“Greed or necessity,” Vaelin replied. “You recall your part in this?”

“Kill all the two-swords we find and make for the big black building.” The Seordah stirred as Vaelin rose, leaning forward, fixing him with the same questing gaze he had shown him since Alltor. What is he looking for? Vaelin wondered again as the war chief’s eyes met his. Does he ponder if there is another soul behind these eyes? Or is it more what I may have brought back?

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“You . . .” The Seordah paused, searching for the right words. “You are more . . . you now, Beral Shak Ur.”

Vaelin replied with a cautious nod. In truth he felt stronger, the chill having lifted from his bones, for the most part. Also his final practice with Davern had actually seen him defeat the shipwright, much to his sister’s delight. She had taken to watching the daily contests and gave a squeal of triumph as Vaelin’s wooden sword found a gap in Davern’s defences, jabbing into his midriff with enough force to provoke an obscenity-laden shout of pain. His dark-faced fury at Alornis’s taunts had been something of a guilty pleasure, though Vaelin was careful to hide it as he thanked the sergeant for his service and released him from future obligations.

“I am,” Davern grated, “always at your disposal, my lord.”

He made his way to the top deck and joined Reva at the helm, dressed in her light mail shirt, sword on her back, and bow in hand, laughing at something the Shield had said. The man’s humour faded at sight of Vaelin and he beckoned his helmsman forward to take the wheel, offering a cursory bow. “My Lord of Battle.”

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“Fleet Lord Ell-Nestra,” Vaelin replied, bowing lower. The Shield’s resentment was more carefully hidden than Davern’s, though, he suspected, no less deeply felt.

“Our pet savages are prepared, I take it?” Ell-Nestra asked.

“Don’t call them that,” Vaelin told him, annoyed at the ease with which the Shield provoked him. Defeat and humiliation are poor tutors, it seems.

“Your pardon, my lord. Though you must agree they make poor sailors.”

“Who can blame them?” Reva said, her face only slightly less grey than Nortah’s. “I’d fight half the world to get off this tub.”

“Tub?” The Shield rounded on her in mock fury. “My lady insults the finest vessel ever taken by a Meldenean sabre. Why, I would challenge you, if you were not merely but a feeble woman.”

He took the lightning slap she gave him with good grace, making her laugh again with a florid bow before striding off to order his first mate to muster a fighting party. I thought at least she’d be immune to his charms, Vaelin thought sourly.

“Your people are ready?” he asked her.

She jerked her head at the rigging above, Vaelin seeing the densely packed archers on the platforms at the top of the great ship’s two towering masts. A figure leaned over the side of the foremost platform to wave at them, Vaelin recognising Bren Antesh’s silhouette. He sensed a certain impatience in the archer’s movements. “I think your Lord of Archers is keen for you to join him aloft,” he advised.

“In which case he’ll be disappointed,” she replied with a level gaze.

He let the matter drop; cautioning her seemed irrelevant given their mission. A wasteful gamble, Count Marven had called it, not without justification. Vaelin looked at the two ships following in their wake, the only Volarian vessels captured by the Meldeneans during their brief campaign, each crammed with more Seordah. Beyond the horizon waited all the ships they could commandeer on short notice, thirty vessels laden with more forest folk and three regiments of Realm Guard, including the Wolfrunners. The cream of this new army, gambled on an expectation of Volarian arrogance.

The Shield had sailed into Warnsclave a day after Belorath’s arrival, his great flagship laden with stolen supplies, relating his dismay at failing to seize a ship of equal size and design to his own newly acquired monster. “It was like fighting a mirror image,” he told Lyrna, his usual ebullience muted somewhat, and unlike most, less inclined to stare at her face. “Except one captained by a fool,” he went on. “Sadly, the fires we birthed in her were too great and she went down, along with a few hundred Free Swords, judging by the screams.”

The idea had been birthed then, triggering instincts Vaelin had thought lost with his song. They expect the Stormspite’s twin at Varinshold. He had pondered it for a day and a night before seeking the queen’s approval. “We don’t have ships enough for the whole army,” she reminded him.

“But enough to seize the docks, and Varinshold will stand or fall on who holds them. Plus, Brother Caenis will relate the need to attack on Winterfall Eve to the Renfaelin host via Brother Lernial.”

“The odds.” She shook her head. “Even if these Renfaelins, whoever they are, do ride to our aid, the odds still do not favour us. Marven is right, the risk is too great.”

“Not for the Seordah,” he said. “Not if they make the first attack, aided by Lady Reva’s archers. The docks will be taken within an hour.”

“Their prowess impresses you that much?”

He recalled the Kuritai that day as the rain beat down, swift and deadly but seeming like slow children as the forest folk broke their line. “You didn’t see them at Alltor, Highness.” He straightened, addressing her formally. “My queen, as Battle Lord I tell you this is the only way Varinshold will be in our hands before the year’s end.”

“By the Father,” Reva’s whisper brought him back to the present. She stood at the rail as they rounded the southern headland and Varinshold came into view. For a moment Vaelin felt certain they had sailed to liberate nothing more than a ruin, the entire southern quarter seemingly just a mass of piled brick and blackened wood. As they drew closer however, he began to pick out familiar buildings still standing amidst the rubble: the merchants’ houses overlooking the harbour, the northern wing of the palace just visible through the fading morning mist, and in the centre, the dark stump of the Blackhold, where he hoped the Aspects still drew breath.

Reva turned back from the view, her face grim, waving at the archers above, who promptly crouched, disappearing from view. The Shield donned a shirt of broad-ringed mail and buckled on his sabre. “Best if you stay by me, my lady,” he told Reva with a wink. “I’ll protect you.”

This time she failed to laugh, the sight of the city seemingly robbing her of humour. “It’s they who need protection,” she muttered, jerking her head at the Volarians now visible on the quay. Her face had taken on a tense aspect, her brow furrowed and gaze focused. On any other woman her age it might be taken for sullenness but Vaelin knew it was the face she wore throughout the siege, the face so many Volarians had seen in their final seconds of life.

He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder and she clasped it before he moved away, going to the prow. Nortah’s chosen men were coming up on deck, dressed in their Volarian gear, his brother making a convincing Free Sword Battalion Commander as he arrayed them in good order. He would be first down the gangplank to exchange salutes with whatever senior Volarian came to greet their arrival, before striking them dead and leading the charge against their escort, the Cumbraelin archers raining death on all others.

The sails were trimmed as they approached the harbour mouth, all in silence to prevent those ashore wondering why Meldenean voices could be heard on a Volarian ship. Vaelin could see their reception more clearly now, neatly arrayed rows of Free Swords standing to the rear of a single officer, hopefully the senior Volarian commander in the city. A cheering sight since the man would probably be the one to greet Nortah, or if not, would be almost certain to die in the arrow storm. Off to the left stood a tall figure on a warhorse, long dark hair tied back from his handsome face. Lyrna had given orders for Darnel to be taken alive if possible, keen to extract whatever intelligence he held regarding Volarian plans, but Vaelin gave little for the man’s chances once the Realm Guard came ashore. He would have to get the Shield to spirit him away . . .

He straightened as Darnel’s horse abruptly began to rear, tipping its master from the saddle and lashing about with its hooves. For a second all was confusion as the horse went wild, trampling men and charging away, then he saw a slender young man rushing towards Darnel, a faint gleam of steel in his hand. Alucius!

He saw it all, standing helpless as the ship inched closer to the shore, saw Darnel’s sword cut through Alucius’s chest, saw a tall familiar figure impale Darnel with the spike he wore in place of a hand, saw the Volarian commander marshal his men in response.

“Antesh!” Vaelin called, cupping his hands and casting his voice at the platforms. The Lord Archer’s head appeared above the platform edge and Vaelin pointed to the wharf. “Kill them all!”

Reva appeared at his side. “What is it?”

“Forget the plan,” he told her, reaching over his shoulder to draw his sword, the quay no more than ten feet away now. “Tell Nortah to get his people ashore and start killing.”

He hoisted himself onto the rail, watching the arrows streak down from above, Volarians falling by the dozen, Al Hestian visible through the milling confusion, crouched protectively over his son’s body. Vaelin took a final judging glance at the quay and leapt from the rail, landing hard and rolling to absorb the shock. He sprinted towards Al Hestian, finding his way blocked by a knot of Free Swords, using their comrades’ bodies as shields as they backed away under the orders of a veteran sergeant. Vaelin hacked his way into their midst, laying about with his sword in a two-handed grip, two falling in quick succession, the veteran sergeant skewered through chest and neck by multiple arrows, the others attempting to flee but soon tumbling to the stones under the deadly rain.

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