“I saw a group of horses being gathered a short way off, the tribesmen have few of their own so they are a great prize. I knew if I could just get us to a horse we could ride free, knew it with all certainty. I stared at them, willing them to hear my desperation . . . And they came, all of them at once, breaking free of the tribesmen and stampeding through those surrounding us, stamping and kicking. Two halted at our side, both standing still as if frozen. I managed to get Father into the saddle and we rode away, every surviving horse following at our backs. We rode blindly for an age, until I too began to slump, realising I was also bleeding, from my nose, my eyes, my mouth. I remember falling from the horse then all was blackness.
“We were found by a Varitai scouting party the next morning, lying senseless amidst a herd of riderless horses. They took us back to camp where the slave-healer was able to wake Father with some kind of herbal mixture, but he was not the same, looking at me with eyes that saw a stranger, his lips spouting gibberish only he could understand. Loon though he now was, General Tokrev still deemed him an incompetent and a coward. As sole heir I was obliged to watch as he was beheaded, the general decreeing his line unworthy of freedom and condemning me to slavery. Naturally, as the wronged party, all my family’s wealth was now his.
“A slave’s life is rarely an easy one, but to be a slave in army service is a particular form of torment. My comrades were mostly cowards and deserters, subjected to routine beatings to crush any defiance, the slightest sign of disobedience punishable by prolonged torture and death, a fate suffered by three of my companions during the march north. We were employed as beasts of burden, laden with packs that would have tried the strongest man, fed barely enough to sustain life, our numbers dwindled from two hundred to less than fifty by the time we reached the ice.
“The general’s glorious campaign began with the destruction of a small settlement on the shore of the frozen ocean. Perhaps five hundred people, small in stature and clad in furs. It should have been an easy victory but these people were far from defenceless, for they somehow had command of bears. Great white bears unlike any seen before, bears that seemed to feel nothing as arrows or spears pierced their hides, bears that tore whole companies to pieces before being hacked down. The general was compelled to commit a full brigade to the fight, and what was expected to be an easy victory turned into a prolonged slaughter. The settlement was his, though many of its inhabitants had fled onto the ice. The few captives, mostly wounded men and women who had fought a rear-guard action to buy time for their people to flee, sat down and refused to move regardless of what torments were visited upon them by the overseers. They were dragged into cages but refused to eat, perishing shortly after, none speaking a single word.
“Although Tokrev was quick to send an inflated account of his victory to Volar, his troops didn’t share his exultation. The cold was already claiming lives and winter had not yet fully fallen, and the Free Swords looked upon the vast expanse of ice before them with great unease. However, none had the courage to gainsay the general when he ordered the advance and I soon found myself hauling a sled across the ice alongside a dozen other unfortunates. Every morning we would wake to find our numbers diminished until soon only I and three others were left. The overseers cursed and beat us but had little option but to lighten the load, vital provisions being left behind because there were insufficient slaves to haul them. Bellies began to rumble and tempers shorten, the Free Swords’ fear growing with every step on the ice, fears that proved well justified.
“The Bear People bided their time, letting us spend lives and food with each passing mile, until the days grew so short the army could cover no more than a few miles at a time. Strangely I found myself better fed than before, the chief overseer had contrived to plunge to his death at the bottom of a hidden crevasse and his surviving subordinates were too wearied by the cold to prevent me helping myself to my fellow slaves’ rations. They had all perished by now, some due to the beatings, but most taken by the cold.
“I remember the day I last saw the general, standing alone at the head of the column. He paced about on the ice, stamping with impatience and it seemed to me he was waiting for something. Thanks to my increased strength I had begun to harbour insane notions of revenge. The ever-more-neglectful overseers, themselves reduced in number to only two, had failed to notice when I procured a key from one of their fallen comrades, a drunkard who had foolishly passed out after forgetting to properly secure his furs. It would be a simple matter to unfasten my shackles from the sled, sprint towards the general, and hook the chains over his head, strangling him before his Kuritai could respond. It was a hopeless scheme, of course. The man was twice my size and his Kuritai would have been on me before I covered half the distance. But I was young, and hope is ever bright in the young. And the sight of my father’s headless corpse had never faded, fool though he was.
“So, as the general paced back and forth I slipped the key into the lock and made ready to execute my plan. I often wonder what would have transpired then had not the eyeless man appeared, most likely there would have been one more dead slave littering the course of this madman’s army across the ice. But still, in my less reflective moments, I often think how it would have felt to have that man at my mercy, just for an instant, to know his fear as the chain tightened around his throat.
“But the arrival of the eyeless man forced all such thoughts from my head. He seemed little different from the people slaughtered on the shore, clad in furs, small and broad of face, but instead of bears, he brought cats, very large cats that appeared out of the mist on either side of him, making the few surviving horses rear in alarm, along with more than a few Free Swords. Many began to draw swords but stopped at a command from the general. To my great surprise he then began to converse with the eyeless man, not in some alien tribal tongue, but in Volarian. Even more shocking was his demeanour, his shoulders hunched and head slightly bowed, the posture of a subservient man. Their words were faint but I heard a few snatches of conversation above the constant wind, ‘You were told to wait,’ the eyeless man told the general. Tokrev appeared to bluster, speaking the kind of military jargon my father rejoiced in but barely understood, talk of seized initiative and bold thrusts. The eyeless man told him he was a fool. ‘Come back next summer,’ he said before turning away. ‘If they leave you anything to return with.’ Then he was gone, and his cats with him.
“We remained encamped as night came on, every soul no doubt now silently beseeching Tokrev to order a retreat come the morning. In the event, the Bear People left him no decision in the matter. The spear-hawks attacked first, streaking out of the night sky by the hundred to rip eyes from sockets, tear away faces and fingers so that it seemed a red rain was falling all around. Panic seized the Free Swords and only the Varitai and Kuritai responded to the bugle blasts, forming a defensive cordon around the camp. For a moment all was quiet, the night beyond the torchlight nothing but a silent void, but then the sound came, filling the night, the roar of a thousand bears stirred to fury.
“They came at us from two sides, a solid wedge of charging muscle and claw, smashing through the Varitai as if they were made of straw, then rampaging through the camp. Everywhere men fell shrieking, slashed open or decapitated by sweeping claws, the bears rising and falling as they pounded men to bloody ruin. My last view of the general was the sight of him amidst a cluster of Kuritai, fighting with all their expertise to keep the bears at bay as he fled, a dense knot of fear-maddened Free Swords following close behind.
“As for me, I still crouched next to the sled, now liberally adorned with the remnants of my overseers. Everything had happened with such speed I could scarcely believe it. The bears seemed content to continue dismembering corpses, but then I saw men running from the shadows, many men with spears, more bears running alongside them and the air above alive with the thunder of wings. I knew in an instant to linger here another moment meant death.
“I unlocked myself and fled into the darkness, not thinking to seize some supplies, my only thought of escape. I ran until my lungs burned with the frozen air, collapsing only when my legs gave way. I lay still for a time, trying to recover some strength, but I was so tired, and it was so cold. I thought it might be best to sleep for a while, and might have fallen to an endless slumber had I not heard the steady crunch of a bear’s claws on the ice behind me. I forced myself to my feet, staggering on, fuelled only by terror, but even that was not enough to maintain my flight and I fell again.
“Knowing my cause to be hopeless I forced myself to turn and confront my pursuer, a lumbering shape looming ever closer through the darkness, eyes bright, claws and snout red from recent feeding. Volarians have no death songs, believing there are no gods or ascended souls to hear them, but in those final moments I found myself thinking once again of my father’s foolish dreams and how I wished I had found the courage to ask him about my mother.”
Astorek fell silent, his gaze distant now, a puzzled frown on his brow as if he recalled something not fully understood. Vaelin knew the expression well, having worn it many times himself. “The wolf,” he said.
“Yes.” Astorek gave a slight smile. “The bear stopped a few feet from me, growling, eyes bright with a malice that I had only ever seen in the eyes of men before. It seemed to be savouring the moment, creeping closer until its bloody snout was only inches away, its breath, hot and stinking on my face . . . Then it stopped.