VAELIN AL SORNA RETURNS
Anthony Ryan's debut novel Blood Song—the first book of the Raven's Shadow series—took the fantasy world by storm. Now, he continues that saga with The Wolf's Call, which begins a thrilling new story of razor-sharp action and epic adventure.
Peace never lasts.
Vaelin Al Sorna is a living legend, his name known across the Realm. It was his leadership that overthrew empires, his blade that won hard-fought battles - and his sacrifice that defeated an evil more terrifying than anything the world had ever seen. He won titles aplenty, only to cast aside his earned glory for a quiet life in the Realm's northern reaches.
Yet whispers have come from across the sea - rumours of an army called the Steel Horde, led by a man who believes himself a god. Vaelin has no wish to fight another war, but when he learns that Sherin, the woman he lost long ago, has fallen into the Horde's grasp, he resolves to confront this powerful new threat.
To this end, Vaelin travels to the realms of the Merchant Kings, a land ruled by honor and intrigue. There, as the drums of war thunder across kingdoms riven by conflict, Vaelin learns a terrible truth: that there are some battles that even he may not be strong enough to win.
About the Author
Anthony Ryan is the author of the Raven's Shadow novels, including Blood Song, Tower Lord, and Queen of Fire, and the Draconis Memoria novels, including The Waking Fire, The Legion of Flame and The Empire of Ashes. He is currently at work on the Raven's Blade novels.
Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Anthony Ryan
The arrow slammed into the trunk of a pine an inch from his head. Vaelin Al Sorna stared at the fletching as it vibrated before his eyes, feeling a sting on his nose and a trickle of blood left by the shaft’s barbed head. He hadn’t heard the archer who loosed the arrow, nor had he heard the betraying creak of string and stave.
To an onlooker his reaction would have seemed swift and immediate, rolling to the right, coming to his knees, bow drawn and arrow loosed in a single smooth movement. But he knew it to be slow, even as he saw the archer, running now with his horn raised to his lips, take the shaft directly in the back and fall dead. Slow.
There was a soft rustle at his side as Ellese appeared out of the surrounding carpet of ferns, notched bow in hand. “The camp, Uncle,” she said, slightly breathless with eagerness as she started to rise. “We need to move quickly . . .”
Her words died as Vaelin reached out to clamp a hand over her mouth, exerting enough force to keep her crouching. He held her there until the next arrow came, arcing down from the forest canopy to sink into the earth half a dozen feet away. A searching arrow, Master Hutril would have called it. Always useful when flushing prey. But not today.
Vaelin met Ellese’s dark, glaring eyes and raised his own to the treetops before removing his hand. He won’t blow his horn just yet, he told her, hands moving in the sign language so laboriously taught to her over the preceding months. That would reveal his position. I’ll run to the right. He turned, tensing in anticipation of a sprint, then paused to add, Don’t miss.
He surged to his feet, boots pounding on the forest floor as he ran, describing a winding course through the trees. This time he heard the bowstring’s thrum and threw himself behind the broad trunk of an ancient yew, glimpsing an explosion of splintered bark in the corner of his eye. A second later came the sound of another bowstring, the note deeper, possessed of an almost musical precision that bespoke the power of the weapon and the skill of its wielder. A brief pause, then the thud of a body falling from a tall height to the forest floor.
Vaelin remained crouched behind the yew, eyes closed as his ears drank in the song of the forest. It wasn’t long before the chitter of birds, stilled by the unwelcome intrusion, began to return and the wind carried no more trace of sweating, fearful men.
He emerged from his refuge to find Ellese busily searching the body of the outlaw her arrow had plucked from the treetops. Her movements were swift and practised, hands betraying no sign of a tremble despite having just wrested the life from a man. He knew she had killed before in Cumbrael, during a brief and quickly crushed resurgence of the ever-troublesome Sons of the Trueblade. It doesn’t vex her at all, Reva had written in the letter she sent north along with her adopted daughter. Which vexes me greatly.
He saw scant resemblance to Reva in this girl, hardly surprising given the fact that they shared no blood. Her hair was black and her eyes dark, and she was perhaps an inch shorter, if a little thicker of limb. However, the apparent immunity to the effects of killing was a recognisably familial trait she had clearly picked up somewhere along the road. One she shared with the man she called uncle.
“Bluestone,” she said, tossing aside the dead man’s purse and holding up a handful of gleaming azure pebbles. “Wrapped in cotton so they wouldn’t clink.” She angled her head as she surveyed the outlaw’s corpse. “Knew his business, at least.” She glanced up at Vaelin before adding with a grin, “Not well enough, though.”
Vaelin crouched to retrieve the man’s bow, a flat-staved hunting weapon typical to all fiefs of the Realm, except Cumbrael. Had the fellow possessed a longbow and the skill to use it, Vaelin knew he would likely be dead now.
“Check his scalp,” he told Ellese, who duly whipped away the man’s woollen cap, revealing a shaven head. Vaelin used his boot to turn the corpse’s head until he found it, a crude tattoo forming a dark crimson stain amidst the grey stubble. “The Bloody Sparrows,” he said, moving away.
The outlaw he had killed lay some twenty paces off, facedown with Vaelin’s arrow protruding from his back at a near-vertical angle. Vaelin worked the shaft loose, grunting with the effort of extracting the barbed head from the bony trap of the man’s spine, before turning him over.
“Jumin Vek,” he said after a brief survey of the blotchy, pockmarked face.
“You know him?” Ellese asked.
“I should. I arrested him up on a Queen’s Warrant four years ago. He left a trail of murder, rape and thievery all along the roads of Renfael before fetching up in the Reaches. I packed him off on a ship to face the noose in Frostport.”
“Seems he managed an escape.”
Or bribed his way clear, Vaelin thought. It was an all-too-common occurrence these days. With so much money to be made stealing and smuggling the bounty of the Northern Reaches, it seemed as if every outlaw had the means to buy their way out of trouble. As Tower Lord, and therefore the queen’s appointed warden of this land, the frequency with which Vaelin was obliged to recapture the dregs of the Realm made him less than scrupulous in observing her royal edict against immediate execution.
“Another Bloody Sparrow?” Ellese asked.
“No.” Vaelin tossed away Jumin Vek’s cap to reveal a shock of thick, greasy hair. He grasped the man’s chin and turned it, revealing a more accomplished image inked into the sallow flesh of his neck. “The Damned Rats. They’re mostly disgraced former Realm Guard.”
“So we face two gangs today?”
“I doubt it. Lord Orven wiped out most of the Bloody Sparrows last winter. It seems the Rats found room for some survivors.”
He relieved the unfortunate Jumin Vek of his purse, finding it to contain two nuggets of gold along with a few bluestones.
“Your nose is bleeding, Uncle,” Ellese observed as he rose.
Vaelin took a rag from his belt, soaked it with a small bottle of corr tree oil and pressed it to the cut on his nose. He swallowed a grunt of pain as the concoction seeped its fiery way into the wound, unable to suppress the sense that it hadn’t stung quite so much in his youth.
“Fetch the others,” he told Ellese, dousing his face with water from his canteen to wash away the residual blood. “Meet me at the canyon’s edge. And, Ellese,” he added as she turned away. “The bluestones.”
He held out his hand, meeting her gaze until she gave a huff of annoyance and handed over the stones, griping in a low mutter, “You have me hunting scum for no pay.”
“Your mother sent you to me for an education. If you want paid work, there’s plenty to be had in the North Guard, or the mines. Until sold, under law bluestone and gold belong to the queen. You know that.” He pocketed the stones and jerked his head in dismissal. “On your way.”
It transpired that the outlaw camp was in fact a stockade formed of a semicircular enclosure arcing out from the eastern wall of a canyon known as Ultin’s Gulch. The place had been named in honour of the Reaches’ most famed miner, a man Vaelin remembered fondly from the Liberation War.
Ever a cheerful soul, Ultin had returned to the Reaches bearing the queen’s order to scrape all the wealth he could from the mines, thereby filling the royal coffers to meet the escalating costs of war. Honoured for his efforts as a Sword of the Realm with a generous accompanying pension, Ultin had politely refused Vaelin’s offer of a position as Lord Overseer of Mineworks. Instead, he retired to a smallholding near North Tower where, over the course of the next three years, he proceeded to drink himself to death. It was the war, my lord, his widow had told Vaelin the day they gave her husband’s body to the fire. All those murdered souls, murdered children. The men he lost at Alltor . . . all of it. He could never get it out of his head.
Vaelin spared a brief thought for Ultin’s memory before focusing his attention on the stockade. It was plainly new built, the timbers forming its defensive wall still green and unseasoned, although they seemed solid enough. The occupants had constructed a lookout post atop the canyon wall, providing a no doubt fine view of the surrounding landscape. Vaelin knew the ground to the east consisted of a half-mile-long expanse of bare rock, across which no attacking force could expect to approach undetected.
The canyon floor was similarly lacking in cover but also narrower, allowing for a rapid assault. Even so, he didn’t relish the prospect and found this new tactic of fortification troubling. Usually, the various outlaw and smuggling gangs would establish temporary camps deep in the forest or the more inaccessible crags from which they would raid the caravan routes. Now it appeared this particular group had opted for a permanent home. Are they getting bolder? he wondered. Or just more desperate.
He detected only the smallest sign of the Cumbraelin’s approach, just a faint scrape of buckskin on grass before the man appeared at his side, lying flat as Vaelin did.
“My lord,” he said.
“Master Tallspear.” Vaelin glanced behind to see the war party of Bear People emerge from the forest at a crawl, spears and bows held low so as not to break the silhouette of the skyline.
“You can see it’s as we said,” Tallspear said, nodding at the outlaws’ stockade. Over the course of recent years Vaelin had often pondered the fact that Tallspear’s face possessed only the most meagre vestige of the man who had once tried very hard to kill him. The Cumbraelin’s features were still the hardened, weathered mask of a lifelong hunter, but the fiery glint of fanaticism had long since faded from his gaze. Apart from the longbow he carried, his garb was that of the Bear People and he spoke their language, still beyond Vaelin’s skills to master, with an easy fluency. Although Vaelin still couldn’t help thinking of him as Cumbraelin, in any way that mattered he was now a hunter of the Bear People clan, evidenced by the name they had given him. Vaelin knew he would probably never learn the man’s birth name, and found himself content in his ignorance.
“You said you found this a month ago?” Vaelin asked.
“Twenty-five days, to be precise. It wasn’t here two weeks before. Our people come here fairly regularly, plenty of beavers to be trapped in the river.”
“So they saw you?”
Tallspear responded with a frown that was both amused and faintly insulted.
“Apologies.” Vaelin turned his gaze back to the stockade. “How often do they raid?”
“That’s the curious thing, my lord. They don’t, as far as we can tell. Very few tracks in the surrounding country, except what you’d expect from the occasional hunting party. For the most part they just stay in there. Truth be told, we were tempted to leave them be, but the elders felt we should honour our treaty with the Tower Man.”
Vaelin inclined his head in thanks. Since being granted leave to settle in the Reaches after their forced migration from the icy wastes to the north, the Bear People had consistently proven themselves loyal if insular subjects of the Realm. “Be sure to tell them their consideration is appreciated.”
“I will, my lord. Also, two-thirds of the spoils when we’re done would also greatly emphasise the honour in which you hold the Bear People.”
Vaelin bit down a sigh. After being spared execution and finding a home with the Bear People, Tallspear had forsaken the god-worshipping fanaticism that had brought him to this land intent on assassinating its Tower Lord. Instead, these days the Cumbraelin’s reserves of zeal were now fully employed in the role of chief bargainer for his adopted tribe, keen to protect them from the greed of the Realm-born.
“Half,” Vaelin said. “Including profits from the sale of any gold and bluestone we recover.”
The hunter seemed about to argue the point but fell silent at a loud click from behind. Vaelin turned to see a diminutive young woman crouched nearby, a small black bear at her side. The woman’s name was Iron Eyes, and it was easy to see where she got it in the scowl she directed at Tallspear. As the only shaman remaining to the Bear People, she was the closest thing they had to an overall leader. She was also Tallspear’s wife and mother to their three children.
She clicked her tongue again before telling her husband, “Don’t be rude,” in clipped but well-spoken Realm Tongue. “Half is acceptable, Tower Man,” she added, turning to Vaelin. “But there must be a blood price for any hunters called to join the Green Fire.”
“Of course.” Vaelin inclined his head before returning his attention to the stockade. He counted a dozen sentries on the wall, each bearing either bow or crossbow. Once they realised an attack was under way more would surely join them, meaning a charge across the floor of the gulch would inevitably cost lives. In addition to the forty or so Bear People, he also had another sixty North Guard, surely enough to put the matter beyond doubt regardless of how many arrows the outlaws cast their way.
“Best wait for darkness, my lord,” Tallspear said, evidently following his line of thought. “We can easily get within fifty paces of that wall come midnight, put up a volley to cover a charge for the gate. A few blows from a decent-sized ram should be enough to gain entry.”
“They’ll be expecting their scouts to return come nightfall,” Vaelin said, shaking his head. “Waiting for midnight will take too long.” He thought a moment longer before nodding at the small bear at Iron Eyes’ side. “Does he have a name?”
“Little Teeth,” Iron Eyes replied, running a hand through the beast’s thick fur. He let out a contented huff and nuzzled her side in return.
“Wise Bear’s beast was called Iron Claw,” Vaelin recalled. “He carried him all the way across the ice to the land of the Dark Hearts. There we fought a great battle. You know this?”
Iron Eyes scowled again, nodding cautiously. The old shaman had never returned from the ice and neither the Bear People nor anyone else had discovered his fate. Vaelin knew they still hoped for his return and that his continued failure to do so was a decidedly sore point. “I know this,” the shaman said.
“Iron Claw was brave,” Vaelin told her. “How brave is Little Teeth?”
They set out the moment the sun dipped behind the eastern peaks. Vaelin, in company with Tallspear, Iron Eyes, Ellese and a dozen North Guard, made a silent descent into the gulch. They forded the narrow but swift flowing river running through the centre of the canyon and crawled the remaining few hundred paces to a shallow depression within bowshot of the stockade. Once halted, Vaelin nodded to Iron Eyes. The shaman briefly ran a hand over Little Teeth’s snout before fixing her gaze upon his. After a short pause both bear and shaman blinked in unison before the animal loped away into the gloom, making for the south-facing stretch of the stockade wall.
“What now, Uncle?” Ellese asked in a whisper that drew a sharp glance from Vaelin.
Use your hands! he signed in annoyance.
She lowered her head, hands moving in reluctant contrition. Sorry.
Now we wait, he told her, nodding at her bow. Be ready.
He watched her notch an arrow to the string, slender but firm hands grasping the intricately carved stave. The weapon was a true thing of beauty, fashioned from wych elm decorated in various martial motifs carved by an expert hand. A bow of Arren, Reva had called it. Quite possibly the last in the world. I lost her sister in the Boraelin Ocean. There’s a standing reward of a hundred golds for anyone who brings me another. As yet, no one’s claimed it.
He knew the weapon was said to possess some form of divine blessing, the more ardent followers of the World Father and his Blessed Lady ascribing preternatural power and accuracy to what was, in essence, a length of shaped wood. However, the feats he had seen Reva and her daughter perform with this bow often gave him cause to wonder.
He switched his gaze to Iron Eyes, seeing the empty cast to the woman’s gaze as she lay immobile at her husband’s side. Her mind, he knew, was elsewhere. The sight provoked a rush of memory, another woman sitting on a hillside far away in both time and distance, her eyes empty as her soul soared free of her body . . .
Vaelin turned away, flexing his fingers to banish a sudden tremble before notching an arrow to his bowstring.
“He climbs . . .” Iron Eyes said a few moments later, eyes still unfocused and voice little more than a hiss in the darkness. “He reaches the top . . . There is a man . . .” A spasm passed over her features, her lips drawing back from her teeth in an echo of a snarl before the placid mask returned. “Now there is not . . . The air smells of drink and five leaf . . . Men sleep and snore, others walk the walls . . . All eyes are turned out, not in.”
Lines creased her brow and she cocked her head a little, as if straining to hear something. “Voices . . . two men in argument . . . They speak of scouts . . . of men who should be here but are not.”
“The gate,” Vaelin said, although he doubted she could hear him in this state.
Iron Eyes lapsed into a silence that seemed to stretch for many minutes when it could only have been seconds. Vaelin nudged Ellese to silence as she let out a soft groan of impatience.
“He is there . . .” Iron Eyes whispered finally. “The gate is sealed with thick rope . . . His teeth are little, but they are sharp, his jaws are strong . . .”
Vaelin’s hands moved in front of Ellese’s eyes. First and second from the left, he told her before pointing at the sentries on the wall. Moving to Tallspear’s side he put his mouth close to the Cumbraelin’s ear, speaking in a low murmur. “The two on the right. Loose when I do.”
As Ellese and Tallspear rose to a crouch, Vaelin readied his own bow, fingers hooking the string on either side of the arrow’s base. He focused on the two men standing directly over the gate, still arguing and oblivious to the bear busily gnawing through the ropes below. The distance was a little under a hundred paces. He may not be the finest archer ever to emerge from the House of the Sixth Order, but he was far from the worst.
He heard Iron Eyes let out a soft sigh followed by the creak of the gate swinging open to reveal Little Teeth contentedly chewing on a length of rope. Vaelin, seeing the men on the wall suddenly forget their argument, drew and loosed an arrow at the tallest. Ellese and Tallspear both loosed a fraction of a second later, arrows streaking through the night air to send the sentries tumbling from the wall. The shorter of the two outlaws reacted quickly, subsiding into a crouch but not before Vaelin’s second arrow took him in the shoulder. He fell from the wall, landing heavily on the other side of the open gateway and shouting in shock at the sight of the bear who greeted him with an inquisitive growl. The man’s shouts died as Vaelin lowered his aim, sending his third arrow through the gateway and into the stricken outlaw’s chest, muttering a curse as he loosed. He had hoped to get inside without raising an alarm, but rarely did any battle conform to a plan.
“North Guard up!” Vaelin called out, rising and reaching over his shoulder to draw his sword. He ran for the gate with the North Guard close on his heels, hearing Tallspear’s hunting horn pealing out a summons to the others waiting in the forest.
A few outlaws came stumbling from the shadows in various states of undress, attempting to form a barrier across the portal. Their aim was quickly frustrated by Little Teeth, who began to whirl, lashing out with his claws and sending the outlaws into confusion. One man staggered back from the beast, clutching a bleeding arm, placing himself directly into Vaelin’s path as he reached the gate. He made the mistake of drawing the knife on his belt and died for it, Vaelin jabbing the tip of his Order blade neatly through the ribs to pierce his heart, leaving him kneeling as blood swelled his mouth.
The remaining would-be defenders were quickly cut down by the North Guard, though the obscenity-laden defiance they screamed out in the course of the brief but frenzied fight ensured any last vestige of surprise had now vanished. Looking around, Vaelin saw the interior of the stockade featured only a few huts and no structure large enough to accommodate the kind of numbers that must dwell here. However, his gaze soon alighted on an opening in the canyon wall. It was a typical mineshaft common to the Reaches, buttressed with timber and wide enough to allow entry by five or more men at once.
They didn’t come here to raid for riches, Vaelin surmised. They came to dig for them.
He could hear a rising tumult from within the shaft, accompanied by a flicker of torchlight that grew in brightness with every passing second. Working a mine, he knew, required many hands, probably a good deal more than he had reckoned to find in this place.
“Line out!” he barked to the North Guard, then turned to Ellese and Tallspear, jerking his head at a nearby ladder. “Get on the wall. Loose as soon as they emerge, see if we can choke them at the entrance.”
He notched another arrow to his own bow and took up position in the centre of the guardsmen’s line. A glance behind showed the remaining North Guard and Bear People moving rapidly across the canyon floor. Judging by the sounds emerging from the mineshaft, Vaelin doubted they would arrive before this battle began in earnest.
“Lay it on thick, lads,” he told the guardsmen. “Don’t want me to tell your families you fell to a scum-blade, do you?”
He receive a chorus of grim affirmation in response, even a few chuckles. Those with bows notched arrows, and the others took a firmer grip on their swords. They were mostly veterans of the Liberation War. Having fought all the way from the Realm to the gates of Volar, witnessing countless horrors in the process, they weren’t about to succumb to fear in the face of outlaws, however many they might face this night.
Vaelin half drew his bow, eyes locked on the tunnel, now glowing brightly with burgeoning torchlight. He frowned at the sounds emerging from within. At first he had thought it the clamour of desperate men girding themselves for a fight, but now realised it to be a discordant chorus not unlike the din of battle. It continued on for some time as no new foe emerged from the shaft, rich in screams and rage and, as it wore on, terror.
Abruptly, the cacophony ended, heralding a short interval of eerie silence before two figures appeared in the shaft entrance. They were silhouetted by the glow, one standing tall, the other kneeling. Vaelin noted that the standing figure appeared to be holding the kneeler by the neck. As the kneeling man struggled, the other jerked him to stillness, Vaelin detecting the distinct clink of a chain as he did so. Hearing the creak of a drawn bow from the wall, Vaelin stepped forward, raising his hand. “Hold!” he called out, glancing up to see Ellese lowering her bow and frowning at him in bemusement.
“Wait here,” Vaelin told the North Guard, tossing his bow to the nearest one. He approached the shaft with his sword held low and to the side, his free hand raised and open. He came to a halt when he could make out the two figures clearly, finding he recognised one but not the other.
“Termin Resk,” he said, squinting at the kneeling man. He was a stocky fellow of middling years, a former Realm Guard sergeant now leader of the Damned Rats, with a dire reputation to match. Resk gasped out something in response, his words, either a plea or an expression of defiance, were quickly choked by a tightening of the chain around his neck. The outlaw’s stubby fingers clawed at the iron links to little effect, his head increasingly resembling a quivering, reddened blob.
Vaelin’s gaze tracked along the chain to the manacle on the wrist of the man holding Resk. Taking the full measure of the fellow, Vaelin found him to be taller than himself by an inch or more. The man’s bare chest was broad and impressively muscled if marred by numerous scars, some recent, and Vaelin recognised the telltale mark of a whip. The sweat of recent exertion shone on the man’s dark skin and he met Vaelin’s gaze with a cool, appraising stare beneath brows marked by a series of pale, precisely placed scars.
“You are far from the empire,” Vaelin observed, speaking in Alpiran.
The man’s eyes narrowed at the words. From his colouring, Vaelin knew him to be of the southern provinces where the Emperor’s tongue wasn’t always known, but he saw comprehension in his face.
“It is not my Empire,” the man replied, his Alpiran accented but clearly spoken. He jerked the chain, causing Resk to grunt in pain, eyes bulging now. “You are this one’s enemy?” he asked.
“He is a . . . bandit,” Vaelin replied, using the term most commonly ascribed to outlaws in the Alpiran Empire. “I enforce the law in these lands.”
“Then you serve her.” The tall man’s eyes betrayed a small glimmer Vaelin recognised: hope. “You serve the Queen of Fire.”
“She doesn’t like that name.” Vaelin gave a formal bow. “Vaelin Al Sorna, Tower Lord of the Northern Reaches by the grace of Queen Lyrna Al Nieren. And you are?”
He saw the tall man’s hope joined by another emotion then, his brows bunching with a particular sense of recognition Vaelin hadn’t seen for many years. “Alum Vi Moreska,” he said, the muscles of his forearms bunching as his fists tightened the chain. In response Resk let out a final, choking gurgle and fell limp, all light fading from his bulging eyes. “I request safe harbour,” Alum Vi Moreska said, unfurling the chain from Resk’s corpse with a skillful flick of his wrists. “For myself and my people.”
Vaelin nodded at the mineshaft. “There are more of you in there?”
“Many.” The man met Vaelin’s gaze once more, letting out a hard, shame-filled sigh as he sank to one knee. “On behalf of the Moreska Clan, I pledge our allegiance to the Great Queen in the hope she will bestow upon us the gift of her renowned mercy and compassion.”