“Not an easy prospect, brother,” Draker said. They had crawled to the top of a rise a half mile away. “If I was looking for a likely place to steal, I’d pass this by.”

“We fight our way in,” Lekran said with a shrug.

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“It’ll cost us,” Draker warned. “And we’ve scant swords to lose.”

Frentis suppressed a groan. He had resumed taking Brother Kehlan’s sleeping draught the night before and the resultant headache left him impatient to get on and tempted to accede to Lekran’s desire for a fight. He was about to order them to their mounts when Illian dropped down beside him, the Alpiran girl from the villa crouching at her side. “Brother,” Illian said. “I believe our new recruit has some intelligence to impart, but my Volarian is too poor to discern her meaning.”

The girl blanched a little as Frentis and the two men turned to her, looking down and stumbling over her first words. “What is your name?” Frentis asked her in his broken Alpiran.

She lifted her gaze, a faint smile playing over her lips and making him wonder how long it had been since she heard her own language. “Lemera.”

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“Your words have value, Lemera,” he told her, switching back to Volarian. “Speak on.”

“I have been to this place.” She pointed at the villa. “The master sent me and two others. We were . . . amusements for the owner’s son on his birthday. That was almost a year ago.”

Frentis turned to Lekran who grinned and nodded. “We kept the Varitai’s armour.”

• • •

In the event they suffered but one casualty, one of the newly freed Realm folk displaying an over-abundance of courage when Illian led them over the wall that shielded the villa’s southern side. The main house had already fallen and the remaining Varitai were being forced back into the central courtyard, formed in a tight ring around their master and his family. He had made the mistake of coming to greet them at the main entrance, his broad grin disappearing as Tekrav’s black silk mask fell away from his face and Lekran’s axe hacked down the nearest Varitai. Despite his shock, the master’s wits were quick enough to organise a hasty defence as he fled back inside, though not quick enough to organise an escape, which should have been his first priority.

Frentis had pulled his fighters back from the dense knot of Varitai and set the archers to work when Illian’s recruits came over the wall. The young man had run at the Varitai unarmoured and armed with only a small wood-axe, his face betraying a depth of hatred nurtured over the months of his captivity. He managed to bury the axe in the skull of a Varitai before a dozen rapid sword strokes cut him down. However, he had disordered their ranks sufficiently for the following recruits to pile in and break their formation apart, the men hacking away with clubs and axes and the girls stabbing with the daggers Illian had distributed. Cursing, Frentis raised his sword and led his fighters into the fray, Lekran voicing a joyful whoop as he leapt and bore a Varitai to the ground, both feet planted on his breastplate and axe sweeping down.

It was over in a few moments, all the Varitai slain along with the master and his family. The master lay across the bodies of his wife and son, a boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen, his father’s black silks rent in a dozen places and soaked with blood.

“I tried to hold them, brother,” Illian said, face lowered in contrition. “But the Realm folk are full of rage and the others can’t understand a word I say.”

His rebuke died on his lips in the face of her evident dismay. “Gather the weapons and armour,” he told her. “Then search the villa. Take any documents you find to Thirty-Four.”

Draker called to him from atop the west-facing wall, waving his club. “Riders coming in, brother.”

Frentis ran outside where Rensial waited, mounted with sword drawn. Frentis mounted his own horse and unhitched his bow from the saddle. “Master,” he said, trotting his mount to Rensial’s side. “Shall we?”

• • •

They managed to take two of the riders alive, both knocked senseless when they tumbled from their mounts as Rensial’s sword neatly severed the ties of their saddles. Frentis accounted for the remainder with his bow, none of the Varitai coming close enough to press a charge and displaying a typical failure to realise the hopelessness of their cause.

As promised he gave the captives over to Weaver. Vaelin had intimated the man was possessed of a confused mind, and his behaviour during the voyage had done much to confirm it, so it was strange to witness the grim understanding on his face as he surveyed the two unconscious Varitai. “Great pain,” he said softly.

“Pain can bring freedom.” Frentis held up the satchel containing their supply of the Lonak elixir. “It freed me. It will free them, with your help.”

The screams were terrible, rising high into the night sky as they gathered in the courtyard to eat a meal of looted spoils. The freed slaves had proved even less welcoming of liberation than at the first villa, several weeping at the sight of their master’s body. “He was sparing with the whip,” Lemera explained. “Allowed the children he fathered on the pleasure slaves to live. Usually they are exposed and left to die. He would keep them until they were old enough to sell. A generous man.”

“These people are fucking disgusting,” Draker said when Thirty-Four translated, casting a dark glower at the slaves keening over the master’s body. “Shut up you simpering dogs!” They scattered as he threw a half-eaten chicken leg at them, fleeing into the darkness or retreating to their quarters, too fearful to even ask about their fate.

The Varitai’s screams ended abruptly, heralding a silence that seemed to last an age. Frentis scanned the faces of his veterans at the fire, for the first time seeing a grim understanding of the magnitude of their task. A handful against an empire was always a hopeless cause. He had known it from the day they sailed, but had they?

“Should we go after the runners?” Illian asked, breaking the silence. “They’ll no doubt spread warning of our arrival.”

“Good,” Frentis said. “We are here to cause as much fear and confusion as possible.”

“We need more fighters,” Lekran stated. “The cowards we keep finding won’t make an army.”

“Then we may be in luck.” Thirty-Four produced a large ledger, opening it to reveal row after row of neatly inscribed figures. “The master’s scribe kept excellent records. It seems he did much business with a Varikum to the south.”

“Varikum?” Frentis asked. “I don’t know this word.”

“Training school,” Lekran translated. “For the Garisai, those chosen to partake in the spectacles.”

“Slaves?”

He nodded. “But not like Varitai or Kuritai. No binding for them. Captured in war and chosen for strength, or savagery. Nearly got sent to one myself but the Kuritai quota was light that year.”

“It will be well defended,” Thirty-Four advised. “Inside and out.”

Frentis turned to Lemera, noticing for the first time the perfection of her profile, skin smooth and flawless. A few hours ago he had seen her stabbing at the master’s body, teeth bared and voicing a joyful laugh every time the knife came down. “It’s a rare man who can guard against beauty,” he said.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Vaelin

Wise Bear called it The Long Night, the time when the sun vanished from the ice for a full month, its coming heralded by the shortened days and the increased brightness of Grishak’s Breath. “Must reach islands before it comes,” he had warned the first day they set foot on the ice. “Long Night kills all.”

The first week had been easier than expected, the novelty of traversing such a vast and stark environment doing much to dispel their discomfort at the ever-deepening cold. Wise Bear led the way, moving with short economical strides with Iron Claw lumbering along behind. The great bear would sometimes disappear for a day, returning with dried blood on his snout though Vaelin was baffled as to what prey it had managed to find. To him the ice seemed as barren as the Alpiran desert, a place void of life for all its beauty, fully revealed at twilight when the green-tinged fire danced in the sky and the ice became a mirror to its majesty. The Lonak would fall into a reverent hush when the sun fell, whispering thanks for Grishak’s blessing.

Wise Bear seemed to hold a similar reverence for the dancing sky lights, greeting their appearance by sinking to his knees and holding his bone-staff aloft, a lilting song rising from his throat. Vaelin had yet to hear the shaman speak of any god but it was clear the sky-fire held considerable significance.

“He’s not praying,” Kiral said one evening as Vaelin’s gaze went to the old man, her face sombre as her song related the meaning of Wise Bear’s lilting ode. “He offers greetings to his wife and the children they lost on the ice.”

Vaelin looked up at the swirling green fire, watching it coalesce and break apart in an unending dance. It might resemble flame but there was no fury to it, the constant swirl conveying a strange sense of serenity. “He thinks she’s up there?” he asked.

“He knows it. Every soul that ever lived is there, looking down on us until the world’s end.”

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