Blood Song
An Excerpt From
Blood Song

PART I

Raven’s shadow

Sweeps across my heart,

Freezes the torrent of my tears.

—SEORDAH POEM, AUTHOR UNKNOWN

VERNIERS’ ACCOUNT

He had many names. Although yet to reach his thirtieth year, history had seen fit to bestow upon him titles aplenty: Sword of the Realm to the mad king who sent him to plague us, the Young Hawk to the men who followed him through the trials of war, Darkblade to his Cumbraelin enemies and, as I was to learn much later, Beral Shak Ur to the enigmatic tribes of the Great Northern Forest—the Shadow of the Raven.

But my people knew him by only one name and it was this that sang in my head continually the morning they brought him to the docks: Hope Killer. Soon you will die and I will see it. Hope Killer.

Although he was certainly taller than most men, I was surprised to find that, contrary to the tales I had heard, he was no giant, and whilst his features were strong they could hardly be called handsome. His frame was muscular but not possessed of the massive thews described so vividly by the storytellers. The only aspect of his appearance to match his legend was his eyes: black as jet and piercing as a hawk’s. They said his eyes could strip a man’s soul bare, that no secret could be hidden if he met your gaze. I had never believed it but seeing him now, I could see why others would.

The prisoner was accompanied by a full company of the Imperial Guard, riding in close escort, lances ready, hard eyes scanning the watching crowd for trouble. The crowd, however, were silent. They stopped to stare at him as he rode through, but there were no shouts, no insults or missiles hurled. I recalled that they knew this man, for a brief time he had ruled their city and commanded a foreign army within its walls, yet I saw no hate in their faces, no desire for vengeance. Mostly they seemed curious. Why was he here? Why was he alive at all?

The company reined in on the wharf, the prisoner dismounting to be led to the waiting vessel. I put my notes away and rose from my resting place atop a spice barrel, nodding at the captain. “Honour to you, sir.”

The captain, a veteran Guards officer with a pale scar running along his jawline and the ebony skin of the southern Empire, returned the nod with practised formality. “Lord Verniers.”

“I trust you had an untroubled journey?”

The captain shrugged. “A few threats here and there. Had to crack a few heads in Jesseria, the locals wanted to hang the Hope Killer’s carcass from their temple spire.”

I bridled at the disloyalty. The Emperor’s Edict had been read in all towns through which the prisoner would travel, its meaning plain: no harm will come to the Hope Killer. “The Emperor will hear of it,” I said.

“As you wish, but it was a small matter.” He turned to the prisoner. “Lord Verniers, I present the Imperial prisoner Vaelin Al Sorna.”

I nodded formally to the tall man, the name a steady refrain in my head. Hope Killer, Hope Killer…“Honour to you, sir,” I forced the greeting out.

His black eyes met mine for a second, piercing, enquiring. For a moment I wondered if the more outlandish stories were true, if there was magic in the gaze of this savage. Could he truly strip the truth from a man’s soul? Since the war, stories had abounded of the Hope Killer’s mysterious powers. He could talk to animals, command the Nameless and shape the weather to his will. His steel was tempered with the blood of fallen enemies and would never break in battle. And worst of all, he and his people worshipped the dead, communing with the shades of their forebears to conjure forth all manner of foulness. I gave little credence to such folly, reasoning that if the Northmen’s magics were so powerful, how had they contrived to suffer such a crushing defeat at our hands?

“My lord.” Vaelin Al Sorna’s voice was harsh and thickly accented, his Alpiran had been learned in a dungeon and his tones were no doubt coarsened by years of shouting above the clash of weapons and screams of the fallen to win victory in a hundred battles, one of which had cost me my closest friend and the future of this Empire.

I turned to the captain. “Why is he shackled? The Emperor ordered he be treated with respect.”

“The people didn’t like seeing him riding unfettered,” the captain explained. “The prisoner suggested we shackle him to avoid trouble.” He moved to Al Sorna and unlocked the restraints. The big man massaged his wrists with scarred hands.

“My lord!” A shout from the crowd. I turned to see a portly man in a white robe hurrying towards us, face wet with unaccustomed exertion. “A moment, please!”

The captain’s hand inched closer to his sabre but Al Sorna was unconcerned, smiling as the portly man approached. “Governor Aruan.”

The portly man halted, wiping sweat from his face with a lace scarf. In his left hand he carried a long bundle wrapped in cloth. He nodded at the captain and myself but addressed himself to the prisoner. “My lord. I never thought to see you again. Are you well?”

“I am, Governor. And you?”

The portly man spread his right hand, lace scarf dangling from his thumb, jewelled rings on every finger. “Governor no longer. Merely a poor merchant these days. Trade is not what it was, but we make our way.”

“Lord Verniers.” Vaelin Al Sorna gestured at me. “This is Holus Nester Aruan, former Governor of the City of Linesh.”

“Honoured Sir.” Aruan greeted me with a short bow.

“Honoured Sir,” I replied formally. So this was the man from whom the Hope Killer had seized the city. Aruan’s failure to take his own life in dishonour had been widely remarked upon in the aftermath of the war but the Emperor (Gods preserve him in his wisdom and mercy) had granted clemency in light of the extraordinary circumstances of the Hope Killer’s occupation. Clemency, however, had not extended to a continuance of his Governorship.

Aruan turned back to Al Sorna. “It pleases me to find you well. I wrote to the Emperor begging mercy.”

“I know, your letter was read at my trial.”

I knew from the trial records that Aruan’s letter, written at no small risk to his life, had formed part of the evidence describing curiously uncharacteristic acts of generosity and mercy by the Hope Killer during the war. The Emperor had listened patiently to it all before ruling that the prisoner was on trial for his crimes, not his virtues.

“Your daughter is well?” the prisoner asked Aruan.

“Very, she weds this summer. A feckless son of a shipbuilder, but what can a poor father do? Thanks to you, at least she is alive to break my heart.”

“I am glad. About the wedding, not your broken heart. I can offer no gift except my best wishes.”

“Actually, my lord, I come with a gift of my own.”

Aruan lifted the long, cloth-covered bundle in both hands, presenting it to the Hope Killer with a strangely grave expression. “I hear you will have need of this again soon.”

There was a definite hesitation in the Northman’s demeanour before he reached out to take the bundle, undoing the ties with his scarred hands. The cloth came away to reveal a sword of unfamiliar design, the scabbard-clad blade was a yard or so in the length and straight, unlike the curved sabres favoured by Alpiran soldiery. A single tine arched around the hilt to form a guard and the only ornamentation to the weapon was a plain steel pommel. The hilt and the scabbard bore many small nicks and scratches that spoke of years of hard use. This was no ceremonial weapon and I realised with a sickening rush that it was his sword. The sword he had carried to our shores. The sword that made him the Hope Killer.

“You kept that?” I sputtered at Aruan, appalled.

The portly man’s expression grew cold as he turned to me. “My honour demanded no less, my lord.”

“My thanks,” Al Sorna said, before any further outrage could spill from my lips. He hefted the sword and I saw the Guard Captain stiffen as Al Sorna drew the blade an inch or so from the scabbard, testing the edge with his thumb. “Still sharp.”

“It’s been well cared for. Oiled and sharpened regularly. I also have another small token.” Aruan extended his hand. In his palm sat a single ruby, a well-cut stone of medium weight, no doubt one of the more valued gems in the family collection. I knew the story behind Aruan’s gratitude, but his evident regard for this savage and the sickening presence of the sword still irked me greatly.

Al Sorna seemed at a loss, shaking his head. “Governor, I cannot…”

I moved closer, speaking softly. “He does you a greater honour than you deserve, Northman. Refusing will insult him and dishonour you.”

He flicked his black eyes over me briefly before smiling at Aruan, “I cannot refuse such generosity.” He took the gem. “I’ll keep it always.”

“I hope not,” Aruan responded with a laugh. “A man only keeps a jewel when he has no need to sell it.”

“You there!” A voice came from the vessel moored a short distance along the quay, a sizeable Meldenean galley, the number of oars and the width of the hull showing it to be a freighter rather than one of their fabled warships. A stocky man with an extensive black beard, marked as the captain by the red scarf on his head, was waving from the bow. “Bring the Hope Killer aboard, you Alpiran dogs!” he shouted with customary Meldenean civility. “Any more dithering and we’ll miss the tide.”

“Our passage to the Islands awaits,” I told the prisoner, gathering my possessions. “We’d best avoid the ire of our captain.”

“So it’s true then,” Aruan said. “You go to the Islands to fight for the lady?” I found myself disliking the tone in his voice, it sounded uncomfortably like awe.

“It’s true.” He clasped hands briefly with Aruan and nodded at the captain of his guard before turning to me. “My lord. Shall we?”

“You may be one of the first in line to lick your Emperor’s feet, scribbler”—the ship’s captain stabbed a finger into my chest—“but this ship is my kingdom. You berth here or you can spend the voyage roped to the mainmast.”

He had shown us to our quarters, a curtained-off section of the hold near the prow of the ship. The hold stank of brine, bilge water and the intermingled odour of the cargo, a sickly, cloying mélange of fruit, dried fish and the myriad spices for which the Empire was famous. It was all I could do to keep from gagging.

“I am Lord Verniers Alishe Someren, Imperial Chronicler, First of the Learned and honoured servant of the Emperor,” I responded, the handkerchief over my mouth muffling my words somewhat. “I am emissary to the Ship Lords and official escort to the Imperial prisoner. You will treat me with respect, pirate, or I’ll have twenty guardsmen aboard in a trice to flog you in front of your crew.”

The captain leaned closer; incredibly his breath smelt worse than the hold. “Then I’ll have twenty-one bodies to feed to the orcas when we leave the harbour, scribbler.”

Al Sorna prodded one of the bedrolls on the deck with his foot and glanced around briefly. “This’ll do. We’ll need food and water.”

I bristled. “You seriously suggest we sleep in this rat-hole? It’s disgusting.”

“You should try a dungeon. Plenty of rats there too.” He turned to the captain. “The water barrel is on the foredeck?”

The captain ran a stubby finger through the mass of his beard, contemplating the tall man, no doubt wondering if he was being mocked and calculating if he could kill him if he had to. They have a saying on the northern Alpiran coast: turn your back on a cobra but never a Meldenean. “So you’re the one who’s going to cross swords with the Shield? They’re offering twenty to one against you in Ildera. Think I should risk a copper on you? The Shield is the keenest blade in the Islands, can slice a fly in half with a sabre.”

“Such renown does him credit.” Vaelin Al Sorna smiled. “The water barrel?”

“It’s there. You can have one gourd a day each, no more. My crew won’t go short for the likes of you two. You can get food from the galley, if you don’t mind eating with scum like us.”

“No doubt I’ve eaten with worse. If you need an extra man at the oars, I am at your disposal.”

“Rowed before have you?”

“Once.”

The captain grunted, “We’ll manage.” He turned to go, muttering over his shoulder, “We sail within the hour, stay out of the way until we clear the harbour.”

“Island savage!” I fumed, unpacking my belongings, laying out my quills and ink. I checked there were no rats lurking under my bedroll before sitting down to compose a letter to the Emperor. I intended to let him know the full extent of this insult. “He’ll find no berth in an Alpiran harbour again, mark you.”

Vaelin Al Sorna sat down, resting his back against the hull. “You speak my language?” he asked, slipping into the Northern tongue.

“I study languages,” I replied in kind. “I can speak the seven major tongues of the Empire fluently and communicate in five more.”

“Impressive. Do you know the Seordah language?”

I looked up from my parchment. “Seordah?”

“The Seordah Sil of the Great Northern Forest. You’ve heard of them?”

“My knowledge of northern savages is far from comprehensive. As yet I see little reason to complete it.”

“For a learned man you seem happy with your ignorance.”

“I feel I speak for my entire nation when I say I wish we had all remained in ignorance of you.”

He tilted his head, studying me. “That’s hate in your voice.”

I ignored him, my quill moving rapidly over the parchment, setting out the formal opening for Imperial correspondence.

“You knew him, didn’t you?” Vaelin Al Sorna went on.

My quill stopped. I refused to meet his eye.

“You knew the Hope.”

I put my quill aside and rose. Suddenly the stench of the hold and the proximity of this savage were unbearable. “Yes, I knew him,” I grated. “I knew him to be the best of us. I knew he would be the greatest Emperor this land has ever seen. But that’s not the reason for my hate, Northman. I hate you because I knew the Hope as my friend, and you killed him.”

I stalked away, climbing the steps to the main deck, wishing for the first time in my life that I could be a warrior, that my arms were thick with muscle and my heart hard as stone, that I could wield a sword and take bloody vengeance. But such things were beyond me. My body was trim but not strong, my wits quick but not ruthless. I was no warrior. So there would be no vengeance for me. All I could do for my friend was witness the death of his killer and write the formal end to his story for the pleasure of my Emperor and the eternal truth of our archive.

I stayed on the deck for hours, leaning on the rail, watching the green-tinged waters of the north Alpiran coast deepen into the blue of the inner Erinean Sea as the ship’s bosun beat the drum for the oarsmen and our journey began. Once clear of the coast the captain ordered the mainsail unfurled and our speed increased, the sharp prow of the vessel cutting through the gentle swell, the figurehead, a traditional Meldenean carving of the winged serpent, one of their innumerable sea gods, dipping its many-toothed head amidst a haze of spume. The oarsmen rowed for two hours before the bosun called a rest and they shipped oars, trooping off to their meal. The day watch stayed on deck, running the rigging and undertaking the never-ending chores of ship life. A few favoured me with a customary glare or two, but none attempted to converse, a mercy for which I was grateful.

We were several leagues from the harbour when they came into view, black fins knifing through the swell, heralded by a cheerful shout from the crow’s nest. “Orcas!”

I couldn’t tell how many there were, they moved too fast and too fluidly through the sea, occasionally breaking the surface to spout a cloud of steam before diving below. It was only when they came closer that I fully realised their size, over twenty feet from nose to tail. I had seen dolphins before in the southern seas, silvery, playful creatures that could be taught simple tricks. These were different, their size and the dark, flickering shadows they traced through the water seemed ominous to me, threatening shades of nature’s indifferent cruelty. My shipmates clearly felt differently, yelling greetings from the rigging as if hailing old friends. Even the captain’s habitual scowl seemed to have softened somewhat.

One of the orcas broke the surface in a spectacular display of foam, twisting in midair before crashing into the sea with a boom that shook the ship. The Meldeneans roared their appreciation. Oh Seliesen, I thought. The poem you would have written to honour such a sight.

“They think of them as sacred.” I turned to find that the Hope Killer had joined me at the rail. “They say when a Meldenean dies at sea the orcas will carry his spirit to the endless ocean beyond the edge of the world.”

“Superstition,” I sniffed.

“Your people have their gods, do they not?”

“My people do, I do not. Gods are a myth, a comforting story for children.”

“Such words would make you welcome in my homeland.”

“We are not in your homeland, Northman. Nor would I ever wish to be.”

Another orca rose from the sea, rising fully ten feet into the air before plunging back down. “It’s strange,” Al Sorna mused. “When our ships came across this sea the orcas ignored them and made only for the Meldeneans. Perhaps they share the same belief.”

“Perhaps,” I said. “Or perhaps they appreciate a free meal.” I nodded at the prow, where the captain was throwing salmon into the sea, the orcas swooping on them faster than I could follow.

“Why are you here, Lord Verniers?” Al Sorna asked. “Why did the Emperor send you? You’re no gaoler.”

“The Emperor graciously consented to my request to witness your upcoming duel. And to accompany the Lady Emeren home of course.”

“You came to see me die.”

“I came to write an account of this event for the Imperial Archive. I am the Imperial Chronicler after all.”

“So they told me. Gerish, my gaoler, was a great admirer of your history of the war with my people, considered it the finest work in Alpiran literature. He knew a lot for a man who spends his life in a dungeon. He would sit outside my cell for hours reading out page after page, especially the battles, he liked those.”

“Accurate research is the key to the historian’s art.”

“Then it’s a pity you got it so wrong.”

Once again I found myself wishing for a warrior’s strength. “Wrong?”

“Very.”

“I see. Perhaps if you work your savage’s brain, you could tell me which sections were so very wrong.

“Oh, you got the small things right, mostly. Except you said my command was the Legion of the Wolf. In fact it was the Thirty-fifth Regiment of Foot, known amongst the Realm Guard as the Wolfrunners.”

“I’ll be sure to rush out a revised edition on my return to the capital,” I said dryly.

He closed his eyes, remembering. “‘King Janus’s invasion of the northern coast was but the first step in pursuance of his greater ambition, the annexation of the entire Empire.’”

It was a verbatim recitation. I was impressed by his memory, but was damned if I’d say so. “A simple statement of fact. You came here to steal the Empire. Janus was a madman to think such a scheme could succeed.”

Al Sorna shook his head. “We came for the northern coastal ports. Janus wanted the trade routes through the Erinean. And he was no madman. He was old and desperate, but not mad.”

I was surprised at the sympathy evident in his voice; Janus was the great betrayer after all, it was part of the Hope Killer’s legend. “And how do you know the man’s mind so well?”

“He told me.”

“Told you?” I laughed. “I wrote a thousand letters of enquiry to every ambassador and Realm official I could think of. The few who bothered to reply all agreed on one thing: Janus never confided his plans to anyone, not even his family.”

“And yet you claim he wanted to conquer your whole Empire.”

“A reasonable deduction based on the available evidence.”

“Reasonable, maybe, but wrong. Janus had a king’s heart, hard and cold when he needed it to be. But he wasn’t greedy and he was no dreamer. He knew the Realm could never muster the men and treasure needed to conquer your Empire. We came for the ports. He said it was the only way we could secure our future.”

“Why would he confide such intelligence to you?”

“We had…an arrangement. He told me many things he would tell no other. Some of his commands required an explanation before I would obey them. But sometimes I think he just needed to talk to someone. Even kings get lonely.”

I felt a curious sense of seduction; the Northman knew I hungered for the information he could give me. My respect for him grew, as did my dislike. He was using me, he wanted me to write the story he had to tell. Quite why I had no idea. I knew it was something to do with Janus and the duel he would fight in the Islands. Perhaps he needed to unburden himself before his end, leave a legacy of truth so he would be known to history as more than just the Hope Killer. A final attempt to redeem both his spirit and that of his dead king.

I let the silence string out, watching the orcas until they had eaten their fill of free fish and departed to the east. Finally, as the sun began to dip towards the horizon and the shadows grew long, I said, “So tell me.”

CHAPTER ONE

The mist sat thick on the ground the morning Vaelin’s father took him to the House of the Sixth Order. He rode in front, his hands grasping the saddle’s pommel, enjoying the treat. His father rarely took him riding.

“Where do we go, my lord?” he had asked as his father led him to the stable.

The tall man said nothing but there was the briefest pause before he hoisted the saddle onto one of his chargers. Accustomed to his father’s failure to respond to most questions, Vaelin thought nothing of it.

They rode away from the house, the charger’s iron shoes clattering on the cobbles. After a while they passed through the north gate, where the bodies hung in cages from the gibbet and stained the air with the sick stench of decay. He had learned not to ask what they had done to earn such punishment, it was one of the few questions his father had always been willing to answer and the stories he told would leave Vaelin sweating and tearful in the night, whimpering at every noise beyond the window, wondering if the thieves or rebels or Dark-afflicted Deniers were coming for him.

The cobbles soon gave way to the turf beyond the walls, his father spurring the charger to a canter then a gallop, Vaelin laughing with excitement. He felt a momentary shame at his enjoyment. His mother had passed just two months previously and his father’s sorrow was a black cloud that sat over the whole household, making servants fearful and callers rare. But Vaelin was only ten years old and had a child’s view of death: he missed his mother but her passing was a mystery, the ultimate secret of the adult world, and although he cried, he didn’t know why, and he still stole pastries from the cook and played with his wooden swords in the yard.

They galloped for several minutes before his father reined in, although to Vaelin it was all too brief, he wanted to gallop forever. They had stopped before a large, iron gate. The railings were tall, taller than three men set end to end, each topped with a wicked spike. At the apex of the gate’s arch stood a figure made of iron, a warrior, sword held in front of his chest, pointing downwards, the face a withered skull. The walls on either side were almost as tall as the gate. To the left a brass bell hung from a wooden crossbeam.

Vaelin’s father dismounted then lifted him from the saddle.

“What is this place, my lord?” he asked. His voice felt as loud as a shout although he spoke in a whisper. The silence and the mist made him uneasy, he didn’t like the gate and the figure that sat atop it. He knew with a child’s certainty that the blank eye sockets were a lie, a trick. It was watching them, waiting.

His father didn’t reply. Walking over to the bell, he took his dagger from his belt and struck it with the pommel. The noise seemed like an outrage in the silence. Vaelin put his hands over his ears until it died away. When he looked up his father was standing over him.

“Vaelin,” he said in his coarse, warrior’s voice. “Do you remember the motto I taught you? Our family creed.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Tell me.”

“‘Loyalty is our strength.’”

“Yes. Loyalty is our strength. Remember it. Remember that you are my son and that I want you to stay here. In this place you will learn many things, you will become a brother of the Sixth Order. But you will always be my son, and you will honour my wishes.”

There was a scrape of gravel beyond the gate and Vaelin started, seeing a tall, cloaked figure standing behind the railings. He had been waiting for them. His face was hidden by the mist but Vaelin squirmed in the knowledge of being studied, appraised. He looked up at his father, seeing a large, strong-featured man with a greying beard and deep lines in his face and forehead. There was something new in his expression, something Vaelin had never seen before and couldn’t name. In later years he would see it in the faces of a thousand men and know it as an old friend: fear. It struck him that his father’s eyes were unusually dark, much darker than his mother’s. This was how he would remember him throughout his life. To others he was the Battle Lord, First Sword of the Realm, the hero of Beltrian, King’s saviour and father of a famous son. To Vaelin he would always be a fearful man abandoning his son at the gate to the House of the Sixth Order.

He felt his father’s large hand pressing against his back. “Go now Vaelin. Go to him. He will not hurt you.”

Liar! Vaelin thought fiercely, his feet dragging on the soil as he was pushed towards the gate. The cloaked figure’s face became clearer as they neared, long and narrow with thin lips and pale blue eyes. Vaelin found himself staring into them. The long-faced man stared back, ignoring his father.

“What is your name, boy?” The voice was soft, a sigh in the mist.

Why his voice didn’t tremble Vaelin never knew. “Vaelin, my lord. Vaelin Al Sorna.”

The thin lips formed a smile. “I am not a lord, boy. I am Gainyl Arlyn, Aspect of the Sixth Order.”

Vaelin recalled his mother’s many lessons in etiquette. “My apologies, Aspect.”

There was a snort behind him. Vaelin turned to see his father riding away, the charger quickly swallowed by the mist, hooves drumming on the soft earth, fading to silence.

“He will not be coming back, Vaelin,” said the long-faced man, the Aspect, his smile gone. “You know why he brought you here?”

“To learn many things and be a brother of the Sixth Order.”

“Yes. But no-one may enter except by his own choice, be he man or boy.”

A sudden desire to run, to escape into the mist. He would run away. He would find a band of outlaws to take him in, he would live in the forest, have many grand adventures and pretend himself an orphan…Loyalty is our strength.

The Aspect’s gaze was impassive but Vaelin knew he could read every thought in his boy’s head. He wondered later how many boys, dragged or tricked there by treacherous fathers, did run away, and if so, if they ever regretted it.

Loyalty is our strength.

“I wish to come in, please,” he told the Aspect. There were tears in his eyes but he blinked them away. “I wish to learn many things.”

The Aspect reached out to unlock the gate. Vaelin noticed his hands bore many scars. He beckoned Vaelin inside as the gate swung open. “Come, little Hawk. You are our brother now.”

Vaelin quickly realised that the House of the Sixth Order was not truly a house, it was a fortress. Granite walls rose like cliffs above him as the Aspect led him to the main gate. Dark figures patrolled the battlements, strongbows in hand, glancing down at him with blank, mist-shrouded eyes. The entrance was an arched doorway, portcullis raised to allow them entry, the two spearmen on guard, both senior students of seventeen, bowed in profound respect as the Aspect passed through. He barely acknowledged them, leading Vaelin through the courtyard, where other students swept straw from the cobbles and the ring of hammer on metal came from the blacksmith’s shop. Vaelin had seen castles before, his father and mother had taken him to the King’s palace once, trussed into his best clothes and wriggling in boredom as the Aspect of the First Order droned on about the greatness of the King’s heart. But the King’s palace was a brightly lit maze of statues and tapestries and clean, polished marble and soldiers with breastplates you could see your face in. The King’s palace didn’t smell of dung and smoke and have a hundred shadowed doorways, all no doubt harbouring dark secrets a boy shouldn’t know.

“Tell me what you know of this Order, Vaelin,” the Aspect instructed, leading him on towards the main keep.

Vaelin recited from his mother’s lessons: “The Sixth Order wields the sword of justice and smites the enemies of the Faith and the Realm.”

“Very good.” The Aspect sounded surprised. “You are well taught. But what is it that we do that the other Orders do not?”

Vaelin struggled for an answer until they passed into the keep and saw two boys, both about twelve, fighting with wooden swords, ash cracking together in a rapid exchange of thrust, parry and slash. The boys fought within a circle of white chalk; every time their struggle brought them close to the edge of the circle the instructor, a skeletal shaven-headed man, would lash them with a cane. They barely flinched from the blows, intent on their contest. One boy overextended a lunge and took a blow to the head. He reeled back, blood streaming from the wound, falling heavily across the circle to draw another blow from the instructor’s cane.

“You fight,” Vaelin told the Aspect, the violence and the blood making his heart hammer in his chest.

“Yes.” The Aspect halted and looked down at him. “We fight. We kill. We storm castle walls braving arrows and fire. We stand against the charge of horse and lance. We cut our way through the hedge of pike and spear to claim the standard of our enemy. The Sixth Order fights, but what does it fight for?”

“For the Realm.”

The Aspect crouched until their faces were level. “Yes, the Realm, but what is more than the Realm?”

“The Faith?”

“You sound uncertain, little Hawk. Perhaps you are not as well taught as I believed.”

Behind him the instructor dragged the fallen boy to his feet amidst a shower of abuse. “Clumsy, slack-witted, shit-eating oaf! Get back in there. Fall again and I’ll make sure you never get up.”

“‘The Faith is the sum of our history and our spirit,’” Vaelin recited. “‘When we pass into the Beyond our essence joins with the souls of the Departed to lend us their guidance in this life. In return we give them honour and faith.’”

The Aspect raised an eyebrow. “You know the catechism well.”

“Yes, sir. My mother tutored me often.”

The Aspect’s face clouded. “Your mother…” He stopped, his expression switching back to the same emotionless mask. “Your mother should not be mentioned again. Nor your father, or any other member of your family. You have no family now save the Order. You belong to the Order. You understand?”

The boy with the cut on his head had fallen again and was being beaten by the master, the cane rising and falling in regular, even strokes, the master’s skull-like face betraying scant emotion. Vaelin had seen the same expression on his father’s face when he took the strap to one of his hounds.

You belong to the Order. To his surprise his heart had slowed, and he felt no quaver in his voice when he answered the Aspect, “I understand.”

The master’s name was Sollis. He had lean, weathered features and the eyes of a goat: grey, cold and staring. He took one look at Vaelin, and asked, “Do you know what carrion is?”

“No, sir.”

Master Sollis stepped closer, looming over him. Vaelin’s heart still refused to beat any faster. The image of the skull-faced master swinging his cane at the boy on the floor of the keep had replaced his fear with a simmering anger.

“It’s dead meat, boy,” Master Sollis told him. “It’s the flesh left on the battlefield to be eaten by crows and gnawed by rats. That’s what awaits you, boy. Dead flesh.”

Vaelin said nothing. Sollis’s goat eyes tried to bore into him but he knew they saw no fear. The master made him angry, not afraid.

There were ten other boys allocated to the same room, an attic in the north tower. They were all his age or close to it, some sniffling in loneliness and abandonment, others smiling continually with the novelty of parental separation. Sollis made them line up, lashing his cane at a beefy boy who was too slow. “Move smartly, dung head.”

He eyed them individually, stepping closer to insult a few. “Name?” he asked a tall, blond-haired boy.

“Nortah Al Sendahl, sir.”

“It’s master not sir, shit-wit.” He moved down the line. “Name?”

“Barkus Jeshua, Master,” the beefy boy he had caned replied.

“I see they still breed carthorses in Nilsael.”

And so on until he had insulted them all. Finally he stepped back to make a short speech: “No doubt your families sent you here for their own reasons,” Sollis told them. “They wanted you to be heroes, they wanted you to honour their name, they wanted to boast about you between swilling ale or whoring about town, or maybe they just wanted to be rid of a squalling brat. Well, forget them. If they wanted you, you wouldn’t be here. You’re ours now, you belong to the Order. You will learn to fight, you will kill the enemies of the Realm and the Faith until the day you die. Nothing else matters. Nothing else concerns you. You have no family, you have no dreams, you have no ambitions beyond the Order.”

He made them take the rough cotton sacks from their beds and run down the tower’s numerous steps and across the courtyard to the stable, where they filled them with straw amidst a flurry of cane strokes. Vaelin was sure the cane fell on his back more than the others and suspected Sollis of forcing him towards the older, damper patches of straw. When the sacks were full he whipped them back up to the tower, where they placed them on the wooden frames that would serve as their beds. Then it was another run down to the vaults beneath the keep. He made them line up, breath steaming in the chill air, gasps echoing loudly. The vaults seemed vast, brick archways disappearing into the darkness on every side. Vaelin’s fear began to rekindle as he stared into the shadows, bottomless and pregnant with menace.

“Eyes forward!” Sollis’s cane left a welt on his arm and he choked down a pain-filled sob.

“New crop, Master Sollis?” a cheerful voice enquired. A very large man had appeared from the darkness, oil lamp flickering in his ham-sized fist. He was the first man Vaelin had seen who seemed broader than he was long. His girth was confined within a voluminous cloak, dark blue like the other masters’, but with a single red rose embroidered on the breast. Master Sollis’s cloak was bare of any decoration.

“Another sweeping of shit, Master Grealin,” he told the large man with an air of resignation.

Grealin’s fleshy face formed a brief smile. “How fortunate they are to have your guidance.”

There was a moment’s silence and Vaelin sensed the tension between the two men, finding it noteworthy that Sollis spoke first. “They need gear.”

“Of course.” Grealin moved closer to inspect them, he seemed strangely light of foot for such an enormous man, appearing to glide across the flagstones. “Little warriors must be armed for the battles to come.” He still smiled but Vaelin noticed that his eyes showed no mirth as he scanned them. Once again he thought of his father, of the way he looked when they visited the horse traders’ fair and one of the breeders tried to interest him in a charger. His father would walk around the animal, telling Vaelin how to spot the signs of a good warhorse, the thickness of muscle that indicated whether it would be strong in the melee but too slow in the charge, how the best mounts needed some spirit left after breaking. “The eyes, Vaelin,” he told him. “Look for a horse with a spark of fire in its eyes.”

Was that what Master Grealin was looking for now, fire in their eyes? Something to gauge who would last, how they would do in the charge or the melee.

Grealin paused next to a slightly built boy named Caenis, who had endured some of Sollis’s worst insults. Grealin looked down at him intently, the boy shifting uncomfortably under the scrutiny. “What’s your name, little warrior?” Grealin asked him.

Caenis had to swallow before he could answer. “Caenis Al Nysa, Master.”

“Al Nysa.” Grealin looked thoughtful. “A noble family of some wealth, if memory serves. Lands in the south, allied by marriage to the House of Hurnish. You are a long way from home.”

“Yes, Master.”

“Well, fret not. You have a new home in the Order.” He patted Caenis on the shoulder three times, making the boy flinch a little. Sollis’s cane had no doubt left him fearing even the gentlest touch. Grealin moved along the line, asking various questions of the boys, offering reassurances, all the while Master Sollis beat his cane against his booted calf, the tack, tack, tack of stick on leather echoing through the vaults.

“I think I know your name already, little warrior.” Grealin’s bulk towered over Vaelin. “Al Sorna. Your father and I fought together in the Meldenean war. A great man. You have his look.”

Vaelin saw the trap and didn’t hesitate. “I have no family, Master. Only the Order.”

“Ah, but the Order is a family, little warrior.” Grealin gave a short chuckle as he moved away. “And Master Sollis and I are your uncles.” This made him laugh even more. Vaelin glanced at Sollis, now glaring at Grealin with undisguised hatred.

“Follow me, gallant little men!” Grealin called, his lamp raised above his head as he moved deeper into the vaults. “Don’t wander off, the rats don’t like visitors, and some of them are bigger than you.” He chuckled again. Beside Vaelin, Caenis let out a short whimper, wide eyes staring into the fathomless blackness.

“Ignore him,” Vaelin whispered. “There’re no rats down here. The place is too clean, there’s nothing for them to eat.” He wasn’t at all sure it was true but it sounded vaguely encouraging.

“Shut your mouth, Sorna!” Sollis’s cane snapped the air above his head. “Get moving.”

They followed Master Grealin’s lamp into the black emptiness of the vaults, footsteps and the fat man’s laughter mingling to form a surreal echo punctuated by the occasional snap of Sollis’s cane. Caenis’s eyes darted about constantly, no doubt searching for giant rats. It seemed an age before they came to a solid oak door set into the rough brickwork. Grealin bade them wait as he unclasped his keys from his belt and unlocked the door.

“Now, little men,” he said, swinging the door open wide. “Let us arm you for the battles to come.”

The room beyond the door seemed cavernous. Endless racks of swords, spears, bows, lances and a hundred other weapons glittered in the torchlight and barrel after barrel lined the walls along with uncountable sacks of flour and grain. “My little domain,” Grealin told them. “I am the Master of the Vaults and the keeper of the armoury. There is not a bean or an arrowhead in this store that I have not counted, twice. If you need anything, it is provided by me. And you answer to me if you lose it.” Vaelin noted that his smile had disappeared.

They lined up outside the storeroom as Grealin fetched their bundles, ten grey muslin sacks bulging with various items. “These are the Order’s gifts, little men,” Grealin told them brightly, moving along the line to deposit a sack at each boy’s feet. “Each of you will find the following in your bundle: one wooden sword of the Asraelin pattern, one hunting knife twelve inches in length, one pair of boots, two pairs of trews, two shirts of cotton, one cloak, one clasp, one purse, empty of course, and one of these…” Master Grealin held something up to the lantern, it shone in the glow, twisting gently on its chain. It was a medallion, a circle of silver inset with a figure Vaelin recognised as the skull-headed warrior that sat atop the gate outside the Order House. “This is the sigil of our Order,” Master Grealin went on. “It represents Saltroth Al Jenrial, first Aspect of the Order. Wear it always, when you sleep, when you wash, always. I’m sure Master Sollis has many punishments in mind for boys who forget to keep it on.”

Sollis kept quiet, the cane still tapping his boot said it all.

“My other gift is but a few words of advice,” Master Grealin continued. “Life in the Order is harsh and often short. Many of you will be expelled before your final test, perhaps all of you, and those who win the right to stay with us will spend your lives patrolling distant frontiers, fighting endless wars against savages, outlaws or heretics during which you will most likely die if you are lucky or be maimed if you are not. Those few left alive after fifteen years’ service will be given their own commands or return here to teach those who will replace you. This is the life to which your families have given you. It may not seem so, but it is an honour, cherish it, listen to your masters, learn what we can teach you and always hold true to the Faith. Remember these words and you will live long in the Order.” He smiled again, spreading his plump hands. “That is all I can tell you, little warriors. Run along now, no doubt I’ll see you all soon when you lose your precious gifts.” He chuckled again, disappearing into the storeroom, the echo of his laughter following them as Sollis’s cane hounded them from the vaults.

The post was six feet tall and painted red at its top, blue in the middle and green at the base. There were about twenty of them, dotted around the practice field, silent witnesses to their torment. Sollis made them stand in front of a post and strike at the colours with their wooden swords as he called them out.

“Green! Red! Green! Blue! Red! Blue! Red! Green! Green…”

Vaelin’s arm began to ache after the first few minutes but he kept swinging the wooden sword as hard as he could. Barkus had momentarily dropped his arm after a few swings, earning a salvo of cane strokes, robbing him of his habitual smile and leaving his forehead bloody.

“Red! Red! Blue! Green! Red! Blue! Blue…”

Vaelin found that the blow would jar his arm unless he angled the sword at the last instant, letting the blade slash across the post rather than thump into it. Sollis came to stand behind him, making his back itch in expectation of the cane. But Sollis just watched for a moment and grunted before moving off to punish Nortah for striking at the blue instead of the red. “Open your ears, you foppish clown!” Nortah took the blow on his neck and blinked away tears as he continued to fight the post.

He kept them at it for hours, his cane a sharp counterpoint to the solid thwack of their swords against the posts. After a while he made them switch hands. “A brother of the Order fights with both hands,” he told them. “Losing a limb is no excuse for cowardice.”

After another interminable hour or more he told them to stop, making them line up as he swapped his cane for a wooden sword. Like theirs it was of the Asraelin pattern: a straight blade with a hand-and-a-half-long hilt and pommel and a thin, metal tine curving around the hilt to protect the fingers of the wielder. Vaelin knew about swords, his father had many hanging above the fireplace in the dining hall, tempting his boy’s hands although he never dared touch them. Of course they were larger than these wooden toys, the blades a yard or more in length and worn with use, kept sharp but showing the irregular edge that came from the smith’s stone grinding away the many nicks and dents a sword would accumulate on the battlefield. There was one sword that always drew his eye more than the others, hung high on the wall well out of his reach, its blade pointed down straight at his nose. It was a simple enough blade, Asraelin like most of the others, and lacking the finely wrought craftsmanship of some, but unlike them its blade was unrepaired, it was highly polished but every nick, scratch and dent had been left to disfigure the steel. Vaelin dared not ask his father about it so approached his mother but with only marginally less trepidation; he knew she hated his father’s swords. He found her in the drawing room, reading as she often did. It was in the early days of her illness and her face had taken on a gauntness that Vaelin couldn’t help but stare at. She smiled as he crept in, patted the seat next to her. She liked to show him her books, he would look at the pictures as she told him stories about the Faith and the Kingdom. He sat listening patiently to the tale of Kerlis the Faithless, cursed to the ever-death for denying the guidance of the Departed, until she paused long enough for him to ask: “Mother, why does Father not repair his sword?”

She stopped in midpage, not looking at him. The silence stretched out and he wondered if she was going to adopt his father’s practice of simply ignoring him. He was about to apologise and ask permission to leave when she said, “It was the sword your father was given when he joined the King’s army. He fought with it for many years during the birth of the Realm and when the war was done the King made him a Sword of the Realm, which is why you are called Vaelin Al Sorna and not just plain Vaelin Sorna. The marks on its blade are a history of how your father came to be who he is. And so he leaves it that way.”

“Wake up, Sorna!” Sollis’s bark brought him back to the present with a start. “You can be first, rat-face,” Sollis told Caenis, gesturing for the slight boy to stand a few feet in front of him. “I will attack, you defend. We will be at this until one of you parries a blow.”

It seemed that he blurred then, moving too fast to follow, his sword extended in a lunge that caught Caenis squarely on the chest before he could raise his sword, sending him sprawling.

“Pathetic, Nysa,” Sollis told him curtly. “You next, what’s your name, Dentos.”

Dentos was a sharp-faced boy with lank hair and gangling limbs. He spoke with a thick west-Renfaelin brogue that Sollis found less than endearing. “You fight as well as you speak,” he commented after the ash blade of his sword had cracked against Dentos’s ribs, leaving him winded on the ground. “Jeshua, you’re next.”

Barkus managed to dodge the first lightning lunge but his riposte failed to connect with the master’s sword and he went down to a blow that swept his legs from under him.

The next two boys went down in quick succession as did Nortah, although he came close to side-stepping the thrust, which did nothing to impress Sollis. “Have to do better than that.” He turned to Vaelin. “Let’s get it over with, Sorna.”

Vaelin took his position in front of Sollis and waited. Sollis’s gaze met his, a cold stare that commanded his attention, the pale eyes fixing him…Vaelin didn’t think, he simply acted, stepping to the side and bringing his sword up, the blade deflecting Sollis’s lunge with a sharp crack.

Vaelin stepped back, sword ready for another blow. Trying to ignore the frozen silence of the others, concentrating on Master Sollis’s next likely avenue of attack, an attack no doubt fuelled with the fury of humiliation. But no attack came. Master Sollis simply packed up his wooden sword and told them to gather their things and follow him to the dining hall. Vaelin watched him carefully as they walked across the practice ground and into the courtyard, searching for a sudden tension that could signal another swipe of the cane, but Sollis’s dour demeanour remained unchanged. Vaelin found it hard to believe he would swallow the insult and vowed not to be taken unawares when the inevitable punishment came.

Mealtime proved to be something of a surprise. The hall was crowded with boys and the tumult of voices engaging in the habitual ridicule and gossip of youth. The tables were arranged according to age, the youngest boys near the doors, where they would enjoy the strongest draught, and the oldest at the far end next to the masters’ table. There seemed to be about thirty masters altogether, hard-eyed, mostly silent men, many scarred, a few showing livid burns. One man, sitting at the end of the table quietly eating a plate of bread and cheese, appeared to have had his entire scalp seared away. Only Master Grealin seemed cheerful, laughing heartily, a drumstick gripped in his meaty fist. The other masters either ignored him or nodded politely at whatever witticism he had chosen to share.

Master Sollis led them to the table closest to the door and told them to sit down. There were other groups of boys about their own age already at table. They had arrived a few weeks earlier and been in training longer under other masters. Vaelin noted the sneering superiority some exhibited, the nudges and smirks, finding that he didn’t like it at all.

“You may talk freely,” Sollis told them. “Eat the food, don’t throw it. You have an hour.” He leaned down, speaking softly to Vaelin. “If you fight, don’t break any bones.” With that he left to join the other masters.

The table was crammed with plates of roasted chicken, pies, fruit, bread, cheese, even cakes. The feast was a sharp contrast with the stark austerity Vaelin had seen so far. Only once before had he seen so much food in one place, at the King’s palace, and then he had hardly been allowed to eat anything. They sat in silence for a moment, partly in awe at the amount of food on the table but mostly out of simple awkwardness; they were strangers after all.

“How did you do it?”

Vaelin looked up to find Barkus, the hefty Nilsaelin boy, addressing him over the mound of pastries between them. “What?”

“How did you parry the blow?”

The other boys were looking at him intently, Nortah dabbing a napkin at the bloody lip Sollis had given him. He couldn’t tell if they were jealous or resentful. “His eyes,” he said, reaching for the water jug and pouring a measure into the plain tin goblet next to his plate.

“What about his eyes?” Dentos asked, he had taken a bread roll and was cramming pieces into his mouth, crumbs fountaining from his lips as he spoke. “Ye tellin’ us it was the Dark?”

Nortah laughed, so did Barkus, but the rest of the boys seemed chilled by the suggestion, except Caenis, who was concentrating on a modest portion of chicken and potatoes, apparently indifferent to the conversation.

Vaelin shifted in his seat, disliking the attention. “He fixes you with his eyes,” he explained. “He stares, you stare back, you’re fixed, then he attacks while you’re still wondering what he’s planning. Don’t look at his eyes, look at his feet and his sword.”

Barkus took a bite from an apple and grunted. “He’s right you know. I thought he was trying to hypnotise me.”

“What’s hypnotise?” asked Dentos.

“It’s looks like magic but really it’s just a trick,” Barkus replied. “At last year’s Summertide Fair there was a man who could make people think they were pigs. He’d get them to root in the ground and oink and roll in shit.”

“How?”

“I don’t know, some kind of trick. He’d wave a bauble in front of their eyes and talk quietly to them for a while, then they’d do whatever he said.”

“Do you think Master Sollis can do such things?” asked Jennis, the boy Sollis said looked like a donkey.

“Faith, who knows? I’ve heard the masters of the Orders know many Dark things, especially in the Sixth Order.” Barkus held up a drumstick appreciatively before taking a large bite. “It seems that they know cookery as well. They make us sleep on straw and beat us every hour of the day, but they want to feed us well.”

“Yeh,” Dentos agreed. “Like my uncle Sim’s dog.”

There was a puzzled silence. “Your uncle Sim’s dog?” Nortah enquired.

Dentos nodded, chewing busily on a mouthful of pie. “Growler. Best fightin’ hound in the western counties. Ten victories ’fore he ’ad ’is throat torn out last winter. Uncle Sim loved that dog, ’ad four kids of ’is own, to three diff’rent women mind, but he loved that dog better’n any of ’em, feed Growler ’fore the kids he would. Best of stuff too, mind. Give the kids gruel and the dog beefsteak.” He chuckled wryly. “Rotten old bastard.”

Nortah was unenlightened. “What does it matter what some Renfaelin peasant feeds his dog?”

“So it would fight better,” Vaelin said. “Good food builds strong muscles. That’s why warhorses are fed best corn and oats and not set to grazing pasture.” He nodded at the food on the table. “The better they feed us, the better we’ll fight.” He met Nortah’s eyes. “And I don’t think you should call him a peasant. We’re all peasants here.”

Nortah stared back coldly. “You have no right to lead, Al Sorna. You may be the Battle Lord’s son…”

“I’m no-one’s son and neither are you.” Vaelin took a bread roll, his stomach was growling. “Not any more.”

They lapsed into silence, concentrating on the meal. After a while a fight broke out at one of the other tables, plates and food scattering amidst a flurry of fists and kicks. Some boys joined in right away, others stood by shouting encouragement, most simply stayed at their tables, some not even glancing up. The fight raged for a few minutes before one of the masters, the large man with the seared scalp, came over to break it up, swinging a hefty stick with grim efficiency. The boys who had been in the thick of the fight were checked for serious injury, blood mopped from noses and lips, and sent back to the table. One had been knocked unconscious and two boys were ordered to carry him to the infirmary. Before long the din of conversation returned to the hall as if nothing had happened.

“I wonder how many battles we’ll be in,” Barkus said.

“Lots and lots,” Dentos responded. “You ’eard what the fat master said.”

“They say war in the Realm is a thing of the past,” said Caenis. It was the first time he had spoken and he seemed wary of offering an opinion. “Maybe there won’t be any battles for us to fight.”

“There’s always another war,” Vaelin said. It was something he had heard his mother say, actually she shouted it at his father during one of their arguments. It was before the last time his father went away, before she got sick. The King’s Messenger had arrived in the morning with a sealed letter. After reading it, his father began to pack his weapons and ordered the groom to saddle his best charger. Vaelin’s mother had cried and they went into her drawing room to argue out of Vaelin’s sight. He couldn’t hear his father’s words, he spoke softly, soothingly. His mother would have none of it. “Do not come to my bed when you return!” she spat. “Your stench of blood sickens me.”

His father said something else, still maintaining the same soothing tone.

“You said that last time. And the time before that,” his mother replied. “And you’ll say it again. There’s always another war.”

After a while she began to cry again and there was silence in the house before his father emerged, patted Vaelin briefly on the head and went out to mount his waiting horse. After his return four long months later Vaelin noted that his parents slept in separate rooms.

After the meal it was time for observance. The plates were cleared away and they sat in silence as the Aspect recited the articles of the Faith in a clear, ringing voice that filled the hall. Despite his dark mood, Vaelin found the Aspect’s words oddly uplifting, making him think of his mother and the strength of her belief, which had never wavered throughout her long illness. He wondered briefly if he would have been sent here if she were still alive, and knew with absolute certainty she would never have allowed it.

When the Aspect had finished his recitation he told them to take a moment for private contemplation and offer thanks for their blessings to the Departed. Vaelin sent his love to his mother and asked her guidance for the trials to come, fighting tears as he did so.

The first rule of the Order seemed to be that the youngest boys got the worst chores. Accordingly, after observance Sollis trooped them to the stables, where they spent several foul hours mucking out the stalls. They then had to cart the dung over to the manure mounds in Master Smentil’s gardens. He was a very tall man who seemed incapable of speech, directing them with frantic gestures of his earth-darkened hands and strange, guttural grunts, the varying pitch of which would indicate if they were doing something right or not. His communication with Sollis was different, consisting of intricate hand gestures that the master seemed to understand instantly. The gardens were large, covering at least two acres of the land outside the walls, comprising long, orderly rows of cabbages, turnips and other vegetables. He also kept a small orchard surrounded by a stone wall. It being late winter he was busily engaged in pruning and one of their chores was gathering up the pruned branches for use as kindling.

It was as they carried the baskets of kindling back to the main keep that Vaelin dared ask a question of Master Sollis. “Why can’t Master Smentil speak, Master?”

He was prepared for a caning but Sollis confined his rebuke to a sharp glance. They trudged on in silence for a few moments before Sollis muttered, “The Lonak cut his tongue out.”

Vaelin shivered involuntarily. He had heard of the Lonak, everyone had. At least one of the swords in his father’s collection had been carried through a campaign against the Lonak. They were wild men of the mountains to the far north who loved to raid the farms and villages of Renfael, raping, stealing and killing with gleeful savagery. Some called them wolfmen because it was said they grew fur and teeth and ate the flesh of their enemies.

“How come he’s still livin’, Master?” Dentos enquired. “My uncle Tam fought agin the Lonak an’ said they never let a man live once they got him captured.”

Sollis’s glance at Dentos was markedly sharper than the one he had turned on Vaelin. “He escaped. He is a brave and resourceful man and a credit to the Order. We’ve talked of this enough.” He lashed his cane against Nortah’s legs. “Pick your feet up, Sendahl.”

After chores it was more sword practice. This time Sollis would perform a series of moves they had to copy. If any of them got it wrong, he made them run full pelt around the practice ground. At first they seemed to make a mistake at every attempt and they did a lot of running, but eventually they got it right more than they got it wrong.

Sollis called an end when the sky began to darken and they returned to the dining hall for an evening meal of bread and milk. There was little talk; they were too tired. Barkus made a few jokes and Dentos told a story about another of his uncles but there was little interest. Following the meal Sollis forced them to run up the stairs to their room, then lined them up, panting, drained, exhausted.

“Your first day in the Order is over,” he told them. “It is a rule of the Order that you can leave in the morning if you wish. It will only get harder from now on so think carefully.”

He left them there, panting in the candlelight, thinking of the morning.

“Do ye think they’ll give us eggs for breakfast?” Dentos wondered.

Later, as Vaelin squirmed in his bed of straw, he found he couldn’t sleep despite his exhaustion. Barkus was snoring but it wasn’t this that kept him awake. His head was full of the enormity of the change in his life over the course of a single day. His father had given him away, pushed him into this place of beatings and lessons in death. It was clear his father hated him, he was a reminder of his dead wife best kept out of sight. Well he could hate too, hate was easy, hate would fuel him if his mother’s love could not. Loyalty is our strength. He snorted a silent laugh of derision. Let loyalty be your strength, Father. My hate for you will be mine.

Someone was crying in the dark, shedding tears on his straw pillow. Was it Nortah? Dentos? Caenis? There was no way to tell. The sobs were a forlorn, deeply lonely counterpoint to the regular woodsaw rhythm of Barkus’s snoring. Vaelin wanted to cry too, wanted to shed tears and wallow in self-pity, but the tears wouldn’t come. He lay awake, restless, heart thumping so hard with alternating hatred and anger that he wondered if it would burst through his ribs. Panic made it beat even faster, sweat beaded his forehead and bathed his chest. It was terrible, unbearable, he had to get out, get away from this place,…

“Vaelin.”

A voice. A word spoken in darkness. Clear and real and true. His racing heart slowed instantly as he sat up, eyes searching the shadowed room. There was no fear for he knew the voice. The voice of his mother. Her shade had come to him, come to offer comfort, come to save him.

She didn’t come again, although he strained his ears for another hour, no further words were spoken. But he knew he had heard it. She had come.

He settled back into the needle discomfort of the mattress, tiredness finally overtaking him. The sobs had ceased and even Barkus’s snores seemed softer. He drifted into a dreamless, untroubled sleep.

CHAPTER TWO

It was a year into his time in the Order when Vaelin first killed a man. A year of hard lessons imparted by hard masters, a year of punishing, unending routine. They woke at the fifth hour and began with the sword, hours of swinging their wooden blades at the posts on the practice ground, trying to fend off Master Sollis’s attacks and copying the increasingly complicated sword scales he taught them. Vaelin continued to be most adept at parrying Sollis’s blows but the master frequently found a way past his guard to send him bruised and frustrated to the dirt. The lesson of not allowing oneself to be fixed by his eyes had been well learned but Sollis knew many other tricks.

Feldrian was given over entirely to sword work but Ildrian was the day of the bow, when Master Checkrin, a muscular, softly spoken Nilsaelin, had them loosing arrows at the butts with their boy-sized strongbows. “Rhythm, boys, it’s all in the rhythm,” he told them. “Notch, draw, loose…Notch, draw, loose…”

Vaelin found the bow a hard skill to master. The weapon was tough to draw and difficult to aim, leaving his fingertips raw from the bowstring and his arms aching with growing muscle. His arrows often sank into the edge of the target or missed altogether. He came to dread the day he would face the Test of the Bow, four arrows sunk into the bull’s-eye at twenty paces in the time it took a dropped scarf to fall to the ground. It seemed an impossible feat.

Dentos quickly proved himself the best archer, his shafts rarely failing to find the bull’s-eye. “Done this before, eh boy?” Master Checkrin asked him.

“Aye, Master. My uncle Drelt taught me, he used to poach the Fief Lord’s deer till they cut his fingers off.”

To Vaelin’s annoyance Nortah was second best, his arrows finding the bull with grating regularity. The tension between them had grown since the first meal, unleavened by the blond boy’s arrogance. He sneered at the failings of the other boys, usually behind their backs, and spoke constantly of his family though none of the others did. Nortah spoke of his family’s lands, their many houses, the days he had spent hunting and riding with his father, who he claimed was First Minister to the King. It was his father who had taught him the bow, a longbow of yew like the Cumbraelins used, not the composite horn and ash of their strongbows. Nortah thought the longbow a superior weapon, all things considered, his father swore by it. Nortah’s father seemed to be a man of many opinions.

Oprian was the day of the staff, taught them by Master Haunlin, the burnt man Vaelin had first seen in the dining hall. They sparred with wooden staffs of about four feet in length, later they would be replaced with the five-foot pole-axe used by the Order when they fought en masse. Haunlin was a cheerful man, with a quick smile and a liking for song. He would often sing or chant as they practised, soldier’s songs mostly and a few love ballads, sung with a strange precision and clarity that reminded Vaelin of the minstrel he had once seen in the King’s palace.

He took to the staff quickly, liking the way it whistled when he swung it, the feel of it in his hands. At times he even preferred it to the sword, it was easier to handle and more solid somehow. His appreciation for the staff deepened when it became clear Nortah had no ability with it at all. His staff was often snapped out of his hands by an opponent’s blow and he was ever sucking numbed fingers.

Kigrian was a day they quickly came to dread, as it meant service in the stables, hours spent shovelling dung, dodging iron-shod hooves and sharp teeth then cleaning the myriad pieces of tack that hung on the walls. Master Rensial was ruler of the stable and his liking for the cane made Master Sollis seem positively restrained. “I said clean it, don’t tickle it, lackwit!” he spat at Caenis, his cane leaving red wheals on the boy’s neck as he tried to work polish into a stirrup. Whatever his harshness to the boys Rensial was all tenderness to his horses, speaking to them in soft whispers and lovingly brushing their hides. Vaelin’s dislike of the man was tempered by the blankness he saw in his eyes. Master Rensial preferred horses to people, his hands twitched constantly and he often stopped in mid-tirade, wandering off mumbling under his breath. The eyes said it all: Master Rensial was mad.

Retrian was a favourite with most of the boys, the day when Master Hutril would teach them the ways of the wild. They were led on long treks through the woods and hills, learning which plants were safe to eat and which could be used as a poison to be smeared on arrowheads. They were taught to light fires without flint and trap rabbits and hares. They would lie for hours in the undergrowth, trying to remain hidden as Hutril hunted them down, usually within a few minutes. Vaelin was often second last to be found with Caenis remaining hidden longest. Of all the boys, even those who had grown up amongst woodland and fields, he proved the most adept in the outdoors, particularly in tracking. Sometimes they would stay in the forest overnight and it was always Caenis who brought in the first meal.

Master Hutril was one of the few masters who never used the cane but his punishments could be severe, once making Nortah and Vaelin run bare-arsed through a copse of nettles for bickering over how best to place a snare. He spoke with a quiet confidence and rarely used more words than he had to, seeming to prefer the sign language some of the masters used. It was similar to that used by tongueless Master Smentil when he communicated with Sollis, but less complex, designed for use when enemies or prey were near. Vaelin learned quickly, as did Barkus, but Caenis seemed to absorb it instantly, his slender fingers forming the intricate shapes with uncanny accuracy.

Despite his aptitude, Master Hutril seemed oddly distant from Caenis, his praise restrained, if expressed at all. Sometimes, during one of the overnight treks, Vaelin would catch Hutril staring at Caenis from across the camp, his expression unreadable in the firelight.

Heldrian was the hardest of days, hours of running around the practice ground with a heavy stone in each hand, freezing swims across the river, and hard lessons in unarmed combat under Master Intris, a compact but lightning-fast man with a broken nose and several missing teeth. He taught them the secrets of the kick and the punch, how to twist the fist at the last instant, how to raise the knee first then to extend the leg into a kick, how to block a blow, trip an opponent or throw one over your shoulder. Few boys enjoyed Heldrian, it left them too bruised and exhausted to appreciate the evening meal. Only Barkus liked it, his large frame best suited to soaking up the punishment, he seemed impervious to pain and none relished being partnered with him for the sparring.

Eltrian was supposedly a day of rest and observance but for the youngest boys it meant a round of tedious drudgery in the laundry or the kitchen. If they were lucky, they would be chosen to help Master Smentil in the gardens, which at least provided the chance at a stolen apple or two. In the evening there would be extra observance and catechism, this being the Faith’s day, and a solid hour of silent contemplation, where they would sit, heads bowed, each lost in his own thoughts or succumbing to the overpowering need for sleep, which could be dangerous as any boy caught sleeping would earn the harshest beating and a night walking the walls with no cloak.

Vaelin’s favourite part of each day was the hour before lights out. All the discipline would evaporate in a round of raucous banter and horseplay. Dentos would tell another story about his uncles, Barkus would make them laugh with a joke or an uncanny imitation of one of the masters, Caenis, normally given to silence, would tell one of the thousand or more old stories he knew whilst they practised their sign language or sword strokes. He found himself spending more time with Caenis than the others, the slight boy’s reticence and intelligence a faint echo of his mother. For his part Caenis seemed surprised but gratified by the companionship. Vaelin suspected his life before the Order had been somewhat lonely as Caenis was clearly so unused to being with other boys, although neither of them talked of their lives before, unlike Nortah, who had never been able to shake the habit, despite angry responses from the others and the occasional beating from the masters. You have no family but the Order. Vaelin knew the truth of the Aspect’s words now; they were becoming family, they had no-one but each other.

Their first test came in the month of Sunterin, nearly a year since Vaelin had been left at the gate: the Test of the Run. They had been told little about what it entailed except that each year this test saw more expulsions than any other. They were trooped out into the courtyard along with the other boys of similar age, about two hundred in all. They had been told to bring their bows, one quiver of arrows, hunting knife, water flask and nothing else.

The Aspect led them in a brief recitation of the Catechism of Faith before informing them of what to expect: “The Test of the Run is where we discover who among you is truly fit to serve the Order. You have had the privilege of a year in service to the Faith, but in the Sixth Order privileges must be earned. You will be taken upriver by boat and left at different places on the bank. You must be back here by midnight tomorrow. Any who do not arrive in time will be allowed to keep their weapons and will be given three gold crowns.”

He nodded to the masters and left. Vaelin felt the fear and uncertainty about him but did not share it. He would pass the test, he had to, there was nowhere for him to go.

“To the riverbank at the run!” Sollis barked. “No slacking. Pick your feet up, Sendahl, this isn’t a shitting dance floor.”

Waiting at the riverside wharf were three barges, large, shallow-draught boats with black-painted hulls and red canvas sails. They were a common sight on the Corvien River estuary, running coal along the coast from the mines in the south to feed the myriad chimneys of Varinshold. Bargemen were a distinct group, wearing black scarves around their necks and a band of silver in their left ear, notorious drinkers and brawlers when not plying their trade. Many an Asraelin mother would warn a wayward daughter: “Be a good girl or you’ll wed no better than a bargeman.”

Sollis exchanged a few words with the master of their barge, a wiry man who glared suspiciously at the silent assembly of boys, handing him a purse of coin and barking at them to get aboard and muster in the centre of the deck. “And don’t touch anything, lack-brains!”

“I’ve never been to sea before,” Dentos commented as they sat down on the hard planks of the deck.

“This isn’t the sea,” Nortah informed him. “It’s the river.”

“My uncle Jimnos went to sea,” Dentos continued, ignoring Nortah as most of them did. “Never came back. Me mam said he got eaten by a whale.”

“What’s a whale?” asked Mikehl, a plump Renfaelin boy who had contrived to retain his excess weight despite months of hard exercise.

“It’s a big animal that lives in the sea,” Caenis replied, he tended to know the answer to most questions. He gave Dentos a nudge. “And it doesn’t eat people. Your uncle was probably eaten by a shark, some of them grow as big as a whale.”

“How would you know?” Nortah sneered, as he usually did whenever Caenis offered an opinion. “Ever seen one?”

“Yes.”

Nortah flushed and fell silent, scratching at a loose splinter on the deck with his hunting knife.

“When, Caenis?” Vaelin prompted his friend. “When did you see the shark?”

Caenis smiled a little, something he did rarely. “A year or so ago, in the Erinean. My…I was taken to sea once. There are many creatures that live in the sea, seals and orcas and more fish than you can count. And sharks, one of them came up to our ship. It was over thirty feet from tip to tail, one of the sailors said they feed on orcas and whales, people too if you’re unlucky enough to be in the water when they’re around. There are stories of them ramming ships to sink them and feed on the crew.”

Nortah snorted in derision but the others were clearly fascinated.

“Did you see pirates?” Dentos asked eagerly. “They say the Erinean is thick with ’em.”

Caenis shook his head. “No pirates. They don’t bother Realm ships since the war.”

“Which war?” Barkus said.

“The Meldenean, the one Master Grealin talks about all the time. The King sent a fleet to burn the Meldeneans’ biggest city, all the pirates in the Erinean are Meldeneans, so they learned to leave us alone.”

“Wouldn’t it make more sense to burn their fleet?” Barkus wondered. “That way there wouldn’t be any pirates at all.”

“They can always build more ships,” Vaelin said. “Burning a city leaves a memory, passed from parent to child. Makes sure they won’t forget us.”

“Could’ve just killed them all,” Nortah suggested sullenly. “No pirates, no piracy.”

Master Sollis’s cane swept down from nowhere, catching him on the hand and making him release his knife, still embedded in the deck. “I said don’t touch anything, Sendahl.” His gaze swivelled to Caenis. “Voyager are you, Nysa?”

Caenis bowed his head. “Only once, Master.”

“Really? Where did you go on this adventure?”

“To the Wensel Isle. My—erm, one of the passengers had business there.”

Sollis grunted, bent down to prise Nortah’s knife from the deck and tossed it to him. “Sheath it, fop. You’ll need a sharp blade before long.”

“Were you there, Master?” Vaelin asked him. He was the only one who dared ask Sollis anything, braving the risk of a caning. Sollis could be fierce or he could be informative. It was impossible to tell which until you asked the question. “Were you there when the Meldenean city burned?”

Sollis’s gaze flicked to him, pale eyes meeting his. There was a question in them, an inquisitiveness. For the first time Vaelin realised Sollis thought he knew more than he did, thought his father had told him stories of his many battles, that there was an insult concealed in his questions.

“No,” Sollis replied. “I was on the northern border then. I’m sure Master Grealin will answer any questions you have about that war.” He moved away to thrash another boy whose hand had strayed too close to a coil of rope.

The barges sailed north, following the long arc of the river and dashing any thought Vaelin had of simply following the riverbank back to the Order House; it was too long a journey. If he wanted to be back in time, it meant a trek through the forest. He eyed the dark mass of trees warily. Although the lessons with Master Hutril had made them familiar with the forest, the thought of a blind journey through the woods was not pleasant. He knew how easily a boy could be lost in amongst the trees, wandering in circles for hours.

“Head south,” Caenis, whispering next to his ear. “Away from the North Star. Head south until you meet the riverbank, then follow it until you come to the wharf. Then you have to swim the river.”

Vaelin glanced at him and saw that Caenis was gazing blithely up at the sky as if he hadn’t spoken. Looking around at the bored faces of his companions it was clear to Vaelin they hadn’t heard the advice. Caenis was helping him but not the others.

They began to drop the boys off after about three hours’ sailing. There was little ceremony to it, Sollis simply chose a boy at random and told him to jump over the side and swim for shore. Dentos was the first from their group to go.

“See you back at the House, Dentos,” Vaelin encouraged him.

Dentos, silent for once, smiled back weakly before hitching his strongbow over his shoulder and vaulting over the rail into the river. He swam to the bank quickly and paused to shake off the river water then disappeared into the trees with a brief wave. Barkus was next, theatrically balancing atop the rail before performing a backflip into the river. A few boys clapped appreciatively. Mikehl went next but not without some trepidation. “I’m not sure I can swim that far, Master,” he stammered, staring down at the dark waters of the river.

“Then try to drown quietly,” Sollis said, tipping him over the rail. Mikehl made a loud splash and seemed to remain underwater for an age, it was with some relief they saw him surface a short distance away, sputtering and flailing before he regained his composure and began to swim towards the bank.

Caenis was next, accepting Vaelin’s wish of good luck with a nod before jumping wordlessly over the rail. Nortah followed him shortly after. Controlling his evident fear with some effort, he said to Sollis, “Master, if I don’t return, I would like my father to know…”

“You don’t have a father, Sendahl. Get in there.”

Nortah bit back an angry retort and hauled himself onto the rail, diving in after a second’s hesitation.

“Sorna, your turn.”

Vaelin wondered if it was significant that he was last to go and would therefore have the longest distance to travel. He went to the rail, his bowstring tight against his chest, pulling the strap on his quiver taut so it wouldn’t come adrift in the water. He put both hands on the rail and prepared to vault over.

“The others are not to be helped, Sorna,” Sollis told him. He had said nothing like this to the other boys. “Get yourself back, let them worry about themselves.”

Vaelin frowned, “Master?”

“You heard me. Whatever happens, it’s their fate, not yours.” He jerked his head at the river. “On your way.”

It was clear he would say nothing more so Vaelin took a firm grip of the rail and swung himself over, falling feetfirst into the water, enveloped instantly in the shocking coldness of it. He fought a moment’s panic as his head went under then kicked for the surface. Breaking into the air, he dragged it into his lungs and struck out for the shore, which suddenly seemed a lot further away. By the time he struggled to his feet on the shingle bank the barges had passed him by and were well upstream. He thought he saw Master Sollis still at the rail, staring after him, but couldn’t be sure.

He unhitched his bow and ran the string through his forefinger and thumb to wring the water out. Master Checkrin said a damp bowstring was as much use as a legless dog. He checked his arrows, making sure the water hadn’t penetrated the waxed-leather seal on the quiver and made sure his knife was still at his side. He shook water from his hair as he scanned the trees, seeing only a mass of shadow and foliage. He knew he was facing south but would soon wander off course when night came. If he was to follow Caenis’s advice, he would have to climb a tree or two to find the North Star, not something easily attempted in the dark.

Although grateful that the test took place in summer, he was starting to chill from the swim. Master Hutril had taught them that the best way to dry off without benefit of a fire was to run, the heat of the body would turn the water to steam. He set off at a steady run, trying not to sprint, knowing he would need his energy in the hours to come. He was soon embraced by the cool dark of the forest and found himself instinctively scanning the shadows, a habit he had acquired during the many hours of hunting and hiding. Master Hutril’s words came back to him: A smart enemy seeks the shadow and stays quiet. Vaelin suppressed a shiver and ran on.

He ran for a solid hour, keeping a steady pace and ignoring the growing ache in his legs. The river water was quickly replaced by sweat and his chill receded. He checked his direction with occasional glances at the sun and tried to fight the sensation of time passing quicker than it should. The thought of being pushed out of the gates with a handful of coins and nowhere to go was both terrifying and incomprehensible. He had a brief and equally nightmarish vision of turning up on his father’s doorstep, pathetically clutching his coins and begging to be let in. He forced the image away and kept running.

He took a break after covering about five miles, perching on a log to drink from his flask and catch a breath. He wondered how his companions were faring, were they running like him or stumbling lost amongst the trees? The others are not to be helped. Was it a warning, or a threat? Certainly there were dangers in the forest but nothing to pose a serious threat to the boys of the Order, toughened by months of training.

He pondered for a short while, finding no answers, before stoppering his flask and rising, still scanning the shadows…He froze.

The wolf sat on its haunches ten short yards away, bright green eyes regarding him with silent curiosity. Its pelt was grey and silver, and it was very large. Vaelin had never been this close to a wolf before, his only glimpses vague loping shadows seen through the mists of the morning, a rare sight so close to the city. He was struck by the size of the animal, the power evident in the muscle beneath its fur. The wolf tilted its head as Vaelin returned his gaze. He felt no fear, Master Hutril had told them that stories of wolves stealing babies and savaging shepherd boys were myths. Wolf’ll leave you be if you leave him be, he’d said. But still, the wolf was big, and its eyes…

The wolf sat, silent, still, a faint breeze ruffling the silver-grey mass of its fur, and Vaelin felt something new stir in his boy’s heart. “You’re beautiful,” he told the wolf in a whisper.

It was gone in an instant, turning and leaping into the foliage quicker than he could follow. It barely made a sound.

He felt a rare smile on his lips and stored the memory of the wolf firmly in his head, knowing he would never forget it.

The forest was called the Urlish, a twenty-mile-thick and seventy-mile-long band of trees stretching from the northern walls of Varinshold to the foothills of the Renfaelin border. Some said the King had a love for the forest, that it had captured his soul somehow. It was forbidden to take a tree from the Urlish without a King’s Command and only those families who had lived within its confines for three generations were allowed to remain. From his meagre knowledge of the Realm’s history Vaelin knew war had come here once, a great battle between the Renfaelins and Asraelins raging amongst the trees for a day and a night. The Asraelins won and the Lord of Renfael had to bow the knee to King Janus, which was why his heirs were now called Fief Lords and had to give money and soldiers to the King whenever he wanted them. It was a story his mother told him when she had succumbed to his pestering for more information on his father’s exploits. It was here that he had won the King’s regard and been raised to Sword of the Realm. His mother was vague on the details, saying simply that his father was a great warrior and had been very brave.

He found himself sweeping his gaze across the forest floor as he ran, eyes searching for the glitter of metal, hoping to find some token from the battle, an arrowhead or perhaps a dagger or even a sword. He wondered if Sollis would let him keep any souvenirs and, thinking it unlikely, began to ponder the best hiding places on offer in the House…

Snap!

He ducked, rolled, came up on his feet, crouched behind the trunk of an oak, the whisper of the arrow’s flight hissing through the ferns. The sound of a bowstring was an unmistakable warning for a boy like him. He calmed his pounding heart with effort and strained to listen for further signals.

Was it a hunter? Perhaps he had been mistaken for a deer. He discounted the thought instantly. He was no deer and any hunter could tell the difference. Someone had tried to kill him. He realised he had unhitched his bow and notched an arrow, all done instinctively. He rested his back against the trunk and waited, listening to the forest, letting it tell him who was coming for him. Nature has a voice, Hutril’s words. Learn to hear it and you’ll never be lost and no man will ever take you unawares.

He opened his ears to the voice of the forest, the sigh of the wind, the rustle of the leaves and the creak of the branches. No birdsong. It meant a predator was close. It could be one man, could be more. He waited for the telltale crack of a branch underfoot or the scrape of boot leather on soil but nothing came. If his enemy was on the move, he knew how to mask the sound. But he had other senses and the forest could tell him many things. He closed his eyes and inhaled softly through his nose. Don’t suck the air in like a pig at a trough, Hutril had cautioned him once. Give your nose time to sort the scent. Be patient.

He let his nose do the work, tasting the mingled perfume of bluebells in bloom, rotting vegetation, animal droppings…and sweat. Man’s sweat. The wind was coming from his left, carrying the scent. It was impossible to tell whether the bowman was waiting or moving.

It was the faintest sound, little more than a rustle of cloth, but to Vaelin it was a shout. He darted from behind the oak in a crouch, drawing and loosing the shaft in a single motion, before scooting back into cover, rewarded with a short grunt of pained surprise.

He lingered for the briefest second. Stay or flee? The compulsion to run was strong, the dark embrace of the forest suddenly a welcome refuge. But he knew he couldn’t. The Order doesn’t run, Sollis had said.

He peered out from behind his oak, taking a second before he saw it, the gull-fletched shaft of his arrow sticking upright from the carpet of ferns about fifteen yards away. He notched another arrow and approached in a low crouch, eyes scanning constantly for other enemies, ears alive with the voice of the forest, nose twitching.

The man was dressed in dirty green trews and tunic, he had an ash bow clutched in his hand with a crow-feathered shaft notched in the string, a sword strapped across his back, a knife in his boot and Vaelin’s arrow in his throat. He was quite dead. Stepping closer Vaelin saw the growing patch of blood spreading out from the neck wound, a lot of blood. Caught the big vein, Vaelin realised. And I thought I was a poor archer.

He laughed, high and shrill, then convulsed and vomited, collapsing to all fours and retching uncontrollably.

It was a few moments before the shock and nausea receded enough for him to think clearly. This man, this dead man, had tried to kill him. Why? He had never seen him before. Was he an outlaw? Some homeless footpad thinking he had found an easy victim in a lone boy?

He forced himself to look at the dead man again, noting the quality of his boots and the stitching on his clothes. He hesitated then lifted the dead man’s right hand, lying slack on the bowstring. It was a bowman’s hand: rough palms with calluses on the tips of the first two fingers. This man had made his living with the bow. Vaelin doubted any outlaw would be so practised, or so well dressed.

A sudden, sickening thought popped into his head: Is it part of the test?

For a moment he was almost convinced. What better way to weed out the chaff? Seed the forest with assassins and see who survived. Think of all the gold coins they’d save. But somehow he couldn’t bring himself to believe it. The Order was brutal but not murderous.

Then why?

He shook his head. It was a mystery he wouldn’t solve by staying here. Where there was one there could be more. He would get back to the Order House and ask Master Sollis for guidance…If he lived that long. He got shakily to his feet, spitting the last dregs of gorge from his mouth, taking a final look at the dead man and debating whether to take his sword or his knife but deciding it would be a mistake. For some reason he suspected it might be necessary to deny knowledge of the killing, which led him to briefly consider retrieving the arrow from the man’s neck but he couldn’t face the prospect of drawing the shaft from the flesh. Instead he contented himself with snipping off the fletching with his hunting knife, the gull feathers were a clear signal that the man had been killed by a member of the Order. He fought a fresh bout of nausea at the grinding sensation of the arrow as he grasped it and the wet, sucking sound it made as he sawed at the shaft. It was done quickly but seemed to take an age.

He pocketed the fletching and backed away from the corpse, scraping his boots on the soil to erase any tracks, before turning and resuming his run. His legs felt leaden and he stumbled several times before his body remembered the smooth, loping stride learned through months of training on the practice ground. The slack, lifeless features of the dead man flashed through his mind continually but he shook the image away, suppressing it ruthlessly. He tried to kill me. I won’t grieve for a man who would seek to murder a boy. But he found he couldn’t deafen himself to the words his mother had once shouted at his father: Your stench of blood sickens me.

Night seemed to fall in an instant, probably because he dreaded it. He found himself seeing bowmen lurking in every shadow, more than once he leapt for shelter from assassins which turned out to be bushes or tree stumps when he looked closer. He had rested only once since killing the assassin, a brief, feverish sip of water behind the broad trunk of a beech, his eyes darting about constantly for enemies. It felt safer to run, a moving target was harder to hit. But this vague sense of security evaporated when the darkness came, it was like running in a void where every step brought the threat of a painful fall. He had tripped twice, sprawling in a tangle of weapons and fear, before accepting that he would have to walk from now on.

The bearings he took from the North Star by finding the odd clearing or hauling himself up a tree trunk told him he was holding a steady course southward but how far he had come or the distance he still had to cover he couldn’t tell. He peered ahead with increasing desperation, all the time hoping to glimpse the silver sheen of the river through the trees. It was when he had stopped to get another bearing that he saw the fire. A single flickering blob of orange in the black-blue mass of the forest.

Keep running. He almost followed the instinctive command, turning away and taking another stride towards the south, but stopped. None of the boys from the Order would light a fire during the test, they just didn’t have time. It could be a coincidence, just some of the King’s Foresters camped out for the night. But something made him doubt it, a murmur of wrongness in the back of his mind. It was a strange sensation, almost musical.

He turned around, unslinging his bow and notching an arrow, before beginning a cautious advance. He knew he was taking a risk, both in investigating the fire and indulging in a delay when his deadline for getting back to the House could not be far away. But he had to know.

The blob grew into a fire slowly, flickering red and gold in the infinite blackness. He stopped, opening himself to the song of the forest again, hunting through the nocturnal resonance until he caught them: voices. Male. Adult. Two men. Quarrelling.

He crept closer, using the hunter’s walk taught by Master Hutril, lifting his foot a hair’s breadth from the ground and sliding it forward and to the side before laying it down softly after tentatively checking the soil for any branches or twigs that could give him away in an instant. The voices became clearer as he closed on the camp, confirming his suspicions. Two men, engaged in bitter argument.

“…’asn’t stopped bleedin’!” a self-pitying whine, its owner as yet invisible. “Look, it’s gushing like a slit hog…”

“Stop fiddling with it then, shit brain!” an exasperated hiss. Vaelin could see this one, a stocky man seated to the right of the fire, the sight of the sword on his back and the bow propped close to his hand provoking an icy shiver. No coincidence. He had a sack open on the floor between his booted feet, studying its contents intently in between casting tired insults at his companion.

“Little bastard!” the unseen whiner continued, deaf to the admonishments of his stocky companion. “Playing dead, vicious, sneaky little bastard.”

“You were warned they were tough,” the stocky man said. “Should’ve put another iron-head in him to make sure before you got so close.”

“Got him square in the neck, didn’t I? Should’ve been enough. I’ve seen grown men go down like a sack of spuds from a wound like that. Not that little shit though. Wish we’d kept him breathing a little longer…”

“You disgusting animal.” There was little venom in the stocky man’s words. He was increasingly preoccupied with the contents of the sack, a frown creasing his broad forehead. “Y’know, I’m still not sure it’s him.”

Vaelin, fighting to keep his heart steady, shifted his gaze to the sack, noting the roundness of its contents and the dark wet stain on the lower half. A sudden, overpowering chill of realisation gripped him, fearing he would faint as the forest swayed around him and he fought down a gasp of horror, the sound undoubtedly an invite for a quick death.

“Lemme see,” the whiner said, moving into view for the first time. He was short, wiry with pointed features and a wispy beard on his bony chin. His left arm was cradled in his right, a bloodied bandage leaking continually through his spidery fingers. “Gotta be him. Has to be.” He sounded desperate. “You ’eard what the other one said.”

Other one? Vaelin strained to hear more, still sickened but his heart steadied by a growing anger.

“He gave me the shivers, he did,” the stocky man responded with a shudder. “Wouldn’t’ve trusted him if he’d told me the sky was blue.” He squinted at the sack again then reached inside, extracting the contents, holding it up by the hair, dripping, turning it to examine the slack, distorted features. Vaelin would have vomited again if there was anything left in his stomach. Mikehl! They killed Mikehl.

“Could be him,” the stocky man mused. “Death’ll change a face for sure. Just don’t see much of a family resemblance.”

“Brak would know. Said he’d seen the boy before.” The whiner moved out of the firelight again. “Where is he anyway? Should’ve been here by now.”

“Yeh,” the stocky man agreed, returning his trophy to the sack. “Don’t think he’s gonna.”

Whiner was silent for a moment before muttering, “Little Order shits.”

Brak…So he had a name. Vaelin wondered briefly if anyone would wear a mourning locket for Brak, if his widow or mother or brother would offer thanks for his life and the goodness and wisdom he had left behind. But as Brak was an assassin, a killer waiting in the woods to murder children, he doubted it. No-one would weep for Brak…as no-one would weep for these two. His fist tightened on the bow, bringing it up to draw a bead on the stocky man’s throat. He would kill this one and wound the other, an arrow in the leg or the stomach would do it, then he would make him talk, then he would kill him too. For Mikehl.

Something growled in the forest, something hidden, something deadly.

Vaelin whirled, drawing the bow—too late, knocked flat by a hard mass of muscle, his bow gone from his hand. He scrabbled for his knife, instinctively kicking out as he did so, hitting nothing. There were screams as he surged to his feet, screams of pain and terror, something wet lashed across his face, stinging his eyes. He staggered, tasting the iron sting of blood, wiping frantically at his eyes, blearily focusing on the now-silent camp, seeing two yellow eyes gleaming in the firelight above a red-stained muzzle. The eyes met his, blinked once and the wolf was gone.

Random thoughts tumbled through his mind. It tracked me…You’re beautiful…Followed me here to kill these men…Beautiful wolf…They killed Mikehl…No family resemblance…

STOP THAT!

He forced discipline on the torrent of thought, dragging air into his lungs, calming down enough to move closer to the camp. The stocky man lay on his back, hands reaching towards a throat that was no longer there, his face frozen in fear. The whiner had managed to run a few strides before being cut down. His head was twisted at a sharp angle to his shoulders. From the stench staining the air around him it was clear his fear had mastered him at the end. There was no sign of the wolf, just the whisper of undergrowth moving in the wind.

Reluctantly he turned to the sack still lying at the stocky man’s feet. What do I do for Mikehl?

“Mikehl’s dead,” Vaelin told Master Sollis, water dripping from his face. It had started to rain a few miles back and he was drenched as he laboured up the hill towards the gate, exhaustion and the shock of the events in the forest combining to leave him numb and incapable of more than the most basic words. “Assassins in the forest.”

Sollis reached out to steady him as he swayed, his legs suddenly feeling too weak to keep him upright. “How many?”

“Three. That I saw. Dead too.” He handed Sollis the fletching he had cut from his arrow.

Sollis asked Master Hutril to watch the gate and led Vaelin inside. Instead of taking him to the boys’ room in the north tower he led him to his own quarters, a small room in the south-wall bastion. He built up the fire and told Vaelin to strip off his wet clothes, giving him a blanket to warm himself while fire began to lick at the logs in the hearth.

“Now,” he said, handing Vaelin a mug of warmed milk. “Tell me what happened. Everything you can remember. Leave nothing out.”

So he told him of the wolf and the man he had killed and the whiner and the stocky man…and Mikehl.

“Where is it?”

“Master?”

“Mikehl’s…remains.”

“I buried it.” Vaelin suppressed a violent shudder and drank more milk, the warmth burning his insides. “Scraped the soil up with my knife. Couldn’t think of anything else to do with it.”

Master Sollis nodded and stared at the fletching in his hand, his pale eyes unreadable. Vaelin glanced around the room, finding it less bare than he expected. Several weapons were set on the wall: a pole-axe, a long, iron-bladed spear, some kind of stone-headed club plus several daggers and knives of different patterns. Several books stood on the shelves, the lack of dust indicating Master Sollis hadn’t placed them there for decoration. On the far wall there was some kind of tapestry fashioned from a goatskin stretched on a wooden frame, the hide adorned with a bizarre mix of stick figures and unfamiliar symbols.

“Lonak war banner,” Sollis said. Vaelin looked away, feeling like a spy. To his surprise Sollis went on. “Lonak boy children become part of a war band from an early age. Each band has its own banner and every member swears a blood oath to die defending it.”

Vaelin rubbed a bead of water from his nose. “What do the symbols mean, Master?”

“They list the band’s battles, the heads they have taken, the honours granted them by their High Priestess. The Lonak have a passion for history. Children are punished if they cannot recite the saga of their clan. It’s said they have one of the largest libraries in the world, although no outsider has ever seen it. They love their stories and will sit for hours around the campfire listening to the shamans. They especially like the heroic tales, stories of outnumbered war bands winning victory against the odds, brave lone warriors questing for lost talismans in the bowels of the earth…boys killing assassins in the forest with the aid of a wolf.”

Vaelin looked at him sharply. “It’s no story, Master.”

Sollis tossed another log on the fire, scattering sparks over the hearth. He prodded the logs with a poker, not looking at Vaelin as he spoke. “The Lonak have no word for secret. Did you know that? To them everything is important, to be written down, recorded, told over and over. The Order has no such belief. We have fought battles that left more than a hundred corpses on the ground and not a word of it has ever been set down. The Order fights, but often it fights in shadow, without glory or reward. We have no banners.” He tossed Vaelin’s fletching into the fire, the damp feathers hissed in the flame then curled and withered to nothing. “Mikehl was taken by a bear, a rare sight in the Urlish but some still prowl the depths of the woods. You found the remains and reported it to me. Tomorrow Master Hutril will retrieve them and we will give our fallen brother to the fire and thank him for the gift of his life.”

Vaelin felt no shock, no surprise. It was obvious there was more here than he could know. “Why did you warn me not to help the others, Master?”

Sollis stared into the fire for a while and Vaelin had decided he wasn’t going to answer when he said, “We sever our ties with our blood when we give ourselves to the Order. We understand this, outsiders do not. Sometimes the Order is no protection against the feuds that rage beyond our walls. We cannot always protect you. The others were not likely to be hunted.” His fist was white on the poker as he prodded the fire, his cheek muscles bulged with suppressed rage. “I was wrong. Mikehl paid the price of my mistake.”

My father, Vaelin thought. They sought my death to wound him. Whoever they are they know him not.

“Master, what of the wolf? Why would a wolf seek to aid me?”

Master Sollis put the poker aside and rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “That’s a thing I don’t understand. I’ve been many places and seen many things but a wolf killing men is not one of them, and killing without feeding.” He shook his head. “Wolves don’t do that. There is something else at work here. Something that touches the Dark.”

Vaelin’s shivers intensified momentarily. The Dark. The servants in his father’s house had used the phrase sometimes, usually in hushed tones when they thought no-one else could hear. It was something people said when things happened that shouldn’t happen: children being born with the blood-sign discolouring their faces, dogs giving birth to cats and ships found adrift at sea with no crew. Dark.

“Two of your brothers made it back before you did,” Sollis said. “You’d better go and tell them about Mikehl.”

This interview was clearly over. Sollis would tell him nothing else. It was obvious, and sad. Master Sollis was a man of many stories and much wisdom, he knew much more than the correct grip on a sword or the right angle to slash a blade at a man’s eyes, but Vaelin suspected little of it was ever heard. He wanted to hear more of the Lonak and their war bands and their High Priestess, he wanted to know of the Dark, but Sollis’s eyes were fixed on the fire, lost in thought, the way his father had looked so many times. So he got to his feet and said, “Yes, Master.” He drained the rest of his warm milk and gathered the blanket around him, clutching his damp clothes as he moved to the door.

“Tell no-one, Sorna.” There was a note of command in Sollis’s voice, the tone he used before he swung his cane. “Confide in no-one. This is a secret that could mean your death.”

“Yes, Master,” Vaelin repeated. He went out into the chilled hallway and made his way to the north tower, huddled and shivering, the cold so intense he wondered if he would collapse before he made it up the steps, but the milk Master Sollis had given him left just enough warmth and sustenance to fuel his journey.

He found Dentos and Barkus in the room when he staggered through the door, both slumped on their bunks, fatigue evident in their faces. Strangely they seemed enlivened by his arrival, both rising to greet him with backslaps and forced jokes.

“Can’t find your way in the dark, eh?” Barkus laughed. “Would’ve beaten this one back easily if I hadn’t been caught by the current.”

“Current?” Vaelin asked, bemused by the warmth of their welcome.

“Crossed too early,” Barkus explained. “Up near the narrows. I thought I was done I can tell you. Got washed up right opposite the gate but Dentos was already there.”

Vaelin dumped his clothes on his bunk and moved to the fire, bathing in the warmth. “You were first, Dentos?”

“Aye. Was sure it would be Caenis but we’ve not seen him yet.”

Vaelin was surprised too; Caenis’s woodcraft left them all to shame. Still he lacked Barkus’s strength and Dentos’s speed.

“At least we beat the other companies,” Barkus said, referring to the boys in other groups. “None of them have turned up yet. Lazy bastards.”

“Yeh,” Dentos agreed. “Passed a few of them on the way. Lost as a virgin in a brothel they were.”

Vaelin frowned. “What’s a brothel?”

The other two exchanged an amused glance and Barkus changed the subject. “We smuggled some apples from the kitchen.” He pulled back his bedcovers to reveal his prizes. “Pies too. We’ll have us a feast when the others get here.” He lifted an apple to his mouth for a hearty bite. They had all become enthusiastic thieves, it was a universal habit, anything of the meanest value could be expected to disappear in short order if not securely hidden. The straw in their mattresses had long since been replaced with any stray piece of fabric or soft hide they could lay their hands on. Punishment for theft was often severe but bereft of any lectures on immorality or dishonesty and soon they came to realise that they were not being punished for stealing but for getting caught. Barkus was their most prolific thief, especially when it came to food, closely followed by Mikehl, who specialised in clothing…Mikehl.

Vaelin stared into the fire, biting his lip, deciding how to phrase the lie. It’s a bad thing, he decided. It’s a hard thing to lie to your friends. “Mikehl’s dead,” he said finally. He couldn’t think of a kinder way to say it and winced at the sudden silence. “He…was taken by a bear. I—I found what was left.” Behind him he heard Barkus spit out his mouthful of apple. There was a rustle as Dentos sank heavily onto his bunk. Vaelin gritted his teeth and went on, “Master Hutril will bring the body back tomorrow so we can give him to the fire.” A log cracked in the fireplace. The chill was almost gone and the heat was starting to make his skin itch. “So we can give thanks for his life.”

Nothing was said. He thought Dentos might be crying but didn’t have the heart to turn and see for sure. After a while he moved away from the fire and went to his bunk, laying his clothes out to dry, unstringing his bow and stowing his quiver.

The door opened and Nortah entered, rain-soaked but triumphant. “Fourth!” he exulted. “I was sure I’d be last.” Vaelin hadn’t seen him cheerful before, it was disconcerting. As was Nortah’s ignorance of their evident grief.

“I even got lost twice.” He laughed, dumping his gear on his bunk. “Saw a wolf too.” He went to the fire, hands splayed to soak up the heat. “So scared I couldn’t move.”

“You saw a wolf?” Vaelin asked.

“Oh yes. Big bastard. Think he’d already fed though. There was blood on his snout.”

“What kind of bear?” Dentos asked.

“What?”

“Was it a black or a brown? Browns are bigger and nastier. Blacks don’t come near men mostly.”

“Wasn’t a bear,” Nortah said, puzzled. “A wolf I said.”

“I don’t know,” Vaelin told Dentos. “I didn’t see it.”

“Then how d’y’know it was a bear?”

“Mikehl got taken by a bear,” Barkus told Nortah.

“Claw marks,” Vaelin said, realising deceit was more difficult than he had imagined. “He was…in bits.”

“Bits!” Nortah exclaimed in disgust. “Mikehl was in bits?!”

“’Cos my uncle said y’don’t get browns in the Urlish,” Dentos said dully. “Only get ’em in the north.”

“I bet it was that wolf I saw,” Nortah whispered in shock. “The wolf I saw ate Mikehl. It would’ve eaten me if it hadn’t been full.”

“Wolves don’t eat people,” Dentos said.

“Maybe it was rabid.” He sank onto his bunk in shock. “I was nearly eaten by a rabid wolf!”

And so it went, the other boys arrived one by one, tired and wet but relieved at having passed the test, their smiles fading when they heard the news. Dentos and Nortah argued over wolves and bears and Barkus shared out his meagre spoils to be eaten in numb silence. Vaelin wrapped himself in his blanket and tried to forget the sight of Mikehl’s slack, lifeless features and the feel of dead flesh through the fabric of the sack as he scraped a shallow grave in the dirt…

He woke shuddering with cold a few hours later. The last vestiges of a dream fled from his mind as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. He was grateful the dream had slipped away, the few images lingering in his mind told him it was best forgotten. The other boys were asleep, Barkus snoring, softly for once, the logs in the fireplace blackened and smouldering. He stumbled out of bed to relight the fire, the darkness of the room suddenly scared him more than the gloom of the forest.

“There are no more logs, brother.”

He turned to find Caenis sitting on his bunk. He was still dressed, his clothes glistening with damp in the dim moonlight seeping through the shutters. His face was hidden in shadow.

“When did you get in?” Vaelin asked, rubbing feeling back into his hands. He never knew a body could get so cold.

“A while ago.” Caenis’s voice was a vacant drone, drained of emotion.

“You heard about Mikehl?” Vaelin began to pace about, hoping to walk some warmth back into his muscles.

“Yes,” Caenis replied. “Nortah said it was a wolf. Dentos said a bear.”

Vaelin frowned, detecting a note of humour in his brother’s voice. He shrugged it off. They all reacted differently. Jennis, Mikehl’s closest friend, had actually laughed when they told him, a full hearty laugh that went on and on, in fact he laughed so much Barkus had to slap him before he stopped.

“A bear,” Vaelin said.

“Really?” Vaelin was sure Caenis hadn’t moved, but he fancied there was a quizzical incline to his head. “Dentos said you found him. That must have been bad.”

Mikehl’s blood was thick, clotting in the sack, seeping through the weave to stain his hands… “I thought you’d be here when I got in.” Vaelin wrapped his blanket more firmly around his shoulders. “I bet Barkus an afternoon in the garden you’d beat us all back.”

“Oh, I would have. But I was distracted. I happened across a mystery in the forest. Perhaps you could help me puzzle it out. Tell me, what do you make of a dead man with an arrow in his throat? An arrow with no fletching.”

Vaelin’s shudders became almost uncontrollable, his flesh trembling so much his blanket slipped to the floor. “The woods are thick with outlaws, I hear,” he stammered.

“Indeed. So thick I found two more. Not killed with arrows though, mayhap they were taken by a bear, like Mikehl. Perhaps even the same bear.”

“P-perhaps.” What is this? Vaelin held up his hand, staring at the twitching fingers. This is not cold. This is more…He had a sudden, almost irresistible impulse to tell Caenis everything, unburden himself, seek solace in confidence. Caenis was his friend after all. His best friend. Who better to tell? With assassins hunting him he would need a friend to watch his back. They would fight them together…

Confide in no-one…This is a secret that could mean your death. Sollis’s words stilled his tongue, firming his resolve. Caenis was his friend it was true, but he couldn’t tell him the truth. It was too big, too important for a whispered secret between boys.

He found his shivers receding as his resolve grew. It really wasn’t that cold. The fear and horror of his night in the forest had left a mark on him, a mark that might never fade, but he would face it and overcome it. There was no other choice.

He retrieved his blanket from the floor and climbed back into his bunk. “Truly the Urlish is a dangerous place,” he said. “You better get those clothes off, brother. Master Sollis’ll whip you raw if you’re too chilled to train tomorrow.”

Caenis sat in unmoving silence, a thin sigh escaping his lips in a slow hiss. After a second he rose to undress, laying out his garments with his habitual neatness, carefully stowing his weapons before slipping into bed.

Vaelin lay back and prayed for sleep to take him, dreams and all. He longed for this night to be over, to feel the warmth of the dawn’s light, searing away all the blood and fear that crowded his soul. Is this a warrior’s lot? he wondered. A life lived shivering in the shadows?

Caenis’s voice was barely a whisper but Vaelin heard him clearly. “I’m glad you’re alive, brother. I’m glad you made it through the forest.”

Comradeship, he realised. Also a warrior’s lot. You share your life with those who would die for you. It didn’t make the fear and the sick, hard feeling in his guts disappear, but it did take the edge off his sorrow. “I’m glad you made it too, Caenis,” he whispered back. “Sorry I couldn’t help with your mystery. You should talk to Master Sollis.”

He never knew if it was a laugh or a sigh that came from Caenis then. Many years later he would think how much pain he would have saved himself and so many others if only he had heard it clearly, if he had known one way or the other. At the time he took it for a sigh and the words that followed a simple statement of obvious fact, “Oh, I think there’ll be mysteries aplenty in our future.”

They built the pyre on the practice ground, cutting logs from the forest and piling them up under Master Sollis’s direction. They had been excused training for the day but the work was hard enough, Vaelin found his muscles aching after hours of heaving freshly cut timber onto the wagon for transport back to the House but resisted the temptation to voice a complaint. Mikehl deserved a day’s work at least. Master Hutril returned early in the afternoon, leading a pony laden with a tightly bound burden. As he passed by on his way to the gate they paused in their labour, staring at the cloth-wrapped body.

This will happen again, Vaelin realised. Mikehl is just the first. Who’ll be next? Dentos? Caenis? Me?

“We should’ve asked him,” Nortah said, after Master Hutril disappeared through the gate.

“Asked him what?” said Dentos.

“If it was a wolf or a be—” He ducked, narrowly avoiding the log Barkus threw at him.

The masters laid the body on the pyre as the boys paraded onto the practice ground in the early evening, over four hundred in all, standing silently in their companies. After Sollis and Hutril stepped down the Aspect came forward, a flaming torch held aloft in his bony, scarred hand. He stood next to the pyre and scanned the assembled students, his face was as lacking in expression as ever. “We come to witness the end of the vessel that carried our fallen brother through his life,” he said, again displaying the uncanny ability to project his somnolent tones for the whole crowd to hear.

“We come to give thanks for his deeds of kindness and courage, and forgiveness for his moments of weakness. He was our brother and fell in service to the Order, an honour that comes to us all in the end. He is with the Departed now, his spirit will join with them to guide us in our service to the Faith. Think of him now, offer your own thanks and forgiveness, remember him, now and always.”

He lowered the torch to the pyre, touching the flames to the apple-wood kindling they had worked into the gaps between the logs. Soon the fire began to build, flames and smoke rising, the sweet apple scent lost amidst the stench of burning flesh.

Watching the flames, Vaelin tried to remember Mikehl’s deeds of kindness and courage, hoping for a memory of nobility or compassion he could carry through his life, but instead found himself stuck on the time Mikehl had conspired with Barkus to put pepper into one of the feed bags in the stable. Master Rensial had fitted it over the muzzle of a newly acquired stallion and narrowly escaped being kicked to death amidst a shower of horse snot. Was that courage? Certainly the punishment had been severe, although both Mikehl and Barkus swore the beatings were worth it and Master Rensial’s confused mind had soon let the incident slip into the cloudy morass of his memory.

He watched the flames rise and consume the mutilated flesh and bone that had once been his friend and thought:I’m sorry, Mikehl. I’m sorry you died because of me. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to save you. If I can, one day I will find who sent those men into the forest and they will pay for your life. My thanks go with you.

He looked around to see that most of the other boys had drifted away, gone to the evening meal, but his group was still there, even Nortah, although he looked more bored than sorrowful. Jennis was crying softly, hugging himself, tears streaming down his face.

Caenis laid a hand on Vaelin’s shoulder. “We should eat. Our brother is gone.”

Vaelin nodded. “I was thinking about the time in the stables. Remember? The feed bag.”

Caenis grinned a little. “I remember. I was jealous I hadn’t thought of it.” They walked back to the dining hall, Jennis being dragged along by Barkus, still crying, the others exchanging memories about Mikehl as the fire burned on behind them, taking his body away. In the morning they found that the remnants had been cleared, leaving only a circle of black ash to scar the grass. In the months and years that followed even that would fade.

CHAPTER THREE

The days came and went, they trained, they fought, they learned. Summer became autumn and then winter descended with driving rain and biting winds that soon gave way to the blizzards common to Asrael in the month of Ollanasur. After the pyre Mikehl’s name was rarely mentioned, they never forgot him but they didn’t talk about him, he was gone. Watching a new batch of recruits march through the gates in early winter, they had the odd sensation of no longer being the youngest, suddenly the worst chores would be someone else’s burden. Looking at the newcomers, Vaelin wondered if he had ever looked so young and alone. He wasn’t a child any more, he knew this, none of them were. They were different, changed. They were not like other boys. And his difference ran deeper than the others, he was a killer.

Ever since the forest his sleep had been troubled and he was often left sweating and shivering in the dark by dreams in which Mikehl’s slack, lifeless face came to ask why he hadn’t saved him. Sometimes it was the wolf that came, silent, staring, licking blood from its muzzle, its eyes holding a question Vaelin couldn’t fathom. Even the faces of the assassins, bloodied and torn, would come to spit hate-filled accusations that would rend him from sleep shouting unrepentant defiance: “Murderers! Scum! I hope you rot!”

“Vaelin?” It was usually Caenis he woke, some of the others too, but usually Caenis.

Vaelin would lie, say it was a dream of his mother, fighting the guilt of using her memory to hide the truth. They would talk for a while until Vaelin felt the tug of fatigue pulling him to sleep. Caenis proved a mine of many stories, he knew all the tales of the Faithful by heart and many others besides, especially the tale of the King.

“King Janus is a great man,” he said continually. “He built our Kingdom with the sword and the Faith.” He never tired of hearing how Vaelin had once met King Janus, how the tall, red-haired man had laid a hand on his head to ruffle his hair and say, “Hope you have your father’s arm, boy,” with a deep chuckle. In fact, Vaelin barely remembered the King, he had only eight years when his father nudged him forward at the palace reception. But he did recall the opulence of the palace and the rich clothing of the assembled nobles. King Janus had a son and a daughter, a serious-looking boy of about seventeen and a girl of Vaelin’s own age who scowled at him from behind her father’s long, ermine-rimmed cloak. The King had no queen by then, she had died the previous summer, they said his heart was broken and he would never take another bride. Vaelin recalled that the girl, his mother called her a princess, had lingered when the King moved on to greet another guest. She looked him up and down coldly. “I’m not marrying you,” she sneered. “You’re dirty.” With that she scampered after her father without looking back. Vaelin’s father had voiced one of his rare laughs, saying, “Don’t worry, boy. I’d not curse you with her.”

“What did he look like?” Caenis asked eagerly. “Was he six feet tall like they say?”

Vaelin shrugged. “He was tall. Couldn’t say how tall. And he had funny red marks on his neck, like he’d been burnt.”

“When he was seven he was struck down by the Red Hand,” Caenis told him, dropping into his storyteller voice. “For ten days he suffered the agonies and blood sweats that would have killed a grown man before his fever broke and he grew strong again. Even the Red Hand, which had brought death to every family in the land, couldn’t take Janus. Though but a child, his spirit was too strong to break.”

Vaelin surmised that Caenis would know many stories about his father, his time in the Order having taught him the true extent of the Battle Lord’s fame, but never asked to hear any. To Caenis Vaelin’s father was a legend, a hero who stood at the King’s side throughout the Wars of Unification. To Vaelin he was a rider disappearing into the fog two years ago.

“What are his children called?” Vaelin asked. For some reason his parents had never told him much about the court.

“The King’s son and heir to the throne is Prince Malcius, said to be a studious and dutiful young man. His daughter is Princess Lyrna, who many think will grow to outshine even her mother’s beauty.”


Blood Song

Blood Song