Home > Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #3)(2)

Ruin (The Faithful and the Fallen #3)(2)
John Gwynne

‘Are they riding bears?’ Ulfilas asked.

‘We’ve all heard the tales of the Jotun in the north,’ Jael said. ‘It would appear some of those tales, at least, are true.’

They stopped at the first remains of a wall, the column of riders behind them rippling to a halt. Warriors spread from the path, curling about Jael like a protective hand. Ten score of Jael’s best shieldmen. Ulfilas could feel the tension amongst them, saw the way hands gripped spear shafts and sword hilts.

Giants appeared from the ruins, moving with surprising grace despite their bulk. Some sat on the path ahead of them upon the backs of dark-furred and yellow-clawed bears. Ulfilas knew Jael was right to be wary, they’d seen first-hand at the Battle of Haldis how deadly an attacking force of giants could be. If it hadn’t been for the men of Tenebral forming their wall of shields and stopping the Hunen giants’ attack that had been tearing the warbands of Isiltir and Helveth apart, then Ulfilas knew none of them would be here today.

Too late to learn the shield wall now, but I swear, if I make it home . . .

One of the bear-riders moved ahead of the others, a tremor passing through the ground with the bear’s every footfall. It halted before Jael, looming over him.

The giant slid from a tall-backed saddle and strode forward, blond hair and moustache bound in thick braids. A cloak of dark fur wrapped his wide frame, the glint of iron beneath it. In his hand he held a thick-shafted spear, a war-hammer was left strapped to his saddle. His bear watched them with small, intelligent eyes. It curled a lip, showing a line of sharp teeth.

‘Welcome to the Desolation, Jael, King of Isiltir,’ the giant said. His voice sounded like gravel sliding over stone.

‘Greetings, Ildaer, warlord of the Jotun,’ Jael replied. He beckoned behind him, his warriors parted to allow the wain forward. One of the shaggy auroch that pulled it snorted and dug at the ground with a hoof.

It doesn’t like the smell of bear any more than I do.

Jael pulled back a cloth that covered the wain’s contents. ‘It is as my envoys promised you. A tribute. Weapons of your ancestors, hoarded at Dun Kellen,’ he said, reaching in and with difficulty pulling out a huge battle-axe. ‘My gift to you.’

Ildaer gestured and another giant moved to the wain, a broad-sword slung across his back. He stood as tall as Jael did upon his horse. The giant took the axe, turning it in his hands, then peered into the wain. He could not hide the look of joy that swept his face.

‘They are the weapons of our kin,’ he said with a nod to Ildaer.

‘I return them to you, as a token of my goodwill, and part payment of a task that I need your aid in.’

The giant gripped the aurochs’ harness and led them forward, Ildaer peering in as the wain passed him. Giants pressed close about it.

‘And what is to stop me from killing you and your men, and giving your carcasses to my bears?’

‘I am of more value to you alive. You are a man of intellect, I have been told. Not a savage.’

Ildaer looked at Jael, his eyes narrowing beneath his jutting brow. He glanced back over his shoulder at the wain full of weapons.

‘And besides, who is to say that we would not kill you and all of your warband?’ Jael said.

The giants behind Ildaer all glowered at Jael.

A bear growled.

Ulfilas felt the familiar spike of fear – the precursor to sudden violence. His fingers twitched upon his sword hilt.

‘Hah,’ Ildaer laughed. ‘I think I like you, southlander.’

Ulfilas felt the moment pass, the tension ebbing. Southlander? Isiltir is not one of the southlands. But then, we are in the northlands now. They call anything south of here the southlands.

Ildaer looked back at the wain again. ‘That is of great worth to my people,’ he admitted.

‘It is nothing compared to what I am prepared to give, if you can help me.’ Jael told him.

‘What is it that you want?’

‘I want you to find a runaway boy for me.’

CHAPTER TWO

CORBAN

Corban woke with his heart pounding. The remnants of a dream, dispersed with wakefulness, just a hint of black eyes and immeasurable hatred remaining for a moment. Then that too was gone.

It was cold darkness all around.

He heard Storm growl and he sat up, one hand feeling for his sword hilt. Something’s wrong.

He felt Storm’s bulk beside him, reached out and felt her hackles standing rigid.

‘What is it, girl?’ he whispered.

The camp was silent. To his left the fire-pit glimmered, but he avoided looking at it, knowing it would destroy any night vision he possessed. He made out the dense shadow of a guard standing on the incline of the dell they were camped within. The moon emerged, revealing another figure close by, tall and dark-haired. Meical. He was standing perfectly still, his attention fixed on the dell’s rim. Behind Corban a horse whinnied.

There was a flapping up above and then a croaking bird’s screech. ‘WAKE, WARE THE ENEMY, WAKE. WAKE. WAKE.’

Craf or Fech. Corban leaped to his feet, all around him other shapes doing the same, the rasp of swords pulled from scabbards. Shapes appeared at the dell’s edge, figures outlined for a moment in the moon’s glow before they swarmed down the incline. There was a crunch, a collision, a scream.

‘Kadoshim,’ Meical shouted, then all was chaos. Bodies were swirling, solid shadows blurred with starlight, then an explosion of sparks burst from the fire as it blazed brightly, scattering light. Corban caught a glimpse of Brina calling out incantations beside the fire, making it burn higher and directing tongues of it towards their enemy.

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