The Raven’s Shadow (Excerpt)

Check out The Raven’s Shadow, the third book of Elspeth Cooper’s The Wild Hunt series, available March 11th from Tor Books!

The desert of Gimrael is aflame with violence, and in the far north an ancient hatred is about to spill over into the renewal of a war that, a thousand years ago, forged an empire. This time, it may shatter one.

Wrestling with his failing grip on the power of the Song, and still trying to come to terms with the horrifying events he witnessed in El Maqqam, Gair returns to the mainland with only one thing on his mind: vengeance. It may cost him his life, but when everything that he had to live for is being stripped away from him, that may be a fair price to pay.

Old friends and old foes converge in a battle of wills to stem the tide of the Nimrothi clans as they charge south to reclaim the lands lost in the Founding Wars. If they succeed, the rest of the empire may be their next target. And with the Wild Hunt at their head, the overstretched Imperial Army may not be enough to stop them.

 

 

 

1
MORNING

 

Masen walked through the whispering grass back towards camp from the river, carrying two buckets of water. He always liked early mornings, especially here in the north where the mighty peaks of the an-Archen bestriding the horizon made him feel as if he was standing at the edge of the world. He wasn’t, of course. Beyond the mountains were the Nimrothi lands, tough, tussocky country jewelled with lakes and trimmed with a steep and jagged coastline. The Broken Land, they called it, after their broken people. A thousand years of exile later, there was still more to unite them with their Arennorian cousins than to divide them, but the mountains that stood between their lands remained a symbol of their differences, like a high fence that separated feuding neighbours.

Now the Veil was failing and a Hound was loose in the Broken Land. He couldn’t help but see a connection there. The clan Speakers were no fools; they would have felt the weakness, too, and it didn’t take much imagination to see them exploiting it. First a Hound, then the rest of the Hunt would surely follow.

Masen frowned. He hoped he was wrong, prayed that after the events of last year he was simply jumping at shadows, but there was a cold certainty hardening in his gut that said he was not. The same certainty had helped him convince Alderan to send such skilled gaeden as Barin and his brother Eavin to the mountain forts just in case—though the Guardian had been reluctant to weaken Chapterhouse’s defences so soon after Savin’s assault on them.

The two dozen or so Eldannar rangers with whom the four of them had shared camp had ridden on with the dawn, leaving only smoking embers in the ring of firestones and a few piles of dung from their horses. Beside the fire was a heap of blankets, approximately human-shaped, still snoring like a band-saw.

He set down one of the buckets and prodded the heap with the toe of his boot. ‘Up you get, slugabed.’

The pile snorted something unintelligible, so he prodded it again. It groaned. ‘Go away.’

‘Come on. It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the birds are chirping.’

‘Tell the birds to shut up. They’re too damn loud.’

‘If you have a headache, it serves you right for staying up drinking with the clansmen,’ said Masen unsympathetically.

‘But I was having so much fun!’ Sleep-tousled dark hair emerged from one end of the blankets and a green eye regarded him blearily. ‘You need to have more fun, Masen. Being sober all the time isn’t good for a man.’

‘Neither is being drunk, according to Saaron. Poisons the liver.’ Another prod. ‘Up you get, Sorchal. I’ve a bucket of water here—don’t make me use it.’

Grumbling and squinting at the brightness of the pale plains sky, the young Elethrainian crawled out of his blankets. Wordlessly, Masen pointed to the bucket of cold river water and Sorchal winced.

‘Do I have to?’

‘I’m afraid so. I need you clear-headed today.’ There was no time to be coddling the lad’s tender skull.

With a sigh, Sorchal stripped off his shirt and knelt down by the bucket. ‘You’re sure?’

‘I’m sure.’

‘You’re a cruel, cruel man.’

He dunked his head in the cold water and held it there for a count of ten, then sat up and shook himself like a dog, spraying water in all directions. Masen brushed a few stray drops off his jerkin.

‘Feel better?’

‘Yes. And no. Ow.’ Scooping wet hair off his face, Sorchal peered around at the crushed grass of the campsite. ‘Where’d everyone go?’

‘The rangers rode out before first light, and Barin and Eavin went with them. I said we’d catch them up at the fort. You slept through it all.’

‘I did? Oh. I was hoping to say goodbye.’ Crestfallen, the lad looked around again, as if the Eldannar girl he’d been matching drinks with after supper might be hiding somewhere nearby. Masen guessed that Sorchal was more used to doing the leaving than being the one who was left.

‘Ranger women never sit still for long, Sorchal,’ he said, ‘and they don’t look back. Best you don’t look back either.’

The young man rubbed his neck. ‘Mmm. Pity—I would have liked to find out if those thighs were as strong as they looked.’ He gave a rueful shrug. ‘Another time, perhaps.’

Masen snorted. ‘In your dreams, maybe!’ Sorchal gave him a look but he laughed. ‘I was your age once, lad—with twice the reputation, so I know what I’m talking about—and I never managed to woo the same one twice. Now get that fire stoked up and the kettle on whilst I see to the horses. We’ve still a ways to go to find that rent in the Veil.’

He took the animals their water and a bit of grain from the packs to fortify them for the hard miles ahead. His mare, Brea, greeted him by pushing her head into his chest so hard she almost knocked him over.

‘Steady, girl, steady!’ He chuckled and scratched her chin. ‘Nice to know I haven’t been forgotten.’

She snorted and shook her head as if to say she hadn’t forgotten him but he wasn’t yet forgiven for leaving her at livery in Fleet for half a year. He’d hardly forgiven himself, but there’d been no place for her on a barge down the Great River, so he’d had no other choice. At least the stablemen had kept her in good condition, exercised as well as fed, which in part explained the eye-watering bill he’d had to pay when they reached Fleet two days ago.

‘I would have paid twice as much,’ he said, patting her neck as she ate. ‘And you know it.’

When he returned to the fire, Sorchal had set the kettle to boil and they broke their fast with home-cured sausage and the last of the fresh bread they’d brought from Fleet. As soon as they were done, Masen dug in his pocket for the horseshoe nail on a thread that he used as a compass to find Gates to the Hidden Kingdom.

‘So,’ he said, ‘can you still feel it?’

Sorchal put down his cup. ‘I think so.’

He scrubbed his palms on his trousers, then held one hand up in front of him and closed his eyes. At the same time, Masen felt the distinctive tug as the lad opened himself to the Song. Slowly Sorchal pushed his hand forwards as if pressing against a pane of glass. ‘Yes. It’s still there.’

Not for the first time, Masen wished he’d had an opportunity to find and close the rent last year, when the clansmen he’d met at Brindling Fall had first told him about it. If he had, though, he’d not have made it to Chapterhouse in time to help defend it against Savin’s creatures. He sighed. Life was all about choices, and roads not taken. No matter how you might wish to, once the choice was made you couldn’t go back and do differently.

Holding the nail up by the thread, he let it spin freely. ‘Tell me what you feel.’

A frown of concentration creased Sorchal’s brow. ‘It’s hard to describe.’

The nail slowed, wobbling back and forth, then began to spin in the opposite direction, untwisting the thread.

‘Try.’ It’ll feel like a wound, like a bruise on the world’s skin. Something painful, and wrong, and your heart will ache to heal it.

The Elethrainian shifted uncomfortably. ‘I don’t know, it’s… something that should be whole but isn’t whole any more.’

Masen touched the Song, letting himself sink into the sensation, feel the wrongness crawl over his skin. No wonder Sorchal was squirming; his entire reality would feel like it was stuffed with sow-thistles.

‘Like a book with some of the pages ripped out,’ the lad said at last. ‘And I’m a librarian, or a bookbinder, and it’s my job to fix it.’

Yes.

That was a good way to describe it. Not every gaeden felt the same thing, or with the same intensity; a Gatekeeper’s gift manifested in much the same way as the ability to Heal, leaving some, like Alderan, barely able to draw a splinter, whilst Tanith could mend broken minds. Sorchal appeared to be one of those rare few who had not just the ability to tend the Veil, but also the compulsion.

The thread had finally stopped twisting around Masen’s finger. The horseshoe nail’s peculiar weight dragged at his hand; even without looking he could feel which way it was pointing. A little north of east, at the very edge of the Southmarch.

‘Which way do we need to go?’ he asked.

Sorchal’s other hand came up and without hesitation pointed north of east. That removed the last of Masen’s doubts. The lad had the makings of a good Gatekeeper—if he could keep his mind out of his underlinens.

‘You can open your eyes now,’ he said.

Sorchal did so and blinked at the shining nail pointing in the same direction as his hand. ‘I got it right?’

‘So it would appear.’ Masen coiled up the thread and dropped the nail back into his coat pocket, where it pressed subtly but insistently against his hip. ‘Not only can you sense Gates, you can feel rips in the Veil, too.’

‘Huh.’ Sorchal dropped his hands into his lap. ‘Just when I was getting used to having no gift to speak of.’

‘Now you’ve got the makings of a first-rate Gatekeeper.’

He pulled a face. ‘I would have been happy just to be a first-rate fencer and seducer of women,’ he said gloomily.

Masen showed his teeth. ‘You can’t always have what you want,’ he said, and threw the dregs of his tea onto the fire as he stood. ‘The trick is to learn to want what you have.’

‘What I have is a hangover—I don’t want that.’

‘Serves you right for trying to outdrink a ranger.’

‘I wasn’t trying to outdrink her,’ Sorchal protested. ‘Just… you know. Lower her defences a little.’

This time Masen guffawed. ‘Not quite the first-rate seducer you thought you were, eh? Face it, you were lucky she left you with only blue balls and a bad head.’ Hefting his saddle onto his shoulder, he started towards the horses. ‘Get your gear packed up. That hole in the Veil isn’t going to mend itself.’

 

‘Fetch the Speaker!’

Drwyn’s bellow carried clear across the camp despite the bray-

ing chatter of the fair. In her tent Ytha paused, soapy washcloth in one hand and water trickling down her thighs, wondering whether she had time to finish washing away the night’s sweat before the messenger scratched at the tent flap.

‘Aedon blast you, now!’

Sighing regretfully, she dropped the cloth back into the steaming water and reached for her towel. Her bath with her rich lavender soap would have to wait.

By the time Drwyn’s man arrived she was dried and dressed, and swept out of her tent in her snow-fox mantle without waiting for him to announce himself.

‘Er, Speaker?’

‘I heard,’ she said. The whole Scattering likely heard, she added to herself, and set off in the direction of the chief’s roar.

She found Drwyn outside his tent, fists on his hips and glaring at a travel-worn clansman standing next to a mud-spattered horse still laden with packs for a long journey. Through the open tent flap, half a dozen of the other chiefs could be seen lounging on cushions, all pointedly not watching the exchange between the man and his chief whilst no doubt straining to catch every word.

‘My chief ?’ she said.

‘Grave news, Ytha.’ Drwyn shook his head. ‘This could change everything. Our plans—’

Ytha held up her hand before he said too much—would the man never learn?—and glanced meaningfully towards the men in the tent, who all abruptly found their ale cups quite fascinating.

‘Perhaps we should discuss this in private?’

‘But—’

She thumped her whitewood staff on the turf between her feet

to get his attention. ‘In. Private. There is no need to trouble the other chiefs with this.’

He looked confused, then caught on. ‘Oh. Yes, of course. Very wise.’

By the Eldest, the man hadn’t the sense he was born with. Just as well she had wit enough for both of them. But instead of rolling her eyes she pasted on a polite smile and gestured that he should lead the way. ‘My chief ?’

Inside the tent she let Drwyn apologise to the other chiefs and arrange to reconvene their meeting later in the day after he had conferred with his Speaker on a matter that required his immediate attention. They looked from him to the woman in the snow-fox robe with barely concealed curiosity but none of them chose to press the issue, and in moments the tent was empty but for a litter of cups and a haze of pipe-smoke in the air. She seated herself on a cushion with her staff across her lap as the clansman came in, and nodded to the tent flap.

‘Close it.’ The clansman obliged with alacrity. When it was secure, she folded her hands in her lap and eyed the chief. ‘Now, why don’t you tell me what was so important you dragged me away from my bath?’

‘News from the east.’ Drwyn gestured impatiently at the clansman. ‘Go on, tell the Speaker what you told me.’

The clansman cleared his throat. He looked exhausted, his face all sharp bones and hollows exaggerated by an unkempt beard, and not even the lingering scent of Ytha’s lavender soap masked the smell of horse and long travelling.

‘I’ve come from the eastern pass, Speaker,’ he said. ‘The four of us were supposed to relieve the scouts, but when we got close to the fort we found fresh tracks in the snow. Tracks from many horses.’

He stopped, looking anxiously at his chief, who was pacing back and forth.

‘Go on.’ Ytha kept her voice cool, but her thoughts raced. The forts were supposed to be empty!

‘We moved up into the rocks, all stealthy like, and watched the fort for a day. There’s men there, Speaker. Dozens of them—maybe hundreds.’

Ytha’s stomach turned over. ‘Iron men?’ she asked, and the man shook his head.

‘Didn’t see none. The men are all in green.’

The Empire, then. Some consolation, but still a complication she could have done without. ‘Are they scouting on this side of the mountains?’

‘I reckon so. We saw small bands go in and out—looked like faithless bastards, by their gear. We drew lots for who should ride back; the others are still up there.’

‘I see.’ How in the Eldest’s name did the Empire know to send men to the passes? The forts had been empty since before her greatmother’s days, and she had been assured they would stay that way. ‘And what of our scouts?’

‘No sign, Speaker.’

Drwyn swung on his heel. ‘This changes everything, Ytha,’ he declared. ‘The Empire knows we are coming.’

‘Not necessarily,’ she said, buying herself time to think.

‘It’s obvious! The men I had posted at the fort are gone—the Empire must have taken them, and now they know our plans.’

A twitch of power silenced him, then she gave the weary scout her full attention, bolstered with the merest lick of compulsion so that he wouldn’t be tempted to look away from her and see his chief opening and shutting his mouth like a landed fish.

‘Thank you…’ She dredged her memory for the man’s name. ‘Gwil, isn’t it?’ The man nodded. ‘You’ve done well, but I’d be obliged if you would keep this to yourself until the chief and I have had time to discuss it. Now go and get some rest—you’ve had a hard journey.’

When the man had let himself out, she turned back to Drwyn, who was turning red in the face as he strained to speak past the air she had stuffed into his mouth. Tempting as it was to leave him mute, she waved the magic away.

‘Macha’s ears, won’t you ever learn to guard your tongue? Half the chiefs were in earshot of him telling you the news, and who knows what else they heard with you shouting like your fruits were on fire. How many times have I told you? You let them hear what we want them to hear, and not a word more!’

He gave her a truculent look, rubbing at his throat, but didn’t argue.

‘So what are we going to do?’

‘Do? We do nothing, for now. Our plans have not changed.’

‘You assured me those forts were empty, Ytha.’

‘When I looked, they were.’ And she had believed they would stay that way. She had trusted what she’d been told, that the iron men were gone and would not be coming back, but oh, there would be a reckoning for this, if she had any say in the matter! ‘Situations change, and we must adapt to them.’

‘How is doing nothing adapting?’ He threw up his hands, prowling again. ‘The Empire knows we are coming—we have lost the advantage of surprise!’

Patience wearing thin, Ytha hardened her voice. ‘Stiffen your sinews, my chief, or you will be undone before you even draw your sword.’

‘Aedon’s balls, woman, we may be undone already!’ He aimed a kick at one of the abandoned cups and sent it spinning across the tent in a spray of ale.

She raised an eyebrow. His mouth opened to say something and she arched her brow a little higher, daring him to challenge her authority. Dark eyes flashed but he stayed silent, though his fists clenched and unclenched at his sides.

Her thoughts raced, turning over the clansman’s news whilst trying to keep her face calm, her voice cool. There had to be some wayto. . .ah.

‘Be easy, my chief—all is not lost. This news is unwelcome, true, but if we play it carefully, it may even work to our advantage.’

That pulled him up short. ‘How?’

‘As long as they remain unaware that we have discovered their presence in the mountains, perhaps we can manipulate them,’ she said. ‘I will need to scry to be sure, but if they can be induced to concentrate their defences on the low pass in the east, they may leave the others more lightly defended.’

He stared at her, and slowly his expression brightened as he realised where she was leading. ‘Allowing us to strike where they least expect it.’

She allowed herself a thin, satisfied smile. ‘Precisely.’

Drwyn began pacing again. ‘We must call the chiefs together and put this new plan to them.’ He rubbed his chin, whiskers rasping against his palm. ‘The Scattering is almost over—we could ride out tomorrow.’

Ytha held up her hand. ‘Patience, my chief,’ she said. ‘One step at a time. If we leap straight in, we may trigger a trap that the Empire is laying for us.’

Clearly frustrated, he growled, ‘When, then?’

‘A day or two after the Scattering ends. I still have to bind the other Speakers, and I must scry out the passes before we can move. Besides, the war band cannot be assembled in the space of a day.’ He’d served his time as a war captain; he should not have needed to be reminded of that. By now thoroughly vexed, she pushed herself to her feet and leaned on her staff. ‘I need to think this through. When the time is right, we will bring the chiefs together and let them believe that this new plan was our intention from the start, but until then,’ she levelled a finger at him and dropped her voice to a hiss, ‘don’t breathe a word of this to anyone or so help me I will stop up your mouth so tightly you may never speak again.’

Drwyn bristled mutinously. ‘I am the Chief of Chiefs, Ytha.’

She drew her mantle around her. ‘Believe me, that fact attends me my every waking moment.’

He scowled, restless fists flexing down by his sides. ‘I will not be mocked, woman!’

Ytha’s hold on her temper snapped. She marched up to Drwyn and drove her finger into his chest. ‘Then hear me, Chief of Chiefs. I did not spend years perfecting these plans to see them thrown into disarray by the first stone in the road. If you want to be the man your father could not, if you want your name to be sung down through the ages as the leader who brought the clans home again, you will hold your tongue and stay the course.’

She punctuated the words with sharp jabs of her finger, forcing him to back up a pace. He turned his ankle on a discarded ale cup and staggered, barely righting himself before he fell, then rounded on Ytha with his fists balled, fury and embarrassment battling for control of his expression. Her magic rose up, prickling over her skin, setting her fingertips tingling, but with a visible effort he reined in his passions. In a tightly controlled voice, he said, ‘Speaker.’

She inclined her head curtly. ‘My chief.’

They eyed each other a moment longer, then Ytha turned on her heel and left.

 

 

2
THE BINDING

 

Savin jolted awake with his heart racing. For a second or two he was gripped by nameless dread, held down by the weight of the furs covering him, then his wits cleared and he remembered where he was. There were no circling foes, no dread fate looming over him, just grey daylight leaking around the drapes of his chamber in Renngald’s castle and a faint musty odour on the air, like the smell of damp feathers.

Sitting up, he raked his tangled hair back from his face. He hadn’t suffered night terrors since his childhood, not since he’d learned to block out his dreams and make sleep a blank and restful place. He’d forgotten what it was like to be jerked out of his rest with every muscle poised for flight. It was… almost refreshing.

His lips curved into a smile. The Leahn whelp who’d sent him that gout of throat-clenching panic was doubtless not enjoying it as much.

Savin could sense him at the back of his thoughts. Seen through the imperfect lens of the daemon’s shadow the boy was a ball of emotion, feverishly hot and lit with desperation and sickly flashes of fear. He’d got himself into trouble, that much was plain, and was having some difficulty extracting himself from it. Interesting. As Savin watched, the emotions grew in intensity, whorled and splotched like paint on the canvas of some demented artist. The whelp still hadn’t learned to mask his colours.

‘Honestly, Alderan, is this the best your teachers can do?’ Savin murmured, and reached out.

It was too far to touch the colours, of course, even for him: the gulf between minds was so deep at this distance that he couldn’t even see the bright mess of the Leahn’s talent in the void. Nonetheless he could feel it, a faint tugging at his own gift as subtle as the pull of a plant’s leaves towards the light. Not much, but it was enough to discern a direction: south. Given the extreme northerly latitude of the White Sea, ‘south’ covered most of the known world, but still, it was a start.

Holding on to his awareness of Gair’s location, Savin pushed back the covers and climbed out of bed. The perspiration on his skin chilled quickly in the cool air, but a thought restored the ward that insulated him from changes in temperature and with it his comfort. A further twitch of his will pushed back the heavy drapes at the windows. It did little to improve the light: outside, the day had barely begun and a dense sea mist of the kind the Nordmen called haar rubbed up against the bubbled, uneven glass like a large grey cat trying to cozen its way inside.

Savin clicked his tongue and flung a few ice-white glims into the air. By all the Kingdoms, he couldn’t wait to be done with this place and its fogs and slithers, its unimaginative, superstitious people. It was all so dull, dull, dull—in every sense of the word.

From his neatly ordered shelves he took a map and unrolled it on the table, weighting the ends with a couple of books and the velvet-shrouded sight-glass. A proper map, not one of the Nordmen’s charts annotated with currents and soundings in minute detail but with so little concerning the land’s geography that anywhere more than about a league inland might as well be labelled ‘Here be monsters’. He scanned southwards over the carefully drawn mountains and rivers of the Empire, past the Maling Islands in the Inner Sea, until his gaze came to rest at last on the Glass Hills and the city straddling the River Zhiman at their base.

El Maqqam?

Savin frowned. Alderan’s apprentice blundering about in the desert was a complication he could have done without. There were pieces in play there key to the wider game, skirmishes whose significance could only be appreciated by one with the vision to see the entire board. His fingers drummed on the meticulous rendering of the Glass Hills. And what was the Leahn doing in Gimrael anyway? The last Savin had sensed of him he’d been on the Western Isles, still stewing in his misery. So why was he in the desert—and why now?

Alderan must have found something, learned something that would justify him sending a novice gaeden into the middle of a bloody uprising. Some reward that was worth the risk… the starseed? Savin quickly dismissed that idea; he’d spent long enough in Gimrael to be sure the stone wasn’t there, so what could it be?

‘What are you up to, you old fox?’ he mused.

His gaze fell on the book weighting the edge of the map nearest his hand, a broken-spined thing whose fraying cover had once been blocked in gold. His drumming fingers slowed, then stopped. Little gold leaf remained, barely enough to pick out the shapes of the letters that spelled out the title—Chronicles of the True Faith: A History of the Founding Wars.

Was there a clue in St Saren’s book, some hint he had missed? He sat down in his chair and pulled the battered volume towards him, letting the map roll itself up again. He didn’t need it any more. Quickly he leafed through the worn pages to the section concerning the aftermath of Gwlach’s defeat and the repercussions of Fellbane’s confession. He’d read it so many times the pages were thickened with handling, and the merest glance at the words brought their meaning flowing up from his memory into the forefront of his mind, but he made himself read it again, searching for anything he might have overlooked.

The Lector laid plans in secret to take Corlainn’s disciples into custody, so that the stain of magic could be forever removed from the Order’s cloth. However, he was betrayed by those deepest in his counsel and the guilty, thus forewarned, fled the Holy City before arrests could be made. As word spread, more and more Knights hid themselves away in fear rather than face due justice, and the Order’s wrath upon them was terrible to behold.

A soft chattering sound interrupted his train of thought and he looked up. Perched on the seat of the stool in her cage, long toes curled to grip the edge, the firebird watched him from the shadows with jet-bead eyes. The string securing her lacquered paper mask had rotted through days ago, and all that remained of her fine plumage now was a few bruise-coloured streaks of paint on her pale skin. As he returned her stare she cocked her head to one side as if awaiting the answer to a question.

‘Later,’ Savin said. She repeated the chatter, punctuating it with clacks of her curved bill. ‘I said later!’

He returned his focus to the book on the table in front of him. At the edge of his attention, he heard the firebird hop down from her perch but paid her scant mind.

In every town heralds cried the news. Direst censure awaited the fugitives and all who harboured or abetted them, but their punishment on earth would be as nothing when set against the judgement of the Goddess, should they not repent and go to Her with their souls burned clean. And so inquisitors charged with the capture of the maleficents were dispatched to every corner of the land, east and west and south.

Interesting. Back then, the Holy City of Dremen had marked the northern edge of the nascent Empire. Apart from Milanthor, the wilds of the an-Archen foothills had barely been explored—Belistha was still the haunt of trappers and backwoodsmen and would not become a province in its own right for another hundred and seventy years. To the east was Leah, scene of some of the worst witch-hunts in the Empire’s history, and in the west lay the Goddess-fearing heartlands where fugitive Knights in fear for their lives would have found little succour. Beyond them lay the fey kingdoms, Astolar and Bregorin, where there was little more. No wonder so few had survived the initial purges to make the voyage to the Western Isles.

Which left the deserts of Gimrael. In those early years of the Empire, as the southern Church struggled to establish itself in a cauldron of feuding, fractious tribes, Gimrael was a place in which men could disappear. After all, when the surface of the pond is already roiling, who notices a few more ripples? By the time the tribes had been forced to put aside their ancient enmities and stand united under a single banner—with Prince Yezerin’s qatan resting lightly on their necks to make sure they respected it—there was more to worry about than a few refugees who’d long since found new identities and left their pasts behind.

Very interesting. Had those exiled Knights known what became of Corlainn’s treasure after he surrendered it and taken that knowledge south with them? Had it survived to this day, written in some forgotten book—and had Alderan found it? Savin leaned on his elbows, fingers steepled, and stared thoughtfully into space. He might have to return to the desert sooner than he’d anticipated.

Metal scraped on metal, became a sharp clang. Irked, he glanced up to see the firebird squatting at the door to the cage with a pewter plate in one hand; when she caught his eye, she struck the plate hard against the bars.

He clicked his tongue at the interruption. She struck the bars again: twice, three times.

‘Enough!’ he barked, slamming the flat of his hand on the tabletop. The firebird thrust out her head and hissed, beak agape, then began hitting the bars repeatedly, as insistent as one of the Nordmen’s brats beating its toy on the ground in a tantrum.

Irritation flared into anger. Apart from the novelty, Savin could hardly remember what had appealed so much about her in the first place. Once he’d taken her every way it was possible to do so, he should have simply disposed of her. Wrung her neck like a cage-bird that refused to sing and been done with her.

Power surged inside him, offering half a dozen ways to be rid of the iniku girl: slow ways, messy ways, or as quick and relatively pain-free as the way in which he’d dispensed with that housemaid in Mesarild. He was about to reach for one of them, anything to put an end to the relentless tinny clatter, when the noise stopped.

The firebird stared at him, utterly still. Only the rise and fall of her breasts betrayed the height of her passion, amber beads and gold rings gleaming in the glim-light. When she was sure she had his attention, she flung the plate across the cage and hopped onto the stool again with her back to him.

Defiance, now, was it? Temper boiling, he snatched for his power and heat engulfed him as if the door to a furnace had swung open. It filled his head with the roar of flames, scorched across his senses in a stink of burning meat, then the door slammed shut again and the heat was gone. At the back of his mind, his awareness of the Leahn went dark.

Hands hovering over the book, Savin waited, but nothing moved in the daemon’s shadow. No colour, no sensation. Whatever the Leahn had experienced had been so intense it had overwhelmed him and snuffed him out like a candle in a draught. Hardly a surprise; for all the boy’s raw strength he’d barely begun his training, and children tended to need to burn themselves in order to learn respect for the fire.

A smile tugged at his lips again. Whatever trouble the boy had blundered into in Gimrael had resolved itself neatly, and without any extra effort on his part. A most excellent solution all round. Now he could bend his attention to figuring out which gambit Alderan had afoot, and Saren’s book was the place to start.

Dismissing the sulking iniku girl from his thoughts, he pulled the book towards him.

 

The daub in the little wooden bowl glistened like fresh pitch. Kid’s blood thickened with ash, with wolfsbane and seeing-eye and powdered firethorn bark. Other leaves, too, secret herbs that Ytha had gathered by this moon or that, with a copper sickle or a silver knife as each plant demanded, then dried and hoarded away until this day.

Now it was ready.

She withdrew the alder twig she’d used to stir the mixture and threw it into the fire. The flames leapt up to take it in gouts of green, reflecting in the eyes of the watching women. A little smoke escaped the draw of the vent in the roof and curled around the tent, drawing an earthy odour after it. She watched their pupils widen as it took them, then breathed the scent deep into her own lungs and closed her eyes.

When she opened them, the fire was alive. It danced and swayed, beckoning to her with golden fingers. Shadows cavorted around it, distorted into shapes that bore no resemblance to the figures that cast them. This was old magic, blood magic of the kind she had used to ensorcel the chief’s spear. Magic of the mind, passed down from Speaker to apprentice from a time lost in the past, and which could be learned no other way for it did not depend on the Talent but on the will. Men knew a little of it—they made simple charms for successful hunting, or to hang from the tent pole for protection from ill will—but they could never touch its true power. That was the domain of women alone.

Cradling the bowl in her hands, she surveyed the circle of women. Each stood in her snow-fox robe with her staff at her side, the longest-serving to the newest, a trembling girl only a year or two into her staff for the Eagle Clan. As Speaker to the Chief of Chiefs, the honour was Ytha’s to join them in a sisterhood that could be broken only by death.

She stood up. ‘We begin.’

She dipped her fingers in the bowl and drew two lines across the first Speaker’s left cheek.

‘For common purpose.’ Then two more, down from the hairline to the jaw, through the right eye. ‘For clear sight in the smoke of battle.’ With her index finger, she drew a wavy line across the woman’s brow from the downward pair to her opposite temple. ‘For thought on the wings of the wind.’

The woman unfastened the front of her dress and held her shift open, baring her time-seamed chest.

Ytha dipped more daub and worked it inside her fist, then pressed her palm over the other Speaker’s heart. ‘For courage to the end.’

‘To the end, my sister.’

The hand-print sealed it. It would sink into the woman’s flesh and linger long after the daub itself had dried and flaked off her skin. The woman winced at the burning sensation of the firethorn. A little sweat broke on her top lip, but she took the bowl from Ytha with steady hands. She turned to the next Speaker in line and with the daub drew the first two lines on her face.

‘For common purpose…’

Like a smith forging links into a chain, the binding grew. With each link the chain grew stronger; Ytha felt the throb of it in the air, in the sweat-sharp smoky reek that pressed in all around her like another skin, writhing and surging against her. She felt it in the weight of the stares fixed on her, not least that of Two Bears’ Speaker, who came to stand in front of her with the bowl in her shaking hands, her entire body limp with terror but for her eyes, bright and glittery-hot, like lust and hunger and desperate avarice all rolled together.

‘Speaker.’

The girl proffered the bowl. She’d chewed her lip bloody with anxiety; scarlet stained her teeth and dripped from her chin onto the dark hand-print just visible between her white breasts.

Ytha held still whilst the sigils were drawn on her face, then yanked open her dress, not caring when the fastenings tore. Next to the power waiting for her, all else was as insignificant as chaff on the wind.

‘For courage to the end,’ the girl whispered. Her hand, feverhot and sticky with daub, pressed onto Ytha’s chest.

Firethorn seared her skin and the force of the binding knocked all the breath from her lungs. She staggered, gasping as heat spread outwards from the hand-print, raced over her skin and lifted every hair on her scalp. It surged into her breasts, sank into her secret places. She was a woman seventeen times over and she knew it in every bone, every fibre, felt it the way the earth felt the quickening of spring.

Sweet Macha, it was glorious.

Head flung back, she reached for the power. It filled her in an instant; one of the other women gasped, but she didn’t see who it was. Frankly, she didn’t care. If they weren’t strong enough to withstand the pull of the magic, they had no right to call themselves Speakers. They would stand or they would fall on their own merit; she would not carry them.

By the Eldest, this felt good. As good as the first time she’d ever wielded her power, against the fat herdmaster who’d wanted her to suck the juice from his root when she was ten, and laughed at her when she said she’d be a Speaker one day. As good as the day she’d taken the mantle from old Brynagh and, for the first time, saw a man kneel at her feet instead of the other way around. Better. With power like this, she would bow her head to no one.

Gradually, reluctantly, she let the power go. Some of the others were swaying, leaning on their staffs for support. Two Bears’ Speaker was weeping, her daub-stained hand curled into a claw as if it pained her. She’d obviously never participated in a binding before, but when Ytha’s eye fell on her she did her best to stand up straight and steady.

She had them, all seventeen clans. Conor Two Bears would not find it easy to break faith now. Through Drwyn she had the chiefs, and through herself he had the Speakers. There was a pleasing circularity to that. It put her in mind of two serpents, one black, one white, devouring each other’s tails: a union of the masculine and feminine powers into a greater whole.

At that thought, a flicker of heat of another kind warmed her belly. She had neglected that hunger of late, in pursuit of other interests. Fired by the binding ritual, now it demanded to be sated. Liquid warmth pooled low down in her abdomen, loosening her muscles even as it tightened her nipples against the fabric of her shift.

No, that was not a pleasure to be savoured just yet. But later, oh yes.

‘Now we are one, my sisters.’ Now you are mine.

Ytha took the bowl from the girl and tossed it into the fire; after the herbs in the daub had permeated the wood it could never be used again. Fresh gouts of green flame leapt up to threaten the edges of the smoke-hole, and one by one the other Speakers bowed and took their leave to return to their clans. Their ways lay clearly before them; they did not need her to remind them, and the binding would hold them all true until long after the Scattering.

She stood awhile and watched the leaping fire, breathing in the potent smoke as the daub burned off. Her mind fixed on a warrior in Drwyn’s personal escort. A young warrior, with quick green eyes and a full mouth she could so easily imagine fastened to her breast as she rode him.

Yes. A little uisca at the feasting tonight—but not too much, a subtle glamour to roll away the years, and he would be hers. It was past time she rewarded herself. A wave of arousal rolled through her and she shuddered, squeezing her thighs on the hungry ache between them. Well past time.

She purred at the thought, and with a twitch of her magic damped the fire. Inside her, the other flame only burned hotter.

 


The Raven’s Shadow © Elspeth Cooper, 2014

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