CHAPTER FIVE

Lyrna

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The horse was a gift from the Eorhil, fourteen hands at the shoulder and white from nose to tail save for a tuft of black hair between her ears. Lyrna had found the Eorhil woman they called Wisdom waiting with the horse when she emerged from her tent that morning. She proffered the reins with a surprisingly well-executed formal bow.

“She has a name?” Lyrna asked her.

“It translates as ‘An Unseen Arrow as She Runs through Snow and Wind,’ Highness,” Wisdom replied in her perfect Realm Tongue. “My people are not known for their brevity.”

“Arrow it is,” Lyrna said, scratching the mare’s nose and drawing forth a faint snort.

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“She misses her rider,” Wisdom said. “He fell before the city. I feel you may be able to mend her heart.”

“My thanks.” Lyrna returned her bow. “Will you ride with me today? I greatly wish to know more of your people.”

There was a somewhat sardonic lilt to the woman’s voice as she replied, “Have you not already read every book in your library concerning the Eorhil, Highness?”

“I am increasingly aware that the sagacity of books is limited in comparison to experience.”

“As you wish.” Wisdom turned and vaulted onto the back of her own horse, looking down at Lyrna in expectation. “My people ride now.”

Iltis and Benten were obliged to scramble onto their own horses as Lyrna mounted up and trotted off with Wisdom. They rode to the eastern edge of the camp where the Eorhil host was already in motion, the various war bands galloping off seemingly at random. No neatly ordered ranks and columns here, although every rider seemed to move with a purpose and she noticed how the host took on a definite if loose formation as they crested the eastern hills and entered the low-lying fields beyond.

“Good country for horses,” Lyrna commented to Wisdom an hour or so shy of midday. The ride had been hard but not exhausting, her journey through the Lonak Dominion having left her well adapted to long hours in the saddle. Plus she found her new mount something of a delight, faster than poor old Sable and less fractious than Surefoot.

“Still too many hills for my people’s liking,” Wisdom replied, taking a long pull from her waterskin. “And not an elk to be had since we came here. Some of the young ones are chafing at it, for true adulthood only comes when you take your first elk.”

Lyrna looked at the riders around them, noting how their eyes strayed constantly to her face but displayed none of the awe shown by the Realm folk. If anything she detected a discomfort in finding themselves in such proximity.

“You call it the Dark,” Wisdom said, somehow sensing the question she was about to ask. “We call it simply Exilla, ‘power’ in your tongue.”

“Not one I possess,” Lyrna pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter. We know of it but few of us are visited with such gifts.”

“Those that are find themselves shunned, I assume.”

Wisdom voiced a faint laugh. “Do not judge us by the standards of your people, Highness. Those with gifts are not shunned, but they are respected. The greater the power, the greater the respect, and respect can grow into fear if the power is great enough. As yet, there is not a story or a song in our history that tells of a power greater than that used to heal you. They worry what it might mean.”

“Do you?”

Wisdom’s age-cracked lips formed into a smile, small but rich in sympathy. “No, great and terrible queen, I know full well what it means.”

Sanesh Poltar came trotting up on his tall piebald stallion, offering Lyrna a cautious nod. “Scouts say many men to the south,” the war chief told Wisdom. “The queen stays here while we go look.”

“I think not,” Lyrna said, fixing the Eorhil with a bright smile.

“Tower Lord says to keep you safe above all others,” Sanesh Poltar replied. “And we are bound to him, not you.”

“And I am bound to neither.” She tugged on Arrow’s reins, pointing her nose southward and kicking her into a gallop.

• • •

The Eorhil soon overtook her, of course, though she was gratified by the hard glare Sanesh Poltar shot at her as he galloped past. Iltis and Benten closed in on either side as they trailed in the riders’ wake, Lyrna finding herself blinking away dust as the sun rose to dry the earth. They crested a low rise a half hour later, reining to a halt beside the war chief as he surveyed the shallow vale beyond. To the east and west his outriders galloped forth in a perfectly coordinated envelopment whilst the bulk of his riders stayed put on the low ridge. She noted most had notched an arrow to their horn bows.

Sanesh Poltar sat in silence, scanning the vale with a hawkish intent. Lyrna followed his gaze, seeing nothing beyond empty country. “How many men were seen?” she asked the war chief.

“Less than were at the city,” he replied without turning. “More than we have.”

Another Volarian force sent by Tokrev to raid the south? she wondered. Master Marken had searched through the dead general’s mind revealing what he described as a swamp of vain ambition and petty jealousy but no inkling of another large force nearby. Could they have landed early? she wondered. Tokrev sending for the second wave to speed the conquest.

Sanesh Poltar straightened in his saddle and pointed. It was another few seconds before Lyrna saw them, a small band of cavalry galloping into the vale then drawing up short at the sight of so many horsemen on the skyline ahead. They fanned out, still too distant to make out any details, one of their number galloping off to disappear over the lip of the valley. Next to Lyrna, Wisdom unhooked her bow from the saddle and notched an arrow. Old as she is, Lyrna thought, and she’s still expected to fight.

The horsemen in the valley sat waiting for several minutes, Lyrna thinking it odd that none had yet drawn a sword. Sanesh Poltar’s gaze shifted once more as a tall banner appeared over the rim of the valley, bobbing at the head of a column of infantry led by a man on horseback. They marched into the valley in close ranks, making no move to assume battle formation, Lyrna realising why as the motif on the banner became clear: a tower rising from a wave-tossed ocean.

She laughed and kicked Arrow forward, ignoring Iltis’s appalled protest as he galloped along behind. The marching column came to a halt as she approached, sergeants barking commands unheeded by men who stared at her in open wonder. She made for the rider at the head of the column, raising a hand and smiling warmly. He climbed down from his saddle, not without some difficulty, and slowly lowered himself to one knee.

“What a welcome sight you make, my lord!” Lyrna told him.

Tower Lord Al Bera looked up at her with a pale but intent expression, raising himself with effort as she leapt down from her saddle, coming to him with hands outstretched. “Highness,” he said, his voice hoarse and back stiff as he lowered his lips to her hands, eyes hardly leaving her face as he straightened. “We heard so many terrible stories. I’m greatly pleased to find one at least to be false.” He turned, raising an arm towards the men at his back as more came marching into sight. “I present the Army of the Southern Shore. Twenty thousand horse and foot ready to march and die at the Queen’s Word.”

• • •

“They sent about five thousand men into the southern counties,” the Tower Lord reported to the council of captains that evening. Lyrna had been obliged to order him to sit as the man’s exhaustion and evident pain threatened to tip him over at any moment. He sat on a camp-stool, both arms cradled in his lap, the left heavily bandaged and the right hanging loose from a drooping shoulder. Lyrna had offered to take him to Weaver but the Tower Lord’s shocked expression was enough for her to let the matter drop.

“The slave soldiers mostly,” Al Bera went on. Lyrna knew this to be a man promoted through merit rather than blood and his voice held the broad vowels singular to the common folk of southern Asrael. “Plus about a thousand cavalry. And slavers, of course. Laid waste to several villages before word reached the Tower. I marched out with the South Guard and what men I could levy from the coast, caught them as they were finishing up a slaughter at Draver’s Wharf on the lower reaches of the Cold Iron. Had a sense they were expecting a less speedy response. Unsurprising, since I should be dead by rights.” Al Bera paused to give a wan smile. “Made ’em pay for it. The numbers were about even so it was a bloody business, but we made ’em pay.”

“Prisoners?” Vaelin asked.

“The slave soldiers don’t surrender, but we took a few cavalry and slavers. I gave them to the people we freed. Probably should’ve just hung them, but blood pays for blood.”

“Quite so, my lord,” Lyrna told him. “Please continue.”

“Been gathering men and training ’em best I could since then. Word came two weeks ago telling of the Meldenean fleet sailing up the Cold Iron so I judged it time to move north.”

“You judged correctly,” Lyrna said. “However, you find us short of supplies.”

“Supplies I’ve got, Highness. My lady wife has family connections on both sides of the Erinean. Seems some Alpiran merchants were willing to trade with us. The terms were hardly favourable and the South Tower treasury stands just about empty, but since the Emperor lifted the embargo I s’pose they couldn’t pass up a chance at profit.”

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