Home > Valor (The Faithful and the Fallen #2)(6)

Valor (The Faithful and the Fallen #2)(6)
John Gwynne

Alcyon cracked the butt of his axe into the giantess’ head. She reeled back, sank to one knee. About her the battle lulled, the young giants staring.

‘Drop your weapon,’ Alcyon grated.

Calidus appeared between them. Alcyon yelled at the silver-haired man, but Calidus ignored him. He swept his sword in a looping blow, chopping the giantess’ head from her shoulders.

Her charges screamed in grief-stricken rage, some renewing their attack, others breaking away, running amongst the cairns.

Alcyon bowed his head.

The Jehar made short work of the remaining giants, and in moments the conflict was over.

‘Well met, Veradis,’ Calidus called out, grinning as he strode over. With his cloak he cleaned the blood from his sword. Akar, the dour-faced leader of the Jehar, walked behind him.

Veradis nodded a greeting, his eyes drawn to the giantess’ head, the bodies of children strewn about her. ‘Did things go well? In the tunnels?’ he asked, trying to look away from the faces of the dead.

‘Well enough. The Hunen are broken, now. And we found a great prize for Nathair.’

‘Prize? What?’

‘This.’ Alcyon lifted the axe. ‘One of the Seven Treasures.’ He was still scowling.

Now that he was closer, Veradis saw that the axe haft was dark-veined wood, smooth and shiny from age and use, bound with iron rings all along its length. The double blade was a dull matt black, seeming to suck light into it, casting none back.

He glanced beyond them, saw the Jehar and a handful of other warriors. He recognized Jael amongst them.

‘Where is everyone else?’ A sick feeling grew in the pit of his gut, his thoughts turning to Kastell and Maquin.

‘There were casualties,’ Calidus said with a shrug. ‘This is a battlefield, Veradis. Men die.’

‘Men. What men?’

‘Many,’ snapped Calidus. ‘Romar fell, along with some of his men.’

‘All,’ Alcyon corrected.

‘All,’ Calidus repeated coldly. ‘A tragedy, but, such is the way of these things.’

Veradis stared at him, Kastell and Maquin’s faces hovering in his mind’s eye. I tried to warn them.

‘Come, Alcyon,’ Calidus said, turning away. ‘Clean up here, Veradis. We will meet later, talk of what happens next.’

Alcyon strode after Calidus, balancing the black axe over his shoulder. Akar remained with Veradis, frowning. He looked as if he was going to say something, wanted to say something, then he turned away and marched after Calidus, his black-clad warriors falling in behind him.

Veradis watched the light and shadow of the crackling fire flicker across Calidus’ face as he sat opposite him, deep in conversation with Lothar, battlechief to King Braster of Helveth.

Behind the counsellor, hidden in shadow, was the bulk of Alcyon. A dark mood had been upon him since the killing of the giant children. The black axe lay across his lap. In his hand was a long thin needle, black ink dripping from its tip. Veradis watched with fascination as Alcyon rhythmically stabbed at his forearm, adding more thorns to the swirling vine tattoo that marked the lives the giant had taken in battle. Veradis scowled. Are Kastell and Maquin marked by one of those thorns?

Akar sat at the fire with another of the Jehar, a dark-haired, sharp-featured woman. She looked young, as far as Veradis could tell, not much different in age from him. He frowned, still not comfortable with the thought of female warriors, and especially not ones as skilled as the Jehar.

Lothar made his farewells and strode off into the darkness. No one had wanted to camp amongst the silent graves of Haldis, so they had settled on the sloping approach to the burial grounds, not far from where Veradis had viewed the battle that morning. It seemed a long time ago.

Campfires flickered all along the ridge, warming the survivors of the battle. Around four thousand warriors had marched into Haldis. Fewer than a thousand had survived, and half of that number belonged to Veradis’ warband and the Jehar. Romar’s warband had been almost entirely destroyed, only Jael and a few score others surviving. Braster’s warband had fared little better, only the few hundred that had carried his wounded body from the field remained.

‘Well?’ Veradis said across the flames. ‘How is King Braster?’

‘His wound was not fatal,’ Calidus replied. ‘A hammer blow crushed his shoulder. Lothar said their healers are happy with the setting of his bones, so . . .’ He shrugged. ‘He may not swing a sword again, but he’ll live.’

‘Good,’ Veradis said. He liked Braster. There was a gruff, blunt honesty about Helveth’s king. ‘So, what is our plan, now?’

‘Now it is time to find Nathair. We have been apart from him long enough.’

‘Excellent.’ Veradis had felt a fierce pride at being given command over this campaign, more so now for bringing his warband successfully through the conflict, even though he knew that Calidus and Alcyon had played a large part in that, counteracting the magic of the Hunen’s elementals. Throughout the whole campaign, though, he had felt a nagging worry about Nathair, knowing that his king, his friend, was sailing into the unknown in his search of the cauldron. He was Nathair’s first-sword; he should be at his side.

‘How will we find him?’ he asked. ‘He was about to sail for Ardan when we parted, but who knows where he is now?’

‘I have received word,’ Calidus said, tapping his head. ‘Remember, I was spymaster to the Vin Thalun for many years. Nathair is at Dun Carreg in Ardan. We will head there. Nathair needs us, needs his advisers about him. I will make sure that Lykos meets us there.’

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