“He’s for riding,” Vaelin said, turning back to the boy as Astorek translated. “Not eating.”
This seemed to puzzle the child even more, his small features creasing into a scrunch of bafflement, so Vaelin lifted him onto Scar’s back, taking the reins and leading him on a slow walk towards the shoreline. The boy laughed and clapped his hands as he bounced along, the other children following in a clamour that didn’t need much translation; they all wanted a turn. After an hour or so of entertainment Astorek finally shooed the children away with a few short words. Although the Wolf People’s discipline of their young folk seemed lax, the instant silence that descended on the children told of an underlying authority that brooked no dissent and they had soon scampered off to find other amusements.
“His description of you was not wholly accurate,” Astorek said when the children had gone. “He said you would be fierce.”
“Your prophet’s words? You talk as if you knew him.”
“Sometimes I feel as if I did, I’ve heard his words so many times. Our people write nothing down but all shaman are taught to recite his message without fault.”
Vaelin led Scar back to the stable, fixing a feed-bag over his snout. The islands were poor in grain but rich in root vegetables and berries, harvested in the summer months and preserved through the winter. From his contented snorts and noticeably less denuded frame, it seemed Scar found the mix just as appetising as any bag of corn.
“My mother and father,” Astorek said, “bade me ask as to your intentions.”
“The Wolf People have awaited your arrival for as long as they can remember, knowing it would herald a time of great danger. And yet you spend every day tending your horse, whilst your companions play and the big man drinks his way through our stocks of pine ale.”
“Alturk is a . . . troubled man. And we have lingered here because Wise Bear advised venturing forth during the Long Night meant death. We are, of course, grateful for your hospitality.”
“You talk as if you intend to leave us.”
“We came in search of a particular man. Kiral’s song will guide us to him. When she hears a clear tune we will move on.”
“Leaving us to our fate, whatever it may be?”
“You put great stock in ancient paintings and long-told stories, especially since you cannot have been born to this life.”
Astorek gave a bitter laugh. “Is that it? You deny my people aid because you still distrust me?”
“Your people require no aid, as far as I can tell. As for you.” Vaelin took the bag from Scar’s snout, scratching his nose. “I’ve yet to learn how you came to be here, at this time, speaking our language without fault.”
“If I were an enemy, would not the huntress’s song warn you?”
Barkus, that night on the beach, the mask slipping away in an instant. All those years and the song had told him nothing. “It should, but I know to my cost how well the servants of our enemy can evade detection.”
He put the feed-bag aside and hefted a seal fur over Scar’s back, the warhorse voicing a rumbling snort of welcome at the increased warmth, then turned to Astorek, eyebrows raised in expectation. The Volarian’s gaze became downcast, his response a reluctant murmur, “I was guided here . . . by a wolf.”
• • •
“My father was a wealthy man.” Astorek’s face was bathed yellow in the firelight, his gaze fixed on the flames. Vaelin had called the others to the great dwelling they shared to hear his story, the Lonak sitting with their customary attentiveness when promised an interesting tale. The Gifted sat on either side of Vaelin, Orven and his guardsmen arrayed in neat rows behind. Only Alturk was absent, something that provoked a sharp exchange between Kiral and one of the Sentar, a veteran warrior who shifted uncomfortably at her terse enquiry. From her disgusted expression Vaelin divined she found his answer less than satisfactory.
“A merchant to trade,” Astorek went on. “Like his father before him. The great port city of Varral was our home, where I grew up in my grandfather’s fine house surrounded by fine slaves and fine toys. Most of grandfather’s trade came from the Unified Realm and we often played host to merchants and captains from across the sea. Keen to ensure his legacy, my grandfather insisted I be taught all the principal languages of commerce, so by the age of twelve I was fluent in Realm Tongue and Alpiran, and could even converse adequately in the two main dialects of the Far West. I remember being a happy child, and why not? As long as I remained attentive at lessons for a few hours a day, every whim would be indulged, and my grandfather did like to spoil me so.”
Astorek’s smile of fond remembrance faded as he continued, “It all changed when Grandfather died. My father, it seemed, had once nurtured youthful aspirations to be a soldier, quickly discounted by Grandfather of course, who had little interest in things military beyond trade in weapons. All Volarian males are supposed to serve a minimum of two years in the Free Swords but Grandfather knew whom to bribe to deny his son a chance at military glory. And so, as the years passed, my father nursed his grievance and fed his secret ambition, an ambition given free rein with Grandfather’s passing.
“Volaria tends to frown on amateur soldiers, the sons of the wealthy can purchase commission to junior officer status but thereafter promotion is granted strictly on merit. However, my father also knew whom to bribe and soon after securing his commission, and providing funds to equip and recruit a full battalion of Free Sword cavalry, found himself quickly elevated to the rank of commander. But rank wasn’t enough, his thirst for glory hadn’t abated. Varral, like all Volarian cities, is rich in statues, long rows of bronzes commemorating heroes, ancient and new, and Father badly wanted a plinth for himself. A sudden upsurge in campaigning against the northern savages provided him his opportunity, and, as is custom for the wealthy in Volaria, sons of sufficient age are required to follow their fathers to war. I was thirteen years old.”
“Your mother raised no objection?” Vaelin asked.
“Perhaps she would have, had I ever known her. Grandfather told me she had been cast out after revealing herself a faithless whore and Father never said a single word about her. But there was a slave, an old woman who worked in the kitchens, so old she was losing her mind. She caught sight of me once, stealing cakes as I often did, and started screaming, ‘Elverah’s spawn. Elverah’s spawn.’ The other slaves quickly dragged her away and I never saw her again. That was the only time my grandfather ever punished me, thirty strokes of the cane, and after every stroke he made me promise never to speak of my mother again.”
“She was Gifted,” Dahrena said. “Like you.”
“I expect so. It’s the same among the Wolf People, only mothers with power pass it on to their children. As I journeyed north with my father’s battalion the soldiers would sometimes exchange stories of strange folk spirited away by Council agents, never to be seen again. Though they always spoke softly of such matters, for Father was zealous in enforcing discipline, flogging several men in the first week of the march. I suppose he was trying to compensate for a complete absence of any military talent.
“Poor old father. He was a terrible soldier, quick to tire in the saddle, prone to sickness, lax in ensuring sufficient supplies for his men. By the time we joined with the rest of the army his dreams of glory had faded amidst the truth of a soldier’s life, which, from what I could tell, consisted mainly of discomfort, bad food and the constant threat of flogging, enlivened only by an occasional wine ration or game of dice. I suspect he had resolved to extricate himself from his new-found career, and might well have done so with a judicious bribe, but for General Tokrev.”
The Realm folk all straightened at the mention of the name, causing Astorek to blink in surprise. “You know this name?”
“He committed many crimes in our homeland,” Vaelin said. “He’s dead now.”
“Ah. News I had long hoped to hear. I always suspected he was not destined for a long life, though, like some of red-clads, it was rumoured that he was already far older than he appeared. We knew his reputation, a commander of tactical brilliance, it was said, but also stern discipline. When we first joined with the army he was in the process of hanging three officers for cowardice, one a battalion commander guilty of voicing defeatist sentiments. Tokrev’s orders were to concentrate his efforts on the mountain tribes, the slave quota for the year being only half-filled, but he nursed ambitions to go farther, into the frozen north where legend spoke of wild tribes who lived on the ice, said to be far richer in Gifted blood than any people on earth.
“Many of his officers, my father included, were less than happy with this plan. However, Tokrev’s demonstration was enough to silence any dissent and north we marched, being obliged to fight our way through the tribesfolk on the way. They are a fierce people, born to a warrior’s life, and make a formidable enemy. Luckily, they also take as much delight in warring among themselves as in fighting the hated southron invaders, so never possessed sufficient numbers to pose a serious obstacle.
“Our battalion was given the task of patrolling the flanks, a tricky business for the most experienced commander, and one far beyond my father’s abilities. Suffice to say our first engagement was a predictable disaster, Father leading us into a narrow ravine to be assailed from above by archers and slingers. His chief sergeant had enough wit to order a charge that carried us into open ground but they were waiting on the other side, a thousand or more screaming tribesmen charging down from the surrounding hills. I saw my father unhorsed in short order and charged towards him, for all his faults he was my father after all. I managed to get to his side but a tribesman’s axe cut through my horse’s foreleg, leaving us both on foot and surrounded. Father was wounded, a deep gash to the forehead, barely aware of what was happening, screaming horror all around as his battalion was torn to pieces. The mountain folk were laughing as they came closer, laughing at the boy trying to ward them off with a shaking sword whilst his father staggered about and shouted orders to corpses. That was the first time it happened.