What has gone before: The Stormcaller
Isak is a white-eye, an unnaturally strong and fast young man with a reputation for being hot-tempered and troublesome. His unpredictable and dangerous nature means he has grown up as an outcast on the wagon train where his father, Horman, works. Isak’s only real friend is Carel, the captain of the guards and former soldier. When a strange mercenary called Aracnan meets them on the road and demands Isak go with him to pursue his future, Isak refuses. Aracnan instead goes ahead of them to Tirah, capital city of the Farlan tribe, and informs Lord Bahl, another white-eye, that Isak has been appointed his heir by the Gods.
Contrary to tradition, Isak has to be summoned to the palace rather than brought by Aracnan. On the way the drunken hostility of his father and the other wagon train drivers turns into outright violence and Isak is chased there, killing a man in his escape. Barely making it to the palace alive, he is taken in and fed while Lord Bahl attends to matters of state. Bahl’s chief steward, Lesarl, tells him first that the traditional gifts from the Gods for every one of the Chosen are not to be handed straight to Isak and have been put somewhere safe away from Bahl also, the lure of them being thought too great for any white-eye. The gifts are Siulents and Eolis, the armour and sword of the last and greatest elven king, Aryn Bwr, and are considered the finest and most powerful mortal-made weapons ever created.
Lesarl also mentions the journal of a necromancer, Cordein Malich, who almost sparked a civil war within the Farlan. Lord Bahl had ordered him to have the journal deciphered despite its heretical nature due to his interest in a powerful artefact mentioned within: a Crystal Skull, also created by Aryn Bwr. When Isak meets Lord Bahl he faints, overwhelmed by the memory of a recurring dream in which Bahl, a man he’s never met, is killed fighting an unknown knight on a distant island. When he wakes he is told of his new standing in life and given a room to sleep in. Overnight Isak dreams of their patron God, Nartis, who begins to make his newest servant even bigger and stronger than a normal man, but again things don’t go exactly as they should with a mysterious light burning the elven rune, Xeliath, meaning “heart,” onto his chest.
Isak is woken by Bahl and sent to begin his weapons training, but his white-eye temper flares and he ends up in a practice duel with a nobleman, Dirass Certinse, who, against all reason, tries to kill Isak. Isak reacts to that the only way a white-eye can; he kills the man. Afterwards it transpires that Certinse is a member of the tribe’s most powerful family, one heavily implicated in the Malich rebellion, but Bahl is more concerned with why nothing is following a normal course in Isak’s life. This fear is increased when Isak receives another gift, this time from the Goddess Fate, when his crest, a crowned dragon, is revealed to have been prepared long before Isak was even Chosen. During this time, Isak becomes close friends with his maid, Tila.
However, death follows Isak when he inexplicably manages to kill a high priest of the God of Magic called to investigate why Isak has latent magical power but cannot use it.
To the southeast, the lord of the Menin tribe, Kastan Styrax, has travelled in secret to attack the city of Raland and take the Crystal Skull Lord Bahl was seeking, but Bahl has no time to do anything about it as an elven army invades the eastern Farlan lands. Bahl sends an army under Isak’s command to meet the threat, at last giving Isak his weapons and introducing him to the dragon that watches over them, Genedel. The army marches off, gathering troops and noblemen along the way, including the popular hero Count Vesna, with whom he swiftly becomes friends, and Duke Certinse, the new head of the rebellious Certinse family.
Isak fares well in the battle thanks to his burgeoning strength, narrowly avoiding assassination that morning, but it is only Bahl’s sudden arrival with Genedel that wins it for them. However, before Bahl’s appearance, Isak loses himself in his newly found magic, going berserk on the field before passing out. He wakes a few days later to discover that the elven army was seeking the weapons he carried to fulfill a prophecy heralding Aryn Bwr’s return. In the meantime, to the south, the lord of the desert-dwelling Chetse tribe, Chalat, is deposed by his Chosen heir who has been possessed by a daemon. Chalat heads north with a foreigner called Mihn, hoping to ask Lord Bahl for help. Meanwhile, far to the northeast, the mercenary Aracnan visits an old acquaintance, the immortal vampire Koezh Vukotic, to share his fears that Isak is destined to be the Saviour spoken of in the prophecy. The pair travel west to ensure they will have a hand in unfolding events.
Returning to Tirah, Isak is reunited with his friend, Carel, who is made commander of his personal guard and is sent west to Narkang by Lord Bahl, both to forge an alliance with its ruler, King Emin, and to distance him from future attempts on his life by the defeated elves. Taking Mihn, Tila, Count Vesna, and Carel with him, Isak goes as ordered, meeting a strange wanderer called Morghien on the way. Morghien says he has been sent by a white-eye girl called Xeliath to prepare Isak for a threat in his future, after which Xeliath herself visits Isak in his dreams.
Bound up in the same prophecies as Isak, Xeliath was Chosen by her patron Goddess, told she was destined to be Isak’s queen, and given a Crystal Skull as a gift. When her destiny was bound to Isak’s, the tangled mess of prophecy around him nearly broke her mind and damaged her both physically and mentally. Isak also begins to realise that his fears of something watching him from the shadows might not be just fancy.
Back in the south, Kastan Styrax oversees preparations to invade Chetse lands now that Chalat has fled, while he himself travels to await Lord Bahl, who he has lured away from his army. On the way he talks to the daemon he has made a bargain with to realise his plans of conquest and receives a warning from the shadow watching Isak that Styrax himself may be under threat.
Reaching Narkang, Isak learns King Emin, a longtime friend of Morghien, has unearthed a planned coup in his city. The coup in Narkang is prevented, during which they discover that the vampire Zhia Vukotic, sister of Koezh, was impersonating a conspirator to steal a Crystal Skull from the leaders. It takes a desperate move from Isak to defend King Emin’s palace, but during the first stage of the battle Isak senses the death of Lord Bahl and feels the hand of Nartis descend upon him as the new Lord of the Farlan. He breaks the siege of King Emin’s palace by shattering the enemy army with lightning, earning the nickname Isak Stormcaller and turning his left arm completely white as an aftereffect of the spell.
After the battle, Isak is approached by a religious order of knights, who ask that he go to a place called Llehden. On the way he meets a nameless witch who knows Xeliath. The knights give him Aryn Bwr’s own Crystal Skulls, unwittingly releasing the ancient king’s spirit that has been hiding within both them and Isak himself. Thanks to advice from the mysterious Morghien, Isak survives the assault and breaks that particular prophecy, leaving Aryn Bwr a prisoner in Isak’s mind and the future uncertain.
Prologue Part One
A lined face, pale against the deep shadow of the archway, looked out into the street. The ground before him was empty of people, but movement was everywhere as the deluge that was worsening by the minute turned the packed earth to spattering mud. The old man had a heavy woollen scarf wrapped over his head and tied tight under his chin so the now-sodden material framed his face. Anxiety filled his eyes as he saw only the plummeting rain churning the ground, running in rivers off the rooftops and overflowing the gutters in the middle of the street. The black feather tattoos that marked the right side of his face looked crumpled; over the decades the once-crisp lines had faded. The tumult of the rain slashing down filled the air as the old monk trembled in the darkness. He felt it crowding him, driving him back into the shadows.
“Where are you, Mayel?” His voice was nothing more than a shivering whisper, yet almost as he spoke a figure turned the corner and headed towards him, arms held uselessly over his head against the storm.
Mayel made straight for the archway, head hunched low, and splashed into the dark recesses of the monument that sheltered the old man. He shook himself violently, like a dog, scattering water like a fountain. “Abbot Doren,” he said urgently, “I found him. He’s waiting for us at an inn, just a few streets east of here.” There was a flicker of triumph in his eyes that saddened the abbot. Mayel was young enough to think this was a grand adventure; that a murderer was pursuing them seemed not to have filtered through into the novice’s mind.
“I have warned you,” the old man said, “this is not a game: even a hint of my name could mean our deaths.”
“But there’s no one out here!” he protested, eyes wide in dismay. The abbot could see Mayel had not been expecting another scolding; the youth deserved praise, he knew that, but their safety was not something they could take any chances with. Their mission was too vital for that.
“Still you must be careful; you can never be sure who is around. But you’ve done well. Let’s find ourselves somewhere warm and get a hot meal and a bed for the night. We’ll find a more permanent place in the morning.”
“I think my cousin will be able to help with that,” Mayel said, trying to sound cheerful again, despite the storm. “He rents rooms to workmen, so I’m sure he’d give me a good price—and watch out for us.” He started shivering, his saturated clothes clammy against his skin. Glancing nervously out from under the archway he saw the sky was an angry grey. It felt more like autumn than an early summer’s evening, as though their pursuer swept away the joy and warmth of the season as he closed on them.
“We’ll need a house, somewhere with a cellar,” said the abbot. “I have work to do; I’ll need complete privacy. It can’t wait any longer.”
“I don’t understand.” Mayel stared at the old man, wondering what could possibly be so important when they were fleeing for their lives.
“If Prior Corci does find out where we are, I need to be ready for him—and I need your help, not just to carry the books, but to protect me from the rest of this city.”
“Do we really need all these books with us?” There was understandable irritation in Mayel’s voice: he had been lugging around the six thick volumes for two weeks now.
“You know what they are, boy. Our order’s texts are sacred. That traitor may have made me flee the monastery, but he will never force me to give up the traditions that he himself has tried to destroy. The books must not leave the presence of the abbot—that is one of the very first lessons we learn.”
“Of course I know that,” Mayel said, “but are you still abbot if you flee the island?”
The old man shuddered and Mayel continued hurriedly, “I mean, surely the sacred texts are there for the community, to look to for guidance. Should they not stay on the island?”
“This current situation is more complex than that,” snapped the old man. “You are a novice; don’t presume you are in possession of all the facts. Now, enough of your chatter. Show me to this inn where your cousin is.”
Mayel opened his mouth to argue, then remembered who he was talking to and clamped it shut again. He pointed down the street, and Abbot Doren pushed past and began to make his splashing way through the puddles. His bag, which held his few possessions—two more books and a strange, pearl-inlaid box that Mayel had never seen until the night they fled—was held tight to his chest. The abbot hunched over low, his eyes on the ground, trying to protect the bag from the rain.
“You don’t fool me, old man,” Mayel muttered. The wail of the weather drowned his words, but if the abbot had turned round, he would have seen a coldly calculating look that had no place on the face of a novice. “There’s something in that box that Jackdaw wants. He killed Brother Edin for more than madness. The prior wouldn’t be following us for just a few dirty old books, so why won’t you tell me what’s in that box? It’s got to be worth something if Jackdaw wants it so badly—enough to buy my way into my cousin’s gang. If we do survive this, you’ll be carrying these bloody books back to the island yourself, old man.”
He scowled at the abbot’s back, then hurried to catch him up, at the last moment swinging his own bag around to his chest to shelter it somewhat.
From the upper reaches of the monument where the abbot had been sheltering a soft voice spoke over the sound of the rain. “He has the Skull with him, I can feel it.”
“We must sacrifice that for the greater prize. The old man is not as frail as he seems, nor as unprotected. Be content that he has done as we wanted. Now the next act of our play can begin.”
“But I could kill him now.” The speaker’s deeply-set eyes, hooded by thick brows, glittered avariciously. He ignored the rain soaking his thick black hair and running down over the tattooed feathers on his cheek and neck as he glared down the street, but the abbot had already turned the corner.
“His God would not let you,” said his companion. “Renouncing any God as you have is not done lightly, and Vellern would stop you from harming one who is first among his worshippers. Perhaps the Lord of the Birds would take the opportunity to extract a measure of revenge too.” The second man wore a green minstrel’s hat and tunic and hugged a flute close under his left arm. He looked only a little damp, as though the rain was reluctant to touch him. His soft brown hair was not wet enough to have darkened and his cheeks, as smooth as a young man’s despite the air of age about him, remained dry. A slight smile, both knowing and scornful, curled the edges of his mouth.
“We have others who could,” growled the dark-haired man. Once known as Prior Corci, now he was Jackdaw, reviled as a traitor and murderer. His new master had called him that the first time they met, no more than six months past, in one of the monastery’s dank, unused cellars. He had thought it a joke, but steadily he’d found the name had spread, even amongst brothers who knew nothing of his intended treachery. Prior Corci was being steadily erased from history, as every week that passed, another man had forgotten about him. Jackdaw knew there was no going back, no escape from the choices he’d made, and only the thought of what else Azaer’s power could achieve stopped him sinking into glum desperation at the loss of his former life.
Now Jackdaw blinked the rain from his eyes and squinted through the gloom at the empty street. “The old man might be strong with the Skull, but an arrow would go right through that withered neck, whether or not he was holding magic. The Hounds would be glad to tear him apart.”
“He is more intelligent than that. He has taken precautions against assassination, and there are inherent dangers whenever a Skull is involved. They contain too much power for a novice to control. He already keeps his Aspect-Guide close at hand; it would be a simple thing for him to lose his grip on the magic and then we would be faced with a minor God of vast strength instead. Better to let someone else deal with the problem on our behalf. We will kill priests soon enough, that I promise you.”
From a pouch, the minstrel took a peach and raised it to his lips.
His companion sniffed and then looked away in disgust. “How can you eat that? It’s rotting.”
“Decay happens to everything,” replied the minstrel softly, eyes on the clouds above. “Corruption is inevitable. I am but its servant.” He took another bite, then tossed the half-eaten fruit into the street. “No one could want that Skull more than I do, but our master has a greater plan.”
“One that I am not to be party to?”
“If you have the courage to complain, do so.”
“I—” Jackdaw faltered. Too late he remembered that Azaer was always close to the minstrel, lingering where the man’s shadow had once been.
“You require something of me?”
Jackdaw jumped as Azaer’s voice rang suddenly inside his head. Beside him the minstrel inclined his head, as though giving a slight bow.
“No, master,” the former monk spluttered. He felt a hand caress his cheek, then a sharp pain caused him to yelp involuntarily. The flesh just above his jaw-line felt raw and exposed and when he touched his face, Jackdaw found blood there. Raising his hand, he saw a black feather stuck to the blood on the back of his fingers. He didn’t need a looking-glass to know that part of his tattoo had gone.
“Hush your throat, or I’ll pluck more feathers out. We have a game to play here in Scree, friends to find and friends to lose. Lure them all here and let the drama unfold as it will. We take our bows when the performance is done.”
Prologue Part Two
In the half-light of the long corridor a shadow moved. Only the listless swish of the thin white drapes covering the tall arched windows at one end disturbed the quiet. A wrought-iron railing decorated with vine leaves separated the corridor from the open hallway below, but the heavy afternoon heat had stifled all activity within the palace; that too seemed shrouded in silence. Even the servants had found cooler corners, where they dozed wearily.
The guard sighed inwardly. The heat was oppressive enough even without the heavy leather uniform. Rivulets of sweat ran down his arms and over his scalp and prickled hot in his crotch. His head sagged, eyelids drooping as the corridor before him blurred into grey emptiness.
The shadow drifted behind him, sliding smoothly over the wall but never actually touching the soldier. Despite the gloom of the corridor, the shadow seemed insubstantial. As it hovered against the white door next to where the guard stood, the profile of a blank face showed, imprisoned within the door’s border, then the shadow eased into the dark crack between door and jamb and gently disappeared into the cool shade of the room beyond.
As outside, all was still within, except for the gentle movement of drapes at the open window, through which came no more than a wisp of a breeze. A huge four-poster bed to the right of the bolted door dominated the room. Curtains of green and gold were tied at each post. The shadow ignored the bed and its occupants, who lay across the linen sheets, barely covered. It ignored the ornate basket-hilt rapier hanging on a chair-back with an axe, the blade of which was perforated by glowing red-edged runes, and moved to the far corner of the room, where a small spiral staircase took it up to a circular mezzanine no more than four yards across. A simple but elegant desk stood at the centre. Eight thin apertures cut into the stone gave a view of the room below.
Hanging from the wall were eleven purple slate tablets, two feet high, each covered by a green velvet cloth embroidered with a bee with wings outspread and the name of a city. The shadow ignored the nearest and glided around the desk in the centre until it reached the cloth that bore the word “Scree.” It raised a long finger that tapered into a cruel claw and began to trace through the air in front of the covered tablet. A faint scraping broke the quiet.
The shadow finished its writing and looked through a stone slit at the couple slumbering on the enormous bed. “Come and join the performance, my friend. Yours is a starring role,” it murmured as it twitched the cloth slightly askew.
Then the shadow spread its insubstantial fingers like an eagle’s talons. As it gave a sharp twist through the air a muted crack echoed around the room. The deed done, the shadow retraced its movements, pausing momentarily at the bed where the two figures still slept, legs entangled despite the heat. One ethereal finger caressed the man’s cheek before pausing over an eyelid that gave a tiny twitch.
“And what if I were to blind you now, o mighty king? Render you unable to behold this nation you love so? But I shall not; there are sights I would have you see before the end.”
The heavy summer silence returned to the room as the shadow slipped towards the door and out into the twilight of the corridor, then faded into nothing.
King Emin scowled at the tablet, pulling his shirt to order and tucking it into his breeches.
“Come back to bed,” purred Queen Oterness from the bed, stroking the slight bump of her belly. One sharp-eyed old countess had noticed it already and there had been a sudden surge of speculation at court that an heir to the throne might at last be on the way. The royal couple were keeping quiet for now—the pregnancy was in its early stages and the queen feared her age might cause difficulties—but in the meantime that small swelling had restored her husband’s precarious affection.
“Unfortunately, I cannot,” Emin muttered in reply. He didn’t take his eyes off the tablet as he reached out a hand and tugged the bell-pull that hung above the desk.
“Oh, charming,” muttered his queen. “My husband is too busy to entertain his wife, so he sends for his bodyguard to finish the job.”
Emin’s glare stopped the queen short and she pulled the sheets to cover her naked body. It was too hot for a shift, even if Coran was joining them, and she was too comfortable to leave the indentation she had shared with Emin but a minute before.
“I’m sorry, Emin, you know I didn’t mean that in spite—but whatever is wrong? I’ve not seen you so angry in years—what’s the news?”
Coran jerked open the door and hurried in before the king had time to answer his wife. The white-eye glanced at the bed and bowed his head even as his eyes followed the linen-covered curves of the queen’s body. The white-eye was barely dressed himself, wearing only a long shirt tied at the waist by the sword-belt he was still in the process of buckling.
Oterness looked at the livid scars on Coran’s knee, he glowered at her and hurried up the spiral staircase. He had barely reached the top stair when Emin reached out a finger and pointed to the uncovered tablet.
“Summon the Brotherhood. We ride for Scree.”
Coran stared at the slate board, unspeaking, until Emin indicated they should go back downstairs. The white-eye slowly raised his knee and ran a finger over the ugly scarring there, his face darkening with fury, then followed his king.
Queen Oterness watched the two men, a shiver running down her spine as she wondered what was affecting them so.
Then Coran spoke, his voice trembling with hatred. “Ilumene,” he said.
The blood drained from Oterness’ face. All was explained in that one word. Before King Emin reached for his clothes he took his queen’s hand and squeezed her fingers. Her other hand fell protectively to her belly, trembling. When she touched the skin below her navel Oterness could feel rough scars, and could trace a name with her fingers. The tattoo she’d put there only hid the name from sight. The scar remained.
“And where we find Ilumene, Rojak will be close at hand,” Emin told her. “And they will both pay.”
At the peak of a long gentle rise, Isak gave a tug on his reins to bring his charger to a halt and leaned on the pommel of his saddle, surveying the ground ahead. His companions joined him on the level crest and waited quietly at his side, enjoying the view. It was well into what had been an afternoon of uninterrupted sunshine and a warm breeze drifted up off the long, empty meadow, bringing the scents of dry grass and blooming wildflowers. The undulating plain, spotted by the odd copse of trees, stretched for a dozen empty miles before reaching the dark edges of a forest. In the far distance a darker patch indicated some sort of lake.
Isak remembered the forest from when he’d travelled this way in his previous life, as an unknown and irrelevant youth on a wagon train. His life now, as the duke he had become, could not be more different. There was only one road, carpeted with pine needles, winding its way under a high canopy of massive old pines. It had felt like the last bastion of home before the Land opened up to admit everyone else, despite being well outside the Farlan border. To the right was a line of five gorse-skirted hillocks, and he remembered the sight from the other side. The regular humps had always looked too neat and, side-on, the line was like the back of some vast serpent sliding out of its burrow in the slope where they now stood.
Carel, commander of Isak’s guard, the friend and mentor of his youth, had told him of the many battles that had been fought just because those hills resembled a snake, the chosen creature of their patron God Nartis; that alone had been enough for past lords in Tirah to consider this place the rightful border between nations, but they had never been able to hold it. A quirk of terrain meant this place was easily surrounded and cut off by armies approaching from the south. The watchtowers put up to warn of approaching enemies, like the castle built on the border itself, had long since been pulled down and now scarcely a trace of their position remained.
They had made good time in their urgent flight home, thanks to King Emin’s royal barge, which sped them to the border where one of his black-clad agents had already secured a fast river-boat for the next leg of the trip, but suddenly Isak was in no hurry to cross into territory that was now his own. Here it was peaceful; here they had the Land to themselves. After their defeat in Narkang, the White Circle had retreated completely from the conflict in Tor Milist and the ruling duke had in turn recalled all of his forces to mop up those cut adrift. Suddenly Tor Milist’s eastern border, that ran alongside the very river that had carried Isak and his party home, was quieter than at any time in the last century. Isak felt a smile creep over his face as the sun warmed his cheeks. He could hear birds, the distinctive warble of song-thrushes somewhere in the dark gorse bushes and, further off, a flock of starlings chattering as they circled in the sky.
I remember a day like this, hawking in the hills of Meyon with my sons and my cousins. The wind smelled the same as today: warm grass and wildflowers on the breeze.
Isak nodded in absentminded agreement with the voice in his head. Count Vesna caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. The handsome nobleman tilted his head up to look at Isak, then gave an almost imperceptible shiver and turned away. Isak had told his companions what happened that night in Llehden, when prophecy had invaded his life and the soul of a dead king had invaded his head. Vesna had said nothing then, and had hardly mentioned it since. Isak could tell he didn’t know what to think. The implications were both terrifying and momentous, not just for Isak, but for their entire nation.
Mihn sat quietly behind Isak, watching his lord’s every movement. He had accepted the situation with his usual fatalistic manner, while Carel and Tila had taken it on board quickly, momentarily stunned, then interested—they’d found their voices quickly and it had taken Isak an hour or more to calm their fears and reassure the pair that he was in no danger. It was hard for them to accept that the soul of Aryn Bwr had tried to take over his body and failed, but Isak persuaded them that Aryn Bwr’s failure was his gain. If the Land expected him to act like a king, then who better to have as an advisor than the greatest king the Land had ever seen? That the dead Elf was also the Gods’ greatest enemy was something of a complication, but Isak was sure he was completely under control, even if his companions had yet to be convinced.
The poppies looked like spilled blood on the ground. There were omens in the sky, and over the Land, but I failed them. I failed to see what was in front of me.
Isak ignored the voice as it fell into melancholy, determined not to let the captive spirit ruin his good mood. Unbroken summer sun was a rare thing in the Spiderweb Mountains and the Farlan cherished such days. Foreigners would joke that the Farlan would halt a war for the chance to enjoy the sun, and as Isak sat there and felt the warmth on his cheeks it sounded a perfectly sensible idea to him. The early evening sun hovered a little above the horizon, casting a golden light out over the Land, freezing it in a long moment of peace before twilight would be permitted its reign.
The last king had fragmented his own soul to escape Death’s final judgment, hiding his thoughts and memories inside the Crystal Skulls he’d forged for that purpose. Now, as those memories returned to the dead king, Isak felt the echoes of Aryn Bwr’s pain. He cast around, searching for something to push the Elf’s dismal thoughts from his mind, but there was little to attract the attention. They were almost at the highest point in the area, but aside from the narrow dirt track they were following there was nothing but a small cairn of stones, some thirty yards away.
In the hills of Meyon I held my heir and watched him die. In the hills of Meyon I cursed the ground where Velere died.
Isak felt a wave of sadness and rage radiate through his body, and he remembered the letter he had carried to King Emin about the place called Velere’s Fell. It was no longer a tale of horror on the page for him, but a glimpse of grief and fury so strong it still scarred the Land, seven thousand years later, and its echo left a sour taste in Isak’s mouth. Isak sighed and scratched his cheek, waving away the inquisitive fly that was darting around his face. Are you really going to ruin a beautiful view for me? he wondered.
This Land is so different to the one I used to know, the voice went on, musing. Its colour has been bleeding out over the long years. Now it is grey, and marked by the scars of my passing. Aryn Bwr was lost in his own thoughts again; only twice since leaving Llehden had Isak actually conversed with the spirit that had taken up residence inside his head.
“That’s my good mood gone,” he muttered, and he slid from the saddle.
“My Lord?” Vesna enquired.
“I just need to stretch my legs for a bit,” Isak said with a dismissive wave of the hand. Carel immediately gave the order for the guards to split up, as he did every time they stopped for a break, then he dismounted himself and joined his young lord. Isak forced a smile and draped an arm over the old man’s shoulder. As they wandered slowly towards the cairn of stones, Isak felt his smile become genuine. Here was a strange thing: only after it had become unseemly for a man in his position had Isak ever felt the urge to hug the man he thought more of a father to him than Horman had ever been.
“You want to pray?” Carel asked in a dubious tone. He’d known Isak for most of the white-eye’s life; Isak had always resented piety when it was imposed upon him.
Isak shrugged. “I should probably get into the habit one of these days, now that I’m important.”
“Still, it’s not something I’d expect from you,” the marshal said softly, careful to keep his voice low so no one could overhear them. The soldiers were handpicked, men of the Palace Guard and completely trustworthy, but this was too astonishing a secret to entrust to anyone else.
“Nor from him,” Isak reminded him with a smile. “Stop fretting like an old woman; Tila can do that perfectly well for the two of you.”
“Then what is this about?” Carel said, puzzled.
Isak sighed. “It’s nothing important, I just want to enjoy this view for a few minutes and clear my head. He’s been finding his memories, the ones locked away in the Crystal Skulls. While part of him had been with me since I was born, there’s much that has been missing for millennia, and it’s not all cheering. The defeated have fewer happy memories.” As he spoke, his fingers went automatically to the glassy shape now fused onto his cuirass. Having felt the vast power they contained, he’d been reluctant to test the ancient artefacts but, strangely, their presence was still comforting.
“What sort of memories?”
“Battles, the death of his son, sometimes just senseless fragments, like my dreams, and sometimes things that explain much.”
“Such as?” Carel encouraged softly.
“You remember the day when this all began?”
Anger smouldered in Isak’s gut until he smothered it. “Aracnan. He killed Velere, Aryn Bwr’s son and heir. I felt Aryn Bwr’s hatred, which is why I wouldn’t go with him—and I guess that was why Aracnan didn’t come any closer; he didn’t know what he was dealing with. When he reached out with his senses, I wasn’t just the frightened young boy he expected.”
“And if you meet him again?” Vesna, with Tila on his arm, joined Isak and Carel, both looking anxiously at the white-eye. The religious charms that were fastened to yellow ribbons and plaited into Tila’s long hair tinkled gently in the breeze.
Isak scowled. “I don’t have an answer to that.” He looked back the way they’d come, almost as if he expected Aracnan to appear, but the trail was clear. Beehunters skimmed the ground, their crooked green wings spread stiffly as they snapped at prey he couldn’t see. The slender birds would have been a good sign if he’d been truly worried about pursuit; they wouldn’t hunt if there were men lying hidden in the grass. “If I meet Aracnan again I don’t know what he’ll do,” he admitted.
“But what will you do? Will you be able to control—him—before he lashes out like he did at the High Priest of Larat?” Tila asked.
“That was different, I wasn’t prepared for him then,” Isak said. “Now I know exactly what danger he poses. You’ll all have to just trust me that Aryn Bwr’s simply not strong enough to take over now. At the Ivy Rings he had his only chance—and he failed. Prepared, I’m too strong for him—and I’m still getting stronger.”
Isak smiled. “Perhaps not physically, but I’ve found there are other things that count—Gods, Carel, can you believe that it was less than a year ago I was driving your wagon and complaining that I’d never even be allowed to join the Palace Guard?” He laughed.
They reached the shrine and Isak ran his fingers over the waist-high cairn. Someone had taken great care fitting the stones together to make it concave rather than conical. It curved around an offering bowl fixed firmly into the structure so half of it was sticking out. The bowl itself was made of rough clay, plain and unfinished, but its contents showed someone valued the shrine. A carved bone comb, a worn but serviceable knife and two small copper coins; they meant nothing to Isak but they were significant enough for whatever shepherd had left them in the first place. Above the bowl was a rounded shard of slate on which had been scratched Vrest’s horns symbol.
“Aye,” confirmed the veteran with a grim face, “less than a year since I joked that the Gods might have a plan for you. Careless words in this life.”
The silver-haired man stepped away from the shrine, hawked up noisily and spat onto the dusty ground. That act earned an admonishing look from Tila, at which Carel hung his head and, after a moment of looking sheepish, he reached into his money-pouch to find a coin for the offering bowl. Tila’s reproach vanished into the glittering smile that Carel had never been able to resist. She beamed at the man as though the veteran guardsman was a five-year-old just learning right from wrong. Carel knelt in front of the shrine and said a short, silent prayer to accompany his offering. As the man bowed his head, Isak felt a touch of breeze skitter down his neck like cool breath. He turned instinctively, but there was nothing there, only the certainty in his mind that the local God of this place was close at hand.
Isak reached out with his senses as gently as he could and to his surprise saw a blurred shadowy shape, like a hawk, circling slowly above the shrine. With a start he realised how frightened the spirit was; strange, he’d expected it to keep as far from him as possible. He placed a hand on the shrine and felt a shudder run through the spirit above it. Suddenly it all made sense: the local God hadn’t moved away because it couldn’t bear to allow him between it and the shrine. The shrine was all it had.
“It’s not been consecrated,” Isak muttered.
“Eh?” Carel said. “The shrine? What about the symbol of Vrest, then?”
“I assume the shepherd who built this doesn’t know much about religion. He probably built it to give thanks for finding a lost lamb or something like that, so it made sense to put the symbol there. He didn’t realise a priest still needed to consecrate it.”
“I will make a note of it, and we’ll inform the nearest border village unmen,” Vesna said.
“Don’t bother,” Isak replied. “It’s over the border, and it won’t remain peaceful in Tor Milist for long. There are too many mercenaries—any priest daring to come this way will need an armed escort, and that escort would either be the local suzerain’s hurscals—and then we’ll be accused of taking part in the conflict—or soldiers wearing neither crest nor colours, and they’d risk attack by anyone who sees them.”
Vesna stared at him before a smile spread over his face. “Gods on high, perhaps we’ll make a lord of you yet!”
Isak gave a snort and grabbed Carel by the scruff of his neck to haul him upright again. “Perhaps you will at that—and to think all I ever wanted was to join the Palace Guard. You people should learn to pay more attention when you’re handing out jobs!”
The comment provoked a burst of laughter from his companions. “If you’ll forgive the observation, my Lord,” Vesna said, his grin widening, “you’ve still not passed the trials. Now I’m willing to admit you’ve done a few things on the battlefield some might call noteworthy, but that doesn’t mean you can just walk into the Ghosts.”
Isak gave a hiss of mock exasperation and thumped the count on the shoulder in response.
“I can’t see Kerin agreeing to it,” Carel agreed, “but I’m not going to be one to complain about unearned honours; I still don’t quite believe I’m now Marshal Carelfolden, and you’re still just some snotty-nosed child I took pity on a few times. Sweet Nartis, it must be more than thirteen summers since I found you snivelling in that wood, knees and elbows all scratched up—feels like last month. What’d they done to you again?”
The four of them began to walk back to the horses. Mihn stood with Mistress Daran, Tila’s chaperone, holding the reins.
“They led me out to the river,” Isak replied in a small voice, his smile fading somewhat, “then they pushed me down the bank and left me lost out there.”
“Ah yes, nasty little buggers some of them were. Still, children don’t know better and their parents didn’t give ’em any reason to think what they were doing was wrong. We got them back though, didn’t we?” Carel chortled.
The memory restored Isak’s cheer. “Garner berries, still one of the best ideas you ever had. Never felt so happy at the smell of shit as that day!” He scratched his cheek and looked west towards Scree, where the surviving White Circle and Fysthrall troops were believed to have fled.
“I think it’s going to take more than garner berries to get the revenge I need nowadays.”
Vesna gave a nod. Isak had put off the discussion of how he was going to respond to the White Circle’s attempt to enslave him, though he had talked freely since leaving Narkang about what had happened in the abandoned temple in Llehden, and his connection with the white-eye, Xeliath. The Yeetatchen girl was something else he didn’t fully understand, and another decision Isak knew he would have to make soon. He just had to hope that those closest to him wouldn’t become too nervous of the company Isak kept in his mind: the Gods’ greatest enemy, and the daughter of a foreign nobleman, one of the Farlan’s ancient adversaries.
“A wagon-brat shouldn’t have to make this sort of decision,” Isak sighed.
Tila shook her head. “Better a wagon-brat with some sort of a brain than half of those bred for the job.” Her vehemence took them all by surprise, but Tila carried on regardless, “Read a history of the Litse sometime and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The Farlan have remained strong because of the new blood it brings into the aristocracy. The other tribes might mock us for our rigidity in tradition, but the Litse’s biggest problem has always been the fact that commoners can never amount to anything. The ruling élite has always been weak and bickering, while the armies are led by men with the right family background, not any skill at the job. You might not have the training for your title, but we’ll rectify that—and at least you don’t have the baggage a proud family history always brings.”
“Well, that’s very sweet of you to say so,” Isak said with a smile.
“I mean it,” Tila said, ignoring his levity. “You’ll learn what you need to and Lesarl will manage the details, just as he did for Lord Bahl. The most important thing is that you have the strength to make the decisions, and your strength is one thing I’m happy to rely on.”
“So I was bred for the job after all,” Isak admitted after a pause. “Stronger and bigger than normal men, and unable to have children except with my own rare kind. White-eyes are born to lead, and born to lack those family ties you’re talking about.”
Tila nodded. “And you more than others, it appears. Since the battle in Narkang, and what happened at Llehden, you’ve reminded me of a line from one of the old tribal sagas, when King Deliss Farlan, father of Kasi, the first white-eye, says, ‘History echoing in his footsteps.’”
“Now there’s a curse,” Carel muttered, the lines on his face more pronounced as he frowned.
“No it isn’t,” she insisted. “It’s a burden, yes, but think of all you’ve achieved since you left the wagon train; you’ve only eighteen summers and already you’ve done things that wouldn’t disgrace the heroes of myth. White-eyes were created by the Gods to fight and to lead in their names, but most will never have such a marked effect on the Land.”
Isak pointed at Mihn as they approached the waiting horses. “What about him? He killed the Queen of the Fysthrall, a white-eye, and one carrying a Crystal Skull at that.”
Mihn ignored the finger jabbing towards him, though his eyes took in every detail. The only non-Farlan in the group, Mihn was noticeably smaller than the other men, and his nondescript clothes and tidy manner made him easy to ignore sometimes. Only his eyes belied his unassuming appearance; they were too bright and observant, the eyes of a predator.
Isak lowered his hand as Mihn stepped forward to join them, saying, “a deed that will haunt me my entire life.”
“You are a white-eye, and one born for great deeds; I am not of such consequence to the rest of the Land. The fate of common men who stumble into great events is never so happy.”
Before any of them could contest the claim a voice called out from behind them, “Happiness is such a relative thing; it’s the lack of reward that annoys me.”
Isak jumped, hand closing around his sword hilt as he turned, but in the next instant he recognised the speaker and raised a hand to stop his guards closing. Morghien was looking as dishevelled as the first time they had met, and wearing that same mocking, infuriating smile. His weathered face looked as though the years had been hard on him, but Isak was one of the few who knew just how supernaturally well the man of many spirits had aged.
“You,” exclaimed Carel angrily, tugging his black-iron scimitar free of the scabbard as he strode forward. Morghien didn’t pull the battered axe from his belt or let the loaded pack on his back slip off his shoulders but waited beside the shrine and watched Carel come towards him, his expression unchanged.
“You’re going to have to be more careful who you sneak up on next time,” Carel snapped at the man. “I don’t like bloody surprises ’cept on my birthday, so next time you creep up on us my boys will kick seven shades of shit out of you.”
“Oh come now, is that any way to treat an ally?”
“It is nowadays,” Carel said with feeling. He hadn’t put his sword up. “In case you’re not up with current events, surprises aren’t welcome any more.”
“I heard about Lord Bahl,” Morghien said, no trace of emotion in voice or face. “A shame, but not much of a surprise, with hindsight. Xeliath tells me it was Lord Styrax who killed him. If that’s true we have quite a problem on our hands.”
“We?” echoed Isak hotly. “And which city do you rule that makes it your problem?”
“I don’t care for the Lord of the Menin, and if it involves those I call allies and complicates my own plans, I consider it a problem.” Morghien’s eyes were fixed on Isak and he remained calm and confident—until the seconds stretched on and he became aware of Isak, slowly tapping his fingernail against the emerald set into his sword hilt. Morghien frowned, his normal self-assurance wavering slightly.
Under different circumstances Isak would have been pleased to disconcert Morghien, but there was little to be happy about here. “Your friend,” he said, “the Seer of Ghorendt . . .”
“Fedei? What about Fedei?”
“We stopped there on the way back—well, we tried to. The guards made it very clear before we even reached the city walls that we were not welcome.”
“Not welcome?” Morghien’s face fell. “Is Fedei dead?”
“We don’t know; Ghorendt is closed to outsiders. All we could discover was that it happened the day after Silvernight. As we left the river we found ourselves staring at the pointy ends of a dozen arrows, so we turned back. There was talk of the Seer being trapped behind locked doors, and every mirror in the house being broken.”
As Isak spoke, Morghien’s face darkened. “I know whose handiwork that is,” he muttered.
“Why? Fedei didn’t strike me as a major player in your games.”
Morghien shook his head. “He wasn’t, he’s simply a warm-hearted academic with a rare skill, the ability to see the shape of future events.” He broke off, then added, “Xeliath has told me something of what happened that Silvernight, of the twist in history that occurred.”
“One that was in part thanks to your intervention,” Isak broke in, feeling a little ashamed that he’d not remembered when Carel was threatening to kill Morghien that it had been the wanderer who had given him the key to surviving Aryn Bwr’s assault. “Without you, I don’t think I would have survived.”
Morghien waved away the thanks as he stood in silence, frowning at the ground. After a few moments, he came to a decision. “You can tell me the rest of the story over dinner. We have more to discuss than I realised, and perhaps I can shed some light on the mystery of Ghorendt.”
They continued on their way while the light was still good, following the two rangers past the small lake and on towards a spring that ran through the heart of a cluster of ash and elm trees on the periphery of the forest. They hurried past the lake out of habit; still waters were a poor omen, and only to be used as a last resort. Such places attracted all sorts of spirits. This one was little more than fifty yards wide in any direction, but being so close to a disputed border, it would undoubtedly have its share of swords and axes rusting away in its depths; tributes to the greatest of the Gods, He who had already claimed the owners of the weapons. Not every lake was a certain gateway to Death’s realm, but no one wanted to linger.
The sun had sunk below the horizon before they stopped and lit fires. The warmth of the day remained as the darkness drew in, and the little group of travellers ate unhurriedly, then chatted amiably, their backs resting against tree-trunks, looking up at the comforting light of the stars and both moons.
When the soldiers started settling down for the night, Morghien stood and beckoned for Isak to follow him. The white-eye paused only to sling his swordbelt over his shoulder and indicate to Carel that he didn’t want an escort.
Within a minute or two he and Morghien were walking through the trees, following the slope of the ground down until they reached a natural hollow of no great depth, no more than twenty yards across. At the bottom of the hollow was a stone lying half-buried in the earth, its surface worn flat by wind and rain and looking like a crudely carved tabletop. Isak glanced back and saw Mihn watching them from the tree line. The failed Harlequin’s face, framed by shadow, was strangely comforting. He gestured for the man to return to his bed, but felt curiously pleased when Mihn ignored the order and maintained his vigil.
“This is ideal,” Morghien commented, running a hand over the stone’s surface.
“Ideal for what?”
“A little magic. My skills have never been remarkable, but this is a simple thing if you have the right tools.”
He took out a small silver-bladed knife, battered and worn by years of use. Isak could tell it had a simple charm on it, though not what sort. Morghien scored a faint cross about a foot long on the stone’s surface and connected the ends so that the cross was bound within a diamond. From the same pocket he pulled a golden chain on which was strung a set of fat, oversized coins, all made from different materials and set with gemstones.
“Gods,” Isak breathed, reaching out to touch one until Morghien jerked it away, “what are those?”
“It’s called an augury chain; it’s used for divination. The way they fall and their position in relation to each other can reveal a surprising amount, if the caster has the experience to properly interpret what he sees.” Morghien saw the sceptical look on Isak’s face. “Don’t look like that,” he said sternly, “this isn’t the random drawing of cards. Each coin is aligned to a God of the Upper Circle, blessed by a high priest of that God and thus touched by a being outside of time or the laws governing the Land. When cast by a mage, there is a pattern spread over the board that guides the fall of the coins. Trust me, this is not mere chance.”
He held up a blank disc of gold, turning it over to show Isak its flip side, obsidian or polished jet.
“There are two that aren’t aligned to the Upper Circle: this one, the Lady’s Coin, represents Chance, but in a very specific way, and the Mortal, which is usually the principal coin in a casting, since all events ultimately revolve around people.”
He carefully separated out another coin on the chain as he spoke and held it out to Isak, keeping the others well away. Isak realised it was lapis lazuli, deep blue with a thin speckled line of pyrite. “This is Nartis’ coin, as you can probably guess. I suggest you don’t touch any of the others, as you might upset the balance.” He grinned. “And here’s a piece of advice for you: never trust a priest with one of these. Without the balance of alignment they’re useless—worse than useless—because whatever is read that way will be horribly skewed.”
“What about the cross?” Isak asked as he ran the dead white fingers of his left hand over the disc’s polished surface. The snake symbol of Nartis was engraved in the centre and surrounded by an unfamiliar script Isak assumed was the huntsman’s prayer. As Morghien gave an approving nod, Isak realised his magic-marked hand would probably improve Nartis’ own coin.
“The cross is our board, divided into quarters: the heavens and the land above, fire and water below. I have owned this augury chain for many years now, and I know its moods well enough. The position of each coin in relation to the board and each other once the blanks have been removed should provide an answer to the question in your mind when you cast the coins.”
“The blanks? Ah, only one side is engraved,” Isak said, turning the Nartis coin over. “What about the Lady’s Coin, though? That one’s blank on both sides.”
“That one is rather special,” Morghien agreed. “The obsidian side indicates that a path is already taken and Fate herself cannot change a matter. Here, Fate acts as the idea of chance, or suggesting an opportunity to take. When the black side comes up on this particular chain, however, on my chain, I suspect it represents Azaer.”
The word hung in the air between them as Isak stared down at the tiny reflection of Alterr, the greater moon, on the coin’s polished surface. Though he knew little about Azaer—or the shadow, as King Emin called it—he was certain it had been watching him over the last few months. The night normally held no terrors for Isak, who had been walking the Land with only the moons for company all his life, but several times recently he’d felt an unaccountable fear, and found himself fleeing to the light. Even King Emin had been unable to tell him why the shadow did what it did. Isak did not want to be caught up in Azaer’s plans.
Without wasting any further time, Morghien unhooked the clasp holding the chain closed and held the stack of coins above the board. The Mortal was on the bottom. They fell with a clatter onto the stone as the hunter’s moon came out from behind a cloud to cast its tinted light over the stone board.
As Morghien leaned close over them, his hand poised to remove the blanks, a hiss escaped his lips.
Isak looked down himself, and realised that even he could read what the board was saying only too well: just inside the quarter Morghien had called the heavens lay the Mortal, almost entirely covered by the obsidian side of the Lady’s Coin.
“Azaer did not want you to meet Fedei again, and so I lose another dear friend,” whispered Morghien to the night, and he bowed his head in grief.
The next day was cooler and overcast, with wide furrowed clouds that darkened towards the horizon and threatened rain. They made for the forest road, riding mostly in silence as every member of the party listened hard for the crash of branches and drum of following hooves. Having abandoned the river, they headed directly north, skirting the borderland between Tor Milist and the lands claimed by the Farlan. Their destination now was the suzerainty of Saroc, a longer journey, but one that avoided the most obvious route home.
One glance at a map made it abundantly clear where the danger lay: on the river that took them up the border between Nerlos and the suzerainty of Tildek, seat of the inordinately powerful Certinse family. Suzerain Tildek and his nephew, the Duke of Lomin, would be overjoyed to catch Lord Isak with only a small force of guards before the young heir could reach Tirah and assert his claim. Their only dilemma would be deciding between themselves as to which of them should become king.
Riding on the fringe of the group, Morghien sat awkwardly atop one of the spare horses, his eyes fixed on the lead Ghost. As there was nothing he could do for Wisten Fedei, Morghien had agreed to Isak’s suggestion that he accompany them to Tirah instead. He wasn’t a natural horseman, and his discomfort added to his misery as the hours crawled past.
Isak had worried that the forest was too quiet, but early in the afternoon, when the forest thinned to the familiar sight of groves and thickets encircled by pastureland that characterised much of Farlan territory, the Land remained deserted. Where they would expect sheep and cattle to be grazing, thus far they hadn’t seen even a rabbit, and the air was empty of birdsong. Isak had spent enough time alone in the wilds to know what a quiet day sounded like; this was the silence that followed a hunting predator.
“We crossed the Longbow River two hours ago now,” he said, breaking the silence. “We should have seen someone by now.” Like his soldiers, Isak was riding in full armour, his helm upturned in his lap. Jeil and Borl, the rangers, were scouting ahead with Mihn; Isak didn’t believe anyone could catch all three of them unawares, but still he felt better when his hand was resting on the hilt of his sword. There was something nagging at the back of his mind. He looked around again; there were few enough hiding places nearby—and yet he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.
“Do you think we’re walking into a trap?” Tila asked from behind him. Isak turned in his saddle and gave what he hoped was an encouraging smile. It didn’t seem to have the desired effect; Tila twitched her nose at him and looked away.
“I hope not,” he said. “I just keep getting the feeling someone’s spying on us.” A tremor ran down his spine like a ghostly finger and he flinched, unable to stop himself from checking around again. “Ignore me, Tila. I’m just being foolish. I’d trust our scouts over anyone else.”
“Some things they can’t see,” Morghien said in a distant voice. He closed his eyes for the moment, an inquisitive look on his face. “Is it magic you feel?”
“I—” Isak stopped. His inexperience counted against him once more. “I don’t really know enough about it to be sure.”
“Isak,” Carel said, an intent look on his face, “what do your instincts say? No, don’t think about it—don’t try magic or anything you’re not so familiar with. I know you, and I trust your instincts; tell me right now: do you think we’re being watched?”
Isak nodded. “I think we are.”
“Right.” Carel raised a hand to signal the halt. “Helms on, lances out. Spare mounts behind us; Tila, Mistress Daran, stay in the middle, and Morghien, stay with them, no matter what happens. The bastards must have a mage scrying for us, which means we are going to be hit, and when that happens I want you getting the women away. You’re not a knight, trained in battle, so you’re the one we can spare in a straight fight.” He stopped for a moment, suddenly remembering protocol, and looked at Isak, gesturing at his helm. “My Lord?”
The white-eye smiled as he remembered a saying he’d heard once: Tradition rules the Farlan, the lord just tells everyone what to do. He pulled the blue hood from his belt and slipped it over his head, then raised the distorting mirror helm over his head. Even on a nondescript day like this the light reflected strangely off it. Isak was glad his enemies were the ones who had to look at that soulless face. “Gentlemen, your helms.”
Isak’s party was already diminished, with eight dead and three seriously wounded who had remained in Narkang, so the absence of the scouts was pronounced. Mihn in particular had become a comforting presence, always in Isak’s shadow; in his absence Isak felt unaccountably vulnerable.
Looking around, his eyes came to rest on Carel, organising the spare horses into a train they could abandon if necessary. The old soldier wouldn’t thank him for pointing it out, but it was high time he retired. Isak thought he looked too small for plate-armour now, as if the loss of youth had drained inches and more from the man. The battle in Narkang had been evidence enough; Carel was still undeniably good with a sword, but hours of combat in heavy plate was exhausting for anyone; this time the effort had nearly killed Carel. When we get to Tirah I’ll speak to Lesarl about widows with manor houses and grandchildren he could grumble about, he thought to himself.
“Lord Isak’s right; the woods are too quiet,” commented Morghien as Vesna and Carel helped Tila and her chaperone pull shields onto their backs. Neither had armour, of course, but the chances were high that any ambush would be by light cavalry, and while the shields would be useless against a longbow, anything smaller might not penetrate.
“The quiet could be good for us,” said the count. “There’s no wind, sound will travel well, and any ambush will require more than one regiment—having seen Lord Isak in battle, any force of fewer than a hundred men would be taking quite a risk.”
“Vesna, find us somewhere to defend,” Isak snapped, scanning the trees ahead. He could feel movement out there somewhere, movement, and eyes on them. There was magic involved, but this was a predator and the animals of the forest had recognised it.
They broke through a line of high ash trees and moved on to clearer ground. A gentle slope ran down towards a stream which disappeared from view behind higher ground off to the left, but it was steep and thick with tangling hawthorns. Isak didn’t need to be told that that was the wrong direction; they could find themselves cornered fifty yards in.
“There should be rocky ground there, where the stream comes out,” Vesna said, pointing to the right. “Look at the lie of the ground: those bushes are probably hiding a sharp drop where the stream comes out. We aim for that rocky ground, and if there’s no threat when we get there we move in to the trees behind and find our scouts. We must move fast. If we’re caught in open ground by cavalry we don’t stand a chance.”
As one, the horses moved forward at a brisk trot. Isak sat high and tense in his saddle, straining to detect anything over the rattle of armour and the thud of hoofs on the hard ground. He snapped at the reins irritably, trying to hold in Toramin’s impatient steps, and as he did so his arm brushed the Skull fixed in his breastplate, reminding him of the power the objects gave him. Forged by the last king of the Elves for use in the Great War, the Skulls gave access to more magic than any mortal could naturally summon. With a Crystal Skull, even the Gods of the Pantheon’s Upper Circle could be killed—so he should be able to open his senses to the Land around him while he was running for cover.
Isak touched his mailed fingers to the Skull and through the enchanted silver encasing his body he felt an immediate rush of exhilaration flow through him. The power he could access now was simply terrifying—he’d been nervous about experimenting with the Skulls until he was safe in Tirah Palace, but now he didn’t have a choice. He was careful to allow only a trickle of energy to leak out of the artefact and into his body, but that tiny fraction was enough. A sense of the terrain around them settled over his mind, like a silk cloak descending. The wind rippling through the fat blades of grass on the open slope made him shiver and the chill trickle of water cut sharp through his soul. He focused on the trees ahead and a noise suddenly filled his ears: hoof beats, and the clatter of metal.
“Riders ahead,” he called quietly. “They’re closing fast. First squad with me, battle order.”
Aryn Bwr stirred hungrily in his mind, but Isak angrily crowded it out. This was Isak’s fight and he didn’t need anything to distract him. At his urging, Toramin leapt forward and the rest followed in two groups, one with him, the second dropping fifteen yards behind to give them space to manoeuvre. They were closer to the river than the far tree line, and fifty yards out Isak saw what he’d been hoping for: large slabs of rock breaking up a hollow in the slope, and a jagged wall of rock and earth, leaving no more than twenty yards of ground to fight on and no space behind them to be encircled by cavalry. Low-spreading yews were dotted all over the crest, and Isak understood why Vesna had aimed for that area in particular. Their attackers would be on horseback, and there was a good chance it wouldn’t occur to cavalrymen to dismount and creep around the back any time soon.
As they reached the river and slowed to cross it, two riders burst from the trees ahead of them, riding full-tilt. One stood up in his stirrups as soon as he saw them and bellowed at the top of his voice, “Riders behind! Tildek and Lomin soldiers!”
Isak’s hand tightened: the whole Certinse family. How long had they been waiting for this opportunity? They reached the cleft in the hill and Isak wheeled Toramin in a tight circle to survey where they would be making their stand. It wasn’t perfect, but there were jutting stones that would prevent a full charge, and some cover at least. The two scouts, Jeil and Mihn, reached them at breakneck speed, their ponies hardly slowing as they reached the taller hunters and found gaps between them to slow and turn in. Both men looked flushed and were out of breath.
“Borl took an arrow and fell from his horse,” Jeil gasped. “We saw banners from at least two different regiments of light cavalry.” He was gulping air down, getting his wind back for the fight ahead as he struggled to control his words. The rangers were ruthlessly loyal, and Jeil was raging inside that he’d not been able to cut the archer’s throat before he fled.
“No hurscals, no nobles, but I heard more cavalry not far away.” Mihn looked rather more composed. The sudden ride had forced rare animation onto his normally stony face; he looked truly alive, instead of being a shadow of a man.
“Two regiments, and probably fifty hurscals,” Vesna guessed. “Right, lances in the ground, form a spike wall. Keep the tips high so they can see what we intend. It might make them hesitate.”
Isak nodded. “And I need to find those damned mages.”
Harnessing the trickle of power and opening his senses again, Isak quested out, but this time with a purpose that the Skull of Hunting eagerly embraced. The pursuers had reached the tree line, three hundred yards away, but there they stopped. Going further, Isak felt more bodies and smelled the musk of horses on the wind in several distinct places. Within the last he felt some sharp pinpricks of magic and swooped in closer: there! Three of them, protective wards already raised, all taking no chances—Isak could taste the streams of energy surrounding them, bitter in the back of his throat, nothing he recognised, or desired contact with. A wry smile crept onto his lips; their own defences had betrayed them. In his head he heard Aryn Bwr speak with cold dispassion: They can’t sense you, kill them quickly and withdraw.
Isak looked around as the rest of his party arrived at the cleft. In the distance he could see the spare horses milling around in fear and confusion, beginning to drift back towards their fellows.
“My Lord, I can see archers,” Mihn said suddenly. Isak jerked his head round—they couldn’t let archers close the gap; they had only a few bows themselves and they would never survive an exchange.
“Tila, Mistress Daran, get to the back, help hobble the horses, then find a rock to shelter behind. Mihn, tell me if they get closer.”
Isak closed his eyes as everyone took up their positions. The Ghosts were on foot now, kneeling down, axes laid out before them and lances held high. No one spoke. Seeing Isak in the breach at Narkang, emulating Nartis himself in battle, had affected them all profoundly. He would never be treated with the friendly camaraderie of fellow soldiers, for they regarded him with awed devotion. They would follow his orders without question.
In the forest beyond, Isak began to delicately test the defences of the three mages until, in a very short time, he found what he was looking for. He didn’t know what any of the spells surrounding them did exactly, but he could sense a gap in one, like an incomplete web. Isak reached out with his left hand, picturing the tips of his dead white fingers slipping between the threads of energy and clamping about the mage’s neck. He felt rather than heard a yelp of fear as the mage’s shield collapsed inwards. The revolting flavour grew in his mouth, both familiar and yet completely unknown.
Touched by Larat, that one, said Aryn Bwr, ordained then given over to a daemon. Kill him quickly before his new master intervenes.
The white-eye needed no further encouragement. The situation was bad enough as it was without a daemon incarnating. Tightening his hand into a fist, he felt a small snap, then let the corpse drop from his fingers.
“One dead,” he announced. Isak felt rather than saw the questioning expressions behind their helms; even Carel, his oldest friend, was a little reluctant to ask what Isak was now capable of, for fear of the answer.
“Any others?” the veteran asked briskly.
“They’re paying attention now; I only got one because they weren’t watching for me.” Isak slipped on his shield and scanned the ground ahead. Three companies of horsemen had left the cover of the trees and were intent on crossing the river to cut off any escape. They were keeping a respectful distance, perhaps uneasy even now to march on the Chosen of Nartis, but he knew that wouldn’t last. Isak allowed himself a moment of pity: the soldiers and sworn bondsmen had no choice but to follow their liege into battle, even when they knew the wrong of it. He shook his head. Time enough for sympathy if he lived, and for that, he must kill as many of them as he could.
“They’re just going to form up and stick us like pincushions,” muttered Vesna as he watched the cavalry cross the stream. “I doubt they’ll bother trying to get in behind us now they know we’ve got nowhere to run.”
“Get the armour off the horses to give us some protection. The longer we’re alive the more of them I can kill at a distance.”
“There’s no time for that—look, those are hurscals.”
Vesna pointed to more troops leaving the trees and Isak recognised the square heraldic flags, present only when the duke or suzerain was on the field. He spotted the barbican emblem of Lomin.
“The whole festering clan is here then,” Isak muttered, “but how did Duke Certinse get here so fast?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Vesna growled. “What we need to know is how we’re going to survive this.
Three companies on the left, and one, maybe two, still in the trees? Then we’ve got heavy cavalry, a good fifty. My Lord, we need those mages dead; we can’t afford to have them keep you busy.”
“I can’t get to them.” Isak paused, waiting for some sort of response from Aryn Bwr, but the voice in his head was silent. “I’m just going to ward them off as best I can.”
“While we fight against odds of ten to one? What about what you did on the palace walls in Narkang?”
“That would kill every single one of you; I don’t know whether even I would survive it. No, we need some help from somewhere.” Isak’s voice tailed off as a memory suddenly appeared in his head. The forest spirits in Llehden—the gentry—if they had called him friend, then perhaps other spirits of the Land would also. It might not be much of an advantage, but he’d take anything. He closed his eyes and took deep, calming breaths to get the anxious drum of his heart under control, then he opened his senses to the Land—which already felt like a seductively natural act.
The two remaining mages noticed immediately, and Isak felt them abandon the smoky ribbon of magic linking them as they scrambled to strengthen their own defences. Whatever spell they had been working on dissipated almost immediately. Instead of probing their defences further, Isak left the mages to their distraction and moved beyond them to run his fingers through the cool heavy earth and listen to the ponderous breath of the trees all around. There was a remarkable stillness shrouding the whole area, once the irritation of humans was ignored. Isak felt his heart slow and relax as his jangling fear seeped away into the black soil beneath him and disappeared. He began to quest out in all directions, nosing at stones, following a ripple dance its way down the stream, blindly weaving his way down the tunnels of rabbits and moles as the sensation of the damp earth grew around him like a protective cocoon. Only then, suffused by a sense of peace, did he notice a difference in one area, like a twisted knot of iron in a haystack. He felt it stir, only the slightest of movements, but enough to make the riverbed where it lay tremble softly.
With great care Isak approached as it stirred again, brightening and expanding, almost like a tree waking slowly into summer. There was a note of muzzy confusion before the creature shook itself to wakefulness and noticed Isak—and the water suddenly surged, a flurry of movement. He felt a shape arch up out of the water and stretch to its full height. Isak hurriedly retreated back in on himself and cut the flow of magic flowing from him, but not before he felt a pulse of pure fury radiate out from the creature.
Vesna rounded on him. “Bugger? What do you mean? What in the name of Ghenna has happened now?”
“Well, it seems things could have been worse after all,” Isak muttered grimly. “I think I just woke something up, and it’s not happy.”
Vesna opened his mouth but his retort was cut off as one of the Ghosts in the line gave a bellow.
“Piss and daemons, what’s that?” The man pointed a hundred yards down the stream to where something was thrashing under the surface. Isak strained to see, but all he could make out was furious spurts of water erupting. As the taste of its anger filled the air, Isak, to his horror, recognised it.
“It reminds me—But not the same—Oh Gods, the Chalebrat, from the battle with the Elves!”
“Like a Chalebrat?” spat Mihn from Isak’s left, so sudden and unexpected that the white-eye jumped at the sound. “You’ve just woken a Malviebrat? A water elemental? My Lord, we are the only ones near the water!”
All eyes jumped to the drifting water of the stream that ran no more than five yards to their left. Here it was calm and almost clear, about two feet deep and running smoothly over a bed of pebbles, a straight path towards the boiling chaos Isak had stirred up.
“Shit, it’s coming this way!”
The churning column of water abruptly resolved into the shape of a tall figure striding down the centre of the stream, water seething and dancing furiously at its feet.
“Mihn, any ideas?”
The small man cast his eyes around desperately as the Malviebrat closed in on them. The soldiers lining up against them had stopped and all eyes were on the creature, exactly as Isak had intended. But there was no doubting the intent in its walk. “I—Perhaps a show of strength? They are creatures of magic, after all, and however much you’re angered it, it must have some sense of self-preservation.”
The wanderer’s eyes flashed open and his features seemed to flicker for a moment until they became his usual weather-beaten face. Isak felt a moment of hope as he remembered what Mihn had called him once, the man of many spirits. One of those had been a local Goddess bound to a stream.
Morghien shook his head wearily. “Seliasei cannot reach it; the Malviebrat will not listen to her.”
“A show of force?” Isak repeated.
Morghien rubbed his hand over his face to wipe away the sensation of allowing the Aspect
control of his body. “Will probably not work, but it is worth a try. If you fight it, don’t worry that your blade passes through it. Elementals use magic to hold their form; the more you cut through that form, the weaker it will become.”
“Worth a try,” Isak confirmed. He felt a wolfish grin creep onto his face as he readied himself and felt the huge reserve of energy inside the Skulls pulse with eagerness. “Cover your eyes.”
Isak raised his arms, holding sword and shield up to the sky, and blistering light burst into life in an arc beyond his hands. He could feel the heat it gave off; even with his eyes almost entirely closed the light was nearly unbearable. The lashing coils of energy bucked and kicked as he fought to control them. The impact of the magic smashing into itself reverberated down into his massive shoulders. The air shuddered and screamed around him as the streams of energy within the arc writhed about each other, but after a few moments Isak felt the magic reluctantly submit to his control.
He felt as though he were rising up on the air, and all sensation other than the enormous power in his hands fell away. Isak struggled not to cry out at the overwhelming strength flowing through his body; he felt invulnerable, divine. The Malviebrat seemed to recognise his divinity too: its advance faltered, but instead of stopping, a palpable surge of rage radiated out and on it came. Isak watched the fluid motion of its limbs and it stretched out into a sprint. It looked like Siulents as it moved. The white froth of its body was tinted the faintest of blues, and it was deceptively quick with the unnatural grace of water come alive.
As the Malviebrat surged towards Isak, fists bunched and ready, he heard screams from behind him as the horses caught sight of the unearthly figure. With a thought, Isak split the weaves of magic running between his hands. The creature was not cowed, but he remembered Morghien’s words. The vast energy he held would disrupt the elemental’s body, even if nothing showed. Wrapping one crackling loop of magic around his shield and another around Eolis, Isak charged forward to get clear of his own men. He readied himself to fight.
The Malviebrat swung wildly towards Isak as he came towards it. The white-eye ducked and spun around, letting momentum carry the blade into its belly and on through its body. The elemental howled as it stopped and turned, raking down with clawed hands onto Isak’s raised shield. To Isak it felt like an axe had been slammed down, sending a shower of droplets into his face, blinding him for a moment. He slashed wildly upwards and felt Eolis cut something, momentarily driving the creature off. When he cleared his eyes it was on him again, but this time he was prepared, riding the blow as he cut to the knee, then reversing his blade and ripping it up into the groin, and right through to the elemental’s shoulder.
Again the creature screamed, but the cuts, heavy impacts as Isak felt them, seemed to pass through and out without causing any obvious damage other than a blaze in the water of its body as Eolis cut through it. Isak gave steady ground, cutting forward again and again, until at last the elemental seemed to slow and Isak felt his chance come. With every scrap of a white-eye’s unnatural speed he slashed and tore at his enemy, using his shield as a club to batter away at it, following each blow with another. The Malviebrat reeled under his furious assault and squealed like a wounded boar before bursting apart into a sudden torrent of water.
Isak stopped and looked around at the stream he was standing in. There was no sign of the elemental; the still air above seemed frozen with shock at the violence of his assault. He noticed his breathing again, ragged through his tight throat, and then the sounds of the Land once more rushed back to him. His toes twitched automatically as he felt the chill of the water invading his boots and that stirred him into action.
Turning back to his soldiers, Isak saw them staring. Most were wearing helms, but Morghien and Mihn stood with their mouths hanging open in astonishment. Isak felt a growl of annoyance as he started back towards them. Just once, it would be nice if people didn’t look at him that way after a battle.
Distant shouts reminded Isak that not all the enemy had fled: the cavalry were still formed up on each side of the stream some two hundred yards away, arrows nocked, just waiting for the order. The smaller group of knights between them were noblemen and hurscals in the dull burgundy livery of Lomin, but Isak had eyes only for the man at the centre. The scarlet wolf’s head helm would have made Duke Certinse’s identity obvious even without the flag of Lomin hanging limply above his head. Isak, still standing in mid-stream, allowed himself a moment to stare at one of the few men in the Land who was his peer, in both age and station.
“What are you waiting for then?” Isak said under his breath. “It’s a bit late for second thoughts now.”
No answer appeared, and with a flourish Isak sheathed his sword and turned his back on them.
He kept his eyes fixed on Count Vesna as he returned to his comrades, keeping his pace steady. He knew he looked unconcerned, assured—the glamour of Siulents ensured that—but inside he was beginning to feel the first strains of panic. A score of men against several regiments was no battle at all, and try as he might, Isak couldn’t think of any way out. To have come so far, only to be killed as he crossed the border seemed like a sick joke.
Gods, is this really it? After all those dreams? I was sure I knew who was going to kill me, but I guess that was all wrong. Perhaps Aryn Bwr was right when he said I had broken history . . . perhaps no portent will now hold true for me.
Isak couldn’t help but take a quick glance around at the trees on either side. “Stop it,” he muttered to himself, “there’s no one there. You’re being foolish. It’s fear playing with you, nothing more.”
“Archers coming forward at slow order,” said Vesna in a neutral tone as Isak reached his guards. The white-eye nodded, not trusting himself to speak. His hand bunched into a fist as he felt a growing knot in his stomach. He’d been frightened before, many times, but this was the first time he’d had the luxury of time to savour its bitter flavour.
The absence of magic coursing through his body added to the sensation, he realised, feeling insubstantial, almost weak as his impending death reared in his mind. Everything else fled before that: here he was, armed with weapons to make a God envious—and there was no help to be found. He was outnumbered, miles from safety, and not so inexperienced that he didn’t know that any magic he did use would kill him and his friends as surely as it would those they were fighting.
A flicker of anger appeared at that thought. If I’m going to die, so is that bastard Certinse. I couldn’t stand to take my last breath and see his triumphant grin. I’d rather put out my own eyes first. He looked up at the overcast sky. The poacher’s moon would have fallen behind the horizon by now. If Nartis was watching, he was obviously content to leave his Chosen to whatever fate was coming.
“More horsemen, my Lord,” someone called, and a soldier pointed off to their left. A group of mounted men trotted in line at the top of the slope, following the path Isak’s party had taken, anonymous against the darkness of the tall pines.
“Vesna, do you recognise them?”
Vesna craned his neck, then shook his head. “I can’t tell. They’re wearing a uniform I don’t recognise, but they’re riding hunters, and they’re not knights or hurscals, not all in black like that.”
“Their leader isn’t,” Carel said, sounding confused. “Is that—? Gods, it’s a bloody chaplain leading them!”
He was right: as the party came closer they could make out the one man not in black was sporting the white robes of a legion chaplain. His hood was pushed back to display a bald head and a long grey beard hung down over his chest. As they neared, the chaplain stood up in his stirrups and called something towards the enemy cavalry, swinging his moon-glaive in a wide circle above his head and finishing his statement with a roar and a cackle of laughter.
“Bastard’s a bit old to be an active chaplain,” Vesna commented, “and what’s he laughing about—?” He broke off abruptly, then exclaimed, “Oh Gods, of course! He’s been waiting the best part of his life for this day, no wonder he’s making sure he enjoys it!” He turned to Carel. “Get our men in the saddle, now—those knights are on our side but they’re still outnumbered.”
The men didn’t wait for Carel’s orders; they were already running for the horses. Isak grabbed Vesna by the arm and demanded an explanation.
“That’s Cardinal Disten,” the count said, his eyes shining. “He’s the one who uncovered the whole bloody Malich affair. He’s been after the Certinse family ever since, but he never managed to find the proof he needed to have them tried. Now they’ve delivered themselves to him, both Duke Certinse and Suzerain Tildek, and that’s reason enough to round up the rest of the bastards.”
“Who are the knights with him? That’s not a cardinal’s staff.”
Vesna beckoned one of the soldiers to bring their horses. “Dark monks, I’d bet, my Lord. The Brethren of the Sacred Teachings themselves. Suzerain Saroc has always been known as a bit of a recluse—I think we’ve just found out why!”
Isak swung himself into the saddle and looked at the advancing horsemen. “I never expected to be so glad to see religious fanatics,” he said as the newcomers unleashed a volley of arrows into the suddenly disordered enemy soldiers desperately turning to face the new threat. Isak grinned and drew his own sword. The dark monks didn’t make the numbers even, but it was close enough for Isak. He felt the sharp hunger of magic inside his chest as Eolis glittered in the dull daylight, around the lower part of which the Skull of Hunting had wrapped itself. It looked as if the guard and a few inches of the blade had been coated in a thick layer of ice, and the weapon throbbed with barely restrained power.
“Morghien, Mihn, your weapons will do more good here, protecting Tila and Mistress Daran, than in the midst of a cavalry charge.” The wanderer nodded. He was not a natural horseman and controlling his animal in the midst of battle was no easy thing. Mihn looked less impressed, but he didn’t argue; his staff would be of little use against plate-armour.
“The rest of you, form line. I’d prefer them alive to put on trial, but dead will do almost as well.”
The men laughed and Carel called out the first line of the Palace Guard’s battle-hymn. The voices, few as they were, sang out with lusty vigour as Isak watched the enemy reel from the unexpected assault. Cardinal Disten’s manic laughter echoed out and Isak gentled Toramin as he waited for the Ghosts to ready themselves.
He fixed his attention on his prey, seeing the distant Duke Certinse slapping away the hand of the knight next to him—presumably his uncle, Suzerain Tildek—and drawing his sword. Flames burst from the weapon’s surface and Isak smiled and raised his own weapon in salute. The slender blade glittered in the dull light, a soft sssshh sounding as it cut the air.
“I’m going to have your head on a spike,” Isak said softly, a promise to the wind. He gestured, and his party advanced a few yards until they were clear of the hollow and standing on firmer ground, where they stood and waited for the monks.
Wherever they came from, they were well trained and led. They swapped bows for lances quickly and neatly enough to have satisfied even that notorious disciplinarian General Lahk, and charged into the disordered cavalry, who were scattering even before the first blow had been struck. Cardinal Disten’s troops didn’t bother giving chase; they reordered their lines and continued on towards the knights across the stream. Duke Certinse hadn’t moved; his men appeared paralysed by indecision. Even when the charge was called and Certinse levelled his sword towards Isak, still more than a few heads were turned towards the dark monks.
Vesna drew Isak’s attention to the other regiment of cavalry, and both men grinned as the captain, incandescent with rage, berated his men, only to be cut off abruptly as one of them shot him and sent him tumbling to the floor.
“They’ve seen the sense of it,” Vesna called.
“And now we finish this,” Isak said, and kicked his spurs into Toramin’s flanks. The massive stallion didn’t need any further encouragement, slamming his enormous hooves into the ground and charging forward.
The dark monks were closer and once through the stream they crashed into the enemy’s flank, forcing them to slow and turn as Isak led his own small unit to meet them head-on. The monks’ impact threw the hurscals into disarray, and Toramin, moving at speed, missed the target, slamming instead into the Lomin standard-bearer’s horse with such force that it threw the man from his saddle and his animal collapsed on top of him. Isak pulled Toramin away, not wanting the horse cut by a flailing leg, and hacked at the nearest hurscal, catching a hopeful swinging mace on its edge, then using Eolis to cut savagely across the knight’s face, tearing through his visor as if it were made of cotton. Isak laid about himself furiously, spreading chaos through what was left of the enemy ranks as he made for the centre. He caught an axe on his shield and sheared the shaft, leaned forward to punch his shield into the man’s face-plate, then moved on, not waiting to see what damage he’d done. A lance-head scraped past his belly and Isak turned to see a knight in white and yellow reach back for another stab. As Isak dropped his shield down to trap the shaft and break it on his thigh, a hurscal dressed in Lomin’s red hacked at his other side. Eolis absorbed most of the force, but the axe-head spun off that unnatural blade and the spike on its reverse stabbed down into Toramin’s shoulder. As the huge horse screamed and reared up, the hurscal, still clinging grimly to his battle-axe, was dragged from his saddle. Toramin stamped down on the man as Isak yanked the spike from the horse’s flesh and let it fall.
A black-cowled monk pushed past them, an edged mace in each hand, and Isak took a moment to look around. He saw Count Vesna trading blows with Duke Certinse nearby, and nearer still, one of the Ghosts was savagely attacking Suzerain Tildek. In the chaos, Isak couldn’t see who it was, but as he deftly worked an opening in the suzerain’s defence and knocked Tildek reeling, there was no doubt the soldier outmatched the nobleman.
Isak had no time to look further as a hurscal came at him head-on. The white-eye slashed at the man’s head but missed; another hurscal came in from his left and as the two attacked Isak together, words came unbidden to Isak’s throat and he felt magic flow out through Eolis. The sword traced a path of blinding light that made both attackers cry out and cover their eyes. The unnatural edge did the rest.
Isak sensed rather than saw a tall knight with a swan emblazoned on his chest just as he launched a furious attack. Hacking at Isak with a gleaming broadsword, the knight forced Isak into defensive mode, warding off the blows, until Toramin, circling clockwise, managed to shove the knight’s own mount off-balance and Isak was able to get a blow in himself. Eolis cut the knight’s broadsword in two, then continued on down into the man’s peaked helm. The knight went rigid, then flopped to the floor as Isak withdrew.
Looking around, Isak saw the enemy break and run, but beyond them was a ring of archers with bows ready. The fleeing men came to a sudden halt when a single arrow hit the lead knight with an audible thud. For a moment, all they could hear were the cries of the dying, then the men, broken, threw down their weapons and pulled off their helms.
“My Lord,” called Vesna from somewhere behind. Isak pulled his own helm off and hung it back on his saddle as he turned to the count.
“A present, my Lord,” Vesna continued, prompting laughter from those around him. Beside him, alternately scowling and grimacing with pain, was Karlat Certinse. The young duke clutched at his sword arm as blood ran freely from the elbow joint. He had no helm and his face was streaked in blood and mud, his long black hair matted.
“Get that wound bound, then his hands and mouth,” Isak ordered. “I want him alive. Better to string him up in Tirah than on a field somewhere.” Isak nudged his horse closer and saw a flash of fear in Certinse’s eyes before hatred masked everything. Beneath the blood and mud and the purpling bruise swelling the duke’s left cheek, he looked almost absurdly young. What are you, Isak thought, a boy in a man’s armour, playing a game you don’t really understand, or the calculating traitor I’m going to hang you as? In this life, does it matter?
Isak lifted the duke’s chin with his finger and looked into his eyes. “What’s more,” he said quietly, “I shall hang your mother beside you, and any other member of your treacherous family that my Chief Steward takes a disliking to on the morning I sign the warrants.”
The only sound that escaped Certinse’s lips was a hiss of pain as a Ghost roughly removed the armour obscuring his wound and tied a tourniquet around the upper part of his arm.
Isak slipped from his horse and began to check the soldiers milling around. Those few knights who had been slow to surrender had been herded into a circle and battered to their knees.
Everywhere he looked, men lay contorted in agony, screaming, or moaning softly. A pair of Ghosts appeared on either side of him as he knelt beside one of the injured on the ground, a Lomin hurscal. Isak gently pulled away the helm to reveal a man about Vesna’s age, his eyes wide with fear and pain as he huffed in short sharp breaths, his hands awkwardly clasped about the broken stub of a lance protruding from his side. The bubbling rasp indicated the head of the lance was embedded in the man’s lung. There was no hope for him. Taking the man’s head in his massive hands, Isak ended the pain as quickly and gently as he could.
He looked around at his cream-liveried guards, their emerald dragons easy to pick out. “Carel?” he called, a flutter of anxiety in his heart. He spun around, seeking the veteran’s familiar build, but his old friend was nowhere in sight. Isak stood and took a few steps forward, looking around in increasing panic.
“Here, my Lord,” one of the Ghosts called, waving Isak over to where he knelt. Despite the lack of urgency in the man’s voice, Isak ran the twenty yards to his side, a heavy feeling in his gut. Before he got there, he heard a familiar voice swearing, “Careful, you ham-fisted bastard!”
Isak smiled with relief as he reached Carel’s side. It was the quiet ones you had to worry about. The soldier was easing off Carel’s cuirass, having already cut away the arm section. There wasn’t much blood; Isak guessed it might be a bad break. Crouching down, he picked up the arm section and ran his finger over the split and dented plate just above the elbow. It had been badly mangled.
“Fell off your horse, did you, old man?”
“Piss on you. It was a mace and you know it,” snapped Carel in reply. He winced again as the cuirass snagged on his tunic. “Not everyone’s made of iron, you shit-brained lump. Oh Gods, that hurts! Someone find me a flask of something strong.”
The soldier tending his commander pulled a knife from his belt to cut away the sleeve. Carel’s once-powerful arm looked white, except for the deep sickly bruise that had begun to reveal itself. Isak could see from the angle that it was a nasty break, and the colour made him think that Jeil would have his work cut out to save the arm at all.
“Gods, it doesn’t look good,” said the soldier, unthinkingly.
“I know that, you bastard,” Carel spat. “Nartis be blessed it’s my left.”
“Lord Isak,” called a booming voice and Isak turned to see the man Vesna had identified as Cardinal Disten advancing towards him. He was indeed dressed as the chaplain he had once been but, as he neared, Isak could see the cobalt-blue hems of his robe were faded and patched. The cardinal himself was an imposing man—several years older than Carel, Isak guessed, but standing over six feet tall, and still with a young man’s bulk. His long beard and the straggly remains of his hair were completely grey and his lean, lined face bore more than a few scars. Only his eyes belied the impression of age, burning fiercely from beneath thick dark eyebrows.
“My Lord, it’s an honour to meet you,” Cardinal Disten said as he dropped to one knee. Isak could see the moon-glaive hooked to his belt was still dripping blood onto the torn grass.
“As it is you. But if you’ll excuse me, I’m a bit busy for pleasantries right now.” A groan from Carel made him turn back to the injured man.
“Isak, go and do your job. You are no surgeon, and if you think I’m going to let you touch me, then you must have been brained in the battle.” Carel forced a smile that Isak returned. He touched Carel lightly on his good hand and rose.
“Well, Cardinal, it appears I do have time after all. Please, rise.” He gestured over at the figure of Karlat Certinse being stripped of his armour. “And now you can at last write the final chapter of your book.”
“Hah,” the cardinal replied humourlessly. “It’s been a long time coming, for certain, but I don’t intend to stop until I’m sure I’ve got them all. Life will be happier when I see his mother off to face the judgment of the Gods. I’ll be praying the creatures of the Dark Place find something sufficiently inventive for the lot of ’em.”
To Isak’s surprise there was little satisfaction in the cardinal’s voice, just a grim determination. He guessed the long years pursuing Malich’s followers had been his job rather than his calling. Perhaps the cardinal was just tired of dark secrets and death. Isak was already learning that too much of either could sour any man’s soul.
“Would you do me the service of seeing to it? Acting with my authority to bring them all to trial?”
“I will do as I am commanded, my Lord.” Cardinal Disten bowed low, then gestured to a group of men who lingered on foot behind him. “May I present Brother-Captain Sheln, and Count Macove, a major of our order.”
Both men bowed low to Isak, who nodded as he inspected his newest allies. They were dressed in black studded leather and painted cuirasses and carrying their peaked Y-slit helms. Their heavy cavalry sabres were sheathed. The brother-captain was a grim, craggy-faced man of about fifty summers whose skin had an unhealthy grey pallor. There was a cold immovability about Brother-Captain Sheln that Isak was immediately wary of; there was no compassion in those eyes, and he had a sense of remorselessness, and ruthlessness—not what Isak wanted to see in the face of a religious fanatic, no matter whose side he said he was on. Isak had the impression the man was carved from stone.
Count Macove was younger, and looked like the dour expression worn by most of the dark monks didn’t come so easily to him. As if to confirm Isak’s first thought, Vesna approached and took the man’s arm in a familiar gesture.
“I hadn’t expected piety from you, Macove,” Vesna exclaimed, a broad smile cracking across his face.
“Good to see you too,” the man replied in equal cheer. “As for my piety, we must all grow up and take responsibility for our lives at some point—even you’ll find yourself doing so one day.”
Isak opened his mouth to make a comment, then closed it again. He was the Duke of Tirah now, and barrack-room banter was hardly appropriate. Instead, he looked around at the other dark monks nearby.
“Is Suzerain Saroc not with you?”
The brother-captain didn’t react to his words, but Count Macove betrayed a flicker of uncertainty that made Isak press the matter.
“Come on, I could hardly expect two forces to be tramping around without at least one alerting the suzerain. Since I see no hurscals or banners, I would guess he’s part of your order and just too far away to introduce himself yet. If, however, he is deliberately snubbing his new liege lord, I will have to take offence and replace him with someone a little more respectful unless he steps forward right bloody now!” Isak’s voice had risen to a shout.
“My Lord,” called a cowled figure standing twenty yards off. Revealing his face to the daylight, Suzerain Saroc marched forward to kneel before Isak, his cheeks red. The suzerain was a remarkably short man, but powerful, almost a direct opposite to the second man who stepped forward, a pace behind Saroc, and also knelt. Isak glimpsed the devices sewn over their hearts, the only signs of nobility they wore. Saroc’s was a red chalice; the other man bore a white ice cobra. Isak recognised it even as the owner spoke.
“Forgive us for not coming to greet you, my Lord,” said Suzerain Torl, his pale face contrasting with the black uniform when he pulled back his cowl. “It is our policy to keep those with power in the Order from having to confront their lieges as emissaries for the Brethren. Our Order does not play the great game. We have no wish to act as though we were making a show of who our members are, lest it cause complications.”
Isak frowned momentarily, then reached out a hand to take the suzerain’s arm in greeting.
“That’s the second time you’ve fought by my side; if such crimes were the only ones I had to forgive, I would be a far happier man. But what are you doing here? You’re a long way from your home . . .”
“I am. I was in the hills on the Danva-Foleh border on business when an associate informed me of Lord Bahl’s death. As I came in search of Suzerain Saroc, one of my agents informed me that the Duke of Lomin had left with his hurscals suddenly, so we decided to keep track of them.”
“A welcome decision for me—but how did you find out about Lord Bahl’s death so quickly if you’ve come from the Danva border?”
Torl’s expression was grim. “The Brethren have a number of—we’ll call them associates—who use unorthodox methods—and in certain cases, lack sanity. These are not men we have brought into our Order, but we often find uses for them.”
“That’s not an explanation,” Isak pointed out. The suzerain looked uncomfortable for a moment, shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he struggled to match the looming white-eye’s stare.
“The College of Magic would describe him as a rogue mage, which he is, but not in an insane or impious way. His methods simply differ from other mages, and that makes him a valuable asset.”
“So why did you hesitate to tell me that? It’s a simple enough explanation.”
Torl gave a sigh. “That may be, but how he knew of the death of Lord Bahl is not. He first saw an image after spending several hours watching sunlight filter through the branches of a yew; then again in the movement of leaves in a herb garden. To most people that sounds like he’s some sort of prophet, and I wouldn’t want to give you that impression of our Order.”
“I’m intrigued,” Isak said. “Perhaps I should meet the man—and when you bring him to Tirah Palace, I look forward to your report on your Brethren as well.”
Isak quickly cut him off. “Your loyalty is not in question, but I must know what other allegiances my nobles hold. The events in Narkang and Thotel mean I cannot afford to be ignorant of anything, certainly not the activities of my subjects.”
“The rumours about Thotel are true then?” Suzerain Saroc interjected before Torl could continue his objections. He was very conscious that the dark monks and the Ghosts were eyeing each other suspiciously, and neither side had yet sheathed their weapons. “Has Lord Styrax has taken the city and torn down the Temple of the Sun?”
Isak nodded. “So I’ve been told.”
“But what about Narkang? Were you not returning to claim your inheritance because you felt Lord Bahl’s death?”
“Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. These parts may see more fighting before—”
“My Lord,” the ranger Jeil broke in, “I need your help.”
Isak nodded at the suzerains and returned to Carel. He crouched down beside Jeil to inspect the damaged limb. Carel was terribly pale, and sweat poured off him as he panted, almost gasping for breath.
“I can’t save it,” Jeil said calmly. He was too experienced to bother trying to hide the truth from Carel. “You’re his best chance.”
“Me? I’ve never done anything like this,” Isak protested.
Jeil pointed at Eolis. “The marshal doesn’t need a healer, not at the moment. He needs a butcher, and saving your pardon, my Lord, you’re the best we have. Eolis will give the cleanest cut, and with a touch you can cauterise the wound.”
Isak looked down at Carel. He could see the old man was weakening before his eyes.
“There’s no other way?”
Isak looked around, but none would meet his gaze. He stood and drew Eolis. Carel couldn’t stop himself howling in pain as Jeil manoeuvred the injured arm away from the body and indicated where Isak should cut. As Isak raised the slim sword, he looked at Duke Certinse, a glare of such pure venom that the duke shrank back in fear.
“On a spike,” Isak growled. He slashed down.
Tom Lloyd is the author of The Stormcaller (Book One of the Twilight Reign). He was born in 1979 in Berkshire. After a degree in International Relations he went straight into publishing where he still works. He never received the memo about suitable jobs for writers and consequently has never been a kitchen-hand, hospital porter, pigeon hunter, or secret agent. He lives in South London, isn’t one of those authors who gives a damn about the history of the font used in his books and only believes in forms of exercise that allow him to hit something.