Authors: John Gwynne
‘I’ll come with you,’ Maquin said. ‘Watch your back, if I can. Tahir, you wait in the forest for us – you’d not stand much of a chance if we needed to leave
with speed, not with that hole in your leg. And if we don’t come back, at least you’ve still got a chance of getting back to Isiltir, telling what’s happened here.’
Orgull stared at Maquin, then nodded. ‘Appreciate it,’ he said grimly. ‘Let’s be getting on with it, then.’ He marched off towards the campfires.
They made their way to where the forest thinned and they could see the survivors of the battle spread along the slopes before Haldis. The campfires were clustered in groups, the biggest lower
down the slope. Maquin saw a glimpse of men with swords jutting from their backs ranged about it.
‘Must be Veradis’ lot,’ Orgull whispered.
‘There,’ Maquin said, pointing along the slope, closer to the forest. There was a large tent, surrounded by a handful of fires. Slowly they crept closer, until the tent and fires lay
between them and the camp guarded by Jehar. Two warriors stood before the tent’s opening. The orange glow of firelight flickered across their shields, the symbol of the black hammer clear
‘That’s them,’ Tahir whispered. ‘Helveth’s hammer.’
‘All right then,’ Orgull said, rubbing a hand across his bald head, skin rasping on bristle, ‘let’s do this.’ He passed something to Tahir; Romar’s sword,
Maquin realized, then stood straight and walked out of the forest, hands raised high. Maquin hurried after him, afraid the guards would mistake Orgull for one of the Hunen, especially with that
giant’s axe slung across his back.
The guards called them over, and after a few tense moments of explanation they were brought before Lothar, Braster’s battlechief. He listened to them, frowned at them a while, then turned
on his heel and led them to the large tent. A guard opened the canopy for them and Lothar took them inside.
‘You must leave your weapons here,’ Lothar said, a tall, shrewd-looking man with a pointed nose and heavy-lidded eyes. He gestured to a warrior standing just within the tent.
Begrudgingly Maquin drew his sword and set it down, alongside Orgull’s broadsword and giant’s axe. Then Lothar led them deeper into the tent. A man lay on a cot, propped upright with
pillows. He was big, both muscled and fat. Red hair lay damp with sweat across his brow. His right arm was strapped in a sling. Braster, King of Helveth.
Another man was stood beside Braster, offering a cup to the wounded king. Braster took it, sniffed the contents and pulled a face.
‘You must drink,’ the man before him said, ‘it will ease your pain and speed your recovery.’
Braster sipped tentatively.
‘You must drink it all,’ the man said, then bowed and left.
‘Idiot,’ Braster muttered at the healer’s back.
Lothar ushered Orgull and Maquin forward. ‘We found these men on our camp’s fringe, my King,’ Lothar said. ‘They are the Gadrai of Isiltir, and they claim to have
important news, fit only for your ears.’
Orgull stepped forward and bowed, clumsily.
Braster grinned in recognition, made to rise and grimaced in pain. He sank back into his pillows, pale-faced.
‘Look at me,’ Braster said, ‘my shoulder crushed by some giant’s hammer and now I’m fit for nothing.’ He scowled.
‘You should drink your medicine,’ Orgull said.
‘It tastes like urine,’ Braster muttered. ‘I am glad you live,’ he said. ‘I’d heard you were dead, along with the rest of the Gadrai.’
‘We were betrayed.’ Orgull’s smile disappeared. ‘Romar was murdered.’
Orgull explained, beginning with the death of King Romar and then the Gadrai’s battle against the Jehar and Jael’s shieldmen. Braster cursed throughout. Lothar stood silently beside
Maquin, who swayed on his feet, feeling utterly exhausted. He tried to remember when he had last slept. It felt like days. He blinked, trying to focus on Orgull’s words.
‘Calidus and his pet giant, eh?’ Braster said when Orgull fell silent. ‘I knew Romar was winning no friends from Tenebral, but I never dreamed they would go this
‘There is more at play here,’ Orgull said. ‘The axe that they fought over, I think it was one of the Treasures.’
‘What. Where is it now?’
‘Calidus’ giant has it, or did, last I saw.’
Braster scowled. ‘Word of this must reach Meical.’
‘As I thought. That is why I have come here,’ Orgull said. ‘I will be leaving soon and there are no guarantees that I will make it through the forest . . .’
‘You have done well, bringing this news to me.’ Braster winced as he shifted his weight. ‘And you are sure that Jael was involved?’
‘I saw Jael strike down Kastell, Romar’s nephew,’ Maquin said.
‘Jael. I never did like that snivelling runt,’ Braster muttered.
There was a whisper of feet as Lothar stepped away, behind Maquin.
‘The question is why,’ Braster said. ‘Why do this, risk so much? I think you are right, Orgull. This is part of bigger events. And, if so, Nathair is behind this. He is
ruthless, as he showed with Mandros.’ He shook his head. ‘We have uncovered the Black Sun. What to do? I would march to their camp now and take Calidus’ head, but I fear
he’d take mine instead. My warband is decimated – only a few hundred left. And me, I can’t even wipe my arse, let alone swing a sword.’ He drummed the fat fingers of his
good hand on his cot side. ‘I must pretend ignorance, Orgull, until I am out of this damn forest and back amongst my own people. And you two, you must not be seen. What say you,
There was a thud behind Maquin. He turned, saw the guard minding their weapons slumped on the ground. Lothar had a sword in his hand, blood on it. He swept past Maquin, strode right up to
Braster and drove the sword into his King’s chest.
Braster shivered, a look of confusion on his face, then blood welled in his mouth and he slumped back onto the pillows.
Lothar stepped back, leaving the sword in Braster’s corpse. Maquin’s sword, he realized in a wave of growing horror.
‘Why?’ Orgull asked Lothar.
The battlechief tore his focus away from Braster’s face. ‘Because Nathair is the future. That was not lightly done – I loved my King. But you had to tell of what happened in
Haldis’ tombs. Braster would have gone to war with Tenebral, and that just cannot happen.’ Lothar drew his own blade and yelled for guardsmen.
Almost instantly, two warriors stepped into the tent. They saw the dead guardsman, then Braster. They drew swords and advanced slowly on Maquin and Orgull. Booted feet could be heard
Orgull shrugged his shield to his arm and charged the two men. Maquin did the same with his own shield, hesitated an instant, then gripped the sword protruding from Braster’s chest –
his sword – and pulled. With a sucking sound it came free.
He glanced at Lothar, but the battlechief was backing away. He took a step after him, but then Orgull crashed into the two advancing warriors, shield held before him like a ram. One of the men
bounced away, collided with a post and sank to the ground. Orgull and the other guard fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
More men were pouring into the tent, two at a time – four, six, more behind. One took a swing at Orgull as he wrestled on the ground. Maquin leaped forwards, catching the warrior’s
blade on his own in a spray of sparks. He kicked the man in the gut, sending him staggering into others who were trying to cram through the tent’s entrance. A blade came at Maquin from above.
He blocked it with his shield, swung his own sword at the man trying to crack his skull. His blade bit into something, accompanied by a crunch, breaking bones, probably ribs. Maquin wrenched his
blade free, swung and blocked furiously as men began to circle him, attacks coming from different angles. He glanced at Orgull and saw the big man was on his feet, the warrior he had been wrestling
with lying motionless on the floor. Orgull had his axe in his hands.
‘Down,’ Orgull yelled.
Maquin dropped to the floor, felt air from the axe as it swung over him. There was screaming, more than one voice. Blood sprayed, splashing hot in Maquin’s face.
‘Stay down,’ Orgull ordered, and the axe was swinging again. This time it crunched into, through, a post, and then tent canvas was draped about Maquin, men shouting, grunting. Heat
flared nearby, torches igniting material. The screaming went up in pitch. Something grabbed Maquin’s arm and yanked him backwards.
‘This way,’ Orgull said, striding past Braster’s slumped form, towards the back of the tent. He swung at tent posts as he passed them, bringing more canvas down, torches
crackling and flaring. Maquin glimpsed Lothar briefly, then there was smoke and canvas between them. Orgull swung at the rear of the tent, cut a great rent in it and stepped out into the night.
Maquin followed and then they were running for the treeline.
They were still on clear ground when voices rose behind them; Maquin heard the sound of thudding feet. His heart drummed in his head, louder than anything else. Any moment he expected to feel a
spear in his back.
His lungs were burning. The feet sounded closer behind him, almost on top of him, then there was a hiss, a thud, brief motion at the edge of his vision. He risked a glance back, saw a form lying
on the ground, a spear shaft sticking from it.
Then they were through the treeline, darkness enveloping them.
‘This way,’ a voice hissed, and Tahir was there ahead of them, beckoning through the trees. chapter seven
Lykos’ eyes snapped open, his breath ragged. For a moment he did not know where he was; his hands clutched at the arms of the chair he was sleeping in. He blinked, trying
to scatter the lingering shadow of a dream – yellow eyes, staring through him – and looked about. The creak and swell of his ship’s cabin brought him back. He poured himself a cup
of wine with shaky hands, spilling some, and drank deep.
He walked unsteadily to the cabin window. A shaft of sunlight cut through the gloom. The black walls of Jerolin filled his view, rising over the lake where his ship was anchored. Fidele had
offered him rooms inside those black walls but, being lord of the Vin Thalun, he would rather sleep on a ship’s deck, more home to him than any town or building. Besides, he didn’t
trust these people, knew that his privileged position in Tenebral was purely because Nathair made it so.
He drank more wine, slung his scabbarded sword and belt over his shoulder, opened the door and strode through, with his shieldman Deinon silently falling in behind him. Together they climbed
onto the deck, the bright sunshine making Lykos squint. He nodded to some of his crew, most of them men who had served with him for many years, fought for him, and his father before him.
‘Is my boat ready?’ he asked.
‘Aye, chief,’ Deinon said, his voice raspy, distinct. Losing half of your nose in the pits did that.
‘Good,’ Lykos said and strode to the gunwale. He swung over and climbed agilely down a rope ladder, dropping into a rowing-boat large enough for a dozen men. Thaan, Deinon’s
brother, was waiting for him.
His two shieldmen manned the oars and started pulling steadily for the shore. They skirted the trading and fishing port on the lake shore, instead heading straight for Jerolin. The boat grounded
on a strip of silt and reeds, Lykos jumped into the shallows and splashed the rest of the way to dry land. He stopped there and paused to admire the ships lined along the shore. Twelve
shallow-draughted war-galleys, all sleek lines and stinking of tar. They had been the first finished, at the end of the Crow’s Moon last year, just before winter had set in. All winter they
had sat in their thick-painted coats of moss and tar, and now they were ready for open water. New building had begun with spring, and already five skeletons stood further along the shoreline, the
first oak strakes lining ribs of spruce.
Nathair wanted a Vin Thalun fleet and that was what he was going to get.
He raised a hand in greeting to old Alazon, his master shipwright, sitting on a half-built keel with a mallet in his fist and nails in his mouth. Reluctantly, Lykos began striding towards the
fortress, resisting the urge to go and inspect the shipyard, speak with his men. There were things that needed doing, and meeting with Fidele was high on that list. He had begun this walk sixteen
years ago, the night he had first met with Calidus and sealed his future, so he would not falter now.
The three men reached the road that led to Jerolin’s gates. The meadow about them was wider than it used to be; trees from the nearby forest had been harvested for the shipbuilding. Men
were gathered on the plain, hundreds of them, warriors training in Nathair’s shield wall. It looked a fearsome thing, on land, but Lykos sneered as he passed.
Little use on a ship’s
, he thought, knowing even as he did so that he was being illogical.
The Banished Lands will not be conquered on the ocean
. Beyond Tenebral’s warriors was a cluster of tents,
before which at least two thousand of the Jehar were at their training, this
that Lykos had watched with a sense of dread. Here were warriors that would take some beating. Good
thing that they fought on the same side.