Elk – from The Water Road by JD Byrne

Antrey has escaped from Tolenor, south across The Water Road, and into Neldathi territory. She’s been alone, isolated, and lost, until a group of Neldathi hunters appear . . .

Antrey was so transfixed by the elk’s plight that she forgot for a moment that the arrows meant that, after all this time, she was no longer alone. She did not hear the further rustling of the trees, but did see first one, then two, then half a dozen Neldathi emerge from the forest and approach the elk.

They were tall, with just the faintest tint of blue in their white skin. Were they naked, they would nearly blend in with the snowy ground. Each wore multiple layers of animal skins that obscured, but could not hide, that they were strong, powerful men. All had long black hair, which grew from a fringe of scalp at the back of their heads. It twisted in braids that ran halfway down their backs. About halfway down, the black color gave way to a pattern of red, black, and white strips. Three of them carried ornately carved bows, while two others had similar devices slung over their backs. They either had not noticed her or ignored her and approached the elk.

The other Neldathi, Antrey had thought initially, was unarmed. The tallest of the group, he strode towards the elk, reached inside the layers of his clothing, and pulled out a knife, bigger than anything Antrey had ever seen that was not called a sword. In a manoeuvre that showed years of practice and an abundance of skill, he knelt beside the elk, placed the great blade to its throat, misery. All the while, he said something quickly
under his breath.

Antrey had never seen anything like it in her life. When she was young she had never experienced a hunt or a kill, only the end result. The sight of such a brutally efficient killing shook her to the core. The bottle slipped from her hands and splashed into the pool underneath her. At the noise, the hunters turned and saw her.

The one that had killed the elk crouched motionless next to it, knife still in hand. The others moved away from the kill and sprang across the stream swiftly, switching their focus. They began to converge on her slowly, two from upstream in the direction of the elk, two others having circled around to come at her from the other direction. She lost sight of the fifth, but within moments she knew she was surrounded. Before it ever occurred to her to try and get away, five well-armed and curious Neldathi had blocked any means of escape.

She ignored the ones on her side of the stream and tried to make eye contact with the one by the elk. He appeared to be the leader of this hunting party or its senior member. Regardless, he was someone who commanded respect. Maybe by making contact directly with him she might open some line of communication, although she had no idea how to do that. At the very least, maybe he would put the knife away. The way he crouched there, casually displaying the bloody blade, made her think he meant to tell her that it might be her neck that was sliced open next.

As the others inched slowly closer to her, Antrey could feel their eyes on her, covering every inch of her with their eyes. One of them was close enough that Antrey thought he might have sniffed her, but she quickly dismissed that as a work of her imagination. That was something the barbarian Neldathi of the Altrerian culture would do, but made little sense upon rational examination. They would use every sense available to them, just as she would.

With each footstep that brought them closer, the snow crunched underfoot. Antrey’s heart raced the closer they came. It was calmed only somewhat when the one across the stream stood up, wiped the bloody blade of his knife on the elk’s carcass, and returned it to its sheath. When she heard a voice behind her, she nearly exploded.

The Water Road is the first book in The Water Road Trilogy by JD Byrne.

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