Read an excerpt from VALOR, follow-up to the Gemmell Morningstar Award winning novel, MALICE.
Chapter One: Uthas
The Year 1142 of the Age of Exiles, Birth Moon
The cauldron was a hulking mass of black iron, tall and wide, squatting upon a dais in the centre of a cavernous room. Torches of blue flame hung on the walls of the chamber, pockets of light punctuating the darkness. In the shadows, circling its edges, long and sinuous shapes moved.
Uthas of the Benothi giants strode towards the cauldron, his shadow flickering on the walls. He climbed the steps and stopped before it. It was utterly black, appearing to suck the torchlight into it, consuming it, reflecting nothing back. Just for a moment it seemed to shudder, a gentle throb, like a diseased heart.
A muffled request from the chamber’s entrance reached him but he did not move, just continued to stare.
‘What?’ he said eventually.
‘Nemain sends for you, Uthas. She says the Dreamer is waking.’
The giant sighed and turned to leave the chamber. He brushed his fingertips against the cauldron’s cold belly and froze.
‘What is it?’ his shieldman Salach called from the chamber’s doorway.
Uthas cocked his head to one side, closing his eyes. Voices, calling to me. ‘Nothing,’ he murmured, unsure whether he heard or felt the whisperings from within the cauldron. ‘Soon,’ he breathed as he pulled his fingers from the cold iron.
A shape slithered from the shadows as he walked towards the exit. It blocked his way, gliding about him. A wyrm, white scales glistening as it raised its flat head and regarded him with cold, soulless eyes. He stood there, still and silent, let it taste his scent, felt an instant of unease as he waited, then the snake slithered away, its huge coils bunching and expanding, back to the shadows to rejoin its brood. He let out a breath.
‘Come, then,’ he said as he strode past Salach. ‘Best not keep Nemain waiting.’
He glanced at the chamber’s dour-faced guards, all wrapped in fur and iron, as he marched past them. Salach’s footfalls followed him. In silence they passed through the bowels of Murias, the last stronghold of the Benothi. It was nestled deep in the highlands of Benoth, carved into and beneath the grey, mist-shrouded land.
In time they reached a wide staircase that spiralled up into darkness and soon Uthas was muttering under his breath, the old pain in his knee gnawing at him as he climbed higher and higher.
‘Bitseach,’ he swore, thinking of Nemain waiting for him at the top of this high tower. Salach chuckled behind him.
Eventually they were at a doorway. Salach nodded to the warrior standing there, Sreng, Nemain’s shield-maiden. She opened the door for them.
The room was sparsely decorated, with little furniture apart from a large, fur-draped bed at its centre. A woman lay upon it, slender, sweat-soaked, her limbs jerking and twitching. A white-haired man sat beside her, his huge bulk crammed into a chair, holding her hand. He looked over as Uthas and Salach entered the room and stared at them, a ruined, scar-latticed hole where one of his eyes should have been.
‘One-Eye.’ Uthas nodded. ‘How is she?’
Balur One-Eye shrugged.
‘Where is Nemain?’
‘I am here,’ a voice said, drawing Uthas’ gaze to the far end of the room. A figure stood in an arched doorway, framed by the pale day beyond.
Nemain, Queen of the Benothi. Ravens gathered on the balcony beyond her. One fluttered onto her shoulder.
‘My Queen,’ Uthas said, dipping his head.
‘Welcome back,’ she replied, hair the colour of midnight framing her milky, angular face. ‘What news?’
‘Events are stirring in the south,’ Uthas said. ‘Narvon wars with Ardan, and the warriors of Cambren are marching east.’ He paused, breathing deep, his next words frozen on his lips. He feared the answer he expected. ‘Our enemies war amongst themselves. It would be a good time to strike and reclaim what was ours.’ Please, Nemain, give the order. Save me from what I must do if you refuse.
Nemain smiled, though there was little humour in it. ‘Strike south? We are a broken people, Uthas–you know this. Too few to fill this fortress, let alone the south that once was ours. Besides, we are set a different task, now.’ She walked out onto the balcony.
He sighed and followed her onto the balcony’s edge, where cold air stung his skin. A cliff face sloped steeply down, wreathed far below in mist, a sea of dark granite and snow and wiry heather rolling into the distance. Ravens swirled about the balcony, riding the updraught. One cawed and veered to land besides Nemain. Idly she reached out and scratched its head. It clacked its beak.
‘What of the west?’ she said. ‘What of Domhain?’
Uthas shrugged. ‘There we know little. I suspect that Eremon grows older, content to do nothing in his dotage. That bandraoiRath keeps us out,’ he spat. ‘He does not rest. He hunts our scouts, raids our land, him and his giant-hunters. There have been some casualties.’
‘Ach,’ Nemain hissed, eyes flashing red. ‘I would like nothing more than to march out and take back what we have lost, remind Rath why he hates us.’
‘Then let us do it,’ Uthas urged, feeling his blood surge, hope flaring.
‘We cannot,’ Nemain said. ‘The cauldron must be guarded. Never again can it be used. It must not fall into the wrong hands.’
Uthas felt the words like a hammer blow, her words sealing his future.
‘But we must know of what is happening beyond our borders. Domhain cannot remain closed to us. You will lead a company south, learn what you can of Eremon’s plans.’
‘As you command, my Queen,’ Uthas said.
‘Choose who you will, but not too many. Speed will serve you better than strength in numbers. And avoid Rath’s notice.’
‘I will do as you say.’
A sharp cry rang out from the chamber behind them. The woman on the bed was sitting upright, sweat-darkened hair clinging to her face, eyes wild and bulging. Balur gripped her hand, murmuring to her.
‘Ethlinn, what have you seen?’ Nemain asked.
The pale-faced woman took a shuddering breath. ‘They are coming,’ she whispered. ‘The Kadoshim draw ever closer. Theyfeel the cauldron. The Black Sun, he is coming to make them flesh. He is coming for the cauldron.’