The Crimson Shield (opening chapter)

Beside him Sarvic turned to run. A Vathan spear reached for him. Gallow chopped it away; and then he was slipping back and the whole line was falling apart and the Vathen were pressing forward, pushed by the ranks behind them, stumbling over the bodies of the fallen.

For a moment the dead slowed them. Gallow turned and threw himself away from the Vathan shields. The earth under his feet was slick, ground to mud by the press of boots and watered with blood and sweat. A spear point hit him in the back like a kick from a horse. He staggered and slipped but kept on running as fast as he could. If the blow had pierced his mail he’d find out soon enough. The rest of the Marroc were scattering, fleeing down the back of the hill with the roars of the Vathen right behind. Javelots and stones rained around him but he didn’t look back. Didn’t dare, not yet.

He slowed for a moment to tuck his axe into his belt and scoop up a discarded spear. The Vathen had horsemen and a man with a spear could face a horse; and when at last he did snatch a glance over his shoulder, there they were, cresting the hill. They’d scythe through the fleeing Marroc and not one in ten would reach the safety of the trees because they were running in panic, not turning to face their enemy as they should. He’d seen all this before. The Vathen were good with their horses.

Sarvic was pelting empty-handed down the hill ahead of him. They’d never met before today and had no reason to be friends, but they’d stood together in the wall of shields and they’d both survived. Gallow caught him as the first Vathan rider drew back an arm to throw his javelot. He hurled himself at Sarvic’s legs, tumbling them both down the slope of the hill. Gallow rolled away, turned and rose to a crouch behind his shield. Other men had dropped theirs as they ran but that was folly.

The javelot hit his shield and almost knocked him over. Another rider galloped towards them. At the last moment Gallow raised his spear. The Vathan saw it too late. The point caught him in the belly and the other end wedged into the dirt and the rider flew out of his saddle, screaming, the spear driven right through him before the shaft snapped clean in two. Gallow wrenched the javelot from his shield. He forced another into Sarvic’s hand. There were plenty to be had. ‘Running won’t help you.’

More Vathen poured over the hill. Another galloped past and hurled his javelot, rattling Gallow’s shield. Gallow searched around, wild-eyed and frantic for any shelter. Further down the hill a knot of Marroc had held their nerve long enough to make a circle of spears. He raced towards them now, dragging Sarvic with him as the horsemen charged past. The shields opened to let him in and closed around him. He was a part of it without even thinking.

‘Wall and spears!’ Valaric? A fierce hope came with having men beside him again, shields locked together, even if they were nothing but a handful.

Another wave of Vathan horse swarmed past. The Marroc crouched in their circle, spears out like a hedgehog, poking over their shields. The horsemen thundered on. There were easier prey to catch but they threw their javelots anyway as they passed. The Marroc beside Gallow screamed and pitched forward.

‘You taught us this, Gallow, you Lhosir bastard,’ Valaric swore. ‘Curse these stunted hedge-born runts! Keep your shields high and your spears up and keep together, damn you!’

The Vathan foot soldiers were charging now, roaring and whooping. As the last riders passed, the circle of Marroc broke and sprinted for the woods. The air was hot and thick. Sweat trickled into Gallow’s eyes. The grass on the hill had been trampled flat and now gleamed bright in the sun. Bodies littered the ground close to the trees, scattered like armfuls of broken dolls where the Vathan horse had caught the Marroc rout. Hundreds of them pinned to the earth with javelots sticking up from their backs. There were Lhosir bodies too among the Marroc. Valaric pointed at one and laughed. ‘Not so invincible, eh?’

They reached the shadows of the wood and paused, gasping. Behind them the battlefield spread up the hill, dead men strewn in careless abandon. Crows already circled, waiting for the Vathen to finish so they could get on with some looting of their own. The moans and cries of the dying mixed with the shouts and hurrahs of the victors. Before long the dead would be stripped bare and the Vathen would move on.

‘Got to keep moving,’ Gallow said.

‘Shut your hole, forkbeard! They won’t follow us here.’ Valaric picked up his shield. He kicked a couple of Marroc who’d crouched against trees to catch their breath, glared at Sarvic and headed off again at a run. ‘A pox on you!’ he said as Gallow fell in step beside him. ‘They’ll move right on to Fedderhun and quick. They don’t care about us.’

But they still ran, a hard steady pace along whatever game trails they could find, putting as much distance as they could between them and the Vathen. Valaric only slowed when they ran out into a meadow surrounded by trees and by then they must have been a couple of miles from the battle. Far enough. The Marroc were gasping and soaked in sweat but they weren’t dead. There wouldn’t be many who’d stood in the shield wall on Lostring Hill who could say that.

The grass was up to their knees and filled with spring flowers and the air was alive with a heady scent. ‘Should be good enough,’ Valaric muttered. ‘We rest here for a bit then.’ He threw a snarl at Gallow. ‘This is the end of us now, forkbeard. After here it’s each to his own way, and you’re not welcome any more.’

‘Will you go to Fedderhun, Valaric?’

Valaric snorted. ‘There’s no walls. What’s the point? Fedderhun’s a fishing town. The Vathen will either burn it or they won’t and nothing you or I can do will change that. If your Lhosir prince wants a fight with the Vathen, I’ll be seeing to it that it’s not me and mine whose lives get crushed between you. I’ll be with my family.’

There wasn’t much to say to that. Old wounds were best left be. Gallow’s own children weren’t so many miles away either. And Arda; and they’d be safe if the Vathen went on to Fedderhun. He touched a hand to his chest and to the locket that hung on a chain around his neck, warm against his skin, buried beneath leather and mail. He could have been with them now, not here in a wood and stinking of sweat and blood. ‘I’m one of you now,’ he said, as much to himself as to Valaric.

Valaric snorted. ‘You’re never that, forkbeard.’

Gallow set down his spear and his shield and took off his helm, letting the air dry the sweat from his skin. ‘It’s still your land, Valaric.’

But Valaric shook his head. ‘Not any more.’

Cold Redemption (opening chapter)

Addic stopped. He blew on his hands and rubbed them together and took a moment to look at the mountains behind him. Hard to decide which he liked better: the ice-bitter clear skies of today or the blizzards that had come before. Wind and snow kept a man holed up in his hut with little to do but hope he could dig himself out again when it stopped. A clear day like this meant working, a chance to gather wood and maybe even hunt, but Modris it was cold! He stamped his feet and blew on his fingers again. It wasn’t helping. They’d gone numb a while back. His feet would follow before much longer. Cursed cold. He looked back the way he’d come, and it felt as though he’d been walking for hours but he could still see the little jagged spur that overlooked the hut where he’d been hiding these last few days.

Up on the shoulder of the mountain beyond the spur a bright flash caught his eye, a momentary glimmer in the sun. He squinted and peered but it vanished as quickly as it had come and he couldn’t make anything out. The snow, most likely, not that snow glinted like that; but what else could it be so deep in the pass?

Snow. Yes. Still, he kept looking now and then as he walked, until a wisp of cloud crossed the mountain and hid the shoulder where the old Aulian Way once ran from Varyxhun through the mountains and out the other side. The Aulians had fallen long before Addic was born, but that didn’t mean that nothing ever came over the mountains any more. The winter cold was a killer, but shadewalkers were already dead and so they came anyway.

He quickened his pace. The high road was carved into the mountainside over the knife-cut gorge of the Isset. It was hardly used at the best of times, even in summer when the snow briefly melted. No one had come through since the blizzards, and so he was left to wade thigh-deep through the snow on a narrow road he couldn’t see along a slope that would happily pitch him over a cliff if he took a wrong step. It was hard work, deadly tiring, but he didn’t have much choice now and at least the effort was keeping him warm. If he stopped to rest, he’d freeze. And it probably hadn’t been another shadewalker high up in the mountains, but if it was then he certainly didn’t want to be the first living thing it found.

By the time he ran into the forkbeards, hours later, he’d forgotten the shadewalker. By then he was so tired that his mind was wandering freely. He kept thinking how, somewhere ahead of him, one of the black lifeless trees that clung tenaciously to the gentler slopes above would have come down and blocked the road completely and he’d have to turn back, and he simply didn’t have the strength to go all the way back to his safe little hole where the forkbeards would never find him.

And there they were: four of them, forkbeards armed to the elbows and riding hardy mountain ponies along the Aulian Way where they had no possible reason to be unless they’d finally caught wind of where he was hiding; and the first thing he felt was an overwhelming relief that someone else had come this far and ploughed a path through the snow so that he wouldn’t have to, and how that was going to make his walking so much quicker and easier for the rest of the way. Took a few moments more for some sense to kick in, to realise that this far out from Varyxhun the forkbeards had come to hunt him down, winkle him out of wherever he was hiding and kill him. He might even have been flattered if he’d been carrying anything sharper than a big pile of animal pelts over his shoulder.

The crushing weight of failure hit him then, the futility of even trying to escape; and then a backhand of despair for good measure, since if the forkbeards had learned where he was hiding then someone must have told them, and there weren’t too many people that could be. Jonnic, perhaps. Brawlic, although it was hard to imagine. Achista? Little sister Achista?

His shoulders sagged. He tried to tell himself that no, she was too careful to be caught by any forkbeard, but the thought settled on him like a skin of heavy stone. He set the pelts carefully down and bowed in the snow. The forkbeards seemed bored and irritable, looking for trouble. ‘My lords!’ They were about as far from lords as Addic could imagine, but he called them that anyway in case it made a difference. Maybe they were out here on some other errand. He tried to imagine what that might be.

‘Addic.’ The forkbeard at the front beamed with pleasure, neatly murdering that little glimmer of hope. ‘Very kind of you to save us some bother.’ He swung himself down from his pony, keeping a cautious distance. It crossed Addic’s mind then that although the forkbeards had horses, they were hardly going to take the High Road at a gallop in the middle of winter when it was covered in snow, nor even at a fast trot unless they were unusually desperate to go over the edge and into the freezing Isset a hundred feet below. And if they knew him, then there was only one reason for them to be out here. He turned and ran, or tried his best to, floundering away through the snow, not straight back down the road because that would make it too easy for them but angling up among the trees. The snow shifted and slid under his feet, deep and soft. As he tried to catch his breath a spear whispered past his face.

‘Back here, Marroc. Take it like a man,’ bawled one of the forkbeards. Addic had no idea who they were. Just another band of Cithjan’s thugs out from Varyxhun. They probably looked pretty stupid, all of them and him too, not that that was much comfort. Struggling and hauling themselves up through the steep slopes and the drifted snow, slipping and sliding and almost falling with every other step, catching themselves now and then on the odd stunted tree that had somehow found a way to grow in this forsaken waste. The forkbeards were right behind him. Every lurch forward was a gamble, a test of balance and luck, waiting to see what lay under the snow, whether it would hold or shift. Sooner or later one of them would fall and wouldn’t catch himself, and then he’d be off straight down the slope, a quick bounce as he reached the road maybe and then over the edge, tumbling away among the rock and ice to the foaming waters of the Isset. Which for Addic was no worse than being caught, but for the forkbeards it was probably a worse fate than letting him get away. Perhaps desperation gave him an advantage?

But no, of course it was him that slipped and felt his legs go out from under him. He rolled onto his back, sliding faster and faster through the snow, trying to dig in his feet and achieving nothing. He could see the road below – with two more forkbeards standing on it right in his path – and then the great yawning abyss of the gorge. He threw out his arms and clawed at the slope but the snow only laughed at him, coming away in great chunks to tumble around him, past him. He caught a glimpse of the forkbeards on the road looking up. Laughing, probably, or maybe they were disappointed that the Isset and the mountainside were going to do their work for them. Maybe he could steer himself to hit them and they could all go over the edge together?

Two forkbeards on the road? He wondered for a moment where they’d come from, but then he caught a rock which sent him spinning and flipped him onto his front so he couldn’t see where he was going any more. A tree flew past, bashing him on the hip; he snatched and got half a hand to it but his fingers wouldn’t hold. Then he hit the road. One foot plunged deep into the snow and wrenched loose again with an ugly pain. His flailing hand caught hold of something and tried to cling on. The forkbeards, maybe? Again a moment of wonder, because he could have sworn he’d only seen four forkbeards with their ponies and they’d all been chasing him, so these had to have come the other way, but that couldn’t be right . . .

A hand grabbed him, and then another. He spun round, tipped over onto his back again, felt his legs go over the edge of the gorge and into the nothing, but the rest of him stopped. The forkbeards had caught him, and for one fleeting second he felt a surge of relief, though it quickly died: the forkbeards would have something far worse in mind than a quick death in the freezing waters of the Isset.

A cloud of snow blew over him. When it passed he brushed his face clear so he could see. He was right on the edge of the gorge, the Isset grinning back up at him from far below. Two men stood over him. They’d let go and they weren’t hitting him yet and so his first instinct was to get up and run, but getting back to his feet and avoiding slipping over the edge took long enough for his eyes to see who’d saved him. He had no idea who they were or what they were doing out here on the Aulian Way in the middle of winter, but they weren’t forkbeards after all.

The bigger of the two men held out a hand to steady him. They weren’t Marroc either. The big one, well, if you looked past the poorly shaven chin, everything about him said that he was a forkbeard. Big strong arms, wide shoulders, tall and muscular with those pitiless glacier eyes. The other one though . . . Holy Modris, was he an Aulian, a real live one? He was short and wiry, wasted and thin and utterly exhausted, but his skin was darker than any Marroc and his eyes were such a deep brown they were almost black. He was also bald. Their clothes didn’t say much at all except that they were dressed for the mountains.

The four forkbeards were picking their way down from the slopes above, slow and cautious now. The two men who’d saved his life looked at him blankly. They were half dead. The Aulian’s eyes were glassy, his hands limp and his breathing ragged. The big one wasn’t much better, swaying from side to side. Addic thought of the flash he’d seen from the mountain shoulder hours ago and for a moment wonder got the better of fear. ‘You crossed the Aulian Way? In winter?’

The forkbeards were almost down now and they had their shields off their backs. The first one slid onto the road in pile of snow about ten paces from where Addic was standing. He pulled out his axe but didn’t come forward, not yet. He watched warily. ‘Hand over the Marroc.’

The big man stood a little straighter. ‘Why? What’s he done?’ He was breathing hard and his shoulders quickly slumped again. He looked ready to collapse. An ally, maybe? But against four forkbeards? Addic glanced down the road, back the way he’d come.

‘Pissed me off,’ said the forkbeard with the axe. ‘Like you’re doing now.’

The stranger growled. The Aulian put a hand on his arm but the big man shook it off. ‘Three years,’ he snarled. ‘Three years I’m away and I come back to this.’ The other forkbeards were on the road now, the four of them grouping together, ready to advance. The stranger drew his sword and for a moment Addic forgot about running and stared at the blade. It was long, too long to be a Marroc edge – or a forkbeard one either – and in the winter sun it was tinged a deep red like dried blood. ‘Three years.’ The big man bared his teeth and advanced. ‘Now tell me how far it is to Varyxhun and get out of my way!’

‘Three days,’ said Addic weakly, bemused by the idea of anyone telling four angry forkbeards to get out of my way. ‘Maybe four.’ The forkbeards were peering at the stranger’s shield, an old battered round thing, painted red once before half the paint flaked off. It had seen a lot of use, that was obvious.

‘Move!’ The stranger walked straight at them.

‘Piss off!’

Addic didn’t see quite what happened next. One of the forkbeards must have tried something, or else the stranger just liked picking fights when he was outnumbered and exhausted. There was a shout, a red blur and a scream and then one of the forkbeards dropped his shield and bright blood sprayed across the snow. It took Addic a moment to realise that the shield lying on the road still had a hand and half an arm holding it.

Nioingr!’ The other three piled into the stranger. Addic wished he had a blade of his own, and if he had might have stayed. But he didn’t, and there wasn’t anything he could do, and so he turned to flee and ran straight into the Aulian.

‘Hey!’

‘Out the way.’ He pushed past. The darkskin had a knife out but obviously didn’t know what to do with it. ‘If I were you, I’d run!’

The Aulian ignored him and took a step toward the fight. ‘Gallow!’

Addic heard the name as he fled. It stuck with him as he ran. He’d heard it somewhere before.

The Last Bastion (exceprt)

The drunken forkbeard was going to be a problem. Mirrahj watched him, keeping a careful distance. He was sitting in the mud in the middle of Hrodicslet, not doing much except singing to himself, and that was fine until any of her riders got anywhere close, when he stumbled to his feet and lurched and started shouting and swinging his axe. No one wanted to go anywhere near him and Mirrahj Bashar could see why.

‘Let me shoot him,’ grumbled Josper. ‘Put an arrow or two in his legs, that should shut him up.’ Josper was sulking. The rains might have broken the day before but the Marroc town was soaking wet. The streets were rivers of mud and the houses were all built on stilts, as if mud was only the beginning. Josper liked to burn things, but around here he couldn’t even find tinder to start a flame.

‘No.’ Mirrahj waved him off. ‘Circle the place again. Find some Marroc and chase them into the marsh. See which way they go.’ Josper rode away laughing. He’d enjoy himself with that until it got dark and the ghuldogs came out. He’d be back sharp enough then though, tail between his legs.

Which left her with the forkbeard. Other times she’d have let Josper have his way, but this one interested her. A forkbeard on the wrong side of the river. Just the one, not some raiding party, which begged the question: how did he get here? And that in turn begged the answer she was secretly looking for: a southern passage around the Crackmarsh and across the Isset. Because there had to be one, there simply had to, and if the forkbeard knew it then she wanted it out of him.

Mirrahj got off her horse. She checked the buckles on the little round shield strapped to her left arm and headed towards him. Shrajal and two of his riders came out of a house dragging a pair of screaming Marroc children. ‘Don’t get too close!’ He was laughing at her. ‘That one bites.’ He made a show of stringing up his captives but he was watching her all the time. Waiting for her to fail, just like Josper was waiting too.

The forkbeard stopped singing and started staring as Mirrahj came close. He tried to get up, fell over and then finally found his feet. Mirrahj drew the short curved sword at her side and stabbed it into the mud. Her helm followed. She shook her hair, letting the braids fall around her neck. Sometimes men didn’t know what to do when they realised she was a woman. The forkbeard stumbled a step towards her, half drew the axe from his belt and then put it back. ‘Men all too scared, are they? That’s you horse buggerers. No pride.’

She smiled. He was a big one, even for a forkbeard, but it made no difference. The rest of the ride could have him once she’d got what she wanted. She turned to Shrajal. ‘You hear that, Shrajal? Forkbeard says you’re scared of him.’

‘Forkbeard can come here and say that if he wants. I’m not going anywhere.’

They both laughed. Mirrahj turned back. ‘They’re not scared of you. They’re waiting for me to tell them what to do with you. What are you doing here? There aren’t any forkbeards on this side of the Isset.’

He seemed to forget she was there. He tipped back his head and howled. ‘Medrin? Medrin! Waiting for you. Here I am! Come and get me!’ His eyes dropped suddenly back to Mirrahj again. ‘I’m the one who took his hand.’

‘You took King Sixfingers’ hand? I don’t believe you.’

‘Believe what you like, Vathan.’

‘You were in Andhun when we stole it from you, then?’ She took a slow step closer. ‘I was there too.’ Another step. ‘How did you get across the Crackmarsh, forkbeard? Did you walk or did you ride? How did you get past the ghuldogs and the Marroc who live in there?’

The forkbeard sat down with a heavy splat in the mud. ‘I didn’t. I came through the caves and down the mountains like everyone else.’ He rocked back and put a finger to his lips and a lazy smile moved over his face. ‘But don’t tell the other forkbeards.’

So he does know! A surge of anticipation sparked through her. Behind the forkbeard another handful of men spilled into the mud from the big hall at the heart of the town. They were whooping and cheering. A moment later a curl of smoke followed them out through the door. Mirrahj laughed. Someone had finally got a fire going and Josper had missed it. She took another step closer. ‘Tell me about these caves and this path down the mountains.’ When he didn’t answer, she stifled a flash of irritation. ‘You were in Andhun, were you? Does that make you a soldier?’

‘Always a soldier.’ The forkbeard laughed. ‘Too much of one.’ He started to rise, slipped in the mud and fell flat on his back and then finally stood up again. ‘You look mighty fine for a Vathan.’

‘And you’re ugly even for a forkbeard. If you’re a soldier, how many came with you? Where are they?’ There were flames under the eaves of the burning hall now. A haze of smoke and steam hung over its thatched roof. More of her riders were coming, looking to light a brand and see if they could fire a few of the other houses too. They were watching her.

The forkbeard rubbed his misshapen nose. ‘Soldier? I’m not anything. Nothing. Nioingr. That’s what they call me. You can say it three times if you like. Then I have to kill you.’

Nioingr. A traitor and an outcast. In that case, maybe he’d tell her what she wanted freely. ‘What’s your name, outcast?’

‘Gallow Foxbeard.’ He grinned at her as though that was supposed to mean something.

‘You’re a long way from home, Gallow Foxbeard.’

‘Home?’ The forkbeard howled with bitter laughter. Mirrahj took another step closer. ‘Careful, Vathan. I’ve killed plenty of your kind.’

‘I’m unarmed, forkbeard.’

‘Lhosir don’t make war on women and children.’ He spat. ‘Didn’t used to, anyway.’

‘You’re a strange one.’ And not much use drunk. She’d have him alive and let him sober up in a cage and then she’d set about finding out whether he knew a way across the Isset or not. Or maybe Josper would find one for her after all, or one of the Marroc prisoners would know of one and the forkbeard wouldn’t matter any more. Either way her ride would take some pleasure from a forkbeard’s screams. Another scratch of vengeance for what they’d done outside Andhun.

She walked towards him with purpose now. He cocked his head and his face screwed up, trying to make sense of it. He waved his axe at her. ‘Piss off, Vathan.’

‘I don’t think I will.’ She stopped right in front of him, so close he could have swung at her, but he didn’t. ‘Well, forkbeard, whatever you think, you’re going to fight a woman today. Look.’ She threw aside her shield. ‘I’ve made it easy for you. Fists. No steel.’

‘Girl, I’m twice your size.’

But he was steaming drunk too. Mirrahj stood in front of him.

‘Leave me alone. Go away.’

‘Make me.’

Down the street behind him there were about a dozen of her men watching them now. Even the ones who’d lit brands were waiting. ‘My men are watching us, forkbeard. I’m their bashar.’ Which made it a matter of pride and face. He had to understand that, didn’t he?

He closed his eyes. For a long time he stood like that, head tipped back to the clouds, and Mirrahj reckoned she could have just walked up behind him, wrapped an arm around his neck and choked him and he wouldn’t even have noticed. But she waited. Eventually he looked at her again and groaned because she hadn’t vanished like she was supposed to. He sighed and threw down his axe and his shield. ‘Maker-Devourer, girl. Come on then. I’m going to pull those leathers down and spank your arse.’

She crept closer, one shuffle at a time until he lunged and she ducked and darted behind him, and it was even easier than she’d hoped. She jumped onto his back and wrapped her legs around his waist and one arm around his neck, gripped it with the other and squeezed as tight as she could. He staggered, turning round and round as though he didn’t quite understand that she wasn’t simply behind him. Damned forkbeard was built like a bull, with a neck so strong that she had a moment of doubt. Shrajal was watching her though, and the others who weren’t out chasing Marroc. She’d staked her right to be their bashar on taking this forkbeard down, and that made it a bit late for doubts.

‘I had a daughter like you,’ slurred the forkbeard. ‘Like a bloody limpet. Could never shake her off.’ He didn’t do any of the obvious things, like run backwards and smash her into the wall of a hut or throw himself down on his back and try to drown her in the mud. If he did, she wasn’t sure she could hold on. Wasn’t sure her ribs wouldn’t snap, if it came to it, but then it had always been a gamble. He was stinking drunk and it made him stupid.

One hand tried to get a grip on her arm. The other pawed over his shoulder, trying to grab her face. ‘I had brothers,’ she said. ‘Lots of brothers.’ She grunted at the effort. The muscles in her arms were burning at the pressure she was putting on the forkbeard’s neck, and he was still talking? She squeezed harder. ‘Lots of brothers. All bigger than I was.’

‘No brothers, me.’ The forkbeard was losing his strength. ‘Made my own. All brothers. Before . . .’ He stumbled and sank to his knees.

‘Well I had lots.’ Mirrahj forced herself to keep her arms tight. ‘I had a man as well, and he was big like you, and I always beat him even so.’

‘I had a wife.’ The forkbeard’s arms dropped to his sides. ‘So where is he, your man?’ Another few seconds and he finally went limp and toppled over into the mud.

‘He died,’ she said quietly. ‘Fighting forkbeards like you.’ She stayed on his back, squeezing until she’d counted to twenty in her head. Then, only then, she let go and stepped back. Her furs were covered in mud. It was oozing through the forkbeard’s fingers. He was face down and so heavy that she almost couldn’t roll him over onto his back to stop him from drowning. She did, though, and then put an ear to his chest. He was still breathing.

‘Shrajal! Bind him and get him out of here.’ She made a sharp gesture to the riders who’d stopped to watch. They turned and set about what they’d come to do: looting everything they could carry and burning whatever would burn in this godforsaken swamp. Mirrahj climbed back onto her horse and rode among them, watching, shouting encouragement here and there. Her arms were still burning.

They dragged the last few Marroc out of their homes. There wasn’t much worth taking and only a little food this far towards the backside of winter. The sky was darkening, more rain on its way. As it started they rounded up the Marroc animals they’d taken. They’d slaughter themselves a feast before they moved on, sleep in the houses they didn’t burn, warmed by the fires of the ones they had, and tomorrow they’d leave. Deeper into the mountains or further around the fringes of the Crackmarsh, one or the other, looking for the south passage across the Isset. They wouldn’t stray far though, not for another day or two. Josper deserved his chance with the Marroc.

 

Bashar!’ It was almost dark when Shrajal caught up with her again. As he reined in his horse he was brandishing something that looked like a sword but wasn’t. A scabbard.

‘Shrajal.’ Mirrahj let her face settle into an amused disdain. Shrajal was young and eager – a little too eager.

He thrust the scabbard at her. ‘Look! Look!’

She looked, and at first there was nothing to see. A scabbard for a Vathan sword. An ornate one, and she wondered for a moment if he meant it as a courting gift, which made him more stupid than she’d thought. But the scabbard was too long for a Vathan blade, and then the designs in the metal around the top of the sheath caught her eye, and she knew she was wrong and Shrajal was sharper than he looked. ‘Where did you get this?’

He answered with a grin. ‘The forkbeard.’ He probably hadn’t ever even seen it before but he still knew what it was. Mirrahj, who had seen it, had no doubt at all. He was holding the scabbard they’d lost at Andhun. The Peacebringer’s scabbard, and if the forkbeard carried that then maybe he knew the fate of the red sword itself and Shrajal had every right to look pleased with himself because nothing mattered to the Vathen more than the Sword of the Weeping God.

Mirrahj nudged her horse a step closer so her mount was almost touching his and leaned over. ‘Spread the word and then go after Josper and bring him back. After we’re done here we head straight back for the ardshan in Andhun.’ She smiled. ‘Have some fun with Josper. Tell him what you found.’