living undershirt of leaves and vines. He sat up, brushed his hands across his chest, watched the leaves stir at his touch. His arms were covered, too. He lifted the waist band of his trousers. The syl had spread across his whole body.

“I hope that guy had clean shorts on.”

She looked puzzled. “We wear only the syl.”

“Must be interesting around here in autumn. How do I get it off?”

Amarth shook her head. “You must not remove the syl. It will die without you.”

Dart tweaked one of the thumb-nail sized leaves on the sleeve of his new outfit.

“This isn’t your regular privet?”

She stood, winced a little as she straightened, holding her elbow against her side. Her eyes were downcast, staring at the syl that covered her spectacular contours. “The syl is a symbiont, and it is empathic. It needs a host.”

“And that would be me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not Sylth, Amarth. I’m a Former. You can tell by my lack of foliage.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Okay--by my former lack. No pun.”

“It is because you are a Former I let you live. You will be able to get close enough to Wills to kill him, I think.”

Dart frowned. “I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. I used to work for Abram Wills.”

“Did he tire of your jokes?” A hint of mischief touched Amarth’s features.

“Something like that.”

“But you will kill him?” The eagerness was back in her voice.

“What do you have against Abram Wills?”

Her face darkened. “He is an enemy of my people.”

“And you’re not?”

“No, I am not.” She hesitated, then added, “Wills has made fools of us. He will destroy the Sylth. And you will die, too, if you fail. Will you kill him?”

Dart countered her fierce gaze with a wink.

“Consider it done.”


~


If you want to learn how to walk all over again, try slipping into something vegetable…

Dart tried to sit up, felt a moment’s resistance from the vines encircling his shoulders and waist, then snapped forward so quickly it rattled his teeth. He looked up at Amarth. She was watching him intently but she didn’t say anything.

He pulled his feet beneath him, slower this time, and stood. Just as his knees straightened, the syl gave an extra shove along his calves and thighs and Dart skipped a few inches off the ground. He spread his arms to catch his balance and inadvertently launched himself into the air again. This time when he landed, he stilled his muscles.

“What’s going on, Amarth?”

“The syl is working with you.”

“I’m getting help I don’t really need, here. How do I switch it off?”

“You do not. The syl is an empath. It is motivated by signals from your nervous system and by hormonal activity. It helps you do whatever you are doing.”

Dart grinned at her. “That has possibilities.”

He flexed his toes and flew forward, a standing jump of around three feet. A little more effort next time and he cleared ten feet, almost fell when he bent his knees to absorb the landing and the syl pulled him down till his buttocks hit his heels. Annoyed, he rose quickly, leapt straight up into the air and cracked his head against a dapplewood branch nearly fifteen feet above. The landing that followed jarred every bone in his body and left him sprawled on his belly in the finemoss.

“I think I’ve got the hang of this,” he said.

Amarth sighed. “We need to be on our way. The men we killed will be missed. Others will come.” She fixed him with a cold stare. “And you have already lost a day to the poison.”

“It’ll take the best part of four days to reach New Hope from here--assuming we make it. You’re not giving me much time to work with.”

“We can be at the forest’s edge this time tomorrow.”

Dart shook his head. “I couldn’t get there that fast with a dozen hovarts chasing me.”

“The syl will help.”

“It’ll help you. I’ll be bouncing off every tree along the way.”

“Our children take the syl when they are five. They work together within a few minutes.”

“Are you suggesting it’ll take me more or less time?”

Amarth didn’t answer straight away. She looked at him with an expression that flicked back and forth between frustration and anger. Dart sensed she was making a decision and he didn’t have a lot of trouble working out what it was.

“I cannot travel quickly so you should be able to keep up,” she said. “If you do not, I will leave you.”

Dart climbed back to his feet, this time without taking off. “I’m up for it. How are we going to do this? Do we run, or do we swing from tree to tree on cable vines?”

Amarth tilted her head back and for a moment Dart thought she was considering the arboreal alternative.

“The moons will light our way,” she said. “Tread where I do. Let the syl find a rhythm.”

The lesson ended there. She turned and loped off, left arm cradled in a syl-wrought sling. Dart started after her. His first few strides felt awkward and he stumbled as his weight transferred forward in surges that shouldn’t have been possible. He sensed the pattern of flex and recoil, matched it with his own movements, all the while fixing his eyes on Amarth’s back, willing himself to follow. It took a few minutes, but the bond between Dart and the syl worked its way through trepidation to engagement, to something close to understanding. They began to move as one.

Amarth passed through the forest as a denizen, part of the treescape, a wind-blown leaf, a rollermoss. Dart followed her between dapplewoods and hizels, leapt with her over tanglethorns, around shifting whipper-weeds. His mind filled with wonder at the way she belonged in a forest that for him still felt alien and hostile. And more than a little, the sight of her brought stirrings of desire, a degree of arousal that made no sense given the situation.

She had let him live so he could kill Abram Wills. But the task she had set him was problematic. He was hiding out in Sylth country because he had a death sentence hanging over him--for the murder of Abram Wills.

Chapter 4



When you run with the syl you feel weightless and free. You start to think you can run forever…


Amarth stopped suddenly. Dart saw the change mid-stride and planted his heel as he landed. His trailing leg drove forward with syl-boosted impetus and spun him around. He fell and slid across the finemoss on his back until his head bumped against Amarth’s ankles.

“That was smooth,” he said.

Silence!” she hissed, and raised her hand.

The forest had thinned out around them as the afternoon stretched towards evening. For the last half hour there had been clusters of pine and an occasional oak or sycamore among the native trees. Dart listened. From somewhere back the way they’d come he heard a hovart bellow. Closer, high in the canopy of broad dapplewood leaves, a clinger let out a screech. A few birds, mostly terran, chirruped and whistled. Dart rose carefully to his feet. He couldn’t hear anything out of the ordinary, but this was still mostly Amarth’s world. Her sense of ordinary might be a lot different.

Her hand touched his shoulder and she pointed. Dart followed the line of her arm and caught a flicker of movement between patterned tree trunks, about a hundred yards ahead.

“They guessed which way I’d go,” she whispered, flexing her injured shoulder. By rights the movement should have made her scream, but when she’d peeled off the bandages around midday, Dart noticed the syl had worked its way under the fabric, and the bruising he'd expected wasn't there.

“Your people?” he asked.

Amarth nodded.

Not good. Dart was becoming more familiar with the syl with each passing hour, but he knew he’d be no match for a Sylth if it came to a fight. Time for tactics tried and true.

“Let’s get the hell out of here.”

Dart moved as he spoke, not looking to see whether Amarth would follow. They were close to the Diamond River now, in territory he knew. The shallows with their stepping stones lay directly ahead, only a few minutes to the east at the rate they’d been traveling. But that way was blocked. He headed south.

Amarth appeared at his side, matching his loping stride with a grace he couldn’t emulate.

“Where are you going?” Her voice had an angry edge to it, even whispered.

“Away from your people.”

Amarth’s leg whipped across his and Dart pitched forward, sprawling his length. The familiar smell of terran grass filled his nostrils and the surge of anger faded. He looked at the green stains on the heels of his palms, then up at Amarth.

“Okay. We’ll break here. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em.”

Her cheeks flushed. “Do you ever speak seriously, Darthanil Black? New Hope is that way.” She pointed back towards the shallows. “That is where Wills is, and that is the way we will go.”

“Do you know how many Sylth are waiting for us?”

She shook her head.

“Neither do I,” he said, “but since you’ve got a hole in your shoulder and I’m still moving with the grace of a jack-in-the-box, even one might be too many. I’ve spent some time on this side of the river. We can cross south of here.”

“You do not have time to waste.”

“We’re not going far.”

“There are no other fords near here.”

“I didn’t say there were.”

Amarth tilted her head to one side and raised her eyebrows. “Even you would not be foolish enough to try swimming the river.”

“I do most of my swimming in a hot tub.” He smiled. “There’s a boat.”


~


Dart stood in the shadow of a yard-thick hizel, plucking white berries from its heavily-laden branches, chewing them mechanically. They tasted bitter but he was ravenous. The syl seemed to be taking as much as it gave. He stared across the sluggish, brown waters of the Diamond River, over the green pastureland that surrounded what used to be his home.

Orange tiles on the roof of the sandstone house caught the slanting, late evening sunlight. A shutter swung from side to side in the breeze at a first floor window. Beneath the overhang of the balcony, a long table lay on its side, broken chairs scattered around it, rollermoss piled against its up-ended surface. The feather-weight puff-balls had never accepted man-made boundaries. Behind the house, neat rows of apple trees in blossom filled the air with their scent.

“Wait here,” said Dart. “I’ll check the place out and come back for you.”

Amarth’s eyes narrowed. “Why should I not come now?”

“I told you. There are people here who don’t like me.”

“That does not surprise me.”

“They don’t like me a lot. They might still be watching the house.”

“You told me you were in the forest for a week.” Her tone added a question. Did you tell the truth?

“They’re patient people.”

“What have you done to earn such enemies?”

Dart looked away from her and tried to keep the bitterness from his voice. “I gave them an answer they didn’t like.”

She snorted. “I can believe that of you. We will go together.”

“Your call.” The set of her jaw told Dart it wasn’t worth arguing.

Amarth stepped past him and climbed into the small rowing boat. She knelt at the bow and her shadow fell across the water. The surface roiled as a razorfin thrashed in gleaming, deadly circles. Dart lifted the stern clear of the mud and slid the boat forward. He jumped in, holding on to the stern board with both hands in case the syl got too enthusiastic. With the single paddle he pushed against the bank until the current caught the boat.

“Keep your eyes open, Amarth. I don’t think anybody’s waiting for us, but if they are, they won’t be scattering rose petals.”

The Sylth woman nodded. She sat hunched forward, staring at the approaching bank, knuckles white where she gripped the sides of the boat. Afraid? Dart concentrated on paddling. The sun had dipped beneath the horizon and the Diamond’s surface had darkened to black. Every few strokes, the boat rocked as a razorfin scraped against the hull.

The boat nudged onto the muddy bank on the Former side of the Diamond. Dart reached forward, dismissed an urge to pat Amarth’s rump and tapped her on the shoulder instead.

“You go first, verdant one. Pull the boat up the bank a little. I don’t want my boots converted to sandals.”

She didn’t respond.

“You okay?”

Amarth let go the gunwale and Dart saw her hands were shaking. “How can you live here?” she said, and she turned towards him. The whites of her eyes stood out in the dim light. “How can you live with so few trees?”

“My ancestors got the hang of it a few million years ago. We have more important things to worry about. Now, get out and pull.”

The look she gave him would have frozen water, but she got out and pulled. Dart gave himself a mental pat on the back. Better angry than scared.

He clambered out of the boat and stared across the meadow towards the front of his house. Flying insects hummed and droned and his nostrils filled with the scents of apple blossom and grass and manure--though his cattle had gone. He felt some of the tension of the last week slide off his shoulders and he forced himself to concentrate. Not a good time to get careless. It was dark enough now for anyone inside to be turning on lights, but none showed. Not that he’d expected any. If someone was waiting for him, it wouldn’t be with a hearty meal and a cold beer.

“I’m going to work my way round to the back of the house. If I think it’s safe, I’ll go in. Are you up to coming with me?”

“Why are we wasting time here? We should be on our way to New Hope.”

“Think about it, Amarth. We look like two kids who missed out on the talking parts in the school play. I live in that house--at least, I used to. I’m going to fetch some clothes for us to wear over the syl.” Dart ran his hands across the leaves that covered his chest. They responded, making his skin tingle. Somewhere in the back of his mind, a nagging thought arose. He hadn’t even considered discarding the symbiont…

“I have no wish to enter one of your Former abominations,” she said, and her voice was as cold as the leaf-patterned blade of her sword.

Dart felt a twinge of something close enough to patriotism to surprise him. “There are two Pillars, Amarth,” he said. “It’s been that way from the start.”


~


Neil and Buzz nudged over the horizon, flooding the rear courtyard with silver light. The door leading into the kitchen stood ajar, the windows to either side reflecting the two moons’ light with black opaqueness. Dart watched and listened. Nothing looked out of place; nothing stirred. The syl worked with him as he hurried across the paved yard, helped change his steps to a supple cat-stalk. He pressed his back against the wall and slid his sword from its sheath.

Dart stepped through the doorway, ears straining, eyes seeking movement in the darkness. Blood pounded at his temples and he forced himself to wait again, to relax. When his eyes had adjusted, he moved through the kitchen, avoiding vague shapes of pots and pans scattered around the floor. After a few minutes of tense searching, he was confident that no one else was in the lower level of the house.

He ascended the stairs soundlessly, placing the outside edge of his foot close to the wall on the two treads he knew would creak. From the landing he turned right and followed the passageway to his bedroom, overlooking the Diamond River. A quick check showed it to be empty, but he worked his way around the remaining rooms before returning and closing the door behind him.


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