The impact jarred her grip from the rail, the pitch of the deck too steep to allow any purchase as she and Arentes were carried towards the starboard side. She saw the guard commander hit the rail, shattering the wood with a bone-snapping crunch, and leaving a gap through which she descended into the roiling sea.

The storm’s fury disappeared in an instant, replaced by the silence of the world beneath the waves. She could see only varying swirls of grey as she descended, borne down by the weight of mail and weapons. She let go of her bow, knowing this time Master Arren’s wonder would be lost forever, then unclasped her sword belt, letting the blade fall away. She tore at the straps to her mail shirt, writhing in the cloying chill, bubbles spouting from her mouth in a torrent.

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No! She forced calm into her thoughts as the straps resisted every desperate tug. Panic will kill you.

She formed herself into as still and straight a pose as possible, facing towards the surface to slow her descent, then drew her dagger and cut each of the straps in turn. The mail shirt came loose in an instant and she felt herself rise, but too slowly judging by the now-agonised burn in her chest. She kicked for the surface, forcing every ounce of strength into her lungs and sternly refusing the compulsion to draw breath.

She broke into the air with a shout, dragging in rain-clogged air and coughing, carried high and low by tall waves. There was no sign of Arentes, or anyone else. Then a sudden cacophony, loud enough to reach her through the storm, a great cracking sound, like a thousand trees splintered at one blow. The swirl of the storm shifted for a moment, lessening the darkness to afford a view of the Marshal Smolen, the great vessel’s hull shuddering as it scraped along some unseen barrier, her sails torn from her rigging and what seemed to be dark droplets cascading from her sides, droplets Reva soon realised were people, her people, casting themselves into the sea as the ship was torn apart beneath them.

The storm shifted again, taking the spectacle with it, but Reva continued to stare, as the cold rose to numb her limbs and she shuddered, knowing death was coming soon and she had no desire to fight it.

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I killed them all, she thought as the waves covered her head. With a lie.

CHAPTER THREE

Frentis

The villa was the largest they had yet encountered, more a fortress than a home, its walls thick and tall, the gardens extending for several acres all around. It had clearly been home to a master of considerable wealth, enough in fact to maintain a garrison of two hundred Varitai. Despite the strength of the villa’s defences, however, the master had felt little compunction in abandoning it at the first sign of their approach. His Varitai were easily counted, lying in four neat rows in the inner courtyard, each bearing an identical ear-to-ear cut across the throat.

“All valuables gone,” Draker reported, “along with the horses. Found most of the slaves inside. Unlike this lot, looks like some put up a fight. Didn’t save them though.”

“Two hundred of their own men,” Illian said, shaking her head in bafflement. “I can make no sense of it.”

“They know what we’re about now.” Frentis nodded at a silent cluster of their own freed Varitai nearby. “Didn’t want us to have them.” He caught Master Rensial’s eye. “From the state of the bodies they can’t be more than a day’s ride north. See to it, please Master.”

Rensial nodded and moved to his horse, his mounted company following as he galloped through the villa’s gate. Frentis briefly pondered going with them, given the master’s erratic nature, but resisted the impulse. Recent days had seen a change in Rensial, his gaze not quite so blank, even occasionally given to unbidden speech requiring less deciphering than usual. Only in war does the madman become sane.

Not all the villa’s slaves had been slain before their master’s flight, some having been at work in the fields when the slaughter began. Many were seen fleeing in all directions, though a sizeable minority made their way to the villa, cautious and bemused by the welcome they received, some collapsing in grief at the sight of their murdered fellows, mostly men weeping over fallen women. Marriage was forbidden between slaves but everywhere they went there was evidence that people were capable of forging their own bonds regardless of whatever barriers or threats constrained their lives. It was to these bereaved souls that Frentis gave the villa’s owner when Rensial returned the following day, dragging the unfortunate black-clad along behind his horse, hands bound and mouth firmly gagged.

“He had a wife and children,” Rensial reported as the slaves closed in around their former master, knives and whips raised. “I let them go.”

“Of course, Master.” They always beg. Frentis watched the black-clad collapse to his knees, bound hands raised in appeal. He was a tall man, impressively built with the look of a soldier, attested to by the various military souvenirs found in the villa. An officer of renown? The villa, the family, the slaves. All fruits of an illustrious career. A hero’s reward. He was far from heroic now, just a terrified, piss-stained man begging for his life. They always beg.

He turned away as the torment began, going to where Illian was engaged in training the latest batch of recruits. There were fewer Realm folk now but their numbers had begun to swell since the victory over the Eskethian garrison, the Free Swords they had allowed to flee carrying word of the calamity with impressive speed. Within days a hundred more runaways had arrived in the mountains, the army’s numbers swelling to over four thousand in the space of a month. Feeding so many had forced Frentis to order a move to the north-west, into the rich farmlands that stretched towards New Kethia, this villa being the first to fall.

He watched the training for a short time, taking satisfaction from the accustomed ease with which Illian marshalled the recruits, displaying all the authority of a master on the Order House practice ground. She had them learning the staff, the basis for eventual use of the pole-axe or the spear, but also a sign that they still lacked sufficient weapons. He had set the former blacksmith to work in the villa’s forge with orders to remake the copious stocks of farming tools into as many axe blades as possible. It meant they would have to linger here for a time, weeks probably, and he chafed at the delay. Keen to maintain the impetus of their rebellion, he had sent Lekran and Ivelda in opposite directions with two hundred fighters each and orders to free as many slaves as possible.

Frentis turned as Thirty-Four approached. The former slave had taken to wearing kit stripped from the bodies of Free Sword officers and gave an impression of impeccable military neatness, every inch of armour scrupulously cleaned and all buckles polished to a gleaming shine.

“He’s ready then?” Frentis asked him.

“Healed and fully able to ride, brother. Still refusing to talk though.”

“Unusual. They normally can’t shut up when they realise what you are.”

“Who I am,” Thirty-Four corrected, an uncharacteristic hardness in his voice. “What I used to be.”

“Yes.” Frentis offered an apologetic smile. “Let’s set him on his way, shall we?”

The Volarian had refused to offer a name but they had gleaned it from the correspondence found among his battalion’s baggage train. “Honoured Citizen Varek,” Frentis greeted him brightly, crouching at his side in the shade of the acacia tree to which he had been shackled. “Feeling better I trust?”

Varek remained slumped against the tree-trunk, his face betraying no emotion beyond the simmering rage that had dominated his demeanour upon waking to find himself chained and his battalion destroyed.

“I have good news,” Frentis went on, gesturing for Thirty-Four to unlock the chain. “Freedom awaits.”

Varek’s expression became guarded, Frentis noting how he suppressed the faint glimmer of hope that rose in his eyes. “No trick, I assure you.” Frentis took hold of the chain and gave an insistent tug, the Volarian slowly getting to his feet, wary eyes constantly moving in expectation of an attack. Frentis led him through the courtyard, knowing he would take full notice of the many former slaves at training. Draker waited at the villa’s arched entrance with a horse, saddled and laden with provisions for several days’ ride.

“This was your horse, wasn’t it?” Frentis asked, removing the shackles from Varek’s wrists.

The Volarian was marginally less wary now, rubbing at his reddened flesh as his gaze tracked from Frentis to the horse. “I will not betray my people,” he stated, the first words he had spoken since waking. “Whatever the reward.”

“This could hardly be called a reward,” Frentis said. “I imagine you know the kind of welcome you’ll receive in New Kethia, the defeated, disgraced son to an honoured father. The shame of it will be unbearable, but before you kill yourself please inform your tormentors that what happened to you will soon happen to them. Before the year is out their city will fall and every soul they keep in bondage will be free. But my queen is rich in compassion and willing to offer terms.”

The Volarian sighed, shaking his head. “You are mad.”

“The city gates to be opened and the walls cleared of defenders. All Free Swords to lay down their arms and all slaves, including Varitai and Kuritai, to be freed. The city will become the property of Queen Lyrna Al Nieren, who will decree a fair redistribution of lands and riches in due course.” He stepped closer to Varek, speaking softly, feeling his rage building anew. “Failure to agree to these most generous terms will result in the utter destruction of your city and the execution of every Volarian found in arms.”

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