Home > Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #3)

Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #3)
John Gwynne

CHAPTER ONE

ULFILAS

The Year 1143 of the Age of Exiles, Eagle Moon

Ulfilas touched his heels to his horse’s side, urging her up the incline before him, a slope of grey rock and gravel littered with the remains of long-dead trees. Beside him King Jael kept pace, his face set in rigid lines. A dozen paces ahead of them rode Jael’s huntsman, Dag.

Jael should not be here, Ulfilas thought, a knot of worry shifting in his gut. The King of Isiltir, wandering in the northern wilderness on a fool’s errand. It was not that Ulfilas felt any great sense of loyalty to Jael; he didn’t even like the man. It was more that after all they had been through, to die now on a journey like this, which he considered a waste of time, would feel foolish.

Ulfilas was aware that times were changing, there was war on the horizon, and the power in Isiltir needed consolidating. He had been Jael’s shieldman since he’d sat his Long Night, and despite his dislike of Jael’s character and practices, Ulfilas was also a pragmatic man. I’m a warrior. Got to fight for someone. Recent events had proven his choice well made. King Romar was dead. Kastell, Jael’s cousin, was dead. Gerda, estranged wife of Romar, was dead. Her young son, Haelan, technically speaking still heir to the throne of Isiltir, was missing. Running. He knew that Jael felt little to no loyalty towards the men who followed him, that the new self-proclaimed King of Isiltir was scheming, vain and power hungry and would do whatever it took to keep his newly won crown. But he was a man on the rise. And so Ulfilas had stuck with him, when a voice in his mind had been telling him to walk away and find another, more worthy, lord to serve.

A conscience? he wondered. Hah, a conscience doesn’t put food on my plate or keep my head from a spike.

‘How much longer?’ Jael called ahead.

‘Not much longer, my lord,’ the huntsman Dag called back. ‘We’ll be with them before sunset.’

Close to the top of the incline Ulfilas reined in his horse and looked back.

A column of warriors wound up the slope behind him, surrounding a wain pulled by two hulking auroch. Beyond them the land stretched grey and desolate, further south the fringes of Forn Forest were a green blur. A river in the distance sparkled under the dipping sun, marking the border of this northern wasteland with the realm beyond.

Isiltir. Home. Ulfilas looked away, back up the slope towards his King, and spurred his horse after him.

They travelled ever northwards as the sun sank lower, shadows stretching about them, their path winding through empty plains and steep-sided ravines. Once they crossed a stone bridge that spanned a deep abyss; Ulfilas looked down into the darkness. His stomach shifted as his horse stumbled on loose stone, the thought of falling into the unknown making him snatch at his reins. He let out a long breath when they reached the far side, the sharp rush of fear receding as quickly as it had appeared.

They rode into a series of barren foothills, eventually cresting another slope to find Dag silently waiting for them. Ulfilas and his King drew level with the huntsman and pulled their mounts to a standstill at the sight before them.

A flat plain unfolded into the distance, the tips of mountains jagged on the horizon. Just below the travellers lay their destination: a great crater, as if Elyon the Maker had punched a fist into the fabric of the earth, barren of life and no breeze or sound of wildlife to disturb it.

‘The starstone crater,’ Jael whispered.

Ulfilas had thought it more tale than truth, the rumoured site of the starstone that had fallen from the sky.

How many thousands of years ago was it supposed to have crashed to the earth? And from it the Seven Treasures were said to have been forged, over which past wars had changed the face of the Banished Lands, not least of all here, where the stories told how Elyon’s Scourging had broken the land, scorching it black.

Ulfilas stared up at the sky, slate-grey and swollen with clouds, and imagined for a moment that they were filled with the white-feathered Ben-Elim and Asroth’s demon horde. He could almost hear their battle-cries echoing about him, hear the clash of weapons, the death-screams.

Elyon and Asroth, Maker and Destroyer, their angels and demons fighting for supremacy over these Banished Lands. I thought it all a faery tale. And now I am told it is happening again.

Riding through these lands now Ulfilas found himself believing what, only a year ago, he had thought to be bedtime stories for bairns. He thought of the time he had spent at Haldis, the burial ground of the Hunen giants hidden deep in Forn Forest. He had witnessed a king betrayed and slain over a black axe said to be one of the Seven Treasures carved from the starstone; he had seen white wyrms, and earth magic where solid ground turned into a swamp, suffocating the life from his sword-brothers. He was a man of action – of deeds. Monsters made real were not something he’d found easy to accept. Fear churned in his gut at just the memory of it.

Fear keeps you sharp.

Further down the slope and built on the lip of the crater was the carcass of an ancient fortress, walls and towers broken and crumbling. Figures moved amongst the ruins, mere pinpricks in the distance.

‘The Jotun,’ said Jael.

The giants of the north. Rumoured to be strongest and fiercest of the surviving giant clans. Not for the first time Ulfilas questioned the wisdom of this journey.

‘No sudden movements,’ Dag said, ‘and keep your wits about you.’

Some of the Jotun’s number filtered out of the ruins, gathering on the road that cut through the derelict walls, their spear-tips and mail catching the sinking sun. A handful were mounted on shaggy, lumbering creatures.

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