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.
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 hair-line 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.
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, fever-hot 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 by themselves; 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 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.