The master held it to his eye for a brief moment then handed it back with a shrug. “Then kill him.”

Frentis beckoned Corporal Vinten and Dallin to his side and pointed to the column’s southern flank. “Dallin, you’ll come with Master Rensial and me. Vinten, take the others and circle around. When they make camp wait for twilight and pick off as many pickets as you can. Once it’s done head back to the camp, don’t linger.”

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The City Guard gave a reluctant nod. “Don’t feel right leaving you, brother.”

“Do this right and we’ll be fine. Now go.”

They tracked the column until dusk, watching as it formed itself into a square-shaped encampment with the usual disconcerting speed and precision of Volarian slave-soldiery. Watching the way the entire battalion moved like one living beast made Frentis glad he had never had to face them in open field and wondrous as to how Vaelin had managed to beat so many at Alltor. Little wonder she thought they could conquer the whole world.

They left Dallin with the horses a half mile ahead of the Volarian camp and approached on foot, making for the northern picket line. He and Rensial wore their Free Sword mercenary garb, basically identical to the standard kit but slightly less uniform in appearance, the breastplates adorned with various scribblings in Volarian. Frentis couldn’t read the words but Thirty-Four had translated enough to indicate it consisted of various cynical and fatalistic slogans common to veteran Free Swords: free in spirit but a slave to blood, was a typical example. However, their garb was clearly sufficiently similar to the other Free Swords to allow them to approach the first one they saw without raising any sign of alarm.

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“Fucking cold tonight,” he greeted them cheerfully, steam rising as he pissed against a rock.

Master Rensial didn’t speak a word of Volarian but repeated, “Fucking cold,” with uncanny precision before stepping close to cut the man’s throat. They hid him in the lee of a large boulder and moved on, making it all the way to the camp’s fringes without interruption. Varitai were posted at intervals of twenty feet, silent, barely moving sentinels who also offered no challenge as they made their way to the camp’s interior, picking out the large tent positioned in the centre. Frentis was dismayed to find two Kuritai standing outside the tent; the Volarian commander’s caution was proving ever more trying. They made their way to a fire a short distance away, hands hovering to catch the warmth and listening to the faint snatches of conversation from the tent’s interior.

“. . . every day we delay earns more criticism, Father,” a voice was saying, earnest with youthful impatience. “You can bet those bastards in New Kethia are making great capital of our misfortunes already.”

“Let them,” came a more placid response, the voice older, gravelled and weary. “Victory always silences criticism.”

“You heard the scouts yesterday, at least two hundred slaves have taken to foot in the last week alone. If we can’t crush this rebellion soon . . .”

“It’s not a rebellion!” the older voice snapped, a sudden anger banishing the weariness. “It’s an invasion by blood-crazed foreigners and you’ll not say any different. There has never been a slave revolt in the history of the empire and our family will not have its name sullied by the mention of one. You hear me?”

A pause before a sullen response, “Yes, Father.”

The older voice issued a tired sigh and Frentis pictured its owner sinking into a chair. “Get the map. No, the other one . . .”

They waited until the sun had vanished behind the skyline and a flurry of alarm sounded from the southern perimeter, Vinten following his orders with typical efficiency. Frentis filled his palm with a throwing knife and met Rensial’s gaze. “Don’t kill the son.”

They ran towards the tent, Frentis waving frantically at the south with his empty hand. “Honoured Commander, we are attacked!”

As expected the Kuritai both stepped forward in unison to block their path as a curse sounded from the tent’s interior, a broad grizzled face appearing at the flap, demanding, “What’s all this babble?” in a gravelled voice.

Not so cautious after all, Frentis decided as the knife flew from his hand, flashing between the two Kuritai to take the commander in the throat. Frentis danced aside as the Kuritai on the right lunged, his sword clashing with the twin blades as he spun, his own blade slicing deep into the slave-elite’s arm. It barely seemed to slow him, his good arm whipping around to slash at Frentis’s chest, their swords colliding with a flash of sparks before Frentis reversed his hold on the short sword, sinking to one knee, and thrusting up at the Kuritai’s head. The sword tip caught him under the chin, punching through into the brain.

Frentis looked up to see Master Rensial finishing the other Kuritai, blocking an overhead swing with his sword as his other hand brought a dagger up to find the gap in the slave-elite’s armour between armpit and chest. The master stepped back as another figure erupted from the tent, a tall young man swinging a short sword in a double-handed grip, yelling in anger and grief, his blows frenzied and poorly aimed. Rensial sidestepped an overextended thrust and batted the sword from the young man’s grip before felling him with a swift backhand across the face.

The young man scrabbled back as Rensial advanced, hands coming up to protect his face, a barely coherent plea for mercy gibbering from his bloodied lips. Frentis went to stand over him, the young man shrinking back farther, eyes wide with terror. “You dishonour your father with this display,” Frentis told him with stern disapproval then inclined his head at Rensial. “Master, I believe it’s time to go.”

• • •

As he had hoped, Vinten’s attack had drawn attention to the southern perimeter and their progress from the camp was largely free of any interruption, shouting to every guard they met that the camp was facing a heavy assault and the commander slain. It had little effect on the Varitai but the Free Swords were soon hurrying to investigate. Only one attempted to block their way, a burly cavalryman of middling years with the bearing common to sergeants the world over.

“You saw the Honoured Commander fall?” he demanded, a grim fury plain in his craggy features.

“Two assassins,” Frentis said, putting a note of panic in his voice. “They killed the Kuritai as if they were children.”

“Calm down,” the Volarian ordered in his sergeant’s voice, frowning a little as he took a closer look at Frentis and Rensial, his eyes lingering on their inscribed armour. “Which company are you? What’s your name and rank?”

Frentis glanced around, finding no others within earshot and straightening from his fearful hunch. “Brother Frentis of the Sixth Order,” he said, jabbing his fore-knuckles into the sergeant’s upper lip. “Here on the queen’s business.”

He left the man barely conscious but alive. From his reaction to their tidings Frentis surmised he had been a long-serving subordinate to the fallen commander whose son might well benefit from such fiercely loyal counsel.

Dallin waited where they had left him on the eastern side of one of the larger rocks, keeping tight hold of the horses despite their skittishness at the burgeoning uproar from the camp. “Press hard,” Frentis told him, climbing into the saddle. “No rest till sunrise.”

• • •

The Volarian pursuit proved more sluggish than expected, the dust raised by their outriders not appearing until well past dawn the following day.

“Back in the Urlish they’d’ve been nipping our heels by now,” Dallin observed.

Frentis raised his spyglass to get a better view of their pursuers; thirty men, all bunched together. “I’m starting to suspect their best troops are all lying dead in the Realm.”

He ordered Dallin on ahead with instructions for Ivelda and Lekran whilst he and Rensial lingered to leave some obvious traces for the Volarians; an overturned stone, a strip of torn clothing on a gorse branch. He waited until the riders were no more than a mile distant and the infantry could be seen filing along a narrow track in their wake. They rode on for a time then reined in on the crest of a hill, plainly silhouetted against the sky. He could see the infantry more clearly now, a long column of Varitai all moving at a steady run and somehow still managing to stay in step. The outriders were coming on at a good pace, Frentis’s spyglass picking out two figures in front, a tall young man closely followed by a burly figure with a discoloured upper lip. Grief dispels caution, he thought in satisfaction, turning his mount towards the east once more.

Lekran came into sight some two hours later, axe raised as he waved from atop one of the monolithic boulders, the Garisai appearing out of the rocks on either side.

“All is ready?” Frentis called to him, dismounting to scramble up the boulder’s steep side.

“The Rotha bitch holds the southern flank with half the Garisai.” Lekran pointed to the box canyon below, a narrow gouge in the landscape some two hundred paces long and about fifty wide. The canyon was closed at the far end where a group of free fighters had made a suitably obvious camp, smoke rising from cookfires and meagre shelters raised among the rocks. “And the hook is baited.”

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