“I could give a whore’s cunt hair for your legend!” Darnel snapped. “Why do you bring me this defeated dog with his wild tales of witches and sharks?”

“I am no liar!” the sailor retorted, face reddening. “I am witness to a thousand deaths or more at the hands of that bitch and her creature.”


“Control your dog,” Darnel told the Division Commander quietly. “Or he’ll get a whipping as a lesson.”

The sailor bridled again but said no more when Mirvek placed a restraining hand on his shoulder, murmuring something in his own language. Alucius’s Volarian was poor but he was sure he detected the word “patience” in the commander’s soothing tone.

“Ah, little poet,” Darnel said, noticing Alucius. “Here’s one worthy of a verse or two. The great Volarian fleet sunk by a Dark-blessed shark answering the whim of a witch.”

“Elverah,” the sailor said again before adding something in his own language.

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“What did he say?” Darnel asked the Division Commander in a weary tone.

“Born of fire,” the commander translated. “The sailors say the witch was born of fire, because of her burns.”


“Her face.” The sailor played a hand over his own features. “Burned, vile to look upon. A creature not a woman.”

“And I thought you people were absent all superstition,” Darnel said before turning back to Alucius. “What do you imagine this means for our great enterprise, little poet?”

“It would seem the Meldenean Islands did not fall so easily after all, my lord,” Alucius replied in a flat tone. He saw his father shift at Darnel’s side, catching his eye with a warning glare, however Darnel seemed untroubled by the observation.

“Quite so. Despite the many promises made by our allies, they fail to secure me the Isles and instead bring dogs into my home barking nonsense.” He pointed a steady finger at the sailor. “Get him out of here,” he told Mirvek.

“Come forward, little poet.” Darnel beckoned him with a languid wave when the Volarians had made their exit. “I’d have your views on another tall tale.”

Alucius strode forward and went to one knee before the throne. He was continually tempted to abandon all pretence of respect but knew the Lord’s tolerance had its limits, regardless of his usefulness.

“Here.” Darnel picked up a spherical object lying at the foot of his throne and tossed it to Alucius. “Familiar, is it not?”

Alucius caught the item and turned it over in his hands. A Renfaelin knight’s helmet, enamelled in blue with several dents and a broken visor. “Lord Wenders,” he said, recalling that Darnel had made his chief lapdog a gift of an unwanted suit of armour.

“Indeed,” Darnel said. “Found four days ago with a crossbow bolt through his eye. I assume you have little trouble guessing the origin of his demise.”

“The Red Brother.” Alucius concealed his grin. Burned the Urlish to nothing and still you couldn’t get him.

“Yes,” Darnel said. “Curious thing, they tended his wounds before they killed him. What’s even more curious is the tale told by the only survivor of his company. He didn’t last very long, I’m afraid, victim of a crushed and festered arm. But he swore to the Departed that the entire company had been buried in a rock-slide called forth by the Red Brother’s fat master.”

Grealin. Alucius kept all expression from his face as he asked, “Called forth, my lord?”

“Yes, with the Dark, if you can believe it. First the tale of the Dark-afflicted brother, now the ballad of the witch’s shark. All very strange, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I would, my lord. Most certainly.”

Darnel reclined in his throne, regarding Alucius with arch scrutiny. “Tell me, in all your dealings with our cherished surviving Aspects, did they ever make mention of this fat master and his Dark gifts?”

“Aspect Dendrish asks for books, and food. Aspect Elera asks for nothing. They make no mention of this master . . .”

Darnel glanced at Alucius’s father. “Grealin, my lord,” Lakrhil Al Hestian said.

“Yes, Grealin.” Darnel returned his gaze to Alucius. “Grealin.”

“I recall the name, my lord. I believe Lord Al Sorna made mention of him during our time together in the Usurper’s Revolt. He minded the Sixth Order’s stores, I believe.”

Darnel’s face lost all expression, draining of colour, as it often did at mention of the name Al Sorna, something Alucius knew well and counted on to provide suitable distraction from further astute questioning. Today, however, the Fief Lord was not so easily diverted.

“Store-minder or no,” he grated after a moment. “It now seems he’s a pile of ash.” He pulled something from the pocket of his silk robe and tossed it to Alucius; a medallion on a chain of plain metal, charred but intact. The Blind Warrior. “Your father’s scouts found this amongst the ashes in a pyre near Wenders’s body. It’s either the fat master’s or the Red Brother’s, and I doubt we’d ever get that lucky.”

No, Alucius agreed silently. You never would.

“Our Volarian allies are extremely interested in any whisper of the Dark,” Darnel told him. “Paying huge sums for slaves rumoured to be afflicted with it. Imagine what they’ll do to your friends in the Blackhold if they suspect they have knowledge of more. The next time you visit them show them this medallion, tell them this tall tale, and report back to me every word they say.”

He got to his feet, walking towards Alucius with a slow gate, face quivering a little now, lips wet with spittle. They were roughly of equal height, but Darnel was considerably broader, and a seasoned killer. Somehow, though, Alucius still felt no fear as he loomed closer.

“This farce has dragged on long enough,” the Fief Lord rasped. “I ride forth tonight with every knight in my command to hunt down the Red Brother and secure my son. Whilst I am gone you will make sure those sanctimonious shits know I’ll happily hand them over to our allies to see them flayed skinless if it’ll drag their secrets forth, Aspects or no.”



She wakes, her eyes finding a dim yellow glow in a world of shadow. The glow resolves into the flame of a single candle, not so clear as it should be. For a moment she wonders if she has been reborn into a half-blind body, the Ally’s joke, or further punishment. But then she recalls that her sight, her first body’s sight, had always been unusually sharp. “Keener than any hawk,” her father had said centuries ago, a rare compliment that had brought tears to her eyes then but brings nothing to these now. These weaker, stolen eyes.

She lies on hard stone, cold and rough on her naked skin. She sits and something moves in the gloom, a man stepping from the shadow into the meagre light. He wears the uniform of the Council Guard and the lean face of a veteran but she sees his true face in the leer of his shaded eyes. “How do you find it?” he asks her.

She raises her hands, flexing the fingers and wrists. Strong, good. Her arms are lean, well sculpted, similarly her legs, lithe and supple.

“A dancer?” she asks the Council Guard.

“No. She was found when young. The northern hill tribes, richer in Gifted than elsewhere in the empire. The gift is powerful, an uncanny way with the wind. Something I’m sure you’ll find a use for. She was trained with knife, sword and bow from the age of six. Security against your inevitable fall.”

She feels a faint anger at this. It was not inevitable. Any more than love is inevitable. She is tempted to let the anger build, fuel her new body with rage and test its abilities on the leering Messenger, but is given pause by another sensation . . . The music flows, the tune is fierce and strong. Her song is returned!

She finds a laugh bubbling in her breast and lets it out, her head thrown back, the sound exultant as another thought comes to her, no less fierce in its joyful realisation: I know you see me, beloved!

• • •

He came awake with a start, raising a curious whine from Slasher who had been sleeping at his feet. Next to him Master Rensial slept on, an oddly serene smile on his face; a man content in slumber. Apart from battle it was the only time he appeared sane. Frentis sat up with a groan, shaking his head to clear the dream. Dream? Do you really believe that’s what it was?

He pushed the thought away and pulled on his boots, hefting his sword and exiting the small tent he shared with the master. The sky was still dark and he judged it no more than two hours into the new day by the moon’s height. Around him the company lay sleeping, the tents provided by Baron Banders a wondrous luxury after so many days of hardship. They were encamped on the southern slope of a tall hill, one of the downs that made the Renfaelin border country so distinct, campfires forbidden by the baron, who saw no reason to give Lord Darnel an indication of their numbers.

Six thousand men, Frentis thought, his eyes surveying the camp, recalling the intelligence provided by the unfortunate Lord Wenders. Enough to take a city held by Darnel’s knights and a full division of Volarians?

A soft sound drew his attention back to the tents where his company slept, a soft giggle rising from the tent Arendil shared with Lady Illian. He heard faint but urgent whispers followed by more giggles. I should stop this, he decided, starting forward, then paused as the words Illian had spoken the day before came back to him. I am not a child . . .

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