He felt Ahm Lin die as he drank. A faint, almost imperceptible exhalation and a final shudder, then his friend was gone.
Vaelin forced away the surge of despair to suck in the last few pulses of blood streaming from the mason’s wound. The thick metallic stream flooded his mouth and caught in his throat, making him gag. Heedless of his disgust, he forced the thick torrent down. Vaelin felt the gift blossom as soon as the first few drops entered his gut, spreading through his being with lightning speed, and bringing with it a song, a song that had more in common with a scream.
The music was deafening, painfully so, filling his mind with an overlapping cascade of notes that somehow retained a tune of sorts despite their ugly discordance, a tune that held both certainty and meaning: death comes from all sides. IT COMES NOW!
He sprang away from Ahm Lin’s corpse, crouching low and ducking under the whistling slash of a sabre as its wielder, a hulking Stahlhast in full armour, came surging out of the long grass that covered the canal bank. The warrior cursed and tried again, both hands on the hilt as he thrust towards Vaelin’s chest. The song continued to scream as Vaelin found his gaze captured by the Stahlhast’s blunt, heavily creased features. The tune told the tale of a man steeped in blood and happiest in moments of violence. A man who had fought, killed, raped and looted his way across the Iron Steppe and the borderlands. A man who hungered for more when the horde swept into the heart of the Venerable Kingdom. A man who had also neglected to repair the small plate of armour that covered the space above his left hip, hacked away during the final assault on Keshin-Kho. All this the song screamed into Vaelin’s mind in the space of a heartbeat.
He twisted as the Stahlhast closed, allowing the sabre to pass within an inch of his chest, then stabbed his sword-point into the gap in the Stahlhast’s armour. The blade sank deep, slicing through vein, tendon and cartilage to sever all connections between leg and hip. The warrior shouted in shock and fury as he collapsed, glaring up at Vaelin, lips forming a last defiant obscenity. Vaelin withdrew his blade and hacked down, the warrior’s final word swallowed by the gush of blood that erupted from his mouth.
The song’s shriek snapped Vaelin’s gaze to a fresh threat, two more Stahlhast thrashing through the tall grass barely yards away. He hacked again at the dying warrior’s neck, delivering two fast blows then taking hold of the man’s helmet as his head came free of his shoulders. The first Stahlhast to clear the grass received the thrown head full in the face and reeled back on his heels, stunned and blinded by the impact and explosion of gore. He managed to scrape the red mess from his eye in time for it to receive the tip of Vaelin’s sword, the blade skewering his brain before he had time to register the fact of his own death.
Vaelin kicked the twitching corpse aside, pulling the sword free in time to parry the slash delivered by the second Stahlhast. He stepped close before the warrior had chance to retreat, delivering a swift head butt to his unguarded nose then snatching a dagger from the man’s belt before whirling and driving it into the unarmoured rear of his thigh.
More pealing cries from the song sent Vaelin sprawling into the grass as a criss-cross hail of arrows snapped the air. The unfortunate Stahlhast, still upright and staggering as he tried to pull the dagger from his leg, took a trio of shafts in the chest, evidently loosed from close range judging by the ease with which the steel arrowheads punched through mail and plate. As he crawled away, his belly scraping the earth, Vaelin heard the warrior’s choking death rattle. Shouts echoed through the fog shrouded bank interspersed by the occasional snap and whistle of a loosed arrow, but none came close.
It’s different, Vaelin thought as he crawled, wincing as the song’s grating tune continued. Its pitch rose and fell continually, sibilant as a snake’s hiss one second then screeching like a distressed hawk the next. With every peak he felt his vision darken and his pulse quicken, accompanied by a rarely felt but familiar hunger. He had first felt it during the Martishe forest many years ago, when his friend lay dying and Vaelin sprinted in pursuit of the archer who had felled him. It was bloodlust, a need to kill born of this song. A different song, he knew with growing certainty. Not my song. Not the song he had left in the Beyond after bleeding himself to the point of death at Alltor. Not the song he had ached for ever since.
He came to a halt as the new song’s tune rose again, although the tune was not quite so discordant and the sensation it brought held no tinge of hunger. Still there was a sour note to it, a grudging thrum of welcome.
The horse’s hoof came down a few inches from his head, stamping in impatience. Vaelin looked up and grimaced as Derka’s snort showered hot vapour onto his face. The stallion angled his head to regard Vaelin with a single, insistent eye, shaking his neck to allow the reins to fall free.
“Yes,” Vaelin grunted, reaching for the reins, “it’s good to see you again, too.”
A fresh chorus of shouts erupted as he vaulted into the saddle, swiftly followed by another volley of arrows. They met only air as Derka bore him away, spurring unbidden into a gallop to be swallowed by the fog. The song let out another shrill cry of warning an instant before a mounted Stahlhast came thundering out of the mist directly ahead, a tall woman whirling a doubled-bladed axe above her head. Vaelin took hold a firmer hold of the reins, intending to guide Derka to the rider’s left, but the stallion had a notion of his own. Earth and shredded grass fountained as he came to a halt, rearing with a whinny as the charging horse closed. The hard crack of shattered bone sounded as Derka brought a hoof down on the opposing horse’s head, sending it and its rider into an untidy tumble.
Vaelin started to spur Derka forward but stopped as the song surged again, the tune not as loud this time but somehow even more painful. The notes were harsh and insistent, seeming to dig deep inside him to conjure images of the siege, all the soldiers he had commanded now dying at the hands of the Darkblade’s horde, and Ahm Lin’s bleached, pleading face at the end. Please… my gift to you…
His vision blurred as the song rose to a deafening, near-agonising pitch, turning the world into a reddish grey haze. He was aware of his hand on the reins, of the sword’s handle turning against his palm and the flex of his arm, but had no control over any of it. He couldn’t say how long it took for the song’s tune to fade and his vision to clear, it might have been just a few seconds or an hour, but when it did he found himself staring down at the Stahlhast woman, now slumped against the flank of her slain horse. Her features were a curious mirror of Ahm Lin’s at the end, whitened by blood-loss and imminent death. She looked up at Vaelin and blinked once before turning to regard the jet of blood pulsing from the stump of her severed arm, watching her life drain away in rapt fascination rather than horror.
Dragging his gaze away, Vaelin slid his sword into the sheath on his back and spurred Derka into a gallop, disappearing into the fog once more. Shouts and bowstrings continued to echo through the haze but faded soon enough. Slowing Derka to a walk he cast around for a landmark, some indication of where he might be. The fog had thinned to a low-lying mist unveiling the sun and revealing a plain of tall grass that rose into undulating hills to the south. The dim conical bulk of Keshin-Kho dominated the skyline to the north and he could see the unerringly straight line of the canal a few hundred paces to the west. The only appreciable cover consisted of a dense patch of woodland off to the east and, knowing pursuit would not be long in coming, he turned Derka towards it and set off at a steady canter.
As he rode the sight of the dying Stahlhast woman’s face lingered. He had taken many lives but always, he preferred to think, out of necessity. With the Stahlhast dismounted he could have ridden on. Killing her was unnecessary, and yet he had done it. A sharp snarl came from the song then, the tone one of harsh rebuke that carried a new thought: An enemy is deserving only of death.
He found his hands tightening on the reins, bringing Derka to a halt. Glancing over his shoulder Vaelin peered into the misted grass, hearing the faint but growing shouts of his pursuers. They killed Ahm Lin, he thought as the song’s tune grew more melodious, becoming almost seductive in the promise it held. They killed Sho Tsai and so many others, all in service to a false god. And I have a blood song once again. Would it be so hard to kill them all? Would it not, in fact, be an insult to Ahm Lin’s memory if I didn’t? He gave me a gift, after all.
Derka gave a loud, irritated nicker, breaking through his burgeoning hunger and provoking another snarl from the song. Vaelin clenched his teeth and determinedly turned his gaze east once more, kicking the stallion into motion. No, he decided as the hungry tune persisted, setting a continual ache in his head as he refused to answer its call. This is not a blood song. Blood is the stuff of life. This is a song of death. A black-song.
By the time they reached the trees the song had diminished into a sullen murmur and the ache in his head subsided to a dull throb. He brought Derka to a halt a few yards in, dismounting and crouching with his eyes closed to gauge the sounds and smells of the forest. Earth damp from recent rain, he concluded, fingers probing the ground. Bird calls muted… Woodsmoke, drifting from the south. There were people in these woods.
The forest was dense and the branches low, obliging him to lead Derka through the trees, maintaining an eastward course to avoid whatever lay south. He intended to reach the far end of these woods before striking out to find the canal, an easy task and following it south would inevitably lead him back to Nortah, Ellese and the others. He hoped they had had the good sense not to come looking for him and consoled himself with the knowledge that, for all his faults, Nortah was no fool and not easily swayed by sentiment, especially when sobre. He’ll lead them on, he concluded. All I need do is find them.
His progress, however, stalled when the song, the black-song, rose in sudden insistent volume once more. The tune remained harsh and grating but the tone lacked the vengeful hunger from before, possessing instead a note that combined warning with necessity. It also prodded him south towards the persistent scent of woodsmoke. Something there,he concluded, finding the song too compelling to ignore. Something that must be dealt with.
He led Derka through a quarter-mile of thick forest until he spied wispy tendrils drifting through the treetops ahead. At least three fires, Vaelin concluded, eyeing the smoke then wincing as a scream sounded through the trees. This time it didn’t come from within, the unmistakable product of a human throat and shot through with the plaintive terror unique to torture. It continued for several seconds before abruptly choking off, Vaelin hearing a faint ripple of laughter as it dwindled away. Something that must be dealt with, he repeated to himself, the scream and the laughter having dispelled any doubts about the song’s course.
Derka gave a truculent snort and tossed his head in annoyance when Vaelin began to fasten his reins to the fallen branch of a yew. I sang to him, the Jade Princess had said during the trek across the Iron Steppe. Just a small tune to bind you together. “Wait here,” Vaelin whispered, letting the reins fall and smoothing a hand over the stallion’s snout before crouching and slipping into the concealment offered by a stretch of ferns.
The laughter grew louder and more discordant as he crept forward, making out several voices speaking a language he didn’t know. Pausing to listen, he detected some resemblance to both the Stahlhast tongue and the form of Chu-shin spoken in the borderlands, but the phrasing and accents rendered the words unintelligible. Lowering himself to the earth he began to crawl, moving with steady, practised slowness, his hands sweeping the ground free of twigs or fallen branches that might betray his presence. He stopped as a familiar hissing sound reached his ears, his eyes picking out a rising patch of steam beyond the trunk of an ash tree. A slow sideways creep revealed the sight of a man in leather armour, face set in bored distraction as he pissed into the undergrowth.
Tuhla, Vaelin concluded, recognising the man’s garb. His eyes flicked left and right finding no others whilst the laughter and conversation continued in the distance. Never a good plan to piss alone in a time of war.
Vaelin watched the man finish his task and turn away, looking down to fasten his britches as he walked off. Vaelin rose to a crouch, moving swiftly, the sound of his footfalls causing the Tuhla to pause and turn, but too late to ward off the arms that encircled his chest and throat. Vaelin kicked the Tuhla’s legs away and jerked his head up and to the right as they fell, taking satisfaction from the double crack that told of a snapped neck. He clamped a hand over the man’s mouth to stifle his death cries, pinching the nose to prevent a last intake of breath, maintaining his grip until his twitches stilled.
Rolling the corpse off him, Vaelin checked it for anything useful. The Tuhla wore a scimitar on his belt along with a flask of some foul smelling concoction with the sting of strong liquor. He also had a bone-handle hunting knife of good steel tucked into his boot. Vaelin took the knife and moved on, once again adopting his slow steady crawl, keeping to the densest undergrowth. He found two more Tuhla twenty paces on, both markedly less careless than their recently dispatched comrade. One held a strongbow with arrow notched to the string whilst the other gripped a drawn scimitar. Both were scanning the surrounding trees with the predatory awareness of men well versed in detecting fresh danger.
“Ulska!” the archer said in a restrained shout, presumably calling out to a man who had taken too long over a piss. Vaelin flattened himself to the soft ground as they came closer. He was partially concealed by the broad trunk of an aged oak and a covering of ferns, but this would prove scant protection when they drew within ten paces or so. Vaelin palmed one of his own throwing knives into his left hand and adjusted his grip on the stolen Tuhla weapon, waiting until the two warriors closed the distance to five paces.
He drew back his arms and threw as he rose from cover, both knives arcing towards the targets with a precision he had thought lost to his youth. The left hand throw was marginally the less accurate of the two, the steel dart striking at the join of the Tuhla’s neck and shoulder, but still managing to find a vein of sufficient import to send the warrior to the ground with blood gurgling from his mouth in a dark torrent. By contrast, the archer somehow remained standing despite taking the bone handle knife full in the throat. He even tried to draw his bow as Vaelin made an unhurried approach, though the Tuhla’s spasming limbs soon shook the weapon from his grasp. Vaelin stooped to retrieve the bow before pulling the knife free and relieving the Tuhla of his quiver when he finally collapsed and choked out his last strangled breath.
Vaelin put an arrow to the string as he moved on, the black-song growing into an ugly murmur. It was coloured by a sensation he hadn’t felt for many years, the hum of recognition that meant only one thing: another Gifted is near. A fresh upsurge of laughter led him to the rest of the Tuhla, a dozen standing in a loose circle around a small group of kneeling men. The kneelers were all bare chested but a pile of discarded armoured jerkins nearby marked them as captured soldiers of the Merchant King. Also, Vaelin saw as he crept closer, men he knew.
Cho-ka knelt at the forefront of the group, flanked on either side by the prone corpses of two fellow members of the Green Vipers. His sweat beaded features bunched in mingled hatred and frustration as he stared up with admirable defiance at the portly man standing over him.
“Where is he?” the portly man asked in Chu-Shin. Unlike the Tuhla, he was unarmoured and carried no weapons, garbed in clothing typical of the borderlands. As the man angled his head and leaned closer to Cho-ka, Vaelin felt a blossoming of power along with a rush of recognition. The Darkblade’s tent, he remembered. The day he killed the Jade Princess. It had been this one who had frozen Vaelin in place when he tried to avenge her murder.
“Tell me,” the portly man went on, playing a hand over Cho-ka’s furious visage. “We know you helped him escape the city. So why isn’t he with you now? Did you kill him? Steal from him?”
Cho-ka gave no answer beyond a sneering curl of his lips, which provoked a soft, regretful sigh from the portly man. “You have already witnessed the price paid by those who shun the Darkblade’s love,” he said, gesturing to the bodies on either side of the kneeling smuggler. Vaelin was unable to see the nature of their injuries but the ground beneath them was dark with blood and the stench was familiar to anyone who had witnessed a disembowelment. “Why suffer such a fate for a foreigner?” the portly man went on. “A vile and treacherous foreigner at that.” He leaned closer, voice softening into an insistent plea. “Spare yourself and these others. Redeem yourself in the eyes of the only true living god. Tell me, where is the Thief of Names?”
Cho-ka’s sneer turned into a snarl, although his teeth remained clenched and his body rigid. Vaelin saw that his arms were unbound but remained tight against his flanks. “Such a closed soul,” the portly man said, shaking his head in meagre despair. “I think you should set it free from your cage of flesh.” He shifted his gaze slightly, focusing on Cho-ka’s bare torso. Vaelin felt another swelling of power and the smuggler shuddered, his arms coming up in a spasmodic jerk, hands forming into trembling claws. “Although,” the portly man added. “The soul of one such as you will be hard to find. Dig deep.”
Cho-ka’s hands slapped against the flat muscles of his belly, his entire body shuddering in fruitless resistance as the fingers began to gouge at his skin. The black-song started to shriek again when Vaelin saw the first trickle of blood on the smuggler’s skin, the music full of an all encompassing rage. There are too many, a small, still rational part of his mind protested as he raised the bow, the string scraping over his cheek as he drew it to the full. The song’s only answer was a small, vicious trill of amusement before his fingers loosed the arrow.
Vaelin saw the shaft skewer the portly man through the chest and felt his gift dwindle and die. Before the red-grey mist descended once again to obscure the world, he was aware of casting the bow aside and drawing his sword, charging forward and throwing the bone handle knife so that it sank into the ground near Cho-ka. Everything went away when the first Tuhla raised a sabre to parry his thrust, the last clear image Vaelin caught being the man’s bisected features as the star-silver blade cleaved him from forehead to chin.