Veradis fell through the night air, weightless. He caught glimpses of the tower of Brikan, Calidus’ still-smouldering outline at the window, then below, the river coming up to meet him. He slammed into the water, the cold shocking the breath out of him. He panicked, disorientated, realizing he didn’t know which way was up; all about him was darkness and ice. Then something grabbed his hair and he was surging upwards, breaking through the water in a burst of spray, and saw Alcyon’s pale, broad face staring back at him. ‘They will come hunting for us,’ the giant shouted over the roar of the river as the current gripped them, sweeping them away from the thunder of warriors’ feet crossing the bridge. ‘Let the water take us far from them.’ Veradis saw the sense of that, though his hands and feet were already numbing from the cold. He put some effort into swimming, speeding his way from Brikan, from Calidus – from the Kadoshim. The thought still jolted him like a blow. They turned a bend in the river and the fortress was gone, darkness enfolding them. The soft, weak sheen of dawn’s grey light filtered down through the lattice of branches above as Veradis met Alcyon’s gaze, an unspoken agreement passing between them, as they both headed for the riverbank. It was harder going, swimming across the current, and Veradis realized how exhausted his body was, but eventually he felt silt beneath his feet, his hands grasping at reeds as he pulled himself out of the water and flopped onto his back, gasping, his limbs feeling lead-filled. Turning, he saw Alcyon on the bank, thirty of forty paces upriver from him, staggering wearily towards him, before he slumped down beside him with a groan, water dripping from his drooping moustache. ‘Thank you,’ Alcyon said.
‘For what?’ ‘Everything. Most of all for helping my family escape Brikan’s dungeons.’ His wife and bairn. How long has he gone without seeing them? And what must he have suf ered, knowing they were Calidus and Lykos’ prisoners? ‘And for destroying Calidus’ effigy of me,’ Alcyon continued. ‘You have set me free.’ He gave a shudder, followed by a smile. ‘A shadow is gone from my soul. I feel reborn.’ ‘If you mean you feel weak as a newborn bairn,’ Veradis muttered as he emptied his boot of water and tried to pull it back on, ‘then I feel the same.’ ‘That is not what I mean,’ the giant rumbled, regarding Veradis with serious eyes.
‘You set Raina and Tain free; you set me free. I owe you a debt beyond all imagining.’ ‘You are in no debt to me,’ Veradis said. ‘I kicked the effigies into the fire on impulse, not really knowing what they were, or what power they held over you.’ ‘But you suspected?’ ‘Aye. Something that Fidele said . ’ He thought of Nathair’s mother, hoped that she had made it to freedom, along with his brother Krelis, Maquin and Alben. ‘And your wife and son – I set them free because it was the right thing to do. There was no other choice.’ ‘Ah, but there was, True-Heart.
There always is.’ Veradis shrugged. ‘There is no debt between us. You are my friend.’ One of my only friends, it has turned out. His thoughts swept bitterly to Nathair and the confession and revelations that had stunned Veradis. He remembered Calidus’ confession: that Nathair had slain Aquilus, his own father. Anger and shame twisted through him. There had been so many signs . How can I have been deceived for so long? I am a fool.
‘How long?’ Veradis asked him. ‘How long have you been Calidus’ prisoner?’ Alcyon’s smile withered. ‘Sixteen years.’ ‘That is a long time.’ ‘It is.’ Alcyon clenched his fists, knuckles cracking. ‘I should have killed him.’ ‘To be fair, we both tried hard on that count. I put a knife in his belly, threw him in a fire and you shattered his chest with a war-hammer.’ ‘Kadoshim are hard to kill.
’ ‘I’d have to agree. Can he be killed?’ ‘Maybe taking his head. That is how the others are slain.’ ‘Others?’ ‘The Jehar – they are demon-possessed by Kadoshim. At Murias . ’ Alcyon said to the question in Veradis’ eyes. ‘The Jehar,’ Veradis muttered, shaking his head. ‘I have been so blind.’ ‘You trusted your King, and your friend.’ Alcyon shrugged.
‘There are worse failings to have.’ Are there? I have dedicated my life to a lie. They both sat in silence, water dripping from clothes and hair. ‘What now?’ Veradis said to himself. ‘It feels as if my whole life has been dedicated to Nathair and his cause. What do I do now?’ Alcyon regarded him gravely, then poked his chest with a thick finger. ‘What does your heart tell you?’ ‘I would not trust it. Look where it has led me thus far,’ Veradis said sourly. ‘Your eyes are open now.’ Veradis sucked in a deep breath, felt exhaustion seeping through him.
‘What would you do?’ he asked the giant. ‘Find my kin. My Raina and Tain.’ He smiled as he said their names. Kin. My father is slain, as is my brother Ektor. Only Krelis is left. Suddenly he was desperate to see his older brother. ‘Find our kin,’ he echoed. ‘A good place to start.
’ Something squawked: a handful of wood pigeons suddenly bursting from the trees and flapping noisily overhead. ‘We should move.’ We need cover. ‘Aye. To the trees,’ Veradis said as he stood, suppressing a groan. They were halfway across the clearing when Alcyon stopped abruptly, staring back along the riverbank. Forms appeared around a distant bend on the track, shadows in the half-light that Forn’s canopy created. Black shadows with curved swords sheathed across their backs. ‘Kadoshim,’ Alcyon growled. Veradis counted at least seven of them, moving quickly, a loping, ground-eating pace, like a pack of wolven.
They were spread in a half-circle between the riverbank and the treeline. They are hunting us. Have been running all night long, following the river in search of our trail. One of the figures paused, the others rippling to a halt about it. It lifted its head, as if tasting the air, then gave an ululating howl and leaped forwards, a new energy in its stride. They’ve caught our scent. Veradis felt a jolt of fear. He’d faced giants, draigs, warbands, but somehow knowing that the demons of the Otherworld were hunting him sent a cold shock of fear tingling through his veins. Kadoshim. Calidus’ kin.
My enemy. Calidus filled his mind, an image of the man he had thought counsellor and ally emerging from the fire in Brikan’s tower, flame-wreathed and snarling. He has corrupted Nathair and has deceived me for so long. He is the author of this evil. Fear morphed into a cold rage and he reached for his sword, lips twisting. ‘Move,’ Alcyon grunted and broke into a run. Veradis resisted for a moment, inexplicably wanting to stand and fight these creatures, but Alcyon dragged him along and in a heartbeat they were only a few strides from the treeline. He realized the giant had no weapon – no war-hammer or battle-axe strapped across his back, no sword or dagger at his hip. They crashed through the first layer of undergrowth and were immediately enveloped by a twilight world of shadow and thorn. Alcyon forged ahead, grunting as branches snapped upon his rock-like torso, thorns whipping at Veradis, vines tangling about his boots.
For what seemed a long time Veradis only heard his own heart thumping, the rasp of his breath, the thud of Alcyon’s feet, then there were sounds behind him, faint at first, like the rustle of wind through foliage, but soon louder, keening cries were floating about him. They splashed through a stream, something sinuous slithered beneath Veradis’ feet, making him stumble. ‘They are almost upon us,’ he gasped to Alcyon. Better to turn and fight, hold a sword in my fist, than die running. ‘I know,’ the giant said, turning, chest heaving. Veradis drew his sword as they put their backs to a huge tree, the stream before them, and waited. Forms flitted through the gloom, emerging from a curtain of shadows and thick foliage. One was a long way ahead of the others, clothed in the dark mail of the Jehar, pale-skinned, dark veins making a tapestry of its flesh. It saw them and leaped the stream, arms reaching for Veradis, not even bothering to draw its sword. ‘Remember, you must take their heads,’ Alcyon grunted as he pushed away from the tree, hurling himself into the oncoming Kadoshim with bone-crunching power.
The two fell to the ground. Veradis hurtled forwards, sword raised, hacking two-handed at the Kadoshim’s arm, its hand spinning away, blood like oil pumping languidly from the stump, then the two forms were rolling together again. Alcyon growled in pain, then he was on his knees, arms wrapped about the Kadoshim’s torso, pinning its arms at its side. The creature’s head writhed, veins bulging as it strained to break free, Alcyon’s face turning purple with the effort, his locked fingers slowly pulling apart. ‘What . are you . waiting for?’ the giant rasped, and Veradis swung his sword, chopping into the creature’s neck. Dark blood spurted from the half-severed neck, the Kadoshim screeching with fury; Alcyon roared with the strain of holding the creature. Veradis wrenched his sword free and swung again. The Kadoshim’s head flew through the air, landing with a splash in the stream.
Its body slumped, legs drumming as Alcyon fell away and rolled clear. A black ichor-like mist flowed from the Kadoshim’s neck, hissing and swirling, gathering above its body, forming a human shape with tattered wings of smoke spread about it and red eyes glowing like coals at its heart. Veradis stared, frozen. It screamed savagely, then it was melting away, torn and dispersed by a slight breeze. ‘What the hell?’ Veradis gasped. ‘Down,’ Alcyon yelled as he surged up from the ground, a fist slamming into the jaw of a leaping Kadoshim, hurling it spinning into the undergrowth. Almost as soon as it hit the ground it was back on its feet, twisting like a feral cat. Veradis hefted his sword, spread his legs to meet the impact and then something crunched into his side, sending him flying through the air, another Kadoshim’s arms locked around his waist. He caught a glimpse of Alcyon standing, Kadoshim swarming upon him, then Veradis was slamming into the ground. Pain exploded in his shoulder and his sword skittered away.
He rolled, punched at his attacker, for a moment staring into its black soulless eyes, then they were sliding into the stream, the Kadoshim beneath him, his hands fastening about its neck, squeezing, seeking to crush the life from the black-eyed abomination. It bucked and kicked like a wild stallion, thrashing a tempest amidst the stream water, but Veradis would not let go. He felt its strength ebbing, some of its vitality fading, then hands gripped him from behind, dragging him backwards, his fingers slipping as he was hauled to the bank. Another Kadoshim stood over him, drawing its sword from its back as the one from the stream splashed into view. He rolled and saw a handful of Kadoshim circling Alcyon, who had fallen to one knee, the giant bleeding from a dozen wounds. Veradis tried to drag himself through the mud towards his friend. Another Kadoshim was held in Alcyon’s arms, he had one hand gripping its jaw, the other wrapped about its chest. With a savage wrench, Alcyon heaved; Veradis heard the Kadoshim’s neck break, then the sound of flesh tearing, Alcyon screaming his defiance as he ripped the Kadoshim’s head from its shoulders. He flung the corpse to the ground as the black mist boiled from the dead creature’s wound. A searing pain lanced through Veradis’ leg: a Kadoshim blade scoring along his thigh.
He dropped to the ground, looked back at the two Kadoshim on the stream bank. They were following him. Toying with him. The one with the drawn sword slashed his blade across Veradis’ upheld forearm, a new cut burning like fire. ‘Think we’ll bleed you awhile,’ the Kadoshim said, leering with pale lips. ‘Pay you back for the chase you’ve led us.’ It should not end like this. Frustration gave Veradis a last surge of strength and he rolled to his feet, pushed himself upright. The Kadoshim before him grinned, then paused, cocking its head to one side. Figures burst out of the gloom.
Veradis’ hopes rose and then fell as he saw the newcomers were dressed in black breastplates with silver eagles on their chests. Eagle-guard – no doubt sent by Nathair to make sure that his monsters complete their task. Ten, twelve, fifteen more men . one of them tall and wide. Veradis blinked, something familiar. ‘Well met, little brother,’ the big man bellowed, grinning wildly. A moment’s confusion, followed swiftly by elation. Krelis! Then Krelis and his men were attacking the Kadoshim, Krelis taking a head in one great swing of his longsword. Another warrior swept into view, this one not dressed as a man of Tenebral, but gripping a knife in each hand. He joined Krelis, and together they attacked the Kadoshim before Veradis.
Maquin and Krelis. CHAPTER TWO NATHAIR Nathair stood in the great hall of Drassil and stared at the giant’s skeleton on its throne. The bones of the ribcage surrounded a thick-shafted spear, the wood dark and pale-veined, only a hint of black iron of the blade visible, the rest buried in the great tree of Drassil. So that is Skald, High King of the giants, and that is the starstone spear. Skald, the last man to rule a united empire where giants and men lived together in peace. Will I be the next to unite this shattered world? The skeleton was mottled yellow and brown, ancient, the brow of the skull broad and thick, eye-sockets black holes that seemed to stare at Nathair, questioning him. Are you worthy? Are you capable? He sighed. History shall be my judge – nothing and no one else. A hand touched his shoulder. Caesus was standing at the head of three score eagle-guard.
The young warrior had been recently promoted to high captain of Nathair’s warband, now that Veradis was gone. Ah, Veradis. Are you dead or alive, old friend? It does not seem right that you are not beside me to share in this great victory. He had been informed of Veradis’ betrayal, his attempt on Calidus’ life, and he and Alcyon’s escape. Veradis, how could you abandon me, break your oath to me? He looked at the white scars on the palm of his hand, one of them made as a blood-oath of brotherhood to Veradis on a moonlit hillside in Tenebral. It felt like a lifetime ago, words and promises spoken by different people. ‘My King,’ Caesus said. ‘It is Calidus. He asks for you.’ Nathair looked back at the skeleton one last time, then turned and strode through the huge chamber.
The dead were still being cleared from the battle of the day before. Blood stained the stone floor; mounds of corpses lay in stinking piles. Hundreds of them – Kadoshim, Jehar, Vin Thalun, eagleguard, Benothi giants, many others. The cost of taking Drassil had been high, higher than he would have imagined considering that the element of surprise had been on their side. But victory is victory. The fortress is ours, the back of our enemy broken. Though many had escaped: reports were coming in of pitched battles still being fought beyond the walls of Drassil. Nathair glanced to his right as he passed an open trapdoor as wide as the gates of Jerolin, and the dark stain of blood on the stone before it. Meical’s blood. The Ben-Elim’s head now adorned a spear set in the ground of the courtyard before the gates of Drassil.
It was not alone. But what of Corban, their Bright Star? Where is he? He glared mistrustfully into the yawning dark of the tunnel, knew that Meical had chosen to stand and fight there to gain time for many who escaped into the tunnel. Was Corban one of them? There had been no reports of Corban being seen during the battle. Had he even been here? It had been a long night and Nathair felt a greater weariness settling upon him than he had ever known before. Caesus snapped an order behind him and eagle-guard spread to either side, forming a protective column. ‘Drassil is not yet secure,’ Caesus said in reply to Nathair’s enquiring look. The courtyard also bore the signs of yesterday’s battle, bodies scattered all about, flies buzzing, the metallic aroma of blood everywhere. For an instant Nathair thought he saw a wolven cub tugging at the leg of a dead Kadoshim, but looking back realized it was a small white-furred dog. They turned a corner in a street and Nathair glimpsed the towering outer walls of Drassil beyond the layers of stone buildings latticed with thick branches. This is a truly remarkable place.
Branches soared above him as thick as towers, with buildings of stone and iron wrapped about them, bound tighter than leather armour. It looks almost alive: the tree the bones, the fortress its flesh. The rasp of a sword drawn from its scabbard drew his attention, and he glimpsed a black-clothed warrior hurtling from the shadows of a doorway. Abruptly Caesus was yelling as more dark figures emerged, iron glinting. The eagle-guard moved, shields thudding together around Nathair, obscuring his view. Blood sprayed, spattering Nathair’s face as an eagle-guard before him collapsed. A black-clothed Jehar slipped into the gap carved in the shield wall, surging towards Nathair. Nathair drew his sword, fear and rage, his constant companions, igniting within him. The shouts and screams of battle faded, his world contracting to the Jehar warrior before him. A woman, her dark-skinned face all sharp bones, almost fragile-looking.
‘Truth and courage,’ she yelled, curved sword rising. There was an explosion of sparks as their weapons met, the power of the Jehar’s strike making the tendons of his wrist shriek, shuddering on into his arm and shoulder. He pushed forwards, knowing to retreat was to die, tried to move within her guard, use his short sword where her longer blade would hinder her. They collided, limbs tangling as both crashed to the ground, wrestling, punching, kicking and biting at each other as they rolled back and forth across the stone street, with the battle raging all about them. The Jehar struck a glancing blow that made his vision blur. Then her knee crunched into his groin and he slumped, pain exploding, pulsing through him in savage waves, draining his strength. She pulled herself free and half rose as he coughed into the cold stone, tried to rise, knew if he didn’t he was dead. Fear and rage sparked inside him, sent new energy coursing through his veins. I’ll not die here. The Jehar stood over him, sword raised, her eyes bright with victory.
Then a form crashed into her, throwing her to the ground. She started to rise and a boot slammed into her jaw, sent her crashing back down. The figure was blurred, a buzzing cloud swirling about it. Hands gripped him and pulled him upright, Caesus’ concerned face appeared, blood sheeting from a long cut across his forehead. Nathair looked past him, saw his rescuer pull a sword from a scabbard upon its back and raise it over the unconscious Jehar. A Kadoshim. ‘No,’ Nathair called; the figure’s head turned to look at him, the buzzing cloud parting. Flies, Nathair realized, recognizing the Kadoshim. ‘No, Legion. I want her alive.
’ The Kadoshim regarded him for a moment with its cold black eyes. ‘Better dead,’ it said. ‘I want her alive,’ Nathair snapped. ‘Calidus may have questions.’ ‘Dead after, then,’ the Kadoshim said, then sheathing its sword. ‘Calidus wants you.’ The flesh of its face and neck rippled, seemed to move of its own accord, as if something were locked within, trying to get out. About them the battle seemed almost done.