“Orven’s wife is with child. I’ll not ask him to follow such a hazardous course . . .”
“But I will, my lord. Orven is a soldier and knows his duty, happy news or no.”
He saw the implacable set of her face and nodded. “As you wish, Highness. The other matter we discussed?”
Her hands twitched on the desk as her face hardened yet further. “You ask much of me, Vaelin.”
“He was not responsible . . .”
“I know. But the sight of my brother’s murder does not easily fade.”
“If it’s punishment you desire, it seems the course I have proposed should provide it in ample measure.”
She met his gaze, the pale lines on her forehead standing out in the firelight, her voice flat with certainty. “I desire but one thing, my lord; a secure future for this Realm. I’ll send your brother across the ocean to be the harbinger of my coming, but do not ask me to forgive. I find such sentiment no longer within my grasp.”
Had Janus had his way, we would be married now, Vaelin reflected. He had taken leave of the others and climbed to the top of the tower, cloak wrapped tight and breath misting as he stared at the pregnant darkness beyond the pass. Would our children have been beautiful or terrible? Or both, like her.
There was a faint shift in the wind gusting across the tower, carrying a slight scent: mingled woodsmoke and sweat. “I know you’re there,” Vaelin said, not turning from the view.
Lorkan gave a wry laugh as he appeared at his side, unruly hair tumbling across his frost-pale face. “My lord’s gift has returned then?”
“There are other senses than sight.” He let Lorkan’s hesitant fidgeting continue for several moments before speaking again. “I assume you come with a request?”
“Indeed, my lord.” Lorkan rubbed his hands together, eyes averted, attempting a jovial tone. “It, ah, seems to me, my lord, this grand crusade of ours has provided all the excitement I could wish for. Proud as I am of my service, which I think you would agree, has been valuable, the time has come for me to seek adventure in warmer climes.”
“You wish to be released.”
Lorkan inclined his head with a smile. “I do.”
“Very well. Given your gift I could hardly compel you to come in any case.”
“My thanks, my lord.” He lingered, fidgeting some more.
“What is it?” Vaelin demanded in a weary sigh.
“Cara, my lord.”
“She also wishes to be released?”
“No, she is firm in her determination to follow you. However, if you were to order her to leave . . .”
Vaelin turned away from him. “No.”
Lorkan’s tone grew harder. “She is little more than a child . . .”
“With a woman’s heart and a great gift. She is welcome in my company and I am proud to have her loyalty.” He went to the stairwell in the centre of the roof. “You can keep your horse, weapons, and any booty gathered during the campaign, but please be gone before sunrise.”
“I can’t!” Lorkan was glaring at him now, his shout ringing through the pass. “You know I can’t leave without her.”
Vaelin cast a glance back at the young Gifted, face tense with anger and a little fear, his stance poised as he no doubt prepared to blink out of sight. “I know that sometimes life gives us nothing but hard choices,” Vaelin told him before starting down the stairs. “If you’re not here come the morning, I’ll be sure to explain your absence to Cara.”
• • •
They were five miles beyond the pass the next day when Kiral abruptly reined her pony to a halt, her eyes turning towards the west, features drawn in sharp scrutiny. “Trouble?” Vaelin asked her.
She narrowed her eyes, frowning in confusion. “Something . . . Someone new.”
She shook her head. “Not a singer, and my song holds no warning. But he calls to me.”
Her face took on a sudden wariness, the first sign of fear he had seen her exhibit. “The Fallen City.”
Vaelin nodded, turning and beckoning to Orven. “I require five men, my lord. Make camp in the valley ahead and await our return.” He raised his voice, addressing a somewhat sullen figure farther back along the column. “Master Lorkan! Please join us.”
It was a two-day trek to the city, the journey shortened by Kiral’s intimate knowledge of the mountains. The ruins were much as he remembered, though now he felt none of the oppressive weight that had plagued him during his last visit here, although both Kiral and Lorkan enjoyed no such immunity.
“Faith, this is worse than the forest.” Lorkan grimaced and sagged in his saddle, his complexion taking on a pale hue.
“Never have I come so close before,” Kiral said, her unease clear in the rigid set of her shoulders. “This is no place for the living.”
“Master Lorkan?” Vaelin said, favouring the youth with an expectant smile and nodding at the ruins. After a long moment’s hesitation Lorkan inclined his head and climbed down from his horse. He took a deep breath and started for the city at a steady walk, slipping into the air after a few steps and drawing a murmur of disquiet from the guardsmen.
“Whoever waits in there will see him,” Kiral advised.
“I know,” Vaelin replied.
“Then why send him?”
“What is life without an occasional amusement?”
They sat surveying the silent ruins for only a few more moments before the shout came, a shrill exclamation of alarm echoing from the tumbled stones. Kiral unlimbered her bow and the guardsmen fanned out, swords at the ready as Lorkan burst into view at the city’s edge, cloak trailing behind him as he pelted in their direction, eyes wide with unabashed terror. The reason for his flight soon became apparent, a large brown shape lumbering in pursuit, mouth wide and teeth bared in a challenging roar.
“Didn’t know they grew so large,” Vaelin commented. The bear must have stood perhaps five feet tall at the shoulder, meaning its full height would be nearer ten. Although its pursuit of Lorkan appeared laboured, it covered the ground with deceptive speed thanks to the length of its stride.
“Kill it, for Faith’s sake!” Lorkan yelled, sprinting towards them, the bear now only a few strides behind.
“Don’t!” Vaelin said to Kiral as she raised her bow, his eyes picking out a figure among the ruins, small and familiar with another at its side, only slightly taller and holding aloft a long stick of some kind. The bear skidded to an abrupt halt, scattering gravel, a mournful growl issuing from its snout. It bounced on its forelegs, claws digging into the rocky ground, continuing to stare in challenge at Lorkan who was now on all fours behind one of the guardsmen, panting and clearly on the verge of losing his breakfast.
Scar, like the other horses, had begun to rear at the sight of the bear and was now on the verge of outright panic, tossing his head in protest as Vaelin hauled on the reins. “It’s all right,” he said, dismounting to smooth a hand along the animal’s flank. “He won’t hurt you.”
The bear snorted again, shaking its great head from side to side as if gathering strength for another charge, but then stiffened, became near as still as a statue. “He still young.” A small, fur-clad man holding a bone as long as a staff appeared at the bear’s side, his voice holding a note of apology. “Friend and enemy smell same.”
“Wise Bear!” Vaelin came forward to clasp hands with the shaman, heartened by the strength of his grip. “You are far from the Reaches.”
“You go on the ice,” Wise Bear replied with a shrug. “I show you how.”
“He was very insistent.” Dahrena stood a short distance away, smiling tightly. “Could hardly let him come alone.”
Vaelin went to her, pulling her close, the realisation of how much he had missed her provoking a harsh ache. I will send her back, he thought, knowing himself a liar. In the morning I will send her back.
• • •
They shared a meal of spitted goat, apparently the victim of the great brown bear’s hunting skill judging by the deep rents in the carcass. “Iron Claw brings good meat,” Wise Bear said. “Only keeps insides for himself.”
When the meal was done Vaelin followed the old shaman as he toured the ruins, peering at the shattered statuary and occasionally jabbing his bone-staff at weed-covered rubble. The bear roamed nearby, displaying equal scrutiny as he poked his large snout into the various nooks and crannies, sometimes using his dagger-like claws to pull the stones apart.
“Iron Claw wants bugs,” Wise Bear explained. “Bear belly never full.”
“How did you know to come here?” Vaelin asked him.
Wise Bear gave him a quizzical look, as if the answer were obvious, raising his eyebrows when Vaelin failed to discern his meaning. “Big . . .” He frowned, fumbling for the right words. “Big power, big . . .” He made a wide, flailing gesture with his arms, blowing air through his lips.
“Disturbance?” Vaelin asked, adding, “Storm?” at the shaman’s blank gaze.
“Storm, yes, big storm in the . . . sea. Power sea.”