“He had a suitably heroic death,” the Ally said after a moment. “Saving your queen from one of my servant’s delightful traps. He would have been of great use, his gift being so strong, but thanks to you, all lost. Along with that woman you loved so dearly. Had you left me there, you might one day have heard their voices again, but now they are gone, vanished to nothing like any other soul. You did that when you brought me here, for without me there is nothing to hold them.”
“You’re lying,” Vaelin said, finding he had to force the words out. “Something held you in the Beyond. It could hold them too.”
“The Beyond,” the Ally repeated with a caustic sigh. “What a ridiculous name. Still, I suppose you had to call it something. My people never thought to name it, as if in denying it a title, they could wipe away the crime of creating it.”
More lies. The Beyond is surely eternal. Caenis and Dahrena will be bound there forever . . . The notion stirred a fresh welling of grief, and yet more unwise anger. The sword felt heavier on his back now, a constant temptation.
Vaelin turned Scar about and kicked him into a walk.
“We didn’t know, you see,” the Ally continued, his tone reflective but also cheerful, an avuncular uncle relating past mischief to a curious nephew. “We imagined ourselves so wise. And why would we not? The marvels we crafted on this earth would have left your primitive mind reeling. But that is the eternal dilemma of curiosity, its boundlessness. Having conquered much of one world, a conquest won without battles or blood I might add, why not seek out others? The stones were the key of course, as they were the key to everything in our world of wonders. Dug from the earth and shaped, and only with the shaping was their power revealed. The power to store memory and knowledge, preserving our wisdom for all the ages, and, it transpired, the power to reach between worlds.”
“The black stone,” Vaelin said, refusing to turn.
“Yes.” The Ally laughed in surprise. “I clearly don’t give you enough credit. Yes the black stone was to be our greatest achievement. I imagine you must be burning to know what it is.”
“I know you made it, and feared what you had made.”
“What did Lionen tell you? That it was a box to lock me in, perhaps?”
Vaelin glanced over his shoulder, finding the Ally’s gaze more intent now, his cheerfulness displaced by calculation. So he doesn’t know everything. “He told me your wife’s death had driven you to destroy the world you built, and he killed you to prevent that.”
“True enough, though I suspect it was more a matter of primal hatred. He didn’t give me a quick death, you know.”
“I saw what you did to your people. You had much to atone for then, and yet more now.”
“Atonement? I have spent countless years without pain, pleasure or the knowledge of anything that might be called human sensation.” He reclined in the saddle, shrugging in his bonds. “Please, feel at liberty to inflict whatever torment you like upon this flesh. I’ll take it all and ask for more.”
“What is the black stone?” Vaelin demanded, the sword shifting on his back as he rounded on the Ally. “If it is not a prison, what is it?”
The Ally glanced over at Lorkan and Cara, riding just within earshot. “In my time there were none like them. None who were born with a gift, with the power burned into their souls and passed through the bloodline for generations. Our gifts came only from the black stone.”
Touch it once and it gives . . . “There was no Dark in the world,” Vaelin said in realisation. “You unleashed it.”
The Ally’s face betrayed a mix of scorn and amusement. “How little you know. There has always been power here, in the water and the earth, ancient and capricious, but beyond the reach of human knowledge. The stones brought something new, something different, a gift of power from across the chasm that divides the worlds. We took it and built wonders . . .”
The Ally trailed off, glancing around at the Lonak and the Gifted, his expression darkening into contemptuous disdain. “And this world is our legacy,” he went on. “Did Lionen tell you when he first received his visions he thought he was seeing the past? Some long-forgotten age of barbarism where people killed each other over mere superstition. Then he saw the ruins of my city and knew he looked upon the future. A future we built together.”
• • •
The Ally didn’t speak again, remaining apparently content in his bonds, riding without protest and accepting the food spooned into his mouth with a grateful smile. Vaelin asked many questions during the first two days of silence but gave up when it became plain this thing had nothing more to share.
They left the mountains behind ten days later, proceeding into the plains beyond. It was pleasant country, dotted with small, forested gullies and, the farther south they travelled, plantations and villas of varying size and luxury. Some showed signs of recent abandonment, others were littered with bodies and part destroyed by fire or deliberate vandalism. Vaelin initially suspected the Witch’s Bastard of having vented his malice when he led his army north, but it soon became clear this destruction arose not from oppression, but revolt. Time and again they found black-clad bodies hanging from the archways of partially destroyed villas, often families who had met an identical fate, the corpses showing signs of torture.
“The red men conscripted their Varitai on the way north,” Astorek surmised after surveying a particularly large villa that had been reduced to its foundations by fire. “The slaves rose and they were defenceless.”
“Why kill the children?” Cara asked. The villa had burned but its owner had not, his body lay spread-eagled and eviscerated in the forecourt alongside a woman and a small boy, both recipients of the same treatment.
“A lifetime of rage is not easily tempered,” Astorek said. “Children born into slavery are taken from their parents and sold, those permitted to live that is.”
“Doesn’t make it right,” Cara murmured. “Nothing about this dreadful journey has been right.”
Vaelin saw the Ally regarding the burnt remnants of the villa with an incurious eye. His demeanour over recent days had been one of boredom, reminding Vaelin of the privileged nobles he had seen suffering through the banal entertainments of the Summertide Fair. He grows impatient for his end. As do I.
• • •
Another week’s travel brought them to the first town they had encountered, a walled collection of somewhat mean houses rising from the green fields like an ugly growth. Astorek struggled to place its name but did remember being garrisoned there with his father’s regiment before they proceeded north to their fateful encounter in the mountains.
“The men got drunk and started a brawl with the townsfolk,” he recalled. “Knives were drawn, it got very ugly. The next day Father had one hanged and ten flogged. Oddly the men didn’t seem to mind that much, I think that was the only time he might have won some respect.”
“Stinks worse than the Merim Her hovels,” Alturk commented. “Our numbers are small. We should go around.”
“The Northern Road begins here,” Astorek said. “It’ll take us to Volar. We can pick it up to the south.”
The townsfolk, however, proved unwilling to let them pass. As they neared the road a motley group of about three hundred people emerged from the town gates to place themselves astride it. As Vaelin drew near he saw they wore a variety of clothing, black and grey with the occasional flash of red, and all were armed, though not particularly well and their line was distinctly ragged.
A large man stood at the head of the mismatched host, bare muscular arms crossed and staring at Vaelin with stern defiance. He wore a red tunic and black trews, his meaty wrists liberally festooned with bracelets of gold and silver.
“Tell him he’s in our way,” Vaelin said to Astorek as they closed to within fifty paces of the townsfolk.
Astorek called out to the large man, receiving a loud, and prolonged tirade in response, the man waving his braceleted arms about and pointing in various directions.
“He says he is king of this land for as far as the eye can see,” Astorek related. “He has killed many men to win this city and will kill many more to keep it.”
“What does he want?”
“Tribute and obeisance, if you want to use his road.”
“He’s a slave?”
“A Garisai if I’m any judge. It appears this province has undergone a political transformation recently and, amidst chaos, the strongest are likely to gain authority.”
“Tell him we have seen many murdered children in these lands. I would know if he is responsible for that.”
The large man spat contemptuously on the ground as Astorek related the question, gesticulating with even more fury and pointing at Vaelin in obvious challenge. “He has wiped the cursed blood of the masters from these lands, their seed will never again rise to trouble them. He is master here now, and demands his due.”
“And he’ll have it.” Vaelin climbed down from Scar’s back, approaching the large man with a swift stride. The new-made King’s heavy features tensed in puzzlement then outright alarm as Vaelin drew his sword. He dropped into a fighting stance, short swords appearing in both hands from sheaths hidden beneath his tunic, displaying considerable poise in his stance, one sword held low, the other high.