They lost their youth in my bloody crusade, he thought. With worse to come at Varinshold. He sighed and moved away until the sounds grew faint.
It was a half-moon tonight, but the sky was clear, providing enough light for a good view of the low country beyond the downs, so far free of any enemy. Will he wait? Frentis wondered. When Darnel hears that Banders has raised his fief against him and now harbours his son, will he come? His hand ached as he gripped his sword hilt, the bloodlust surging again, calling her voice as it always did. Not so free of its delights, after all, beloved?
“Leave me be,” he whispered in Volarian, teeth gritted, forcing his hand to release the sword.
“Learned a new language then, brother?”
Frentis turned to find a brother about his own age approaching from the shadows, tall with a narrow handsome face and a lopsided grin. It was the grin that stirred his memory. “Ivern,” he said after a moment.
The young brother halted a few feet away, eyes tracking Frentis from head to foot in blank wonder. “I thought Brother Sollis was playing a joke when he told me,” he said. “But when does he joke about anything?” He came forward, arms encircling Frentis in a warm embrace.
“The Order,” Frentis began when Ivern moved back. “The House has fallen. There are no others . . .”
“I know. He told me your tale. Little over a hundred of us, all that remains of the Sixth Order.”
“Aspect Arlyn lives. Darnel’s lick-spittle confirmed it, though he couldn’t tell us where in Varinshold they imprisoned him.”
“A mystery to be solved when we get there.” Ivern inclined his head at the cluster of tents nearby. “I’ve half a bottle of Brother’s Friend left if you’d care to share.”
Frentis had never been particularly partial to the Order’s favourite tipple, disliking the way it dulled his senses, so he confined himself to a polite sip before handing the flask back to Ivern who seemed to have no such concerns. “I tell the unvarnished and complete truth,” he insisted after a healthy gulp from the flask. “She kissed me, full on the lips.”
“Princess Lyrna kissed you?” Frentis enquired with a raised eyebrow.
“Indeed she did. After a perilous, and dare I say, now legendary quest through the Lonak Dominion. I was halfway through writing it all down for inclusion in Brother Caenis’s archive when news of the invasion came.” His grin became rueful. “My finest hour as a brother, lost to history thanks to larger concerns.” He met Frentis’s gaze. “We heard a lot about you on the way south. The tale of the Red Brother flew fast and wide. There’s even a version that says you saw her die.”
The fire licked at her face as she screamed, her hair blackening as she beat the flames with her hands . . . “I didn’t see her die,” he said. I just killed her brother. He had given a full accounting to Brother Sollis the previous evening, whilst his company ate their first real meal in days, some so slumped in relief they couldn’t raise the food to their mouths. Sollis had absorbed every word without comment, his pale-eyed gaze betraying nothing as the epic of murder and pain ran its course. When it was done, like Aspect Grealin, he gave strict instructions not to repeat the tale to anyone and maintain the same fiction believed by the people who followed him. The same lie, the woman’s voice added in faint mockery.
“So there’s a chance,” Ivern pressed. “She could still be alive.”
“I ask the Departed every day to make it so.”
Ivern took another drink. “The Lonak didn’t understand what a princess was, so called her a queen. Turns out they were right. If I were a Volarian I’d be praying for her death. I wouldn’t want to be in the eye of that woman’s vengeance.”
Vengeance, Frentis thought, looking down at his hands, hands that had snapped the neck of a king. Or justice?
• • •
He returned to his company in the morning, finding Davoka in conversation with Illian, the young highborn sitting rigid and pale of face as the Lonak spoke in instructional tones. “You must be careful,” she cautioned, working a stone along her spear-blade. “Swollen belly no good in battle. Make sure he spends on your thigh.”
When Illian caught sight of Frentis, her face turned an immediate shade of scarlet. She stood up, walking away with a stiff but rapid gait, managing only a faint squeak in response to his greeting.
“Such things are not discussed openly among the Merim Her,” Frentis told a puzzled Davoka, sitting down beside her.
“Girl is foolish,” she muttered with a shrug. “Too quick to anger, too quick to part her legs. My first husband had to give three ponies before I lay a hand on him.”
Frentis was tempted to ask how many ponies Ermund would be required to hand over in due course, but decided it would be an unwise question. Bound as he was by his oath, the knight had been quickly reinstated at Baron Banders’s side and they would sorely miss his sword. Davoka, however, seemed unperturbed by his sudden absence from their company and Frentis wondered if he hadn’t been anything more than a welcome diversion during the infrequent quiet days in the Urlish.
“Things are different here,” he said, more to himself than her. Illian transformed from a pampered girl into a deadly huntress, Draker from an outlaw into a soldier, Grealin from a master to an Aspect. Everything is different. The Volarians have built us a new Realm.
Brother Commander Sollis arrived as they were eating breakfast, favouring Davoka with a respectful nod, pausing only slightly at the sight of Thirty-Four, who smiled back with a gracious bow. “Baron Banders holds council,” Sollis told Frentis. “Your words are wanted.”
• • •
“Five hundred knights and a piss-pot full of Volarians, eh?” Baron Banders raised a bushy eyebrow at Frentis, voicing a small laugh. “Hardly a mighty army, brother.”
“If this Wenders spoke truly,” Sollis commented.
The baron held his council in a field away from the main camp, the various captains and lords of his army standing in a circle with scant ceremony or formal introduction. It seemed Banders had little use for the often elaborate manners of the Renfaelin nobility.
“Wenders did not strike me as a man with enough wit for deception, brother,” Frentis told Sollis before turning to Banders. “There are upwards of eight thousand men in a Volarian Division, my lord. Plus they have the Free Sword mercenaries who guard the slavers and contingents of Kuritai. I caution you not to underestimate them.”
“Worse than the Alpirans are they?”
“In some ways.”
The baron grunted and raised an eyebrow at Ermund who gave a solemn nod. “We killed many in the forest, my lord, but it cost us dear. If they have more, taking the city will be a bloody business.”
“If Darnel is wise enough to stay behind his walls,” Banders mused. “And wisdom is not one of his virtues.”
“He has recruited wisdom,” Frentis said. “Wenders told us Lakrhil Al Hestian has been pressed into service as Darnel’s Battle Lord. He’ll know full well the value of not taking to open field against us.”
“Blood Rose,” Banders said softly. “Couldn’t abide the man, truth be told. But he never struck me as a traitor.”
“Darnel holds Al Hestian’s son as hostage to his loyalty. We should regard him an enemy, and not one given to misjudgements.”
“Couldn’t hold Marbellis though.” Banders glanced at Sollis. “Could he, brother?”
There was a slight pause before Sollis replied and Frentis wondered what horrors crowded his memory. “No one could have held Marbellis, my lord,” he said. “A pebble can’t stand against an ocean.”
Banders fell silent, his hand on his chin. “Was hoping the Urlish would mask our advance,” he said in a reflective tone. “At least for a time, providing timber for ladders and engines into the bargain. Now even that is taken from us.”
“There are other ways, Grandfather,” Arendil spoke up. His mother, the Lady Ulice, stood at his side with a tight grip on his arm. Her relief at finding him alive the day before had been a spectacle of tearful kisses, though she had plainly been chagrined by her son’s insistence on staying with Frentis’s company.
“The good brother,” Arendil said, gesturing to Frentis, “Davoka, and I made our escape via the city’s sewers. If we can get out, surely we can get in the same way.”
“The harbour pipe is too easily seen by their sailors,” Frentis said. “But there are alternatives, and one in our company who knows the sewers near as well as I.”
“I’ve four thousand knights who won’t fit so easily in a dung pipe, brother,” Banders pointed out. “Take their horses away and they’re as much use as a gelding in a whorehouse. The rest are men-at-arms and a few hundred peasants with grudges to settle against Darnel and his dogs.”
“I have over a hundred brothers,” Sollis said. “Plus Brother Frentis’s company. Surely sufficient strength to seize a gate and hold it long enough to allow your knights entry.”
“And then what?” Banders asked. “Street fighting is hardly within their experience, brother.”