FALL OF THANES
WHAT HAS GONE BEFORE
Orisian oc Lannis-Haig is now Thane of his Blood, but he is a Thane exiled from his lands, for the Glas Valley where he and his family dwelled lies under the brutal control of the Bloods of the Black Road. Orisian has escaped from the pursuing forces of the Black Road to Kolkyre, the capital of the Kilkry Blood, long a close friend and ally to his own. With him have come Yvane and Hammarn, na’kyrim from the north, Ess’yr and Varryn, Kyrinin of the Fox clan, his shieldman Rothe and his sister Anyara. Others have also converged upon Kolkyre, however, and Orisian finds himself the object of unwelcome attention from Mordyn Jerain, the Shadowhand, Chancellor to the Haig Blood, and Aewult, Bloodheir to the High Thane, Gryvan oc Haig. Their intent is to ensure the primacy of Haig in the efforts to turn back the Black Road. Frustrated by the machinations of these supposed allies, Orisian dispatches Taim Narran, his Blood’s most accomplished warrior, with their meagre remaining forces northwards, hoping to delay or turn back the Black Road’s advance. Orisian himself, concerned that a greater threat than even the armies of the Black Road is being overlooked, travels to Highfast, where a number of na’kyrim maintain a library. The threat that so troubles Orisian is Aeglyss, a na’kyrim who has been crucified by the White Owl Kyrinin, but rather than dying, descends from their Breaking Stone imbued with a rare and powerful ability to make use of the powers some na’kyrim can draw from the Shared. Aeglyss first asserts control over the White Owl clan, and then the Black Road army itself. He is the first na’kyrim in centuries with the ability to bind another wholly and unreservedly to his will, and chooses to exercise this power over Wain nan Horin-Gyre, sister of the Thane Kanin, to Kanin’s increasingly desperate dismay. In the course of his ascent, Aeglyss wins the allegiance of Shraeve, a Battle Inkallim. He completes his rise to power when Shraeve champions him in single combat against the senior war leader of the Battle Inkall, Fiallic. With Aeglyss’ subtle intervention, Shraeve is victorious, assumes command of the Battle Inkall’s army and immediately pledges it to Aeglyss. At Highfast, Orisian discovers that many of the na’kyrim there can feel the alarming changes taking place in the Shared, and the stirring of the Anain. He also finds Eshenna, who tells him that Aeglyss is searching for a na’kyrim called K’rina, his foster mother in his childhood. Believing he can be of more use in such a task than trying to lead an army in the war, Orisian leaves Highfast with a small company of warriors led by Torcaill, crosses the Karkyre Peaks and descends into the Veiled Woods, where Eshenna is certain K’rina can be found. They do indeed discover the na’kyrim, but she has been mysteriously and disturbingly transformed by the Anain, and in the course of capturing her, Rothe, Orisian’s shieldman and in some ways his closest surviving friend, is slain in battle with White Owl Kyrinin. Orisian and the other survivors are driven by pursuing White Owls back over the Karkyre Peaks. In their absence, Aeglyss invades Highfast by possessing the body of Tyn, a na’kyrim known as the Dreamer. When the other na’kyrim there refuse to offer him any aid, Aeglyss destroys their library and kills many of them. He also discovers Mordyn Jerain, the Shadowhand, who lies injured after being attacked while he travelled there in pursuit of Orisian. The Shadowhand is carried away by Aeglyss’ forces, and brought to Kan Avor in the Glas Valley, where the na’kyrim now resides. Aeglyss reluctantly resolves that the Shadowhand would be more valuable to him than Wain nan Horin-Gyre. He releases Wain from her binding, but has Shraeve kill her rather than let her go free. He then binds Mordyn Jerain, and sends him south to return to the Vaymouth, the capital of the Haig Bloods. Taim Narran, leading the remaining forces of the Lannis Blood, is caught up in a great battle near Glasbridge. There, due to the pride and inexperience of Aewult nan Haig, the Black Road wins a major victory, and the armies of the True Bloods fall back in disarray to Kolkyre, where Aewult nan Haig accuses Taim Narran of treachery and imprisons him. He also takes hostage Anyara, Orisian’s sister. She reluctantly remains in Kolkyre when Orisian sets out for Highfast, and there witnesses the assassination of Lheanor, the Kilkry Thane, by a member of the Hunt Inkall. As a result, Lheanor’s son Roaric, a tempestuous young man, rises to the Thaneship of the Kilkry Blood. Aewult sends Anyara south to Vaymouth and the court of the Thane of Thanes. The Black Road army descends upon Kolkyre and there, with the aid of Aeglyss’ immense power, inflicts a further crippling defeat upon Aewult’s forces. Escaping in the chaos, Taim Narran flees before the disaster now engulfing the lands of the Kilkry Blood. On the road to Ive, a small town south of Kolkyre, he is reunited with Orisian.
Loss alone is but the wounding of a heart; it is memory that makes it our ruin.
A proverb of the Aygll Kingship
Pay no heed to grief. It is only weakness leaving your heart.
A saying of the Battle Inkall
The movement of birds. That was what told Orisian oc Lannis-Haig that they were coming. Wood pigeons, half a dozen, took flight from the leafless treetops, their wingtips cracking like a rattle of drums. He saw them arrowing away over the canopy, and knew that in their flight they told a tale of what lay beneath. Somewhere there, down amidst the dank greys and browns of the tree trunks and undergrowth, the enemy were coming: men, and likely women, he meant to see dead before the pale, sinking sun touched the horizon. The woodlands were not large, not compared to the great tracts of forest Orisian had seen on the flanks of the Car Criagar or beyond the Karkyre Peaks. He shied away from that latter thought. His mind refused to approach too closely any memory of the Veiled Woods, and of what had happened there. If once he turned over that rock, what he uncovered might break him. These woods were tame, as docile as any horse broken to the saddle and bit. Their oaks grew straight and tall above thickets of coppiced hazel. They lay amidst vast swathes of farmland and pasture on the gentle slopes west of Ive, and were just as much shaped by human hand as were those surrounding fields. Charcoal burners and timber merchants had laid out nets of pathways and clearings and campsites through them. Now, Orisian knew, one of those trails was being followed not by woodsmen but by the wolves of the Black Road. He glanced at the warrior Torcaill, who was crouched alongside him amongst the rocks at the top of the slope. “You saw?” “Yes, sire. It won’t be long. Will you come away now? Back behind the crest, at least?” “No,” murmured Orisian. “I’ll see what’s done in my name.” He looked up, briefly, towards the west. There were clouds there: great dark masses that would muffle the sun before it set. More snow to come. The last fall had been almost a week ago, and light enough that no trace of it now remained. “Let me bring up your horse, at least, sire,” Torcaill said. “So I can flee more easily? No. Leave it where it is.” The warrior frowned, his displeasure unconcealed. “Go to your men,” Orisian told him. “Make sure they’re mounted and ready. If Taim needs you, it’ll be soon.” Torcaill went, scrambling back over the rocks. He had two dozen men waiting just out of sight. Orisian knew they would already be fully prepared. They were as eager as anyone to spill Black Road blood, and needed no encouragement from Torcaill to ready themselves for the task, but he found the warrior’s concern for his safety unsettling. Troubling. Only Ess’yr and Varryn remained with him. The two Kyrinin were nestled down in the shadow of a boulder, paying no heed to the events unfolding around them. Ess’yr was smoothing the flights of her arrows one after another, a picture of perfect, absorbed attention. Her brother sat staring fixedly at the patch of grass between his feet. Neither had spoken since they settled into their place of concealment. They seldom did now, and perhaps that was why Orisian found their company easier than most. He craved silence, sought it as a friend and ally. Three figures emerged from the woods: hunters from Ive, who today were bait in the trap. They trotted along the faint path that led up the slope. They were almost casual in their demeanour, but their backward glances hinted at tension. Orisian narrowed his eyes, trying to unpick the thick tapestry of the woodland edge, searching for the pursuit that—if all was happening as intended—should be close behind. He could detect no sign of it yet. He noted that Ess’yr had set her quiver down. She wiped her right hand down the flank of her hide jacket, from the faint rise of her breast to her hip, and with her left took up her bow. She would willingly use it to kill on his behalf, Orisian knew. Varryn he was less sure of. The Kyrinin warrior had become the most reluctant of allies ever since they left the Veiled Woods; ever since Orisian had refused to free Ess’yr of any obligation to him, or send her away. Rothe’s absence stabbed at him afresh then, the anguish as pointed and wounding as ever. Each time he remembered that he could not turn his head and see the big, bluff shieldman there, an arm’s length away, the thought strangled the breath in his throat and pinched at his eyes. It always brought the insistent memory, contemptuous of his every effort to dispel it, of his hand over the wound in Rothe’s neck. Of the thick blood pulsing out between his fingers. He blinked twice, knowing that the image would never be so easily dismissed. The sounds of slaughter saved him. Cries were rising from the woods. He heard people crashing through the thickets, blades clattering against one another. The noise rescued him, for now, from the grasp of his memories. The three Kilkry-Haig huntsmen had turned and were heading back to join the fight. Ess’yr stood up, shaking her hair away from her face with a feline flick of her head. Orisian could see movement in the gloom beneath the closest trees: figures struggling back and forth. Taim Narran’s mixed company of Lannis and Kilkry men had closed with its prey. Black Road bands were ranging widely across the territory of the Kilkry Blood, raiding, scouting, seeking pillage or simple bloodshed. This was the second such group to come within reach of Ive in the last week; the second they had lured into ambush. Men spilled out from amongst the trees, stumbling and struggling and hacking. Orisian rose. The shield was heavy on his left arm. He drew his sword, rhythmically tightening and easing his fingers about its hilt. It felt much more familiar in his grasp than once it had. Familiar but not yet natural, not good. Never good, perhaps. “Friend or foe?” Ess’yr stood perfectly still, bowstring drawn back almost to touch her lips. “What?” Orisian asked. “Is that one friend or foe?” she asked. Orisian looked down the slope. One man had broken free from the battle and was labouring up towards them. His head was low, his attention consumed by the task of keeping his footing on the wet, slick grass. He wore a jerkin of hide and fur, carried a lumber axe in one hand. He had thick, dark hair. A heavy beard. “Foe, I think,” Orisian said quietly, and before the sound of his words had died the arrow was gone, cutting through the cold air. He watched it, skimming out and down, struck by its elegant precision and the soft whisper of its flight, as it went unerringly to its warm home. They entered Ive without ceremony, the last light of the day at their backs. What relief there was at their return was muted. They had killed twenty or more Black Roaders, and brought another back with them as prisoner, but such small victories brought little and brief comfort. There were, everyone knew, thousands more to take the place of those enemies felled today. Torcaill and Taim rode on either side of Orisian. Varryn and Ess’yr walked a few paces behind them. When they had first arrived here with Orisian, the Kyrinin had been met everywhere they went in Ive by hostility and suspicion. They attracted little attention now. The town’s inhabitants recognised them as members of Orisian’s retinue, and accepted them—if reluctantly—as such. Orisian’s Blood had long been allied to their own, and its Thane could keep what company he saw fit, no matter how strange and ill-advised such company might be. As they made their way through Ive’s darkening streets, they found their path blocked by a great mass of cattle, jostling and barging along beneath the switches of cowherds. In the failing light, the beasts all but merged into a single roiling creature, lowing and steaming as it rumbled into the town’s heart, its flanks turned yellow by firelight spilling from windows. Men shouted at the cowherds to clear the roadway. Orisian rode on regardless, ploughing through the fringes of the herd. His company of warriors strung out behind him. Many of the Kilkry men amongst them drifted off down side streets, making for the homes they had been summoned from that morning, or to take their turn at sentry duty on the town’s outskirts. The cattle and their herders were only the latest of many to come seeking sanctuary in Ive, hoping for refuge from the chaos sweeping across the Kilkry Blood. Every time another family arrived, they brought tales of horror and disaster: wild Tarbain tribesmen burning and looting villages; companies of Inkallim appearing suddenly out of the night, intent upon slaughter. Donnish, the coastal town a day or two’s ride west of Ive, had already fallen, abandoned by the tattered remnants of the Haig armies all but destroyed by the Black Road’s remorseless advance. Further north, Kolkyre, where Roaric the Kilkry Thane languished, was cut off by a besieging host, and accessible only by sea. His Blood was on its knees. Still, it was not yet as utterly ruined as was Orisian’s own Blood. The sixty or so Lannis warriors at his back as he dismounted in the courtyard of Ive’s Guard barracks were all that remained to him of his inheritance as Thane. He bore the title but in truth was master of nothing more than whatever strength rode with him. What respect was shown to him—and there was a good deal of it, from both his own followers and the people of Ive—felt, as often as not, undeserved and unearned. Weariness took him as he entered the barracks. It was crowded inside, full of Guardsmen and townsfolk alike. And outsiders, too: those who had fled here with nothing but what they could carry, reliant upon the town’s Guard for shelter or sustenance; warriors who had found their way here after defeat, and now slept on the floorboards of these draughty halls, dreaming perhaps of the chance to redeem themselves. Orisian ignored them all. He met no one’s eyes as he made his way to the stairs. When they recognised him, people here sometimes came begging for favours or aid. He helped them when he could—though that was seldom—but he was too exhausted for such exchanges tonight. “I’ll eat in my room,” he murmured to Taim, and climbed away from the hubbub. He ate without enthusiasm. The food that was brought to him was good, the best the town had to offer, but he seldom had much of an appetite now. It was as if his mind and body could accommodate only so many hungers, and that for food was crowded out by less corporeal longings: for his sister’s safety, for the undoing of so much that had been done to those he knew and loved. For some reason to be given for all the deaths. After pushing aside the half-finished meal, Orisian closed his eyes and allowed his head to sink down onto his chest. He let time pass, consciously clearing his thoughts. It was a struggle, for he had barely more mastery over them than over the Blood he was supposed to lead, but he managed it. He dozed, until something—he did not know whether it was a sound from outside, or perhaps the determined, ungovernable stirring of his own mind—roused him. He went sluggishly towards the window. He halted an arm’s length back from it, keeping to the dark. He did not want to be seen if he could help it, and he was close enough to look down upon the little orchard, bounded by high stone walls, that lay behind the barracks. The ancient, crooked apple trees clenched up like wizened hands, half-lit by lamps burning in the kitchens. Almost beyond the reach of that light, in the heart of the grove, Ess’yr and Varryn had made shelters from stakes and hides. Orisian could see the two Kyrinin now, moving amongst the trees. They drifted through the winter’s dark, unhurried. They were gathering sticks for a fire. Orisian held himself quite still. Even his breathing grew shallow and soft. He did not know if they could see him from down there amongst the shadows, but they might. Their eyes were more than human, after all. Ess’yr squatted down on her haunches to build the fire. Her hair slipped forward to hide her face. Orisian watched her hands instead. They were pale, indistinct shapes, but still their movements had grace and ease. Done with her preparations, she reached for some small bag or pouch and scattered something from it on a flat stone at the fireside. Food, Orisian knew. He had seen this many times since that first night with her in the forests far north of here. She left morsels for the restless dead. He found himself wishing Ess’yr would look up, and turn her face towards him. He both wanted her to know that he was watching her, and feared it. Perhaps she already knew. Perhaps she knew that he was constantly aware of her presence; that wherever they were, whoever he was talking to, if she was near there was always a portion of his attention claimed by her. He could hear voices, softened and blurred, from the rooms below, and, more distant, the lowing of cattle, penned up in some yard or barn. Sparks flared amongst the sleeping apple trees. Once, twice, Ess’yr struck glimmers of fire from a flint. One must have taken, for she delicately raised the little bundle of kindling in her cupped hands and blew upon it. In moments, a tiny flame was born. Orisian could see her face then; see a faint line of firelight reflected on her hair. He smiled. There were footsteps in the passageway outside. Taim Narran was calling for him. Orisian turned away from the window, feeling as he did so suddenly and terribly sad. “You wanted to be informed, sire, if the prisoner was saying anything of interest,” Taim said when Orisian opened the door. “Wait a moment while I get a cloak,” Orisian murmured. “I can tell you what he’s saying. If you would prefer to stay here. There is no need…” “Do you think it’s too cold for me outside?” Orisian asked gently as he settled the cloak about his shoulders. “Or that I should not see what happens to prisoners in Ive?” His Captain made no reply. “It’s all right, Taim. Whatever was fragile in me was broken long ago. Lead the way.”