Vaelin notched a second arrow and took a bead on the other cats, finding to his horror that Wise Bear now stood before them, arms open and offering no resistance as they closed. Vaelin drew back his bowstring, aiming for the nearest cat’s flank.

“Don’t!” Kiral laid a hand on his arm. “Wait!”

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Alturk barked a command at the Sentar and they lowered their bows, standing in appalled amazement as Wise Bear extended a hand to one of the beasts . . . and it shrank back, the snarl fading from its face, eyes suddenly freed of hate. The shaman’s eyes roamed over the each of the cats producing an identical result, every one becoming instantly cowed under his gaze, lowering themselves in supplication, eyes averted, some even trembling.

Wise Bear turned to Vaelin, his expression no less implacable than before. “You come. Others stay.”

• • •

They proceeded through the maze of jagged ice alone save for Iron Claw, who was obliged to clamber over much of the disrupted surface as their way became ever more narrow. “How did you do that?” Vaelin asked, unsure whether he wanted, or would even understand the answer. The more he learned of Wise Bear the more mysterious, and more worrying his power.

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“No Eyes grows weak,” the shaman replied, a grim note of satisfaction in his voice. “Hold slackens. Cats are mine now.”

“So there was no need for us to kill the others?”

Wise Bear paused as they came to an opening in the ice ahead, little more than a narrow crack in the blue-white wall. Beyond it Vaelin could see a patch of granite, the spike of the huge rock now looming above them, its flanks gleaming like poorly polished metal where ice had found purchase. “Not enough meat for all,” Wise Bear said. His gaze locked onto Vaelin’s, fierce and certain. “Say nothing. Do nothing. Listen only.”

The ice beyond the crack was flat, forming a wide frozen moat around the great rock. Wise Bear led Vaelin to the right, a burgeoning stench of something rotten birthing a nausea in his gut, deepening at the sight of a large brownish black stain spreading out from the rock’s eastern face. Moving closer Vaelin saw the stain was littered with bones; seal vertebrae and ribs mostly but here and there the unmistakable shape of a human skull, picked clean of flesh. The source of the stench became clear a moment later, a freshly dismembered pony carcass lying beside a shallow grotto in the face of the rock. From the crude but regular shape of it Vaelin deduced it as a man-made feature, providing some measure of shelter from these terrible climes.

A man sat at the base of the grotto, clad in moulded furs and seated on what appeared to be a chair fashioned from lashed-together bone. He was old, though not as old as Wise Bear, his skin leathery and discoloured, red sores visible on his bald head and cadaverous cheeks, and his eyes were two dark patches of old scar tissue. He sat so still Vaelin initially assumed him a corpse but then saw his nostrils flaring as he caught their scent and a thin smile curved his cracked lips.

“We’ll speak in my brother’s tongue, old friend,” he said to Wise Bear. “It’s only polite, don’t you think?”

Vaelin knew him then, the awful familiarity of his voice, the same mocking smile. Wise Bear raised a hand and he realised he had unconsciously taken hold of his sword and started forward, intent on this thing’s immediate murder. The Witch’s Bastard. How long has he been waiting?

He released his grip and stepped back as Wise Bear stood regarding the thing in silence.

“Nothing to say?” the thing enquired, hairless brows raised above its scar eyes. “No final curses or long-prepared speeches? I’ve heard many over the years. Sadly, most are rather forgettable.”

Wise Bear kept silent, shifting his gaze to the bones littering the surrounding ice, using his staff to prod at a skull lying amidst a shattered rib cage. It was small, little larger than an apple, but clearly human.

“Last of the Cat People,” the thing said, hearing the sound of bone on bone. “They died happy, you know. Worshipping me, content to surrender their flesh in sustenance of my divine light.”

His grin widened, revealing blackened and half-rotted teeth, his eyeless face turning to Vaelin. “They were a remarkable people, brother. Centuries spent living apart from all vestige of what we term civilisation, yet they had laws, art and wisdom enough to survive in the harshest place on earth. But they had no notion of a god, until I taught it to them, and how quickly they succumbed to the idea. After all, what else would you call a man who comes back to life after a spear-hawk rips the eyes from his skull?”

The cracked lips lost their smile, the face turning to Wise Bear once more. “It could all have been avoided, old friend. If you had but opened your heart to my message, my great mission for the ice people. The southern lands would have fallen to us, and the great forest beyond. Now your people are a wasted remnant and mine nothing but bones.”

The sound of breaking ice heralded Iron Claw’s arrival as he clambered over the surrounding wall, moving to Wise Bear’s side, nostrils flaring at the scent of flesh. The eyeless man stiffened at the sound of the bear’s approach but his voice remained free of fear. “You cannot threaten me, little man. Your beast holds no horrors for me. Ask my brother, he killed me once before and yet here I am. As I am elsewhere. I have waited here these long years for you to come. Pity my cats proved unequal to the task, but I am patient and I suspect you still have far to go.”

“So you wait,” Wise Bear said, moving forward in a rush, his hand flashing out to clamp onto the eyeless man’s bald scalp. “Wait longer.”

The eyeless man’s mouth gaped, foul air rushing forth as he voiced a soundless scream, jerking spasmodically on his bone chair. He tried to claw at Wise Bear’s arm but his fingers lacked any strength, fluttering like feathers over his sleeve as he convulsed.

Finally the shaman released him, stepping back as the eyeless man sagged, his face a mask of confusion and pain. “What did you do?” he asked in a faint rasp, his hands flailing at his own chest and face, the nails leaving shallow scars on his flesh.

“You wait,” Wise Bear said again, turning his back. “Then you die. Forever.”

“This is . . .” The thing tried to rise from the bone chair, reaching out to Wise Bear as he began to walk away. “This is impossible.”

Wise Bear didn’t turn, striding towards the crack in the ice wall with Iron Claw lumbering along behind.

“Brother!” It slid from the bone chair, reaching out to Vaelin as it crawled towards him, imploring. “Brother! Make him free me!”

Vaelin watched the thing crawl, seeing how little strength remained in its limbs, a twisted collection of skin and bone destined to perish when night brought a deadly chill. He gave no reply, turning to follow Wise Bear.

“You loved Barkus!” the thing called, voice cracking. “I am Barkus! I am your brother!”

Vaelin kept walking.

“I have knowledge! I know the Ally’s design.”

Vaelin stopped.

“I know . . .” The thing’s voice faltered as he dragged air into ruined lungs. “I know what he wants.”

“So do I,” Vaelin said, glancing over his shoulder, seeing a dying man flailing amidst rotting flesh. “He wants to make an end. And we will.”

• • •

“Did you kill all of it?”

Wise Bear gave a regretful smile and shook his head. They had encamped in the shadow of the great rock amidst the shelter offered by the jagged ice, the Lonak raising their shelters at an even greater remove than usual, disconcerted by the five war-cats that sat around the shaman in unnerving silence. Vaelin turned to watch as Cara cautiously held a morsel of seal meat out to one of the cats, the beast ignoring her until Wise Bear glanced in its direction whereupon it snapped the treat from her fingers in a lightning bob of its head.

“Only part,” he said turning back and extending his hand, splaying the stubby fingers. “Take one, can still use,” he went on, miming the amputation of his thumb and making a fist. “But weaker now.”

“If we find other parts of it,” Vaelin said, “can you do the same to them?”

Wise Bear nodded. “If we find.”

Vaelin looked at the looming rock spike wondering if the Witch’s Bastard still somehow clung to life. I suspect you still have far to go, it had said. It knew we were coming, but not why. “Oh, I’ve little doubt they’ll find us.”

CHAPTER NINE

Lyrna

Tower Lord Al Bera’s health had improved greatly since the liberation of Varinshold, his skin notably less pale and his hands free of any tremors. However, he still had difficulty standing for long periods and Lyrna had been quick to usher him into a chair. She had summoned him to her father’s old rooms adjoining the council chamber. Once richly adorned with various treasures it was now, of course, stripped of all but a few paintings and tapestries, former possessions of the late Lord Darnel no doubt looted from murdered nobility. She had been scrupulous in cataloguing every item found in the palace, distributing the list so that their true owners could reclaim them, but no more than a handful of beggared lords and merchants had so far come forward.

“I recall my father naming you the Smuggler’s Scourge, my lord,” she told Al Bera. “A hard-won title, no doubt.”

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