“Very well,” she said, nodding to Count Marven. “Battle Lord, our tactical position, if you would.”

“We have a secure perimeter extending one mile inland, Highness. Brother Sollis has the Order scouting farther afield, so far there are no reports of significant enemy forces nearby although we have encountered a few cavalry patrols. We’ll gain a clearer picture when the remaining horses are brought ashore.”

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“Those that are left,” Baron Banders put in. “A third of our mounts sickened and died on the ships. Horses don’t take well to life at sea.”

“This region is rich in farmland,” Lyrna said. “No doubt we’ll find replacements soon enough. Until then I’m afraid any unhorsed knight will have to fight on foot, my lord.”

“That’ll give ’em something else to gripe about,” Banders muttered, soft enough for Lyrna to safely ignore.

“The Volarian fleet?” she asked Ship Lord Ell-Nurin.

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“Still no sign, Highness. But I doubt they’ve gone far. Probably licking their wounds and awaiting reinforcements.”

“Then let’s not allow them the leisure to do so. I hereby name you Fleet Lord Ell-Nurin. The freighters and troop-ships will sail back to the Realm with all dispatch to gather supplies and reinforcements. You will take every warship we have and harry the enemy without respite.”

“I shall, Highness. It would assist our efforts if Lady Alornis were to accompany us. We require more fuel for her engines and my fellows can’t quite get the mix right.”

“The Lady Artificer is indisposed. Make do as best you can.” She paused, making a point of meeting the gaze of everyone present, ensuring they saw no uncertainty in her eyes. “The army must be fully mustered by tomorrow. When it is, we march for Volar. Their Empress will no doubt be revelling in her imagined victory. I intend to disabuse her of this notion in short order.”

• • •

“Reva’s dead, isn’t she?”

Alornis wouldn’t meet her gaze, sitting listlessly on the bunk in Brother Kehlan’s tent. If the moans and occasional cries from the wounded troubled her, she gave no sign, her expression as unmoved as it had been during the battle.

“Her ship was wrecked in the storm,” Lyrna told her. “We found some survivors, but none have any word of her. I know you were close to the Lady Governess, and I too grieve for her loss. Her spirit, and her sword, will be greatly missed.”

“I always wanted to ask her about the siege, what she did. But I couldn’t, I saw how it pained her. I used to wonder how a soul so kind could do what they say she did at Alltor, for that was not the Reva I knew. Now . . .” She looked down at her hands, the thin, dexterous fingers moving like pale spiders. “Now I doubt she would know me.”

Lyrna reached out to smooth a wayward lock of hair from Alornis’s forehead, finding herself perturbed by the chill of her skin. “My lady, there are thousands of people now alive because of you.”

“And thousands dead.”

Brother Kehlan came to Alornis’s side, holding out a cup of something hot and sweet-smelling. “A sleeping draught, my lady.”

“I don’t want to sleep,” she told him. “I might dream.”

“There will be no dreams.” He smiled, placing the cup in her hands. “I promise.”

Lyrna joined the healer as he moved away. Despite many hours’ ceaseless work he remained alert, seemingly indifferent to the foul stenches that clouded the tent, and the blood that stained his robe. “Can you help her?” she asked.

“I can help her sleep, Highness. I can give her various remedies to calm a troubled mind. It may return her to some kind of normalcy, for a time. But I have seen this before, the malady of the spirit that arises in those pushed beyond their limits. Once it takes hold, it never really fades. I advise she be returned to the Realm as soon as possible.”

“No!” Alornis had risen from her bunk, advancing towards them, formerly placid features now rigid with determined refusal. “No. I am staying here.” Her words were a little slurred and she stumbled, Lyrna rushing forward to catch her.

“We have more fires to light together, Highness,” she whispered to Lyrna as the queen laid her on the bunk, watching as she slid into slumber, still murmuring, “so many beautiful fires.”

CHAPTER FIVE

Vaelin

The Wolf People unveiled their canoes when the solid plane of white surrounding the island thinned then fragmented under the weight of the new sun. Within days all that remained were a few stubborn ice-blocks drifting in the fast-flowing current separating the isles. Like the boats fashioned by the Bear People at the Mirror Sound, the canoes of the Wolf People were all constructed from hollowed-out tree-trunks, varying widely in size. Most were capable of carrying no more than four people at once, others were of sufficient size to accommodate up to ten, but there were three of such dimensions it seemed incredible they could float at all.

“Hewn from the great red trees that grow to the south,” Astorek explained as one of the huge craft was manhandled towards a slipway in preparation for launching. “Trees that grow tall as mountains over the life-span of twenty men. Only once in a generation do the Wolf People permit themselves to take a red tree. It’s a cause for great celebration when a new big boat is made.”

The purpose of the huge craft soon became clear as Astorek led his wolves on board along with the other packs. There was a definite tension in each of the shaman as they stood amidst their wolves, faces set in concentration. The wolves all sat in placid obedience, though every once in a while one would turn towards a different pack, a low growl building in its throat before snapping back to instant placidity at an insistent gesture from its shaman. Without the shaman’s command they become wolves again, Vaelin realised, once again wondering at the fortitude of the Gifted found among these people. They use their gifts for hours yet never tire.

“It’s not strength,” Kiral said, appearing at his side with her cat in tow. In accordance with Lonak custom she hadn’t named the beast, though the other Gifted had predictably dubbed it One Ear. It was the least well behaved of the cats, prone to voicing a nightly chorus of forlorn wails and a hissing disinclination towards any human company save Kiral’s. It greeted Vaelin now with a brief snarl and kept close to Kiral’s side with a low-backed wariness.

“It’s skill,” the huntress went on, nodding at Astorek. “Born of centuries-old necessity. Our gifts are useful, but we can still survive without them. These people need their power or the ice will kill them. So they learned to control it, share it, use only as much as they need.” She smiled faintly, eyes still lingering on the Volarian. “We must seem like clumsy children to them.”

Vaelin and the Gifted were given places on one of the huge boats, whilst Orven’s guardsmen and the Sentar were obliged to crowd into the smaller craft, some newly constructed to accommodate the increased number taking part in this yearly migration. Scar trembled a little as he was led onto the canoe, pacified only slightly by a handful of berries. The warhorse had grown partly accustomed to the presence of the wolves but the proximity of so many in a confined space was clearly trying his patience.

“Calm now, old fellow,” Vaelin said, trying to soothe him with a scratch to the nose. Today, however, Scar was in little mood for reassurance, eyes wide and fixed on the silent mass of wolves as he tossed his head, teeth bared in alarm.

“Let me try,” Dahrena said, moving closer to press a hand to the warhorse’s neck. She closed her eyes, a small line appearing in her forehead as she concentrated. Scar calmed almost immediately, his head lowering, eyes blinking in placid contentment.

“I showed him the stables back home,” Dahrena said. “He thinks he’s there now.”

“Your skills grow, my lady,” Vaelin said, inclining his head.

“A little.” She turned to the nearest shaman, a lean-faced veteran standing with five wolves arranged in an unmoving circle. “Though I doubt any of us will ever match them. Some skills require a lifetime’s teaching.”

• • •

All hands save the shaman were expected to take a turn at rowing, two hours or more spent ploughing at the water with a broad-headed oar. As ever, the constant exertion gave Lorkan much to complain about, though Vaelin noted he displayed little actual strain when rowing. He seemed to be taller now, his back straighter and shoulders broader. For all his grumbling, Vaelin knew the boy he had met in the Reaches had been lost somewhere in the tide of war and the privations of the ice. Though, from his constant glances at Cara, it seemed one thing hadn’t faded during the journey.

The surrounding islands grew larger and taller the farther south they went, great mounds of snow-topped granite and thick forest from which more canoes would emerge as they neared. There was little celebration in the greetings exchanged between the Wolf People, some waves or nods of respect between shaman, a few calls from old friends, but for the most part they formed their ever-growing convoy with quiet efficiency. Vaelin also found it strange none seemed particularly surprised or perturbed by the presence of so many outsiders, most just eyeing his motley company with grim acceptance.

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