The Wolf’s Call is the start of an action-packed epic fantasy series from Anthony Ryan, a master storyteller who has taken the fantasy world by storm.
The First Question
There are many these days who call my brother a monster. They speak of his deeds, both dreadful and wondrous, as the work of a preternatural beast that had somehow taken on the form of a man to wreak the greatest havoc upon the world. There are others, in the more shadowed and wretched corners of the earth, who still call him a god, though when they do, the word is always spoken in a fearful whisper. Curiously, neither those who think him monstrous nor those who think him divine ever speak his true name, even though they know it as well as I. Kehlbrand, my brother whom, despite it all, despite every battle, conquest and massacre, I still contrive to love. But, I hear you ask, most honoured reader, how can this be? How is it possible to harbour love for a man who bathed half the world in blood?
In these quieter days, far removed from the frenzy and terrors of war, I have the leisure to consider such questions. As the years pass and ever more grey creeps into the once-auburn mane that crowns my head, as yet more aches beset my joints and I squint ever closer at these pages as I write, it is this question I ponder most.
Honoured reader, rest assured that I know you did not open this volume to endure an old woman’s complaints. No, you wish to know of my brother and how he came to reshape the world entire. But his story cannot be told unless I also tell mine, for we were bound tight, he and I. Through blood and purpose, we were bound tight. For many years it was as if we shared a soul, so mirrored was our intent, our commitment to our holy mission. But the mirror, I have come to learn, is the worst of liars, and no mirror ever remains uncracked by time.
It has taken me years of contemplation to identify the moment when I became truly bound to Kehlbrand. Perhaps it was when I slipped from the back of my first horse at age seven and spent several moments whimpering over the bleeding scrape on my knee. It was Kehlbrand, just a day or so shy of his twelfth year, who came to me. As the other children of our Skeld laughed and threw dung at the sobbing weakling, it was my brother who came and helped me to my feet. Already he was long of limb with the leanness of a born warrior, standing at least a foot taller than I, as he would for the rest of our lives.
“Druhr-Tivarik, little colt,” he said, voice soft with concern as he spoke the priests’ term for those who carry the Divine Blood, thumbing the tears from my eyes, “do not weep.” With that, he gave a smile of apology before forming his features into the customary mask of harsh disdain and delivering an openhanded slap to my face. The blow was hard enough to send me to the ground with the iron sting of blood on my tongue.
I spent several seconds blinking in confusion, although I was surprised to find my tears had stopped flowing. Looking up through bleary eyes, I saw Kehlbrand advancing on the other children. He made straight for the tallest, a burly boy a year his elder named Obvar, who was always to be found at the forefront of my tormentors.
“Druhr-Tivarik,” my brother repeated, delivering a closed fist directly into Obvar’s face, “cannot be judged by the merely mortal.”
The subsequent fight was both lengthy and bloody, becoming something of a legend amongst the youngsters of the Skeld. It greatly overshadowed the insult done to a child of the Druhr-Tivarik, which was soon forgotten. This, I later realised, had been Kehlbrand’s intention, for the priests were given to punishing such things harshly. When it was over, Obvar lay groaning on the ground, bleeding from numerous cuts, whilst Kehlbrand, no less bloody, remained standing. As is often the way with boys, in the days that followed, he and Obvar became the closest of friends, remaining sworn saddle brothers until one particular and very fateful day some twenty years later. But, honoured reader, it appears I am getting ahead of myself.
But no, important lesson though it was, we were not truly bonded that day. Nor, strangely, the morning after I had my first True Dream. You must understand that the power of the Divine Blood is fickle. Although those of us fated to join the ranks of the Druhr-Tivarik are born to mothers with manifest gifts, such gifts are not always passed on. In many cases they lay dormant throughout childhood, only manifesting themselves with the onset of puberty. So it proved with me. At the dawning of my twelfth summer, the week of my first blood, the True Dream made itself known.
You must forgive my meagre literary skills, honoured reader, for I find it hard to convey in words the utter terror of that first dream. I use this term as I find the word “vision” somewhat silly, not to say inadequate. The True Dream is a state beyond reality, although it feels completely real to one captured in its throes. The confusion and dulled sensations of a mundane dream are not present. The feel of the air on skin, the scents carried by the wind, the warmth of a flame or the sting of a cut. All these are present, and felt in full.
That night, as I lay on my mats in the tent I shared with the other favoured children of the Skeld, I found myself claimed by a sleep as deep and absolute as any I had known. It was as if a black veil had been placed over my eyes, banishing all light and sensation, and when it was drawn aside, I found myself standing amidst horrors.
I remember the screams most of all. The pain of a dying soul is a hard thing to bear, especially if you have never heard it before. I had seen people die by then. Heretics, slaves and those who transgressed the Laws Eternal were routinely bound and forced to kneel beneath the executioner’s blade. But those deaths had been quick; a swift stroke of the sabre, and their heads would roll on the earth. Their bodies might twitch, sometimes their faces too. A ghastly sight for any child to witness but, still, mercifully brief. What I witnessed in that first True Dream was not lawful execution. It was battle.
The doomed man lay against the flank of a dead horse, eyes wide in terror and bafflement as he stared at the mess of entrails that had been his belly. His mouth gaped as he screamed, hands crimson with gore as they tried to stuff the gelatinous tubes back inside his body. Surrounding us was a maelstrom of thundering hooves, clashing blades and the shrill cries of distressed horses, all shrouded in a thick pall of dust.
Battle was a regular occurrence on the Iron Steppe in those days. It was a time when the Stahlhast endured a painful transition from disunited and endlessly feuding Skelds to what could be called a true nation. It seemed as if every other month the warriors would strap their bows to their saddles, and work stones over their sabres and lance points before mounting up to ride off in one great host. After days or perhaps weeks they would return, always victorious, the heads of enemies dangling from their saddles. Come the night they would drink and tell tales of their great deeds, tales I found did not match the nightmare that enfolded me now.
My eyes flicked from one horror to another, a crawling man trailing blood from the stumps of his legs, a horse thrashing in a pool of guts and shit leaking from sundered bowels, and there, amidst it all, Kehlbrand, my brother, standing tall.
As was his wont in battle, he wore no helm, the long braid of his hair whirling as he fought, beset by foes on all sides. There must have been a dozen of them, their armour embossed with the redbird sigil of the Rikar Skeld, our most hated enemy. Time after time they came for him, and time after time his sabre cut them down. My brother moved as if in a dance, sidestepping every thrusted lance, ducking every slashing blade and leaving a trail of corpses in his wake. He seemed invincible, unstoppable, making my heart swell with pride despite the continuing nightmare all around. But, as I have learned many times since, there is no such thing as an invincible warrior.
It was as Kehlbrand cut down that last of his enemies, a broad, brute-faced man with a patch over one eye, that the Rikar archer appeared out of the dust. He rode a tall white stallion at full gallop, leaning low over the saddle, face set in the concentrated stare of the expert as he aimed his shaft. I screamed a warning to my brother, but though I put all my strength into the shout, my brother heard nothing. The True Dream makes the dreamer a witness, but never a participant.
The arrow took Kehlbrand in the back of the neck, piercing him all the way through so that the steel head emerged from his throat by several inches. Had he worn a helm he might have lived. I watched him stagger briefly, staring down at the crimson arrowhead with curious detachment, his expression one of mild surprise. Then he fell, collapsing to the earth as all life fled his body.
I woke screaming, much to the annoyance of the other children. Two days later word came that the Rikar had ambushed one of our hunting parties and battle would be required to settle the insult. I sought Kehlbrand out amongst the gathering warriors. It was custom for relatives to gift tokens to those called to war, so I attracted little attention as I approached my brother. He, however, regarded me with amused surprise, knowing it was my habit to shun such things.
“Thank you, little colt,” he said as I pushed the small wooden carving into his hands. It was a rendering of a horse I had crafted myself, something my modesty doesn’t prevent my saying I have always excelled at. “This is very fine . . .”
He fell silent as I moved closer, standing on tiptoe to wrap my arms around him, whispering softly into his lowered ear, “Turn after you kill the man with the eye patch. Watch for the archer on the white horse.” I released him and made to leave, then paused. “And you really should wear a helm in future.”
I walked swiftly away, heart hammering. I had told no one else of the True Dream, nor did I ever intend to. Others might relish the onset of their Divine gifts and run to tell the priests the happy news. I knew better.
The warriors returned seven days later whilst I sat alone in the tent, staring at the open flap through teary eyes. I remember being unsurprised when Kehlbrand appeared, stooping low to sink down beside me. Instead, I felt only a grim certainty. My brother was a true warrior of the Hast, and his duty was clear. Those with manifest gifts must be taken to the Great Tor and given to the priests.
Kehlbrand regarded me in silence for a long time, his expression contemplative rather than awed. Finally, he said in a toneless voice, “I kept the white stallion. My gift to you.”
I nodded, swallowing, my throat as dry as sand. “I’ll ride him when you take me to the priests,” I said, the words spoken in a thin rasp.
“Why,” he said, reaching out to cup my face, “would I ever do that, little colt?”
“They’ll know. They always know . . .”
“Hush.” He thumbed away the tears welling in my eyes and reached into his pack. “I have another gift for you.”
The tooth was long and white, the base fitted with a silver clasp attached to a chain. The tooth itself was inscribed with blackened script of some kind. I could read the letters of the Merchant Realms, but this was unknown to me. “Plucked from the jaw of a white tiger,” Kehlbrand said. “Many seasons ago I sought out an old woman in the northern wastes said to be wise in the ways of the Divine Blood. She swore this will conceal it from the priests, and bargained me up to three horses and a nugget of gold before she would give it up. Like you, I worried the priests might come for me if the power ever quickened in my blood. Since it appears that will never happen,” he said, splaying the chain and lifting it over my head, the metal chill on my neck as he settled it in place, “now, I give it to you.”
But even this, though it drew us closer, made us truly brother and sister rather than just the issue of the same womb, this was not the final seal on the knot that bound us. The act that truly entwined our souls came on the day we were summoned to watch the Mestra-Dirhmar, the Great Priest, kill our older brother.
“Witness the judgement of the Unseen!” the old man canted, two bony fists gripping the knife raised above his head. “And know well their lessons! Mercy is weakness! Compassion is cowardice! Wisdom is falsehood! If the blood be weak, let it spill!”
Tehlvar, our brother, lay naked on the altar before the priest, his body a pale, six-foot-long testament to the many battles of his life with its web of scars marring the honed muscle. I remember that he barely twitched as the knife hovered above. The priest waited until the shadows cast by the jagged majesty of the Great Tor faded, bespeaking the exact moment when the sun had aligned with this precise spot in the centre of the Iron Steppe. Then, as the slightly curved blade caught the midday sun, he brought it down. One swift, expertly placed thrust directly into Tehlvar’s heart. I watched my brother jerk as the blade sank home, watched him convulse with the last few beats of his sundered heart and then lay still.
“Druhr-Tivarik!” the Mestra-Dirhmar said, grunting a little with the effort of pulling the knife from Tehlvar’s body before raising it high. Blood streaked down his arm to bathe his bare torso. As one of the Divine Blood, I stood amongst the ranks of the favoured between the two massive stones that formed the east-facing gateway. Consequently, I was close enough to the altar to witness my brother’s murder in grim but fascinating detail. I remember watching as the blood dripped over the flaccid muscles of the priest’s chest to the sharp grate of his ribs. It was strange to think so mighty a warrior as Tehlvar could be slain by one so old and weak, one who had never known battle.
He is the Mestra-Dirhmar, I reminded myself, repeating the words and lowering my gaze in concert with the thousands of others gathered to witness this most sacred of rituals. He speaks for the Unseen. Even then the words felt empty, my subservience merely the rote response of a well-trained dog. A smaller but truer thought lay beneath my obeisance, even as I and the gathered
luminaries of a hundred Skeld sank to our knees and bowed our heads to the earth: He is just a weak old man. Tehlvar was better.
You should understand, honoured reader, that I did not love Tehlvar. At thirteen years his junior I barely knew him except by reputation, but what a reputation it was. They say he killed more than fifty men in combat before ascending to Skeltir. It was under Tehlvar’s leadership that the pre-eminence of the Cova Skeld had been completed. It was through his courage and skill at the battle of the Three Rivers that the heretic traitors to the Divine Blood had been slain or captured. Although a good deal of discord lingered, many Skeld of the Hast now stood as allies rather than endlessly feuding rivals. But it hadn’t been enough to spare Tehlvar the Great Priest’s knife.
Having been called to the Great Tor, he was required to answer the last of the Three Questions, an answer that would see him receive his final blessing as Mestra-Skeltir: Great Lord of the Hast. Twice before the priests had summoned him to answer a question, and twice before he had provided an acceptable answer. Not all Skeltir are chosen for this honour, just those who have won the greatest renown. Years would pass without a question being asked and only four other Skeltir in all the long history of the Hast had ever answered two questions correctly, and none the third. Long had we awaited the coming of the Mestra-Skeltir, the leader who would ensure our ascendancy over not just the Iron Steppe but the far-wealthier lands of the Merchant Kings to the south.
But whatever Tehlvar’s answer had been, spoken only to the gathering of priests far beyond the ears of the assembled throng, it had not been sufficient to secure his ascendency. Druhr-Tivarik he was, the Divine Blood flowed in his veins as it flows through mine, but it had been proven weak, and if the blood be weak, let it spill.
“Kehlbrand Reyerik!” the Mestra-Dirhmar intoned, lowering the knife to point the blade at the young man kneeling at my side. “Stand and be recognised!”
I watched my brother rise, seized by the impulse to reach out and stop him somehow. Although young and steeped in the priests’ lies as I was, I still knew his choosing to be a curse and not a blessing. To restrain him at that moment would have meant death, and not the swift end meted out to Tehlvar. Interference in the priests’ rituals would earn me the worst of torments. So perhaps it was fear that stilled my hand then, for I have never pretended to be the bravest of souls. But I don’t think so. I think that, like all the many others present, I wanted it to be Kehlbrand. I wanted to witness the moment the true Mestra-Skeltir took his place. So I didn’t try to stop him, not then. That came later.
“By right of blood you are now Skeltir of the Cova Skeld,” the priest told Kehlbrand. “As dictated by the Laws Eternal, tomorrow morning will be set aside for challenges. Any warrior of sufficient rank who defeats you will stand as Skeltir in your place.”
Kehlbrand bowed his head in grave acceptance before raising it to meet the priest’s gaze with an expectant eye. I saw the old man’s face flush with angry reluctance then. He could simply stay silent; having formally appointed my brother to the role of Skeltir, he had no obligation to also call him to the question, save for the fact that Kehlbrand had already achieved far-greater renown than most others who had received such an honour, as every member of the Hast well knew.
The priest’s lips slipped over his yellowed teeth in a poorly concealed half sneer before his features resumed the mask of dutiful certainty. “If you live,” he said, “return here one hour before the sun’s apex to answer the First Question of the Unseen.”
He let his arm fall to his side and paused to survey Tehlvar’s body. I found his expression a sudden contrast to the mask from only seconds before. Now he seemed much older, sadness and regret clear in his eyes for one brief instant before he turned and walked away amidst the ranks of the lesser priests.
My people are never fond of overlong rituals, and soon the representatives of the hundred Skeld had all drifted away to their respective encampments. Kehlbrand, however, lingered and therefore so did I. Moving to the altar, he closed his eyes and placed a hand on our brother’s forehead, murmuring his own soft farewell. He had been at Tehlvar’s side for much of the preceding few years, gaining enough renown to justify a challenge for the Skeltir’s mantle, but he never had.
A loud belch sounded behind me, and I glanced over my shoulder to see Obvar leaning against a monolith, wineskin in hand as he regarded me with a questioning glance.
“He’s saying goodbye,” I said, turning away.
“The pious arsehole’s dead,” Obvar muttered, coming to my side. “Can’t hear it, so what’s the point?” The question was evidently rhetorical, for he forestalled my curt response by proffering the wineskin. “Drink?”
Obvar was always offering me drink, and more besides. It was many years since his childhood bullying had given way to a different kind of interest. I often reflected that I preferred him as a bully rather than a suitor. However, my initial impulse to stern refusal stalled on my tongue as I noted the absence of carnal interest in his gaze. Unlike Kehlbrand, the disparity in our height had grown over the years, and I was obliged to look up to gauge his expression. For once he seemed troubled rather than lustful.
“Give it here,” I said, taking the wineskin. The first sip had me blinking in surprise. Instead of the thick, floral berry wine typically drunk by the Hast, this was something far lighter on the palate. The taste was rich and complex, shot through with a pleasing earthiness and balanced by a smoothness that made it slip down the throat very easily.
“That’s not cheap, you know,” Obvar said, his thick brows bunching as I took another generous swallow.
“What is it?” I asked, handing back the wineskin.
“Not sure of the name. It’s made from some kind of fruit grown in a land far across the sea. At least that’s what the merchant I stole it from said. I let him live on the condition he come back next summer with more. Said I’d even pay him for it. Wasn’t that nice of me?”
“Did you let the others in his caravan live?”
“The young ones.” He shrugged and drank. “Slaves are valuable.”
“What a disgusting animal you are, Obvar.” The heat of genuine detestation sang in my voice, loud enough to make the wineskin pause on the way back to his lips, which broadened into a smile.
“Eighteen summers old,” he said, looming over me as he stepped closer, the familiar lust creeping back into his gaze. “And still not wed. I always like the way your tongue cuts me, girl. Makes me wonder what else it can do.”
I stared directly into his eyes, meeting the lust I saw there with utter disdain. I wasn’t afraid and felt no need to reach for the long-knife on my belt. I was Druhr-Tivarik and, whilst childhood torments would have been punished with a beating, any insult or injury now that I was of childbearing age would earn him the lengthy death of a dishonoured warrior. However, as our gazes locked and seconds stretched into moments, I was given to wondering if this was the day when his lust finally overcame his caution.
“When your brother becomes Mestra-Skeltir,” he said, voice thick and teeth bared, “we will conquer all. We will ravage the lands of the Merchant Kings all the way to the Golden Sea, and I will be at his side for every battle. When all the glorious slaughter ends and the final drop of blood falls, he will ask me what reward I desire for my service. What do you imagine I will ask for?”
Our eyes snapped to the altar at the sound of my brother’s voice. Kehlbrand didn’t look at us, standing with arms braced against the altar’s edge, his gaze still captured by Tehlvar’s body. “I will have counsel,” he said before glancing up at Obvar. “Saddle brother, go and slake your appetite on a slave and leave my sister be. And don’t get too drunk. I may have need of your blade on the morrow.”
Obvar stiffened and I saw a faint twitch of resentment pass across his lean, bearded features. It faded quickly, however, and he let out a faint sigh of acceptance. Saddle brothers they were, but Kehlbrand was Skeltir now.
“Here,” Obvar grunted, shoving the wineskin into my hands. “A token of esteem for my Skeltir’s sister.”
I watched him stomp off towards the encampment of our Skeld, feeling a brief spasm of sympathy for whichever unfortunate slave caught his interest. Slaves are not of the Hast. I inwardly recited one of the Laws Eternal as I joined Kehlbrand at the altar. Anything not of the Hast is booty.
“Have some,” I said, holding out the wineskin. “It’s really not too bad.”
He ignored the offer, gaze lingering on our brother’s slack, empty features. The lips had drawn back in death, baring his teeth in a parody of a grin. Unwilling to endure the sight of that grin for long, I occupied myself with another generous gulp of Obvar’s wine.
“Do you know why the priests killed him, Luralyn?” Kehlbrand asked. As usual, his voice was soft. My brother rarely shouted. Even during the duels I had seen him fight, the few words he spoke amidst the tumult of blades were spoken in a steady, almost solicitous murmur. Nevertheless, I can recall no one ever failing to hear or comprehend a single word he said.
“He got the question wrong,” I replied, wiping the sleeve of my formal black cotton robe across my mouth.
“I hear no grief in your voice, little colt,” Kehlbrand said, finally turning to regard me. “Did you not love our brother? Does your heart not break at his departure from this world?”
To anyone listening, his questions would have been taken as earnest, sincere inquiries, coloured by an aggrieved note at my apparent indifference. I, however, knew my brother well enough to recognise gentle mockery when I heard it.
“We were birthed from the same womb,” I said. “But not the same father. Tehlvar was a stranger to me for most of my life. But . . .” I paused to survey the corpse on the altar, struck once again by the sheer number of battle wounds it bore, some long healed, others barely weeks old. Kehlbrand’s body, I knew, was almost entirely free of scars. “Still, I’m sorry he’s gone. He was a good Skeltir, if a little overfond of reciting the priests’ teachings.”
“The priests’ teachings,” Kehlbrand repeated with a slow nod. “He did always love their lessons. ‘I have ranged beyond the Iron Steppe, brother,’ he told me once. ‘The people who dwell there live lives of uncertainty and confusion. They celebrate weakness and revel in greed. They make a virtue of lies and a sin of honesty. When the Mestra-Skeltir rises, he will wash all of that away, in blood. This the priests have seen.’”
He fell silent, reaching out to place his hand over the dull gleam of Tehlvar’s eyes, closing the lids. “But you’re wrong, little colt. They didn’t kill him for the answer he gave. They killed him because he gave no answer. He was not the Mestra-Skeltir, and he knew it.”
“He made way for you,” I said.
“Yes. He told me as much last night. We spoke for a long time and he told me many things, including the question I will be asked tomorrow, and the question to follow a year later should I answer correctly.”
I stared at him in appalled silence, the wineskin almost slipping from my fingers in shock before I mastered myself. I found it necessary to take another drink before speaking on. “He told you? That is heresy!”
Kehlbrand’s teeth, very white, very even, shone as he let out a rare laugh. “In time, dear sister, I will tell you all I learned last night, and you will come to realise the true absurdity of the words you just voiced.”
His mirth subsided quickly and he lifted his hand from Tehlvar’s eyes to grasp my shoulder. “Tomorrow, they will ask for my name.”
“They already know your name. Kehlbrand Reyerik, Skeltir of the Cova Skeld.”
“No, they require another name. A name worthy of the Mestra-Skeltir. A name the soldiers of the Merchant Kings will whisper in fear when they hear the thunder of Stahlhast hooves upon the Steppe. A name that will carry us all the way to the Golden Sea, and beyond.”
His hand moved from my shoulder to my face, cupping my cheek. I saw regret in his face as he smiled at me, guilt too, for he knew the gravity of what he was about to ask. “That is what I need from you: a name. Luralyn, dear sister, it is time for you to dream again.”
Although I tried to resist it, although it was something I had avoided doing ever since coming to this place, my eyes were drawn inevitably to the Sepulchre. It sat in the centre of the half-circle of iron and rock that formed the Great Tor. An unadorned, grey stone box ten paces wide and twelve feet tall with an opening in its east-facing wall. The opening was a black rectangle in the grey stone, for no light came from within. The priests never guarded it. Why bother since no soul would ever venture inside unless commanded to it?
“Do not fear,” Kehlbrand said as my eyes lingered unblinking on the Sepulchre’s black door. “The priests know nothing. We’ve made sure of that.”
“They will,” I said, finding it impossible to quell the tremor in my voice. Unbidden, my hand had stolen into my robe to close on the inscribed tiger’s tooth, clutching it tight. “Even with this, so close . . . to that. They’ll know.”
“You overestimate their abilities. They possess barely a fraction of the power they pretend. Their true power lies in the illusions they spin to capture the souls of our people, and all illusions fade over time. Another lesson Tehlvar imparted last night.”
“They’ll know!” I insisted, hating the sudden tears in my eyes. His request felt like a betrayal, a selfish demand that undid the trust between us. For alone amongst our Skeld, alone amongst all my many siblings and cousins in the Divine Blood, only he knew the truth. Should the priests ever discover it, through the black door I would go, and what emerged would not be me.
“They’ll make me . . .”
My voice failed as he drew me close, his arms enfolding me like twin branches of the mightiest tree. There were other words to come, other pledges and promises, but I have since comprehended that our bond was sealed in this embrace. It was this moment that I became truly his. In his arms all fear fled and I knew he would never allow any harm to be done to me, in body or in soul.
“I will kill every priest should they even suggest it,” he told me, voice soft in my ear. “I will paint this tor with their blood and stake their heads in a circle around the Sepulchre for all the Hast to see.” He drew back, thumbing away my tears as he had done so all those years ago, except this time there would be no slap to follow the kindness. “Do you believe me, little colt?”
“Yes, brother,” I said, pressing my head to his chest, hearing the steady thrum of his heart. “I believe you.”
* * *
Summoning a True Dream is not a complicated process. Nor is it mystical or ritualistic. Contrary to the beliefs of more unenlightened cultures it requires no incantations, foul-smelling concoctions or blood spilled from unfortunate animals. In truth, as I had discovered in the years since the first manifestation of my gift, it requires only a secure and comfortable place rich in both peace and quiet. Consequently, I forsook the Cova encampment that night. The revels had begun early, customary propriety cast aside in the usual welter of drink, brain-addling snuff and undiscerning copulation.
Escorted by Kehlbrand and two of his most trusted saddle brothers, we left the din of the celebration behind and rode beyond the sprawl of tents and out into the vastness of the Iron Steppe. A five-mile ride under the stars brought us to a small rise in the otherwise unbroken flatness of the landscape. The two warriors pitched a tent atop the rise, attached the reins of their horses to their wrists with long ropes and retreated to a respectful distance. One faced east, the other west. Both had their strongbows unlimbered with an arrow nocked. I knew not if Kehlbrand had told them what would occur this night, but also knew if he had, they would also never speak of it. Loyalty was absolute amongst those who secured his friendship.
“In case you get bored,” I said, handing Obvar’s wineskin to Kehlbrand.
“Ah,” he said after a small sip, eyebrows raised in appreciation. “I know this. Made from a fruit called a grape by barbarians across the Wide Sea. They reside in a kingdom beset by endless wars and irrational superstitions.” He set the wineskin down next to the small fire he had lit. “They’ll be glad of the peace we bring them in time.”
“You intend to ride so far?”
“I intend to ride all the way around the world. For have not the priests foretold this as the course of the Mestra-Skeltir?”
I rolled my eyes at him and crawled into the tent. “Don’t finish it all.”
I divested myself of my oxen leather garb and lay on the furs his saddle brothers had set down for me. As ever the wind was stiff on the Steppe and the tent walls snapped continually. It was a familiar refrain and failed to disturb me as I sought the peaceful mind-state that would bring on the black veil and the True Dream.
After my first experience I had shunned my gift for a long time, fearful of what I might find once the veil parted. But curiosity, perhaps the hardest of all habits to break, eventually compelled me to seek it out. My attempts had been faltering at first; the True Dream brought brief glimpses of places and people so alien in dress and speech that whatever message I had been sent became meaningless. It was only after much experimentation that I discovered that the True Dream requires a purpose, a question to guide it towards truth.
My brother’s name, I whispered inwardly as the black veil descended. What is it?
The veil duly parted and I found myself standing atop a low rise, tall grass whispering in an evening breeze. The sky had the darkened hues of twilight and I could see many fires burning in the shallow depression below. An army, I realised, taking in the sight of the veritable city of tents clustered around campfires where men sat or stood. Their armour and weapons were stacked, the design very different to the black iron breastplates and chain mail of the Hast. These consisted of the overlapping steel plates and curve bladed spears of soldiers in service to the Merchant Kings. It was the largest host I had ever seen, thousands upon thousands strong.
“Who are you?”
I started at the sound of another voice. The woman stood a dozen paces away, her appearance greatly surprising in its sheer unfamiliarity. Her garb, a simple ankle-length robe of black featuring a small white flame sigil on the breast, was not one I had seen before. Also, her features were different in shape and colouring to the people of the Merchant Realms, more like the Stahlhast with their blue eyes and pale skin. But what surprised me most, in fact shocked me, was that she was looking directly at me. She saw me.
“Who are you?” she repeated, gaping at her surroundings with wide and fearful eyes. “Where am I?”
I could only stare, dumbfounded. Never once during any previous True Dream had any of its denizens taken note of my presence. How could they? I wasn’t actually here.
“Did you call me to this place?” the woman demanded, advancing towards me, suddenly angry rather than baffled. I failed to move, still caught in a snare of uncertainty and also distracted by the fact that the black-robed woman wore no shoes. Her feet were black with accumulated filth, and for some reason I found the sight oddly fascinating.
“This is not a vision from the Father,” the woman said, lunging towards me. “It feels different. I can tell!”
My preoccupation with her feet, coupled with a consuming sense of utter surprise, forestalled any reaction as she actually took hold of my arms, her grip fierce. I remember noting the bloodshot condition of her eyes as her face came within inches of mine. It was a comely face, in truth, possessed of a smoothness that spoke of a woman somewhere shy of her thirtieth year. But it was crowned by an unruly mass of dark, unkempt hair, and her breath had a familiar acrid tinge that, coupled with her reddened eyes, provoked a singular deduction. A drunkard. My dream has been invaded by a drunkard with dirty feet.
“Do not try to fool me, witch!” she hissed. “What Dark design is this?”
It was the thin but pungent stream of her breath that roused me, twisting my features into a disgusted mask as I snapped my head forward, slamming my forehead against her nose. The desired effect was immediate, her hands slipping from my shoulders as she sank to her knees, groaning.
“You asked who I am,” I said, drawing the long-knife from my belt and putting it to her neck. “I would know your name first.”
I was gratified to see the edge of the blade press into her flesh. If we could touch each other here, it appeared we could damage each other too.
“I’ll tell you nothing, servant of the Dark,” she said, face tensed by pain as she stared up in defiance. “I will never betray the Father’s love . . .”
She let out a pained squeak as I whipped the blade across her cheek, leaving a small but deep cut. “How do you come to be here?” I demanded. “How can you see me? How did you find your way into my dream?”
Her pain and animosity faded for a moment and she gaped up at me in baffled wonder. “You mean . . . you too are a seer? But . . . you cannot know the Father’s love. He would not bestow so great a gift upon one such as you . . .”
“What father?” I demanded, angling the tip of my blade so that it hovered an inch from her eye. “What are you gabbling about?”
The sound of many horns swallowed my words, the pealing echo rising up from the army below in a great chorus of alarm. I raised my gaze from the drunken woman to see the army responding to the call. Soldiers ran to retrieve stacked spears and don armour, crossbowmen gathered their quivers and cavalrymen hauled saddles to tethered horses.
“What’s happening?” the woman asked. I realised I still had my knife poised to skewer her eye and stepped away, suddenly feeling somewhat foolish.
“A battle, apparently,” I replied, sheathing my blade.
“Where?” She got to her feet, wincing and rubbing at her nose. I saw that the bruise was now fading, as was the cut on her cheek. It seemed any wounds we inflicted here were only temporary. “Who is fighting?”
“I’m not exactly sure.” I turned away to watch the army form ranks. “I suspect we are somewhere on the southern Steppe, not far from the border with the lands of the Merchant Kings.”
I turned to her, brows creasing in consternation at the genuine ignorance in her voice. How could she not have heard of the Merchant Kings? They possessed most of the wealth in the world entire. “I think it’s time we introduced ourselves properly,” I said.
She drew herself up, chin jutting at a self-important angle. “I am Lady Ivinia Morentes of the Western Marches,” she said. “Servant of the Church of the World Father, and Holy Seer by His blessing.” She paused, I assumed for dramatic effect. “Known as the Blessed Maiden to all who enjoy the Father’s love.”
I shook my head in bafflement but nevertheless raised an open hand to form the sign of peaceful greeting. “Luralyn Reyerik of the Divine Blood, daughter to the Cova Skeld of the Stahlhast.”
From the expression on her face it was clear she had no more understanding of my identity than I of hers. “You are . . .” she began with a doubtful frown, “a seer to your people?”
“You see . . . things. Events that will come to pass, or have already passed.”
“Sometimes. I call it the True Dream.”
“Dream.” She let out a scornful snort, turning her attention to the mustering army. “No, girl, these are not dreams. They are gifts of insight from the Father himself. Though why he chooses to share them with you, I can’t imagine.”
Her tone made my hand itch for the knife once more but I resisted the impulse. “Where are your shoes?” I asked instead, casting a pointed glance at her blackened feet.
“Worldly comforts are a barrier to the love of the Father,” she sniffed, voice rich in pious certainty. “I shun them to live a simple and uncosseted life, as I shunned the life of wealth and indolence I was born to. Thus more easily will the Father’s insights come to me.”
I glanced at her bloodshot eyes, recalling the stink of her breath. “So you shun the comfort of shoes, but not drink.”
A twitch of anger passed over her face and her response came in clipped, defensive tones. “The church’s rituals often require wine, and the Books contain many references to its blessed properties.”
“Oh”—my voice soured with recognition—“you’re a priest.”
She straightened a little, crossing her arms, her tone betraying a bitter edge as she replied, “Women are forbidden the priesthood, by order of the Holy Reader. But I serve the church better than any man. Whilst you”—she gave me a sidelong glance, eyes narrowed in calculation—“are plainly a heretic of savage origins. Perhaps that is why He brought you here, so that I may educate you in His love . . .”
“I have a knife,” I reminded her, inclining my head at the valley. “Let’s just watch the battle, eh? I suspect that is why we’re here.”
The army had mostly formed ranks by now, long lines of infantry interspersed with companies of crossbowmen with cavalry galloping to form up on the flanks. Daylight had almost completely faded, and the scene was lit by the mingled light of the campfires and the many torches carried by mounted officers. Despite the faint echo of shouted orders, the host was eerily quiet, covered by a pall of tense anticipation. I could sense no eagerness for battle here, only dread.
They were arrayed to face to the north, where I could see only a grassy plain stretching out into darkness. However, it wasn’t long before I felt a familiar tremble in the earth soon followed by the sonorous murmur of approaching thunder.
“You asked about my people,” I said to the woman. “You’re about to meet them.”
The thunder grew in volume, bespeaking a host of far-greater size than had ever been mustered on the Iron Steppe. I was forced to conclude that the army below was about to face the combined strength of every Skeld sworn to the Stahlhast. I must confess that, though it shames me these many years later, the prospect filled me with a keen anticipation.
So it was with some dismay that I heard the thunder suddenly diminish in volume and no Stahlhast host appeared out of the gloomy plain. I could still sense their presence, my ears detecting the mingled breath of thousands of horses and warriors. But, for whatever reason, their charge had come to a halt. Then, after a short pause, a broad line of about two hundred riders emerged into the flickering torchlight. Their horses moved at a steady walk, approaching the now fully formed ranks of the opposing army at an unhurried, even casual pace. I saw that, whilst many of the riders wore the garb of Stahlhast warriors, others were completely unarmoured and carried no weapons. Some, perhaps a third, did not appear to be Stahlhast at all, instead wearing the quilted jackets of the border folk.
This single line of mismatched riders came to a halt a few paces short of crossbow range, each regarding the assembled thousands before them with a fierce, determined concentration. I felt it then, the thrum of power I recognised from when the favoured members of the Divine Blood would make use of their gifts. Evidently, the woman felt it too.
“The Dark,” she breathed, face now riven by fear.
A loud chorus of shouts dragged my gaze back to the valley in time to see a ball of flame rising from the centre of the first rank of Merchant soldiery. I could see men rolling on the ground, enveloped by flame. Fifty paces east another stretch of infantry some twenty strong was suddenly cast backwards as if punched by some giant invisible fist, armoured bodies tumbling like dolls. More shouts sounded as the entire first rank seemed to dissolve into disparate ruin. In one place soldiers simply slumped to the ground and lay still, in another a whole company turned on itself, assailing each other in a mad frenzy of mutual destruction. Yet more flames blossomed amongst it all, and the invisible fist struck again and again.
The confusion soon spread to successive ranks, officers struggling to keep order as company after company lost their discipline in the face of mounting panic. It was then that the Stahlhast appeared. The line of mismatched riders cantered aside as a huge arrowhead formation of mounted warriors came streaking out of the gloom at full gallop. At their head was a tall figure on a jet-black stallion, a long-bladed sabre raised high in his fist. He wore an iron helm crowned by a long horsehair plume and a grated visor that concealed his features, but I knew him instantly.
The wedge of Stahlhast struck the disordered centre of the army’s line, piercing it like hot iron through softened leather, driving deep into the panicked ranks beyond. More Stahlhast charged from the plain to the east and west, each arrow of horseflesh and steel sinking deep. Within only a few heartbeats it was clear this great army was doomed, the entire valley floor a scene of slaughter. Somehow, despite the confusion and chaos of it all I had little trouble following the path of the tall rider on the black stallion. He traced a winding course across the battlefield, leaving dead and dying in his wake, his sabre moving in a constant whirl of destruction. Many are the moments now when I weep to think of my exultation then, the song of pride that rose within me at the sight of my brother’s bloody journey.
“Father!” the woman at my side cried out, sinking to her knees, tears streaming down a quivering face. “Why have you cursed me with this vision?”
“Oh, shut up,” I snapped, irritated by this distraction. “You should consider yourself privileged to witness this. For it is all as it should be. The Mestra-Skeltir will rise, and nothing will stop him. Long has it been foretold . . .”
I found my voice trailing to silence then as I watched the tall figure rein his horse to a halt. He sat regarding a group of kneeling Merchant soldiers, all with their weapons cast aside and heads bowed to the earth in a sign of utter supplication. My brother regarded them in unmoving contemplation for the space of perhaps a single heartbeat, then spurred his stallion forward, its hooves crushing the head of the nearest kneeling man as his sabre recommenced its deadly whirl.
I turned away, unwilling to watch the spectacle. The Stahlhast rarely took captives in the heat of battle, this I knew. Slaves would be harvested from the survivors in the aftermath. There was nothing unusual in my brother’s actions. But still, why did he pause? Was he enjoying their fear?
“Mercy is weakness,” I whispered, hoping the oft-spoken mantra would calm my pounding heart. “Compassion is cowardice.”
I felt the True Dream begin to dissolve then, the black veil creeping into the edges of my vision as the woman ranted on in her sorrow. “Why, Father? Why show me this triumph of a blade in service to the Dark? This portent of utter destruction? How can the holy stand against such evil?”
Then the veil closed in and she was gone, perhaps back to the wakefulness in her own land. Or perhaps she spent eternity wailing away in the True Dream. All I know is that I never saw her again, in either the dream or the waking world.
Kehlbrand waited for me outside the tent, sitting cross-legged at a fire, his shadow cast long by the rising sun. Although the dream had seemed brief, it had in fact consumed my mind for many hours. I stood shuddering for a moment, chilled by both the dawn air and the echo of the Blessed Maiden’s forlorn entreaties to her god.
“So, little colt,” Kehlbrand said, getting to his feet and moving to wrap a wolf pelt around my shivering form. “Do you have a name for me?”
“Yes,” I said, taking comfort in his smile, which had always possessed the power to banish uncertainty. “Yes, brother, I have a name.”
* * *
The next day Kehlbrand presented himself to the priests, standing naked and unarmed before the altar as ritual demanded. The lesser priests duly conveyed him to the presence of the Mestra-Dirhmar, who stood waiting before the Sepulchre.
The morning had been surprisingly uneventful. Usually, the rise of a new Skeltir would stir the Skeld’s most renowned warriors to challenge, but only one stepped forward. He was a grizzled fellow named Irhnar, an aged veteran of near sixty summers and as many battles who had been mentor to both Tehlvar and Kehlbrand in their younger days.
“Why, old wolf?” Kehlbrand had asked Irhnar as he stepped forward, sabre raised at a lateral angle to indicate a formal challenge.
“It’s ill luck for a Skeltir to ascend without blood,” the old warrior said with a shrug. “And I’m tired of rising from my mats to piss six times a night. Let’s get on with it, eh, boy?”
So they had fought and Kehlbrand honoured Irhnar with a suitably bloody and prolonged death. A swift end would have been an insult, after all.
I watched Kehlbrand stand before the Mestra-Dirhmar, seeing the priest’s lips move as he asked his question. The distance was too great to detect my brother’s answer. I could see the priest’s expression clearly enough to discern a mixture of profound disappointment mingled with grim acceptance as he nodded. The True Dream, as ever, had not led me astray.
The lesser priests brought forward the dark green garb of a Skeltir and set it at Kehlbrand’s feet. Once he had clothed himself, he and the Mestra-Dirhmar made their way to the altar.
“Here stands Kehlbrand Reyerik!” the priest intoned, raising my brother’s arm. “Recognised today by the Servants of the Unseen as Skeltir of the Cova Skeld!”
A cheer rose from the Stahlhast throng, enthusiastically voiced by the Cova, whilst the other Skeld were more restrained. As the cheers continued I saw my brother turn and say something to the priest. The Mestra-Dirhmar’s features hardened and he shook his head in stern refusal. I saw then that Kehlbrand had clasped the priest’s wrist, hard enough to make him wince. As the cheering subsided Kehlbrand spoke again, and this time I heard his words: “Tell them, old man.”
The Mestra-Dirhmar gritted his teeth, humiliation and pain twisting his face into a grimace. Even then I knew this to be a crucial moment, the moment when true leadership of the Hast had been decided.
“Here stands Kehlbrand Reyerik!” the great priest repeated, teeth bared as he called out to the throng, the words coloured by the rage of a defeated man. “To be known hereafter as the Darkblade!”