Vaelin ran on, cutting down any Volarian who contrived to block his path. The sword flashed with all the effortless, terrible grace he had thought lost, parrying and killing as he moved without conscious decision. Perhaps it was never the song, he thought grimly, sidestepping a thrust from a Free Sword and moving behind him to lay open the back of his neck. You don’t need a song to be a killer.

He saw Al Hestian ahead, still crouched over Alucius, a group of Volarians rushing towards him. Something thrummed past Vaelin’s ear and the lead Volarian fell dead with an arrow protruding from his breastplate. Vaelin glanced behind to see Reva notching and loosing arrows from her finely carved bow with a speed and precision he knew he would never match. He sped on towards Al Hestian, seeing two more Free Swords fall to Reva’s arrows. Another came close enough to hack down at the former Battle Lord. Vaelin leapt, extending his blade to block the blow, hammering a fist into the man’s face. The man staggered, drawing his short sword back for a riposte, then snapped his head back and collapsed as one of Reva’s arrows found his eye.

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“Alucius!” Vaelin shoved Al Hestian aside and crouched next to the poet, his eyes tracking over the terrible wound in his chest to his face, the features bleached white, eyes half-closed. Reva crouched at his side, touching a hand to Alucius’s face, sighing in sorrow.

“Drunken sot,” she muttered.

“Weaver!” Vaelin said, standing to cast his gaze out to sea. “He’s on the third ship with the other Gifted . . .”

“Vaelin,” she said, reaching out to grasp his arm. “He’s gone.”

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He stood, dragging his gaze from Alucius’s body as the Seordah swept past them on either side, tearing through the hastily assembled ranks of Free Swords, cutting their line apart. Some fought, hacking and stabbing with their short swords at the too-swift, silent phantoms that assailed them, their blades finding only air as they fell by the dozen. Others fled, sprinting away through the ruins or throwing themselves into the harbour, willing to risk drowning rather than face such an onslaught. Here and there Kuritai could be seen, managing to strike a blow or two before they were clubbed down. Beyond the slaughter Vaelin could see a dense formation of Volarians building in the more open ground near the warehouse district, neat ranks of Varitai falling into place with their uncanny precision.

“They’ll fall back to the palace.”

Vaelin turned to find Lakrhil Al Hestian regarding him with a vacant frown, his voice dull, listless. “There are fire-traps surrounding it. They could hold out for days.”

He looked down at Alucius once more, bent to retrieve the dagger still clutched in the poet’s hand, and raised it towards his own throat. Vaelin’s punch jabbed into the nerve cluster below Al Hestian’s nose, leaving him unconscious on the stones.

“Muster your archers on the quay,” he told Reva, nodding towards the dense ranks of Varitai, now attempting a fighting withdrawal into the city, the Seordah continually harrying them with volleys of arrows from their flat bows. Despite their retreat he knew this was far from over; he could see more Volarian formations moving through the ruins, battalions forming in the northern quarter with more to the west. He saw Nortah a short distance away, mustering his fighters amidst the remnants of a Free Sword company, sword bloody from end to end.

“Move towards the north gate!” he called to him. “Stop them joining up. I’ll send the Realm Guard to join you when they dock.”

Nortah nodded, then drew up short at the sight of something towards the east, laughing and pointing his reddened blade. “Perhaps that won’t be necessary, brother.”

Vaelin heard them before they came into view, a great, cacophonous clatter of steel on stone. Clearly the Volarian commander heard it too as he attempted to switch companies to his left flank, all too late. The knights tore into the Volarian ranks, longswords and maces rising and falling as they hacked their way through the Varitai, cutting the formation in two. The Seordah charged in to complete the destruction, a fine red mist of mingled blood, breath, and steaming horse sweat rising to cover the raging carnage. The Varitai, unlike the Free Swords, didn’t know how to flee and fought to the last.

Vaelin ordered Nortah to join up with Reva’s archers and sweep towards the palace. “There’s still half a division to kill,” he told them. “Take no chances, keep them divided and let the archers do their work.”

He waited for the Realm Guard to come ashore, the Wolfrunners the first Regiment to arrive, now commanded by a former corporal Vaelin vaguely remembered from the Alpiran war. “Set guards on this man,” Vaelin ordered, pointing to Al Hestian’s unconscious form. He took a final glance at Alucius, knowing he would have to be the one to tell Alornis and feeling like a coward for hating the duty. “And secure this man’s body,” he said. “The queen will wish to say words when we give him to the fire.”

He walked through the scene of the Varitai’s defeat, a dense carpet of bodies breasting the wharf from end to end. A broad-chested knight on a tall charger trotted up to him, trampling bodies and breaking bones under hoof. He pushed back the red-painted visor covering his face, greeting Vaelin with a forced laugh. “Quite the spectacle, eh, my lord?”

“Baron.” Vaelin bowed. “I had hoped it would be you.”

A young, bare-headed knight guided his horse to Banders’s side, his bright gaze alighting on Vaelin for a moment before scanning the quayside with intense scrutiny. “Where is he?” he demanded, hefting a gore-covered longsword.

“Arendil, my grandson,” Banders explained to Vaelin. “He’s keen to meet Lord Darnel.”

“Back there, young sir.” Vaelin pointed over his shoulder. “Quite dead, I’m afraid.”

The young knight slumped in his saddle, sword arm sagging. His face betrayed as much relief as disappointment. “Well, at least it’s over.” He brightened at the sight of a group of people approaching along Gate Lane at the run, raising his hand in a welcoming wave. Vaelin initially took them for some of Nortah’s fighters but soon realised they were an even more unusual mix, varying greatly in age and garb, including a girl of no more than sixteen, a Lonak woman of impressive stature . . . and a muscular young man with an Order blade.

Frentis stared at him as he approached, a faint smile on his lips. Vaelin halted a few feet away, taking in the sight of a man who was both brother and stranger. His frame was even more impressive now, powerful and, Vaelin noted, free of scars judging by the skin visible through his torn shirt. His face also had lost the youthful smoothness he remembered, hard lines forming around the mouth and eyes. For once, Vaelin was grateful for the song’s absence as he found himself uncertain he wanted to know what those eyes had seen.

“I heard you died,” he said.

Frentis’s smile widened. “Whilst I knew you couldn’t have.”

Seeing his evident and genuine warmth, Vaelin felt his sorrow deepen yet further. “I require your sword, brother,” he said, holding out his hand.

Frentis’s smile slowly faded and he glanced at the people flanking him before nodding, coming forward to proffer his blade hilt first. Vaelin took it and beckoned the Wolfrunners’ new commander forward. “This man,” he said, “is bound by the Queen’s Word to answer for the murder of King Malcius. He is to be shackled and confined pending her judgement.”

PART II

It is a singular mistake to think of the slave as fully human. Freedom is a privilege afforded by the excellence of our lineage as true Volarian citizens. By contrast the slave’s station, earned through birth to enslaved parents, just defeat in war or a demonstrated lack of industry and intelligence, is not merely the artificial construct of society, it is the accurate reflection of a natural order. It therefore follows that attempts to upset this order, through misguided policy or even outright rebellion, are always doomed to failure.

—COUNCIL-MAN LORVEK IRLAV, VOLARIA: THE APEX OF CIVILISATION, GREAT LIBRARY OF THE UNIFIED REALM

(LIBRARIAN’S NOTE: TEXT INCOMPLETE DUE TO PARTIAL BURNING)

VERNIERS’ ACCOUNT

In contrast to my first voyage aboard this ship I found myself provided with a cabin, once occupied by the first mate who had perished at the Battle of the Teeth. Our captain stated loudly to his threadbare crew that he had yet to find a worthy replacement and I might as well have it since none of these dogs deserved the honour. The welcoming prospect of ship-borne comfort, however, was diminished by his insistence that I share the space with my former owner.

“She’s your prisoner, scribe,” he stated. “You guard her.”

“To what end?” I enquired, gesturing at the surrounding ocean. “To where is she likely to escape, pray tell?”

“Might damage the ship,” he replied with a shrug. “Might throw herself to a passing shark. Either way, she’s your responsibility and I’ve no hands spare to watch her.”

“It’s a small bed,” she observed as the cabin door slammed shut behind us. “Still, I don’t mind sharing.”

I pointed to a corner of the cabin. “Your place is there, mistress. If you’re quiet, I might spare you a blanket.”

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