She wakes, her eyes finding a dim yellow glow in a world of shadow. The glow resolves into the flame of a single candle, not so clear as it should be. For a moment she wonders if she has been reborn into a half-blind body, the Ally’s joke, or further punishment. But then she recalls that her sight, her first body’s sight, had always been unusually sharp. “Keener than any hawk,” her father had said centuries ago, a rare compliment that had brought tears to her eyes then but brings nothing to these now. These weaker, stolen eyes.
She lies on hard stone, cold and rough on her naked skin. She sits and something moves in the gloom, a man stepping from the shadow into the meagre light. He wears the uniform of the Council Guard and the lean face of a veteran but she sees his true face in the leer of his shaded eyes. “How do you find it?” he asks her.
She raises her hands, flexing the fingers and wrists. Strong, good. Her arms are lean, well sculpted, similarly her legs, lithe and supple.
“A dancer?” she asks the Council Guard.
“No. She was found when young. The northern hill tribes, richer in Gifted than elsewhere in the empire. The gift is powerful, an uncanny way with the wind. Something I’m sure you’ll find a use for. She was trained with knife, sword, and bow from the age of six. Security against your inevitable fall.”
She feels a faint anger at this. It was not inevitable. Any more than love is inevitable. She is tempted to let the anger build, fuel her new body with rage and test its abilities on the leering Messenger, but is given pause by another sensation . . . The music flows, the tune is fierce and strong. Her song is returned!
She finds a laugh bubbling in her breast and lets it out, her head thrown back, the sound exultant as another thought comes to her, no less fierce in its joyful realisation: I know you see me, beloved!
* * *
He came awake with a start, raising a curious whine from Slasher who had been sleeping at his feet. Next to him Master Rensial slept on, an oddly serene smile on his face; a man content in slumber. Apart from battle it was the only time he appeared sane. Frentis sat up with a groan, shaking his head to clear the dream. Dream? Do you really believe that’s what it was?
He pushed the thought away and pulled on his boots, hefting his sword and exiting the small tent he shared with the Master. The sky was still dark and he judged it no more than two hours into the new day by the moon’s height. Around him the company lay sleeping, the tents provided by Baron Banders a wondrous luxury after so many days of hardship. They were encamped on the southern slope of a tall hill, one of the downs that made the Renfaelin border country so distinct, campfires forbidden by the baron, who saw no reason to give Lord Darnel an indication of their numbers.
Six thousand men, Frentis thought, his eyes surveying the camp, recalling the intelligence provided by the unfortunate Lord Wenders. Enough to take a city held by Darnel’s knights and a full division of Volarians?
A soft sound drew his attention back to the tents where his company slept, a soft giggle rising from the tent Arendil shared with Lady Illian. He heard faint but urgent whispers followed by more giggles. I should stop this, he decided, starting forward then paused as the words Illian had spoken the day before came back to him. I am not a child . . .
They lost their youth in my bloody crusade, he thought. With worse to come at Varinshold. He sighed and moved away until the sounds grew faint.
It was a half-moon tonight, but the sky was clear, providing enough light for a good view of the low country beyond the downs, so far free of any enemy. Will he wait? Frentis wondered. When Darnel hears that Banders has raised his fief against him and now harbours his son, will he come? His hand ached as he gripped his sword hilt, the bloodlust surging again, calling her voice as it always did. Not so free of its delights, after all, beloved?
“Leave me be,” he whispered in Volarian, teeth gritted, forcing his hand to release the sword.
“Learned a new language then, brother?”
Frentis turned to find a brother about his own age approaching from the shadows, tall with a narrow handsome face and a lopsided grin. It was the grin that stirred his memory. “Ivern,” he said after a moment.
The young brother halted a few feet away, eyes tracking Frentis from head to foot in blank wonder. “I thought Brother Sollis was playing a joke when he told me,” he said. “But when does he joke about anything?” He came forward, arms encircling Frentis in a warm embrace.
“The Order,” Frentis began when Ivern moved back. “The House has fallen. There are no others . . .”
“I know. He told me your tale. Little over a hundred of us, all that remains of the Sixth Order.”
“Aspect Arlyn lives. Darnel’s lick-spittle confirmed it, though he couldn’t tell us where in Varinshold they imprisoned him.”
“A mystery to be solved when we get there.” Ivern inclined his head at the cluster of tents nearby. “I’ve half a bottle of Brother’s Friend left if you’d care to share.”
Frentis had never been particularly partial to the Order’s favourite tipple, disliking the way it dulled his senses, so he confined himself to a polite sip before handing the flask back to Ivern who seemed to have no such concerns. “I tell the unvarnished and complete truth,” he insisted after a healthy gulp from the flask. “She kissed me, full on the lips.”
“Princess Lyrna kissed you?” Frentis enquired with a raised eyebrow.
“Indeed she did. After a perilous, and dare I say, now legendary quest through the Lonak Dominion. I was halfway through writing it all down for inclusion in Brother Caenis’s archive when news of the invasion came.” His grin became rueful. “My finest hour as a brother, lost to history thanks to larger concerns.” He met Frentis’s gaze. “We heard a lot about you on the way south. The tale of the Red Brother flew fast and wide. There’s even a version that says you saw her die.”
The fire licked at her face as she screamed, her hair blackening as she beat the flames with her hands . . . “I didn’t see her die,” he said. I just killed her brother. He had given a full accounting to Brother Sollis the previous evening, whilst his company ate their first real meal in days, some so slumped in relief they couldn’t raise the food to their mouths. Sollis had absorbed every word without comment, his pale-eyed gaze betraying nothing as the epic of murder and pain ran its course. When it was done, like Aspect Grealin, he gave strict instructions not to repeat the tale to anyone and maintain the same fiction believed by the people who followed him. The same lie, the woman’s voice added in faint mockery.
“So there’s a chance,” Ivern pressed. “She could still be alive.”
“I ask the Departed every day to make it so.”
Ivern took another drink. “The Lonak didn’t understand what a princess was, so called her a queen. Turns out they were right. If I were a Volarian I’d be praying for her death. I wouldn’t want to be in the eye of that woman’s vengeance.”
Vengeance, Frentis thought, looking down at his hands, hands that had snapped the neck of a king. Or justice?
* * *
He returned to his company in the morning, finding Davoka in conversation with Illian, the young highborn sitting rigid and pale of face as the Lonak spoke in instructional tones. “You must be careful,” she cautioned, working a stone along her spear-blade. “Swollen belly no good in battle. Make sure he spends on your thigh.”
face turned an immediate shade of scarlet. She stood up, walking away with a stiff but rapid gait, managing only a faint squeak in response to his greeting.
“Such things are not discussed openly among the merim her,” Frentis told a puzzled Davoka, sitting down beside her.
“Girl is foolish,” she muttered with a shrug. “Too quick to anger, too quick to part her legs. My first husband had to give three ponies before I lay a hand on him.”
Frentis was tempted to ask how many ponies Ermund would be required to hand over in due course, but decided it would be an unwise question. Bound as he was by his oath, the knight had been quickly reinstated at Baron Banders’s side and they would sorely miss his sword. Davoka, however, seemed unperturbed by his sudden absence from their company and Frentis wondered if he hadn’t been anything more than a welcome diversion during the infrequent quiet days in the Urlish.
“Things are different here,” he said, more to himself than her. Illian transformed from a pampered girl into a deadly huntress, Draker from an outlaw into a soldier, Grealin from a master to an Aspect. Everything is different. The Volarians have built us a new Realm.
Brother Commander Sollis arrived as they were eating breakfast, favouring Davoka with a respectful nod, pausing only slightly at the sight of Thirty- Four, who smiled back with a gracious bow. “Baron Banders holds council,” Sollis told Frentis. “Your words are wanted.”
* * *
“Five hundred knights and a piss-pot full of Volarians, eh?” Baron Banders raised a bushy eyebrow at Frentis, voicing a small laugh. “Hardly a mighty army, brother.”
“If this Wenders spoke truly,” Sollis commented.
The baron held his council in a field away from the main camp, the various captains and lords of his army standing in a circle with scant ceremony or formal introduction. It seemed Banders had little use for the often elaborate manners of the Renfaelin nobility.
“Wenders did not strike me as a man with enough wit for deception, brother,” Frentis told Sollis before turning to Banders. “There are upwards of eight thousand men in a Volarian Division, my lord. Plus they have the Free Sword mercenaries who guard the slavers and contingents of Kuritai. I caution you not to underestimate them.”
“Worse than the Alpirans are they?”
“In some ways.”
The baron grunted and raised an eyebrow at Ermund who gave a solemn nod. “We killed many in the forest, my lord, but it cost us dear. If they have more, taking the city will be a bloody business.”
“If Darnel is wise enough to stay behind his walls,” Banders mused. “And wisdom is not one of his virtues.”
“He has recruited wisdom,” Frentis said. “Wenders told us Lakrhil Al Hestian has been pressed into service as Darnel’s Battle Lord. He’ll know full well the value of not taking to open field against us.”
“Blood Rose,” Banders said softly. “Couldn’t abide the man, truth be told. But he never struck me as a traitor.”
“Darnel holds Al Hestian’s son as hostage to his loyalty. We should regard him an enemy, and not one given to misjudgements.”
“Couldn’t hold Marbellis though.” Banders glanced at Sollis. “Could he, brother?”
There was a slight pause before Sollis replied and Frentis wondered what horrors crowded his memory. “No one could have held Marbellis, my lord,” he said. “A pebble can’t stand against an ocean.”
Banders fell silent, his hand on his chin. “Was hoping the Urlish would mask our advance,” he said in a reflective tone. “At least for a time, providing timber for ladders and engines into the bargain. Now even that is taken from us.”
“There are other ways, Grandfather,” Arendil spoke up. His mother, the Lady Ulice, stood at his side with a tight grip on his arm. Her relief at finding him alive the day before had been a spectacle of tearful kisses, though she had plainly been chagrined by her son’s insistence on staying with Frentis’s company.
“The good brother,” Arendil said, gesturing to Frentis, “Davoka, and I made our escape via the city’s sewers. If we can get out, surely we can get in the same way.”
“The harbour pipe is too easily seen by their sailors,” Frentis said. “But there are alternatives, and one in our company who knows the sewers near as well as I.”
“I’ve four thousand knights who won’t fit so easily in a dung pipe, brother,” Banders pointed out. “Take their horses away and they’re as much use as a gelding in a whorehouse. The rest are men-at-arms and a few hundred peasants with grudges to settle against Darnel and his dogs.”
“I have over a hundred brothers,” Sollis said. “Plus Brother Frentis’s company. Surely sufficient strength to seize a gate and hold it long enough to allow your knights entry.”
“And then what?” Banders asked. “Street fighting is hardly within their experience, brother.”
“I’ll fight in a bog,” Ermund said, “if it’ll bring Darnel within reach of my sword. Do not mistake the temper of your knights, my lord. Their course was not chosen lightly and they’ll follow you to the Beyond and back if you command it.”
“I don’t doubt their temper, Ermund,” Banders assured him. “But our fief lost enough wars to learn the lesson that a charging wall of steel cannot win every battle. And supposing we do manage to take the city, the bulk of the enemy’s strength is still besieging Alltor. And when they’re finished, where do you suppose they’ll march next?”
“From what little intelligence we can gather,” Sollis said, “Fief Lord Mustor has held out far longer than expected. Winter will be closing in by the time the Volarians take his capital and subdue his fief. Long enough for us to entrench, gather strength from Nilsael and the Reaches.”
At mention of the Reaches Banders turned to one of his captains, a veteran knight in white-enamelled armour. “No word, I take it, Lord Furel?”
“It’s a long ride to Meanshall,” the knight replied. “And a longer voyage to the Reaches. Our messengers were sent only ten days ago.”
“I had hoped he’d be on the move by now,” Banders mused and Frentis had no need to hear the name in the forefront of his mind.
“He is,” he said. “I know it.” He looked at Brother Sollis who replied with a nod. “And having Varinshold in our hands by the time he arrives will make our task much easier.”
“You ask me to risk much on the basis of faith alone, brother,” Banders replied.
“Faith,” Frentis replied, “is my business, my lord.”
* * *
The baron’s army was well supplied with horses, most taken from the estates of knights who had sided with Darnel. They were all stallions, impressively tall at the shoulder with the restlessness of horses bred to the charge. Master Rensial wandered the temporary paddock where the horses were corralled, seemingly unaware of their snorts and whinnies as he played his hands over flanks and neck, his expression the concentrated stare of the expert.
“Not so . . .” Davoka fumbled for the right word as they watched the master go about his work. “Ara-kahmin. Head-sickness.”
“Mad,” Frentis said, seeing the surety with which Master Rensial moved. “Not so mad when he’s with horses. I know.”
“He looks on you and sees a son,” Davoka said. “You know this too?”
“He sees many things. Most of which are not there.”
The master chose a horse for each of them, leading a youthful grey to Frentis and a broad black charger to Davoka. “Too big,” she said, moving back a little as the great horse sniffed her. “No ponies here?”
“No,” Master Rensial told her simply and walked off to select more mounts.
“You’ll get used to him,” Frentis assured her, scratching the grey’s nose. “Wonder what name you’ll earn.”
“Merim her,” Davoka muttered in derision. “People are named. Horses used and eaten.”
They rode south at midday, Brother Sollis scouting ahead with his brothers, the knights and retainers following in a tight column. At the baron’s order, every man was armoured and ready for battle. The peasant rebels followed behind on foot, mostly hardy-looking men with little armour but a rich variety of weapons. There was a grim uniformity to their expression that Frentis knew well, the faces of the wronged and the angry. From the stories Ivern had told him of the brother’s journey from the Pass it was clear that, shorn of the Crown’s authority, Darnel had lost little time in settling long-nurtured grievances, much of his ire falling on the common folk who worked the lands of his enemies. Frentis’s company, few of whom could be called expert riders, made up the rear-guard, strung out in a loose formation many had difficulty maintaining for long.
“I . . . fucking . . . hate . . . horses!” Draker huffed as he bounced along on the back of the russet-coated stallion Rensial had chosen for him.
“It’s easy!” Illian told him, spurring on ahead, moving in the saddle with accustomed ease. “Just raise yourself up a little at the right moment.”
She laughed as Draker made a less-than-perfect attempt to comply, thumping himself onto the saddle with a hard grunt. “Oh, my unborn children.”
Next to Frentis and Master Rensial, Arendil and Illian were easily his best riders. He sent Arendil west and Illian east with instructions to scout the flanks and strict orders to return on seeing any sign of friend or foe. Lady Ulice had betrayed a clear unhappiness at sending Arendil out of her sight once again but confined her objections to a stern scowl. She had joined them as they were forming up, offering few words beyond a statement that she would be travelling with her son by order of the baron, though she did seem heartened by the presence of Davoka.
“I know I owe you his life,” she told the Lonak woman. “Whatever you require by way of thanks . . .”
“Arendil is Gorin to me,” Davoka told her shortly, adding when the lady frowned in incomprehension, “Clan.” Davoka held her arm out and swept it around their company, from Frentis to Thirty-Four and Draker still wincing with every jolt of his saddle. “My clan. Burnt Forest Clan.” She barked a laugh. “Now yours.”
“You could go home now,” Ulice told her. “The north is clear all the way to the mountains.”
Davoka’s expression darkened as if she had been insulted, but softened when she saw the woman’s honest curiosity. “Queen is not found,” Davoka said. “No home for me until she is.”
* * *
They entered the rougher hill-country by late evening, Banders acceding to Sollis’s choice of campsite; the north-facing slope of a promontory offering clear views in all directions and shielded on the southern side by a deep ravine. Fires were permitted now, Banders knowing full well further attempts at concealing such a large force would be redundant this far into Asraelin territory.
Frentis’s company were given the eastern flank to guard and he posted pickets in a tight line, pairs of fighters standing three-hour shifts. Illian returned as he was touring the perimeter. “You stayed out too long,” he told her. “Arendil got in an hour ago. Be back before nightfall in future.”
“Sorry, brother,” she replied, avoiding his gaze and he realised her embarrassment from this morning still lingered.
“Anything to report?” he asked in a less severe tone.
“Not another soul for miles around,” she replied, brightening a little. “Except for a wolf ten miles back. I’ve never seen one so big, I must say. Nor so bold, just sat there looking at me for what seemed an age.”
Probably smelling the blood to come, Frentis thought. “Good. Get some rest, my lady.”
He completed his tour of the pickets, finding the remaining fighters in a resilient mood. Now the terrors of their flight from the forest were over they were as combative as ever, many voicing an eagerness to get to Varinshold.
“The scales haven’t shifted yet, brother,” former City Guard Corporal Vinten told him, the slightly wild gleam in his eye provoking memories of Janril Noren. “Far too much blood weighing on our side. We’ll balance them at Varinshold or die trying.”
He returned to the main camp, sharing a meal with those still awake. Thirty-Four had taken on much of the cooking duties these days, producing a tasty stew of freshly caught partridge and wild mushrooms that put Arendil’s amateur efforts to shame.
“They teached you cooking as well as torturin’, then?” Draker asked him between mouthfuls, the grease beading his beard as he chewed.
“My last master’s cook-slave fell ill during the voyage here,” Thirty-Four replied in his now eerily accentless Realm Tongue. “He was required to teach me his skills before he died. I have always been able to learn quickly.”
Lady Ulice accepted a bowl of stew from the former slave, her expression cautious. “Torturing?” she asked.
“I was a numbered slave,” Thirty-Four replied in his precise, uncoloured tones. “A specialist. Schooled in the arts of torture from childhood.” He continued to ladle out the stew as the lady stared at him, her gaze slowly tracking across the faces around the fire. Frentis knew she was seeing them truly for the first time, the brutality that had shaped them now plain in the hard set of Draker’s eyes, Illian’s frowning concentration as she tightened the string on her crossbow, and the preoccupied cast in Arendil’s eyes as he stared into the fire, spooning stew into his mouth with automatic and unconscious regularity.
“It was a hard road, my lady,” Frentis told her. “Hard choices had to be made.”
She looked at her son, reaching over to smooth the hair back from his forehead, drawing a tired smile. “I’m not a lady,” she said. “If we are to be clan-mates, you should know that. I am the unacknowledged bastard daughter to Baron Banders, nothing more. My name is just Ulice.”
“No,” Arendil stated, casting a hard glare around the fire. “My mother’s name is Lady Ulice, and any calling her by a different name will answer to me.”
“Quite so, my lord,” Frentis told him. “Quite so.”
* * *
He busied himself with cleaning his weapons, long after the others had taken to their tents, the familiar drone of Draker’s snores drifting across the camp. When his sword and knife were gleaming, he cleaned his boots, then his saddle, then unstrung his bow and checked the stave for cracks. After that he sat and sharpened every arrowhead in his quiver. I do not need to sleep, he told himself continually though his hands were beginning to tingle with exhaustion and his head constantly slumped unbidden to his chest.
Just dreams. He tried to force conviction into the thought, casting a reluctant gaze at his tent. Just the stain of her company, the stink of her in my mind. Just dreams. She does not see me. He finally surrendered when his fatigued hands left him with a bleeding thumb, returning the arrows to his quiver and walking to the tent on weak legs. Just dreams.
* * *
She stands atop a tall tower, Volar spread out beneath her in all its ancient glory, street after street of tenements, marble mansions, gardens of wondrous construction and myriad towers rising from every quarter, though none so tall as this one: the Council’s Tower.
She raises her gaze to the sky seeking a target. The day is clear, the sky mostly unbroken blue, but she spies a small cloud some miles above, thin and whispy but sufficient for her purposes. She searches inside herself for the gift, finding she has to suppress her song to call it forth, but when it does the power of it staggers her, making her reach for the parapet as she sways. She feels a familiar trickle from her nose and understands the price for this one will be harder to bear even than the wonderful fire she stole from Revek, his words returning now with precise irony: Always the way with stolen gifts, don’t you find?
What did he know? she thinks, though the scorn is forced and hollow. He knew enough not to be blinded by love.
She forces unwelcome thoughts from her head and focuses on the cloud, the gift surging, more blood flowing from her nose as she releases it, the small cloud swirling into a tight vortex before flying apart, tendrils fading in the clear blue sky.
She turns to see a tall man in a red robe emerge from the stairway onto the tower roof. Two Kuritai follow him into the light, hands resting on their swords. She has yet to test the skill offered by this new shell and has to resist the urge to do so now. Hide an advantage and you double its value. One of her father’s axioms, though she suspects he may have stolen it from a long dead philosopher.
“Arklev,” she greets the tall man as he moves to her side. She can see a change in him, a new weariness around his eyes, an expression she knows well. He grieves.
“The Messenger did not linger,” he tells her. “Save to say that the Ally’s guidance will now be spoken only by you.”
The Ally’s guidance . . . As if he could comprehend the true meaning of those words, what it means to a soul in the Void to hear the Ally’s voice. She almost laughs at the ignorance of this ancient little man. Centuries of life and still he knows nothing.
He is staring at her in expectation, a faint concern on his brow, and she realises it has been several moments since he spoke. How long had she been standing here? How long since she climbed the tower?
She breathes deeply and allows the confusion to fade. “You’re grieving,” she tells him. “Who did you lose?”
He draws back a little, concern deepening into fear, no doubt wondering how much she already knew. She was learning the appearance of omniscience could offer as much power as omniscience itself.
“My son,” Arklev says. “His vessel never reached Varinshold. The scryers can no longer find a trace of him in times to come.”
She nods and waits for him to say more but the Council-man fixes a mask on his face and stays silent. “The Ally wishes you to elevate me to Council,” she tells him. “The Slaver’s Seat.”
“That is Council-man Lorvek’s seat,” he protests. “One he has discharged with care and diligence for near a century.”
“Lining his pockets and failing to breed enough Gifted in the process. The Ally feels his guidance has not been fully appreciated. And with our new assets coming to maturity, he feels I would offer a more trustworthy overseer for this very particular enterprise. If Lorvek won’t step down, I’m sure ample evidence of corruption will be found to justify a charge of treason. Unless you prefer a quieter method.”
He says more but she doesn’t hear him, feeling time slip away once more. How long has she stood here? When the confusion fades she is alone again and the sky is a darker shade of blue. She turns her sight to the west, tracking the broad estuary to the coast and the ocean beyond. Please hurry to me, beloved. I am so very lonely.