“They knew we would be travelling with you,” he said to Astorek during his twice-daily rowing shift. The shaman spoke little on the water, his face set in a mask of constant concentration as he worked to keep his wolves in check.
“Hawks can do more than kill,” he replied, jerking his head at the sky where a great swirling flock of spear-hawks kept track of the convoy. At night they would descend to the forest of perches that sprouted from the canoes, gobbling down the slivers of meat provided by their shaman, most of whom seemed to be women.
“They carry messages?” Vaelin asked. “But your people have no writing.”
“No, we have no books.” Astorek pulled something from a pocket in his furs and tossed it to Vaelin; a length of elk bone, etched from end to end in straight cuts along a single line. “Each mark represents a sound,” Astorek explained. “Put them together and you have a word.”
“What does it say?”
“‘Long Knife is shaman of thirty wolves.’ Many Wings carved it when I reached manhood and sent copies to all the settlements. It’s the only time I’ve seen any of my people indulge in boasting.”
Vaelin glanced around at the other packs on the canoe, noting how small they were in comparison, none numbering more than a dozen. “It must be a trial to command so many.”
“Command is not really the right word. They . . . accept me.”
Vaelin looked closer at Astorek’s pack, seeing how their gaze was uniformly fixed on him, enthralled and barely blinking. “They can hear it,” he realised. “The echo of the wolf’s call. It’s still in you.”
Astorek’s expression flickered in momentary discomfort, one of the wolves turning towards Vaelin with a snarl burgeoning on its lips. It calmed as Astorek reached down to play a hand along its head, gazing up at him in wide-mouthed adoration. “They can hear it in you, also, Raven’s Shadow. Some things never fade from a man’s soul.”
• • •
They rowed south for three days, gathering ever more Wolf People on the way. By the time the broad coast of the mainland came into view Vaelin estimated their total number at well over a hundred thousand. More were waiting on the shoreline where settlements could be seen amidst the trees, the dwellings larger and covering more ground than those on Wolf Home.
“Why not live here all the time?” Cara asked Astorek as they neared the shore. “It seems a more comfortable place.”
“The elk roam south in the winter,” he replied. “Too far for us to follow, leaving a frozen wilderness in their wake. But in the isles walrus and whales appear when the ice forms.”
The evening saw a celebratory feast where the last of the winter stocks were consumed. The Wolf People clustered around several huge fires to roast their meat on skewers and share horns of pine ale, clicking away in their indecipherable tongue as they exchanged tales of winter hardship. Despite the generally convivial air Vaelin knew this to be a muted affair, noting the many faces regarding him with tense expectation. As they had no word for lie these people also had no word for secret. They had been making pilgrimage to the painted cave for centuries and knew his face, and his name.
He sat with Dahrena away from the main throng, building a smaller fire so they could share a supper of walrus stew. He did the cooking, slicing the meat into strips and seasoning it with herbs and the last of the salt he had carried from the Realm. “I knew brothers who would rather abandon their sword than their salt,” he told her, with only slight exaggeration. Life in the Order made most brothers skilled in the art of campfire cookery, and appreciative of the precious comfort offered by a small amount of seasoning.
“Do you ever miss it?” she asked, accepting a bowl of stew. “You were raised to a life in the Order. It must have been hard to leave it behind.”
“I had already lost my brothers by the war’s end, along with much else. There was nothing to return to.” He settled beside her and they ate in silence for a time. As ever the sensation of shared understanding banished his worries with comforting ease. When he was with her it was almost as if his song had returned, her moods being so easily read. He could see it now, the faint tension in her face as she ate, the way her eyes strayed constantly to his face.
“You worry for the future,” he said.
“The world is in chaos,” she replied. “Worry seems appropriate.”
“Were I still a man of the Faith, I might quote a pertinent catechism about the virtues of hope.”
“You believe the queen’s invasion will succeed?”
“I believe in her. She is . . . more than she was.”
“And if we do succeed, what then?”
“We return to the Reaches, where I suspect we’ll spend much of our time protecting them from gold-hungry idiots.”
“That is your ambition? Just the tower and the Reaches?”
“The tower, the Reaches”—he reached out to take her hand—“and you. Also, the peace to enjoy them.”
She smiled, but he saw it was forced. “Father wanted peace too, and hoped to find it in the Reaches.”
“Caenis told me he had been exiled for questioning the King’s Word. I always assumed it was because he had refused to do what my father did in the Meldenean Isles.”
“A climax to a long argument. Father began his career as a guardsman in the Al Nieren House Guard, when the Asraelin noble families feuded endlessly over the Lord’s Chair. He told me once Janus had promised him peace, in the days when the Red Hand had finally faded. They were both little more than boys then, facing an onslaught of a dozen houses allied against them, the Al Nieren line having been weakened by the plague and seemingly ripe for plucking. ‘We’ll kill all these fools together, Vanos,’ Janus had said. ‘Then we’ll make a Realm.’
“And they did, year after year of war, the other houses shattered and brought low, the fiefs hammered into submission, all on the promise of peace. A peace that failed to appear with the birth of the Realm as Janus turned his gaze to foreign lands. So, unable to face another war, Father begged for release, imagining he might find an untroubled retirement in the Reaches, far away from the Realm’s troubles and Janus’s ambition. But war still found him when the Ice Horde came.”
Vaelin squeezed her hand tighter. “With this war won there will be no one left to fight.”
“I see the queen, as you do. I met her once before, all those years ago when Father took me to the Realm. And you are right, she is greatly changed. But I still see in her what Father did, that day as she took us on a tour of the palace gardens, all laughter and charm. Father smiled at her witticisms, accepted her flattery, and made a gracious farewell. As we rode away his smile faded, however, and I heard him say, ‘And I imagined Janus to be ambitious.’ It may have changed but it hasn’t gone, Vaelin. When she’s done with this war, what then? What will sate her when she’s conquered an empire? What more will she ask of you?”
You’ll kill for your faith, for your king, and for the Queen of Fire when she arises . . . Words from a long-remembered dream. Perhaps not all prophecy is false. “I think she is wise enough not to ask for what I won’t give.”
• • •
Astorek came to fetch them to council in the morning, tracing a path into the forest until they arrived at a tree so large Vaelin at first wondered if it wasn’t some shaman-conjured illusion. The trunk was covered in reddish brown bark and stood near thirty paces wide at the base, ascending to well over two hundred feet in height, the top lost somewhere above the forest canopy.
“The name loses much in your tongue,” Astorek said. “Wolf Lance is the closest translation. The oldest great tree known to us. Even the grandfathers of our grandfathers couldn’t remember it a sapling.”
The base of the trunk featured a large, cave-like hollow where a number of Wolf People waited, standing in silent regard as Astorek led Vaelin inside. He made no introduction, simply standing to one side as they stared at his face, recognition and disquiet evident in every gaze. The silence stretched as he stood there, wondering if there was some ritual observance he had failed to make, until Wise Bear came to his side, speaking softly, “They want your words.”
Wise Bear gave the assembled Wolf People a tight smile, resembling a parent apologising for an ill-mannered child. “Words of war. They expect you to lead them.”
His gaze roamed the assembled council, finding Whale Killer among them, the others also marked as elders from their various accoutrements: necklaces of bone or beads, a knife with an ornately carved handle. Only those ice folk of sufficient age and influence had the time or opportunity to accumulate trinkets. “There are no shaman here,” he observed to Astorek.
“Shaman are forbidden leadership,” he said. “Too much power sickens the soul. A lesson the Cat People never learned.”
Vaelin nodded. “How many warriors do they command?”
Astorek conversed briefly with the council, receiving clipped but swift responses. “We do not reckon numbers as you do,” he reported. “But perhaps a quarter of every island’s people are of age to fight.”