The long-awaited third instalment of the David Gemmell Award-winning Wall of Night series. Epic fantasy at its best: even Robin Hobb is a fan of these tales of heroic deeds and prophecies fulfilled.
Tongues of lightning flashed out of a bruised sky, the wildfire flickering along a broken colonnade before splitting apart around a man’s tall figure. Dead leaves drifted to either side as the rift in the air closed, but no ripple disturbed the length of the newcomer’s surcote, white over blue-black mail, or the fall of his long hair as he passed beneath a crumbing arch and into an open court, bounded by twelve paired pillars. A wide pool lay on its far side, with shallow steps leading out onto a stone platform where a woman gazed into the motionless depths. Her gossamer sleeves stirred in a slight breeze, but otherwise she was as still as the surrounding water and did not turn when the man joined her.
“Nindorith told me you were here.” His voice was layered with muted power. “There is no secret for you to find, heart of my heart. It has been as we see it now since Amaliannarath departed.”
The woman’s gaze remained on the water. “Died, is what the others say. Even Salar holds that Amaliannarath extinguished herself, trying to carry the whole of Fire through the void.”
“Those of Sun will always say what suits their current purpose, especially Salar. Ask me, or Nindorith, if you have questions about Amaliannarath.”
One of her hands clenched. “I have spoken with Nindorith, as it happens.” Each word was a weight, dropped into the air between them. “He said that she and Fire vanished, passing beyond even his ability, or Salar’s, to trace, which makes it probable they all perished.” She paused. “Only the great Prince Ilkerineth, it seems, does not agree.”
Oh, my heart, Ilkerineth thought: striking at me over Amaliannarath’s long-ago fate will not bring our son back.
Our son. Even the words were a fist of pain, closing around his heart. For an instant he was half form, half wildfire, as his banked-down power strained to break free—not just clear of this sad place, caught in its pocket outside time, but tearing through the barrier Wall and into Haarth. With Nindorith at his side and Lightning at his back he might even be able to do it, since the Derai had neglected the foundations of their Wall for so long . . . But a split second later Ilkerineth had caught himself, the wildfire dying as he forced grief and rage back down.
I have lived too long, he thought. They lay my son’s dead body at my feet and still I will not obliterate another world, even if I could.
And Nherenor had loved Haarth. That must be weighed in the scales, too, when avenging his death. The Derai, though—Briefly, the wildfire flared again, because the ancient enemy were another matter entirely. Despite that, Ilkerineth kept his voice even and the timbre of power quiet, as it always was when he spoke to the woman before him: Nherenor’s mother, whose eyes shifted with the colors of the sea. “The facts we know only make death the most likely answer, not the certain one.”
Sun, Lightning, Fire: one of the Sworn’s three nations gone, just like that. Why did you do it, Amaliannarath? he demanded silently. Why didn’t you appeal to me or to Nindorith, if you thought Aranraith and Salar were behind the assault on Fire? “I know what Salar has come whispering, under the pretext of sorrow for our grief,” he said aloud, “but no matter what the basilisk may suggest, this place is a ghost—no more than an echo of what it was when Amaliannarath lived. And even she, in her full power, could not have brought Nherenor back from the dead.”
The woman beside him moved restlessly. “Would Salar lie outright? He swears that Amaliannarath may have known how to move through time. And this was her place, so if she did . . .” Her chin lifted. “If I delve into its memories deep enough, if I plumb the pool—” When she broke off, he knew her eyes would be storm dark. “What if I could open a way into that power? What if we could go back and slay Nherenor’s killer before he was slain?”
“ ‘What if,’ ” Ilkerineth repeated, but checked his headshake. “Salar might not lie outright, but every word will have an alternate interpretation. Few know better, too, just how immensely strong Amaliannarath was. So if even she could be obliterated by the void, how do you think a lesser power would fare, attempting the same feat?”
Both her hands shut this time, into fists so tight the knuckles gleamed. “Do you think I care for that? Our son has been slain in a Haarth backwater by a Derai spy. Yet all you speak of is what cannot be done. Perhaps you have lived so long and seen so much death that even your son’s killing ceases to matter. But if Salar is right and a way exists that may undo his death, then I shall find it.”
The blade of loss turned in Ilkerineth’s heart, sharper than any words that she could hone against him out of her pain. But he continued to hold the rein on his power tight, because it was true that he had seen death—aeons of it. He had also observed Salar’s sly hand at work many times and knew that if he answered her rage and despair out of his own, a good part of the basilisk’s work would be done.
I should not have let Salar come anywhere near us, he reflected grimly, even under the pretext of observing our ancient mourning ceremonies. Nindorith had warned him, but he had been determined to honor Nherenor with the full rites, thus proving what he had long suspected: that of the two of them, Nindorith was by far the wiser.
“At least when it comes to Salar.”
“So you are here,” Ilkerineth replied.
“Even you should be wary, my Prince, given it was Salar who pointed the Lady toward this place. Whatever it may have been when Amaliannarath came here, it is largely unprotected now.”
“Do you suspect treachery, despite Sun’s current litany of cooperation?” Ilkerineth let dryness tinge his mindspeech. They both knew that Aranraith’s envoy, Arcolin, had actively undone their work toward alliance with Emer—and contingent hope of cutting off the Derai’s trade with Haarth—as soon as Nindorith withdrew following Nherenor’s death. They also suspected Aranraith’s agents in northern Emer of killing their own operative there, the shapechanger known as Malisande. Her death had appeared to be the work of native assassins, but could well have been engineered by Sun adepts seeking to replicate her infiltration of the Emerian Oakward.
A flicker of Nindorith’s power, also banked down, acknowledged the dryness. “Still, Aranraith could be right in the short term. Setting this world alight with local wars may serve our ends just as well as alliances.”
“It’s too often the short term, with Aranraith.” Ilkerineth frowned. “But he would only move against me if he felt sure you and Lightning would then come over to him.”
“I would rather follow Amaliannarath’s path than join Aranraith.” Nindorith’s reply was a pulse of muted thunder, but Ilkerineth felt his regard shift to the black-clad figure at the edge of the pool. “Far better for all of us, if you stay alive.”
“I’ll do my best.” The breeze eddied as Nindorith withdrew, although Ilkerineth guessed that he would not have gone far.
“Nuithe.” He spoke the woman’s name softly, and this time she turned as he stepped close, her eyes falling to his extended hand. Slowly, her fists uncurled and she placed a hand in his, although she hesitated before coming into the circle of his arms. Ilkerineth kept his clasp light, because of the mail, and felt his usual amazement that the top of her head barely reached his shoulder. Briefly, he closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of her hair. “One reason I have lived this long,” he said finally, “is because I never forget what Salar is. Any hope the basilisk held out to you will have been proffered to feed Aranraith’s hatred, or bait a trap.” Involuntarily, his arms tightened. “You are strong and valiant, but this dead place could still leach all the power out of you until you follow our son to the grave.”
Nuithe was silent so long that he wondered if she had heard him. When she did finally speak, her voice was a whisper. “My heart cries out for him: my Nherenor, my son.” Her hands, clenched back into fists, pressed against his chest. “But if I cannot have him back, I will have vengeance for his death.”
Ilkerineth let his arms tighten again, just a little. “Nherenor shall be avenged. I am still of the Sworn and would have to live a great deal longer than I have for the fires of vengeance to grow cold.” For the first time, he let himself feel the wind’s chill, answering his mood. “But this place is dangerous. The maelstrom is waking again, we all feel it. Once it rouses fully, it will suck all lesser powers into itself, making no distinction between friend and foe.”
“The maelstrom . . .” Nuithe’s voice trailed off. “So that’s why Aranraith is bent on larger plans, testing the Wall’s ability to constrain the Sworn again.”
“Given what’s brewing, he may be wise.” Ilkerineth frowned, because although the way Nuithe herself had opened through the Wall, nearly two decades ago, had greatly increased the Sworn’s ability to access Haarth, Aranraith’s raid on the Keep of Winds had still failed, six years before. Yet the raiders had also exposed Derai weakness, striking into the heart of what should have been their enemy’s greatest stronghold.
Nuithe’s frown mirrored his. “I heard what he said to you during the mourning rites: that we must cease skulking in the shadows and waiting on uncertain prophecy to favor our cause. I assume he meant Nindorith’s foreseeing, a child of my blood driven like a death-stake into the heart of the Derai Alliance.” Her voice flattened. “But now Nherenor is dead.”
And as early as his funeral, Ilkerineth thought, Salar came whispering . . . Seeing the trouble in her expression, he could guess what the basilisk might have been whispering about, besides Amaliannarath.
As if their thoughts marched together, Nuithe stepped clear of his embrace. “Aranraith hates me. With the foreseeing come to nothing, he will try and use me as a wedge. Initially between Sun and Lightning, but he’ll drive it between you and Lightning, too, if he can.” She crossed her arms, her gaze steady. “Many years ago you granted me sanctuary among the Sworn, and then the protection of your name. And however wildly I may have spoken, just now, I know you will never forget the blood debt owed for Nherenor’s death.” The wind keened, catching at her hair and trailing sleeves. “But I will understand, with my value to the Sworn cause diminished, if you wish to cut me loose, to achieve what I can on my own.”
Ilkerineth’s lightning sparked in answer, and Nuithe’s eyes flickered, although she did not flinch away. She had never shrunk from him, not even when Nindorith first brought her half dead into Lightning’s hall—and he had transformed out of wildfire before her eyes in order to deal with Aranraith’s outrage, baying at their heels. Now, Ilkerineth let his anger die, since it was directed at Salar’s meddling and he knew all too well just how persuasive the basilisk could be. Even if Nuithe had refused to listen at the time, the words would still have kept working away in her: because Salar, like Nindorith, was an Ascendant, one of the great powers of the Sworn.
“Diminished value,” Ilkerineth observed. “Yes, indeed—except as an opener of ways, a power we have not numbered among our ranks for millennia. And it was you who brought down the barriers into the Old Keep of Winds, so the Sworn could attack Night in their greatest stronghold.” He let his smile gleam as he regarded her. “You also swore to Lightning, as our Lady of Ways, before you agreed to marry me. Rest assured, I shall not release you from that oath. Especially,” he added, humor fading, “when letting you go would be as good as delivering you back into Aranraith’s hand.”
Nuithe was looking down now, so he could no longer read her expression, but he let his voice grow soft. “I am the Prince of Lightning, so might well offer a woman sanctuary to advantage my cause and spite my enemies. But I would not need to marry her to achieve either end. I am not a liar either, the reason I call you my beloved is because it’s true.” A single step closed the gap between them again. When she did not move away, Ilkerineth brushed his fingertips across her hair, much as the wind had done. “I asked you to marry me because I love you.” Pain roughened the softness in his voice. “I will release you from that bond if you wish it—because you wish it—but not without a plea. We have lost our son, must we lose each other as well?”
Nuithe shook her head, which might be as close as she would come to saying what she wanted. Heart of my heart, Ilkerineth thought, but waited for her to come to him.
He, too, was a great power of the Sworn and could make her do so with a word if he chose, binding her will to his. That was the course Aranraith would choose—and had raged against Ilkerineth for neglecting ever since he learned of Nuithe’s ability with ways and Nindorith’s foreseeing. Because my brother Prince of the Sun, Ilkerineth thought fiercely, has never been interested in trust, only power and obedience to his will, just as he has forgotten why we came to be fighting this war in the first place.
Nuithe’s arms slid around his neck and her lips met his with an answering fierceness. Ilkerineth savored its edge against the softness of her mouth, their kiss lengthening, before he drew away to murmur against her ear: “Besides, think how much greater a vengeance you can encompass as my wife, with all of Lightning at your back.”
Her arms tightened. “I am thinking of it. Every minute of every hour, the hope of retribution sustains me, both for my old vengeance and now the new.”
Just as it was hate, he reflected, that had sustained her when she first joined Lightning, driving her will to survive with all the potency of a once great love turned on itself. He guessed she might have been able to speak words of affection, too, in that former life—but Nuithe, the name she had chosen for herself, meant “dark heart” in the oldest language of the Sworn. She had seemed well named, too, until Nherenor had given her a reason to love again.
Yet now Nherenor was dead and both love and hope turned to ashes. Ilkerineth felt his expression cloud, the storm within him brewing, as her hands wound themselves into his hair. “Nindorith or our agents will hunt out Nherenor’s slayer,” she whispered. “He cannot elude us forever. Yet Night has found some means to prevent any more ways being opened into the abandoned Old Keep. And their Earl still lives and has not yet lost all that he holds dear.” She pulled his mouth down to hers again, and this time the kiss was all ferocity until her grip on his hair eased. “You and Nindorith have sworn to observe the ancient mourning period for Nherenor in full, but let me honor our son equally, Prince of the Lightning, by resuming the hunt. I may not find the assassin, but I shall rend Night’s friends and paint their names onto Lightning’s banners in their own lifeblood.”
She hates well, I’ll give her that. Aranraith’s observation, because hatred spoke to the Prince of the Sun. Ilkerineth let wildfire crackle around them both, but kept his voice soft. “How fierce you are, my Lady of Ways. But we have other hunters, a nation of them.”
“ ‘If Night falls, all fall.’ The old prophecy hangs by a single thread now.” Their kissing had drawn blood, the trickle dark against her lip. “Let me be the one to drive home the blade.” Nuithe’s hands tightened again in his hair, her body urgent against his. “Give me an army if you must, but let me hunt.”
He bent his head and licked away the blood. “So be it,” he whispered—and caught a flicker in the corner of his eyes, a slow powerful turn of shadow within the glass-smooth water. His head came up as he drew her within one mailed arm, while the other went to his sword. Lightning still flickered in the bruised sky, but the light had faded and fog was boiling up around the perimeter of the pool. Beneath its surface, the long shadow turned again.
“Back,” Ilkerineth said, and they retreated across the platform and up the steps to the space between the twelve paired pillars. He held a shimmer of protective wildfire about them both, but although the shadow passed close to the steps, nothing broke the surface of the water. Yet, he thought grimly, and did not stop until they reached the crumbling arch. The surrounding quiet was so intense that it reverberated, like the afternote from a great bell. Already the fog was rolling across the pool, although so far only tendrils had crept past the pillars. A quick glance around showed streamers of mist creeping into the colonnade as well.
“Is it a Sun trap?” Nuithe’s whisper was loud as a shout against the silence.
Ilkerineth jerked his head in a quick negative and gathered his power. Lightning crackled as the void whispered in answer, low and eerie from every corner of the dim space. Nuithe wiped away the blood that had welled again on her lip. Of course, Ilkerineth thought: blood. He ground his teeth at his own carelessness, even as he channeled a mindcall to Nindorith. “To me, my brother!”
Wind shrilled across the open court and shadows oozed from the fog, snaking past the pillars. Ilkerineth drew his power in closer still as a dark shape began to heave out of the pool and the fog raced forward—to engulf Nuithe, he guessed, drawn by the blood. Towering taller than the pillars, he summoned a blue-white blaze of lightning and hurled it toward the onrushing shadows. The wind shrieked and the waters churned as Ilkerineth extended both arms and more lightning crackled, immolating both fog and shadow before he asserted his will and compelled the small world of Amaliannarath’s pool back into calm.
“Impressive,” Nindorith murmured, his power an invisible rampart along the colonnade and around the arch. “You did not need me after all.”
“Apparently not.” Wildfire was still blazing along Ilkerineth’s arms, and he let it burn, an aftermath to the surge of magic through his body. Nuithe was bone white, the delicate angles of her face pressing sharply through skin, and her nose was bleeding. She tilted her head back and wadded a trailing sleeve against the flow, but her eyes were fixed on him. “What was that?” Fabric and blood muffled her voice.
Ilkerineth let the wildfire die so he could wrap both arms around her and hold her close, close, until the pounding of his heart stilled. But it was Nindorith who answered, a roll of quiet thunder out of the air.
“The maelstrom stirs, Lady.” He paused, and Ilkerineth knew they were both listening, waiting for another chill whisper out of the void. “It begins again.”