“But what are they?”
The captain cast a wary eye at the nearest of his crew, two sailors, young but both bearing scars from the Battle of the Teeth, and glaring at me in naked outrage. “Ill luck to talk of the old gods on a ship’s deck,” the captain said, moving to the gangplank. “Come, I’ll let you buy me a drink, scribbler. Besides I have news to impart.”
• • •
He led me to a quiet tavern near the warehouse district, the patrons mostly stevedores indulging in a cup or two of wine at the end of the day’s labour. Even in light of the fatigue evident in the other customers, the mood was sombre to the point of oppression, most sitting in silent contemplation of their wine. We sat beside a window, the captain lighting his pipe, the bowl filled with the sweet-smelling five-leafed weed popular in the northern empire but frowned upon elsewhere for its soporific effect.
“Ah, that’s the stuff,” the captain said, exhaling a cloud of smoke. “Once took some seeds home for the wife to grow. Never did, soil’s not right. Pity, could’ve made a fortune.”
“The old gods,” I said, pen poised above my scroll. “What do you know of them?”
“Well, they’re old for a start.” He gave an uncharacteristic laugh, something I attributed to the contents of his pipe. The merriment also raised some heads at the surrounding tables, a few scowling in disapproval, making me wonder what grim tidings had heralded such a mood.
“They were there when we landed on the Isles,” the captain went on, recapturing my attention. “The old gods, standing in stone, so lifelike it seems as if they’ll stir if you touch them at all.”
“You’ve seen them?”
He took a puff on his pipe and nodded. “Captain’s privilege, once you get your own ship, you go to the caves to pay homage to the old gods. Since they were there first, seems only polite. And there are stories aplenty about the ill fates of captains who failed to make the pilgrimage.”
“So, they’re statues found centuries ago.”
“More than statues, scribbler.” The captain’s gaze darkened at the memory. “Statue doesn’t make you sweat the moment you lay eyes on it, doesn’t make your head ache when you get near, nor put images in your head when you bow to touch its foot.”
My quill stopped its track across the parchment and I concealed a sigh. I had seen enough by now to fully appreciate that what I once thought of as superstition was all too real, but still the inherent skepticism lingered. “Images in your head?” I asked in a passive tone.
“Just for a second. I touched her foot and . . . I saw the Isles, but not our Isles. There was a city, standing where our capital now stands. But so beautiful, gleaming marble from end to end, the harbour filled with ships, longer than ours and mostly driven by oarsmen. And they were not pirates, I could see that. Not a single sailor carried a weapon. Whatever time it was, it was a time of peace.”
He fell silent, face now clouded with memory as he took the pipe from his lips, barely stirring when I prompted, “Her foot? The old gods are female?”
“One is. The other two are men, one a great bearded fellow, the other younger and handsome of face. I didn’t touch either of them, for the visions they impart are only for the bravest eyes. They say the Shield touched all three though, the only man ever to do so.”
“There’s a story, about a man who couldn’t die. It says he came to the Isles in search of the old gods.”
The captain huffed a laugh and returned to his pipe. “Urlan. My old gran used to tell me that one.”
“The version I have says he offended them by asking for an impossible gift, so they cursed him to walk the ocean floor for all time.”
He frowned, smoke billowing and a faint dullness creeping into his eyes. “Gran’s tale was different, but the old stories often change depending on who tells them. She said Urlan was driven from the Isles, set adrift in a boat and warned never to return. And not because he had offended the old gods, but because having heard his words, the people feared one so young who knew so much.”
He watched me writing down the tale, extinguishing his pipe and tapping the remaining weed into a pouch. “Time I imparted my tidings, scribbler,” he said.
“More grave news from the war, I take it?” I replied, glancing around at the grim-faced patrons.
“No, from Alpira.” I saw that the dullness had faded from his eyes and he regarded me with a steady, regretful gaze. “Emperor Aluran died a week ago. Before passing he named his successor as Lady Emeren Nasur Ailers, to be known forever more as Empress Emeren I.”
Dahrena called her war-cat Mishara, the Seordah word for lightning, and took great delight in training her. Every morning she would spend an hour or more in the forest, smiling as the beast leapt, ran or climbed trees at her command. “I had a kitten when I was little,” she told Vaelin, throwing a ball fashioned from walrus-hide for Mishara to catch, leaping high to snatch it from the air with a fast snap of her impressive jaws. “I named her Stripes. One day she went missing and my father told me she must have run away. I found out later he didn’t have the heart to tell me she’d been crushed by a cart-wheel.”
She frowned at Vaelin’s vague nod, sending Mishara off into the trees with a flick of her wrist before coming to sit next to him, taking his hand. She asked no question, as ever much of their communication was unspoken. “In the Order,” he said, “they told us prophecy was a lie, like a god. The province of deluded Deniers mistaking madness for insight. Yet all the while the Seventh Order laboured in secret pursuit of its own prophecies.”
“You recall what Brother Harlick told us,” she said. “All prophecies are false.”
“You saw their wall.”
“Pictures painted countless years ago and only visible now because these people maintain them with such devotion.” She squeezed his hand tighter. “The visions of Nersus Sil Nin gave the Seordah centuries to prepare for the coming of the Marelim Sil, but still they were driven into the forest. The future is not pigment daubed onto stone, we make the future with every breath and every step. Our mission is vital, you know it. We cannot allow ourselves distraction.”
“Kiral tells me her song swells with warning whenever I talk of moving on. For now, it seems this place is our mission.”
She sighed, resting her head on his shoulder. “Well, at least it’s started to thaw.”
• • •
He inspected Orven’s guardsmen in the afternoon, mainly to assure the Lord Marshal of his appreciation for returning them to martial readiness with such alacrity. Throughout the Long Night he had maintained the stern discipline and rigid adherence to routine that characterised the Mounted Guard, the beards grown on the ice soon sheared off and every breastplate scraped clean of rust.
“How goes the training?” Vaelin asked Orven after surveying the ranks and exchanging ritual pleasantries with the men. They spoke up readily enough, all veterans of the march from the Reaches and Alltor, regarding him with an implacable respect he knew might never fade. Even so, despite the generous fare offered by their hosts, many retained the gaunt aspect of those exposed to the worst extremes of climate.
“Fighting on foot is hard for those accustomed to the saddle, my lord,” Orven replied. “But it can’t be helped. The Lonak sometimes join in with practice. I think they find it amusing, or have little else to do.”
Vaelin glanced over to where a cluster of Sentar stood watching one of the Wolf People skin a recently caught walrus, taking note of the fact that Alturk was not among them, nor had he been for much of the Long Night.
“Concentrate on close-order drill,” he told Orven. “You’ve seen how the Volarians fight, whole battalions moving as one. I’m sure it’s a feat the guards can match.”
Orven straightened, his fist going to his breastplate in a customarily perfect salute. “Indeed we can, my lord.”
• • •
Astorek found him grooming Scar in the small stable the Wolf People had allowed him to construct near the shore. As usual a gaggle of children had gathered to watch as he led the warhorse from his makeshift home, apparently fascinated by the strange four-legged beast, bigger than a moose but without antlers. They seemed to have no inclination to shyness, or awareness that Vaelin might not understand their babble of questions as they clustered around, small hands playing over Scar’s coat, occasionally retreating with delighted giggles at the horse’s irritated stamps and snorts. One little boy was more insistent than the others, tugging at Vaelin’s furs and repeating the same question with a puzzled frown.
“He wants to know why you don’t eat him.”
Vaelin turned to find Astorek standing nearby, watching the scene with faint amusement. Two of his wolves sat a short distance away, a male and a female of disconcerting size, their scent provoking Scar to a fearful shudder.
“They’re too close,” he told the Volarian, nodding at the wolves.
Astorek inclined his head and the wolves rose in unison to trot towards the ice, their usual placidity evaporating as they began to leap and nip at one another in a playful dance.