“Hold still,” Dahrena admonished as he winced from the sting of the ointment she applied to his back. His tumble from the saddle had left him with a spectacular bruise from hip to shoulder, not to mention the constantly repeated words that plagued him on the journey back to Warnsclave. I dropped my sword.

“Hasn’t your legend grown enough already?” Dahrena went on, working the ointment into his skin, her fingers moving in hard tense circles. “You have to charge into every army you find? Now, apparently, with a Dark-commanded horse.”

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“Hardly,” he groaned, sighing in relief as she rose from his side, going to the small chest holding the various pots and boxes containing her curatives. “I suspect my new horse just likes to fight.”

He had taken a basement room in the one structure left standing in Warnsclave, the harbour-master’s fortresslike house rising from the base of the mole, entirely built of granite and too substantial to be easily torn down. The queen and her retinue occupied the upper floors whilst the army made camp amidst the ruins, the ranks swelling yet again as more people trailed in from the surrounding countryside.

“Like his master,” Dahrena muttered, making him wince again. This was the first cross word between them since Alltor, stirring fears their bond might not be so immune to injury after all. The battle had been brief, hardly surprising given the odds, the Volarians running after no more than a quarter hour of combat, the time it took to cut down the Varitai. The surviving Free Swords fled in all directions, soon hunted down by the Eorhil whilst the Nilsaelins finished off the wounded and engaged in the time-honoured soldier’s treat of looting the dead. To his surprise Vaelin was greeted with grave respect as he walked the field, soldiers offering bows and raised lances in salute. Do they choose not to see? he wondered. Preferring to believe in a man of foolish courage and a Dark-led horse rather than a weakened fool who can’t stay in the saddle and drops his sword.

“I came close to dying today,” he told her, his tone flat, reflective. She didn’t turn but her back stiffened. “You know I lost my song,” he went on. “When you brought me back. Without it . . . I dropped my sword, Dahrena.”

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She turned, a frown of anger on her face. “Is that self-pity I hear, my lord?”

“No.” He shook his head. “Just honest words . . .”

“Well, I have some honest words for you.” She came to him, kneeling to clasp his hands, small slender fingers working to clasp his own. “I once saw a boy fight like a savage to win a banner in some dreadful game. I thought it cruel then, in truth I still do. But the boy I saw that day did not hear a note from his song, otherwise I would have felt it. You were always more than your gift.” She took a firmer grip on his hands. “A gift is not muscle, or bone, or a skill learned since boyhood, a skill I cannot believe has dulled in but a few weeks.”

She raised her gaze, the anger faded now as she stood, releasing his hands to enfold his head, pulling him close. “We both have much still to do, Vaelin. And I believe our queen’s purpose would be better served with you at her side.” She moved back, smiling down at him, her smooth, warm hand tracing from his brow to his chin before placing a kiss on his lips. “Did you happen to find a key for this door?”

Later she lay with her head resting on his chest, her small and perfect form pressed against him, dispelling any vestige of the chill. It had begun at Alltor with scarcely any word spoken that first night. There had been no preamble, just silent and unabashed need as they coiled together in the dark, drawn together by something neither felt any inclination to resist.

“The queen hates me,” she whispered now, her breath ruffling the hairs on his chest. “She strives to hide it, but I can feel it.”

Whereas I can only suspect it, he thought. “We break no law and offer no insult,” he said. “And even a queen is allowed her own feelings.”

“You and her, when you were young, did you . . . ?”

He gave a faint chuckle. “No, such a thing could never have happened.” His smile faded as Linden Al Hestian’s face came to mind, so many years on and still the guilt of it cut him.

“She loves you,” Dahrena went on. “You must see it.”

“I see only the queen I am bound to follow.” Best for all if I see nothing more. “What do the Seordah say of her?”

He felt her tense, her head shifting on his chest. “Nothing, to me that is. What they say to each other, however, I cannot say.”

He knew the Seordah’s attitude to them both had undergone a severe transformation since Alltor, a deep wariness replacing the affection they held for her and the reluctant respect they had begun to show him. “What is it?” he asked her. “Why do they fear us so?”

She remained silent for a long time, eventually raising herself up to rest her chin on her hands, her face hidden in the dark but her eyes catching the light from the small opening in the basement wall. “Like the Faithful, the Seordah do not see death as a curse. But they believe when a soul takes leave of the body it goes not to a world beyond this, but to a hidden place, a world that exists in every shadow and dark corner, unseen and unknowable by living eyes. In this world you take every lesson learned when alive, every hunter’s trick or warrior’s skill, every scrap of lore, and you embark upon the great and endless hunt, but free of fear or uncertainty, every burden carried in life gone, leaving only the hunt. You may have seen them in the forest sometimes, reaching a hand into the shadowed hollow of a tree or the shade cast by a rock, hoping for a whispered message from a loved soul lost to the hunt.”

“When you brought me back,” he said. “You deprived me of a gift.”

“The greatest gift.”

“You should talk to them, tell them the truth of it.”

“I did. It didn’t help. In their eyes I am a transgressor and you should no longer be walking this earth. They are lost to me now.”

He held her as she lowered her gaze once more, playing his hands over her shoulders and feeling her sorrow. “Then why do they stay?” he asked.

Her reply was soft, sighed through tears, “They do what we do: heed the wolf’s call.”

• • •

Reva’s sword thumped against his bruised side drawing a pain-filled grunt. She hopped nimbly backwards as he answered with a clumsy upward slash, then lunged forward in a crouch, jabbing a thrust at his chest. He dodged away, flicking her wooden blade up and aiming a cut at her legs which struck home as she waited too long to form the parry.

“Better,” she said. “Don’t you think?”

Vaelin moved to the nearby tree stump where his canteen sat, drinking deep. The sky was overcast today and the air chilled, heralding the onset of autumn and the prospect of a less-than-easy march to Varinshold. They had lingered at Warnsclave for three days now as they waited for the Meldenean fleet to appear. The supply situation had been alleviated by Lord Al Bera’s provisions but they still lacked sufficient stocks to sustain the northward advance, especially in light of their ever-growing number of recruits. Over a thousand people had made their way to the ruined city since their arrival, forcing the addition of yet more companies to Nortah’s regiment. The Volarians, it seemed, hadn’t been quite so efficient as they imagined in gathering slaves, though scouts brought daily evidence of their proficiency in slaughter, telling tales of one ruined village after another, each well stocked with rotting corpses.

“No,” he told Reva. “If anything I’m worse today.” He tossed his canteen aside and charged at her, delivering a rapid series of thrusts and slashes, his wooden sword moving in a blur. She dodged and parried with a fluency that put her early lessons to shame; battle-honed skill always counted for more, he knew. He also knew she was going easy on him, allowing him to land strokes she could have easily blocked, making her replies just fractionally slower than they should have been.

“This won’t do,” he muttered, pulling up short from another lunge.

“Oh come now,” she mocked. “Not giving up, are you?”

You love me too much, he thought with an inward sigh. Scared to watch me die again. He cast his gaze at the field below the hill where they practised, the army labouring under the instruction of officers and sergeants, new recruits and old being honed into their queen’s deadly instrument of justice. He could see her cantering along on her white horse, black cloak trailing in the wind, raising salutes and exhortations wherever she rode.

“Do you . . . ?” Reva had come to stand beside him, speaking in hesitant tones.

“What?” he prompted.

“The queen.” Reva’s eyes tracked Lyrna’s horse as she trotted towards Nortah’s new companies, people falling to the knees as she came to a halt. “What was done to her. Do you ever wonder what it might mean?”

“Her healing?”

“No. Not her healing. What was done before. To suffer what she suffered, healed or not the scars run deep.”

“As deep as yours, sister?”

“Perhaps deeper, that’s what worries me. My hands are red, as are yours. We have no claim to innocence and I’ll answer to the Father when my time comes. But she . . . Sometimes I think she would burn the whole world if it meant the death of the last Volarian. And even then she wouldn’t be sated.”

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