The young woman bent down, gripping the dark shaft of the arrow and pressing her other hand to the deer’s flank as she tugged it free. A small well of crimson followed the arrowhead, and the woman watched it momentarily with a soft smile on her features. She was tall, lithe, her trusses of rich dark hair pulled back and tied, hanging in waves down her back. She wore hunting leathers and at her belt was a quiver of mottled galmbark to match the bow now slung over her shoulder, dari-craft light as a feather, tough and springy. She rested now on her haunches, rearranging the string of hare carcasses strung to her back, and her hand stayed where it was on the deer’s side. A good shot if I weren’t hunting for food, she thought wryly. Right into the spine. Meat will probably toughen if it’s not bled soon though. She didn’t flinch when there was a sharp crack in the treeline behind her; instead her faint smile widened into a smirk. She spoke into the still-again air.
“You may as well come out, Ange. You move with all the grace of one of those orghuli you’re always telling me about.”
There was a snort from behind her, followed by footprints no longer muffled by the pretence of stealth. She turned and sat on the deer as her follower emerged from the undergrowth, a rueful grin on his face. He was short for a vaivardi although he still stood a hand taller than her, whip-thin, his features angular, tilted eyes above an aquiline nose and prominent cheekbones. His forehead was faintly sloped and his long hair pulled tightly back into a traditional topknot, which revealed the fullness of his long and flexible ears, currently standing upright alongside his head. He was young – younger than her by six or seven years, although given the relatively short lifespan of vaivardi he was a young adult just like her, probably slightly older in equivalent terms. Even so his eyebrows were long and waxed to points longer than was normal for one of his years, and he wore a short moustache and beard that ran along his narrow jaw into a waxed point at his chin. His skin was the colour of teak and his eyes were jet black to match his hair. The young woman regarded her friend as he approached, and fought back a laugh as she noticed a twig lodged in his hair just below the topknot.
He followed her gaze and his eyebrows rose; turning round to see what she was looking at he exposed the twin shortsabres sheathed crossways at the small of his back. The blades inside the scabbards were simple steel, she knew, but they were tarred black with an unguent that she knew acted both to prevent them from catching the sun’s light and also as a virulent poison that caused muscles and organs to stiffen and lock up. She also noted that he was dressed, as he always seemed to be, in his tight maroon kuffrine, a body-hugging cloth-and-leather wrapping that was invested with blade- and arrow-turning wards. She took in the loose brown leggings and belt-shawl that hung between his legs, made of lightweight wool and dyed a deep royal blue to denote that the wearer had surely earned the right to wear such finery. The reminder of the lethality her friend’s garb suggested quieted her for a brief moment, but then she noticed a branch the length of her arm jutting from his belt above his rear end and she spluttered with laughter again. It was implausibly large; how could he fail to notice it? Ianni Di’Ange turned his sharp features to her upon hearing her guffaw and one eyebrow rose laconically.
“Yes… well, I suspect even an orghul would struggle to remain silent in all this infernal shrubbery, Rhialwyn.” He tugged the branch from his belt and tossed it at her feet, setting one hand on his hip in a pose of easy relaxation and regarding her drily with the twig, now removed from his hair, between his teeth.
“Most orghuli would have the sense to stick to their natural habitat, Ange.” Rhialwyn picked up the branch and flung it at her friend’s head; of course, he caught it almost lazily and twirled it through his fingers. He moved beside her and helped lift the beast by its rear legs and drape it over a bough, head down. She turned, drawing her knife and slitting the deer’s throat. The blood gouted thick and hot over the ground and it seemed to her as if the grass drank eagerly of the flow. Leaning down to wash the knife in the icy river, she said. “Following me again, then?”
“You know I have to, Rhia. Your father would have me strung up like our poor friend here if I let you go hunting unguarded.” She rolled her eyes but said nothing. “Besides, if I wasn’t watching your back, I’d probably be ordered to pace endlessly back and forth across the Gap waiting for the next shadow to jump at.”
The comment was in jest but Rhialwyn paused and looked up at him, and found he wore a thoughtful expression as he gazed across the river.
“You believe the Palms then?” His eyes met hers.
“What reason have I to disbelieve them?” he asked, looking back across the water. “The Gap has been quiet for too long, as though the land is drawing breath. Either the madri are gathering, or they’ve all fled to the mountains. And somehow the latter doesn’t seem all that likely.”
“You don’t seem worried.”
“Why should I be? They’ve never breached the Gap before and I see no reason to fear they will now. Most likely it’s just another doomed invasion attempt, albeit an unusually large one. In any case, you’ve no reason to fear.” He eyed her sidelong, a smirk on his lips. “Not with a mighty orghul guarding you night and day.”
She shoved him with a laugh and he stumbled into the shallows before righting his balance with that annoying ease he’d always displayed since he’d been left in her father’s service as a boy of no more than twelve, a bargaining chip used by his mother to secure a more favourable water trade alliance with Kindair, the principal border town of northern Karom she called home. She knew vaivardi matrons were fearsome traders but even so it seemed harsh to sell one’s son into indentured servitude. These young boys were called vriorin, which carried a similar meaning to ‘squire’ in the vaivardi tongue. She suspected Ange had been fortunate to find as lenient a home as her father’s town – no doubt young vaivardi men across the world found themselves no better off than slaves. The very idea had always disgusted her, even as a child, and she had resolved there and then to look after young Ange, to be his friend. It had been arranged that Ange would be taught the sword and bow like all Kindari soldiers, and he would have a role and a purpose beyond that of a political pawn. But when it soon became abundantly clear that even at his young age he possessed more martial talent than any man in Kindair, Rhialwyn’s mother had, at young Rhialwyn’s insistence – she had ever been indulgent of her daughter – assigned Ange a duty as Rhialwyn’s personal bodyguard, such role to be assumed upon attaining manhood. As such, on his 16th birthday Ange had returned to his family’s home, in one of the hundreds of trading outposts on the southern coast of the Vaivar desert, to undergo the requisite rituals of adulthood, and he had returned a man, three years later, to Rhialwyn’s side, a position he rarely vacated for long. She had ever glad for his company, being an only child whose parents were often absent for diplomatic reasons, and she was proud that he moved so freely in society due to her parents’ belief that it was no more than he deserved, but a faint distance had grown between them while he had been absent, one that she was sure had never been there when they were children. He had never told her what his rite of passage had involved, and she had never pressed him, content to have her best friend back and by her side. He had, though, explained that it was commonplace for male vaivardi to be earmarked from birth as trade makeweights, and to increase their value boys were given rigorous training in a wide variety of philosophical, diplomatic or martial disciplines, depending on the requirements of the family’s trade partners. His mother, ever shrewd, had realised that Karom was always in need of able-bodied combatants to repel the regular border sorties from the madri of Urd. And so young Ange had been trained by a panoply of experts in the Way of Shifting Sands, the revered Vaivar art of twin-sabre fighting, equal parts combat technique and balletic dance. Rhialwyn had never seen her friend pushed near his limit but from the rumours she had heard she could well understand how he had impressed so much when he had begun his stewardship in Kindair. Still, she reflected as he stood hopping in mock outrage in the knee-deep river, at least his skills didn’t get in the way of his self-deprecating humour.
Splashing back to the riverbank, Ange made sure to kick a spray of icy droplets in Rhialwyn’s direction, laughing as she squealed in shock before taking a seat beside her on a rock near the still-dripping deer carcass, one elbow resting on a drawn-up knee with an easy grace that Rhialwyn knew she could never match. Instead she rose and, setting one foot in the crook between bow tip and twine, she began to unstring the weapon, ready for the two-hour trek home. Ange had produced an apple from some hidden pocket or pouch and was munching contentedly, watching her work. He flicked the stem in her direction.
“You know,” he said, “you left in such a hurry this morning, you missed some very interesting arrivals.” Rhialwyn looked up as her hands worked, quirking an eyebrow. He never missed anything that was happening even though he seemed to spend all hours shadowing her. “Interesting indeed,” he mumbled around the last of the apple before flicking a pip her way – it missed by some distance, as had the stem – and leaning his head back against the deer’s haunch.
“More dignitaries seeking Kindari support, no doubt,” she said.
“I did say interesting, Rhia.”
“Perhaps a vaivardi delegation… I wonder if they’ve brought any new vriorin to offer my father? The last one has proven most disappointing.” Another pip came her way, this one flicking into her chest and lodging in a gap between the leathers. She dug a finger in to retrieve it. “Perhaps I could trade him for a more mature replacement. Any six year old would suffice.”
“I am wounded, Rhia.” He had closed his eyes and was looking nothing of the sort.
“Yes. Well, are you going to tell me about these mystery visitors?”
He opened one eye, regarded her for a long moment.
“I’ll tell you one thing – Androl lined up the whole garrison to bid our visitors welcome.”
Rhialwyn stopped, all levity forgotten. Androl Fairhaven, her father’s younger brother, was both Kindair’s High Archon of Nihemual – the town’s patron bull Dominus – and the Eye Over the Gap, the title assigned to the town’s military leader. His holding both stations was as unprecedented as were his might in combat and his arcane prowess; the man was a spellsword renowned throughout half the world. It was said that he and her father had played a major role in ending the last civil war in Anahor – supposedly Androl had wrenched from the ground a great palisade of living molten rock that had cast hundreds of royalist soldiers into the air and provided an impassable barrier behind which the city’s defenders had hunkered down to repel the invading forces and protect the Capitol. It was even said that the wall still stood, monument to the implacable solidity of the new regime in Anahor. She had never seen it herself, but even so her uncle’s power was of mythical proportions; for him to gather the entire Kindari garrison to greet these newcomers was ominous in the extreme. So this is why Father told me last eve that the hunting was so fine here in the Emerald Cup – so far to the rear of Kindair’s gates. She gaped at Ange, outraged.
“And you waited this long to tell me? My father-“
“Your father is fine, Rhia.” He watched as she scrabbled to gather her belongings, a smile playing about his mouth.
“How in the Six Domains can you know that?” She whirled on him, raising her unstrung bow like a club. “If Androl is so worried-”
“Because I know who they are.”
Rhialwyn stopped, breathing hard, and glared at him. He lifted his head from the deer and smiled broadly, spreading his arms wide in a conciliatory gesture. “Am I safe?” he asked.
She glared a moment longer before dropping her arm, although she moved to the deer and began to drag it down from the bough, smearing crimson across her arms. “So, who are they?” she asked. His grin broadened further.
“As I said, I know them – or rather, I know of them. Their reputation travels in whispers from coast to coast, though Nihem knows I’ve never met one of them in person, few enough have.” He was leaning forward now, excitement plain in the light in his eyes. “Many people doubt they exist at all. But there was something unmistakeable in the way they carried themselves. These were no ordinary travellers. Their footprints seemed to etch raw power into the very earth. Though they displayed no overt Dominion, everyone in Kindair felt their presence – half the garrison had already assembled before Androl called them.”
Rhialwyn removed her hands from the deer, oblivious to the sticky blood that coated her arms and front as Ange continued.
“I was close to your uncle early this morning, just after you’d left. He must have felt their approach, your father too. I don’t think he knew I was there, I was just grabbing my shortbow before I headed out on your trail, and your uncle rushed in to speak to your father. I’d never seen them so agitated. Androl said, he said what he’d felt-“ he paused, his eyes wide. Rhialwyn’s breath seemed to come in short.
“He said they were riding griffins."
The wide, deep prow of Camroc’s Challenge rose with the swell, cresting one wave before diving back down to meet the next with a great spray that soaked those who flitted like beetles over her decks. The seas were restless, though comfortably within the limits she could handle. A trading galley such as the Challenge had to be made of sturdy stuff, particularly as her deep, reinforced hull was built to hold several tons of rock salt and other freight minerals.
She was a fine vessel, the pride of the city for which she was named. They said the shipwright, a lowborn fellow named Widdweke, had made it his life’s work, and that he’d been able to retire on his commission. Lucky fellow, thought Mallet as he hauled on the rope securing one of many excess cargo bundles to the deck, his calloused hands rubbed raw with the rime. It wasn’t the first time the thought had crossed his mind, but as ever it carried no jealousy nor malice. Mallet was glad Widdweke had wrought such a magnificent craft – to a Camrosh sailor there was no greater joy than to voyage under her sails. She was the fastest vessel capable of making the journey across the Grey Sea to the eastern tip of Xurgxoll where the half-man, half-horse hal’iri kept their salt mines, and the coin the Challenge brought in was far from insignificant. No, a life on the high seas, on the finest ship in Enai – that Widdweke may be lucky, but I must be blessed.
Mallet finished tying down the ballast and straightened, arching his back and taking in the sky, which was steel-grey to match the rolling seas. The clouds had thickened in the past hour and the wind had picked up, whipping salty spray into eyes and mouths. Another recurring thought popped into his mind as he sucked saltwater out of his moustache – why bother hauling this stuff across the ocean when you could just scoop a handful out of the sea? He caught a whiff of the sailor next to him; by the Six, you could just wring it out of a mariner’s armpit. Mallet was not an educated man, but it seemed like an extraordinary wasted effort to him. He shrugged, as he always did at the end of this train of thought. Didn’t really matter. It paid for a nice life for his wife and little girl. That was enough for him.
The ship’s captain, Forshaw, a typically squat Camrosh himself like Mallet, swept past at that very moment, thumping Mallet on the shoulder. “Shrugging, Mal?” he roared over another great splash and spray that soaked them both and set the wide brim of the captain’s hat to wobbling. “What’s to shrug about? Not thinking again, I hope?” The captain’s eyes twinkled.
A bark of laughter sounded from the wheel, where Marigold was steering, her golden trusses lank and matted with salt where they clung to her broad shoulders. “Last time Mal did some thinking I swear I heard something snap!” she yelled, to a chorus of guffaws and whistles from the milling crew.
Forshaw winked and threw a companionable arm around Mallet’s shoulders. “Don’t listen to her, Mal – we all know it was just the wall you were butting your head against trying to tie your bootstraps!” Another round of raucous laughter followed and the captain strode away. “We’ll give him something to ponder once we strike anchor, eh lads?” A great cheer rang out, and the captain grinned. “A fine cask of hal’iri mead, how’s that sound?”
There was another cheer, and Mallet joined in wholeheartedly. It was all banter, good-hearted bonhomie. Six knew the captain could take a jibe as well as he could dish one out, and he did on a regular basis. He met the captain’s humour with a mock glower, which produced another loud bellow from his crewmates.
He heard a call from behind – it sounded like Cobble’s voice. “Wonder how many gee-gees Cap’n had to fuck to get hold of that cask!”
The laughter rose anew and Forshaw leant against the sterncastle in mock outrage, a forearm across his brow. “Just the one – but she swore she loved me!” came his dramatic retort.
The answering roar of laughter was drowned out by a boom of thunder, the type that sounded like the heavens had cracked in half. Several crew clapped hands to ears and Mallet felt his ribs shake. So close – where had that come from? He bent to take another rope and began to lash another bundle of ballast down; storm’s coming, and soon. Best get the payload secured quick as like.
He turned as Cobble piped up once more, his rough voice half-swallowed by the rising wind. “Whoa, boys! Old Gaedal’s gassy today!” A few men sniggered and rubbed their chests where, Mallet knew, each bore a brand in the shape of a sea lioness; Mallet rubbed his own, smirking, and muttered a quick prayer to the sailors’ Dominus.
He felt Forshaw brush past him as he rushed to the bows. The captain called, “Ho there, Wind-weaver! What’s this?”
A small shape unfurled itself at the prow, turning her dark head to regard the captain. Her skin was as black as pitch, her head bald to the sides of a long ponytail, her eyes slanted like a cat’s. She was covered in intricate tattoos, even on her bared scalp, all white save for a small acorn behind her ear. She wore a loose tunic that floated around her small chest and left her knuckled backbones bare. She had been cradling a mandolin as she sat, and she held it to her side as she faced her captain. Her name was Aelia Tbarth, of the corsair isle of Yurc, and she filled the Challenge’s sails with her song. Mallet could not hear the exchange between Aelia and Forshaw, but they both looked concerned. She glanced more than once to the skies, which had darkened alarmingly. Wind-magery, Mallet shivered. The one inevitable aspect of the job he couldn’t abide. But if a captain wanted to compete with the quickest craft, they needed every advantage they could get. Still, Mallet gave himself a mental pat on the back for managing to keep out of her way so far. Let the cap’n deal with her.
The wind dropped suddenly, and the air went still, the crew pausing in their tasks. Forshaw turned in the eerie quiet, and his voice carried easily.
“Half sail, crew. Quick sharp.”
No sooner had the words let his mouth than the heavens truly did split apart. A colossal thundercrack sounded and the blackened skies groaned and twisted, the laboured air sending deep thrumming vibrations through Mallet’s bowels; dark thunderheads flew together from both horizons as though yanked by the hands of a god, and when they met, forks of lightning crackled and spat.
The clouds began to churn, grinding like rusty blackened cogs, and as they revolved, a black mass of roiling dark, wider than ten ships nose to prow, formed in the centre of the storm where it began to rumble and froth. The wind returned with shocking power, and the deck lurched appallingly underfoot, jumping to toss Mallet like a rag. The rope securing the ballast was still wrapped around his wrist and that was all that saved him; he saw man and woman alike flung like chaff to disappear among the grey waves which, of a sudden, were bucking and thrashing like beasts in chains. The rope snapped tight around Mallet’s wrist with an agonising squeeze and a crack, and as the slack ran out he found himself swung back to crash face-first into the deck with a blow that knocked the breath from his lungs and brought stars to his eyes. His arm was still snagged in the rope by his broken wrist, and he lay still for a moment, blinded and lost, engulfed in frenzy and the horrifying noise of a thousand wailing winds.
As Mallet dragged himself, wheezing, to his hands and knees, spitting blood and salt water into his beard, there was another sickening crash in the skies and lightning flashed once again, illuminating the seas in horrifying detail. Small dark shapes bobbed among the waves, along with great chunks of wood torn from the ship’s railings. At least Mallet hoped they were the railings, and not the planks of the hull. He cast his eyes around desperately, head throbbing abominably, to see only a handful remaining on deck; the captain and Aelia were nowhere to be seen at the prow.
Another fearful explosion rang out, so horrifying in its intensity that Mallet was driven cringing back to his knees. A great tearing splinter rang out and he found himself showered with chips of wood and fragments of wet sail; he cowered, curled into a ball and covering his head, his broken wrist screaming its resistance to the movement as the rope drew taut. The groaning wrench carried on for an age and as he peeked between the arms he had wrapped round his head and face, he watched as the sails, bulging and whipping in the gale, began to fray and tear, the bucking mast finally giving up under the strain to snap in two. Wood and sail alike was plucked from the deck to whirl free across the crazed ocean. The waves crashed and bounced upwards, raising foam-flecked fingers to the sky before curling back down to the surface, beckoning the advent of the terrible tempest.
Another flash of lightning followed, and as Mallet watched, the black roiling mass in the heavens spread its tendrils outwards like ink in a bowl of gritty water, and a bright spot of burning light appeared in its centre. The spot was miniscule against the storm clouds which had torn apart the entire sky, but somehow the whole scene was lit with a fiery luminescence, and there was a sudden flare of heat that set the raindrops and spray to popping and spitting. The spot grew and grew until Mallet could see it was falling from the heavens, hurtling groundward like a comet, seemingly headed directly for what remained of the Challenge.
It grew closer and the light burned brighter, and just before it plummeted into the deck, Mallet saw it; within a shell of liquid fire, white-hot and flaring – his eyes met those of a man, a giant with glowing white hair, entombed within this falling star.
The star slammed into the deck at an angle, punching clean through, and the wreckage of the Challenge exploded outwards, bludgeoning the consciousness from Mallet. The mangled wood carried the oblivious sailor with it as it flew away to be swallowed by the churning waves.