Dahrena returned to her body with a shout, doubling over as her face tensed in distress. Vaelin pulled her close, holding her until the shudders subsided. She had flown for only a short time, at her own insistence since the mountain folk continued to make no appearance, so he deduced her anguish was not due to the depredations of her gift.
“They’re in the mountains now,” she said, looking up at him with pale intensity. “Killing all they can find. He knew, Vaelin. He knew I saw, and he laughed.”
He gathered the Wolf People elders to hear her full report, watching the last vestige of hope fade from each face; the Raven’s Shadow had truly fallen and the long-promised tribulation had arrived.
“There are many Varitai among them,” Dahrena said, “Kuritai too. The Free Swords are not so numerous, mostly cavalry, and their souls are troubled, flaring red with suspicion and fear. They entered the mountains two days ago, I saw evidence of a battle and the remnants of a settlement. All were slain, young folk and old, no captives were taken. They do not come for slaves.” She paused, eyes closed as she forced herself to recall the memory. “Things were done to those they took alive, their torments were many and prolonged.” Her gaze met Vaelin’s. “He wanted me to see.”
“Where are they now?” he asked her.
“Moving to the north-east. They’re maintaining a close formation, mounting few patrols. I saw many souls gathering to oppose them, but in small groups, none with the strength to halt their advance.”
“Then they will need our aid,” Vaelin said.
“No.” The hooded man was the only one present to be seated, perched close to a campfire that he prodded with a sturdy walking stick.
“You have advice to offer, Master Erlin?” Vaelin asked him.
“Just obvious fact, brother.” Erlin sighed and drew back his hood, offering Dahrena a smile rich in sympathy. “They have more than twice our number, do they not, my lady?”
She shot a guarded look at Vaelin and nodded.
“The tribes would have to unite to have a chance against them,” Erlin said, turning to Vaelin. “And they won’t. I tried to warn the chieftains but they wouldn’t listen, thinking this just another slaving campaign. Every few years the Volarians come, sometimes they can be bought off with ore and captives taken from the other tribes, sometimes they fight them so the young warriors can earn their first scars. It’s been going on for over two hundred years now and is almost ritual. They do not understand what they face. By the time you join battle they’ll be defeated and scattered.”
Erlin turned back to the fire, Vaelin noting the whiteness of his knuckles on his stick as he prodded the embers. He’s afraid, he realised. What could scare a man who cannot die?
“You are known to the tribes,” he said. “You can guide us to them? Speak for us?”
“They do not speak as one. When the tribes are not fighting each other they fight amongst themselves. By the time we had negotiated with all it will be too late. In any case, they will see you and these people as just more enemies to fight.”
“You expect me to sit here and ignore a slaughter?”
“The Ally’s creature is trying to draw you out, surely you see that. And you did not come here for war, you came for the knowledge you imagine I hold. The key to defeating the Ally.”
Vaelin frowned at the sardonic note in Erlin’s voice, the tone of a man facing an all-too-predictable outcome. “This has happened before?”
“There have been a few over the centuries. Scholars, kings”—he gave Vaelin a brief, regretful grin—“warriors. All facing the unhappy truth of the Ally’s existence, guided to me by ancient lore or gifted power. Though none found me in times quite so troubled as these.”
“The Ally means to make an end. This time it will be different.”
Erlin sighed and got to his feet. “Then I had best show you what I showed them, brother.” He pointed his stick towards the east where the black clouds hung low over the peaks. “Though I doubt these folk will find the climate to their liking.”
• • •
The hills remained stubbornly empty as they marched east, tracking through valleys devoid of life save a few elk that scattered at the first tinge of their scent on the wind. “The mountain folk are miners,” Erlin explained. “Digging copper and tin from the mountains which they trade to the Volarians, despite their perpetual difficulties. There are few seams this far north and any scouts will be preoccupied with this latest incursion.”
“You have lived here a long time?” Vaelin asked.
“Six years this time, though I once lingered for nearly three decades. That was two centuries ago, when the people here were not so fierce.”
“What kept you here?”
“A widow with several children. She had a harsh tongue but a kind heart and didn’t seem to mind if I stayed and played the husband. When she passed the children had grown and the Volarians were mounting their first slaving operations. I thought it best to move on. Though I am always drawn back.”
Erlin’s expression clouded as he paused to regard the fire mountains in the distance, their fiery glow brighter now, and the sky above ever more dark. “In good time, brother.”
In the evening Lorkan, Cara and Marken gathered around Erlin, keen for stories of his travels. Cara’s memory of him was the dimmest of the three but she still recalled his tales from her childhood sojourn to the Fallen City. “Did you return to the Far West?” she asked. “To the temple above the clouds?”
“Indeed I did.” He glanced up at the Sentar who had also gathered round. They seemed to be amongst the few people with whom he had little experience and found their endless hunger for a story a surprising contrast to their fierce reputation. “Though I stayed only one night.”
“Was she there?” Cara pressed. “The Jade Princess?”
“She was, and as lovely as ever. Unmarked by age and still singing her beautiful song. I was glad I made the effort to hear it again, though the journey was harder than before. Even the land of the Merchant Kings is not immune to strife.”
“Jade Princess?” Vaelin asked.
“The only soul I have met who has lived longer than I. Consigned to the temple above the clouds five hundred years ago by the Merchant Kings, who still make pilgrimage to seek her counsel, imagining she has the ear of Heaven. I think she finds them greatly amusing, though it’s difficult to tell. Her moods are often as inscrutable as her words. But her song . . .” He closed his eyes in remembrance of something blissful. “Uncounted years spent in practice of voice and harp. I alone have been blessed to hear it more than once in a lifetime.”
Vaelin saw Kiral shift in discomfort and knew what her song told her; this was a man fully expecting never to hear the Jade Princess again. We bring his doom, that’s what he fears.
“I heard a story once,” he said to Erlin. “A tale about a Renfaelin knight saved from death by a boy with the power to heal, travelling in company with a man who couldn’t die. The knight related how this man sought to preserve the Gifted in the hope that one would be born to the Realm with the power to kill him, for he was tired of his endless life.”
“Tired?” Erlin reclined a little, pursing his lips in contemplation. “Life is endless sensation, ceaseless change and boundless variety. We are not made to tire of it, and I haven’t. But I have always known it would end, as many years as I have had, I cannot endure forever, nor should I. The Jade Princess knew that, the first time I sought her out, hoping for an answer, a reason why I stayed young whilst others aged, why those around me perished from plague or sickness and I did not. She gave no answer, as is her wont. Many who climb the treacherous path to the temple are often sent away disappointed, and even those to whom she chooses to speak find her words opaque, often beyond their ability to decipher. But though she gave no answer, she did allow me to hear her song, and that was answer enough. There is a flaw in it, you see. Small, barely perceptible to the untutored ear, but to one as long-lived as I, as jarring as an apprentice minstrel stumbling over his first chords. It’s but a brief sequence of notes, so complex as to be beyond the skill of perhaps all who ever held a harp, even her. Her song is not perfected, she hasn’t finished, perhaps she never will.”
• • •
A three-day march brought them in sight of the only settlement they had seen, a small cluster of stone houses at the foot of a flat-topped mountain. The air had a faint sulphurous tint and the sky above continually shrouded in roiling grey cloud, darkening to black in the east where the fire mountains raged ever brighter. Erlin had them halt a mile short of the settlement where a number of figures could be seen running from the dwellings, perhaps a hundred, all armed.
“The Laretha don’t have many visitors,” Erlin said. “They’re small in number and living so close to the fire mountains provides a certain security.” He turned to Vaelin, gesturing towards the settlement. “They’ll expect to parley with the chieftain of this new tribe.”
Vaelin asked Astorek to join him as they followed Erlin towards the settlement where the warriors stood in a thin but steady line. They were mostly men, all armed with either an axe or a long, narrow-bladed spear. They all wore calf-length kilts of leather, decorated with various painted symbols, and breastplates of bronze that gleamed dully in the muted daylight. A stocky man of middling years stood in the centre of their line, an axe clutched in either hand, long greying hair tied back from his face in thick braids. His rigid posture seemed to relax a little at the sight of Erlin, but his countenance remained fierce with suspicion as he scanned Vaelin then darkened into rage at the sight of Astorek. He raised both axes as they neared, his people immediately adopting a fighting stance on either side.