The arrow slammed into the trunk of a pine an inch from his head. Vaelin Al Sorna stared at the fletching as it vibrated before his eyes, feeling a sting on his nose and a trickle of blood left by the shaft’s barbed head. He hadn’t heard the archer who loosed the arrow, nor had he heard the betraying creak of string and stave.
To an onlooker his reaction would have seemed swift and immediate, rolling to the right, coming to his knees, bow drawn and arrow loosed in a single smooth movement. But he knew it to be slow, even as he saw the archer, running now with his horn raised to his lips, take the shaft directly in the back and fall dead. Slow.
There was a soft rustle at his side as Ellese appeared out of the surrounding carpet of ferns, notched bow in hand. “The camp, Uncle,” she said, slightly breathless with eagerness as she started to rise. “We need to move quickly . . .”
Her words died as Vaelin reached out to clamp a hand over her mouth, exerting enough force to keep her crouching. He held her there until the next arrow came, arcing down from the forest canopy to sink into the earth half a dozen feet away. A searching arrow, Master Hutril would have called it. Always useful when flushing prey. But not today.
Vaelin met Ellese’s dark, glaring eyes and raised his own to the treetops before removing his hand. He won’t blow his horn just yet, he told her, hands moving in the sign language so laboriously taught to her over the preceding months. That would reveal his position. I’ll run to the right. He turned, tensing in anticipation of a sprint, then paused to add, Don’t miss.
He surged to his feet, boots pounding on the forest floor as he ran, describing a winding course through the trees. This time he heard the bowstring’s thrum and threw himself behind the broad trunk of an ancient yew, glimpsing an explosion of splintered bark in the corner of his eye. A second later came the sound of another bowstring, the note deeper, possessed of an almost musical precision that bespoke the power of the weapon and the skill of its wielder. A brief pause, then the thud of a body falling from a tall height to the forest floor.
Vaelin remained crouched behind the yew, eyes closed as his ears drank in the song of the forest. It wasn’t long before the chitter of birds, stilled by the unwelcome intrusion, began to return and the wind carried no more trace of sweating, fearful men.
He emerged from his refuge to find Ellese busily searching the body of the outlaw her arrow had plucked from the treetops. Her movements were swift and practised, hands betraying no sign of a tremble despite having just wrested the life from a man. He knew she had killed before in Cumbrael, during a brief and quickly crushed resurgence of the ever-troublesome Sons of the Trueblade. It doesn’t vex her at all, Reva had written in the letter she sent north along with her adopted daughter. Which vexes me greatly.
He saw scant resemblance to Reva in this girl, hardly surprising given the fact that they shared no blood. Her hair was black and her eyes dark, and she was perhaps an inch shorter, if a little thicker of limb. However, the apparent immunity to the effects of killing was a recognisably familial trait she had clearly picked up somewhere along the road. One she shared with the man she called uncle.
“Bluestone,” she said, tossing aside the dead man’s purse and holding up a handful of gleaming azure pebbles. “Wrapped in cotton so they wouldn’t clink.” She angled her head as she surveyed the outlaw’s corpse. “Knew his business, at least.” She glanced up at Vaelin before adding with a grin, “Not well enough, though.”
Vaelin crouched to retrieve the man’s bow, a flat-staved hunting weapon typical to all fiefs of the Realm, except Cumbrael. Had the fellow possessed a longbow and the skill to use it, Vaelin knew he would likely be dead now.
“Check his scalp,” he told Ellese, who duly whipped away the man’s woollen cap, revealing a shaven head. Vaelin used his boot to turn the corpse’s head until he found it, a crude tattoo forming a dark crimson stain amidst the grey stubble. “The Bloody Sparrows,” he said, moving away.
The outlaw he had killed lay some twenty paces off, facedown with Vaelin’s arrow protruding from his back at a near- vertical angle. Vaelin worked the shaft loose, grunting with the effort of extracting the barbed head from the bony trap of the man’s spine, before turning him over.
“Jumin Vek,” he said after a brief survey of the blotchy, pockmarked face.
“You know him?” Ellese asked.
“I should. I arrested him up on a Queen’s Warrant four years ago. He left a trail of murder, rape and thievery all along the roads of Renfael before fetching up in the Reaches. I packed him off on a ship to face the noose in Frostport.”
“Seems he managed an escape.”
Or bribed his way clear, Vaelin thought. It was an all- too- common occurrence these days. With so much money to be made stealing and smuggling the bounty of the Northern Reaches, it seemed as if every outlaw had the means to buy their way out of trouble. As Tower Lord, and therefore the queen’s appointed warden of this land, the frequency with which Vaelin was obliged to recapture the dregs of the Realm made him less than scrupulous in observing her royal edict against immediate execution.
“Another Bloody Sparrow?” Ellese asked.
“No.” Vaelin tossed away Jumin Vek’s cap to reveal a shock of thick, greasy hair. He grasped the man’s chin and turned it, revealing a more accomplished image inked into the sallow flesh of his neck. “The Damned Rats. They’re mostly disgraced former Realm Guard.”
“So we face two gangs today?”
“I doubt it. Lord Orven wiped out most of the Bloody Sparrows last winter. It seems the Rats found room for some survivors.”
He relieved the unfortunate Jumin Vek of his purse, finding it to contain two nuggets of gold along with a few bluestones.
“Your nose is bleeding, Uncle,” Ellese observed as he rose.
Vaelin took a rag from his belt, soaked it with a small bottle of corr tree oil and pressed it to the cut on his nose. He swallowed a grunt of pain as the concoction seeped its fiery way into the wound, unable to suppress the sense that it hadn’t stung quite so much in his youth.
“Fetch the others,” he told Ellese, dousing his face with water from his canteen to wash away the residual blood. “Meet me at the canyon’s edge. And, Ellese,” he added as she turned away. “The bluestones.”
He held out his hand, meeting her gaze until she gave a huff of annoyance and handed over the stones, griping in a low mutter, “You have me hunting scum for no pay.”
“Your mother sent you to me for
* * *
It transpired that the outlaw camp was in fact a stockade formed of a semicircular enclosure arcing out from the eastern wall of a canyon known as Ultin’s Gulch. The place had been named in honour of the Reaches’ most famed miner, a man Vaelin remembered fondly from the Liberation War.
Ever a cheerful soul, Ultin had returned to the Reaches bearing the queen’s order to scrape all the wealth he could from the mines, thereby filling the royal coffers to meet the escalating costs of war. Honoured for his efforts as a Sword of the Realm with a generous accompanying pension, Ultin had politely refused Vaelin’s offer of a position as Lord Overseer of Mineworks. Instead, he retired to a smallholding near North Tower where, over the course of the next three years, he proceeded to drink himself to death. It was the war, my lord, his widow had told Vaelin the day they gave her husband’s body to the fire. All those murdered souls, murdered children. The men he lost at Alltor . . . all of it. He could never get it out of his head.
Vaelin spared a brief thought for Ultin’s memory before focusing his attention on the stockade. It was plainly new built, the timbers forming its defensive wall still green and unseasoned, although they seemed solid enough. The occupants had constructed a lookout post atop the canyon wall, providing a no doubt fine view of the surrounding landscape. Vaelin knew the ground to the east consisted of a half- mile- long expanse of bare rock, across which no attacking force could expect to approach undetected.
The canyon floor was similarly lacking in cover but also narrower, allowing for a rapid assault. Even so, he didn’t relish the prospect and found this new tactic of fortification troubling. Usually, the various outlaw and smuggling gangs would establish temporary camps deep in the forest or the more inaccessible crags from which they would raid the caravan routes. Now it appeared this particular group had opted for a permanent home. Are they getting bolder? he wondered. Or just more desperate.
He detected only the smallest sign of the Cumbraelin’s approach, just a faint scrape of buckskin on grass before the man appeared at his side, lying flat as Vaelin did.
“My lord,” he said.
“Master Tallspear.” Vaelin glanced behind to see the war party of Bear People emerge from the forest at a crawl, spears and bows held low so as not to break the silhouette of the skyline.
“You can see it’s as we said,” Tallspear said, nodding at the outlaws’ stockade. Over the course of recent years Vaelin had often pondered the fact that Tallspear’s face possessed only the most meagre vestige of the man who had once tried very hard to kill him. The Cumbraelin’s features were still the hardened, weathered mask of a lifelong hunter, but the fiery glint of fanaticism had long since faded from his gaze. Apart from the longbow he carried, his garb was that of the Bear People and he spoke their language, still beyond Vaelin’s skills to master, with an easy fluency. Although Vaelin still couldn’t help thinking of him as Cumbraelin, in any way that mattered he was now a hunter of the Bear People clan, evidenced by the name they had given him. Vaelin knew he would probably never learn the man’s birth name, and found himself content in his ignorance.
“You said you found this a month ago?” Vaelin asked.
“Twenty- five days, to be precise. It wasn’t here two weeks before. Our people come here fairly regularly, plenty of beavers to be trapped in the river.”
“So they saw you?”
Tallspear responded with a frown that was both amused and faintly insulted.
“Apologies.” Vaelin turned his gaze back to the stockade. “How often do they raid?”
“That’s the curious thing, my lord. They don’t, as far as we can tell. Very few tracks in the surrounding country, except what you’d expect from the occasional hunting party. For the most part they just stay in there. Truth be told, we were tempted to leave them be, but the elders felt we should honour our treaty with the Tower Man.”
Vaelin inclined his head in thanks. Since being granted leave to settle in the Reaches after their forced migration from the icy wastes to the north, the Bear People had consistently proven themselves loyal if insular subjects of the Realm. “Be sure to tell them their consideration is appreciated.”
“I will, my lord. Also, two-thirds of the spoils when we’re done would also greatly emphasise the honour in which you hold the Bear People.”
Vaelin bit down a sigh. After being spared execution and finding a home with the Bear People, Tallspear had forsaken the god-worshipping fanaticism that had brought him to this land intent on assassinating its Tower Lord. Instead, these days the Cumbraelin’s reserves of zeal were now fully employed in the role of chief bargainer for his adopted tribe, keen to protect them from the greed of the Realm-born.
“Half,” Vaelin said. “Including profits from the sale of any gold and bluestone we recover.”
The hunter seemed about to argue the point but fell silent at a loud click from behind. Vaelin turned to see a diminutive young woman crouched nearby, a small black bear at her side. The woman’s name was Iron Eyes, and it was easy to see where she got it in the scowl she directed at Tallspear. As the only shaman remaining to the Bear People, she was the closest thing they had to an overall leader. She was also Tallspear’s wife and mother to their three children.
She clicked her tongue again before telling her husband, “Don’t be rude,” in clipped but well-spoken Realm Tongue. “Half is acceptable, Tower Man,” she added, turning to Vaelin. “But there must be a blood price for any hunters called to join the Green Fire.”
“Of course.” Vaelin inclined his head before returning his attention to the stockade. He counted a dozen sentries on the wall, each bearing either bow or crossbow. Once they realised an attack was under way more would surely join them, meaning a charge across the floor of the gulch would inevitably cost lives. In addition to the forty or so Bear People, he also had another sixty North Guard, surely enough to put the matter beyond doubt regardless of how many arrows the outlaws cast their way.
“Best wait for darkness, my lord,” Tallspear said, evidently following his line of thought. “We can easily get within fifty paces of that wall come midnight, put up a volley to cover a charge for the gate. A few blows from a decent-sized ram should be enough to gain entry.”
“They’ll be expecting their scouts to return come nightfall,” Vaelin said, shaking his head. “Waiting for midnight will take too long.” He thought a moment longer before nodding at the small bear at Iron Eyes’ side. “Does he have a name?”
“Little Teeth,” Iron Eyes replied, running a hand through the beast’s thick fur. He let out a contented huff and nuzzled her side in return.
“Wise Bear’s beast was called Iron Claw,” Vaelin recalled. “He carried him all the way across the ice to the land of the Dark Hearts. There we fought a great battle. You know this?”
Iron Eyes scowled again, nodding cautiously. The old shaman had never returned from the ice and neither the Bear People nor anyone else had discovered his fate. Vaelin knew they still hoped for his return and that his continued failure to do so was a decidedly sore point. “I know this,” the shaman said.
“Iron Claw was brave,” Vaelin told her. “How brave is Little Teeth?”