Vaelin glanced back at the wasted, blackened thing lying amongst the rocks, various tempting notions flickering through his head. Let it linger until the last second. Have Astorek set the wolves on it. Take a hot blade to its eyes . . .
Cara’s sobs drew his attention to the far end of the ridge where Orven’s guardsmen were constructing the pyre. She sagged in Lorkan’s arms, face buried in his chest. The Sentar stood nearby in respectful silence, their numbers halved in the struggle with the Kuritai, Kiral standing beside Alturk. The Tahlessa leaned heavily on a spear, sweating with the effort.
“Finish it,” Vaelin told Wise Bear, jerking his head at the blackened thing and moving towards the pyre. “I leave the manner of its passing to you.”
• • •
He sat on the cliff edge as the fire dwindled behind him and the sun dipped below the mountains. Out on the valley floor the tribesfolk were still picking over the Volarian dead. The aftermath of victory had seen them instantly revert to prior allegiances and the different groups squabbled over the spoils, threats and curses echoing across the valley, each chieftain no doubt stating a claim to the collected loot as leader of the army and architect of victory.
He hadn’t said any words as the fire blossomed, watching Dahrena and Marken’s fur-wrapped bodies wreathed in flame and smoke as the others said their peace. Even Alturk managed a few terse words of respect for those fallen in a common cause. They drifted away as evening fell, Cara still crying and making him wonder if she would ever stop.
“Why won’t it matter?”
He looked up at Erlin, seeing the cautious but determined set of his features. Vaelin returned his gaze to the valley and the dead, stripped and pale in the gathering gloom. They were spread out in a vague teardrop shape, bulging at the river and narrowing to the west where the survivors had attempted to flee. As far as he knew none had escaped, the victors having no tradition of offering quarter to the vanquished. The dead hadn’t been counted either, the Wolf People were content in the knowledge of a secure future and he doubted the tribesfolk could count past ten. Sixty thousand? he wondered. Seventy?
“What else did you see in the stone?” Erlin persisted.
“You have had centuries on this earth,” Vaelin said. “Gaining many lifetimes’ worth of knowledge. And yet you have never before made any effort to bring an end to the Ally. There must have been chances before now. You said others sought you out. Why take a stand now?”
“Before I always knew it would be hopeless, probably fatal.”
“Well now it is certainly fatal. That’s what the stone showed me.”
Erlin sank down at his side, turning to the valley, the tribesfolk’s squabbles still audible in the gathering dark. “My gift, it will draw him.”
“How will you do it?”
“The choice is not mine to make.” He got to his feet, turning his back on the valley and moving to the pyre. The flames had died away, leaving only a fading pall of smoke rising from the ashes. He knew if he peered close enough, he would see her bones and closed his eyes against the temptation. She would never want you to torture yourself.
“You’re saying I can leave?” Erlin asked. “You will simply allow me to walk away from here?”
“In the morning I set out for Volar, where I believe we will find the ending we seek. I hope you will join me. If you do not, I will understand.”
“What awaits us in Volar?”
He watched the thinning tendrils of smoke rise into the night, twisting in the air until lost amongst the stars. Is she snared? he wondered. Did he catch her as he caught me? Does he torment her now, twisting her into the same thing that killed her?
“A box,” he told Erlin. “Full of everything, and nothing.”
• • •
There were more than enough horses for all, though the Sentar would have greatly preferred their stout ponies to the taller and more placid Volarian cavalry mounts. “At least they’ll make good eating when the snows come,” Alturk commented as he severed the stirrups from his horse’s saddle, casting them aside with a contemptuous grimace.
Vaelin had spent much of the morning dealing with the tribal chieftains who seemed to be labouring under the collective delusion they would now be obliged to fight the Wolf People for possession of lost territory.
“We don’t want your lands,” an exasperated Astorek told them, repeating the words in Realm Tongue for Vaelin’s benefit. “My people are already returning to the tundra.”
Hirkran said something, maintaining a rigid pose in an ornate Volarian breastplate, axe in one hand and looted short sword in another. “He wants to know what tribute we demand,” the shaman explained to Vaelin.
Vaelin found himself fast wearying of these folk; their endless feuds and unalloyed suspicion now seemed so unutterably petty. “Stay away from your people as they march north, and mine as we march south.”
Hirkran narrowed his gaze and spoke again. “He says they garnered much in the way of gold and jewels from this field,” Astorek said. “And doesn’t believe you would simply ride away without trying to take it.”
“Then”—Vaelin’s hand went to his sword as his weariness turned to sudden anger—“he can fight me and I’ll prove it by piling all the gold on his corpse before I leave.”
Astorek’s translation was clearly unnecessary judging by the way Hirkran bridled, uncrossing his arms and adopting a crouched stance with a challenging growl.
“Enough!” Kiral stepped between them, surprising Vaelin by addressing the tribesman in a fluent but harsh torrent of Volarian. Hirkran’s aggression lessened in the face of her tirade though his eyes narrowed further, his face taking on an expression of grim understanding. He voiced a brief snarl as Kiral fell silent, his eyes flicking momentarily to Alturk before he backed away, still crouching, as if expecting an attack at any second. He uttered a soft, intent sentence at Kiral then abruptly turned and walked away, calling to his warriors.
“What did you tell him?” Vaelin asked her.
“That their weakness and disunity has been noted by my father.” She gestured at an oblivious Alturk. “A great warlord who will return with all our tribe to claim these mountains, for they are unworthy of the riches offered by the spirits.”
Astorek gave an appreciative chuckle. “If anything will unite them, it’s that.”
Kiral inclined her head with a smile, her humour fading as she looked at Vaelin. “My song indicated you would have killed him.”
“Your song was right.” Vaelin turned away and started towards Scar. “We ride within the hour. Astorek, please convey my thanks to your people and assure them of the continued friendship of the Unified Realm. I’ve little doubt my queen will send ambassadors to formalise our alliance in due course.”
“From what Wise Bear tells me,” Astorek called after him, “if your mission fails, our victory here will prove no more than a respite from greater dangers.”
Vaelin paused, turning to offer the shaman an impatient nod. “Hence my keenness to depart.”
Astorek glanced first at Kiral, then at the burgeoning dust cloud beyond the ridge where his people were breaking camp. “Then I will go with you. I . . . feel the wolf would want me to.”
Vaelin felt the faintest flutter of humour as he saw Kiral carefully avoid his gaze. Is he answering a wolf’s call? Or a cat’s?
“You will be welcome,” he told him, resuming his stride. “Please be brief in your farewells.”
• • •
The journey through the mountains was rich in grim sights testifying to the destruction wrought by the Witch’s Bastard. Murdered tribespeople littered the heather, burnt settlements became a common sight as did the bodies of Volarian soldiers lashed to wooden frames, the flesh of their backs flogged down to the spine. From the frequency of such sights it was clear the red men had led a reluctant army, displaying little imagination in maintaining discipline.
“Even Tokrev wasn’t so cruel,” Astorek said as they neared a row of a dozen flogged men, a cloud of crows rising from the frames as they approached.
“I found his cruelty more than sufficient,” Vaelin replied. He spied a settlement ahead, charred and mostly ruined but still possessing some intact roofs. “We’ll shelter there tonight. Lord Orven, scout the hills in a five-mile radius. Victory or no, this remains enemy territory.”
Erlin came to his fire when the night had grown fully dark. Vaelin had sat apart from the others since the march began. The Sentar were rich in new stories and, though he barely understood a word, their evident relish in recounting the battle roused him to unwise anger. This is what they came for, he chided himself. Another story, the Mahlessa’s gift to her bravest warriors is the chance for a richer tale.
“Astorek and Kiral are missing,” Erlin said, sinking down opposite him, hands spread to the warmth. “Haven’t seen either since nightfall.”
Vaelin glanced at the blackness beyond the part-tumbled walls of the dwelling he had chosen, a place he would have shared with Dahrena, as Kiral and Astorek now shared another. “I suspect they’re safe enough.”