Chapter 1 Sive
Inis Cealtra they said. Untold treasure they said.
Except it wasn’t here. Lying bastards.
The island that didn’t exist, the island that would only appear to those lost in the haar. Well, she was lost. The haar fog was thick today and cold as the grave. It would burn off in an hour or two, then she’d find her way home, like yesterday and the day before. She steered the skiff through the dead calm towards the sound of the seabirds. Seabirds meant cliffs, cliffs meant land. She’d been out for three hours already, her hands were numb, her muscles stiff. She’d give it a little longer.
Sive’s mind wandered, conversations, faces, she cursed as the old pain returned.
“You’ve cut yourself again. Why do you do that? Stupid girl. You cut yourself, then pick at the scabs, what’s wrong with you?”
Her mother had never understood, none of them had. She was different, a throwback they said, with her strange ears. She didn’t fit in, as long as she could remember she’d felt trapped, she wasn’t meant to be in this body, with these people. The gods had made a mistake sending her to this family, this clan.
She had always been lost.
“I don’t know why Falinor sent you to us, we wanted a boy, look what he gave us... you! Bastard gods… I bet Loki had a hand in it. Go on, get out of my sight, do something useful, get food for the table.” Her father had a way with his tongue, it cut the deepest, more than the physical blows, but after a while she felt nothing. Her life was numb, a dream.
To feel again...
That’s when the cutting started, she could feel the pain, it reassured her, it was comforting, a friend. But lately the cutting hadn’t been enough, she was running out of time. It would be easy to give up, go under.
Or she could fight.
Orphir whispered to Sive. “Inis Cealtra, aye, it’s out there somewhere. Men have been trying to reach that island for years, more than years. But she’s a tease, locked in her curse, banished from the mainland, banished from the sea, just a dream. But a golden dream. The Aes Sidhe left their gold there, in their ships. Their goddess, Danu protected the island with a curse and it vanished from sight.”
Orphir, a gift from the gods they’d said, blind in this world but sighted in the spirit world, a seer.
“Vanished from sight only to be glimpsed by those lost in the haar,” Sive added. “Why did they leave… the Aes Sidhe?” She looked at her blind friend’s face searching for answers.
Orphir rolled her eyes, rocking back and forward. It was warm in the hide, the fire had burned low, smoke filled the space. This was their safe place, it was rarely occupied in the winter months and only used to trap migrating geese in spring. Sive remained silent, she knew not to press her friend. Orphir would answer when she was ready. Sive looked at the young woman’s birdlike frame, she was respected by the clan, living in the jarl’s hall. She was given choice cuts of meat in her broth, but still her body refused to grow. People said it was due to her gift, she was nineteen summers but looked younger.
“No one knows why the Aes Sidhe left the island… and their gold. But they left in a hurry. Some say they took their ships and sailed away, who knows? Maybe they offended their god, maybe something chased them off… what does it matter? They are gone, the island is gone, the gold is gone. Unless…”
Orphir turned her head, her milky eyes looking directly at Sive. A knowing smile broke across her face. “Ah, I see, you mean to go there, to find the gold.”
Sive knew Orphir was blind but at that moment she would swear her friend could read her thoughts. She shuddered. “Well, maybe… maybe not. It’s just a story isn’t it?”
Orphir turned away. “Just remember to take steel with you when you go. Steel to free the island, that’s what the legend says. That’s if you manage to set foot on it, if she’ll let you. If she shows herself to you, you mustn’t take your eyes off her, not even to blink… that’s the secret.” Orphir’s voice had grown husky, she stopped and looked puzzled. “Now where did that come from?”
“I’ve always got steel on me,” Sive patted the dirk at her waist. “Drode’s sons give me no choice… bastards. I swear I’ll skewer them one of these days. They are evil, they don’t know when to stop their tormenting…”
Orphir was off in one of her reveries. Sive put more wood on the fire and took a bite of the cured meat she had stolen from the jarl’s kitchen. She’d been able to take the meat because Orphir was with her, if she’d been caught on her own she’d have lost a finger at the very least.
“Why do you take risks Sive?” Orphir blurted out. Her voice had deepened, her head fell forwards, her shoulders slumped.
Sive stopped chewing. She looked at her friend, something was wrong.
Orphir’s body was trembling despite the fire. Sive’s hand went to her arm, to the eagle tattoo, her protection against evil spirits. Something was speaking through Orphir, something was reaching out from the otherside.
“Answer me.” Orphir’s head snapped up, her eyes rolling, her face contorted in a rictus of pain. “Why do you take risks?”
Sive felt the cold hand of fear in her belly, but she also felt compelled to answer. She was concerned for her friend.
“Leave her alone, get out of her, whoever you are…” Sive’s voice sounded small.
Orphir’s mouth hung open, saliva dribbled down her chin, she didn’t move.
Sive reached for her dirk, then thought better of it. What use would it be against a spirit? Her mind raced, she spoke out. “Why do I take risks? Why not? Why be safe when there’s nothing to lose? When I am so… different…” her voice cracked.
Orphir’s face looked blankly at Sive, then contorted. “And everything to gain… spoken like a true Aes Sidhe. You know you are of the Aes Sidhe, you are… kindred. You carry a gift, you need to bring it to them, you need to find the island and lift its curse. You need to find your people, you need to go out there and take back your life.”
Sive heard the words and felt their impact, a door opened within.
These words were painful, these words were truth.
Orphir’s shoulders jerked, her head lifted. Shadows darted around the tent, a breeze came from nowhere. Sive threw herself forward and grabbed her friend, holding her tight. Orphir was cold, her hair covered in frost, her lips blue but she was still breathing.
“Orphir… come on, come back, it’s not your time. Stay with me, come back from that place, we need you, I need you.”
Orphir’s jaw twitched, a strangled voice came from her throat. “Will you act on your knowledge? Will you fulfil your destiny? Answer us, Aes Sidhe girl…”
Sive held on to her friend and closed her eyes, fear and excitement running through her.
“Aye, aye, yes I will do this thing you ask. I will find the island, I will find my people and lift the curse.”
As soon as the words had left her mouth Orphir jerked once, twice, then collapsed into Sive’s arms. Colour returned to Orphir’s face, her breathing settled. A bird called outside.
Sive knew the sound.
The geese had arrived.
Chapter 2 Mevia
Mevia slipped on the deck landing against the broken mast.
The ship was listing badly, it was difficult to keep her footing. What the hell was she doing here? She should’ve listened to Aril back in Imraldi and abandoned this as a bad job. So far what had she scavenged? Nothing. Nothing… well there was the jewelled key she’d found hidden in the captain’s quarters. The pinchers had taught her to see a room as the owner saw it. A room was a space full of tricks and deceit. Pinchers were skilled at reading others’ deceit and growing rich from it.
It was a strange looking key, the jewels would be worth something, but what use was a key without a lock?
Her leather armour had absorbed the blow from the mast. She hauled herself up and moved across the deck. The sea was calm, the tide full, the broken ship was stuck fast on the rocks. It’d cost her a whole day to reach the wreck, she’d taken unnecessary risks. So long as the weather held she’d make it back to Imraldi tomorrow. She hated the sea, she couldn’t even swim. What was she thinking?
Aril’s voice came to her. “Why do you want to go there? It’s too dangerous, you should stick to grave robbing, at least your marks are dead… and you’re on land.”
Seabirds called overhead, timbers creaked below her feet. What she’d said to Aril seemed stupid now.
“I want more, we need more, you’re getting no better. We… I can’t afford the medicine for you. The gravers are being more careful now, they’re guarding the dead and using new dogs, they’ve done something to them. The witchers have changed them, those dogs can see in the dark, I swear. It’s no good.”
“You could do the graves over the wall, the lost souls. I know it’s more effort but at least there’s no guards.”
Mevia stared at her little sister, she wanted to shout but she couldn’t. Sometimes it was easier to agree. “Aye, you’re right, maybe I’ll try that. After the ship.”
“The ship’s a day’s walk from Imraldi. Raven Point’s a dangerous place, the rocks there will break your bones. One fall… you’ll be gone, taken by the sea and the Finn folk. You’ll end up in Finnakheem and never find your way home.” Aril’s voice took on a desperate tone.
“The Sea Scavenger was carrying a valuable cargo, silks, spices and maybe spark dust. I know Duak’s boys got most of it but it was a big ship, there’s likely some loot they overlooked. All we need is a little extra to see us through the winter. When the spring traders come I can join the pinchers again, they’re always looking for extra fingers to cut those fat purses.”
“You’ve your heart set on it then,” Aril’s tone was resigned.
Mevia kept silent.
“Make an offering to Amaren before you go. She’ll guide your feet and give you the sight. You promise you’ll do that for me?”
“Aye, little sister, I will. I’ll make my peace with Amaren. Now settle down, get some sleep.”
Aril lay back on her bed and turned over. She coughed once, twice and then lay still, her breathing shallow. Sometimes her breathing stopped making Mevia think the worst, but so far Aril had fought the lung rot, she was a fighter. But then, so was the lung rot, it was only a matter of time before it took her.
Mevia didn’t know what she’d do without her sister. Their family had been ravaged, first by the scourge, then the lung rot. The scourge had taken their mother, the lung rot their father. Mevia would not let the rot take her sister, at least not without a fight. The medicine the highborns used seemed to work, but it cost gold. There wasn’t enough gold to be had in robbing middleborn graves.
She needed to take a risk. Gold only came to those who took risks. The Sea Scavenger was such a risk. Recently wrecked in the winter storms, held on the rocks at Raven Point. It would be dangerous, she could die trying… but then everyone was going to die sometime.
Something caught her eye, her thoughts snapped back to the present. An area of decking was damaged, not by the storm, not by rocks. She approached the gaping hole. The timbers had been ripped out, she crouched down to examine the splintered wood, her eyes tried to make sense of what they saw. Long scrapes across the hardwood… in rows.
Mevia stared at the marks. Then her shoulders jerked, she looked up at the sky. The marks were from claws… talons.
She took a breath through clenched teeth, she pulled out her sword and stood alert for a long minute. The marks were fresh, whatever had done this wasn’t long gone. The skies were clear, except for seabirds. Mevia relaxed and lowered her blade.
She turned her attention to the gaping hole in the deck, it penetrated into the heart of the ship, down two levels. Seawater surged thirty feet below, the hold was flooded. Even Duak’s men with their resources could not have searched that section. She should have a look, just a quick look, she’d come all this way and only had the key to show for it.
“Turn back now, it’s folly to go down there sister,” Aril’s voice whispered in her head.
Mevia ignored the internal dialogue and took a silken rope from her pack. The rope she had stolen, with its Sclavian steel grappler.
A thief’s only as good as her tools, she mused.
She secured the rope around the mast dropping the rest down the hole. She took a last look along the deck and climbed over the edge lowering herself into space.
It became still as soon as she was off the windswept deck. She hung suspended, gently twisting. Creaks and groans came from deep within the broken ship, its hull still standing against the sea, but it would not survive another storm. Her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she looked around at the hulk… broken timbers everywhere, and the remains of the galley. Below that, the sleeping quarters, then the flooded hold.
Mevia picked out more details as her eyes adjusted. She lowered herself another few feet, her boots brushing against the galley timbers. Gingerly she tested the broken floor with her foot, it seemed sound enough. She placed both feet on the timbers, holding on to the rope. The floor held, she dropped down and crouched, looking at the flooded hold beneath her. Distant cries of seabirds reached her from above.
Her hands gripped the heavy timbers, something registered, she examined the wood. Long gashes ran along the boards under her hands and feet. She turned and looked, deeper into the galley. An ornate chest lay against the wall at the back of the room gleaming dully in the half light.
The chest was open.
Chapter 3 Ae’fir
“I want to believe…” Ae’fir knelt in front of the statue.
Goddess Danu, Seraphim.
Of all the Aes Sidhe deities she was the one that spoke to his heart. He wanted to believe the Aes Sidhe were descended from the Seraphim messengers and they really did fall to Erthe from the stars. He wanted to believe every one of them carried divine blood, that he too was a descendant of the gods. Danu’s statue was impressive, her wings wrapped around her body, her majestic headpiece framing her head. Her eyes bathed him in blue light.
Ecstasy burst in his chest. He would do anything for his people, for the Seraphim goddess and his birth right, Dal Riata.
Ae’fir whispered under his breath. “I want to walk in the land of the living again, breathe the air, feel grass under my feet, wind on my skin. I want to believe, help me believe, help me take back what is ours, help me free our homeland from the fleshbones. Guide me to Inis Cealtra, allow me to open the floodgates on this world. Let their king believe Rysa’s lies, her phantom pregnancy, let the false trail divert them, let them think they have the upper hand. Keep the truth from them, keep their eyes clouded until I can open the ground at Inis Cealtra and break the Banishment.”
He fell silent, his mind recalling the conversation he’d had the previous day with Tara Lau and the rest of the Aes Sidhe Maidens. Their call to Eynhallow on the most sacred day of the year, the day the Shewind returned for seven precious days and nights, the seven days they could hear themselves think and communicate with each other.
Tara Lau’s words came back to him. “Ae’fir, you’ve been chosen to breach the Banishment for our warriors at Inis Cealtra. Our days in this prison, this wilderness are coming to an end. The forebears of the Nephilim only had the power to keep us here for a thousand years, this time is nearly up. Their descendants have forgotten much of what their ancestors have done to us, they have lost much of their magic. They are weak, shadows of their former selves.”
Tara Lau paused, reaching out to Ae’fir’s shoulder. “Rise Ae’fir, no need to kneel, we are equals in this endeavour, the old ways will be replaced once we’ve won our land back, once we have defeated the Banishment.”
Ae’fir stood and took Tara Lau’s hand. “Maidens of the Aes Sidhe, I am honoured you have chosen me, who else is to join me in this task?”
The Maidens surrounding him leaned in. Tara Lau gripped his hand and spoke. “Ae’fir we are only able to send you and one other through the Banishment, we are not strong enough yet. Once you’ve opened the ground at Inis Cealtra we’ll be able to access our sacred power there. We have influence on that ground, the Erthe still listens to us there, she has forgotten us elsewhere… it has been too long. This task falls to you and your companion alone.”
Tara Lau paused. Ae’fir searched her eyes. “I understand my Lady. Who is this other who is to accompany me?”
“You will take the dreamcaster, Eriu. He will assist you in your search for Scalibur. He will create your double, he will weave the mistruths that will precede you, he will work the diversion through Rysa and her phantom pregnancy. He will distract King Loarn and his men with your double. This will allow you time to find the real Scalibur. Once you have retrieved the blade you will have the power you need to overthrow anyone who bars your way to Inis Cealtra. Eriu will be your guide on this journey.”
Ae’fir absorbed Tara Lau’s words. The fate of the Aes Sidhe rested on his shoulders, an honour, a gamble. He looked at Tara Lau and the Maidens.
“Why have you chosen me for this task my Lady? Why not another?”
Tara Lau came towards him and pressed her cheek to his. She whispered in his ear. “You carry divinity in your blood Ae’fir, you are a true descendant of the Seraphim. Their blood runs purest in you, this task was always yours, your destiny. Go now, prepare, ready your spirit, make your peace with Danu. Then meet with the dreamcaster, join your thoughts with his, become one. As one you are complete, invincible. This will happen, now is the time…”
Ae’fir nodded and turned to leave Eynhallow.
“Ae’fir?” Tara Lau called out.
“Don’t let the Nephilim remember. They are few and weak, yes, but do not let them remember their old ways, if they do they could renew the Banishment and keep us here. They must stay in the dark, they must not remember their magic. Walk softly around them, do not let them see you or Eriu.”
“I will not disappoint you my Lady. The Aes Sidhe will walk the Erthe again, it is our time. Dal Riata will be retaken.”
Ae’fir’s thoughts returned to the present, he tore his eyes away from Danu’s statue, he felt a sense of familiarity and strangeness in its presence. He made his last prayer for strength and left the sacred place. He went in search of the dreamcaster, Eriu.
He knew of Eriu but had never met him. Dreamcasters and warlocks… cut from the same cloth, but there were differences. Dreamcasters were masters of illusion, they could conjure whole armies out of air, they could reanimate the dead… they could mimic a pregnancy. All would appear as in real life, as long as the victims believed what they saw and heard. Still, he’d much rather have a warlock at his side, with their destructive spells, to kill the fleshbones with real flame, real ice, real lightening. That he could understand.
Dreams he could not.
He walked along the Banishment’s blighted landscape, the half in, half out world the Aes Sidhe had been condemned to by the Nephilim a thousand years ago. It was all he had ever known, the dusk grey landscape devoid of light and life. He could only imagine what the real Erthe looked like… green grass, blue skies and sun.
How he had dreamed of the sun as a child, the thought of it filled him with wonder. A ball of never ending light in the sky, in an eternal dance with the silver of the moon. The Nephilim had a lot to answer for, he wanted to rip their hearts out for what they had done to his people. King Loarn and his cruel dynasty would not surrender either, they would have to be defeated.
He arrived at Eriu’s home, a small, squat dwelling on the edge of the settlement. It was darkest here, some said dreamcasters needed the dark to weave their illusions. Dreamcasters were few and far between now, the young ones were shunning the old ways, but there was still enough knowledge left for this final push. The old ways ran deep, Aes Sidhe memory was vivid, not like the Nephilim, they had weakened by immersing themselves in the savage ways of the fleshbones.
Ae’fir stood outside Eriu’s home for a few minutes. He didn’t need to knock, Eriu would know he was there. He closed his eyes and waited, his thoughts on the magical weapon, Scalibur. Where was it? How was he going to find it?
“We will find it in the broken mind of an old crone, the trail lies in her. She’ll reveal the path to Scalibur, she is of magic, we need to unlock her mind using the right magic.” Ae’fir opened his eyes, the dreamcaster stood in the doorway. Eriu looked pleased with himself. “The Maidens knew I’d be up to the task, my whole life has been leading to this point, much as yours. We are about to embark on a great adventure my Lord, what do you think? Are you ready to join minds?”
Ae’fir looked at the diminutive figure. This was to be his companion in the land of Dal Riata?
Suddenly he did not feel confident. Eriu looked an unlikely ally, his limbs were thin as sticks, he was no warrior. His skin was covered in the silver paint the dreamcasters used, his long hair was plastered into a fine upward horsetail, caked in a white chalk. Ae’fir wondered how Eriu was able to sleep with such hair, but then remembered… dreamcasters never slept.
He reminded himself appearances could be deceptive and sometimes the most unassuming foes were the worst. He told himself to relax and nodded.
“Yes Dreamcaster Eriu, I am ready.”
“Then come in, let’s begin.”
He followed Eriu. Ae’fir had to stoop to get through the door, the place reeked of magic. Once over the threshold he blinked, not believing his eyes, he was in a vast room, even bigger than Eynhallow. He stopped in his tracks, stunned.
Eriu turned and looked at Ae’fir. “Deceptive isn’t it? Difficult to tell the difference between reality and dreams.”
“But on the outside this place looks no more than a hut, this is a palace,” Ae’fir threw his arms around. He looked at Eriu with new respect, he would be glad to have this dreamcaster and his magic by his side.
Eriu paused looking thoughtful. “I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’ve changed my mind. I have good news Ae’fir. I’ve been able to contact someone outside, in Dal Riata, a throwback, she has true Aes Sidhe blood. I’ve only just contacted her so she’s unproven. She’s to meet us on Inis Cealtra, she’ll help us open the ground there from the other side. This’ll make our work easier.”
Ae’fir considered Eriu’s words. “What’s her name?” he asked.
“Sive,” Eriu replied.
“Sive…” Ae’fir repeated. “A good name… not an Aes Sidhe name, but a good name. She’ll need to be renamed when she re-joins us, her true people. If she survives…”
“Goddess Danu will see to it, she’ll guide the girl’s steps, as she will ours. Now follow me.”
Eriu led Ae’fir through the vast hall to a small room on the other side. They entered the chamber which was bare, except for a scrying bowl and two chairs.
“Sit Ae’fir, this is where we make your double, to distract King Loarn, and it’s here we’ll join minds for the adventure ahead.”
Ae’fir sat and watched as Eriu stood in front of the scrying bowl.
“Place both your hands on the bowl and close your eyes. Open your spirit to Goddess Danu, I will do the rest. Do not take your hands off the bowl until I tell you,” Eriu directed.
Eriu closed his eyes, Ae’fir did the same, he started the opening prayer with Goddess Danu and as always saw her blue light and was aware of her presence. He felt warm and secure with her near, he allowed her into his spirit.
A blue flicker danced on the water in the scrying bowl. Ripples came from its centre, followed by an orange light around the rim. The blue light took shape becoming a miniature dragon, it dominated the centre of the bowl. The orange light coalesced forming an orange dragon. The flickering dragons turned to face each other hovering above the water.
The dragons’ eyes were closed. Sweat beaded on Eriu’s forehead and the muscles at the back of his neck stiffened. His lips moved as a whisper left his throat.
Vassa vassa Nisha, vassa vassa Nisha, vassa icbre corisha Nisha.
Eriu repeated the words over and over. Suddenly the orange dragon’s eyes snapped open, it threw itself at the blue dragon. Orange bit into blue’s neck and twisted. Blue let out a silent scream falling to the water. It sank to the bottom, its light dimming and flickering weakly. The water sizzled, steam rising from the surface. Orange released blue’s neck and rose to the surface, returning to the rim. It remained a few seconds then became indistinct breaking into flames before disappearing.
The blue dragon’s light failed and the water became still. The two men sat opposite each other for a long time. Ae’fir still felt Goddess Danu’s warmth and light, he held on to the scrying bowl with both hands. Puncture wounds had appeared at the base of his neck, blood trickled from the wounds.
With a harsh crack the water in the bowl erupted in a plume and two bright blue dragons hovered above the water’s surface, both identical.
Eriu slumped forwards breathing heavily. “My work is done Ae’fir. Open your eyes.”
Ae’fir saw Goddess Danu’s light recede. It was always painful to leave her presence, he felt the familiar feeling of loss and sorrow at her departure. Then the readjustment, reality returned. He opened his eyes and stared at Eriu.
The dreamcaster was exhausted, his hair was drenched, his face lined, dripping with sweat. Eriu looked up at Ae’fir and nodded. “It is done.” His eyes flicked away from Ae’fir focusing behind him.
Eriu’s words exploded in Ae’fir’s head. The dreamcaster had not moved his lips.
So this was what it meant… joined as one. He could hear Eriu’s thoughts, no doubt Eriu could hear his.
A noise came from behind, Ae’fir turned to look.
There, standing a few feet away was...
Ae’fir recoiled in shock.
“Welcome to your double Ae’fir. This manifestation of you will be our diversion for King Loarn. This version of you will distract the king and his men and will buy us time to get through Dal Riata to the north, to Inis Cealtra. Meet your double, meet… Lamorak.”
Ae’fir smiled. The name didn’t have to match, but everything else did… it was perfect. Lamorak wore chainmail and was armed with an impressive sword. Ae’fir raised an eyebrow.
“Not Scalibur, merely an imagined approximation,” Eriu explained. “He will not remember this meeting. All memory of us, of here, will be wiped from his mind.”
“And Ae’fir, our minds are now joined. You can hear me and I you. We are as one, my magic is now yours. We will tread carefully these next few days, it can take some adjustment. I will send Lamorak ahead of us, he is but an illusion but a very real one to those he will encounter in Dal Riata.”
Ae’fir looked at Lamorak and wondered at Eriu’s power. He could not wait to reach Dal Riata.
“Patience, patience,” Eriu said, a twinkle in his eye. “We’ll be up to our necks in it soon enough…”
Chapter 4 Crowe
The news was bad. An outlaw, causing trouble on the southern border of Dal Riata. A man called Lamorak.
Word had it he wielded a terrifying sword and was backed by a strange new god. The sword carried a name difficult on the tongue.
Lamorak’s reputation was growing. He was using the lochs and rivers to travel north. The Wild Forest had always protected the southern borders of Dal Riata, its mountainous terrain and densely packed trees unwelcoming and full of life takers. Wolves and the constant threat of running into chimera kept most threats at bay from Loarn’s kingdom.
Lamorak had felled two chimera with Scalibur.
The terrible ones had definitely fallen to this blade, there were eye witnesses. A ripple of fear was running through Dal Riata, fear but also something else… admiration.
King Loarn wasn’t happy.
Crowe was sweating in his furs outside the king’s hall. Winter was close, the geese had arrived and where was he? Recalled from the hunting grounds by Loarn, to discuss this new threat. Crowe scratched his beard considering his position. He was getting old, already twenty seven summers under his belt, although he wasn’t sure on the exact figure. He was still the king’s champion. One or two more jobs for the king might see him able to retire in the next year or two.
There was opportunity here.
Let’s just see what the gods put my way…
“Enter,” the Nephilim said.
Crowe nodded at the giant. Why did the king have to use the fallen ones as his bodyguards? Yes, they had the strength of ten men, yes, they were big, very big, but the bigger the opponent the bigger the target. They were powerful but slow, anyone with a shred of skill could run rings around them. Except when they were endowed with the speed of the wind by their warlocks, then they were to be feared.
He entered the great hall. Loarn was sitting by the open fire with his dogs, all twelve of them. Crowe approached the king stepping over four of the dogs.
He coughed to announce his presence. Loarn stood and turned, his rheumy eyes fixing Crowe with a hard look. The old king still had iron in his soul, Crowe understood this and knew of the countless number of men, women and children Loarn had killed in his time. There was strength and power in this dynasty, the king’s three sons would see his kingdom into the next generation and would no doubt push the borders out further against the Pictish savages. The Picts were still locked in the age of stone, but then they had the forest and its wild magics on their side. Their druids were to be feared, some even said they were in communion with the Trows who had once walked the land freely.
The Trows, what was he thinking? He bowed to Loarn and waited for the king to speak.
Loarn took his time, regarding Crowe. Finally he gestured at a seat beside the fire. Crowe sat down, the king remained standing and turned his attention to the dogs.
“Hounds are loyal, don’t you agree Farren?” the king’s voice was subdued. The king was the only one who called him by his first name.
“Aye, Lord. They’ll fight for their master until death. They’re givers.”
The king continued stroking the nearest dog. “Are you a giver, Farren? Do you still carry fire in your belly, do you still carry death in your blade?”
It was coming, Crowe knew the king had a task for him, this was the same old game they played each time. Usually it was good natured but this time he detected a cold edge to the king’s tone. He needed to be careful.
“For you my Lord and for Dal Riata, my life and blade are yours. Command me, I’ll take your word and will see it delivered. Who do you want me to kill my Lord?”
The king turned and gazed at Farren. “I think you know what I want Farren Crowe. I want you to find the outlaw, the one they call Lamorak. Take him alive, with his sword, this Scalibur. I want his magic. It’s the key to unlock the rest.”
Crowe felt the dual tingle, excitement and dread. “The rest, my Lord?”
Loarn coughed and spat into the fire. “Yes, the rest. They say this new magic holds the secret of youth, the sword bearer can live forever. What do you think of that Farren?”
Crowe blinked. “These are great claims my Lord. How do we know them to be true?”
The king sat down. “Farren, there’s someone I want you to meet. She has seen Lamorak, she has lain with him. She carries his child.”
The king stood up and walked towards the back of the hall. “Bring the girl,” he shouted.
Movement in the shadows followed his words. An old woman appeared holding a young girl’s hand. Crowe guessed the girl’s age, eighteen or nineteen summers. Her pregnancy wasn’t showing yet, he noticed.