The Bats of Elvidner
by Danielle L. Parker
On the harsh world of Elvidner, a third generation of colonists struggles for survival. Their conditions are primitive, and they are menaced by a native life form: intelligent vampiric bats.
The colonists are largely ignored by the scarcely human “immortals” of the original starship — the “wizards” and “crew.” But a reborn crewman and a wizard who loved and lost a mortal wife have formed a bond with the mortals, one that offers hope for a better life for all.
“They have taken my son,” the sorceress said. “You must get him back.”
Elian Tellen, wandering scion of the doomed lords of White Star, made no immediate reply. A log fell suddenly in the fireplace before them, sending up a shower of red sparks. He picked up the iron poker lying on the stone hearth and leaned forward to push back the errant log. He could not see her well, not there in the shadows she seemed to draw around her like the cloud of her long dark hair, but he could see enough, more of her than any yet alive was rumored to know of the woman called the Aconite Sorceress. Perhaps even she could not guess how acute his eyes were in the dark.
Her face was too hard and too angular for beauty, though it was not a face to forget. She wore a gown of baby-soft skin, cut as finely as a queen’s silk gown; it was black with strips of deepest red in the skirt, and the white mounds of her breasts could be seen suspended above the low-cut neck like pale twin apples. Her hair was as gossamer as a web, and through the curtain that half-covered her bowed face he could, now and then, glimpse an eye, an eye of a steely, impossible blue, the deadly blue of her namesake.
Her thin long hand lay loosely upon her left knee, and on all its fingers — even the smallest finger that was cut away at the first knuckle — glittered the emblems of her power: rings, heavy rings, rings of fantastic design and sinister aspect, which were not worn for their beauty. One of those rings upheld a tiny mirror, and now and then it winked at Elian Tellen like a sly spying eye.
“He is still alive,” she insisted as he let the doubting silence continue. That voice, controlled as it was, seemed to ring and vibrate afterwards on the air with an indescribable, crystalline tension. “He is alive, Elian Tellen. I know this.”
Elian Tellen replaced the poker and sat back. It was not a comfortable chair, made as it was of bones and horns from sources best left unimagined, but he did not shift in it. He was not a restless man. There was power in his stillness and in his listening and in the long strong arms that rested loosely now upon the bone armrests, and the woman who sat beside him felt it, and laughed softly, an aconite laugh.
“I know things about you, Elian Tellen,” she baited him, speaking as softly as if she were whispering love to him now. “There is no man on Elvidner who knows these creatures more intimately than you. Ah, you are a hunter, and your prey is the nightmare and terror of ordinary men. Does it not intrigue you, this chance for death and horror that I offer you? What man has ever seen the deep dwellings of the mordant bats, has spied upon their sleep, has crept through their secret darkness, as they have in ours? Do you not thrill to the opportunity I offer you? Is it not what you live for?”
The visitor turned his face slightly toward her, though he did not raise his eyes from the fire. One of his hands, large and smooth and white, held his still rain-dampened leather hat. “My lady, they do not keep their prey alive long. If he was taken on Firstday, as you say-”
“He is alive.” There was a furious flash from the single visible eye, like the discharge of the tormented clouds that roiled through Elvidner’s dark skies; he saw her sign avert to his words in passionate denial.
She rose suddenly, tossing back the cloud of loose hair: a tall woman, as slim and as threatening as a spear. “See!” she cried. She thrust out her hand demandingly. The tiny mirror on the middle ring flashed like a strobe, and in the glittering instant something could be glimpsed... the thin pale face of a youth, utterly intent and watchful. Then the image fractured like a pool plinked by a pebble. “He lives! There is time, man. There must be time!”
“He may be deep within Lichtlos by now,” her guest said. “The nearest entrance is three days’ journey into the mountains. Lichtlos is the greatest of all their strongholds. We can only guess how deeply its caverns run, but it is a city, my lady, greater than any humanity has yet raised upon this planet. Do you not know that this is their world still? How could I find your son there, even if he... for whatever reasons... yet lives?”
“This will guide you to my son Bram.” With disdainful impatience she wrenched free the ring and thrust it upon him. “It will pull you ever toward him; it will show you his face. What do you wish more, man, for your reward, or for your journey? Weapons? Gold? Power? Youth? My body?”
She paused, panting; her uneven breath rasped between them, like a racing animal’s. Then a sudden malice stole into the eyes that regarded him, sly beneath hanging hair. “I will deny you nothing, man, but it is something else that draws you to these foes, is it not, my lord White Star? You will do as I ask for your own reasons.”
The man rose to his feet, weighing the ring in his palm. Though she was tall, he was much the taller, and she gave a small, halting step back, and then another, beneath the looming mountain-weight of his presence. “Your price was indeed paid, long ago, by another,” he answered quietly. He put the ring into a pocket of his jerkin and sealed the flap with a smoothing of his fingers and looked at her with the star-silvered eyes that were his namesake. “And if the boy dies before I reach him?”
She turned away from him sharply then, and the dark cloud of hair fell again to cover her bowed face. Her hands seized the curved bone back of her chair, and the knuckles gleamed white as its polished femurs beneath her rings. “Then nothing,” she answered at last. “Mordant bats keep no hostages. I will mourn my son and my only remaining love. Go!”
Elian Tellen bowed slightly toward the slim straight back and put on the low broad-brimmed hat that he held in his hand, and when the sorceress turned, at the continued silence, he was no longer there. She consulted her rings, but though the omen-bird and the rats and the maddened wolf chained at the foot of her tower answered her as they were compelled, none of them had seen Elian Tellen leave.
Only the old raven that sat hunched on a broken crag outside saw a fleeting shadow, that of a great wide-shouldered man astride a swaying steed whose long limbs moved with unnatural swiftness and precision, first one side, then the other, like the shimmering lope of a centipede. But Black Claw hunched his great beaked head lower and hid the gleam of his carnivorous eyes beneath his mantling wing. There are some creatures a wise being hopes not to see again, even one who is also a hunter of the night.
Copyright © 2008 by Danielle L. Parker