He saw no reluctance in Adal’s demeanour before he turned his mount about and rode off, but there was uncertainty there, even a faint concern. He wondered if the North Guard’s animosity had worn thinner since Alltor, that if there wasn’t some actual regard for his Tower Lord these days. But, where once such things were so easily divined, now there was only continual uncertainty. Is this what it is to live without a gift?

He recalled those brief years when his song had fallen silent, his refusal to heed it leaving him bereft, without guidance. It had been hard to be so rudderless in a sea of chaos and war. This, however, was much worse, because now there was the chill, the bone-deep cold that had seeped into him in the Ally’s domain and lingered on here in this world of myriad paths, all seemingly so dark. And the words, of course, those words that hounded him from the Beyond.

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We will make an ending, you and I.

Nortah trotted up beside him, Snowdance bounding on ahead, as ever enlivened by the prospect of blood.

“You belong with your regiment,” Vaelin told him.

“Davern has them well in hand,” his brother replied. “Truth be told, I’d be grateful if you’d ask the queen to promote him in my stead. Boundless hatred and bloodlust are not easily tolerated for long.”

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“They’ll need firm leadership, and a restraining hand.”

Nortah raised an eyebrow. “Is that sentiment shared by the queen, brother? If so, I’d be greatly surprised.”

Vaelin didn’t respond, recalling his joy on seeing her that day at Alltor as the boat carried her across the river, the blossoming relief as she stepped ashore. The song’s absence was a physical pain and she seemed to offer an antidote, a single point of certainty, burned but glorious. How could I ever have imagined she might have fallen? he had thought, sinking to his knees before her.

But as the days passed, and the army’s evident love for their queen swelled by the mile, he had felt the song’s absence ever more keenly. She raises so many questions. And yet seems to ask none herself. He saw great differences from the girl he had met in that palace corridor so many years ago, the unbridled ambition forged into something new, and more troubling. She hungered for power, now what does she hunger for?

“My people met with our brother,” Nortah said. He always referred to the Gifted from Nehrin’s Point in this way, as if they were a nation unto themselves. “As per the queen’s request. They told him no, as expected.” He paused. “Have you spoken to him? Since his little revelation?”

Vaelin shook his head, keen to avoid discussion on this topic. The questions it raised were even more troubling than those surrounding the queen.

“Seventh Order or not,” Nortah went on. “Faith or not. He’s still our brother.”

He always knew more, Vaelin thought. More than he ever said. Knowledge that might have been useful, saved many, perhaps even Frentis . . . or Mikehl.

“I’ll talk to him,” he promised Nortah. For we have much to discuss.

“You’re not going to do anything . . . foolish today, are you?” Nortah asked.

“Foolish, brother?”

“Yes, brother.” Nortah’s face was stern. “Such as throwing yourself at an entire army. They can compose all the songs they like, it was still bloody silly. We have a home to return to, if you recall. The Order is behind us. There is something to live for now, someone to live for.”

There was an additional weight in his voice and Vaelin knew his meaning well enough. Dahrena had been at his side for most of the journey, except today as he begged her to rest after her efforts to find their quarry. It was strange but, for all the time spent together, they spoke little, conversation seemingly unnecessary. He knew she could feel the absence of his song and feared it would create a barrier between them, but she was more at ease with him now than ever before, and the reason was not hard to guess. Two souls meeting in the Beyond, not a bond to be easily broken.

For all the discomfort the realisation brought, he remained grateful for her company, for it was only in her presence that the chill seemed to abate. It lurched anew now, a sudden ache deep inside, often making itself known when he rode for a long while, or engaged in any serious exertion.

“No foolishness, brother,” he told Nortah, pulling his cloak tighter about his chest. “My word on it.”

• • •

His horse had belonged to a North Guard and, like most mounts bred in the Reaches, was of Eorhil stock: tall, fleet, and of placid nature when not called to battle. Captain Adal said his former owner had been a man of great practicality and little sentiment, referring to the animal simply as “Horse” and Vaelin had yet to think of anything better. He felt the beast tense as they neared a hilltop in late afternoon, his nostrils flaring as they caught a scent too faint for Vaelin’s nose, though he could guess its meaning: the sweat of many fearful men.

They came into view as he crested the rise, the Nilsaelin cavalry falling in on either side of him, spreading out as they reordered their ranks in preparation for the charge. Nilsaelin cavalry were lightly armoured and their horses bred for speed rather than strength, most riders armed with a seven-foot lance. They eyed the Volarians with set faces, devoid of mercy or fear. Word of the atrocity at Warnsclave had been quick to spread and these men had already witnessed horrors aplenty on the march to Alltor.

The Volarians had formed battalions arranged into a square, ragged and twitching on the left where Vaelin judged the Free Swords were placed, solid on the right where the Varitai stood awaiting their fate with rigid indifference. Beyond them the Eorhil had cut off their line of retreat and were drawn up on flat ground, clustered into their war bands and moving forward at a slow walk. Off to the east he could see the North Guard riding into position to seal any escape route whilst Orven’s mounted guard drew up on the western flank.

“At your command, my lord,” the Nilsaelin cavalry commander said, a wiry man with the typically villainous appearance of his fief’s soldiery, shaven-headed and sporting fresh scars no doubt earned at Alltor. In common with his men Vaelin could see the man’s eagerness to get at the enemy, the way his gloved hand clasped and unclasped the haft of his lance.

“Wait for the Eorhil,” Vaelin told him. He reached over his shoulder and drew his sword, finding it strange that there was no comfort to be found in the feel of the handle. Where once it had felt like holding a living thing, now it was just a length of steel and wood, heavier than he recalled.

A familiar hissing sound drew his attention back to the field, finding the air above the Volarians dark with arrows at the apogee of flight, the Eorhil now boiling across the flat ground at full pelt. Vaelin raised his sword as the Nilsaelin buglers sounded the signal to prepare for a charge, slashing down as the Eorhil volley struck home. He kicked at his horse’s flanks and they spurred to the gallop in unison, thunder rising from the earth.

• • •

The shock of impact left him reeling in the saddle, his horse’s manic whinny lost in the instant cacophony of rage and the clashing of metal and flesh. He hung on to the saddle by the pommel, feeling something hard scrape along the chain mail covering his back. A Volarian lunged at him from the throng, eyes wide and desperate though his short sword remained level and true. Vaelin released the pommel and tumbled to the earth, rolling into the Volarian with enough force to send him flying. Vaelin struggled to his knees, sword coming up to parry a thrust from a well-built Free Sword, a veteran judging by his age and the ease with which he danced out of reach as Vaelin replied with a slash at his legs, marvelling at his own sluggishness. The Free Sword brought his blade down on Vaelin’s with a practised efficiency, just above the hilt, jarring it from his grasp.

He stared at his empty hand, a thought repeating itself with a strange, calm detachment. I dropped my sword.

The Free Sword stepped closer, sword drawn back for a hard thrust to Vaelin’s neck, then twisting in an oddly elegant pirouette, blood gushing from his part-severed neck as Nortah dragged his horse to a halt a few feet away, Snowdance following in his wake, teeth and claws already bloody.

Vaelin stood, taking stock of their surroundings. The charge had carried them almost to the centre of the Volarian ranks, combat raging on all sides as the Nilsaelins stabbed with their lances and Orven’s guardsmen hacked with their swords. A fresh arrow storm was falling somewhere to the west, indicating the Eorhil had found a stubborn pocket of Varitai resistance.

Lord Orven’s voice sounded nearby and Vaelin saw him rallying his men for a charge at a dense knot of Free Swords, fighting with all the desperation of doomed men. A loud whinny sounded and he saw his riderless horse plough into the Volarians, rearing and stamping, teeth bared as he screamed. The Volarian knot soon broke apart as Orven’s men charged home, Nilsaelins spurring in to join the slaughter.

“No foolishness?” Nortah asked, looming above with a reproachful glare.

Vaelin looked down at his empty hand, flexing the fingers and feeling the chill rise again. Something nuzzled his shoulder and he turned to find his horse, snorting loudly and tossing his head, a fresh cut on his nose. “Scar,” Vaelin said, running a hand over his snout. “Your name is Scar.”

• • •

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