“It’ll spoil,” Alturk stated. “And we have not the salt to preserve so much.”

Wise Bear replied with a baffled frown and it took some time for Vaelin to translate the meaning. “Spoil, hah. Meat not spoil on ice. Too cold. Just smoke over fire. Keep many many days.” He beckoned to Kiral and started for a narrow track leading to the shore. “We hunt, you build fires.”

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They toiled on the shoreline for the best part of another week, building fires and butchering the unfortunate seals at Wise Bear’s instruction. He skinned the first victim with an unconscious and rapid skill, harvesting a complete hide with seemingly only a few strokes of his knife, a feat none of them managed to match despite continued labour. The meat was cut into strips and hung over the fires to smoke whilst the hides were set aside to be cured, the shaman making it clear they would be needed later, his eyes constantly returning to the white line on the horizon.

“Have we made the journey too late?” Vaelin asked him on the last night. They sat together on a rocky outcrop near the shingle beach where the bloody work had been done, Iron Claw happily munching on a pile of entrails nearby.

“Still time.” Wise Bear raised a hand, the thumb and forefinger forming a narrow gap. “Small time.” He glanced over his shoulder at the camp where a crowd of Sentar were listening as Kiral translated Lorkan’s somewhat ribald version of the Woodsman’s Daughter, a cautionary tale of unrequited love involving murder and adultery, though not usually in such quantity or detail.

“Not all make the islands,” Wise Bear went on. “Way of things on the ice. Always takes some, even Bear People.”

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“The islands?” Vaelin asked.

“Where we go. Other side of ice. Home of Bear People once.”

“I thought your people lived on the ice?”

Wise Bear shook his head, eyes moving to the ice once more. It seemed to glow, lit by a pale green luminescence in the night sky the Lonak called Grishak’s Breath in honour of their wind god. “Only small times,” Wise Bear said. “Our travel to your land the most time ever on ice for Bear People.”

Vaelin recalled the emaciated, hollow-eyed folk clustered at Steel Water Creek, a nation raised to survive the harshest climes and yet still brought to their knees by the ice. “I would not ask this of any soul,” he said, “if I didn’t know in my heart it must be done.”

CHAPTER SIX

Lyrna

“Are there no words I can speak to dissuade you from this course?”

They had requested the audience early that morning and stood before her now in the throne room, Hera Drakil’s hawk face betraying no emotion whilst Sanesh Poltar at least managed a regretful grimace. “War is won,” he said with a shrug. “The elk herds grow with no one to hunt them, eat all the grass. We are needed on the plains.”

Lyrna turned to the Seordah war chief, speaking in her barely adequate Seordah. “And you, forest brother?”

“We heeded the wolf’s call,” he replied. “Now it fades. The forest calls us home.”

The finest light infantry and cavalry in the world, Vaelin had called them, not assets to be easily lost. “Our enemies will return if we cannot defeat them,” she told them. “And when they do I may not be able to shield you from their savagery.”

“We fought for this land,” Hera Drakil insisted. “We are glad to have done so. The land across the great water is not ours to fight for.”

She knew there was something more behind his words, a faint flicker in his eyes she knew all too well. She recalled the forest people’s discomfort in Lady Dahrena’s presence, their inherent revulsion at what she had done for Vaelin and their intense dislike of the sea. The Seordah saw much when they left the forest, she surmised. And came to know fear.

“You swore no oath to me,” she said. “So I cannot compel your loyalty. And I would be a fool and a liar to claim this Realm would now be free without your help. Please journey home safely, with my thanks, and rest assured the Seordah and Eorhil will enjoy the friendship and protection of the Unified Realm for all the ages.”

They surprised her by bowing, something she had seen neither do before. “If the dark-hearts come back,” Hera Drakil said as he straightened, “we will fight with you again.”

They left at noon, Lyrna watching from the walls as the great mass of Eorhil galloped away north, the Seordah following in their loose tribal formations, some adorned with various trinkets gathered during their sojourn.

“A grievous loss, Highness,” Count Marven commented at her side. “They would have done fine work across the ocean.”

“The Realm Guard is already three times their number,” Lyrna said, striving to ensure her confidence didn’t sound forced. “And not all have left.” She nodded at the Seordah and Eorhil encamped near the gatehouse, perhaps three hundred warriors who had opted to stay. Some had formed close bonds with the Realm folk they had met on the march, even a few marriages; she could see Lord Orven’s rapidly blossoming wife moving among the elk-hide shelters. Others had elected to join her crusade in pursuit of justice for the many outrages witnessed during the campaign, the remainder possessed of nothing more than basic curiosity, a desire to see what lay beyond the great water. The Eorhil elder, Wisdom, was chief among the latter. “I find there is always room in my head for more knowledge, Highness,” she had said in answer to Lyrna’s query.

“At least we won’t have to find room for so many horses,” her new Battle Lord continued. “Burdened as we are with the Renfaelin knights and our own cavalry.” He paused, no doubt mustering the nerve to voice unwelcome advice. “Highness, the fleet grows daily but also slowly. Consequently, I believe it may be necessary to send the army in two waves. The first carrying the elite of the Realm Guard and Lady Reva’s archers. They will secure a defensible port whilst the fleet returns for the remainder.”

Lyrna watched the last of the Seordah disappear over a distant rise. She fancied there was a single figure who lingered a moment. Hera Drakil perhaps, or just a warrior looking on a place he never hoped to see again. “Is there a Countess Marven?” she asked. “A family waiting for you in Nilsael?”

“In Frostport, yes. My wife and two sons.”

“You should bring them here. They will be very welcome at court.”

“I doubt that, Highness. My wife is . . . possessed of a difficult temper. Within a day of her arrival she would be demanding her own palace.”

“Ah.” She turned from the view as the lone Seordah disappeared from sight. “Attacking in small numbers will avail us nothing, my lord. The Volarians have lost many soldiers but their empire is rich in more. We will descend upon them in but one wave, washing their filth from the land in the process.”

“Forgive me, Highness. But we do not possess even half the number of ships required.”

“No,” she agreed. “A state of affairs I expect to see rectified shortly.”

• • •

Davoka waited with the horses in the palace courtyard. “It’s done?” Lyrna asked her in Lonak, climbing onto Arrow’s back.

“It was as you foretold,” Davoka replied, her bland expression at odds with her tone.

“Pity.” Lyrna turned Arrow towards the palace gate. “Let us find a welcome distraction.”

Varinshold thrummed with activity as they rode through the streets flanked by Benten and Iltis, people pausing to bow or call out a loyal greeting before hurrying to their tasks. For all its bustle the fabric of the city was scarcely healed, a few newly completed buildings rising from the devastation, and these only plain, functional barracks devoid of aesthetic value. Malcius would have wept, she knew, surveying her capital, now a city of canvas and wood rather than stone. He did so love to build.

The activity was even more intense at the docks. Varinshold was a port city but had traditionally built few ships, most of the Realm’s vessels being the product of the South Tower and Warnsclave yards where thousands now laboured at a frantic pitch to give her the fleet she demanded, though never fast enough. Winter was upon them and no more than a dozen new ships were ready, and these only warships of traditional design. An exasperated Lord Davern had advised that building a vessel on the dimensions she required would demand the construction of a completely new yard. “Then build it, my lord,” she told him simply.

The Queen’s Forge, as it had come to be called, occupied much of the wharf previously taken up by the city’s warehouses, a sprawling collection of smithies and workshops where skilled artisans laboured day and night in ten-hour shifts. They were former apprentices mostly, young enough to run from the slavers who had claimed their masters, many having to be extracted from the ranks of the Realm Guard, often at great protest. As per her strict orders they gave no pause to bow as she entered the Forge, though there were many quick glances of awe or admiration to greet her.

She proceeded through the cacophony of pounding metal and ceaseless saws to the cavernous space where Alornis waited with Lord Davern, and rising behind them the hull of a vessel fully thirty feet high. Lyrna’s gaze tracked over the scaffolding that covered her sides and the wrights working caulking and pitch into the upper seams. “I was given to believe she stood ready to launch, my lord,” she said to Davern.

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