Read an Excerpt
The raven knows no rest
His shadow ceaseless
Upon the earth.
—SEORDAH POEM, AUTHOR UNKNOWN
He was waiting on the wharf when I arrived with my prisoner in tow. Standing tall as always, angular features turned towards the horizon, his cloak wrapped tight against the seaward chill. My initial puzzlement at finding him here faded as I caught sight of the ship leaving the harbour, a narrow-hulled vessel of Meldenean design, sent to the Northern Reaches with an important passenger, one I knew he would miss greatly.
He turned to regard my approach, a tight, wary smile on his lips, and I realised he had lingered to witness my own departure. Our interactions since the relief of Alltor had been brief, somewhat terse in truth, distracted as he was by the ceaseless tumult of war and whatever malady had plagued him in the aftermath of his already legendary charge. The fatigue that turned his once-strong features into a sagging mask of red-eyed lethargy and his strident if coarse voice into a droning rasp. It had faded now, I could see. Recent battle seemed to have restored him somehow, making me wonder if he found some form of sustenance in blood and horror.
“My lord,” he greeted me with a sketch of a formal bow then nodded at my prisoner. “My lady.”
Fornella returned the nod but gave no response, regarding him without expression as the salt-tinged wind tossed her hair, a single streak of grey visible amidst the reddish brown tumult.
“I have already received ample instruction . . .” I began but Al Sorna waved a hand.
“I come to offer no instruction, my lord,” he said. “Merely a farewell and my best wishes for your endeavour.”
I watched his expression as he waited for a response, the wary smile smaller now, his black eyes guarded. Can it be? I wondered. Is he seeking forgiveness?
“Thank you, my lord,” I replied, hefting the heavy canvas bag to my shoulder. “But we have a ship to board before the morning tide.”
“Of course. I’ll accompany you.”
“We don’t need a guard,” Fornella said, her tone harsh. “I’ve given my word, tested by your truth-teller.” It was true, we walked alone this morning without escort or formality. The reborn court of the Unified Realm had little time or inclination for ceremony.
“Indeed, Honoured Citizen,” Al Sorna replied in clumsy and heavily accented Volarian. “But I have . . . words for this grey-clad.”
“Free man,” I corrected before switching to Realm Tongue. “Grey-clad denotes financial rather than social status.”
“Ah, quite so, my lord.” He stepped aside and gestured for me to continue along the wharf to the quay where the ships waited, a long line of Meldenean war galleys and traders. Naturally, our vessel was moored at the farthest end of the line.
“Brother Harlick’s gift?” he enquired, nodding at the bag I carried.
“Yes,” I said. “Fifteen of the oldest books in the Great Library, those I could identify as useful in the small time allowed in his archives.” In truth I had expected some argument from the brother librarian when I made my request, but the man had simply given an affable nod and barked an imperious order at one of his attendants to gather the requisite scrolls from the wagons that served as his movable library. I knew his apparent indifference to this theft was at least partly derived from his gift; he could always simply pen fresh copies, and openly since the need to keep such things hidden had disappeared. The Dark, as they called it, now revealed and discussed openly, the Gifted free to practice their talents without fear of swift torment and execution, at least in theory. I could see the lingering fear on the faces of those not so talented, and the envy, making me wonder if perhaps the wisest course would have been to keep the Gifted in the shadows. But could shadows ever linger in the fires of war?
“You really think he’s in there somewhere?” Al Sorna asked as we walked towards the ship. “The Ally?”
“An influence so malign and powerful is bound to leave traces,” I said. “A historian is a hunter, my lord. Seeking out signs in the undergrowth of correspondence and memoir, tracking prey via the spoor of memory. I don’t expect to find a complete and unbiased history of this thing, be it beast or man or neither. But it will have left traces, and I intend to hunt it down.”
“Then you should have a care, for I suspect it will not be blind to your attentions.”
“Nor yours.” I paused, glancing at his profile, seeing a troubled brow. Where is your certainty? I thought. It had been one of his most aggravating traits during our previous association; the implacable, unshakeable surety. Now there was just a grim and troubled man weighed down by the prospect of trials to come.
“Taking the capital will not be easy,” I said. “The wisest course would be to wait here, gathering strength until the spring.”
“Wisdom and war are rare bedfellows, my lord. And you’re right, the Ally will most likely see it all.”
“Then why . . . ?”
“We cannot simply linger here and wait for the next blow to fall. Any more than your Emperor can expect to remain immune from the Ally’s attentions.”
“I am fully aware of what message to deliver to the Emperor.” The leather satchel bearing the sealed scroll was heavy about my neck, heavier even than my bag of books, though only a fraction of its weight. Just ink, paper and wax, I thought. Yet it could send millions to war.
We halted as we came to the ship, a broad-beamed Meldenean trader, her planking still scorched from the Battle of the Teeth, rails bearing the scars of blades and arrowheads, patches on the sails furled to the rigging. My eyes were also drawn to the serpentine figurehead which, despite having lost much of its lower jaw, retained a certain familiarity. My gaze found the captain at the head of the gangplank, thick arms crossed, his face set in a glower, a face I recalled all too well.
“Did you, perhaps, have a hand in choosing this vessel, my lord?” I asked Al Sorna.
There was a faint glimmer of amusement in his gaze as he shrugged. “Merely a coincidence, I assure you.”
I sighed, finding I had scant room in my heart for yet more resentment, turning to Fornella and extending a hand to the ship. “Honoured Citizen. I’ll join you in a moment.”
I saw Al Sorna’s eyes track her as she walked the plank to the ship, moving with her customary grace born of centuries-long practice. “Despite what the truth-teller said,” he told me, “I caution you, don’t trust her.”
“I was her slave long enough to learn that lesson myself.” I hefted my bag once again and nodded a farewell. “By your leave, my lord. I look forward to hearing the tale of your campaign . . .”
“You were right,” he broke in, his wary smile returned once more. “The story I told you. There were some . . . omissions.”
“I think you mean lies.”
“Yes.” His smile faded. “But I believe you have earned the truth. I have scant notion of how this war will end, or even if either of us will live to see its end. But if we do, find me again and I promise you’ll have nothing but truth from me.”
I should have been grateful, I know. For what scholar does not hunger for truth from one such as he? But there was no gratitude as I looked into his gaze, no thought save a name. Seliesen.
“I used to wonder,” I said, “how a man who had taken so many lives could walk the earth unburdened by guilt. How does a killer bear the weight of killing and still call himself human? But we are both killers now, and I find it burdens my soul not at all. But then, I killed an evil man, and you a good one.”
I turned away and strode up the gangplank without a backward glance.
She was woken by the snow. Soft, icy caresses on her skin, tingling and not unpleasant, calling her from the darkness. It took a moment for memory to return and when it did she found it a fractured thing, fear and confusion reigning amidst a welter of image and sensation. Iltis roaring as he charged, sword bared . . . The ring of steel . . . A hard fist across her mouth . . . And the man . . . The man who burned her.
She opened her mouth to scream but could issue no more than a whimper, her subsequent gasp dragging chilled air into her lungs. It seemed as if she would freeze from the inside out and she felt it strange she should die from cold after being burned so fiercely.
Iltis! The name was a sudden shout in her mind. Iltis is wounded! Perhaps dead!
She willed herself to move, to get up, call for a healer with all the power her queen’s voice could muster. Instead she barely managed to groan and flutter her hands a little as the snow continued its frosty caress. Rage burned in her, banishing the chill from her lungs. I need to move! I will not die in the snow like a forgotten dog! Drawing jagged air into her lungs again she screamed, putting every ounce of strength and rage into the sound. A fierce scream, a queen’s scream . . . but no more than a rattle of air through teeth when it reached her ears, along with something else.
“. . . better be a good reason for this, Sergeant,” a hard voice was saying, strong, clipped and precise. A soldier’s voice, accompanied by the crunch of boots in snow.
“Tower Lord said he was to be minded well, Captain,” another voice, coloured by a Nilsaelin accent, older and not quite so strong. “Treated with respect, he said. Like the other folk from the Point. And he seems fairly insistent, much as I can gather from a fellow that don’t talk above two words at a time.”
“Folk from the Point,” the captain said in a softer tone. “To whom we have to thank for a snowfall at summer’s end . . .” His voice faded and the crunch of boots became the tumult of running men.
“Highness!” Hands on her shoulders, soft but insistent. “Highness! Are you hurt? Do you hear me?”
Lyrna could only groan, feeling her hands flutter once more.
“Captain Adal,” the sergeant’s voice, choked and broken by fear. “Her face . . .”
“I have eyes, Sergeant! Fetch the Tower Lord to Brother Kehlan’s tent! And bring men to carry his lordship. Say nothing of the queen. You understand me?”
More boots on the snow then she felt something warm and soft cover her from head to foot, her benumbed back and legs tingling as hands lifted her. She fell into darkness, untroubled by the jolting run of the captain as he bore her away.
• • •
He was there when she awoke the second time, her eyes tracking over a canvas roof to find him sitting beside the cot where they had placed her. Although his eyes were tinged with the same red haze she had seen the day before, his gaze was brighter now, focused, the black eyes seeming to bore into the skin of her face as he leaned forward. He burned me . . . She closed her eyes and turned away from him, stilling the sob in her chest, swallowing and composing herself before she turned back, finding him kneeling beside the cot, head lowered.
“Highness,” he said.
She swallowed and tried to speak, expecting only a faint croak to emerge but surprising herself with a somewhat strident response. “My lord Al Sorna. I trust the morning finds you well.”
His head came up, the expression sharp, the black eyes still fierce. She wanted to tell him it was rude to stare, at a queen no less, but knew it would sound churlish. Every word must be chosen, her father had said once. Each word spoken by the one who wears the crown will be remembered, often misremembered. So, my daughter, if ever you find this band of gold weighing upon your brow, never utter a single word that should not be heard from the mouth of a queen.
“Quite . . . well, Highness,” Vaelin responded, remaining on one knee as she stirred herself. To her surprise she found she could move easily. Someone had removed the dress and cloak she wore the night before, replacing the finery with a simple cotton shift that covered her from neck to ankle, the fabric pleasing on her skin as she sat and swung her legs off the cot to sit up. “Please rise,” she told Vaelin. “I find ceremony tedious at the best of times, and of scant use when we’re alone.”
He stood, eyes never leaving her face. There was a hesitancy to his movements, a slight tremble to his hands as he reached for his chair, pulling it closer to sit opposite her, his face no more than an arm’s length away, the closest they had been since that day at the Summertide Fair.
“Lord Iltis?” she asked.
“Wounded but alive,” he said. “Also frostbitten in the small finger of his left hand. Brother Kehlan was obliged to take it off. He barely seemed to notice and it was quite the struggle to stop him charging forth to look for you.”
“I was fortunate in the friends fate contrived to place in my path.” She paused, drawing breath and courage for what she had to say next. “We had little chance to talk yesterday. I know you must have many questions.”
“One in particular. There are many wild tales abroad regarding your . . . injuries. They say it happened when Malcius died.”
“Malcius was murdered, by Brother Frentis of the Sixth Order. I killed him for it.”
She saw the shock hit home as if she had slashed him with an ice-cold blade. His gaze became distant as he slumped forward, speaking in a whisper. “Wanna be a brother . . . Wanna be like you.”
“There was a woman with him,” Lyrna went on. “Like your brother, playing the role of an escaped slave, come all the way across the ocean with a grand tale of adventure. From her reaction when I killed him, I suspect their bond was close. Love can drive us to extremes.”
He closed his eyes, controlling his grief with a shudder. “Killing him would not have been easy.”
“My time with the Lonak left me skilled in certain areas. I saw him fall. After that . . .” The fire raked across her skin like the claws of a wildcat, filling her throat with the stench of her own flesh burning . . . “It seems my memory has some limits after all.”
Vaelin sat in silence for what seemed an age, lost in thought, his face even more gaunt than before. “It told me he was coming back,” he murmured finally. “But not for this.”
“I had expected you to request a different explanation,” she said, keen to draw him back from whatever memories clouded his mind. “For the way you were treated at Linesh.”
“No, Highness.” He shook his head. “I assure you I require no explanation at all.”
“The war was a grievous error. They had Malcius . . . My father’s judgement was . . . impaired.”
“I doubt King Janus’s judgement was capable of impairment, Highness. And as for the war, you did try to warn me, as I recall.”
She nodded, pausing to quiet her racing heart. I was so sure he would hate me. “That man . . .” she said. “The man with the rope.”
“His name is Weaver, Highness.”
“Weaver,” she repeated. “I assume he was an agent of whatever malignancy is behind our current difficulties. Hidden in your army, awaiting the time to strike.”
Vaelin moved back a little, puzzlement replacing his grief. “Strike, Highness?”
“He saved me,” she said. “From that thing. Then he burned me. I confess I find it curious. Though I’m learning these creatures have very strange ways.” She faltered over a catch in her throat, recalling the fire that raged as the muscular young man pulled her close, the heat of it more intense even than that dreadful day in the throne room. She raised her head, forcing herself to meet his unwavering gaze. “Is it . . . Is it worse?”
A faint sigh escaped him and he reached across the divide to grasp her hands, rough callused palms against hers. She had expected some comforting clasp before he voiced the inevitable and terrible news, but instead he gripped her wrists and raised her hands, spreading the fingers to touch them to her face.
“Don’t!” she said, trying to jerk away.
“Trust me, Lyrna,” he breathed, pressing her fingers to the flesh . . . the smooth, undamaged flesh. Her fingers began to explore of their own volition as he took his hands away, touching every inch of skin, from her brow to her chin, her neck. Where is it? she thought wildly, finding no rough, mottled scarring, provoking none of the searing pain that had continued to plague her despite the healing balms her ladies applied to the burns every day. Where is my face?
“I knew Weaver had a great gift,” Vaelin said. “But this . . .”
Lyrna sat clutching her face, caging the sobs in her breast. Every word must be chosen. “I . . .” she began, faltered then tried again. “I should . . . like you to convene a council of captains as soon . . . as soon as . . .”
Then there was only the tears and the feel of his arms around her shoulders as she rested her head on his chest and wept like a child.
• • •
The woman in the mirror ran a hand over the pale stubble covering her head, a frown creasing her smooth brow. It’ll grow back, she knew. Maybe not keep it so long this time. Lyrna turned her attention to the skin where the burns had been most severe, finding the healing hadn’t left her completely unmarked after all. There were faint pale lines visible in the flesh around her eyes, thin and irregular tracks from her brow into her hairline. She recalled something the Mahlessa’s poor, confused vessel had said that day beneath the mountain. Not there yet . . . The marks of your greatness.
Lyrna stood back from the mirror a little, angling her head to study how the marks looked in the light from the tent opening, finding they faded somewhat in direct sunlight. Something shifted in the mirror and she noticed Iltis over her shoulder, quickly averting his gaze, clutching the bandaged hand that protruded from the sleeve of his sling. He had shambled into the tent an hour ago, pushing Benten aside and collapsing to his knees before her. He had been stumbling through a plea for forgiveness when he glanced up and saw her face, falling to instant silence.
“You should be abed, my lord,” she told him.
“I . . .” Iltis had blinked, tears shining in his eyes. “I will never leave your side, Highness. I gave my word.”
Am I his new Faith? she wondered now, watching him in the mirror as he swayed a little, shaking his head and stiffening his back. The old one proved a disappointment, so now he finds devotion in me.
The tent opening parted and Vaelin entered with a bow. “The army stands ready, Highness.”
“Thank you, my lord.” She held out a hand to Orena, who stood holding the hooded fox-trimmed cloak she had chosen from the mountain of clothing Lady Reva had been overly pleased to provide. Orena came forward and draped the cloak over her shoulders whilst Murel knelt to proffer the impractical but elegant shoes for her royal feet. “Well,” she said, stepping into the shoes and pulling the hood over her face. “Let’s be about it.”
Vaelin had placed a tall uncovered wagon outside the tent, moving to it and holding out a hand as she approached. She clasped the hand and climbed onto the wagon, the cloak bunched in her free hand so as to prevent her tripping over it. The prospect of falling flat on her face at such a moment provoked a girlish giggle, suppressed before it could reach her lips. Every word must be chosen.
She kept hold of Vaelin’s hand as she stood surveying her new army. The plump brother from the Reaches had informed her, between stealing wide-eyed glances at her face, that the current complement of the Army of the North consisted of sixty thousand men and women, plus somewhere in the region of thirty thousand Seordah and Eorhil warriors. The regiments were arrayed in ranks, mostly untidy and lacking the polished cohesion displayed by the Realm Guard during those interminable parades in Varinshold. In truth the few Realm Guard present made a distinct contrast to their comrades, a tight, disciplined knot of denuded companies arrayed behind Brother Caenis in the centre of the line. But the majority of her new army consisted of Count Marven’s Nilsaelins, the conscripts Vaelin had marched from the Reaches, and the recruits gathered along the way. She saw little uniformity in their ranks; mismatched armour and weapons, much of it looted from the copious Volarian dead, makeshift flags lacking the colour and clarity of the Realm Guard’s regimental banners.
The Seordah had placed themselves on the right flank, a great throng of warriors standing in silence, curiosity the only apparent emotion. Behind them the Eorhil waited, most mounted on their fine tall horses, equally silent. Lady Reva had responded to Lyrna’s polite request for attendance with the full complement of her House Guard, reduced to no more than thirty men, and seemingly all of her surviving archers. They stood in two long rows behind their Lady Governess, stocky hard-eyed men with longbows slung across their backs. Lady Reva herself was flanked by her Lady Counsellor, Lord Archer Antesh and the old bewhiskered guard commander, none of whom betrayed the slightest awe at Lyrna’s presence. Off to the left, the Shield had brought the captains of the Meldenean Fleet, Ship Lord Ell-Nurin deliberately standing a few feet in front of the Shield, who stood with his arms crossed, inclining his head at her, habitual smile blazing as bright as ever. It was a pity, as she expected it to fade before long.
Behind them all the still-smoking city of Alltor rose from its island, the twin spires of the cathedral partly obscured by the dusty snow that continued to fall.
Lyrna paused atop the wagon, her eyes picking out the diminutive but distinct form of Lady Dahrena, standing in the front rank alongside Captain Adal and the North Guard. Unlike every other pair of eyes on this field, Lady Dahrena’s were fixed not on Lyrna, but Vaelin. Her gaze unblinking and unnerving in its intensity, making Lyrna conscious of the warmth of his hand in hers. She released it and faced the army, reaching up to draw back her hood.
It rippled through them like a cresting wave, a mingling of awed gasps, oaths, prayers, and outright shock, the already untidy ranks losing yet more cohesion as soldiers turned to their comrades in disbelief or amazement. However, she noted that the Seordah and the Eorhil remained silent, although their stance was now profoundly more alert. Lyrna allowed the army’s babble to build into a cacophony before holding up her hand. For a moment it continued unabated and she worried she might have to ask Vaelin to quiet them, but Captain Adal barked a command to his men which was soon taken up by the officers and sergeants, silence descending on the ranks on swift wings.
Lyrna surveyed them, picking out faces, meeting their eyes, finding some unable to match her gaze, stirring in discomfort and lowering their heads, others staring back in blank astonishment.
“I have not yet had chance to address you,” she called to them, her voice strong and carrying well in the cold air. “For those that may be ignorant of my name, my list of titles is long and I’ll not bore you with it. Suffice to say that I am your queen, hailed as such by Tower Lord Al Sorna and Lady Governess Reva of Cumbrael. Many of you saw me yesterday, and you will have seen a woman with a burnt face. Now you see a woman healed. I make you this promise as your queen, I will never lie to you. And so I tell you honestly that my face was healed by use of the Dark. I claim no blessing from the Departed, no favour from any god. I stand before you restored by the hand of a man with a gift I do not pretend to understand. This was done without my bidding or contrivance. However, I see no cause to regret it or punish the man who did me this service. Many of you will no doubt be aware that there are others within the ranks of this army with similar abilities, good and brave people who, by the strictures of our laws, are condemned to death for the gifts bestowed upon them by nature alone. Accordingly, all laws prohibiting use of the gifts once known as the Dark are hereby rescinded under the Queen’s Word.”
She paused, expecting some upsurge of murmuring, some voices raised in discontent. Instead there was only silence, each and every face now rapt, those that had shunned her gaze seemingly unable to look away. Something stirs here, she realised. Something . . . useful.
“There are none here who have not suffered,” she spoke on. “There are none here who cannot lay claim to a murdered wife, husband, child, friend, or parent. Many of you have tasted the whip, as I have. Many of you have suffered the mauling of filthy hands, as I have. Many of you have burned, as I have.”
There was a growl building in the ranks now, a low rumble of stoked fury. She saw one woman in the middle of Captain Nortah’s company of freed slaves, slight and small but festooned with multiple daggers, her teeth bared in a burgeoning grimace of rage. “This land was named in honour of its unity,” Lyrna continued. “But only a fool would claim we have ever been truly united, always we have shed our own blood in senseless feud after senseless feud. As of now that ends. Our enemy came to these shores bringing slavery, torment, and death, but they also brought us a gift, one they’ll regret for an eternity. They forged us into the unity that has eluded us for so long. They made us a single blade of unbreakable steel aimed straight for their black heart and with you at my side I’ll see it bleed!”
The growl erupted into a fierce shout, faces distorted in hate and anger, fists, swords, and halberds raised, the tumult washing over her, intoxicating in its power . . . Power. You have to hate it as much as you love it.
She raised a hand and they fell quiet once more, though there remained the low hum of simmering heat. “I promise no easy victories,” she told them. “Our enemy is fierce and full of cunning. They will not die easily. So I can promise only three things: toil, blood and justice. None who follow me on this path should imagine there will be any other reward.”
It was the small woman with the daggers who began the chant, stabbing the air with a blade in each hand, head thrown back. “Toil, blood and justice!” It spread in an instant, the shout rising from one end of the army to the other. “Toil, blood and justice! Toil, blood and justice!”
“In five days we march for Varinshold!” Lyrna called as the chant continued, the pitch of its volume increasing yet further. She pointed towards the north. Never be afraid of a little theatre, the old schemer had said during one of the ceremonies where he handed out swords to ever-less-deserving recipients. Royalty is always a performance, daughter. The tumult doubled as she called again, her words lost in the rage-filled cheers. “TO VARINSHOLD!”
She stood for a few moments, arms spread wide in the centre of their adoring rage. Did you ever have this, Father? Did they ever love you?
The noise continued as she descended from the wagon, reaching for Vaelin’s hand again, but pausing at the sight of the Shield. As expected his smile was gone, replaced by a sombre frown making her wonder if he still intended to follow her anywhere.
• • •
“Varinshold lies over two hundred miles distant, Highness,” Count Marven told her. “And we have barely enough grain to sustain the horses for fifty. Our Cumbraelin friends were most efficient in denuding this land of supplies.”
“Better burnt than in the belly of our enemies,” Lady Reva pointed out from across the table.
They were arrayed around a large map table in Vaelin’s tent, all the principal captains of the army along with Lady Reva and the war chiefs from the Eorhil and Seordah. The Eorhil was a wiry rider somewhere past his fiftieth year by her reckoning. The Seordah was slightly younger, taller than most of his people, lean as a wolf with a hawk face. They seemed to understand every word spoken but said little themselves, and she noted how their gaze flitted constantly between her and Vaelin. Is it suspicion? she thought. Or just wonder?
Count Marven had spent the better part of an hour explaining their strategic situation. Never having had much use for the tedium of military history she was obliged to pick out the pertinent details from the morass of jargon. From what she could gather it seemed their position was not as favourable as a queen might expect after winning so great a victory.
“Quite so, my lady,” the count told Reva. “But it does leave us perilously short of supplies, with winter only two months away into the bargain.”
“Am I to understand, my lord,” Lyrna said. “We have a mighty army but no means to move it anywhere?”
The count ran a hand over his shaven head, the stitched scar on his cheek seeming to glow a little more red as he sighed his frustration and sought to formulate the correct response.
“Yes,” Vaelin told her from the opposite end of the table. “And it’s not just a matter of moving it. If we don’t find sufficient forage for the winter, this army could well starve.”
“Surely we have captured Volarian supplies,” Lyrna said.
“Indeed, Highness,” plump Brother Hollun spoke up. Like most present he seemed to have difficulty in not staring at her face. “Twelve tons of grain, four of corn and six of beef.”
“Without which my people will starve this winter,” Lady Reva stated. “I’ve had to start rationing again already . . . Highness,” she added, clearly still having trouble with etiquette.
Lyrna looked at the map, tracing the route to Varinshold, finding many towns and villages along the way but knowing most would now be little more than scorched ruins, devoid of any supplies. Two hundred miles to Varinshold, she mused, studying the map more closely. Half that to the coast . . . and the sea.
She looked up, finding the Shield standing outside the circle of captains towards the rear of the tent, his face half in shadow. “My lord Ell-Nestra,” she said. “Your counsel please.”
He came forward after a moment’s hesitation, Fief Lord Dravus’s twin grandsons making room for him with courteous bows he failed to acknowledge. “Highness,” he said in a neutral tone.
“There are many ships in your fleet,” she said. “Enough to carry an army to Varinshold?”
He shook his head. “Half the fleet was obliged to return to the Isles for repairs after the Teeth. We could perhaps carry a third of the number gathered here, and even then we would have to leave the horses behind.”
“Varinshold won’t fall to so few,” Count Marven said. “Not if the Volarian woman is to be believed. They are well garrisoned and supplied from across the sea and from Renfael.”
Lyrna switched her gaze to Varinshold. The capital and principal port of the entire realm, much of its wealth in fact drawn from trade with Volaria. She pointed to the sea-lanes off Varinshold and looked up at the Shield. “Ever take a ship in these waters, my lord?”
He considered the map for a moment then nodded. “A few. Not such easy pickings as in the southern trade routes. The King’s fleet was always a watchful shepherd for Varinshold’s trade.”
“Now there is no fleet,” Lyrna pointed out. “And the pickings are likely to be rich, are they not, given the enemy’s losses at the Teeth?”
He nodded again. “Rich indeed, Highness.”
“You gave me a ship yesterday. Today I give her back to you with a request you take your fleet and seize or burn any Volarian ship you find journeying to or from Varinshold. Will you do this for me?”
She felt the other captains stirring, hard gazes turning on the pirate. Don’t like to see a queen bargain, she decided. I’ll speak to him in private in future.
“My men may take some persuasion,” he responded after a moment. “We sailed to defend the Isles. And that task is done.”
Ship Lord Ell-Nurin stepped forward, bowing to her with accomplished grace. “I can’t speak for the Shield’s men, Highness. But my men are ready to follow you to Udonor’s Halls if you ask. As I’m sure will many more. After the Battle of the Teeth and . . . your healing, many wouldn’t dare refuse.” He turned to the Shield with an expectant expression.
“As the Ship Lord says,” the Shield grated after a moment. “How could we refuse?”
“Very well.” Lyrna scanned the map once more. “Preparations must be complete within the week. Whereupon the army will march not north but east, to the coast. We will proceed to Varinshold via the coastal ports where our Meldenean allies will resupply us with whatever riches the Volarian Ruling Council deems fit to send its garrison. Also, ports mean fishing folk, who I’m sure will be glad of the custom.”
“If there are any left,” Reva said softly.
“I hereby make the following appointments,” Lyrna went on, choosing to ignore the Lady Governess. “Please forgive the lack of ceremony but we have no time for such pettiness now. I name Lord Vaelin Al Sorna as Battle Lord of the Queen’s Host. Count Marven is named Sword of the Realm and Adjutant General. Brother Hollun, I name you Keeper of the Queen’s Purse. Captains Adal, Orven and Nortah are hereby made Swords of the Realm and elevated to the rank of Lord Marshal. Lord Atheran Ell-Nestra.” She met the Shield’s gaze once more. “I name you Fleet Lord of the Unified Realm and captain of its flagship.” She cast her gaze around the assembly. “These appointments include all due rights and privileges set down by Realm Law with grants and lands to be allotted at the close of hostilities. I ask you formally, do you accept these honours?”
She noted Vaelin was the last to voice his assent, and then only after the Shield had taken a seeming age to bow in agreement, a ghost of his usual smile on his lips.
“Other business, Lords and good sirs?” she asked the Council.
“There is the matter of the prisoners, Highness,” Lord Marshal Orven said. “Keeping them safe is proving a trial. Especially given the bow skills of our Cumbraelin hosts,” he added with a glance in Reva’s direction.
“They have been screened for useful intelligence, I assume?” Lyrna asked.
Harlick, the thin older brother, raised a bony hand. “That task was given to me, Highness. There are a few officers among them I’ve yet to question. Though, my experience to date indicates their usefulness is likely to be limited.”
“They can work,” Vaelin said, meeting her gaze with red-rimmed but steady eyes. “Rebuild what they destroyed.”
“I can’t have them in the city,” Reva put in, shaking her head. “The people will tear them apart.”
“Then we take them with us,” Vaelin responded. “They can act as porters.”
“And more mouths to feed,” Lyrna said, turning to Brother Harlick. “Complete your questioning, brother. Lord Marshal Orven will hang them when you’re done. My lords and sirs, to your duties if you please.”
• • •
She found him sitting by the river, seemingly no more than a well-built soldier plaiting rope with unusually nimble fingers. Vaelin had warned her not to expect much from him so it was a surprise when he scrambled to his feet as she approached, performing a bow of such perfection it would have shamed the most accomplished courtier.
“Cara said I should bow,” he told her, his broad handsome face lit by an open smile. “Showed me how.”
Lyrna glanced off to the right where the three other Gifted from the Reaches looked on. The girl, Cara, still pale and tired by her exertions the day before, regarded Lyrna with a suspicious frown, matched by the skinny young man who held her hand and the hulking fellow with copious hair who stood behind them both. Do they think I come to punish?
Benten put a hand on his sword as Weaver came closer, reaching out to touch her face. “It’s all right, my lord,” she told the former fisherman, standing still and allowing the healer’s hand to play over her features. It burned before, but now it’s cold.
“I came to offer my thanks, sir,” she told Weaver. “I would name you a lord . . .”
“Your reward is already given,” he said, withdrawing his hand. His face lost its smile, his brow creased with confusion as he tapped a finger to it. “Always the way, something comes back.” His gaze widened a little as he stared into her eyes. “You gave more. More than any other.”
Lyrna experienced a bout of the same near panic that had gripped her at the Mahlessa’s mountain, the desire to run from something unknowable but undeniably dangerous. She exhaled slowly and forced herself to meet his gaze. “What did I give?”
He smiled again, turning away to sit once more, reaching for his rope. “Yourself,” he said in a faint voice as his hands resumed their work.
“My Queen.” She turned to find Iltis marching towards her, his face paler than she would have liked but he still refused to rest. Beyond him she could see Brother Caenis standing with four common folk, two young women from the city, a Nilsaelin soldier and one of Lord Nortah’s free fighters. Lyrna saw the three Gifted from the Reaches stiffen at the sight of them, exchanging worried glances, the big one even hefting the quarterstaff he carried and stepping protectively in front of the girl.
“Lord Marshal Caenis requests a private audience, Highness,” Iltis told her with a bow.
She nodded and beckoned Caenis forward, moving a short distance away from Weaver. She paused a moment to view the frozen waters of the Cold Iron, then glanced over at Cara, now glaring in naked animosity at Brother Caenis as he fell to one knee before her. The power to freeze a river in summer, but she fears this man.
“Highness, I crave your attention . . .”
“Yes, yes, brother.” She waved him to his feet, gesturing at Cara and the other Gifted. “You seem to be making my subjects nervous.”
Brother Caenis turned to the Gifted, grimacing a little. “They . . . fear what I have to tell you.” He faced her, straightening his back. “My Queen, I come to offer the services of my Order in this conflict. We subject ourselves to your commands and shirk no duty in pursuit of victory.”
“I have never doubted the loyalty of the Sixth Order, brother. Though I wish I had more of you . . .” Lyrna trailed off as she looked again at the group of common folk, seeing how they shifted under her scrutiny, every face tense and wary. “These folk do not strike me as likely recruits for the Sixth.”
“No, Highness,” he said and she had a sense of a man forcing himself to a long-feared duty. “We belong to another Order entirely.”
The Kuritai’s name was Twenty-Seven, though Alucius had yet to hear him say it. In fact he had yet to hear the slave-elite say anything. He reacted to instruction with instant obedience and was the perfect servant, fetching, carrying and cleaning with no sign of fatigue or even the faintest expression of complaint.
“My gift to you,” Lord Darnel had said that day they had dragged Alucius from the depths of the Blackhold, expecting death and gasping in astonishment when they removed his shackles and he found his own father’s hands helping him to his feet. “A servant of peerless perfectitude,” Darnel went on, gesturing at the Kuritai. “You know, I think I’m growing fond of your wordsmithing ways, little poet.”
“Yes, I’m very well this fine morning,” Alucius told Twenty-Seven as he laid out the breakfast. “How nice of you to ask.”
They were on the veranda overlooking the harbour, the sun rising over the horizon to paint the ships a golden hue he knew would have sent Alornis scurrying to fetch her canvas and brushes. He had chosen the house for the view, a merchant’s domicile no doubt, its owner presumably dead or enslaved along with his family. Varinshold was full of empty houses now, more to choose from should he grow tired of this one, but he found himself too fond of the view, especially as it covered the entirety of the harbour.
Fewer and fewer ships, he thought, counting the vessels with accustomed precision. Ten slavers, five traders, four warships. The slavers sat highest in the water, their copious holds empty, as they had been for weeks, ever since the great column of smoke had risen to blot the sun from the sky for days on end. Alucius had been trying to write something about it, but found the words failed to flow every time he put pen to paper. How does one write a eulogy for a forest?
Twenty-Seven placed the last plate on the table and stood back as Alucius reached for his cutlery, tasting the mushrooms first, finding them cooked to perfection with a little garlic and butter. “Excellent as always, my deadly friend.”
Twenty-Seven stared out of the window and said nothing.
“Ah yes, it’s visiting day,” Alucius went on around a mouthful of bacon. “Thank you for reminding me. Pack the salve and the new books, if you would.”
Twenty-Seven instantly turned away and went about his instructions, moving to the bookcase first. The house’s owner had maintained a reasonable library, largely, Alucius assumed, for appearance’s sake as few of the volumes showed much sign of having ever been read. They were mostly popular romances and a few of the more well-known histories, none suited to his purposes, which obliged him to spend hours ransacking the larger houses for more interesting material. There was much to choose from; the Volarians were boundlessly enthusiastic looters but had little interest in books, save as kindling. Yesterday had been particularly fruitful, netting a complete set of Marial’s Astronomical Observations and an inscribed volume he hoped would arouse the interest of one of his charges in particular.
Ten slavers, five traders, four warships, he counted again, turning to the harbour. Two less than yesterday . . . He paused as another vessel came into view, a warship rounding the headland to the south. It seemed to be struggling to make headway through the water, only one sail raised and that, he saw as it came closer, was a ragged thing of soot-blackened canvas. The ship trailed sagging rope through the placid morning swell as it neared the harbour mouth, blocks and shattered beams hanging from her rigging, sparse crew moving about the deck with the stoop of exhausted men. As she weighed anchor Alucius’s eyes picked out numerous scorch marks blackening her hull and many dark brown stains on her untidy deck.
Five warships, he corrected himself. One with an interesting tale to tell, it seems.
• • •
They stopped off at the pigeon coop on the way, finding his sole remaining bird in typically hungry mood. “Don’t bolt it,” he cautioned Blue Feather with a wagging finger but she ignored him, head bobbing as she pecked at the seeds. The coop was situated atop the house of the Blocker’s Guild, the roof spared the fires that had gutted the building thanks to its iron-beamed construction. The surrounding houses hadn’t been so fortunate and the once-busy building where he had come to have his poems printed now rose from streets of rubble and ash. Seen from this vantage point the city resembled a grimy patchwork, islands of intact buildings in a sea of grey-black ruins.
“Sorry if you’re finding it lonely these days,” he told Blue Feather, stroking her fluffy breast. There had been ten of them to begin with, a year ago. Young birds each with a tiny wire clasp about their right leg, strong enough to hold a message.
This had been the first place he had hurried to on release from the Blackhold, finding only three birds still alive. He fed them and disposed of the corpses as Twenty-Seven looked on impassively. It had been a risk leading the slave here to witness his greatest secret, but there was little choice. In truth, he had expected the Kuritai to either cut him down on the spot or shackle him once more for immediate return to captivity. Instead he just stood and watched as Alucius scribbled the coded message on a tiny scrap of parchment before rolling it up and sliding it into the small metal cylinder that would fit onto the bird’s leg clasp.
Varinshold fallen, he had written though he knew it was probably old news to the recipients. Darnel rules. 500 knights & one V division. Twenty-Seven didn’t even turn to watch the bird fly away when Alucius cast it from the rooftop and the expected deathblow had never fallen, not then and not when he released the next bird the night the Volarian fleet set sail for the Meldenean Isles. Twenty-Seven, it appeared, was neither his gaoler nor Darnel’s spy; he was simply his waiting executioner. In any case his worries over what the Kuritai saw had long since faded, along with the hope he might live to see this city liberated . . . and watch Alornis draw again.
He briefly considered sending Blue Feather with his final message—those he reported to would no doubt find the news of the ragged warship interesting—but decided against it. The ship portended a great deal, and it would be better to await discovery of the full story before expending his last link to the outside world.
They climbed down from the rooftop via the ladder on the back wall, making for the only building in Varinshold that seemed to have suffered no damage at all, the squat fortress of black stone sitting in the centre of the city. There had been a bloody battle here, he knew. The Blackhold’s garrison of Fourth Order thugs putting up a surprisingly good fight as they beat back successive waves of Varitai, Aspect Tendris in the thick of the fight, spurring them on to ever-greater feats of courage with unwavering Faith. At least that’s how the story went if you believed the mutterings of the Realm-born slaves. It had finally fallen when the Kuritai were sent in, Aspect Tendris cutting down four of the slave-elite before a dastardly knife in the back laid him low, something Alucius found extremely unlikely, though he did concede the mad bastard had probably gone down fighting.
The Varitai at the gate stepped aside as he approached, Twenty-Seven in tow with his books and various medicines in a sack over his broad shoulder. The interior of the Blackhold was even less edifying than its exterior, a narrow courtyard within grim black walls, Varitai archers posted on the parapet above. Alucius went to the door at the rear of the courtyard, the Varitai guard unlocking it and stepping aside. Inside he followed the damp winding steps down into the vaults. The smell provoked unwelcome memories of his time here, musty rot mingling with the sharp tang of rat piss. The steps ended some twenty feet down, opening out into a torchlit corridor lined by ten cells, each sealed with a heavy iron door. The cells had all been occupied when he was first brought here, now all but two stood empty.
“No,” Alucius replied to Twenty-Seven’s unvoiced question. “I can’t say it is good to be back, my friend.”
He went to the Free Sword seated on a stool at the end of the corridor. It was always the same man, a sour-faced fellow of brawny build who spoke Realm Tongue with all the finesse of a blind mason attempting to carve a masterpiece.
“Which ’un?” he grunted, getting to his feet and putting aside a wine-skin.
“Aspect Dendrish I think,” Alucius replied. “Irksome duties first, I always say.” He concealed a sigh of frustration at the Free Sword’s baffled frown. “The fat man,” he added slowly.
The Free Sword shrugged and moved to the door at the far end of the corridor, keys jangling as he worked the lock. Alucius thanked him with a bow and went inside.
Aspect Dendrish Hendrahl had lost perhaps half his famous weight during captivity, but that still made him considerably fatter than most men. He greeted Alucius with the customary scowl and lack of formality, small eyes narrowed and gleaming in the light from the single candle in the alcove above his bed. “I trust you’ve brought me something more interesting than last time.”
“I believe so, Aspect.” Alucius took the sack from Twenty-Seven and rummaged inside, coming out with a large volume, the title embossed in gold on the leather binding.
“‘Fallacy and Belief,’” the Aspect read as he took the volume. “‘The Nature of God Worship.’ You bring me my own book?”
“Not quite, Aspect. I suggest you look inside.”
Dendrish opened the book, his small eyes peering at the text scribbled on the title page which Alucius knew read: Or “Pomposity and Arrogance—The Nature of Aspect Hendrahl’s Scholarship.”
“What is this?” the Aspect demanded.
“I found it at Lord Al Avern’s house,” Alucius told him. “You remember him, no doubt. They called him the Lord of Ink and Scroll, on account of his scholarly accomplishments.”
“Accomplishments? The man was an amateur, a mere copier of greater talents.”
“Well, he has much to say on your talents, Aspect. His critique of your treatise on the origin of the Alpiran gods is particularly effusive, and quite elegantly phrased I must say.”
Hendrahl’s plump hands leafed through the book with expert precision, opening it out to reveal a chapter liberally adorned with the late Lord Al Avern’s graceful script. “‘Simply repeats Carvel’?” the Aspect read in a furious rasp. “This empty-brained ape accuses me of lacking originality.”
“I thought you might find it amusing.” Alucius bowed again and moved to the door.
“Wait!” Hendrahl cast a wary glance at the Free Sword standing outside and levered himself to his feet, not without difficulty. “You must have news, surely.”
“Alas, things have not changed since my last visit, Aspect. Lord Darnel hunts for his son through the ashes of his great crime, we await news of General Tokrev’s glorious victory at Alltor and Admiral Morok’s equally glorious seizure of the Meldenean Isles.”
Hendrahl moved closer, speaking in a barely heard whisper. “Master Grealin, still no word on him?”
It was the one question he always asked and Alucius had given up trying to extract the reason for this interest in the Sixth Order’s store-minder. “None, Aspect. Just like last time.” Oddly, this response always seemed to reassure the Aspect and he nodded, moving back to sit on his bed, his fingers resting on the book, not looking up as Alucius left the cell.
As ever, Aspect Elera proved a contrast to her brother in the Faith, smiling and standing as the door swung open, her slender hands extended in greeting. “Alucius!”
“Aspect.” He always found he had to force the catch from his voice when he saw her, clad in her filthy grey robe they wouldn’t let him replace, the flesh of her ankle red and raw from the shackle. But she always smiled and she was ever glad to see him.
“I brought more salve,” he said, placing the sack on the bed. “For your leg. There’s an apothecary shop on Drover’s Way. Burnt-out, naturally, but it seems the owner had the foresight to hide some stock in his basement.”
“Resourceful as ever, good sir. My thanks.” She sat and rummaged through the sack for a moment, coming out with the small ceramic pot of salve, removing the lid to sniff the contents. “Corr tree oil and honey. Excellent. This will do very well.” She rummaged further and found the books. “Marial!” she exclaimed in a delighted gasp. “I once had a full set. Must be near twenty years since my last reading. You are good to me, Alucius.”
“I endeavour to do my best, Aspect.”
She set the book aside and looked up at him, her face as clean as her meagre water ration allowed. Lord Darnel had been very particular in his instructions regarding her confinement, a consequence of her less-than-complimentary words during his first and only visit here. So, whilst Aspect Dendrish was treated to only the cruelty of indifference and a restricted diet, Aspect Elera was shackled to the wall with a length of chain that restricted her movements to no more than two square feet of her tiny cell. As yet, however, he had not heard her voice a single complaint.
“How goes the poem?” she asked him.
“Slowly, Aspect. I fear these tumultuous times deserve a better chronicler.”
“A pity. I was looking forward to reading it. And your father?”
“Sends his regards,” Alucius lied. “Though I see him rarely these days. Busy as he is with the Lord’s work.”
“Ah. Well, be sure to pass along my respects.”
At least she won’t call him traitor when this is done, he thought. Though she may be the only one.
“Tell me, Alucius,” she went on. “Do your explorations ever take you to the southern quarter?”
“Rarely, Aspect. The pickings are hardly rich, and in any case there’s little of it left to pick through.”
“Pity. There was an inn there, the Black Boar I believe it was called. If you’re in need of decent wine, I believe the owner kept a fine selection of Cumbraelin vintages in a secret place beneath the floorboards, so as not to trouble the King’s excise men, you understand.”
Decent wine. How long had it been since he’d tasted anything but the most acid vinegar? The Volarians may have had little interest in the city’s books but had scraped every shelf clean of wine in the first week of occupation, forcing him into an unwelcome period of sobriety.
“Very kind, Aspect,” he said. “Though I confess my surprise at your knowledge of such matters.”
“You hear all manner of things as a healer. People will spill their deepest secrets to those they hope can take their pain away.” She met his gaze and there was a new weight to her voice when she added, “I really wouldn’t linger too long in seeking out the wine, good sir.”
“I . . . shan’t, Aspect.”
The Free Sword rapped his keys against the door, voicing an impatient grunt. “I must go,” he told her, taking the empty sack.
“A pleasure, as always, Alucius.” She held out a hand and he knelt to kiss it, a courtly ritual they had adopted over the weeks. “Do you know,” she said as he rose and went to the door. “I believe if Lord Darnel were truly a courageous man, he would have killed us by now.”
“Raising his own fief against him in the process,” Alucius replied. “Even he is not so foolish.”
She nodded, smiling once again as the Free Sword closed the door, her final words faint but still audible, and insistent. “Be sure to enjoy the wine!”
• • •
Lord Darnel sent for him in the afternoon, forestalling an exploration of the southern quarter. The Fief Lord had taken over the only surviving wing of the palace, a gleaming collection of marble walls and towers rising from the shattered ruin that surrounded it. The walls were partly covered in scaffolding as masons strove to remould the remnants into a convincingly self-contained building, as if it had always been this way. Darnel was keen to wipe away as much of the inconvenient past as possible. A small army of slaves laboured continually in pursuit of the new owner’s vision, the ruined wings cleared to make room for an ornamental garden complete with looted statuary and as yet unblossomed flowerbeds.
Alucius was always surprised at his own lack of fear whenever he had the misfortune to find himself in the Fief Lord’s presence; the man’s temper was legendary and his fondness for the death warrant made old King Janus seem the model of indulgent rule. However, for all his evident scorn and contempt, Darnel needed him alive. At least until Father wins his war for him.
He was admitted to the new throne room by two of Darnel’s burlier knights, fully armoured and smelling quite dreadful despite all the lavender oil with which they slathered themselves. As yet it seemed no blacksmith had solved the perennial problem of the foul odours arising from prolonged wearing of armour. Darnel sat on his new throne, a finely carved symphony of oak and velvet, featuring an ornately decorated back that reached fully seven feet high. Though yet to formally name himself king, Darnel had been quick to attire himself with as many royal trappings as possible, King Malcius’s crown being chief among them, though Alucius fancied it sat a bit too loose on his head. It shifted on his brow now as the Fief Lord leaned forward to address the man standing before him, a wiry and somewhat bedraggled fellow in the garb of a Volarian sailor, a black cloak about his shoulders. Alucius’s fear reasserted itself at the sight of man standing behind the sailor. Division Commander Mirvek stood tall and straight in his black enamel breastplate, heavy, scarred features impassive as always when in the Fief Lord’s presence. Darnel might need him alive, but the Volarian certainly didn’t. He took some heart from the sight of his father, standing with his arms crossed at Darnel’s side.
“A shark?” Lord Darnel said to the sailor, his voice heavy with scorn. “You lost your fleet to a shark?”
The sailor stiffened, his face betraying a man suffering insult from one he considered little more than a favoured slave. “A red shark,” the sailor replied in good but accented Realm Tongue. “Commanded by an elverah.”
“Elverah?” Darnel asked. “I thought this fabled elverah was engaged in delaying General Tokrev at Alltor?”
“It is not a name, at least not these days,” Mirvek explained. “It means witch or sorceress, born of an old legend . . .”
“I could give a whore’s cunt hair for your legend!” Darnel snapped. “Why do you bring me this defeated dog with his wild tales of witches and sharks?”
“I am no liar!” the sailor retorted, face reddening. “I am witness to a thousand deaths or more at the hands of that bitch and her creature.”
“Control your dog,” Darnel told the Division Commander quietly. “Or he’ll get a whipping as a lesson.”
The sailor bridled again but said no more when Mirvek placed a restraining hand on his shoulder, murmuring something in his own language. Alucius’s Volarian was poor but he was sure he detected the word “patience” in the commander’s soothing tone.
“Ah, little poet,” Darnel said, noticing Alucius. “Here’s one worthy of a verse or two. The great Volarian fleet sunk by a Dark-blessed shark answering the whim of a witch.”
“Elverah,” the sailor said again before adding something in his own language.
“What did he say?” Darnel asked the Division Commander in a weary tone.
“Born of fire,” the commander translated. “The sailors say the witch was born of fire, because of her burns.”
“Her face.” The sailor played a hand over his own features. “Burned, vile to look upon. A creature not a woman.”
“And I thought you people were absent all superstition,” Darnel said before turning back to Alucius. “What do you imagine this means for our great enterprise, little poet?”
“It would seem the Meldenean Islands did not fall so easily after all, my lord,” Alucius replied in a flat tone. He saw his father shift at Darnel’s side, catching his eye with a warning glare, however Darnel seemed untroubled by the observation.
“Quite so. Despite the many promises made by our allies, they fail to secure me the Isles and instead bring dogs into my home barking nonsense.” He pointed a steady finger at the sailor. “Get him out of here,” he told Mirvek.
“Come forward, little poet.” Darnel beckoned him with a languid wave when the Volarians had made their exit. “I’d have your views on another tall tale.”
Alucius strode forward and went to one knee before the throne. He was continually tempted to abandon all pretence of respect but knew the Lord’s tolerance had its limits, regardless of his usefulness.
“Here.” Darnel picked up a spherical object lying at the foot of his throne and tossed it to Alucius. “Familiar, is it not?”
Alucius caught the item and turned it over in his hands. A Renfaelin knight’s helmet, enamelled in blue with several dents and a broken visor. “Lord Wenders,” he said, recalling that Darnel had made his chief lapdog a gift of an unwanted suit of armour.
“Indeed,” Darnel said. “Found four days ago with a crossbow bolt through his eye. I assume you have little trouble guessing the origin of his demise.”
“The Red Brother.” Alucius concealed his grin. Burned the Urlish to nothing and still you couldn’t get him.
“Yes,” Darnel said. “Curious thing, they tended his wounds before they killed him. What’s even more curious is the tale told by the only survivor of his company. He didn’t last very long, I’m afraid, victim of a crushed and festered arm. But he swore to the Departed that the entire company had been buried in a rock-slide called forth by the Red Brother’s fat master.”
Grealin. Alucius kept all expression from his face as he asked, “Called forth, my lord?”
“Yes, with the Dark, if you can believe it. First the tale of the Dark-afflicted brother, now the ballad of the witch’s shark. All very strange, wouldn’t you agree?”
“I would, my lord. Most certainly.”
Darnel reclined in his throne, regarding Alucius with arch scrutiny. “Tell me, in all your dealings with our cherished surviving Aspects, did they ever make mention of this fat master and his Dark gifts?”
“Aspect Dendrish asks for books, and food. Aspect Elera asks for nothing. They make no mention of this master . . .”
Darnel glanced at Alucius’s father. “Grealin, my lord,” Lakrhil Al Hestian said.
“Yes, Grealin.” Darnel returned his gaze to Alucius. “Grealin.”
“I recall the name, my lord. I believe Lord Al Sorna made mention of him during our time together in the Usurper’s Revolt. He minded the Sixth Order’s stores, I believe.”
Darnel’s face lost all expression, draining of colour, as it often did at mention of the name Al Sorna, something Alucius knew well and counted on to provide suitable distraction from further astute questioning. Today, however, the Fief Lord was not so easily diverted.
“Store-minder or no,” he grated after a moment. “It now seems he’s a pile of ash.” He pulled something from the pocket of his silk robe and tossed it to Alucius; a medallion on a chain of plain metal, charred but intact. The Blind Warrior. “Your father’s scouts found this amongst the ashes in a pyre near Wenders’s body. It’s either the fat master’s or the Red Brother’s, and I doubt we’d ever get that lucky.”
No, Alucius agreed silently. You never would.
“Our Volarian allies are extremely interested in any whisper of the Dark,” Darnel told him. “Paying huge sums for slaves rumoured to be afflicted with it. Imagine what they’ll do to your friends in the Blackhold if they suspect they have knowledge of more. The next time you visit them show them this medallion, tell them this tall tale, and report back to me every word they say.”
He got to his feet, walking towards Alucius with a slow gate, face quivering a little now, lips wet with spittle. They were roughly of equal height, but Darnel was considerably broader, and a seasoned killer. Somehow, though, Alucius still felt no fear as he loomed closer.
“This farce has dragged on long enough,” the Fief Lord rasped. “I ride forth tonight with every knight in my command to hunt down the Red Brother and secure my son. Whilst I am gone you will make sure those sanctimonious shits know I’ll happily hand them over to our allies to see them flayed skinless if it’ll drag their secrets forth, Aspects or no.”
She wakes, her eyes finding a dim yellow glow in a world of shadow. The glow resolves into the flame of a single candle, not so clear as it should be. For a moment she wonders if she has been reborn into a half-blind body, the Ally’s joke, or further punishment. But then she recalls that her sight, her first body’s sight, had always been unusually sharp. “Keener than any hawk,” her father had said centuries ago, a rare compliment that had brought tears to her eyes then but brings nothing to these now. These weaker, stolen eyes.
She lies on hard stone, cold and rough on her naked skin. She sits and something moves in the gloom, a man stepping from the shadow into the meagre light. He wears the uniform of the Council Guard and the lean face of a veteran but she sees his true face in the leer of his shaded eyes. “How do you find it?” he asks her.
She raises her hands, flexing the fingers and wrists. Strong, good. Her arms are lean, well sculpted, similarly her legs, lithe and supple.
“A dancer?” she asks the Council Guard.
“No. She was found when young. The northern hill tribes, richer in Gifted than elsewhere in the empire. The gift is powerful, an uncanny way with the wind. Something I’m sure you’ll find a use for. She was trained with knife, sword and bow from the age of six. Security against your inevitable fall.”
She feels a faint anger at this. It was not inevitable. Any more than love is inevitable. She is tempted to let the anger build, fuel her new body with rage and test its abilities on the leering Messenger, but is given pause by another sensation . . . The music flows, the tune is fierce and strong. Her song is returned!
She finds a laugh bubbling in her breast and lets it out, her head thrown back, the sound exultant as another thought comes to her, no less fierce in its joyful realisation: I know you see me, beloved!
• • •
He came awake with a start, raising a curious whine from Slasher who had been sleeping at his feet. Next to him Master Rensial slept on, an oddly serene smile on his face; a man content in slumber. Apart from battle it was the only time he appeared sane. Frentis sat up with a groan, shaking his head to clear the dream. Dream? Do you really believe that’s what it was?
He pushed the thought away and pulled on his boots, hefting his sword and exiting the small tent he shared with the master. The sky was still dark and he judged it no more than two hours into the new day by the moon’s height. Around him the company lay sleeping, the tents provided by Baron Banders a wondrous luxury after so many days of hardship. They were encamped on the southern slope of a tall hill, one of the downs that made the Renfaelin border country so distinct, campfires forbidden by the baron, who saw no reason to give Lord Darnel an indication of their numbers.
Six thousand men, Frentis thought, his eyes surveying the camp, recalling the intelligence provided by the unfortunate Lord Wenders. Enough to take a city held by Darnel’s knights and a full division of Volarians?
A soft sound drew his attention back to the tents where his company slept, a soft giggle rising from the tent Arendil shared with Lady Illian. He heard faint but urgent whispers followed by more giggles. I should stop this, he decided, starting forward, then paused as the words Illian had spoken the day before came back to him. I am not a child . . .
They lost their youth in my bloody crusade, he thought. With worse to come at Varinshold. He sighed and moved away until the sounds grew faint.
It was a half-moon tonight, but the sky was clear, providing enough light for a good view of the low country beyond the downs, so far free of any enemy. Will he wait? Frentis wondered. When Darnel hears that Banders has raised his fief against him and now harbours his son, will he come? His hand ached as he gripped his sword hilt, the bloodlust surging again, calling her voice as it always did. Not so free of its delights, after all, beloved?
“Leave me be,” he whispered in Volarian, teeth gritted, forcing his hand to release the sword.
“Learned a new language then, brother?”
Frentis turned to find a brother about his own age approaching from the shadows, tall with a narrow handsome face and a lopsided grin. It was the grin that stirred his memory. “Ivern,” he said after a moment.
The young brother halted a few feet away, eyes tracking Frentis from head to foot in blank wonder. “I thought Brother Sollis was playing a joke when he told me,” he said. “But when does he joke about anything?” He came forward, arms encircling Frentis in a warm embrace.
“The Order,” Frentis began when Ivern moved back. “The House has fallen. There are no others . . .”
“I know. He told me your tale. Little over a hundred of us, all that remains of the Sixth Order.”
“Aspect Arlyn lives. Darnel’s lick-spittle confirmed it, though he couldn’t tell us where in Varinshold they imprisoned him.”
“A mystery to be solved when we get there.” Ivern inclined his head at the cluster of tents nearby. “I’ve half a bottle of Brother’s Friend left if you’d care to share.”
Frentis had never been particularly partial to the Order’s favourite tipple, disliking the way it dulled his senses, so he confined himself to a polite sip before handing the flask back to Ivern who seemed to have no such concerns. “I tell the unvarnished and complete truth,” he insisted after a healthy gulp from the flask. “She kissed me, full on the lips.”
“Princess Lyrna kissed you?” Frentis enquired with a raised eyebrow.
“Indeed she did. After a perilous, and dare I say, now legendary quest through the Lonak Dominion. I was halfway through writing it all down for inclusion in Brother Caenis’s archive when news of the invasion came.” His grin became rueful. “My finest hour as a brother, lost to history thanks to larger concerns.” He met Frentis’s gaze. “We heard a lot about you on the way south. The tale of the Red Brother flew fast and wide. There’s even a version that says you saw her die.”
The fire licked at her face as she screamed, her hair blackening as she beat the flames with her hands . . . “I didn’t see her die,” he said. I just killed her brother. He had given a full accounting to Brother Sollis the previous evening, whilst his company ate their first real meal in days, some so slumped in relief they couldn’t raise the food to their mouths. Sollis had absorbed every word without comment, his pale-eyed gaze betraying nothing as the epic of murder and pain ran its course. When it was done, like Aspect Grealin, he gave strict instructions not to repeat the tale to anyone and maintain the same fiction believed by the people who followed him. The same lie, the woman’s voice added in faint mockery.
“So there’s a chance,” Ivern pressed. “She could still be alive.”
“I ask the Departed every day to make it so.”
Ivern took another drink. “The Lonak didn’t understand what a princess was, so called her a queen. Turns out they were right. If I were a Volarian I’d be praying for her death. I wouldn’t want to be in the eye of that woman’s vengeance.”
Vengeance, Frentis thought, looking down at his hands, hands that had snapped the neck of a king. Or justice?
• • •
He returned to his company in the morning, finding Davoka in conversation with Illian, the young highborn sitting rigid and pale of face as the Lonak spoke in instructional tones. “You must be careful,” she cautioned, working a stone along her spear-blade. “Swollen belly no good in battle. Make sure he spends on your thigh.”
When Illian caught sight of Frentis, her face turned an immediate shade of scarlet. She stood up, walking away with a stiff but rapid gait, managing only a faint squeak in response to his greeting.
“Such things are not discussed openly among the Merim Her,” Frentis told a puzzled Davoka, sitting down beside her.
“Girl is foolish,” she muttered with a shrug. “Too quick to anger, too quick to part her legs. My first husband had to give three ponies before I lay a hand on him.”
Frentis was tempted to ask how many ponies Ermund would be required to hand over in due course, but decided it would be an unwise question. Bound as he was by his oath, the knight had been quickly reinstated at Baron Banders’s side and they would sorely miss his sword. Davoka, however, seemed unperturbed by his sudden absence from their company and Frentis wondered if he hadn’t been anything more than a welcome diversion during the infrequent quiet days in the Urlish.
“Things are different here,” he said, more to himself than her. Illian transformed from a pampered girl into a deadly huntress, Draker from an outlaw into a soldier, Grealin from a master to an Aspect. Everything is different. The Volarians have built us a new Realm.
Brother Commander Sollis arrived as they were eating breakfast, favouring Davoka with a respectful nod, pausing only slightly at the sight of Thirty-Four, who smiled back with a gracious bow. “Baron Banders holds council,” Sollis told Frentis. “Your words are wanted.”
• • •
“Five hundred knights and a piss-pot full of Volarians, eh?” Baron Banders raised a bushy eyebrow at Frentis, voicing a small laugh. “Hardly a mighty army, brother.”
“If this Wenders spoke truly,” Sollis commented.
The baron held his council in a field away from the main camp, the various captains and lords of his army standing in a circle with scant ceremony or formal introduction. It seemed Banders had little use for the often elaborate manners of the Renfaelin nobility.
“Wenders did not strike me as a man with enough wit for deception, brother,” Frentis told Sollis before turning to Banders. “There are upwards of eight thousand men in a Volarian Division, my lord. Plus they have the Free Sword mercenaries who guard the slavers and contingents of Kuritai. I caution you not to underestimate them.”
“Worse than the Alpirans are they?”
“In some ways.”
The baron grunted and raised an eyebrow at Ermund who gave a solemn nod. “We killed many in the forest, my lord, but it cost us dear. If they have more, taking the city will be a bloody business.”
“If Darnel is wise enough to stay behind his walls,” Banders mused. “And wisdom is not one of his virtues.”
“He has recruited wisdom,” Frentis said. “Wenders told us Lakrhil Al Hestian has been pressed into service as Darnel’s Battle Lord. He’ll know full well the value of not taking to open field against us.”
“Blood Rose,” Banders said softly. “Couldn’t abide the man, truth be told. But he never struck me as a traitor.”
“Darnel holds Al Hestian’s son as hostage to his loyalty. We should regard him an enemy, and not one given to misjudgements.”
“Couldn’t hold Marbellis though.” Banders glanced at Sollis. “Could he, brother?”
There was a slight pause before Sollis replied and Frentis wondered what horrors crowded his memory. “No one could have held Marbellis, my lord,” he said. “A pebble can’t stand against an ocean.”
Banders fell silent, his hand on his chin. “Was hoping the Urlish would mask our advance,” he said in a reflective tone. “At least for a time, providing timber for ladders and engines into the bargain. Now even that is taken from us.”
“There are other ways, Grandfather,” Arendil spoke up. His mother, the Lady Ulice, stood at his side with a tight grip on his arm. Her relief at finding him alive the day before had been a spectacle of tearful kisses, though she had plainly been chagrined by her son’s insistence on staying with Frentis’s company.
“The good brother,” Arendil said, gesturing to Frentis, “Davoka, and I made our escape via the city’s sewers. If we can get out, surely we can get in the same way.”
“The harbour pipe is too easily seen by their sailors,” Frentis said. “But there are alternatives, and one in our company who knows the sewers near as well as I.”
“I’ve four thousand knights who won’t fit so easily in a dung pipe, brother,” Banders pointed out. “Take their horses away and they’re as much use as a gelding in a whorehouse. The rest are men-at-arms and a few hundred peasants with grudges to settle against Darnel and his dogs.”
“I have over a hundred brothers,” Sollis said. “Plus Brother Frentis’s company. Surely sufficient strength to seize a gate and hold it long enough to allow your knights entry.”
“And then what?” Banders asked. “Street fighting is hardly within their experience, brother.”
“I’ll fight in a bog,” Ermund said, “if it’ll bring Darnel within reach of my sword. Do not mistake the temper of your knights, my lord. Their course was not chosen lightly and they’ll follow you to the Beyond and back if you command it.”
“I don’t doubt their temper, Ermund,” Banders assured him. “But our fief lost enough wars to learn the lesson that a charging wall of steel cannot win every battle. And supposing we do manage to take the city, the bulk of the enemy’s strength is still besieging Alltor. And when they’re finished, where do you suppose they’ll march next?”
“From what little intelligence we can gather,” Sollis said, “Fief Lord Mustor has held out far longer than expected. Winter will be closing in by the time the Volarians take his capital and subdue his fief. Long enough for us to entrench, gather strength from Nilsael and the Reaches.”
At mention of the Reaches Banders turned to one of his captains, a veteran knight in white-enamelled armour. “No word, I take it, Lord Furel?”
“It’s a long ride to Meanshall,” the knight replied. “And a longer voyage to the Reaches. Our messengers were sent only ten days ago.”
“I had hoped he’d be on the move by now,” Banders mused and Frentis had no need to hear the name in the forefront of his mind.
“He is,” he said. “I know it.” He looked at Brother Sollis who replied with a nod. “And having Varinshold in our hands by the time he arrives will make our task much easier.”
“You ask me to risk much on the basis of faith alone, brother,” Banders replied.
“Faith,” Frentis replied, “is my business, my lord.”
• • •
The baron’s army was well supplied with horses, most taken from the estates of knights who had sided with Darnel. They were all stallions, impressively tall at the shoulder with the restlessness of horses bred to the charge. Master Rensial wandered the temporary paddock where the horses were corralled, seemingly unaware of their snorts and whinnies as he played his hands over flanks and neck, his expression the concentrated stare of the expert.
“Not so . . .” Davoka fumbled for the right word as they watched the master go about his work. “Ara-kahmin. Head-sickness.”
“Mad,” Frentis said, seeing the surety with which Master Rensial moved. “Not so mad when he’s with horses. I know.”
“He looks on you and sees a son,” Davoka said. “You know this too?”
“He sees many things. Most of which are not there.”
The master chose a horse for each of them, leading a youthful grey to Frentis and a broad black charger to Davoka. “Too big,” she said, moving back a little as the great horse sniffed her. “No ponies here?”
“No,” Master Rensial told her simply and walked off to select more mounts.
“You’ll get used to him,” Frentis assured her, scratching the grey’s nose. “Wonder what name you’ll earn.”
“Merim Her,” Davoka muttered in derision. “People are named. Horses used and eaten.”
They rode south at midday, Brother Sollis scouting ahead with his brothers, the knights and retainers following in a tight column. At the baron’s order, every man was armoured and ready for battle. The peasant rebels followed behind on foot, mostly hardy-looking men with little armour but a rich variety of weapons. There was a grim uniformity to their expression that Frentis knew well, the faces of the wronged and the angry. From the stories Ivern had told him of the brother’s journey from the Pass it was clear that, shorn of the Crown’s authority, Darnel had lost little time in settling long-nurtured grievances, much of his ire falling on the common folk who worked the lands of his enemies. Frentis’s company, few of whom could be called expert riders, made up the rear-guard, strung out in a loose formation many had difficulty maintaining for long.
“I . . . fucking . . . hate . . . horses!” Draker huffed as he bounced along on the back of the russet-coated stallion Rensial had chosen for him.
“It’s easy!” Illian told him, spurring on ahead, moving in the saddle with accustomed ease. “Just raise yourself up a little at the right moment.”
She laughed as Draker made a less-than-perfect attempt to comply, thumping himself onto the saddle with a hard grunt. “Oh, my unborn children.”
Next to Frentis and Master Rensial, Arendil and Illian were easily his best riders. He sent Arendil west and Illian east with instructions to scout the flanks and strict orders to return on seeing any sign of friend or foe. Lady Ulice had betrayed a clear unhappiness at sending Arendil out of her sight once again but confined her objections to a stern scowl. She had joined them as they were forming up, offering few words beyond a statement that she would be travelling with her son by order of the baron, though she did seem heartened by the presence of Davoka.
“I know I owe you his life,” she told the Lonak woman. “Whatever you require by way of thanks . . .”
“Arendil is Gorin to me,” Davoka told her shortly, adding when the lady frowned in incomprehension, “Clan.” Davoka held her arm out and swept it around their company, from Frentis to Thirty-Four and Draker still wincing with every jolt of his saddle. “My clan. Burnt Forest Clan.” She barked a laugh. “Now yours.”
“You could go home now,” Ulice told her. “The north is clear all the way to the mountains.”
Davoka’s expression darkened as if she had been insulted, but softened when she saw the woman’s honest curiosity. “Queen is not found,” Davoka said. “No home for me until she is.”
• • •
They entered the rougher hill country by late evening, Banders acceding to Sollis’s choice of campsite; the north-facing slope of a promontory offering clear views in all directions and shielded on the southern side by a deep ravine. Fires were permitted now, Banders knowing full well further attempts at concealing such a large force would be redundant this far into Asraelin territory.
Frentis’s company were given the eastern flank to guard and he posted pickets in a tight line, pairs of fighters standing three-hour shifts. Illian returned as he was touring the perimeter. “You stayed out too long,” he told her. “Arendil got in an hour ago. Be back before nightfall in future.”
“Sorry, brother,” she replied, avoiding his gaze and he realised her embarrassment from this morning still lingered.
“Anything to report?” he asked in a less severe tone.
“Not another soul for miles around,” she replied, brightening a little. “Except for a wolf ten miles back. I’ve never seen one so big, I must say. Nor so bold, just sat there looking at me for what seemed an age.”
Probably smelling the blood to come, Frentis thought. “Good. Get some rest, my lady.”
He completed his tour of the pickets, finding the remaining fighters in a resilient mood. Now the terrors of their flight from the forest were over they were as combative as ever, many voicing an eagerness to get to Varinshold.
“The scales haven’t shifted yet, brother,” former City Guard Corporal Vinten told him, the slightly wild gleam in his eye provoking memories of Janril Norin. “Far too much blood weighing on our side. We’ll balance them at Varinshold or die trying.”
He returned to the main camp, sharing a meal with those still awake. Thirty-Four had taken on much of the cooking duties these days, producing a tasty stew of freshly caught partridge and wild mushrooms that put Arendil’s amateur efforts to shame.
“They teached you cooking as well as torturin’, then?” Draker asked him between mouthfuls, the grease beading his beard as he chewed.
“My last master’s cook-slave fell ill during the voyage here,” Thirty-Four replied in his now eerily accentless Realm Tongue. “He was required to teach me his skills before he died. I have always been able to learn quickly.”
Lady Ulice accepted a bowl of stew from the former slave, her expression cautious. “Torturing?” she asked.
“I was a numbered slave,” Thirty-Four replied in his precise, uncoloured tones. “A specialist. Schooled in the arts of torture from childhood.” He continued to ladle out the stew as the lady stared at him, her gaze slowly tracking across the faces around the fire. Frentis knew she was seeing them truly for the first time, the brutality that had shaped them now plain in the hard set of Draker’s eyes, Illian’s frowning concentration as she tightened the string on her crossbow, and the preoccupied cast in Arendil’s eyes as he stared into the fire, spooning stew into his mouth with automatic and unconscious regularity.
“It was a hard road, my lady,” Frentis told her. “Hard choices had to be made.”
She looked at her son, reaching over to smooth the hair back from his forehead, drawing a tired smile. “I’m not a lady,” she said. “If we are to be clan-mates, you should know that. I am the unacknowledged bastard daughter to Baron Banders, nothing more. My name is just Ulice.”
“No,” Arendil stated, casting a hard glare around the fire. “My mother’s name is Lady Ulice, and any calling her by a different name will answer to me.”
“Quite so, my lord,” Frentis told him. “Quite so.”
• • •
He busied himself with cleaning his weapons, long after the others had taken to their tents, the familiar drone of Draker’s snores drifting across the camp. When his sword and knife were gleaming, he cleaned his boots, then his saddle, then unstrung his bow and checked the stave for cracks. After that he sat and sharpened every arrowhead in his quiver. I do not need to sleep, he told himself continually though his hands were beginning to tingle with exhaustion and his head constantly slumped unbidden to his chest.
Just dreams. He tried to force conviction into the thought, casting a reluctant gaze at his tent. Just the stain of her company, the stink of her in my mind. Just dreams. She does not see me. He finally surrendered when his fatigued hands left him with a bleeding thumb, returning the arrows to his quiver and walking to the tent on weak legs. Just dreams.
• • •
She stands atop a tall tower, Volar spread out beneath her in all its ancient glory, street after street of tenements, marble mansions, gardens of wondrous construction and myriad towers rising from every quarter, though none so tall as this one: the Council Tower.
She raises her gaze to the sky seeking a target. The day is clear, the sky mostly unbroken blue, but she spies a small cloud some miles above, thin and wispy but sufficient for her purposes. She searches inside herself for the gift, finding she has to suppress her song to call it forth, but when it does the power of it staggers her, making her reach for the parapet as she sways. She feels a familiar trickle from her nose and understands the price for this one will be harder to bear even than the wonderful fire she stole from Revek, his words returning now with precise irony: Always the way with stolen gifts, don’t you find?
What did he know? she thinks, though the scorn is forced and hollow. He knew enough not to be blinded by love.
She forces unwelcome thoughts from her head and focuses on the cloud, the gift surging, more blood flowing from her nose as she releases it, the small cloud swirling into a tight vortex before flying apart, tendrils fading in the clear blue sky.
She turns to see a tall man in a red robe emerge from the stairway onto the tower roof. Two Kuritai follow him into the light, hands resting on their swords. She has yet to test the skill offered by this new shell and has to resist the urge to do so now. Hide an advantage and you double its value. One of her father’s axioms, though she suspects he may have stolen it from a long dead philosopher.
“Arklev,” she greets the tall man as he moves to her side. She can see a change in him, a new weariness around his eyes, an expression she knows well. He grieves.
“The Messenger did not linger,” he tells her. “Save to say that the Ally’s guidance will now be spoken only by you.”
The Ally’s guidance . . . As if he could comprehend the true meaning of those words, what it means to a soul in the Void to hear the Ally’s voice. She almost laughs at the ignorance of this ancient little man. Centuries of life and still he knows nothing.
He is staring at her in expectation, a faint concern on his brow, and she realises it has been several moments since he spoke. How long had she been standing here? How long since she climbed the tower?
She breathes deeply and allows the confusion to fade. “You’re grieving,” she tells him. “Who did you lose?”
He draws back a little, concern deepening into fear, no doubt wondering how much she already knew. She was learning the appearance of omniscience could offer as much power as omniscience itself.
“My son,” Arklev says. “His vessel never reached Varinshold. The scryers can no longer find a trace of him in times to come.”
She nods and waits for him to say more but the Council-man fixes a mask on his face and stays silent. “The Ally wishes you to elevate me to Council,” she tells him. “The Slaver’s Seat.”
“That is Council-man Lorvek’s seat,” he protests. “One he has discharged with care and diligence for near a century.”
“Lining his pockets and failing to breed enough Gifted in the process. The Ally feels his guidance has not been fully appreciated. And with our new assets coming to maturity, he feels I would offer a more trustworthy overseer for this very particular enterprise. If Lorvek won’t step down, I’m sure ample evidence of corruption will be found to justify a charge of treason. Unless you prefer a quieter method.”
He says more but she doesn’t hear him, feeling time slip away once more. How long has she stood here? When the confusion fades she is alone again and the sky is a darker shade of blue. She turns her sight to the west, tracking the broad estuary to the coast and the ocean beyond. Please hurry to me, beloved. I am so very lonely.
She had seen enough corpses to know the dead rarely retained expression. The rictus smiles and fear-filled grimaces merely the tightening of sinew and muscle as the body’s humours drained away. So it was a surprise to find the priest’s face such a picture of serenity; but for the deep narrow cut in his throat he could easily have been mistaken for a slumbering man, his features betraying a soul content with the world.
Content, she thought, moving back from the corpse to rest on her haunches. How fitting he should only find peace in death.
“This is him?” Vaelin asked.
She nodded and rose as Alornis came to her side, touching her hand in reassurance. Vaelin held up his sister’s sketch, eyes switching from the priest’s face to the rendering on the parchment. “What a talent you have,” he told her with a smile before turning to the hulking man standing near the tent wall. “And you, Master Marken. Quite the eye for detail.”
Marken’s beard constricted with a brief smile and Reva noted how tightly his hands were gripped together, and his staunch refusal even to look at the second corpse. It lay alongside the priest, the features more typical of Reva’s experience, the skin a pale blue, the lips drawn back and the tongue protruding from the bared teeth, part severed by his death rattle. However, as with the priest his features were sufficiently recognisable to match Alornis’s sketch.
“Uncle Sentes said his name was Lord Brahdor,” she told Vaelin. “Lady Veliss tells me he owned land a little east of here, good vines. More renowned for white than red.”
“That’s all?” Vaelin asked. “No suspicions? Tall tales of strange powers or unexplained events?”
“That’s all. Just a minor noble with a few hundred acres of grapes . . . and a barn.”
Vaelin looked expectantly at Marken. The big man gritted his teeth for a moment then pointed a thick finger at Lord Brahdor’s corpse, still refusing to look at it. “This one I’ll not touch, my lord. I can feel it, seeping out of him like poison. Forgive my cowardice. But . . .” He shook his shaggy head. “I can’t. I . . .”
“It’s all right, Marken,” Vaelin assured him, nodding at the priest. “And him?”
Marken huffed a relieved sigh and turned to crouch beside the priest, rolling up his sleeve and placing a meaty hand on the corpse’s forehead. After a moment he winced as if in pain, his mouth twisting in disgust as it seemed he was about to draw his hand away, but she saw him stiffen his resolve, closing his eyes and maintaining a statuelike stillness for several minutes. Eventually he exhaled a long slow breath, sweat shining through the mass of hair that hung over his heavy brow. He rose, his gaze resting on Reva, warm with sympathy and sorrow. “My lady . . .” he began.
“I know,” she told him. “I was there. Master Marken, please tell Lord Al Sorna all you saw.”
“His early years are confused,” Marken said to Vaelin. “It appears he was raised in the Church of the World Father. There are no images of his parents so I judge him an orphan, apprenticed to a priest, a common fate for Cumbraelin orphans I believe. The priest who raised him was kind, a former soldier in the Lord’s guard, called to the church in later life, keen for his charges to acquire both his martial abilities and the fierceness of his devotion. The boy spent long years steeped both in study of the Ten Books and training for war. In manhood he endured long years of shame when he looked at women. The younger the woman, the greater the shame, and the more he looked. I sensed a compulsion to hide in the Ten Books, to find refuge from his desires in the church’s teachings.
“Alltor and the cathedral loom large in his memory and I believe he was sent there in preparation for priesthood. I saw him meet the Reader and receive his priestly name. They never met in public and I sensed the priest had been chosen for a secret role. I saw a journey away from Alltor halting when he finds a man with a scar, here.” Marken paused to touch his cheek. “The man is speaking before a large crowd and the young priest burns with new passion on hearing his voice. He returns to the Reader and is sent forth again. Then there are many months of meetings in dark rooms and secluded hollows, men clustering together and fearful of discovery as they pass letters and gather weapons in hidden caches. He never sees the scarred man again but the memory comes to him often. Then at another hidden meeting he finds this thing.” Marken nodded at the second body, grimacing as his gaze touched Brahdor’s dead face. “It talks, the words are lost to me as you know, my lord. But they make his passion burn even brighter. The thing leads him to a farmhouse at night, inside an old couple sit before a fire fussing over a little girl.” He looked again at Reva and swallows. “The priest’s shame is deeper than ever when he looks at her.”
“They killed my grandparents, didn’t they?” Reva asked. “They killed them and they stole me.”
He nodded. “They waited until you had been put to bed. The old couple were killed, the girl stolen from her bed, the farmhouse burned.”
“And then many happy years in a barn,” Reva muttered as Marken fumbled for the right words to say.
“Any names?” Vaelin asked the Gifted.
“A few, my lord. The priest would write them down to memorise. He would burn the paper but the memories remain.”
“Make a list and give it to Lady Reva.”
She moved back to the priest’s corpse, feeling a great temptation to smash her boot into his contented face, spoil his slumber forever. “Reva,” Alornis said, tugging at her sleeve. “There’s nothing more to learn here.”
“I . . .” Marken stammered. “I do have his name, my lady. The Reader wrote it down when he gave it to him.”
“No,” she said, turning to walk to the tent flap. “Burn it if you’re done,” she told Vaelin. “No words are to be spoken for him.”
“My lord,” Marken continued as they made to the leave. “If I may. About Brother Caenis . . .”
“I’m aware of the matter, Master Marken,” Vaelin told him.
“We didn’t follow you here to become servants of the Faith . . .”
“We’ll discuss it tonight,” Vaelin told him in a level voice. “With Lord Nortah. Your concerns are fully noted.”
They walked in silence back to the causeway, Reva preoccupied with the Gifted’s tale, Vaelin no doubt pondering Brother Caenis’s revelation to the queen. Alornis followed at a discreet distance, eyes scanning the city walls and her ever-present leather-bound bundle of sketches clutched to her chest, already filling up with renderings of the destruction behind the walls. She had cried the day she found Reva standing amidst the corpse-littered streets. Upon seeing her, Alornis had thrown her arms around Reva, convulsing with relief, provoking an old ache that Reva found didn’t pain her in quite the same way.
“The Seventh Order,” she said to Vaelin as they halted before the causeway. “Not a legend after all. But, I suppose you’ve known that a while.”
“Yes.” His face was sombre, not quite so fatigued as it had been recently, but still he seemed to have aged much in a few days. “Though there was something I should have known, but didn’t.”
He nodded and changed the subject. “What will you do with the names Marken gives you?”
“Hunt them down and subject them to trial. If they are proved to be Sons, I’ll hang them.”
“My Lady Governess favours harsh justice.”
“They plotted the death of my uncle, with the full contrivance of the church that has compelled the people of this fief to servile respect for centuries. They conspired with foul creatures of the Dark to subject me to a lifetime of abuse before sending me after you in the hope I would die. And let’s not forget their attempt to kill our queen. Must I go on?”
He studied her face for a moment and she felt the harshness of her expression soften under the scrutiny. “I’m sorry for everything that happened to you here, Reva. If I had had any inkling . . .”
“I know.” She forced a smile. “Join us tonight. Veliss found a new cook, though we can offer only two courses, and no wine.”
“I can’t. There is much to do.” He glanced back at the camp where soldiers were busy packing gear and supplies in preparation for tomorrow’s march and the commencement of what was fast becoming known as the Queen’s Crusade.
“She wanted me to ask,” he said, turning back, “how many men you will send with us.”
“I’ll not be sending any. I’ll be leading them, the full House Guard plus five hundred archers.”
“Reva, you have done enough . . .”
Arken’s slack, lifeless face, the sword in his back . . . The archers flailing in the river as the arrows lashed down . . . Uncle Sentes dying on the cathedral steps . . . “No,” she said. “No I haven’t.”
• • •
Veliss came to her somewhere past midnight. They had reverted to keeping separate rooms in the aftermath of the siege, more at the Lady Counsellor’s insistence than hers. Their numerous indiscretions might have been overlooked in the storm of daily battle, but the city had begun to resume a strange normality now the corpses and the worst of the rubble had been cleared away, and the cathedral reopened.
“Are you sure you want to meet them alone?” Veliss asked. They lay side by side, covered in a faint sheen of sweat, Reva enjoying the feel of the Lady Counsellor’s unbound hair clinging to her skin.
“They need to know I speak with my own mind,” she replied. “Given what I have to tell them.”
“They won’t like it . . .”
“I should hope so.” She pulled Veliss closer, pressing a kiss to her lips to forestall further discussion.
“Lady Alornis,” Veliss said, a while later. “You care for her.”
“She is a friend to me, like her brother.”
“No more than that?”
“Jealous, Honoured Counsellor?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to see me jealous.” She raised herself up, hugging her knees. “I was always going to leave, you know. When the war was done, if your uncle had lived. Take the gold he offered and go. Never cared about all the names they called me, or the Reader’s sneering condescension. But I was getting tired of it all, the lies and the intrigue. Even for a former spy, it can grow wearisome.”
Reva reached out to stroke her naked back. “And now?”
“Now I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” Reva felt her tense in anticipation of her next words. “The Queen’s Crusade . . .”
“Is my crusade. And not a topic for discussion.”
“Do you think she would be so welcoming if she knew your true nature? If she knew about us?”
“Unless it proved an impediment to liberating this Realm, I doubt she would care one whit.” She recalled her first meeting with the queen, the fierce intelligence shining through the seared mask of her face, and the implacable determination, the singularity of purpose Reva recognised from infrequent youthful glances at her own reflection. But I was sent in search of a myth, she thought. Her quarry is all too real, and I doubt she’ll be satisfied with however many we find at Varinshold. “In truth,” she confessed to Veliss, “that woman scares me more than the Volarians ever did.”
“Then why follow her?”
“Because he does. He tells me this is necessary. I once failed to heed his words, I’ll not make the same mistake again.”
“He’s just a man,” Veliss murmured, although Reva could hear the uncertainty in her voice. The tale was on every set of lips, Cumbraelins as enraptured by it as all the others, flying far and wide with every telling. One man, cutting his way through an army to save a city, and living to tell the tale.
Living? Reva remembered how his features had sagged that day, her tears and the pounding rain washing the blood away as she screamed at him to stay with her. But he hadn’t, she had seen it plainly. For those few seconds, he had not been in his body.
“I’ll need you to take care of things while I’m gone,” she said. “Rebuild as best you can. I’ll leave Lord Arentes here as surety of my word, though no doubt he’ll hate me for it. How about a new title? Vice-Governess, maybe? I’m sure you can come up with something better.”
Veliss hugged her legs tighter. “I don’t want titles, I just want you.”
• • •
Lords Arentes and Antesh preceded her into the cathedral, striding through the cavernous interior towards the Reader’s chambers as she followed with twenty of the House Guard at her back. The two priests standing guard at the chamber door were subdued without particular difficulty, Lord Arentes thrusting the doors open and standing aside to allow her entry. Reva paused at the sight of the priest held to the wall by Lord Antesh, a sallow-faced man with a heavily bandaged hand and misshapen nose.
“I never learned your name,” she said.
The priest scowled and said nothing until Antesh gave him a none-too-gentle shake. “My name is for the Father alone.”
“And I believe he wants you to share it.” She beckoned two guards forward. “Take this one to Lady Veliss. Tell her I think he would benefit from some herbal medicine.”
She turned back to the open door as they hustled the priest away, entering at a sedate pace and offering a brisk greeting to the seven old men she found seated at a circular table. “Good bishops!” There were supposed to be ten but three had perished in the siege, not, she suspected, by virtue of any courageous act.
One of the bishops struggled to his feet as she walked to the only empty chair at the table, a wizened and bird-like man she recalled had objected when she gave the cathedral over to the care of the wounded. “This is the holy conclave of the ten bishops,” he sputtered. “You are not permitted . . .”
He fell silent as Lord Arentes brought a gauntleted fist down hard on the table. “The correct form of address for the Lady Governess,” he told the quailing cleric, “is ‘my lady.’ And no door in this city is barred to her.”
Reva paused at the empty chair, naturally the most ornate in the room with an ample cushion for the old bastard’s bony behind. She sighed and pushed it out of her way. Can’t kill him twice, more’s the pity.
“Now, now, my Lord Commander,” she told Arentes. “We should respect the good bishops’ privacy. Leave us, for we have much to discuss.”
They sat in dumb silence as the doors closed with an echoing boom. She waited for it to fade before speaking, all vestige of respect stripped from her tone. “So, have you chosen?”
Only one spoke up, a slight man with a prominent nose, a little younger than his colleagues. “We had not yet counted the ballots, my lady.” He indicated a plain wooden box in the centre of the table.
“Then do so now.”
Reva studied him closely as he reached for the box, finding she remembered his face from the day the Reader died, one who smiled when she charged the old man. A possible ally? She steeled her thoughts against the suggestion; Marken’s revelations left no room for accommodation. I have no friends in this room.
“The Bishop of the Southern Parish,” the thin bishop reported after counting the ballots. “By unanimous assent.”
Reva scanned the faces around the table, finding six scared old men and one sleeping ancient who hadn’t raised his head since her entry. “Who is?” she enquired.
The thin bishop cleared his throat in discomfort. “I am, my lady.”
She gave a short laugh and turned her back on him, her gaze drawn to a candlelit alcove at the rear of the chamber where ten large tomes sat on lecterns. The books were ancient, the bindings flaking and cracked with age. The first to be bound in the land of Cumbrael, she knew, finding it odd that she felt no upswelling of awe at the sight. Just a collection of old books in a room of old men.
“I have in my possession,” she said, turning back to the table, “what I believe to be a complete list of adherents to the heretical sect known as the Sons of the Trueblade. In due course each and every name on this list will be captured and put to the question. I am sure you will join me in rejoicing at this news, given the wealth of intelligence they are sure to provide.”
She scanned each face in turn, finding confusion on most, but fear on others. They knew, she realised. Not all, but some. She saw how the Bishop of the Southern Parish avoided her gaze, a few beads of sweat forming on his wrinkled brow. Him in particular. She was right; there were no allies here.
She walked slowly around the table, watching each stooped back flinch as she passed by. She wore no weapons today, having returned her grandfather’s sword to its place in the library, but had little doubt she could snap every neck in this room should she choose. She halted behind the chair occupied by the Reader-elect and pointed at the ballots neatly piled at his side. “Give me those.” His spotted, bony hands trembled as he complied, dropping the ballots and scrambling to retrieve them before managing to fumble them into her palm.
“‘Deception is both sin and blessing,’” she quoted as she took the ballots from him, the Fifth Book, the Book of Reason, fast becoming her favourite. She turned and walked slowly back to the alcove, ballots in hand. “‘The paths set for us by the Father are many and their course is ever winding. At every turn the Loved find themselves presented with a plethora of choices as their paths fork, split by war or famine, love and betrayal. To walk the varied paths of life without deception is impossible.’” She stopped before the alcove, holding the ballots to one of the candles, letting the flame consume half their length before tossing them onto the stone floor where they continued to burn, soon no more than a swirl of black cinders.
“‘But,’” she told the bishops with a smile, now staring in outrage or horror, “‘the Father forgives the lie spoken in kindness, or service to a greater purpose.’”
She stood, the smile fading from her lips, waiting for a single voice to be raised in dissent. But they all just sat and stared, stoking her anger with their dumb inaction. This venal church collaborated with murderers, she knew. Allied themselves with the servants of an enemy that brought slaughter and slavery to this land. The people of this city would hang you all from the towers of this cathedral if I wished it. I won their love, whilst you cowered here and prayed for miracles that never came. With sword and bow I won their love.
One word to Arentes and it would be done, the bishops dragged outside, charges read as the people looked on and she fired their rage with a few well-chosen truths. They were all killers now, save the children and even they were hardened to the sight of death. There would be no protest, no hand raised to stop her, and she would have what the priest once made her lust for, a new church to be moulded into her father’s vision.
My mad father’s vision. The thought dispelled her anger, replacing it with a weary realisation. They had lost so much, but the church had endured for centuries and this land would not heal if she ripped open yet more wounds.
The sleeping ancient stirred, snuffling awake with a bleary-eyed glance around the room. “Lunch!” he demanded, thumping his walking stick on the table.
Reva moved to the ancient, smiling down at his reproving scowl. “And who might you be, good bishop?”
“I,” he began, drawing himself up, “am the Holy Bishop of . . .” He frowned in confusion, his shoulders slumping a little, licking his lips. “The Bishop of . . .”
“The Riverland Parish,” the bishop at his side supplied in a tense whisper.
“Yes!” The ancient bishop brightened, fixing Reva with an imperious glare. “I am the Bishop of the Riverland Parish and I demand my lunch.”
“You shall have it,” Reva assured him with a bow. “And more besides.” She moved to the door, pausing to cast an expansive gesture at the other bishops. “For your colleagues have voted you Holy Reader to the Church of the World Father. Please accept my heartfelt congratulations, Reader, and be assured of House Mustor’s most pious loyalty. I await your first sermon with the keenest interest.”
• • •
The sword room was mostly bare now, the once-full racks empty of blades save a few too highly set on the wall to be easily reached. She spent an hour in practice with her grandfather’s sword, dancing her dance with the heavy blade whirling and slicing, her muscles straining.
“I could watch you do that for hours.”
Reva stopped in mid-pirouette, finding Alornis standing in the doorway, charcoal-stained fingers still clutching her leather case. “I doubt you’d have liked the view a few days ago,” Reva said, massaging her back.
Alornis’s gaze became sombre. “It was bad, I know. So much of the city destroyed. On the march here I saw things . . . Things I felt I had to draw.” She tapped her case. “I thought putting them on paper might get them out of my head. But still they linger.”
The severed heads raining down . . . The Volarian’s defiant glare as he was led to the block . . . “They should,” Reva told her. “Will you be coming to Varinshold? There are rooms aplenty here if you wish to stay. And I’m sure Lady Veliss would like the company.”
Alornis smiled but shook her head. “Alucius and Master Benril. I have to find them.” She hesitated then came into the room, eyes widening in appreciation at the paintings on the upper walls, the swordsmen in their various poses. “This was done by a skilled hand.”
“At the cost of my great-grandfather’s coin, no doubt. He seems to have been a little too free with it, according to Veliss’s records. Perhaps why he lost so many wars to the Asraelins. I find governing a fief to be mostly a matter of coin.”
Alornis’s brow creased as she looked at Reva, shaking her head in faint wonder. “So changed in such a short time.”
Reva found her scrutiny hard to bear and turned away, hefting the sword. “You,” she told it, “are just too heavy.”
“What happened to your old one?” Alornis asked. “That was a thing of beauty.”
Standing over Arken’s body, her arm moving in a ceaseless, deadly arc, the rage spilling from her lips in a meaningless torrent . . . “I broke it.” She raised her gaze to the few remaining blades on the higher racks, picking out an Asraelin sword somehow missed by the servants sent to ransack the place for arms. “You can help me find another.”
She cupped her hands to create a stirrup and Alornis placed a foot in it, reaching up as Reva hoisted her, snatching the sword from the rack before slipping from her grip and falling. Reva caught her, holding her tight as she laughed, drawing back to meet her gaze.
“My brother says Lady Veliss was once a spy in King Janus’s service,” Alornis told her.
“I know. She has been many things.”
“Well, I think she’s lovely.” She stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to Reva’s forehead. “I’m happy for you.”
She turned, retrieved her case of sketches and left. Reva closed her eyes, feeling the warmth of the kiss fade from her skin. Her gaze was always far too keen. Foolish to imagine she wouldn’t know.
She hefted the sword, drawing the blade free of the scabbard, finding it old but not rusted, the edge notched but not so bad it couldn’t be sharpened keen. “So,” she said, putting the scabbard aside and assuming a fighting stance. “Let’s see if you’re a better fit. We have much work to do.”
The horse was a gift from the Eorhil, fourteen hands at the shoulder and white from nose to tail save for a tuft of black hair between her ears. Lyrna had found the Eorhil woman they called Wisdom waiting with the horse when she emerged from her tent that morning. She proffered the reins with a surprisingly well-executed formal bow.
“She has a name?” Lyrna asked her.
“It translates as ‘An Unseen Arrow as She Runs through Snow and Wind,’ Highness,” Wisdom replied in her perfect Realm Tongue. “My people are not known for their brevity.”
“Arrow it is,” Lyrna said, scratching the mare’s nose and drawing forth a faint snort.
“She misses her rider,” Wisdom said. “He fell before the city. I feel you may be able to mend her heart.”
“My thanks.” Lyrna returned her bow. “Will you ride with me today? I greatly wish to know more of your people.”
There was a somewhat sardonic lilt to the woman’s voice as she replied, “Have you not already read every book in your library concerning the Eorhil, Highness?”
“I am increasingly aware that the sagacity of books is limited in comparison to experience.”
“As you wish.” Wisdom turned and vaulted onto the back of her own horse, looking down at Lyrna in expectation. “My people ride now.”
Iltis and Benten were obliged to scramble onto their own horses as Lyrna mounted up and trotted off with Wisdom. They rode to the eastern edge of the camp where the Eorhil host was already in motion, the various war bands galloping off seemingly at random. No neatly ordered ranks and columns here, although every rider seemed to move with a purpose and she noticed how the host took on a definite if loose formation as they crested the eastern hills and entered the low-lying fields beyond.
“Good country for horses,” Lyrna commented to Wisdom an hour or so shy of midday. The ride had been hard but not exhausting, her journey through the Lonak Dominion having left her well adapted to long hours in the saddle. Plus she found her new mount something of a delight, faster than poor old Sable and less fractious than Surefoot.
“Still too many hills for my people’s liking,” Wisdom replied, taking a long pull from her waterskin. “And not an elk to be had since we came here. Some of the young ones are chafing at it, for true adulthood only comes when you take your first elk.”
Lyrna looked at the riders around them, noting how their eyes strayed constantly to her face but displayed none of the awe shown by the Realm folk. If anything she detected a discomfort in finding themselves in such proximity.
“You call it the Dark,” Wisdom said, somehow sensing the question she was about to ask. “We call it simply Exilla, ‘power’ in your tongue.”
“Not one I possess,” Lyrna pointed out.
“It doesn’t matter. We know of it but few of us are visited with such gifts.”
“Those that are find themselves shunned, I assume.”
Wisdom voiced a faint laugh. “Do not judge us by the standards of your people, Highness. Those with gifts are not shunned, but they are respected. The greater the power, the greater the respect, and respect can grow into fear if the power is great enough. As yet, there is not a story or a song in our history that tells of a power greater than that used to heal you. They worry what it might mean.”
Wisdom’s age-cracked lips formed into a smile, small but rich in sympathy. “No, great and terrible queen, I know full well what it means.”
Sanesh Poltar came trotting up on his tall piebald stallion, offering Lyrna a cautious nod. “Scouts say many men to the south,” the war chief told Wisdom. “The queen stays here while we go look.”
“I think not,” Lyrna said, fixing the Eorhil with a bright smile.
“Tower Lord says to keep you safe above all others,” Sanesh Poltar replied. “And we are bound to him, not you.”
“And I am bound to neither.” She tugged on Arrow’s reins, pointing her nose southward and kicking her into a gallop.
• • •
The Eorhil soon overtook her, of course, though she was gratified by the hard glare Sanesh Poltar shot at her as he galloped past. Iltis and Benten closed in on either side as they trailed in the riders’ wake, Lyrna finding herself blinking away dust as the sun rose to dry the earth. They crested a low rise a half hour later, reining to a halt beside the war chief as he surveyed the shallow vale beyond. To the east and west his outriders galloped forth in a perfectly coordinated envelopment whilst the bulk of his riders stayed put on the low ridge. She noted most had notched an arrow to their horn bows.
Sanesh Poltar sat in silence, scanning the vale with a hawkish intent. Lyrna followed his gaze, seeing nothing beyond empty country. “How many men were seen?” she asked the war chief.
“Less than were at the city,” he replied without turning. “More than we have.”
Another Volarian force sent by Tokrev to raid the south? she wondered. Master Marken had searched through the dead general’s mind revealing what he described as a swamp of vain ambition and petty jealousy but no inkling of another large force nearby. Could they have landed early? she wondered. Tokrev sending for the second wave to speed the conquest.
Sanesh Poltar straightened in his saddle and pointed. It was another few seconds before Lyrna saw them, a small band of cavalry galloping into the vale then drawing up short at the sight of so many horsemen on the skyline ahead. They fanned out, still too distant to make out any details, one of their number galloping off to disappear over the lip of the valley. Next to Lyrna, Wisdom unhooked her bow from the saddle and notched an arrow. Old as she is, Lyrna thought, and she’s still expected to fight.
The horsemen in the valley sat waiting for several minutes, Lyrna thinking it odd that none had yet drawn a sword. Sanesh Poltar’s gaze shifted once more as a tall banner appeared over the rim of the valley, bobbing at the head of a column of infantry led by a man on horseback. They marched into the valley in close ranks, making no move to assume battle formation, Lyrna realising why as the motif on the banner became clear: a tower rising from a wave-tossed ocean.
She laughed and kicked Arrow forward, ignoring Iltis’s appalled protest as he galloped along behind. The marching column came to a halt as she approached, sergeants barking commands unheeded by men who stared at her in open wonder. She made for the rider at the head of the column, raising a hand and smiling warmly. He climbed down from his saddle, not without some difficulty, and slowly lowered himself to one knee.
“What a welcome sight you make, my lord!” Lyrna told him.
Tower Lord Al Bera looked up at her with a pale but intent expression, raising himself with effort as she leapt down from her saddle, coming to him with hands outstretched. “Highness,” he said, his voice hoarse and back stiff as he lowered his lips to her hands, eyes hardly leaving her face as he straightened. “We heard so many terrible stories. I’m greatly pleased to find one at least to be false.” He turned, raising an arm towards the men at his back as more came marching into sight. “I present the Army of the Southern Shore. Twenty thousand horse and foot ready to march and die at the Queen’s Word.”
• • •
“They sent about five thousand men into the southern counties,” the Tower Lord reported to the council of captains that evening. Lyrna had been obliged to order him to sit as the man’s exhaustion and evident pain threatened to tip him over at any moment. He sat on a camp-stool, both arms cradled in his lap, the left heavily bandaged and the right hanging loose from a drooping shoulder. Lyrna had offered to take him to Weaver but the Tower Lord’s shocked expression was enough for her to let the matter drop.
“The slave soldiers mostly,” Al Bera went on. Lyrna knew this to be a man promoted through merit rather than blood and his voice held the broad vowels singular to the common folk of southern Asrael. “Plus about a thousand cavalry. And slavers, of course. Laid waste to several villages before word reached the Tower. I marched out with the South Guard and what men I could levy from the coast, caught them as they were finishing up a slaughter at Draver’s Wharf on the lower reaches of the Cold Iron. Had a sense they were expecting a less speedy response. Unsurprising, since I should be dead by rights.” Al Bera paused to give a wan smile. “Made ’em pay for it. The numbers were about even so it was a bloody business, but we made ’em pay.”
“Prisoners?” Vaelin asked.
“The slave soldiers don’t surrender, but we took a few cavalry and slavers. I gave them to the people we freed. Probably should’ve just hung them, but blood pays for blood.”
“Quite so, my lord,” Lyrna told him. “Please continue.”
“Been gathering men and training ’em best I could since then. Word came two weeks ago telling of the Meldenean fleet sailing up the Cold Iron so I judged it time to move north.”
“You judged correctly,” Lyrna said. “However, you find us short of supplies.”
“Supplies I’ve got, Highness. My lady wife has family connections on both sides of the Erinean. Seems some Alpiran merchants were willing to trade with us. The terms were hardly favourable and the South Tower treasury stands just about empty, but since the Emperor lifted the embargo I s’pose they couldn’t pass up a chance at profit.”
Lyrna saw Lord Verniers raise his head at that. He was a deliberately obscure presence in the army, keen to avoid conversation with any save herself and Vaelin, though she made it plain he was welcome at all meetings and free to record all words spoken. The Shield had made something of a fuss of him in the aftermath of the battle, proclaiming him “The scribe who killed a general!” with a hearty laugh echoed by his crew. Verniers, however, seemed to shun any rewards his heroism might offer, though he had persisted in requests for a private interview.
“Your Emperor seems better disposed to our Realm, my lord,” she told him.
The chronicler squirmed a little as the captains turned to regard him, voicing only a short response. “So it seems, Highness.”
“Do you think he knows of the Volarians’ great scheme? Could that be the reason for this change of heart?”
“The Emperor’s mind is never easily gauged, Highness. But anything that might injure the Volarian Empire is likely to please him greatly. They have been our enemy far longer than yours.”
“We should send an ambassador,” Vaelin said. “Forge an alliance, if possible.”
“All in good time, my lord,” Lyrna said, turning again to Al Bera. “I’ll pen a letter for Lady Al Bera giving assurance that any debts incurred in purchasing more supplies will be settled in full at the close of hostilities, she is free to agree suitable terms of interest with any and all merchants. In the meantime, half her available supplies will be shipped to Alltor to succour the Cumbraelin people through the winter. The other half will come to us”—her finger traced across the map to a town on the Renfaelin coast—“at Warnsclave, where we rendezvous with our Meldenean allies in fifteen days. As for now, my lord, please get some rest.”
• • •
She spent the journey to Warnsclave travelling with a different contingent each day. One with Lady Reva’s Cumbraelins, the next with a regiment of miners from the Reaches, the third with the South Guard. Every face displayed either awe, fascination or, in the case of Lord Nortah’s Free Company, a fierce and unhesitant loyalty.
“The Departed have blessed you, my Queen!” one man called out to her as she drew up alongside Lord Nortah, the shout soon taken up by his fellow fighters.
“Silence in the ranks!” the company sergeant barked, an athletic young man with long hair and a sword strapped across his back in the manner of the Sixth Order.
“Apologies, Highness,” Lord Nortah offered as they set off. “They’re not easy to control at the best of times. And it’s not like I can flog any.”
“No, my lord,” Lyrna replied. “You certainly cannot.” She found it strange that they rode in silence for much of the morning; the boy she remembered as the son of her father’s First Minister had rarely been quiet, a braggart and sometimes a bully, quick to taunt and even quicker to cry when his taunts were returned. She saw none of that boy in the bearded warrior at her side, a small smile playing on his lips as he watched his great cat bounding alongside.
“I intended to offer you restoration of your father’s lands and titles,” she told him when the silence became trying. “However, Lord Vaelin advised you had no interest in such honours.”
“Never did my father much good, did they, Highness?” he replied, affably enough but with a slight edge to his tone.
“I was not privy to the King’s decision in that matter,” she said. “I believe it to have been . . . regrettable.”
“I harbour no bitterness, Highness. Time has dimmed my memory of a man I recall I loved almost as much as I hated. In any case, without his death I would not have been set on the course that led me to my wife, my children and the home I hunger for. And the Faith teaches us to accept the gifts brought by fate.”
“You still hold to the Faith?”
“I left the Order, Highness, not the Faith. My brother may have lost his in the desert somewhere but mine still lingers on. Though my wife longs for me to abandon it in favour of the sun and the moon.” He gave a soft laugh and she could hear his homesickness in it. “The only thing we ever quarrel about, in truth.”
They rested at midday, Lyrna climbing down from Arrow’s back and drawing up in alarm as a woman rushed from the ranks of the Free Company with a dagger in both hands. Iltis’s sword came free of its scabbard in a blur but, rather than launching herself at Lyrna, the woman sank to her knees, head bowed with her twin daggers raised high.
“My Queen!” she said in a tremulous gasp. “I beg you to bless these blades so they might do your work.”
The rest of the freed fighters immediately dropped to their knees, all drawing weapons and holding them aloft. This was clearly a ceremony planned on the march, one she judged Lord Nortah knew nothing of from his weary and slightly disgusted expression.
Never be afraid of a little theatre. Lyrna took a breath and placed a kindly smile on her lips as she moved to the kneeling woman, recognising her as the slight figure who had been first to take up the cry at Alltor. “What is your name?” she asked her.
“F-Furelah, my Queen,” the woman stammered, not looking up.
Lyrna gently took hold of the woman’s trembling hands. “Lower your blades, sister,” she told her. “Stand up, look at me.”
Furelah slowly looked up, eyes wide as they drank in the sight of her face, coming to her feet as Lyrna kept hold of her hands. “Who did you lose?” she asked her.
“M-my daughter,” the slight woman breathed, tears flowing from her eyes. “Born out of wedlock, shunned and called a bastard her whole life, but always so sweet. They d-dashed her brains out with a rock.” She sagged as the sobs took her, sinking to her knees. Lyrna pulled her close as she wept, her daggers still gripped tight.
“I cannot bless this woman’s blades,” she told the fighters, many now weeping openly. “For she blesses me. You all do. I am your blade, and you are mine.” She raised the still-sobbing Furelah to her feet, leading her back to the company’s ranks. “Accordingly I hereby name you as the Realm Guard’s Sixtieth Regiment of Foot, to be known hereafter as the Queen’s Daggers.” They parted before her as she released Furelah, the woman instantly falling to her knees once more, her comrades all reaching out to touch tentative hands to Lyrna’s gown as she moved among them, fierce devotion on every face. I cannot become drunk on this, she thought, smiling and touching her hands to heads lowered in supplication. The lure of it is too great.
“Toil, blood and justice!” the cry began unbidden, a spontaneous shout from a faceless voice in the kneeling ranks, repeated over and over as they stabbed the air with their assorted weapons. “Toil! Blood! And justice!”
Lyrna felt the seduction of it sweep through her, the power of it, the knowledge that these few hundred wounded souls would die for her in an instant. She was on the verge of surrendering to it completely when something gave her pause, a single face not stricken in adoration. Lord Nortah stood beside his horse, running a hand over the head of the great cat crouched at his side, his faint look of disgust now replaced with one of deep and obvious disapproval.
• • •
She met with Brother Caenis in the evening, alone since Vaelin seemed keen to avoid his former brother, an attitude shared by many in the army’s ranks. Even Orena, who struck Lyrna as a woman of great practicality, had begged leave for an early night rather than remain to greet the brother’s arrival. Fear of the Dark does not fade in an instant, Lyrna concluded.
The newly revealed brother of the Seventh Order sat at stiff attention on a camp-stool, refusing the offer of refreshment with a polite shake of his head. For all his evident hardiness and renown as a warrior there was a definite timidity to this compact, war-hardened man, a shift in his eyes as if wary of attack at any moment. So long living in the shadows, she thought. The light of day can be as frightening as the Dark.
“My brothers and sisters ask me to offer thanks, Highness,” he said. “For your consideration.”
“A queen has care for all her subjects, my lord.”
“If it please you, Highness. My preference is to be addressed as ‘brother.’ I am a man of the Faith in all things.”
“As you wish.” Lyrna reached for the scroll he had handed her on arrival, a complete list of his Order’s members and their various gifts. “You have a brother who can see the past?”
“Brother Lucin’s gift is limited, Highness. His vision confined only to whatever location he finds himself in.”
Lyrna nodded, frowning at the next description on the list. “And this Sister Merial can truly pull lightning from the air?”
“Not exactly, Highness. She can exude a power, an energy from her hands. In darkness or shadow it can seem like lightning. The gift is very draining, fatal if over-used.”
“Can she kill with it?”
He hesitated then gave a short nod.
“Then she and her gift are greatly welcome in this army.” Lyrna read through the rest of the list, glancing up at him with a raised eyebrow. “I find there is one name missing, brother.”
His discomfort visibly deepened but his gaze remained steady and his tone held no note of compromise. “My gift cannot be revealed, Highness. By strict order of my Aspect.”
She was tempted to remind him the Faith was subject to the Crown, but decided against it. There is too much of use in what he brings me. And this is not a good time for conflict with the Faith, especially when they continue to hide so much.
“I spent so many years in search of your kind,” she said, putting the list aside. “Even risking death in the mountains to seek evidence of your existence. And yet it seems all I had to do was await the tide of history and I would be deluged with more evidence than I could ever wish.”
Brother Caenis confined his reply to a cautious nod, his gaze averted as she continued, “It must have been difficult, living in concealment for so long. Lying to your brothers for years on end.”
“The Faith required it, Highness. I had no choice in the matter. But yes, it was a hard duty.”
“Lord Vaelin tells me you were the most loyal subject my father could ever wish for. That your enthusiasm for the desert war was great. So much so he thought your heart broken when it all came to naught.”
“Aspect Grealin was very precise in the role he wished me to play. My devotion to the Faith was so strong he felt it best masked as devotion to the King. But my brother was right, my enthusiasm for the war was true, inflamed by my Aspect who told me it was the key to securing the future of the Faith. For reasons of his own, he didn’t tell me how that security would be achieved, or my brother’s fate. I always thought Aspect Grealin’s reasoning to be infallible, he never steered me to the wrong course, he never made mistakes.”
“Have you heard from him, since the capital fell?”
“Sadly no, Highness.” Caenis lowered his head, his voice dulling with sorrow. “Brother Lernial has a facility for hearing the thoughts of those he has met, even over great distances. We know the Aspect had taken refuge in the Urlish with a band of free fighters, the details are vague since Lernial’s gift is limited. At Alltor he took a wound to the head, waking two days later with a great scream. I hoped his words no more than a symptom of a damaged mind, but he has healed much since and his gift tells him there are no more thoughts to be heard from Aspect Grealin.”
Seeing the brother’s evident grief, she reached out to clasp his hand. “My commiserations, brother.”
He stirred in discomfort, forcing a smile. Does he fear me? One of the names on his list apparently had some facility for peering into the future and she wondered what revelations Caenis might be privy to, recalling Lord Nortah’s grim visage and Wisdom’s words from the first day on the march. I know full well what it means.
“During Brother Harlick’s questioning,” she said, moving back. “The Volarian woman we took at Alltor spoke of an Ally. Lord Vaelin seems to think you may be able to elaborate on her meaning.”
“Brother Harlick has already told you all we know, Highness. It resides in the Beyond and plots our destruction. We know not why.”
“If it exists in the place beyond death, does not that suppose it was once alive? It was once a man, or a woman?”
“It does, Highness. But as yet no member of any Order has divined how it came to be what it is, nor what malign agency could have twisted it into such evil.”
“There must be records, ancient texts describing its origin.”
“The Third Order has spent centuries gathering the oldest words written by human hand, paying considerable sums for scraps of parchment or shards of clay. The Ally is there, but only ever as a shadow, unexplained catastrophe or murder committed at the behest of a dark and vengeful spirit. Sorting truth from myth is often a fruitless task.”
His words stirred her faultless memory, calling forth a line from Lord Verniers’ Cantos of Gold and Dust: Truth is the scholar’s greatest weapon, but often also his doom. She decided a private audience with the Alpiran chronicler was overdue.
“Am I to assume,” she said to Caenis, “that your Order now requires a new Aspect?”
“There are formalities to the choosing, as you know, Highness. Until such time as a conclave can be convened, my Order remains without an Aspect. However, my brothers and sisters have affirmed their willingness to accede to my leadership in the interim.” His gaze became steady again. “Which brings me to another matter.”
“The people from the Reaches.”
“Indeed, Highness. My Order has lost many brothers and sisters in this war. Our ranks grow thin.”
“And you would take these others into the Order, against their loud objections? Lord Vaelin has been very clear on their thoughts in this regard. They follow him, not you.”
“My Order is the shield of the Gifted. Without us they would all have perished generations ago.”
“And yet, you continued to hide yourselves for decades whilst they faced discovery and death at the hands of the Fourth Order.”
“A necessary subterfuge. Most of us are discovered at an early age, Gifted children born to Gifted parents and long-time members of the Order. Not all are so fortunate, or grow to be kind of heart or immune to greed. For all our power, we have human souls like any other. Before Aspect Tendris’s ascension those Gifted found by the Fourth Order would be judged to see if they were suitable for inclusion within our ranks. Whether they joined us or not was their choice.”
“Not, I assume, if they stood outside the Faith?”
“The Seventh Order is of the Faith, Highness. That cannot change.”
Do I have another Tendris here? she pondered, seeing the implacable belief in his gaze. She had often wondered why her father didn’t have the ever-troublesome Aspect of the Fourth Order quietly poisoned by one of his many hidden agents. But even the old schemer hadn’t been immune to the Faith, or ignorant of the power it wielded.
“This is a free Realm,” she told Caenis. “That also cannot change. You may speak to the Gifted from the Reaches and offer them a place in your Order. However, if they refuse, you will let the matter drop and I will not hear it raised again during my reign, which I expect to be of considerable duration. Unless your Sister”—she consulted the list again, for show since she had memorised the contents at the first glance—“Verlia scries a different future, of course.”
“My sister’s visions are . . . infrequent,” he replied. “And require considerable interpretation. When it comes to Your Highness, so far she sees little.”
“And what little does she see?”
He straightened, once more seemingly a warrior rather than an Aspect in waiting, face set in the knowledge of coming battle. “Fire,” he said. “She sees only fire.”
• • •
She travelled with the Seordah the next day, choosing to walk as they did. Lady Dahrena accompanied her to act as interpreter, a somewhat redundant role since few of the forest folk seemed inclined to speak to them, most in fact keen to avoid looking in their direction. She could see the lady’s grief at this, the way her smile faltered as the hawk-faced warriors looked away or grunted clipped responses to her approaches. In contrast, their attitude to Lyrna seemed more one of curious bafflement rather than fear.
“Healing touch very rare in the forest,” Hera Drakil told her, the only one of his people to stay at Dahrena’s side for more than a few steps, and even then she sensed a tense reluctance in the war chief, as if every step was a test of courage. “Not known for many generations.”
“Do your people have books?” Lyrna asked, her thoughts straying to the Mahlessa’s vast library under the Mountain. “Records of the time before the Marelim Sil?”
“Books?” the war chief frowned.
“Virosra san elosra dural,” Dahrena told him. Lyrna’s Seordah was markedly less accomplished than her Lonak, but she had enough for a rough translation. The words that cage the spirit.
“No,” the Seordah told Lyrna. “No books for the Seordah. Not now, not in the before times. All is spoken and remembered. Only the spoken word is true.”
Lyrna saw Dahrena hesitate then say something in the Seordah tongue, too fast to easily translate and rich in words beyond Lyrna’s knowledge. Whatever their meaning, the words were enough to darken Hera Drakil’s expression and he turned away, striding off through the disordered ranks of his people.
“Is he offended?” Lyrna asked Dahrena.
The lady’s face was drawn in sadness as she watched the war chief walk away. “Only the spoken word is true,” she said. “I told him the truth. He didn’t like it.”
• • •
The army swelled as it moved east, hidden bands of fugitives and escaped slaves emerging from forest and cave to join them or beg food. Lyrna made sure all were provided for, even those reluctant to join their ranks, though these were few in number. There were numerous Realm Guard stragglers among the new recruits, eager for a return to regiments that were now mostly extinct. At her request Brother Caenis had stepped down as Lord Marshal of the Realm Guard contingent, though his decision had caused some discord in the ranks. Regardless of any Dark affliction, many still saw him as a saviour, the fearless commander who led them to deliverance after calamitous defeat. Others were less accepting, mainly the men who had served under Lady Reva at Cumbrael and the fugitives found on the march, leading to a fair amount of loud quarrelling and even a few fist-fights. A formal delegation of sergeants had gone to Vaelin requesting Caenis’s reinstatement and the Battle Lord had been obliged to calm their anger by elevating one of their own in the brother’s place, a veteran sergeant of stocky build with a face like scarred leather.
“Sergeant Travick, Highness,” he said, going to one knee before her the day she joined them on the march. “Late of the Sixteenth Regiment of Foot.”
“Ah, the Black Bears as I recall,” Lyrna said, gesturing for Benten to bring her the item he had procured from Brother Hollun’s travelling armoury.
Travick blinked at her in surprise. “Yes, Highness. Your memory does you credit.”
“Thank you. However, I must advise you that your etiquette, by contrast, is sadly lacking.”
The veteran lowered his head, frowning in embarrassment. “Forgive me, Highness. Not used to such things.”
“Hardly an excuse,” Lyrna said, holding out her hand as Benten handed her the sword, an Asraelin blade, as befit the occasion. “For a Sword of the Realm to refer to himself as a sergeant. I profess myself shocked.”
His head snapped up in alarm, eyes widening at the sight of the sword. “Lord Marshal Al Travick,” she said, reversing the weapon to lay it across her forearm, handle first, “do you accept this sword offered by your queen?”
Behind Travick the Realm Guard were stirring in their ranks, less neat and well shaved as she remembered, but all uniformly hardened and possessed of the air of dangerous men. Dangerous I can use, she decided. Let them fight each other if they must, as long as they fight harder against the Volarians.
“I-I do, Highness,” Travick stammered.