There was a coast where the young were taken to die.
It was far from cities, far from habitation, and it was a cold and bleak place. The skies were always dark and foreboding, steel and iron stirred into great dramatic arcs overhead. The land was a great wide swamp, treacherous and deceptive underfoot, and a dank mist hung heavy, too thick for the wind to disperse. Instead the water and the air conspired to conjure freakish illusions that entranced or terrified wanderers, luring them into an unseen bog full of sucking, cloying mud or compelling them to flee ever deeper into the labyrinthine mists, never to be seen again. But there were paths for those who were steady of mind and sure of foot, for those who knew the way to the black sands of Wendirel’s First, a small spit of solid land jutting out from the vast delta of the Nol River where it met the eastern shore of the Grey Sea.
Wendirel, in an age long since consigned to dust and fable, was of the first dari, who had lived for aeons in the safety of the forests and mountains until they had finally grown tired of their seclusion, venturing forth into the world at large where they encountered the other early inhabitants of the world of Enai – the noble hal’iri and the subservient lo’iri, the mighty gautnal and sharp vaivardi, even the towering gonai in the times before their numbers so swiftly dwindled. But most fateful of all was the meeting of dari and the first men.
There was an immediate and instinctive rivalry between the races, the resolving of which cost many years and many lives, but eventually the two were able to reach an accord and live in relative peace. Wendirel was of the first generation of dari settlers to co-habit with men, and soon enough, he fell in love with a human woman, and she with him, for they were each other’s equal in charm and seduction. Their romance was swift and passionate and she was heavy with child within the turn of a year, and theirs was a coupling seen as the symbol of a new age of harmony between dari and men. Many others followed their example, no longer bound by tradition and taboo, and the two races intermingled prodigiously.
All would change the night when Wendirel’s child was born, however. For where Wendirel’s skin was a glowing shade of golden brown, the child’s was a ghastly dull grey. Where Wendirel’s eyes matched his bride’s deep sapphire, the babe’s were crimson and baleful. Where both parents had smooth complexions and slender frames, the child was wide and strongly boned, its skin mottled and lumpy. And where the parents were fair of face, the child was monstrous, with a short flat nose and tusks that jutted hideously from the lower jaw.
Wendirel was broken by the hideous aspect of his child and he turned his grief on his wife, throttling her where she lay as the babe wailed its first guttural breaths. He took the child and he fled his home, running northward in a trance through the forest and into the swamp beyond. He knew not where he was going, but his feet carried him safely through the bog, and it was said that even the swamp flinched away from his rage and sorrow, for where his feet fell a path was formed through the mire, leading to a small stretch of sand sticking out into the sea. Wendirel lifted his newborn child into the air and howled, and the winds howled their reply as the dari laid the swaddled babe on a log and pushed it out into the waves. He then took his knife and plunged it into his heart, and it was said that the sands turned as black as Wendirel’s soul with the foulness of the blood that flowed forth.
Countless aeons had passed since Wendirel laid his firstborn into the sea, but as men and dari continued to live side by side, inevitably more couplings occurred, and more children were born, so many that there was no alternative but to accept them into society despite their appearance, and soon enough these children of mixed blood were given a crude name. Man and dari became maddari, which became madri.
But even so, there were always men and dari who could not bear the shame of the madri they had spawned, and there were always those who made the mournful pilgrimage to Wendirel’s First to repeat his terrible act, laying their ill-begotten offspring in baskets or boxes down into the foaming waters to be washed away, never to be seen again. The wind would pluck at the tiny wailing bundles and drag them out across the waves, where, unbeknownst to their cold-hearted parents or to black-hearted Wendirel long before, they reached an ocean current that made its way for hundreds of leagues to the northeast, through lashing storms and crashing rocks before washing up on a new shoreline, blank and deserted but for a few tiny, wailing bundles and baskets that were nudged gently up onto the sands.
The beaches were harsh, hot, unforgiving, a climate to purge weakness from the strong and purge life from the weak. And so the beach was littered with tiny bones picked clean by scavengers. But not all the baskets lay empty and devoid of life, and so the eldest and strongest of the survivors crawled from their swaddling, clinging as fiercely to life as might any other child to its mother’s teat. Instinct told the children to head inland where the forest was thick and the shade cool, and following their young noses they came upon fruits to sustain them, water to revive them. To begin with, there were few, but some magnetic force of magic and nature drew them together over time until they formed bands, and then groups, and then tribes and clans as they grew in number and years. And ever inland, east and south, they wandered, further and further until the forests thinned and soil turned to black rock, jagged and humped, splitting the earth and rising majestically to plunge through the clouds. Here, at the foot of the mountains, the tired madri of the Bone Coast finally settled, and Halud Orge was born, a sprawl of caves and fires hewn from the rock walls and tents of hide and leather strung between outcrops of charred granite. The settlement was named in the madri language, a crude melding of dari and human tongues, for though they were reared by the gales and the crashing waves and the searing sun, their souls almost recalled the words of their parents, thrumming vibrations that reached their embryonic ears in the womb, and it meant something akin to Black Haven.
The land was near inhospitable but somehow the madri, annealed by their ordeals, thrived. They ranged and hunted and gathered and grew stronger by the year, and they sent raids back to the coasts where they were born anew as brothers and sisters, which they named indrui deran, which meant ‘mother’s call.’ The dran, or ‘call,’ found the babes where they lay on the sands and they gathered up as many as they could, feeding them and nurturing them for the journey back to Halud Orge. And so the madri grew ever more numerous until the caves and plateaus of Black Haven teemed with life and noise. Madri of all ages carved great halls from the rock for basic schooling and communal feasts, craters were gouged from the rock to form pits for cooking and arenas for art and combat, and the rocks extracted were piled into great defensive walls all around the perimeter of the settlement, which was marked by a colossal arch of midnight stone that soared sidelong over all. Rough, steep steps had been hewn into the side of the supporting column of the arch and defenders manned the summit at all hours, as well as the tops of the walls along either side of the narrow pass that served as the only route of entry or egress from Halud Orge. For while no invaders had ever ventured from foreign regions to attack the mountain stronghold, it was said that the dari and human blood waged eternal war in the hearts of these abandoned madri, and the constant threat of civil war loomed over them. New tribes sprouted frequently throughout Halud Orge as one madri or other saw an opportunity to rise to prominence and feuds were born almost daily. The sound and smell of spilled blood lay over the Haven like the dust on the rocks and the dew on the grass and no single clan ever held onto governance for longer than a year or two. Not until Greyhide.
It was said that a dran some thirty years previously had gone on its normal journey to the coast, only to find it empty. No young madri crawled the sands and there were no cries. Returning into the forest to re-gather and plan their next move, the dran discovered that one of their number was missing. The remaining five madri scouts spread through the forest to find their lost comrade in pairs, fanning out in a horizontal line to cover more ground. The madri of the Bone Coast had enjoyed years of primacy in their terrain, which, along with their innate savagery, had lent them a confidence that no greater creatures might predate them. However when the remaining scouts heard a strangled cry from the far right of the line, hidden in the undergrowth, their hearts knew a moment of shared fear. The remaining four regrouped and fanned out once more, scouring the woods in the direction whence the cry had sounded. This time, a cry of pain came from a short distance to the southwest, where the furthest left scout had been. The cry was cut short in a wet gurgle.
The three remaining madri regrouped once more, weapons drawn and snarling tusks bared in fear and rage. They resolved to stay close and pressed westward through the thick forest towards the coast, and, breaking through the treeline, they discovered their first lost companion, lying face down on the beach, pinned to the ground by a rough and splintered spike of wood that skewered through the back of his neck. Surrounding the corpse was a gaggle of some twenty or thirty young madri, some barely out of the cot, none older than six or seven. All bristled and growled and gestured with their small tusks towards the dran, and all bore some form of improvised wood or stone weaponry. Most were naked although some wore the rags of their swaddling across their shoulders and necks, and all were daubed in brown and red markings. Stood to one side of the corpse was a hulking youngster, skin like hot bubbling tar and eyes of furious red and a makeshift axe in each hand, the blades made of chipped rock driven into a thick branch of wood. His tusks curled large, overdeveloped, and gleaming white. He glared at the dran with such savage fury that they all stepped back in alarm. And perched on top of the corpse was another young madri of no more than five, skin smooth and grey with dark developing tusks jutting sharply from his lower jaw. He was sawing away the final flap that connected the dead scout’s skin to his back.
As the madri scouts watched in horror the ringleader dipped his fingers in the ruin of the dead scout’s back, smearing the blood liberally across his cheeks and his chest before draping his ghastly trophy across his shoulders. He raised his bloody fist towards the dran, and the children started to move as one. The adults responded by throwing their weapons to the ground and kneeling to the grey-skinned leader. And so, once the three dran survivors had managed to communicate the reasons for their presence and convinced the younglings to return with them to Halud Orge, the ringleader was given a name. Greyhide. And they said that while all madri carried war in their hearts, Greyhide carried it in his soul.
It had not taken the young Greyhide long to rise through the ranks among his fellow madri. For where all madri were strong, he was stronger. And where all madri were ferocious, his ferocity was more terrible, but tempered by a ruthless and implacable cunning that made him an obvious choice for leadership – first of a dran, then of his own tribe. And where Greyhide went, so went his giant black-skinned companion Throm.
So it was, some thirty years on from his grisly discovery on the beaches of the Bone Coast, that Greyhide now strode through the campfires and cookpots of Halud Orge towards the Guthran, the Heart, a hut carved under the granite of the floor about ten feet deep, where the elders and leaders of Black Haven gathered to feast and discuss governance. Steep steps of black rock led down into the Heart from ground level, and sconces held sputtering torches that cast a flickering light across the gloomy interior. Greyhide paused at the entrance, his hand resting on a length of heavy chain wrapped around his hips. He looked down at it thoughtfully, a low rumble resounding through his chest. Throm was a step behind him, and he thumped Greyhide on his muscled back with a meaty fist that would have sent a smaller man tumbling. Throm spoke, his consonants slightly clumsy around his enormous white tusks.
“You are pleased, brother.”
Greyhide turned to face his companion, and though he was of above average size for a madri, he nonetheless had to look substantially upwards to meet Throm’s sunken red eyes. Throm was improbably colossal, a head taller than any other madri in Halud Orge and comfortably half again as wide as most. His shoulders were humped with muscle and the studded leather cuirass he wore had no sleeves as if to accentuate the bulk of his massive arms. His skin was midnight black and covered all over in great rough lumps like a toad’s boils, and he wore a skirt of thick furs over ragged hide half-trousers cinched with a gut tie just below the knees. Like all madri he went barefoot, for their skin was thick and tough and their cobblers non-existent. Throm was a terrifying sight even without taking into account the array of weaponry he held; a long-knife at each hip, each so large as to be a bastard sword for most fighters, and an enormous warhammer strapped to his back, the wicked craggy head and spike of chipped and ragged black stone. As a youngster Throm had preferred to fight using two smaller and lighter weapons, but as he and his bulk had grown he had also shown frightening aptitude with larger and clumsier weaponry. He boasted that he had no preference for either, and so he carried both. Greyhide grinned wolfishly up at his companion and saw his expression mirrored in the larger madri’s thuggish features, the red eyes glittering brightly enough that Greyhide fancied he could almost see his own pitch black orbs reflected in them. He gripped the leather strapping on the front of Throm’s raiment.
“I am indeed, brother. As well I might be.”
Throm chuckled, the sound deep and dark like the shifting of the earth. “It is time, then?”
Greyhide wheeled sharply, emitting a sharp bark of laughter. His thick braid swung to bat his shoulders as he started down the steps into the Guthran. He beat his chest with a fist.
“It is beyond time, brother!”
The grey madri strode with purpose along the entryway towards the central chamber of the Guthran, the tunnel darkening as he left the torchlight near the entrance. The Guthran was dug deep enough that there was dark soil underfoot rather than rock, and a rich earthy aroma pervaded the air. Greyhide’s footsteps were silent as he made his way swiftly towards the low light of the cook-fire dug into a circular trough in the middle of the round main chamber. In a ring around the trough lay a number of hide and fur rugs, upon which sat or knelt a dozen madri men and women, the Circle – his Circle of Minds. All here before me, Greyhide reflected with satisfaction. They well understand the import of this night’s gathering. All of their faces had turned to him as he made his entrance. Some were younger even than him, some were triple or even quadruple his age with long white beards and rheumy eyes, but all had to raise their gazes in subservience to him as he loomed in the entranceway. Some had been with him that day on the Bone Coast when they had gutted half a dran. There was Urgut, pale grey with his bald pustular head and missing fingers. He had struck the first blow to hamstring the first scout before the rest had swarmed in to stifle his cries and cut his throat.
There was Dorhiuul, of olive-green complexion and cracked tusk. He was another of the brood of Bone Coast whelps Greyhide had gathered to his side, though Dorhiuul had since established his own tribe of some six thousand hardy warriors and smiths. His had been the first banner Greyhide had sought to subsume, and his old friend had immediately declared his support – only to immediately challenge Greyhide for primacy over the larger, united force. Greyhide’s eyes lingered a moment on Dorhiuul’s splintered tusk. A madri’s tusks were bundles of sensation and to break a longtooth was to endure excruciating pain; Greyhide knew this well, having delivered the blow that smashed the tusk in question, ramming Dorhiuul’s face into a wall of solid rock to end their duel. He remembered watching the bundle of raw red nerves spilling like strands of hair from the mangled tooth while Dorhiuul writhed in the dirt. He had stayed by Dorhiuul’s side as the cutters dug the threads out and yanked them loose. Dorhiuul had gripped Greyhide’s hand and locked his gaze, and though a rumble thrummed through the beaten madri’s chest and throat, he never loosed his roar of agony, and Greyhide did him the honour of looking his old friend in the eye as the cutters packed the broken tooth with a mix of wet crumbled stone and animal fat glue, before capping it with a mould of molten iron, a cap that Dorhiuul wore to this day. And so Greyhide’s army had more than doubled in size, his bond with Dorhiuul strengthened, an alliance forged in blood and suffering.
There was Lallek, her rose eyes glowing with triumph as they drifted from Greyhide himself to Throm behind. She knew she had come closer than any other in trying to tame the black giant, and she was ever determined to finally succeed. She had a wicked mind and not just in matters of lust; she had been an invaluable asset in bringing others to their side as well as the four thousand under her own banner.
There were the rivals Ordruit, Wild-eye and Yakval, the twins Bothe and Pluran, and Crackshins and Gouge, both females named for their deeds in similar fashion to Greyhide himself. And here, almost prostrate at his feet, was old Hallyn, his white hair long seeming to have fled south from his scalp to hang in a lank curtain from his chin. His sight was failing and he trembled more than ever nowadays, but his mind was still sharp, and his word carried more weight than most. Indeed, he had been the leader of the dran that found Greyhide. He grinned again as he scanned their faces, his most loyal supporters on his path to dominion over all the madri of Black Haven, now a force near fifty thousand strong.
His eyes lifted and he looked across the cook-fire to the only non-madri face in the room. She sat back in a pile of cushions surrounded by a haze of thick hookah smoke, fat and ungainly. Her hair was greasy and unkempt, one of her eyes was milky with blindness, and she was aged beyond imagination, deep wrinkles cracking her face and sagging jowls. She was the only one in the room who did not look up as he entered, her one good eye focused on nothing in particular, but no-one made comment nor jumped to protocol at the slight.
Greyhide’s eyes narrowed, remembering the day some five years ago when he was leader of his own dran, Throm at his side as he always was. His forays had to the Bone Coast were becoming more adventurous each time as he wearied of treading the same steps each time, and he would lead his troupe in wider and wider sweeps to the south and north of the Bone Coast beach, exploring the lands for signs of more children washed up in different locations. Perhaps, he had thought, others have gathered a force of younglings like I did. He remembered grinning at the thought. I would not be caught unawares like that fool Hallyn!
He led his group southwards this time, wandering in hope more than expectation of finding anything in particular, and his followers did not question him, as indeed they never did. They slipped and scraped their way up a steep escarpment of rock that rose from the sands and blocked the view of what lay behind, and Greyhide recalled pausing for a moment upon reaching the summit, his braid flopping in the wet sea wind, and looking out across the churning grey waters. Throm had stepped up beside him and Greyhide recalled feeling an instant of portent, as if there were some deeper significance to his attaining such a height with his adoptive brother by his side. He turned to speak to Throm when Idgarr, one of his scouts, had uttered a hiss to attract their attention. Immediately dropping into a crouch, Greyhide made his way to his olive-skinned companion. Following Idgarr’s pointing finger along the cliff face, Greyhide saw the terrain descend to a bay, walled by steep cliffs, where the waters thrashed and foamed, and there, among a row of rock teeth that jutted treacherously above the surface, a large mass of wood and canvas lay. The Bone Coast madri had never seen a ship before and so they did not recognise it as a deep-hulled trading scow, built sturdily for long voyages on rough seas, foundered against the rocks and half submerged. Still, this was a new discovery, and the dran immediately started down the slope towards this new bay.
The path downhill was far less steep and matted with scrub to aid their passage, their bare feet finding sure purchase as they descended. Greyhide was first to reach the beach, and it seemed that just as he set his foot on the sand, the skies exploded into life, a great thunderclap ringing out overhead and rain coming down in a furious torrent that soaked the dran to their skin in an instant. Greyhide turned his face to the angry clouds and spoke to Throm, for he knew he was close behind.
“See, brother? The thunder speaks to us, urges us on.”
“Today is a day of omens, brother,” Throm replied, his voice rumbling like the weather.
“What we find today will change us. I feel it,” Greyhide said, before breathing deep and, tendons bulging on his neck, roaring in triumph to the dark sky. Throm followed suit, their bellows echoing from the cliff walls, before the giant sprang forward with his startling speed to sprint around the bay.
Greyhide followed behind, focused on the ship, as was Throm’s attention. The skies reverberated with thunder and the rain came crashing down in a deafening torrent, the wind picking up to sweep great curtains across the sands and into the faces of the dashing madri. Greyhide, blinded by the rain, scrubbed a thick forearm across his eyes, and as he reopened them a great flash of lightning flared through the innumerable droplets whipping through the air and there ahead of him was Throm, highlighted in stark black and white, water streaming from his massive shoulders as he drew his twin long-knives from his belt, twisting sideways to avoid a sword thrust from some creature who had appeared from their left. Greyhide shook his head violently, clearing his vision, to see that Throm was beset by three armed assailants, with more still hurtling across the sands from a dark recess in the cliff wall. As Greyhide watched, readying his cleaver and closing the distance with his other four companions on his heels, three of the attackers sank to one knee, readying longbows. Their movements were smooth, synchronised. Well trained. No matter, my dran is well chosen. Indeed as he watched an arrow cut a furrow through the wall of rain, thudding into the chest of an enemy archer and knocking him prone. One of the other two loosed in Throm’s direction; the arrow struck true into the meat between Throm’s chest and shoulder but the giant was berserk, and as he slipped past the first thrust he whirled his blades, one taking an attacker’s head clean from his shoulders. The second target had her shield raised but the thick rock blade smashed it to splinters before hammering into the woman’s chest, cutting near through to the spine and sending her body through the air trailing thick ribbons of carmine.
As Throm turned to face his remaining attacker the air around the ship detonated, the surrounding rain boiling in an instant and sending a wall of scalding air lashing across the beach. Greyhide watched as Throm was lifted like a doll, along with his attacker and the remaining archers, and tossed bodily through the air which sizzled and spat as the raindrops evaporated. The current thundered across the ground towards Greyhide, tossing up puffs of sand and steam, and he braced himself for impact, crossing his arms across his face and scrunching his eyes shut.
There was a rush of warmth and a moment’s respite from the rain before the downpour resumed like a bucket being overturned on Greyhide’s head. He shook water from his eyes, startled, bewildered and – seemingly – unaffected. He cast around to find the beach still, the great dark form of Throm in a crumpled heap off to his left. Turning his head to the ship once more he was greeted by a roaring blaze that burned even on the water’s surface, an inferno of roiling flame that unfurled great white-hot tendrils, chains of liquid fire across the ocean. The boat was no more, what had remained of the hull and sails blasted to ashes and sinking to the beach like dirty snow. The air seemed to throb with power and the rocks were visibly blackening and cracking. But Greyhide stood unimpeded. He took a step towards the source of the blast, then another, and another. One of the tendrils lashed down towards him, screaming through the burning air, yet Greyhide sensed no danger. He watched it descend and raised his fist towards it, and as the links of fire touched his flesh the chain seemed to bend in on itself and disappear.
The blood was roaring in his ears but he pressed ever onwards towards the fierce light, and he felt no heat, no pain, and as he stepped closer the light seemed to dim revealing a squat humanoid form at the centre of the conflagration. The water around the epicentre no longer boiled or frothed, and then the light winked out and the form flopped limply into the sea with a splash. Greyhide waded the last few metres and grasped the sodden robes pooling around the body, hefting it one-handed, and he found himself staring into the wide and terrified eyes, one blind, of an ancient woman, who scrabbled at his front, mouth wide in a soundless scream. Greyhide lifted her higher, bringing his face close to hers, and she found her voice.
“How can it be?” she cried.
Greyhide began to laugh. He drew her close until their faces were almost touching. “It matters not, witch. You are bested.”
Her eyes rolled and she writhed away from him, but his grip was as iron, and her terror was palpable in her cry. “He is reborn!” she wailed, before collapsing into unconsciousness.
Greyhide stared at the woman’s slack face, wondering. I am… reborn? He stood still, thigh-deep in the ocean, suddenly noticing that the storm had abated. He still held the woman in one hand, seeing for the first time that her ankles were chained together, the links trailing off under the surface to a nearby rock. They were scorched and steaming, but remarkably intact despite their proximity to the woman and her fearsome magics. Tossing her over his shoulder, Greyhide waded out to the anchor rock and wedged his cleaver between chain and rock to try and prise it loose; as he leant his weight on the thick blade, the rock itself split cleanly in two, near-petrified and brittle from the heat. The chain came free and Greyhide wrapped it round his waist before turning to wade to shore, the woman still hanging unconscious over his shoulder. As he turned, he saw what remained of his dran at the water’s edge – Idgarr, clutching the blackened stub of his bow, beside the hulking Throm, his black skin hissing and steaming, cracked from the heat. Blood oozed from both madri and Idgarr was on one knee – Greyhide presumed due to his injuries, but as he watched, Throm also lowered himself to his knee, heedless of the stinging salt and sand, and raised a fist to his chest. Together his two followers intoned, “Reborn.”
Pulling his thoughts back to the present, Greyhide stood in the Guthran, looking down at the woman he had pulled from the sea, fingering the chain at his waist that had bound her. When he, Throm and Idgarr had returned to Halud Orge, any interrogation about the lack of younglings they held was instantly forgotten as his two followers extolled the wonder of their leader Greyhide, he who had faced down a demon of fire, one who had slain three madri in an instant, and had walked through the flames and remained unburnt. Greyhide’s renown had soared and he well understood the role that day’s events had played in his ascent to rule. For while the woman, upon waking, had no recollection of why she was there, or even who she was beyond her name – Moghna – she had spoken to Greyhide of the world that lay beyond the narrow confines of his existence, and of the visions she experienced while she slept – visions of conquest, bloodshed and glory, with Greyhide at the vanguard of a new age for the madri.
Almost overnight Greyhide became a mythical figure, he who had tamed the terrible Witch of the Burning Sea, and he made no effort to quell the rumours, for one by one the tribes began to gather under his banner, lured by the promise of riches and glory never before known by the Bone Coast madri. And over the years that followed, he had fought to bring all the madri under his command through force and guile until he found himself here, in the Guthran, with the Circle of Minds at his command.
It was Hallyn who spoke first.
“Greyhide of the Bone Coast, Lord of Unbroken Chain, Tamer of the Witch of Burning Seas. We are gathered—“ he paused, flinching as the recumbent form of Moghna shifted on her pile of cushions. Greyhide smiled. She does not even speak, and they cower from her. Such fear she inspires – fear that I wield!
“Lord Greyhide,” Hallyn continued in his trembling voice, “the Circle of Minds is gathered today for a rite without precedent. Never before has a single madri wielded the authority you do. Yet those of Halud Orge gathered to you willingly, for we recognise the greatness within you.” There was a murmur of assent throughout the room before Hallyn continued, lifting a gnarled finger to point at Greyhide. “Lord Greyhide, we have hidden away among the black rocks of Urd for long enough. We must fulfil the destiny your prophetess has foreseen, the destiny you have promised us. Lord Greyhide, we are gathered to proclaim you our Warleader, for with you as our leader, the destiny of our people is finally within reach.”
Another rumble passed through the room, louder this time. Greyhide refused to turn to look at the faces that surrounded him. He stared, aloof, at no-one. As the noise quieted down, Hallyn spoke once more.
“I speak now to the Circle. Great minds of the madri, do you accept Greyhide as your leader? Say aye.”
Greyhide kept his gaze fixed on the rock wall as the chorus of ayes made its way round the Circle, although he struggled not to laugh when Throm boomed his own assent. Throm was not of the Circle, having no patience for matters of administration or governance, yet of course no-one questioned his vote. The last aye was from Idgarr, a whispered croak through tortured lungs and throat that had never recovered from their searing on the beach where they had found Moghna, and suddenly the Guthran was silent, even the thick blue smoke of the witch’s hookah hanging still. Hallyn’s voice was a whisper but it carried easily to everyone in the room.
“Lord Greyhide, do you accept rule over the madri of the Bone Coast?”
Greyhide allowed the tension to hang a moment longer, taking in a deep breath that swelled his chest before letting it out slowly through his squashed nose. Finally he locked eyes with Hallyn, and he spoke.
The room erupted into noise, Throm’s great boom of triumph leading the way. Suddenly the Circle were all in motion, rising to line up before Greyhide. Each member of the Circle carried a small bowl of thick paste, each a different colour to represent the signature colour of their respective tribes. As each passed Greyhide, they gripped his forearm briefly, before wiping a smear of their paste across his cheek and his chest. Lallek’s eyes never met Greyhide’s, fixed as they were over his shoulder where Throm stood even as she daubed her tribe’s deep blue paste across her leader’s bare chest.
The procession was over momentarily, yet when the Circle resumed their seats they sat with renewed zeal in their postures, looking to Greyhide with shining eyes. He looked over to Moghna through the bluish haze – she had not moved – but as he looked her eyes flickered, just once, to briefly meet his. And in that instant he felt as he had upon reaching the summit of the escarpment above the beaches of the Bone Coast. Throm was at his side as he had been that day, and the future was thick with promise. He turned to his brother and saw his crimson eyes welling with tears of fierce pride, and he felt a grin steal across his face as he addressed the Circle.
“Circle of Minds, this is a momentous day. My promises for the madri will not go unfulfilled. We will rise anew, stronger by far for the privations we have suffered, cast out by our fathers and mothers. We have no need of them, for we are stronger by far. We will seize our future. We will carve out our place in this world as the witch Moghna has foretold. We will spill an ocean of our forefathers’ blood in repayment for their betrayal, and we will take their lands for own.
“My friends, my madri – my prophetess has spoken true. For we, the madri of the Bone Coast, we march to war.”