Another red man leapt and delivered a kick to Alturk’s jaw, sending him sprawling. The red man landed nimbly astride the Tahlessa’s prostrate form, a wide smile on his lips as he raised his sword. Alturk spat blood into his face and the red man stepped back, smile vanished into a snarling mask of malice.

Scar collided with a Kuritai, sending him spinning, Vaelin rising high in the saddle as the red man lunged at Alturk, then collapsed as an arrow sank into his leg. Another red-armoured figure darted towards the Lonak but drew up as Vaelin closed, sword raised too late to counter Scar’s flailing hooves, taking a kick to the chest and flying backwards.

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The remaining red men closed on Vaelin, moving with uncanny speed. Another arrow streaked from the surrounding turmoil to take the leader in the leg. The others paused, crouched low and eyes scanning for enemies. Kiral came into view, walking forward at an almost leisurely pace as she loosed arrows from her stout flat bow, each of the red men falling as the shafts found their legs.

The wolves moved in as Vaelin dismounted, running to Alturk’s side where Kiral was already crouched. The red men screamed and railed as the wolves took hold of their limbs and Wise Bear slid from Iron Claw’s back. He walked from one to the other, crouching to touch his palm to their heads, their cries falling silent one by one. He paused at the last one, drawing back with his squat features tensed in confusion.

“Can’t . . .” Alturk grunted and clutched at the wound in his leg. “Can’t you even allow me a decent death?”

Kiral slapped him, a hard smack to the cheek, berating him in her own language. Vaelin’s knowledge of Lonak was poor but he did catch the word “father” amidst the angry torrent. Alturk’s anger faded as she continued to rail at him, tearing a strip from his buckskins and moving to bind his wound.

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Vaelin rose and went to where Wise Bear stood over the remaining red man, the wolves’ teeth having silenced the others. The shaman frowned, shaking his head in confusion as the red man stared up at him, spread-eagled in the wolves’ grip, sweat covering his face, blood flowing freely from his nose and the corners of his eyes. Vaelin felt it then, a sudden doubling of his heartbeat, a tremble seizing his limbs.

The power to freeze a man’s heart with fear, he recalled and found himself laughing. “Fear,” he said, crouching next to the red man and capturing his gaze. “In truth it’s a small thing, and an old friend.” He drove the pommel of his sword hard into the man’s temple, leaving him sagging and barely conscious. Wise Bear shook his head, muttering a curse in his own tongue then crouching to press a hand to the red man’s brow. He stiffened for a moment, a chilled gasp escaping his chest, then lay still.

Vaelin turned away as the wolves finished the task, watching the last of the Kuritai fall to the Sentar. Somewhere behind him the tribesfolk were singing some kind of victory song, the tune was discordant but they all seemed to know the words.

“My lord,” Lorkan said, appearing as his side, a bloody rag pressed to his head. “I feel this an opportune moment to resign from your service. For this is an experience I should not like to repeat, regardless of Cara’s opinions.”

“Accepted, good sir,” Vaelin told him. “And with thanks for your service.”

He turned as Mishara gave a sudden hiss, her hackles rising as she turned and began sprinting towards the ridge where they had left her mistress.

Vaelin’s gaze tracked over the corpses of the red men. Four, and the other two. Six. But Mirvald said seven . . .

He ran to Scar and leapt into the saddle, heels thumping hard into his flanks as he spurred to the gallop.

• • •

The ridge was wreathed in cloud and rain as he halted a near-spent Scar at its base. He had seen the clouds descend as they rode towards the ridge, far too fast to be anything other than Cara’s work. Mishara was several yards ahead and quickly disappeared into the curtain of rain as lightning flashed somewhere up ahead.

Vaelin hurled himself up the ridge, seeing bodies lying amidst the rocks, the Wolf People’s warriors, all seemingly cut down in seconds. He found Marken’s cat next, slumped and lifeless, the hulking Gifted himself lay a few yards on, bearded features slack and unmoving in the lashing rain.

Vaelin tore his gaze away and forced himself on. The smell reached him first, burnt, acrid, cloying. The stench of recently seared flesh. Cara came into view as he crested the ridge, a small, still form sitting in the rain, pale features staring with wide eyes at something nearby, something blackened and charred but somehow still moving, the part-melted remnants of red armour sticking to the roasted flesh as it twitched.

“Didn’t see it,” Cara said in a whisper. “We shared . . . I couldn’t see . . . It happened so fast . . .”

Vaelin crouched next to her, seeing the blood streaming from her nose, turning pink and dissolving in the torrent. He touched his hands to hers. “Enough,” he said. “It’s done.”

She blinked at him, then sagged, the rain dwindling to drizzle as he caught her. “Lightning,” she murmured. “Didn’t know I could.”

“Cara.” He lifted her chin. “Where is Lady Dahrena?”

Somewhere up ahead he heard Mishara voice a plaintive, forlorn call.

“I’m sorry,” Cara said, voice small and choked. “It happened so fast . . .”

He rested her back against a rock and rose from her side, moving away and following the sound as Mishara continued to voice her mournful cry.

She was slumped on her side next to the rain-wasted remnants of the fire he had built for her the night before, still wrapped in furs. There was no blood, no sign of any injury at all. One who could kill with a single touch . . .

He sat next to her, drawing her small, limp form into his arms, teasing the silken hair back from her ice-chilled forehead. “I want to go home,” he said. “I want to go home with you.”

CHAPTER FOUR

Reva

She landed hard, rolling with the impact to absorb the shock, but still it left an aching burn in her legs as she surged to her feet, sprinting towards the nearest beast-handler. She was grateful for the crowd’s bloodlust, their roaring excitement at her appearance robbing the handler of any warning until she was nearly on him. He turned just before she whipped her manacles across his face, teeth shattering and lips shredded by the impact, his scream a shrill gurgle as he collapsed to his knees, the chains slipping from his hands.

The three dagger-teeth he had been guiding towards their prey immediately whirled at the sudden loss of restraint, hissing at Reva and crouching to spring. She dived towards the handler, snatching the whip from the strap on his wrist, snapping it at the nearest cat, forcing it back. She raised her gaze, finding the Shield and Allern standing unmolested in the centre of the arena, the two other handlers staring at her in wide-eyed shock. The Shield reacted first, sprinting forward to hack down the nearest beast, the short sword cutting through its neck as its companions howled and lashed their claws at him. He danced back on nimble feet, though not without suffering a trio of parallel scars on his chest.

The fallen handler’s cats lunged at Reva, dragging her attention away. She struck with the whip again, then ran forward, leaping over a slashing claw. She whirled as they pursued, the whip cutting the air with a vicious crack. The dagger-teeth recoiled once more, then paused as one, as if in answer to some unspoken but shared understanding, turning to regard the wounded handler, now attempting to stumble towards a door in the arena wall, hands held to his face as he trailed blood across the sand. The cats gave an identical hiss and bounded after him, one leaping onto his back and bearing him to the sand, whilst the others savaged his legs, their long fangs piercing flesh and bone with appalling ease. His screams were short and the cats soon fell to contented feeding, ignoring Reva completely.

She turned to see Allern attempting to keep the three cats facing him at bay with short jabs of his spear. Their handler, however, was considerably distracted by Reva’s charge, blanching and dropping his chains before sprinting away. He made it to within ten feet of a door before a volley of arrows from the Varitai archers on the upper tiers streaked down to pin him to the sand.

Free of restraint, his cats began to circle Allern, moving in a whirling dance of slashing claws and teeth-baring lunges, seeking an opening as he spun, his spear moving in a blur. Reva sprinted towards the nearest cat, the whip snaking out to wrap around its leg, pulling it back as it thrashed and howled. Allern saw his chance and speared the beast in the shoulder, though the force of the thrust sent the spear-blade through the animal, stuck fast amidst bone and sinew. Allern cursed, trying to draw the weapon free, the two other cats closing in for the kill.

Reva’s whip cracked once more, forcing them back. “Leave it!” she told Allern, pushing him back from the corpse. “Take this.” She handed him the whip then placed her foot on the haft of the spear, stamping down to snap it in two. She rolled the dead cat over and took hold of the spear-blade, drawing it clear of the carcass in a gout of blood.

“Keep them back!” she ordered Allern, turning to see the Shield now on his back, legs raised to hold off the cat snarling atop him, jaws snapping, its terrible fangs within a whisker of his face. The surviving handler loosed his remaining cat and retreated, gazing wildly about, knowing to flee meant death but clearly wanting no part of this suddenly equal struggle. The freed cat circled the struggling pair in a rapid scrabble, sliding to a halt near Ell-Nestra’s head, tensing for a strike, jaws widening as it leapt . . . Reva’s broken spear-blade took the cat in the side in midair, its limp form colliding with the dagger-tooth atop the Shield, forcing it to rear back, leaving just enough room for Ell-Nestra to thrust his sword up into its neck.

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