/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Хроники Ворона

Nightchild

James Barclay


JAMES BARCLAY

NIGHTCHILD

When the Innocent rides the elements, and the land lies flat and riven; the Sundering shall be undone

and from the chaos shall rise the One, never again to fall.

Tinjata, High Elder Mage, Dordover

Prologue

Jarrin had fished the waters north of Sunara's Teeth all of his long life. He knew the intricacies of the tides and the petulance of the wind. And he knew the beauty of solitude. His lines and pots were dropped in a sheltered deep-water cove and now was the wonderful wait. It was the time he loved. He lay back along the boards of his eighteen-foot coastal skimmer, its single sail furled against the boom, as it rocked gently in the slight swell.

Jarrin uncorked his water and wine, then chose a thick ham sandwich from his daysack, laying it all on the bench by him as he stared at the glorious, cloud-veined blue sky. On a day like today, no life was better.

He must have dozed off for a while because he awoke with a start, felt the boat shifting strangely beneath him and saw the sun had moved a little to his left. Something was upsetting the perfection of the day and a distant roaring noise irritated his ears.

Jarrin pushed himself up onto his elbows, bent his head and dug a finger into his left ear. He couldn't hear a single bird. Over the years he'd become so accustomed to the harsh calls of gulls circling overhead or following his boat after a good day that they'd become part of the background. Now their silence was unnerving. Animals could sense things.

And now he was fully awake, nothing was quite right. The sky above was beautiful but the air felt like rain was coming. The water below the boat dragged him out to sea though the tide was surely coming in. And that roaring sound seemed to echo off the peaks of Sunara's Teeth, filling the air with an unearthly sound that scared him deep in the pit of his stomach.

Frowning, he sat up above the gunwale, his gaze caught by movement out to sea. He froze.

Approaching impossibly fast was a wall of water, behind which a dark cloud-mass blew and thickened. It stretched out of his vision to either side of the cove, a towering blue-grey mountain, white-flecked and awesome.

Jarrin just carried on looking. He could have tried to haul up his anchor, raise the sail and run for the shore but it would have been a futile gesture. The wave had to be over one hundred feet high and left no hiding place, just death against the rocky coast.

Jarrin had always sworn he would stare into the face of his killer so he stood up, sang a prayer to the Spirit for his safe passage to the ancestral haven and drank in the magnificent power of nature before it dashed him to oblivion.

Chapter 1

The covered carriage rattled along the western edge of Thornewood, heading in the direction of Varhawk Crags on a rutted and overgrown trail. Wheels bounced off stone, wood protested and metal bolts screeched in their stays. The driver urged his pair of horses on, snapping the reins and shouting his encouragement as they dragged their unstable load at a speed that could only have one outcome.

But not just yet.

With every bump in the trail thudding through his lower back, the driver turned to look over his shoulder. Through the cloud of dust the carriage threw up, he could see them closing. Six figures on horseback, eating up the distance, their pace unimpeded by ground that played havoc with wheels.

He'd seen them closing over half the day, his sharp eyes picking them out almost as soon as they had spotted him and begun the chase. At first, he hadn't had to gallop but, as the afternoon had worn on, it had become clear that his pursuers would ride their horses to death to catch him. He wasn't surprised. What they believed to be inside the carriage was worth the lives of far more than a few mares.

He smiled, turned back to the trail and snapped the reins again. Above him, a fine day was clouding as dusk approached and already the light was beginning to fade. He scratched his chin and stared down at his horses. Sweat poured from their flanks and foamed beneath leather straps. Heads bounced as they drove on, eyes wide and ears flat.

'Well done,' he said. They had given him all the time he needed.

He glanced back again. They were within a hundred yards. A thud signalled the first arrow to strike the carriage. He breathed deep; it had to be now.

Keeping low, he dropped the reins and launched himself on to the back of the right-hand horse, feeling the heat through his hands and legs, hearing their exertion.

'Steady now,' he said. 'Steady now.'

He patted the horse's neck and drew his dagger. Its edge was keen and with one quick slash, he cut the carriage reins. Another and the leather binding the yoke dropped away. He kicked the horse's flanks and it sprang right, away from the carriage which, with the other horse still attached, slowed dramatically and veered left. He prayed it wouldn't overturn.

Unhitching the single reins from where they were tied around the bridle, he fought briefly for control and leaned close to his mount's neck, putting quick distance between himself and the carriage. When he heard the shouts behind him, he reined in and turned.

The enemy were at the carriage. Its doors were opened and riders circled it, their voices angry, filled with recrimination. He knew they could see him but he didn't care. They wouldn't catch him now; but more than that, he had taken them away from their quarry. Half a day's ride following an empty carriage. And now they, at least, would never find what they were looking for.

No time for self-congratulation though. These were just six incompetents he had fooled. There were far cleverer enemies still in the hunt and they would not make their intentions so obvious.

Erienne looked down at her daughter, dozing fitfully in her lap, and wondered for the first time whether she had not undertaken a monumental folly. The first day in Thornewood had been easy enough. Lyanna had been high-spirited and they'd sung walking songs as they'd travelled south, and the sun-dappled forest had smelled clean, fresh and friendly. That first night had been a real adventure for Lyanna, sleeping in the open, covered by her mother's cloak and guarded by her alarm wards. And as Lyanna had slept, Erienne had gone further, tuning to the mana spectrum and tasting its chaos, looking for signs that all was not well.

Not that Erienne had considered them in any danger that night. She trusted that the Guild knew what they were doing and would look after them. And though wolves ran in Thornewood, they were

not known to take human flesh. And she, as a mage of Dordover, had more defences than many.

But on this second day, the atmosphere had changed. Deeper into the woods, the canopy thickened and they walked in shadow much of the time, their moods lifting only when the sun broke through to lighten the ground at their feet. Their songs and chatter had become sporadic and then ceased altogether. And though Erienne fought to find things to say or point out to her increasingly anxious daughter, she found her efforts fell on deaf ears or died on her lips as she looked into Lyanna's fearful eyes.

And the truth was, she felt it too. She understood, or thought she understood, why they were having to walk alone. But her faith in the Guild was quickly diminishing. She had expected some contact but had had none; and now every twig that cracked and every creak of a tree in the wind made her jump. She strained for the sounds of the birds and used their song to boost Lyanna's spirits. After all, she had lied, if the birds sing, there can be no danger.

Erienne had kept a smile on her face though she knew Lyanna was only half-convinced to carry on. Even so, the little girl tired quickly and so they had stopped in the late afternoon, Erienne resting her back against a moss-covered tree trunk while Lyanna dozed. Poor child. Only five years old and running for her life, if she but knew it.

Erienne stroked Lyanna's long black hair and edged her doll out from where it was making an uncomfortable dent in her cheek. She looked out into the forest. The sound of the breeze through the trees and the shadowy branches waving above them felt somehow malevolent. She imagined the wolf pack closing in and shook her head to disperse the vision. But they were being followed. She could feel it. And she couldn't free herself from the thought that it wasn't the Guild.

Her heart was suddenly pounding in her chest and panic gripped her. Shadows flickered in front of her, taking on human form and flitting around the periphery of her vision, always just out of reach. Her mouth was dry. What in all the God's names were they doing here? One woman and a little girl. Pursued by a power too great for them to combat. And they'd put their lives in the hands of total strangers who had surely abandoned them.

Erienne shivered though the afternoon was warm, the motion

disturbing Lyanna who woke and looked up at her, eyes searching for comfort but finding none.

'Mummy, why do they just watch? Why don't they help us?'

Erienne was silent until Lyanna repeated the question, adding, 'Don't they like us?' She chuckled then and ruffled Lyanna's hair.

'How could anyone not like you? Of course, they like us, my sweet. I think maybe they have to be apart from us to make sure no one bad finds us.'

'When will we get there, Mummy?'

'Not long, my darling. Not long. Then you can rest easy. We must be getting closer.' But her words sounded hollow to her and the wind through the trees whispered death.

Lyanna looked sternly at her, her chin carrying a slight wobble.

T don't like it here, Mummy,' she said.

Erienne shivered again. 'Neither do I, darling. Do you want to find somewhere better?'

Lyanna nodded. 'You won't let the bad people get me, will you?'

'Of course not, my sweet.'

She helped Lyanna to her feet, shouldered her pack and they moved off, direction south as they had been told. And as they walked, their pace hurried by the phantoms that they felt closing in, Erienne tried to remember how The Unknown Warrior or Thraun would have shaken off pursuers. How they would have covered their tracks, moved carefully over the ground and laid false trails. She even wondered whether she could carry Lyanna within a Cloaked Walk, rendering them both invisible. A tiring and draining exercise that would be.

She smiled grimly. It was a new game for Lyanna and it might just keep her happy but it was a game they were playing for the highest of stakes.

They moved through the forest with no little skill but beneath the canopy elves missed nothing. Ren'erei confessed surprise at their ability, the silence with which they moved and their efforts to leave no trace of their passing. She even respected the route they chose, often moving away from the trail they left, to throw off any who might follow.

And for most pursuers it would have worked. But Ren'erei and

Tryuun were born to the forest and detected every nuance of change brought upon it by the passage of humans. A splayed leaf crushed into the mulch; loose bark brushed from the bole of a tree at a telltale height; the pattern of twig splinters lying on the ground. And for these particular people, a shadow at odds with the sun through the canopy, eddies in the air and the altered calls of woodland creatures.

Ren'erei went ahead, Tryuun covering his sister from a flank at a distance of twenty yards. The two elves had followed the signs for a full day, closing steadily but never allowing a hint to their quarry that they were being followed.

She moved in a low crouch, eyes scanning her route, every footfall of her light leather boots sure and silent, her mottled brown and green cloak, jerkin and trousers blending with the sun-dappled forest environs. They were close now. The woodchucks nesting in the roots of the tall pines ahead had sounded a warning call, bark dust floated in the still air close to the forest floor, and in the dried mud underfoot, tufts of grass moved gently, individual stalks recovering from the force of a human foot.

Ren'erei stopped beside the wide trunk of a great old oak, placing one hand on it to feel its energy and holding the other out, flat-palmed, to signal to Tryuun. Without looking, she knew her brother was hidden.

Ten yards ahead of her, local turbulence in the air, signified by the eddying of bracken and low leaves, told of a mage under a Cloaked Walk. The mage was moving minutely to avoid becoming visible even momentarily, and again Ren'erei paused to enjoy the skill.

Her fingers all but brushing the ground, Ren'erei crossed the space, identifying the patches of shadow and building a picture of the mage. Tall, slender and athletic but unaware of his or her mortal position. The elf was silent, her movement disturbing nothing, the woodland creatures comfortable with her presence among them.

At the last moment, she slid her knife from its leather sheath, stood tall, grabbed the mage's forehead and bent his skull back, slitting his throat in the same movement. She let the blood spurt over the vegetation and the man shuddered his last, too confused to attempt to cry out in alarm. The Cloak dropped to reveal black, close-fitting clothes and a shaven head. Ren'erei never looked at

their faces when she killed this way. The look in their eyes, the surprise and disbelief, made her feel so guilty.

She laid the body down face first, cleaned and resheathed her knife and signalled Tryuun to move.

There was another out there, Erienne and Lyanna were running scared and the day would soon be done.

Denser sat in the fireside chair in the cold study, an autumnal wind rattling the windows. Leaves blew across the dull grey sky but the chill outside was nothing to that inside the Xeteskian mage who sat in Dordover's Tower.

The moment the Dordovan envoy had arrived on horseback to speak with him and ask him to come to the College, he had known circumstances were dire. The dead weight in the pit of his stomach and the dragging at his heart hadn't shifted since but had deepened to a cold anger when he discovered that it had taken them six weeks to agree he should be called.

Initially, he'd been disappointed that Erienne hadn't tried to contact him by Communion but breaks of weeks between touchings weren't uncommon and now, he realised ruefully, sheer distance might be stopping her even making the attempt.

He folded the letter in his hands and pushed it into his lap before looking up at Vuldaroq. The fat Dordovan Tower Lord, dressed in deep blue robes gathered with a white sash, was sweating from the exertion of accompanying Denser to Erienne's rooms. He shifted uncomfortably under the other's stare.

'Six weeks, Vuldaroq. What the hell were you doing all that time?'

Vuldaroq patted a cloth over his forehead and back on to his bald scalp. 'Searching. Trying to find them. As we still do. They are Dordovan.'

'And also my wife and child, despite our current separation. You had no right to keep her disappearance from me for even one day.'

Denser took in the study, its stacks of tied papers, its books and parchments arranged in meticulous fashion on the shelves, its candles and lamp wicks trimmed, a toy rabbit sitting atop a plumped cushion. So completely unlike Erienne, who delighted in untidiness where she worked. She hadn't gone against her will, that was clear.

She'd cleaned up and intended to be away for a long time. Maybe for good.

'It is not as simple as that,' said Vuldaroq carefully. 'There are procedures and processes-'

Denser surged from the chair to stand eye to eye with the Tower Lord.

'Don't even think of trying that horseshit with me,' he grated. 'Your Quorum's damned pride and politics has kept me away from the search for my daughter and the woman I love for six bloody wasted weeks. They could be absolutely anywhere by now. What exactly have your searches turned up?'

Denser could see the beads of sweat forming on Vuldaroq's red, bulbous face.

'Vague clues. Rumoured sightings. Nothing certain.'

'It's taken you six weeks to find out "nothing certain"? The entire and considerable might of Dordover?' Denser stopped, seeing Vuldaroq's squinted gaze dart momentarily away. He smiled and stepped away a little, half-turning, his fingers playing idly with a stack of papers. 'She really took you by surprise, didn't she? All of you.' He gave a short laugh. 'You never had any idea that she might leave or where she might go, did you?'

Vuldaroq said nothing. Denser nodded.

'So what did you do? Send mages and soldiers to Lystern? Korina? Blackthorne? Even Xetesk perhaps. Then what? Scoured the local woodland, sent word to Gyernath and Jaden?'

'The search area is large,' said Vuldaroq carefully.

'And with all your great wisdom, none of you had the wit to know her well enough to consider in which direction she might have headed, did you?' Denser tutted, and tapped his head, enjoying, for a moment, Vuldaroq's embarrassment. 'No instinct, was there? And so you sent for me, someone who might know. But you left it so very, very late. Why is that, Vuldaroq?'

The Dordovan Tower Lord wiped the cloth over his face and hands before pocketing it.

'Despite your relationship to both Erienne and Lyanna, they were both under the care of Dordover,' said Vuldaroq. 'We have a certain image to uphold, protocols to observe. We wanted them returned to

us with the minimum of apparent… fuss.' He spread his hands wide and tried a half-smile. -

Denser shook his head and moved forward again. Vuldaroq took a pace back, struck his leg against the seat of a chair and sat heavily, face reddening anew.

'You expect me to believe that? Your secrecy over Lyanna's disappearance has nothing to do with risking public embarrassment. No, there's more. You wanted her back in your College before I even knew she was gone, didn't you?' Denser leaned over the sweating face, feeling the warm, faintly alcohol-tainted breath spatting quickly over his cheeks. 'Why is that, I wonder? Scared she would fetch up at the door of a more capable College?'

Again a slight spreading of the hands from Vuldaroq. 'Lyanna is a child of utterly unique talents. And those talents must be channelled correctly if they are not to provoke unfortunate consequences.'

'Like the awakening of a true all-College ability, you mean? Hardly unfortunate.' Denser smiled. 'If it happens, we should celebrate.'

'Be careful, Denser,' warned Vuldaroq. 'Balaia has no place for another Septern. Not now, not ever. The world has changed.'

'Dordover may speak only for itself, not for Balaia. Lyanna can show us the way forward. All of us.'

Vuldaroq snorted. ' "Forward"? A return to the One is a step back, my Xeteskian friend, and one talented child does not herald such a step. One child is powerless.' The old Dordovan bit his lip.

'Only if you stop her realising her potential.' What started as a retort finished as a whisper. Denser paced back, his mouth slack for a moment. 'That's it, isn't it? By all the Gods falling, Vuldaroq, if one hair on her head is harmed-'

Vuldaroq pushed himself out of the chair. 'No one is going to harm her, Denser. Calm yourself. We are Dordovans, not witch-hunters.' He moved towards the door. 'But do find her and bring her back here, Denser. Soon. Believe me, it is important to all of us.'

'Get out,' muttered Denser.

'Might I remind you that this is my Tower,' snapped Vuldaroq.

'Get out!' shouted Denser. 'You have no idea what you are toying with, do you? No idea at all.' Denser sat back down in his chair.

'On the contrary, I think you'll find we have a very good idea indeed.' Vuldaroq stood for a while before shuffling out. Denser

listened to his heavy footsteps receding along the wood-panelled corridor. He unfolded the letter they hadn't even found, though it was barely hidden in Erienne's chambers. Denser had known it would be there, addressed to him. And he had known they wouldn't find it, just as she had. No instinct.

He read the letter again and sighed. Four and a half years it had been since they had all stood together on the fields of Septern Manse, and yet The Raven were the only people he could possibly trust to help him, depleted as they were. Erienne was gone and Thraun presumably still ran with the wolf pack in Thornewood. That left Hirad, with whom he had had a bad falling out a year before and no contact since, Ilkar who was working himself to an early grave in the ruins of Julatsa and, of course, the Big Man.

Denser managed a smile. He was still the lynchpin. And Denser could be in Korina in a little over two days if he flew all the way. A supper at The Rookery and a glass of Blackthorne red with The Unknown Warrior. A pleasant prospect.

He decided he would leave Dordover at first light, and turned to ring for a fire to warm Erienne's chambers. There was a great deal of work still to do. Denser's smile faded. The Dordovans would continue their search and he couldn't risk them finding Lyanna first. Not that that was very likely, given the contents of the letter, but he couldn't be certain. And without certainty, his daughter was at risk from the very people Erienne had turned to for help.

But there was something else too. Something serious nagging at him that he couldn't drag from his subconscious. It was to do with the awakening.

A strong gust of wind rattled the windows, almost over before it had come. Denser shrugged, switched his attention to the desk and began leafing carefully through its papers.

Korina was bustling. Trade had been excellent throughout the summer and the seasonal change had brought little diminishment, other than the falling numbers of itinerant travellers and workers, who had begun to take ship for the southern continent, following the heat.

After two years of rumours of more battles, increased taxation and Wesman invasion, following the end of the war, confidence was

returning to Korina's once-deserted docks and markets, with every trader seemingly determined to wring out every last ounce of profit. Market days were longer, more ships sailed in and out on every tide, day and night, and the inns, eateries and hostels hadn't seen such a boom since the halcyon days of the Korina Trade Alliance. And of course, out in the Baronial lands, the bickering had begun in earnest again and the mercenary trade was seeing a return to profitable days. But it was a trade without The Raven.

The Rookery, on the edge of Korina's central market, groaned at the seams from early dawn when the breakfast trade began, to late evening when the nightly hog roasts were reduced to so much bone and gristle on their spits.

The Unknown Warrior closed the door on the last of the night's drunks and turned to survey the bar, catching his reflection in one of the small pillar-mounted mirrors. The close-shaven head couldn't hide the spreading grey that matched his eyes, but the jaw was as strong as ever and the powerful physique under the white shirt and dark tan breeches was kept in peak condition by religious exercise. Thirty-eight. He didn't feel it but then he didn't fight any more. For good reason.

The watch had just called the first hour of the new day but it would be another two before he walked through his own front door. He hoped Diera was having a better night with young Jonas. The boy had a touch of colic and spent a good deal of the time grumbling.

He smiled as he moved back toward the bar on which Tomas had placed two steaming buckets of soapy water, cloths and a mop. His happiest times of the day were standing over his newborn son's crib at night and waking next to Diera with the sun washing through their bedroom window. He righted a stool before slapping his hands on the bar. Tomas appeared from beneadi it, a bottle of Southern Isles red-grape spirit and two shot glasses in his hands. He poured them each a measure. Completely bald now he had entered his fiftieth year, Tomas' eyes still sparkled beneath his brow and his tall frame was upright and healthy.

'Here's to another good night,' he said, handing The Unknown a glass.

'And to the wisdom of hiring those two extra staff. They've taken a weight off.'

The two men, friends for well over twenty years and co-owners of The Rookery for a good dozen, chinked glasses and drank. Just the one shot every night. It was the way and had become a token these last four or so years. Neither man would miss it after an evening's work together any more than they would give up breathing. It was, after all, to enjoy these moments of magnificently ordinary life that The Unknown had fought with The Raven for more than a decade. Shame then, that with the wisdom of hindsight, he knew they weren't enough.

The Unknown rubbed his chin, feeling the day's stubble rasp beneath his hand. He looked towards the door to the back room, painted with the Raven symbol and scarce used now.

'Got an itch, boy?' asked Tomas.

'Yes,' replied The Unknown. 'But not for what you think.'

'Really?' Tomas raised quizzical eyebrows. T never could see it, you know. You settling down and actually running this place with me forever.'

'Never thought I'd live, did you?' The Unknown hefted a bucket and cloth.

T never doubted it. But you're a traveller, Sol. A warrior. It's in your blood.'

The Unknown allowed only Tomas and Diera to use his true name, his Protector name, and even now when they did, it always gave him pause. It meant they were worried about something. And the truth was that he had never settled completely. There was still work to be done in Xetesk, to press for more research into freeing those Protectors that desired it. And aside from that, he had friends to see. Convenient excuses when he needed them and while his reasons still drove him, he couldn't deny that he sometimes tired of the endless routine and yearned to ride out with his sword strapped to his back. It made him feel alive.

It worried him too. What if he never wanted to settle? Surely his desire would fade to something more sedentary in the not too distant future. At least he didn't feel the urge to fight in a front line anymore and there was some comfort in that. And there had been offers. Lots of them.

He smiled at Tomas. 'Not any more. I'd rather mop than fight. All you risk is your back.'

'So what's the itch?'

'Denser's coming. I can feel it. Same as always.'

'Oh. When?' A frown creased Tomas' brow.

The Unknown shrugged. 'Soon. Very soon.'

Rhob, Tomas' son, appeared through the back door that led to the stables. In the last few years, the excitable youth had grown into a strong, level-headed young man. Glinting green eyes shone from a high-boned face atop which sat short-cropped brown hair. His muscular frame was the product of many years' physical labour around horses, saddles and carts and his good nature was a pure reflection of his father's.

'All in and secure?' asked Tomas.

'Yes indeed,' said Rhob, marching across to the bar to grab the other bucket and the large rag-headed mop. 'Go on, old man, you get off to bed, let the youngsters fix the place up.' His smile was broad, his eyes bright in the lamp light.

The Unknown laughed. 'It's a long time since I've been called a youngster.'

'It was a relative term,' said Rhob.

Tomas wiped the bar top and threw the cloth into the wash bucket. 'Well, the old man's going to take his son's advice. See you two around midday.'

'Good night, Tomas.'

' 'Night, Father.'

'All right,' said The Unknown. 'I'll take the tables, you the floor and fire.'

Just as they were into their stride, they were disturbed by an urgent knocking on the front doors. Rhob glanced up from his swabbing of the hearth. The Unknown blew out his cheeks.

'Reckon I know who this is,' he said. 'See if there's water for coffee will you, Rhob? And raid the cold store for a plate of bread and cheese.'

Rhob propped his mop in the corner and disappeared behind the bar. The Unknown shoved the bolts aside and pulled the door inwards. Denser all but fell into his arms.

'Gods, Denser, what the hell have you been doing?'

'Flying,' he replied, his eyes wild and sunken deep into his skull, his face white and freezing to the touch. 'Can you help me to somewhere warm? I'm a little chilly.'

'Hmm.' The Unknown supported the shivering Denser into the back room, dragged his chair in front of the unlit fire and dumped the mage into the soft upholstery. The room hadn't changed much. Against shuttered windows, the wooden feasting table and chairs lay shrouded beneath a white cloth. That table had seen celebration and tragedy, and it was a source of sadness that his abiding memory was of Sirendor Larn, Hirad's great friend, lying dead upon it, his body hidden by a sheet.

The Raven's chairs were still arrayed in front of the fire but every day The Unknown moved them so he could practise with his trademark double-handed sword in private. If there was one thing The Unknown's experience had taught him, it was that nothing in Balaian life was ever predictable.

Rhob pushed open the door and came in, carrying with one hand a steaming jug, mugs and a plate of food on a tray. In the other was a shovel, full of glowing embers. The Unknown took both from him with a nod of thanks.

'Don't worry, I'll clear up out front,' said Rhob.

'Thank you.'

'Is he all right?'

'Just a little cold,' said The Unknown but he knew there was more. He had seen pain in Denser's eyes and an exhaustion forced upon him by desperation.

He quickly lit the fire, pressed a mug of coffee into the mage's hands and placed the bread and cheese on a table within arm's reach. He sat in his own chair and waited for Denser to speak.

The Xeteskian looked terrible. Beard untrimmed, black hair wild where it protruded from his skull cap, face pale, bloodshot eyes ringed dark and lips tinged blue. His eyes fidgeted over the room, unable to settle, and he constandy fought to frame words but no sound came. He'd pushed himself to the limit and there was no beyond. Mana stamina was finite, even for mages of Denser's extraordinary ability, and a single miscalculation could prove fatal, particularly under ShadowWings.

The Unknown had felt a tie to Denser ever since his time as the

mage's Given during his lost days as a Protector. And looking at Denser now, he found he couldn't stay silent.

'I understand something's driven you to get here as fast as you can but killing yourself isn't going to help. Even you can't cast indefinitely.'

Denser nodded and lifted his mug to trembling lips, gasping as the hot liquid scalded his throat.

'I was so close. Didn't want to stop outside the City. We'd have lost another day.' His numbed lips stole the clarity from his words. He made to say more but instead coughed violently. The Unknown leaned in and grabbed the mug before he slopped coffee on his hands.

'Take your time, Denser. You're here now. I'll find you a bed when you need it. Be calm.'

'Can't be calm,' he said. 'They're after my girl. Erienne's taken her away. We've got to find her first or they'll kill her. God's, she's not evil. She's just a little girl. I need The Raven.'

The Unknown started. Denser's tumble of words had shaken him every which way. But it was the solution that troubled him almost as much as the problem. The Raven had disbanded. All their lives had moved on. Reformation was unthinkable.

'Think hard, Denser, and slow down. I need to hear this from the start.'

Night on the southern slopes of the Balan Mountains, half a day's ride from the largely rebuilt town of Blackthorne. The stars patterned the sky, moon casting wan light, keeping back full dark.

Hirad Coldheart tracked down the steep path, his movement all but silent. It was a path he could traverse blindfold if he had to but this time, speed and stealth were of the essence over the treacherous mud and smooth stone. Hunters were coming again and, like those that had come before, had to be stopped. Yet even if these latest fell as had all the others, Hirad knew that wouldn't put a stop to the stupidity.

Not many dared the task but the numbers were increasing, as was the complexity and technicality of their planning, as information on habits and strike points filtered through Balaia, falling on interested

ears. It sickened him but he understood what drove these men and women.

Greed. And the respect that would be afforded those first to bring back the ultimate hunter's prize. The head of a dragon. It was why he couldn't leave the Kaan even if he wanted to. Not that they were particularly vulnerable. But there was always the chance. Humans were nothing if not tenacious and ingenious; and this latest group marked another development.

Hirad still found it hard to conceive of minds that so quickly forgot the debt they owed the Kaan dragons; and it had been The Unknown who had put it in context when delivering word that the first attack was being prepared, after overhearing a drunken boast in The Rookery.

'You shouldn't be surprised, Hirad,' he'd said. 'Everything will ultimately have its price and there are those who will choose never to believe what the Kaan did for Balaia. And there are those who don't care. They only know the value of a commodity. Honour and respect reap no benefit in gold.'

The words had ignited Hirad's fury exactly as The Unknown had intended. It was what kept him sharp and one step ahead of the hunters. They had tried magic, poison, fire and frontal assault in their ignorance. Now they used what had been learned by the deaths and by the watchers. And for the first time, Hirad was worried.

A party of six hunters; three warriors, a mage and two engineers, was moving carefully and slowly into the foothills below the Choul, where the dragons lived. Their route had taken them away from any population that might have alerted Hirad sooner and they brought with them a crafted ballista, designed to fire steel-tipped wooden stakes.

Their plan was simple, as were all the best-laid. Unless Hirad was sorely in error, they planned to launch their attack this night, knowing the Kaan flew to hunt and feed under cover of darkness. The ballista would be positioned under a common flight path and it had the power to wound, and perhaps cripple with a lucky shot.

Hirad wasn't prepared to take the risk so descended to meet them before clearing the Kaan to fly. The hunters had made two mistakes in their plan. They hadn't factored Hirad into their thinking and

only one of their number was elven. They had placed themselves at the mercy of the night and would soon discover the night had none.

Hirad watched them through a cleft boulder. They were roughly thirty feet below him and a hundred yards distant. The barbarian was able to track their movement against the dull grey of the landscape by the hooded lantern they carried, the creaking of the ballista's wheels and the hoof-falls of the horses that pulled it.

They were nearing a small open space where, Hirad guessed, they planned to set up the ballista. The slope there was slight and a butt of rock provided an ideal anchor point. Hirad knew what had to be done.

Backing up a short distance, he moved right and down into a shallow ditch that ran parallel to the small plateau. With his eyes at plateau level, he crept along its edge and waited, poised, sword sheathed and both hands free.

The mage led the horses up the incline on the near side, a warrior overseeing their progress on the other. The two engineers walked behind the ballista with the final pair of hunters bringing up the rear.

Hirad could hear the horses breathing hard, their hooves echoing dully through mufflers tied around their feet. The wheels of the ballista creaked and scraped as it approached, despite constant oiling by the engineers, and the odd word of warning and encouragement filtered up the line.

Hirad readied himself. Just before it levelled out, the path became a steep ramp for perhaps twenty yards. It would be slippery after the day's showers. As the hunters approached it, they slowed, the mage out in front, hands on both sets of reins, urging the horses up.

'Keep it moving,' came a hiss from below, loud in the still night air.

'Gently does it,' said another.

The mage appeared over the lip. Hirad surged on to the plateau and dived for his legs, whipping them away. The mage crashed to the ground. Hirad was on him before he could shout and hammered a fist into his temple. The mage's head cracked against stone and he lay still.

Racing low around the front of the suddenly skittish horses, he pulled his sword from his scabbard. The warrior on their other side had only half turned at the commotion and was in no state to defend

himself. Hirad whipped his blade into the man's side and as he went down screaming, the barbarian leant in close.

'Believe me, you are the lucky one,' he rasped. Quieting the horses who had started to back up, he ran back to the ballista and slashed one of the harness ropes. The ballista shifted its weight and the horses moved reflexively to balance it, one whinnying nervously. Below him, four faces looked up in mute shock. Blades were drawn.

'I warned the last who came to tell the next that all they would find here is death. You chose not to listen.' He lashed at the other harness rope, splitting it at the second strike. The ballista rolled quickly down the ramp, scattering the hunters and gathering pace as it bounced over rock and tuft. A wheel sprang away and the main body ploughed left to plunge over the edge of the path, tumbling to its noisy destruction in a stand of trees some two hundred feet below.

Below the ramp, the hunters picked themselves to their feet, the engineers looking to the warriors for guidance.

'There's nothing they can do for you now,' said Hirad. It is safe, Great Kaam.

A shadow rose from the hills behind Hirad and swept down the path. It was enormous and the great beat of its wings fired the wind and from its mouth came a roar of fury. The hunters turned and ran but another shape took to the air over the path below them and a third joined it, herding them back towards Hirad.

The trio of dragons blotted out the stars, great bodies hanging in the sky, their united roars bouncing from the mountains around them, the echoes drawing cries of terror from the hunters now turned hunted. They huddled together, the dragons circling them, lazy beats of their wings flattening bush and grass and blowing dust into the air. Each one was over a hundred feet long, its size and power making a mockery of the pitiful band who had come to kill one. They were helpless and they knew it, staring into mouths that could swallow them whole, and imagining flame so hot it would reduce them to ashes.

'Please, Hirad,' mumbled one of the engineers, recognising him and fixing him with wide desperate eyes. 'We hear you now.'

'Too late,' said Hirad. 'Too late.'

Sha-Kaan powered in, his wings beating down and blowing the

hunters from their feet to sprawl beneath the gale. His long neck twisted and arrowed down, striking with the speed of a snake and snatching up a warrior in his mouth. And then he was gone into the sky, his speed incredible, his agility in the air breathtaking. He was impossibly quick for an animal his size and the hunters left on the ground gaped where they lay, too traumatised now even to think about getting back to their feet.

The man in Sha-Kaan's mouth didn't even cry out before his body was torn in two and spat from the huge maw, scattering blood and flesh. The Great Kaan barked his fury into the night, the sound rumbling away like distant thunder. Nos-Kaan soared high, then dived groundwards, the men below his gaping mouth screaming as he fell towards them. With a single beat of his wings, he stalled his speed, the down-draught sending the hunters rolling in the dust, their cries lost in the wind. He looked and struck as Sha had done, his victim crushed in an instant and dropped in front of his comrades.

And finally Hyn-Kaan. The Great Kaan's bark brought him low across the ground, a great dark shape in the starlight, his body scant feet from the rock, his head moving down very slightly to scoop his target into his mouth. He flicked his wings and speared into the heavens, a human wail filtering down, cut off, and followed by the sound of a body hitting rock.

Hirad licked suddenly dry lips. They had said they wanted revenge. And they had said they wanted men to know their power. Yet the elf at his feet was still unconscious and had seen nothing. Lucky for him. Hirad loved the Kaan and theirs was a bond that would not be broken by such violent death. Yet once again, he was reminded of the unbridgeable gulf between man and dragon. They were majesty, men their slaves if they so chose.

Hirad brought his attention back to the lone engineer, alive still and surrounded by the torn carcasses of his friends. He had soiled his breeches, liquid puddling around his boots where he crouched in abject terror of the three dragons circling above him. Sha-Kaan landed and grabbed him in one foreclaw, bringing him close to his jaws. The man wailed and gibbered.

Hirad turned to the mage, uncorked his waterskin and dumped its contents over the elven head. He gasped and choked, groaning his

pain. Hirad grabbed his collar and hauled him upright, a dagger at his throat.

'Even think of casting and you'll die. You aren't quick enough to beat me, understand?' The mage nodded. 'Good. Now watch and learn.'

Sha-Kaan drew the hapless engineer even closer. 'Why do you hunt us?' he asked, his breath billowing the man's hair. He tried to reply but no words came, only a choked moan. 'Answer me, human.' The engineer paddled his legs helplessly in the air, his hands pressing reflexively against the claws he could never hope to shift.

'The chance to live comfortably forever,' he managed. T didn't realise. I meant you no harm. I thought…'

Sha-Kaan snorted. 'No harm. You thought us mindless reptiles. And to kill me or one of my Brood was, what does Hirad call it? Yes, "sport". Different now, is it? Now you know us able to think?'

The engineer nodded before stammering. 'I'll n-never d-do it again. I swear.'

'No indeed you will not,' said Sha-Kaan. 'And I do hope your fortunate companion pays careful attention.'

'My fortun-?' The engineer never got to finish his question. Sha-Kaan gripped the top of his skull with a broad foreclaw and crushed it like ripe fruit, the wet crack echoing from the rock surrounding them.

Hirad felt the mage judder and heard him gasp. His legs weakened but the barbarian kept him upright. Sha-Kaan dropped the twitching corpse and turned his eyes their way, the piercing blue shining cold in the darkness.

'Hirad Coldheart, I leave you to complete the message.' The Great Kaan took flight and led his Brood out to the hunt.

Hirad stood holding the mage, letting the terrified elf take in the slaughter around him. He could feel the man quivering. The smell of urine entered his nostrils and Hirad pushed him away.

'You're living because I chose you to live,' he said, staring into the elf s sheet-white face. 'And you know the word you are to put around. No one who comes here after the Kaan will succeed in anything but their own quick death. Dragons are not sport and they

are more powerful than you can possibly imagine. You understand that, don't you?'

The mage nodded. 'Why me?'

'What's your name?' demanded Hirad.

'Y-Yeren,' he stammered.

'Julatsan aren't you?'

Another nod.

'That's why you. Ilkar is short of mages. You're going to the College and you'll put out the word from there. Then you'll stay there and help him in any way he sees fit. If I hear that you have not, nowhere will be safe for you. Not the pits of hell, not the void. Nowhere. I will find you and I'll be bringing friends.' Hirad jerked a thumb up into the mountains.

'Now get out of my sight. And don't stop running until Ilkar says you can. Got it?'

A third nod. Hirad turned and strode away, the sound of running feet bringing a grim smile to his lips.

Chapter 2

' The last few days had been the most tranquil and relaxing period of Krienne's remarkable life. They had been the days aboard ship when she knew that she had escaped the fetters of the Colleges at long last. Not just Dordover, all of them. And in the calm, late summer waters of the Southern Ocean, with the temperature rising to a beautiful dry warmth, she and Lyanna had finally been able to rest and let go the cares of what had gone by and think on what was to come.

Looking back, the voices in her head had become so regular they had seemed a part of her. Urging her to leave and be with them. She recalled the night her decision had been made. Another night in Dordover, another nightmare for Lyanna. One too many as it t urned out.

Dordover. Where the Elder Council of the College of Magic had taken her in after she had left Xetesk. Where they had treated her with a mixture of awe and disdain over her chequered recent past. And where her daughter's extraordinary gifts had been nurtured and researched by mages whose nervousness outweighed their excitement.

In the year the Dordovans had tried to help, they had produced nothing Erienne had not already known or that she and Denser hadn't guessed. The fact was that Lyanna was beyond their introverted comprehension. They could no more develop her talents safely than they could teach a rat to fly.

One magic, one mage.

The Dordovan elders hated that mantra and hated the fact that Erienne believed in it so fervently. It went against the core beliefs that drove Dordovan independence. And yet, at first, they had taken on Lyanna's training with great dedication. Maybe now they were

aware of the scope of her abilities, it was affecting their desire or, more likely, they felt threatened by it.

But the whole time someone had understood. Someone powerful. And their voices had spoken in her head and, she knew it, in Lyanna's. Supporting her, feeding her belief, keeping her sane and calming her temper. Urging her to accept what they offered – the knowledge and power to help.

And then had come that particular night. She had realised then that, not only could the Dordovans no longer help Lyanna, their fumbling attempts were putting her at risk. They couldn't free her from the nightmares and she was no longer being allowed the space to develop; her frustration at being kept back would inevitably lead to disaster. She was so young, she wouldn't understand what she was unleashing. Even now her temper wasn't long in the fraying; and in that she was very much her mother's daughter. So far, she hadn't channelled her anger into magic but that time would come unless she learned the boundaries of what she possessed.

The nightmare had set Lyanna screaming, her shrill cries scaring Erienne more than ever before. She had cradled the trembling, sweat-soaked child while she calmed, and knew things had to change. She remembered their conversation as if it had just occurred.

'It's all right. Mummy's here. Nothing can harm you.' Erienne had wiped Lyanna's face with the kerchief from her sleeve, fighting to calm her thrashing heart.

T know, Mummy.' The little girl had clung to her. 'The darkness monsters came but the old women chased them away.'

Erienne had ceased her rocking.

'The who, Lyanna?'

'The old women. They will always save me.' She had snuggled closer. 'If I'm near them.'

Erienne smiled, her mind made up for her.

'Go back to sleep, sweet,' she had said, resting her back on her pillow and smoothing her hair down. 'Mummy has some things to do in the study. Then perhaps we can go on a little trip away.'

'Night, Mummy.'

'Good night, darling.' Erienne had turned to go and had heard Lyanna whisper something as she reached the door. She'd turned

back but Lyanna wasn't speaking to her. Eyes closed, her daughter was drifting back towards what, Gods willing, would be a calmer sleep, free of nightmares. She had whispered again and, that time, Erienne caught the half-sung words and heard the little giggle as if she were being tickled.

'We're co-ming. We're co-ming.'

Their night-time flight from Dordover soon after still made Erienne shudder, and her memories were of anxiety, fear and the perpetual proximity to failure; though it was now clear that they had never really been in great danger of capture. Eight days in a carriage driven by a silent elven driver preceded their uncomfortable three days in Thornewood. At the time she'd thought that ill-conceived but it had become obvious since that the Guild elves had left very little to chance. There followed a final urgent carriage ride south and east towards Aden before they had taken ship and her cares had eased effortlessly away.

The ship, Ocean Elm, was a tri-masted cutter, just short of one hundred feet from bowsprit to rudder. Sleek and narrow, she was built for speed, her cabin space below decks cramped but comfortable enough. Kept spodessly clean by a crew of thirty elves, Ocean Elm was an attractive ship and felt sturdy underfoot, her dark-brown stained timbers preserved against the salt water and her masts strong but supple.

Erienne, whose experience of ocean sailing was very limited, felt immediately comfortable, and their firm but kind treatment by the busy crew helped the air of security. In their off-duty moments, they delighted in Lyanna's company, the little girl wide-eyed in wonder at their antics on deck, juggling oranges, tumbling, singing and dancing. For her part, Erienne was glad for a while to be somewhere other than the centre of attention.

And so they had rested, drinking in the fresh air, the complex smells of ship and sea, and seeing their guides at last smile as Balaia was left behind them. Ren'erei, their erstwhile driver, had found her voice and introduced her brother, Tryuun. Tryuun had done little more than bow his similarly cropped black hair and flash his deep brown eyes, the left of which, Erienne noted, had a fixed pupil and was heavily bloodshot. The socket around it too, was scarred and she

was determined to ask Ren'erei about it before they reached their destination.

Her opportunity came late one night, four days into the voyage. Supper was over and the cook pots had been stowed, though the ship's carefully netted fires still glimmered. Above them, the sails were full, the wind chasing up cloud to cover the stars. Lyanna was asleep in her bunk and Erienne was leaning on a railing, watching the water speed by beneath them, imagining what might be swimming just below its surface. She heard someone walk to stand near her and looked along to see Ren'erei mimicking her stance.

'Mesmeric, isn't it?' she said.

'Beautiful,' agreed the young elf. She was tanned deeply from a life around the Southern Continent, Calaius, her jet black hair cropped close to her head and into the nape of her neck. She was young, with angled green eyes, leaf-shaped ears sweeping up the sides of her head, and proud, high-boned cheeks. She was standing a few feet away and in the dark her eyes sparkled as they caught the stars' reflection off the water.

'How long until we get there?' asked Erienne,

She shrugged. 'If the winds stay fair, we should see the Ornouth Archipelago before sundown. Then it's a couple of days to shore, no more.'

'And where is "there"? Assuming you can tell me now, that is.' Erienne had been persistent in her questioning during their carriage ride but had learned nothing of any consequence whatever.

Ren'erei smiled. 'Yes, I can tell you now,' she said. 'It is an island deep inside the archipelago, which we call Herendeneth, which means "endless home" in your language. I don't know if it has a common name. There are over two thousand islands in the Ornouth, many not even on a map. To chart the whole area would be the job of more than one lifetime, which is to our benefit. Herendeneth isn't much to look at from the sea, I'm afraid, all cliff and black rock where so many are all sand, lagoons and trees; but it serves our purpose.'

'Sounds lovely,' said Erienne drily.

'Don't get me wrong, it's beautiful inland. But if you want to get there you have to know the way. The reefs show no mercy.'

'Oh, I see.'

'You don't, but you will.' Ren'erei chuckled. 'None can reach us that don't know the channel.'

'They can fly.'

'It is just barren from the sky, though appearances are deceptive.'

'Got it all sewn up, I see,' said Erienne, her natural scepticism surfacing.

'For three hundred years and more now, yes,' returned Ren'erei. She paused and Erienne could feel the elf studying her face. 'You miss him, don't you?'

Ren'erei's words startled her but there it was. However subconsciously, she'd held out the hope that Denser would be able to follow them eventually but now… Gods falling, he wasn't a sailor and with the island's identity apparently disguised from the air as well… she supposed she shouldn't be surprised.

But the truth was, she felt isolated, away from everything she knew and she missed him despite the delight that was Lyanna. She missed his touch, the sound of his voice, the feel of his breath on her neck, the strength he brought to everything he did and the support lie showed her so unflinchingly, despite their long separations. And though she knew her decision had been right, the unknowables gnawed at her confidence and spoke of unseen dangers for her daughter. Denser would shore her up. They would shore each other up, only he wasn't here and she had to dig deep into her considerable reserves of strength to keep believing.

Ren'erei helped. She was a friendly face. Respectful and understanding. Erienne made a note to keep her as close as she could for as long as she could. The Gods only knew what she would face on Herendeneth.

'You know we would welcome him but there are others who have less sound motives for wanting to find us besides those who have already tried,' she continued, sparing her the need to answer. 'They hunt us day and night and have done so for more than ten years. They and their enemies would all see us fall.'

Erienne frowned. It didn't make sense. Surely the Dordovans were the only ones who pursued them still.

'Who?'

'Witch Hunters,' said Ren'erei. 'Black Wings.'

The strength went from Erienne's legs and she sagged down,

clutching at the rail. With astonishing swiftness, Ren'erei moved across the deck and caught her. Erienne couldn't find the words to thank her. Her pulse was pounding in her throat, the blood roaring in her ears, her mind releasing the memories she'd buried so carefully years before.

She saw it all again. Tasted the atmosphere of the Black Wings' casde, the stench of fear in her twin boys' room, the hideous torture of separation from the sons she loved and the sneer of Captain Travers, the leader of the Witch Hunters. Again and again she saw the blood from their slit throats spattered over the bed clothes, their faces and the walls. Her boys. Her beautiful boys. Slaughtered for a risk they didn't pose, by men who were terrified of magic because they could not understand it. Again, she felt their loss, just like it was yesterday, just like every day.

And the Black Wings hadn't been destroyed despite everything she and The Raven had done. They hadn't been destroyed and now they hunted that which was most pure. Lyanna.

'No, no, no,' she whispered. 'Not again.'

T am a fool and I'm sorry,' said Ren'erei, wiping a tear from Erienne's face while she clutched the elf s forearm. 'It was wrong to tell you that. We know what you lost to them and we have grieved. But you have to know so that you can understand that you will be safe with us where you weren't before, not even inside the walls of your College. Tryuun has suffered at their hands. You have seen his face. He escaped their torture but not without cost. But one day we will finish the Black Wings. Finish what The Raven began.'

'But they are finished,' mumbled Erienne, searching her eyes for the lie. 'We destroyed their castle.'

Ren'erei shook her head. 'No. One escaped the castle and others have joined him to raise the banner again in the wake of the Wesmen withdrawal. Selik.'

'Selik is dead,' said Erienne. She pushed away from Ren'erei, moving to sit on a crate lashed to the deck, nausea sweeping her stomach. T killed him myself.' Ren'erei stood.

'Tell that to Tryuun,' she said solemnly. 'Selik is disfigured, almost unrecognisable to look at, but his manner is all too easy to recall. The left-hand side of his face is cold and dead and his eye droops toward it, blind forever. His hair was scorched in the flame

and he bears the scars of many burns, but his strength of arm remains. He is a dangerous adversary and he knows a great deal about us. More than any man living.'

'So kill him.' Erienne's voice reflected the cold dread she felt inside though the night was warm. 'He can't be hard to spot.'

'But we have to find him first. Tryuun escaped him ten weeks ago and we haven't heard of him since. But we will and this time there will be more of us, I promise.' She crouched in front of Erienne who looked into those ocean-deep green eyes. Her smile had returned. 'He can't follow us here. No one can. You are safe, Erienne. You and Lyanna. No one can harm you on Herendeneth.'

She knew Ren'erei was right but the shock of her words kept Krienne from sleep that night. Irrational fears drifted across her tired mind, snapping her to heart-thumping wakefulness whenever she drifted close to its embrace.

Denser was still in Balaia, heedless of the danger that lurked somewhere in its borders. Dear Ilkar too. Both had borne torture at the hands of Black Wings once. That some had survived and would repeat the horror sickened her. Perhaps Selik's disappearance meant they had somehow infiltrated the crew on board. Perhaps when they reached Herendeneth, all that would greet them would be death. Black Wings were everywhere in her imagination and each one had a dagger with which to slit a helpless child's throat…

The Ornouth Archipelago appeared out of the haze of the setting sun the next day, a string of islands that looked almost as one so far as the eye could see in either direction. Through a thin bank of cloud, the sun cast red light across the archipelago, bathing land and sea in a warm radiance.

Erienne and Lyanna stood at the prow of the Ocean Elm, drinking in the splendour as the islands became gradually more distinct, with what they thought at first sight to be mountains on one island, resolving themselves as belonging to entirely another.

From tiny rock atolls, jutting from the sea like fists grabbing at the air, to great swathes of white sand, miles long, the Ornouth swept west to east, a tail off the northern coast of Calaius, beautiful but treacherous. Saddled with hidden reefs, beneath even the calmest waters, the power lurked to rip the bottom from any ship

and Erienne could feel tension begin to grow among the sailors as they neared the oudying islands.

It was small wonder the archipelago hadn't been mapped. The journey to the island closest to the southern mainland couldn't be risked in anything smaller than an ocean-going vessel, and with shallow-draught boats the only way to be confident of charting the myriad central islands, it would truly be a labour of love. Unsurprisingly, much of what lay deep inside Ornouth was uncharted and, to a large extent, untouched.

The Ocean Elm cut confidently across the sea towards the outer islands but as they approached close enough to make out individual trees bordering the beaches, and boulders on the shingle, the tension reached a new level.

From the wheel deck, the first mate rattled out a series of orders that had elves scurrying to the sheets and up into the masts. Much of the sail was furled, leaving only the jib and forward mast topsail to drive the ship. And all those not engaged in rig work leant over the sides or swung plumb lines to measure the fast-varying depth. The skipper steered a course between two islands, keeping very close to the one where a shelf led to deep water just offshore.

With the passengers ignored, the crew waited, tensed, reacting immediately to every quarter turn of the wheel, every order to trim or loose the sails, while a constant stream of calls echoed back from the prow as sailors scoured the water in front of them or measured the depth again and again.

The ship crawled along the channel. Erienne noticed long poles stowed beneath the gunwales and it didn't take much imagination to understand what they were for. She never wanted to see them wielded. Not a word was spoken that wasn't directly relevant to the task at hand and the taut expression on the face of every sailor told its own story about their proximity to disaster, despite their obvious experience.

It was an hour of careful travel before they rounded the port-side island and hove-to in a wide channel from where the horizon in every direction was studded with islands. The crew stood down, the light failing quickly, and soon the smells of cooking filled Erienne's nose while somewhere, a flute was playing softly. Hardly daring to move, Erienne and Lyanna shifted where they sat on the netted and

tied crates, not part of the relief the crew shared. Ren'erei came over to them, carrying mugs of tea for them both.

'We're stopped for the night. Only a madman would risk the channels to Herendeneth in darkness. We're hidden from the ocean and few could follow us even this far. You have no wish to know how close our hull came to the reef and it will be no better at first light.'

Erienne accepted the tea and watched a while as Lyanna cupped her hands around her mug, breathing in the fresh herb fragrance.

'But surely you've sailed this stretch before?' she asked eventually.

Ren'erei nodded. 'But sand shifts and reefs grow. Eventually the course of channels change. You can't be too careful and there must always be passage. Our charts change almost with every voyage. Never by much, but enough to keep us alert.'

'Will we make land tomorrow?' asked Erienne.

'I want to walk on the sand!' announced Lyanna abruptly, taking a sip of her tea. The young elf smiled and shook her head.

'No sand where we are going, my princess,' she said. 'Not tomorrow. But one day, I'll take you to the sand, I promise.'

Erienne saw the warmth in Ren'erei's eyes.

'Do you have children?' Erienne smoothed Lyanna's hair. The child pulled away slighdy, concentrating on her drink. It was easy to forget the depth to which her mind already ran and the power that was harboured there.

'No,' said Ren'erei. 'Though I'd love to. My duties take me away from the attentions of males, but it won't be forever.'

'You'll make a fine parent,' said Erienne.

'For now I can only hope so,' said the elf. 'But thank you.'

The night passed quietly, the crew savouring whatever rest they could get, acutely aware of the rigours dawn would bring. The Ocean Elm set sail again in the cool of early sunrise and Erienne had woken to the feel of the ship underway, albeit slowly, and the curious quiet that held sway as they moved through the narrow channel that led inexorably to Herendeneth and the voices that had urged them to their journey.

Washing and dressing quickly in a pair of pale brown breeches, a wool shirt and leather jerkin supplied by Ren'erei, Erienne had taken to the deck, pausing to frown at her daughter's slumbering form.

Normally a bundle of energy that rose with the dawn, Lyanna had slept more and more every day of their voyage and Erienne couldn't help but feel that it was sleep not entirely under her control. But on the other hand, she was refreshed and bright when she awoke, and her calm acceptance of the uprooting of everything she had known was pure blessing.

Up on deck, Erienne returned to her position of yesterday, soaking up a watery sun that shone through a thickening cloud bank. The wind was brisk but even and the Ocean Elm made slow and steady progress through the archipelago.

Throughout an anxious day, they crawled between islands. An idyllic lagoon setting would give way to a scatter of lifeless rock fists or a sweeping volcanic atoll, its ridges obscured by cloud. Up in the rigging, the crew stood waiting as they had yesterday, ready to reef or unfurl sail on barked command, and the jib was slackened any time the wind picked up pace.

The threat beneath the waves removed the romance of this final leg of the voyage, and though Erienne never ceased to marvel at the sheer scale and beauty of Ornouth, she couldn't help but feel they were somehow unwelcome. A paradise of tranquillity it might be but, lurking close by, a sense of malevolence. The Ocean Elm was here under sufferance and failure to show respect would be met with the dread sound of reef ripping through timber.

In the middle of the afternoon, with the cloud blowing away to leave a blanket of blue sky, the temperature rose as the wind dropped. Lyanna, who had joined Erienne late in the morning, scrambled to her feet, using Erienne's back to steady her as she peered forward intently.

'What is it, sweet?' asked Erienne.

'We're here,' said Lyanna, her voice soft and almost inaudible above the creaking of spars and the gentle bow wave that ran past the ship. Erienne looked too. The captain had been holding the Ocean Elm on a starboard tack, taking the ship past a sweeping sandy beach at the back of which cliffs soared hundreds of feet into the air, giving a home to thousands of sea birds whose calls surrounded them.

Skirting the edge of the island, the ship turned slowly to run down a channel barely more than three ship's widths across. Bleaker

cliffs towered above them on both sides now, closing in above their heads, the shrill cries of gulls echoing down to them from where they circled high above or sat on precariously sited nests.

But it was at the end of the channel that Lyanna stared, because closing with every passing heartbeat was Herendeneth. Like the cliffs by which they passed, the island was dominated by a sheer rock face that scaled many hundreds of feet into the afternoon sky. And slowly revealed was a shore from which spears of stone protruded and cliffs tumbled down to the sea, the scattering of huge boulders evidence of ancient tumultuous movement.

Moving steadily down the widening channel, the Ocean Elm was silent once more. Herendeneth reached out with an aura that demanded reverence and quiet contemplation. Any sailor not tending sails or wheel, dropped briefly to one knee with bowed head, touching the centre of his forehead with his right index finger.

'You are here, Lyanna,' said Ren'erei. Erienne started; she hadn't heard the elf approach. 'Soon you will be standing with the Al-Drechar.'

The name sent shivers down Erienne's spine. Al-Drechar was a name written in legend and ancient texts. They were the holders of the faith, the guardians of true magic. They were the Keepers of the One. There had never been any doubt that a substantial sect had survived the Sundering, the cataclysmic battles that had seen four Colleges emerge from the ruins of the one that had previously dominated Balaian magic. But that had been over two thousand years before and they were assumed to have died out as time passed and peace returned to Balaia. All that was heard were rumours, explained away by the clashing of charged mana or the unpredictability of nature.

Yet the idea that descendants of the One had survived had never been conclusively disproved and through the centuries, enough mages had been strong enough to state their beliefs and perpetuate what had appeared at best a myth.

Now, Erienne knew different. She knew. And in a while, she would physically meet with those who many dreamed still lived, but more prayed were dead.

'How many are there?' she asked.

'Only four remain,' replied Ren'erei. 'Your daughter truly

represents the last hope for furtherance of our cause.' She placed a hand on Lyanna's head who looked up and smiled, though a frown chased it quickly away.

'Are they dying then?' Erienne asked.

'They are very old,' replied the elf. 'And they've been waiting for you a long time. They couldn't have waited too much longer.'

Erienne noticed tears standing in Ren'erei's eyes.

'What will we find there?' she mused, not really expecting an answer.

'Peace, goodness, purity. Age.' She looked into Erienne's eyes and the mage saw desperation burning in those of the elf. 'They can't be allowed to fade uselessly. I and the Guild, we've watched them grow steadily weaker over the years. She must be the one.'

'She is,' said Erienne, Ren'erei's fervour unsettling her. Lyanna felt it too and had leant against her mother. She was gazing again at the island that would be her home for the Gods only knew how long.

'Tell me, Ren'erei, how many of you serve them? The Al-Drechar, that is.'

'We are few. Forty-three in all, but our sons and daughters will carry on the work until we are not needed any more, one way or another. We've served them for generations, ever since the Sundering, but the honour is undiminished.' She stood tall, pride on her face. 'We are the Guild of Drech and we will not falter until our service is fulfilled. All else is secondary.' She turned from Erienne and looked towards Herendeneth, touching index finger to forehead as she bowed.

The ship dropped anchor about a quarter of a mile off the bleak northern coast of the island. Only the most tenacious of vegetation clung to the towering rock wall ahead of them and waves raced into crash against hard stone. In the sky, a few birds circled, their calls lost in the breeze.

Immediately they were stationary, the crew began unlashing the three long boats and lowering them into the water. Scrambling-nets and ladders followed, and a brief flurry of activity saw luggage and supplies passed swiftly down to be securely fastened to two of the craft. Each boat took four oarsmen and a skipper. Erienne was invited to climb down a ladder while Lyanna sat on Tryuun's broad

shoulders, very quiet and pale, as the elf descended swiftly to the boat that would carry them ashore.

The crews pulled away strongly, heading for a shore apparently barren of landing sites. But rounding a spit hidden from shipboard view, they beached on a narrow stretch of shingle, away from which a path climbed up and disappeared through a cleft in the rocks. Ren'erei helped Erienne and Lyanna out of the boat, smiling as they skipped through the cold shallows to escape the water and joining them as they stared down, wet above their knees.

'Not far now,' she said. 'Just one last climb. The crew will bring up all your things.'

The path was well kept, its steps long, carefully carved and shallow in the rise, and it wound up in a deliberately gende incline overlooked by birch trees.

Looking back down the stairway, Erienne could see the scope of the illusion. This was no harsh rock island. True, the landing points were difficult and crowded with reefs, but the height of any cliff had been hugely exaggerated. And beyond the shore line, the island rolled gracefully up to a low pinnacle through tumbledown rock and rich green forest under which the heat of the day was captured. Away from the sea breeze, the air was humid and Erienne felt sweat beading and running all over her body.

Beside her, Lyanna trotted along, clutching her doll in one hand, humming to herself, her face intent.

'Are you all right, darling?' Erienne trailed a hand across Lyanna's head.

'Yes,' she affirmed. 'Will you do the walking song again?'

Erienne smiled. 'If you like.' She held out her hand and Lyanna gripped it tightly. 'Here we go,' Erienne said, changing to a shorter stride.

'I step with my right foot, And the left follows on. If I do it once again, Then the journey soon is done. If I don't move my left foot, Then the right one gets away. If I don't move my right foot, Then just here is where we'll stay.'

Repeating the words over and over while they stepped and double-stepped, Erienne couldn't help but blush as she caught Ren'erei and Tryuun watching her over their shoulders. Both elves were smiling and as they turned back, Ren'erei mimicked the double steps the song demanded.

'One day, it'll be your turn,' said Erienne, joining in their laughter.

Lyanna skipped up to the elf and took her hand.

'You're not doing it right. Mummy, sing it again.'

'Just once more, then,' said Erienne. 'Pay attention, Ren'erei.' And while she sang, she watched her daughter, carefree, giggling at Ren'erei's attempts to mimic the steps, and wished fervently that Lyanna had been born without the burden she carried. And with that, came guilt. Because Erienne had planned it to be this way. And though it was a great thing they were trying to do, before they achieved their goal, there was so much hardship to come. And Lyanna, of course, had no choice in the matter. Erienne already grieved for the childhood she was to lose.

Lyanna let go of Ren'erei's hand and trotted on, warbling a vague approximation of Erienne's walking tune. She turned out of sight, around a corner of the tree-lined path a few yards ahead. Erienne had upped her pace the moment she heard the song falter. And by the time Lyanna's scream had split the air, she was moving at a run.

Chapter 3

Four years after the last Wesmen had withdrawn, the College city of Julatsa had returned to something like its old self, with one significant difference.

Ilkar stood on one of the few undamaged sections of College wall and turned a full circle, his shoulder-length black hair drifting in the light breeze. On the city's borders, the Wesmen's wooden fortifications had long been stripped away to use in rebuilding homes, businesses, municipal offices and the scores of shops and inns burned and demolished by the invaders during their brief occupation. Original stone was much in evidence, bearing the scarring and scorches of war. The populace, scattered or enslaved, had flooded back once the Wesmen departed and the destroyed city now glowed with energy again, the people bringing with them the pulse of life.

Ilkar shook his head slightly at some of the new architecture. The kindest word to describe much of it was 'enthusiastic'. Yet no one could deny the energy that the rash of twisted spires, white stone domes and flying buttresses exuded. They had been built with tremendous verve but Ilkar couldn't help but wonder what those builders thought now.

Their desire and that, perhaps misplaced, enthusiasm had run out at the gates of the College. It hadn't started that way. In the immediate aftermath of Wesmen withdrawal, the devastated College had been the city's focus as it struggled to come to terms with its trauma. There had been a recognition of the scale of violence visited on the College and in the early months, new building work had forged ahead. Quarters, administration, kitchens and refectory, a long room, the old quadrangle and a library – sadly empty but for a few of Septern's texts, brought there by Ilkar himself following the closing of the Noonshade rip – had appeared from the rubble.

But the job was enormous and, as more Julatsans returned to the city, attention turned quite rightly to its infrastructure. The trouble was that with life able to begin again, it was easy to turn away from the College and forget the work that was still needed there.

Ilkar couldn't. His circle ended with a view down over the new library. He couldn't argue with the quality of what had been done but it left them so far from having a functional college. And vital to it was the building that should occupy the black, scarred, jagged hole, three hundred feet wide, that dominated the centre of the College.

The Tower.

Ilkar knew that what lay below scared the city builders and tradesmen. Gods, it scared him sometimes, but for him it was the enormity the crater represented that was the fear. At its base, covered by an impenetrable black mist, lay the Heart. Buried as Julatsa fell, by Barras, the old elf Negotiator, and a team of senior mages, its raising was critical to the College's return to power.

So much knowledge lay within. Not just key magical texts but, of greater immediate importance, plans and blueprints. Until the Heart was raised, they could not rebuild the Tower, ManaBowl, Cold Room or recovery chambers among others. And until he had enough mages, he couldn't hope to raise the Heart.

Ilkar sat down on the parapet and let his legs swing. There was the nub of the crisis. Hammering echoed up to him. New paint sparkled in the sun under the clear blue sky, its odour fresh in his nostrils. Wood dust covered the stone flags that had been awash with so much blood.

But it would never be finished. There weren't enough Julatsan mages to cast the necessary magic. Gods in the ground, there was barely enough experience to form a council but he'd done it anyway, just to give the place some structure. He didn't particularly want to take on the role of High Mage but there was no other figurehead and at least his reputation with The Raven earned him respect and weight in negotiations.

He'd had to put out wider calls for mages. There had to be Julatsans scattered across the continents, those like himself who rarely visited the College but who owed their lives to it nonetheless. He'd even sent word into the Southern Continent of Calaius, to the

elven homelands where so many Julatsan elves had returned over the years, bleeding Balaia of a crucial resource. The Gods knew what the state of their magic would be. Ilkar only hoped their Julatsan Lore training hadn't lapsed with the passing of time. It was becoming increasingly clear that he needed them badly.

Tlkar!' called a voice from below. He leaned forward. Pheone, her brown hair tied up in a bun and her long young face smeared with dust and sweat, looked up at the parapet, her green dress flapping gently at her ankles. She was a fine mage but inexperienced, and lucky to be alive after surviving the rout of the Dordovan relief column during the siege of Julatsa at the height of the war.

'How's it going?' he asked.

'The cladding on the long room is complete. A few of us thought we'd run a test. Release a little pent-up emotion, if you know what I mean. Care to join us?'

Ilkar chuckled. He hadn't cast an offensive spell in four years. He flexed his fingers and hauled himself to his feet.

'I don't mind if I do,' he said. He brushed stone chips from his tan breeches and the dark leather jerkin that covered his fawn shirt and headed for the stairway.

A feeling of energy caused him to look up at the sky. A bolt of lightning, pale as straw and angry, arced in the unbroken blue heavens, its report echoing dully in his ears. Another flash, and then a third, broke the peace of the day. He frowned at the repetition of the startling and worrying sight.

Ilkar descended the stairs, resolving to mention the subject over supper. Someone, he expected, could provide an explanation.

The Unknown Warrior sat in a chair beside the sleeping form of Jonas. The boy had spent a quieter night than his father, who had come home not long before dawn. And though he had slipped into bed next to Diera to try to grab what little sleep he could, his mind had churned over Denser's words, and kept him from his dreams. Shortly after Diera had risen in response to Jonas' cries, to feed and comfort him until he slept again, The Unknown had ceased his endless turning and come to sit in the calm of Jonas' room to give his wife the chance of uninterrupted rest. And sat he had, while the sun rose above the horizon to cast cool

light over Korina, listening to the gentle breathing of his six-week-old son, still bearing the after-effects of the slight cold that had given way to his touch of colic. He was a strong boy and The Unknown was glad of his brushes with illness; they would benefit him in later years much as they had his father.

Watching Jonas squirming as he fought to change position, his little hands pushing at the soft white blanket that covered him to the top of his chest, he felt both a stab of fear and a kinship with Denser that no man without a child could fully understand. He didn't even have to ask himself how he would feel if it had been his child that had disappeared, with or without its mother. And he didn't have to ask himself what he would expect from his friends should that happen.

But going with the Xeteskian mage, as he had to, carried the risk that he wouldn't see his wife and his own son again. And he would be breaking his promise to Diera – that The Raven would never ride with him at its head.

The Unknown sighed and read again the letter Denser had given him, looking forlornly for clues as to what had him so worried.

My Dear Husband,

I know this letter finds you unopened because the eyes of the Dordovan Council are blind to all that is most apparent. I have been feeling for some time that the masters here are failing Lyanna and her health is at risk from the mana she attracts but cannot properly control.

She misses you terribly at times but seems to understand that you cannot be here, without fully grasping why. One day, I hope we can tell her together but perhaps that is asking too much.

I expect you're wondering by now where we have gone and why I did not contact you by Communion with my increasing worries, but it is difficult when you are removed from the day-to-day life of our beautiful child. Besides, this is something that we must do alone, without the council of those who might deflect us from our path. Lyanna knows it. I know it too.

Right now, I can imagine your anger. I knew the Dordovan Council would hide my leaving from you. My only regret is that I am not there to see you humbling Vuldaroq. Please understand that only I

can accompany her – to involve you would have exposed as all to danger.

I want you to know that we are protected and going to a place where Lyanna can learn in safety the craft for which she was born, and still enjoy being the delightful little girl she is becoming, more so every day. There are those who understand her talent and wish to nurture it. I have felt them – they are benevolent minds and Lyanna is very happy at the prospect of meeting them. I think that we can help them too; they do sound old and frail despite their power.

I can barely contain my excitement now. I think we have found those we so fervently hoped were still alive. Or rather, they found us. It will be a long journey and not without its risks but please don't worry about us.

I will send word as soon as I can and when Lyanna is settled, perhaps we can meet again. For now, I must say goodbye. We have both shed tears at the thought of how long we might be apart from you but it will be for the best for us all.

Lyanna will be the first true mage, I know it now. And that means we can begin to build a better future for us all.

Wish me luck and love. One magic, one mage.

Tours forever, Erienne.

Something in that text had bothered Denser more than mere worry at the journey Erienne had determined to make with their daughter. And it had to do with the Dordovans' apparently urgent desire to find them and return them to the College. Denser was anxious to meet up with Ilkar, with all of The Raven but Ilkar most of all, and The Unknown had had to order him to rest.

And now the new day was full and Korina swarmed with life. There was much to be done and while The Unknown couldn't help the thrill that coursed through him, he hadn't the faintest idea how They would find one mage and her young child in this huge world. All they had was a letter, a starting point and a vague hinting of ancient magic he had neither heard of before nor understood. But if Denser thought it was important, The Unknown wouldn't question it. Gods, how they could do with Thraun; but Thraun was lost to them all.

He stood over the crib and smoothed a wisp of blond hair from Jonas' face before leaning in to kiss his pale forehead.

'I won't be away long, little one. Look after your mother for me.' He straightened and faced the door. Diera stood there, wearing a loose-tied bodice and a blue working skirt. Her fair hair tumbled across her face but it didn't hide her expression. The Unknown walked to her, making to speak but she raised a finger and placed it on his lips.

'Not yet, Sol. Tell me later. But if you must go, you can give me your next hour.' Her mouth turned up and she kissed his lips, her tongue darting into his mouth to twine with his. After a while he drew back, his hands on her upper arms.

'Jonas will wake. And besides, I know a more comfortable spot.' He took her hand and led her to their bedroom.

The wind savaged the forest, tore roots from the ground and brought branches, crashing to earth with terrible force. The trunks of young trees blew about the Thornewood like twigs, smashing everything in their path until they too shattered, sending lethal splinters to whirl in the maelstrom.

Thraun hunkered close to the ground, in the shelter of the twisted, cracked bole of a sundered oak, his gaze everywhere, thoughts racing. The flying splinters couldn't blind and cut him and the trunks couldn't smash his bone, though they could trap him, but it was not so for the rest of the pack. When the winds had struck without warning on a tranquil day, with the sun beginning to lose its influence, half of the den had been destroyed before the warnings could be barked.

What they had thought of as their strength had turned out to be a deathtrap. The den had been dug deep beneath the root systems of a dense knot of strong pines, but the wind had ripped them down like leaves falling as the weather turned cold, roots had torn free to whiplash into the den, heavy boughs crashed through the weakened roof, crushing so many to death and maiming so many more.

Sleeping away from the carnage, Thraun had woken, howled danger and fought his way back through fleeing wolves to see the damage for himself and help the trapped and wounded. There was little he could do. Blood was seeping into the ground, bone protruded from hide and

fur and of the few that moved, none would live, their bodies broken under the weight of earth and branch.

The wind was bringing down more of the den and Thraun had run to the only open way out, escaping as it too had collapsed. Outside it had been little better. A blizzard of splinters had cut and slashed into the survivors, leaving most bleeding, handicapped or blinded. And those who hadn't found immediate shelter from the wind had simply been blown away, one to hang in grotesque fashion from a net of branches higher than any wolf could spring, eyes dulling as its lifeblood ebbed from it.

Thraun howled his lament and hunkered down further to think how to save his devastated, panicked pack. He looked around him, at the mothers sheltering the pitifully few cubs that had survived and at the dog wolves, four only, looking to him for help and escape.

Thraun tasted the wind as it surged around them, felt its evil violence and knew they had to move. It came seemingly from everywhere, thrashing in his ears, its blasting force ripping down the forest. He could hear nothing but its fury and knew it hunted them like prey. There was only one place where they could hope to survive until the wind had passed. The crag point where the pack gathered before hunting would provide a barrier the wind couldn't break.

But it was over two hundred paces away. An almost impossibly long distance in the forest with the wind roaring and spitting its ferocity. Lulls were few and relative. Thraun sniffed again. A temporary quiet was coming.

He waited, every fibre tensed, his heart racing. There it was. A lessening of the tumult. Barely noticeable but it could give him the edge. He sprang over to the sheltering mothers, grabbed a cub by the scruff of her neck, growled through clenched teeth for the rest to stay and darted toward the crag.

The way was every bit as difficult as he had envisaged. The trails he knew and the markers he followed were all gone. The whole nature of the forest had changed almost beyond recognition. Everywhere he could see the sky, its heaving dark cloud piling across his vision like a river in flood.

The crown of every tree was shredded, snapped or gone completely. Debris lay thick on the forest floor, waiting to be whipped into lethal frenzy by the next gust. Nothing was as it should be and only Thraun's

innate sense of direction, strained by the enforced need to find a new and far longer route, got him there at all.

The relative calm in the lee of the crag was like walking from night into day. The wind whistled around its edges, a mournful dirge that saddened the heart, but in its centre, the crag would protect their lives. He set the cub down, nuzzling the quivering body of the petrified creature and licking its face. His growl was warming and comforting.

Stay. I will return.

And so he did. Five more times. Once with each cub and once with the remnants of the pack.

Finally, he could rest as the wind tore at the ruins of Thornewood. He looked at them, four adult males, two adult females and five cubs all less than two seasons old. Pitiful survivors of a den in excess of forty. But he would save what he had and build again. First, though, it was time to mourn.

He lifted his head and howled to the sky.

Erienne hadn't calmed Lyanna until they were alone in a room in the extraordinary building that was home to the Al-Drechar. It lay between a gurgling stream and a dense palm forest and, from the front, was an astonishing mass of timber and slate. It looked rather disorganised, and perhaps that was how it was supposed to be, but inside the elegance was breathtaking.

Not that Erienne had time to take in much more than a general sense of the place. Detail would have to wait until later. Right now, she cradled her sobbing child in her arms and wondered how she would ever get her from the delightful room which had been decorated just how Lyanna would like it, if she stopped crying enough to look.

And the truth was that they had scared Erienne too, standing there so tall and gaunt, pale robes flowing, every bone in their bodies standing proud. Ren'erei had reacted quickest, snatching up Lyanna from where she stood rooted and running inside with her. Dragging herself after the elf, Erienne had time to pick up the doll and shrug 'sorry' at the crestfallen Al-Drechar before chasing Ren'erei to the room in which she and Lyanna now sat alone.

On the gently toned yellow walls had been drawn waving, smiling bears and groups of rabbits at play. Light came from three shaded

lanterns and, in addition to a soft bed and low wooden desk, there was a child-sized armchair and sofa; and all sitting on thick rugs that protected feet from the timber floor. Candles filled the air with a fresh forest scent.

But Lyanna wasn't looking at any of it and her sobs were only just beginning to subside though her body still trembled and shook.

'Shh, darling, Mummy's here. No one will hurt you,' she whispered, putting her lips to the girl's head. 'That's it, calm down, now. Calm down.'

'Are the ghosts gone, Mummy?' she mumbled into Erienne's chest.

'Oh, sweet, they aren't ghosts, they're your friends.'

'No!' wailed Lyanna, her crying starting again. 'They aren't the old women. They're ghosts.'

Erienne could see her point. She knew the fluttering light robes they had worn we're for comfort in the humid heat. She was also aware that old elves traditionally kept their white hair long as a demand for respect; and that the muscle and fat faded from their bodies long before they became decrepit, leaving them skeletal in appearance. And these elves were incredibly old. But their appearance was a child's nightmare brought to life and Lyanna had suffered more than her share of those.

'I'll be with you,' said Erienne. 'You'll be all right. Brave girl. My brave girl.' Erienne stroked Lyanna's hair until she pulled away to look up, her face blotched and red where it had been pressed so hard against her mother. Erienne smiled.

'Look at you!' she admonished gently. She wiped away the damp on Lyanna's face with the cloth she had held ready for some time. 'Don't be scared. Are you still scared?'

Lyanna shook her head but said, 'Just a little. Don't leave me, Mummy.'

'I'll never leave you, darling. Do you want to sleep with me tonight or in here?'

Lyanna examined her new surroundings for the first time, the flicker of a smile on her anxious face.

'This is a nice room,' she said.

'It's yours if you want it.'

'Where's your room?'

'I'll make sure it's next door, so I can hear you. Is that all right?'

Lyanna nodded. There was a knock on the door and Ren'erei poked her head round.

'How are we doing?' she asked.

'Come in,' said Erienne. 'Much better, thanks.'

Ren'erei had changed into loose cloth trousers and a woollen shirt, reminding Erienne that she still carried around the dirt and sweat of the day, as did Lyanna.

'Good,' she said, not approaching too close. 'They are anxious to meet you. They didn't understand your reaction.'

Erienne stared at Ren'erei, a frown on her face. 'Then I take it they haven't spent much time around children recently. You have explained, I presume.'

'As far as I could,' affirmed Ren'erei. She smiled. 'They have changed into more formal clothing.' She turned to go. 'When you're ready, just come out. I'll be waiting.'

'Thank them for not intruding into our minds. That was thoughtful,' said Erienne.

'They may not understand children but they aren't without conscience. Don't let the way they look affect your ideas of who they are.' She closed the door quietly behind her.

'If there had been any other way, I would have taken it,' said The Unknown. He was at the doorway to his house. It was mid-afternoon. Out in the street, Denser was astride his horse, agitated, his mood communicating to the light brown mare who shifted her hooves, unable to remain still.

'You've made your position quite clear,' said Diera, her face red from tears, her hair rough-tied in a tail that trailed over one shoulder. Jonas was inside. She hadn't wanted him to see the parting.

'Diera, it's not like that. Think how I'd feel if it were you and Jonas. I'd expect the same of them.'

'Oh, I understand your damned honour and your damned code. What about the promises you made to me?' She hissed her words, not wanting Denser to hear.

There was no answer to that. He was breaking his word and the knowledge of it tormented him. Yet it had seemed at first that she

understood and tlieir love-making had been tender and passionate. He had lost himself within her, never wanting the feeling to end and yet, lying next to her, basking in the afterglow, his head above her, his hand caressing her breast, her tears had warned him it would be no gentle goodbye. Their shouts had wakened Jonas and it was only his cries that broke the argument and brought them ultimately to this cold exchange.

'I cannot excuse what I do but I cannot apologise for it either,' said The Unknown, reaching out a hand. Diera pulled away. 'I couldn't refuse him just as he couldn't refuse me if you had disappeared.'

'But you never really considered saying no, did you?' The Unknown shook his head. 'You haven't stopped to think about what you leave behind and you ride off to reform The Raven.' She spat the word out as if it left a bad taste in her mouth.

'Because they… we are the best. Together, we have the best chance of finding Erienne and Lyanna and all coming back unharmed. This isn't for money, Diera. I owe Denser my life, you know that.'

'And what do you think you owe me and Jonas? Nothing?' Her expression softened a little. 'Look, I know why you're leaving. It's why I love you.

'But you didn't ask me, Sol. It feels like my opinion isn't important. You made promises to me and Jonas, and though you don't want to walk away from them, you are. And the thought that you might not come back at all is breaking my heart.' She gazed deep into his eyes. 'We are your life now.'

'What would you have me do?' he asked.

'Whatever I may feel, I do understand you. I would have you go and I will take comfort that should I ever encounter trouble, The Raven will help me. But I would also have you think about me and Jonas before everything you do. We love you, Sol. We just want you back.'

She moved forward and held him tightly and he was surprised to find tears on his cheeks. He clutched at her back, his hands rubbing up and down it.

'I will come back,' he said. 'And believe me, I never do anything

without thinking of you. And your opinion is important. It's just that I never had any choice that you could influence.'

Diera put a finger to his lips, then kissed him. 'Don't spoil it now. Just go.'

He broke away and mounted his horse, turning it towards the north and Julatsa. And as he spurred the animal on, Denser following close behind, he prayed to the Gods that he would see her again.

Vuldaroq sat at the centre of a long table. Flanking him, four to either side, were the humans and elves who made up the Dordovan Quorum.

In front of them stood one man, tall and proud, a semi-circle of fifteen College guards behind him. The small auditorium was chill, but not because of the icy wind that howled outside. It was the aura that bled from the man and the repugnance in which he was held that cooled the room. He was the most hated of men among mages and he was standing on the hallowed ground of Dordover, his wrecked face displayed now his hood was thrown back, the black tattoo on his neck a symbol of his reviled beliefs.

His arrival at the College gates had triggered a flurry of activity, culminating in the hastily arranged meeting; abhorrence of the individual was outweighed, at least temporarily, by incredulity and a desire to learn what had brought the man to a place from which he could never hope to leave.

'The risk you take is unbelievable, Selik,' said Vuldaroq. 'Indeed, I'm amazed you aren't dead already.'

'Lucky for you that I'm not,' said Selik to snorts of derision from the Quorum, his speech slow, thick and incomplete, the result of his horrific facial injuries.

Vuldaroq studied Selik's features and could barely suppress a smile of satisfaction. The left-hand side of his face appeared as if it had been smeared by the careless swipe of a brush on wet paint. The bald eyebrow angled sharply down, the sightless eye beneath it milky white and unmoving. The cheek was scored as if by the drag of heavy claws and it pulled the mouth with it, forcing Selik to speak through a perpetual sneer. It was a fitting expression, completed by left side upper and lower jaws slack and devoid of teeth.

And all caused by the spell of a Dordovan mage. It had been

believed that Erienne's IceWind had killed the Black Wing and number two to Captain Travers but somehow he survived it and the fire that The Raven had laid in the Black Wings' castle. And with him the Witch Hunter order. Less numerous now but no less zealous.

'I can never envisage a time when your not being dead would be lucky for any Dordovan mage,' said High Secretary Berian, his face curling into an unpleasant smile.

'Then envisage it now,' said Selik. 'Because, like it or not, we are after the same thing.'

'Really?' Vuldaroq raised his eyebrows. T would be fascinated to know how you reached that conclusion.' A smattering of laughter ran along the table. Selik shook his head.

'Look at you, sitting there so smug it nauseates me. You think no one is aware of what you do yet I know you have lost a great prize and you want it, her, back. And I am the only one who can really help you. And help you I will, because in this quest we are in accord. This magic cannot be allowed to prosper or it will destroy us all. I know the direction of their travel and I know at least one of those who helped them.' He stopped, studying their faces. Vuldaroq could taste the silence his words engendered.

'Got your attention now, haven't I? The Black Wings see all and always will. Remember that, O mighty Quorum of Dordover. As you are well aware by now, the Al-Drechar are no myth; we just don't know where to find them. But if we work together, we will, believe me.'

'Your front is extraordinary as is your blindness, if you think for one moment that we would suffer to join forces with Black Wings?' Berian's face was contorted and red with rage. 'Have you taken leave of what remains of your senses?'

Selik shrugged and smiled, a grotesque leer on his ruined face. 'Then kill me and never learn what we know. The trouble is, you haven't the time to risk me being right after killing me, have you? Late at night in Dordovan taverns, your mages are not always as discreet as you might wish. Much has reached our ears and it is very interesting. Very interesting indeed.'

'But you haven't come here to exercise your altruistic streak, have you Selik?' asked Vuldaroq. 'You want something. What is it?'

'Ah, Vuldaroq. Not always as fat in the head as you might look. It's quite simple. You want the girl back, to educate, control or dispose of as you see fit. You can have her and I will help you get her. But in return, I want the witch that did this to my face.' He poked a finger at his hideous scarring. 'Give me Erienne Malanvai.'

And in the storm of protest that followed, Vuldaroq allowed himself a small chuckle.

Chapter 4

Ren'erei took Erienne and Lyanna along a wide, picture-hung, timbered and panelled corridor. It stretched fully seventy yards to a pair of plain double doors flanked by Guild guards. Other doors ran down its left-hand side and windows to the right overlooked a lantern-lit orchard.

On seeing the outside, Lyanna had forgotten her fear temporarily and run over to the window, mesmerised by the lanterns which swayed in the breeze, sending light flashing under the branches and broad leaves of the trees in the early evening gloom.

It was still very warm and Erienne had chosen a light, ankle-length green dress and had tied her hair up in a loose bun to let the air get to her neck. Lyanna wore a bright red dress with white cuffs, her hair in her favoured ponytail, the doll clutched, as ever, in her right hand.

'Just how big is this place?' asked Erienne, standing behind Lyanna and looking at another wing of the house over a hundred yards away, across the orchard.

'That's not an easy question to answer,' said Ren'erei. 'It has been standing since the Sundering and building has hardly stopped, even now when there are so few living here. It must cover much of the hillside. You should take a flight; you can see it all if you stay beneath the illusion. Suffice to say that though it is now only home to four, it was home to over eighty.'

'So what happened?' Erienne turned Lyanna away from the window and they walked on, passing ancient, faded pictures depicting burning cities, great feasts and running deer. It was an odd collection.

'I think they were complacent about ensuring the line continued, until it was almost too late. As you're aware yourself, producing a

true adept is very difficult. Numbers soon dwindled and it was made worse by those that just didn't want to stay their whole lives here. Despite the importance of the order, the will ebbed away. Who can explain that?'

They reached the doors, which were opened for them. Inside, a huge ballroom, decorated in red and white, decked with chandeliers and mirrors, took the breath away, though the covering dust told of its redundancy.

'I'll let them tell you the rest,' said Ren'erei, taking them right across the ballroom to an innocuous-looking door. She knocked and opened it, ushering them into a small dining room. Oak-panelled and hung with elven portraits, it contained a long table around the far half of which sat four elderly women. They were talking amongst themselves until Lyanna and Erienne entered, the litde girl clutching her mother's leg.

'It's all right, Lyanna, I'm here and they're friends,' whispered Erienne, taking in for the first time, the majesty of the Al-Drechar.

Erienne had no doubt that she was in the presence of Balaia's most powerful mages. Their faces told of people tired of life yet determined to survive, yearning for fulfilment to their long lives. It was the way she would always remember them.

Superficially, they were ancient elves, friendly enough but with the fierce expressions taut flesh dictated. Erienne saw shocks of white hair, bony fingers, long necks and piercing eyes. And then one spoke, her voice like balm on an open wound, quelling anxiety.

'Sit, sit. We must all eat. You, my child, must be tired and scared after your long journey. We won't detain you long. Your mother we might keep a little longer, if it's all right with you.'

Lyanna managed a litde smile as Erienne pulled out a chair at the opposite end of the table and ushered her to sit before taking the place next to her. Ren'erei took up a neutral position between the two groups.

'You won't hurt my mummy,' said Lyanna, her eyes fixed on the blue cloth that covered the table.

'Oh, my child, quite the reverse,' said another. 'We have been waiting too long to do anyone harm.' She clapped her hands. 'Introductions in a moment. First some food.'

Through a door to the left, a slim middle-aged woman came,

carrying a large steaming tureen by ornate wooden handles. Behind her, a boy of no more than twelve carried a tray with a stack of bowls and plates piled with cut bread. Swiftly, beginning with Lyanna, they served a thick soup that smelled rich and wholesome and set Erienne's stomach growling. She could see lumps of vegetable floating under the surface and the fresh aroma filled her nostrils.

'Eat, dear child,' said one of the Al-Drechar. Lyanna dipped a corner of her bread into the soup, blew on it and put it gingerly into her mouth. Her eyebrows raised.

'It's nice,' she said.

'Don't sound so surprised, Lyanna,' laughed Erienne. 'I'm sure they have good cooks here too.'

'I hope so.' Slightly clumsily, she scooped liquid on to her spoon. For a time, they were quiet, all eating the soup, which tasted as delicious as it looked and smelled, before Ren'erei cleared her throat.

'I think we've gone long enough without those introductions,' she said. 'Erienne, Lyanna, it is my great honour and pleasure to name for you the Al-Drechar.' Erienne smiled at the light of reverence in her eyes.

'To my right and moving around the table, Ephemere-Al-Ereama, Aviana-Al-Ysandi, Cleress-Al-Heth and Myriell-Al-Anathack.' She bowed her head to each in turn.

'Oh Ren'erei, you're so formal!' Cleress-Al-Heth laughed. 'You make us sound completely unapproachable.' The other Al-Drechar joined the mirth and Ren'erei blushed, the corners of her mouth twitching slightly. 'Please, Erienne, Lyanna,' she continued. 'We are Ephemere, Aviana, Cleress and Myriell, though you may hear us address ourselves with various other names which you are of course welcome to use.'

Erienne felt more at ease than she had done for days. The aura of the Al-Drechar dissipated a little though she remained mindful of their power and the clear magical vitality that they possessed. They were, on one level at least, just old elves and that was a comforting thought.

She studied them as the soup was drained, and her immediate impression was that they looked very much alike. It was inevitable, she supposed, after so many years living so close to one another, that

they would share mannerisms, dress and even broad physical attributes. And though they were different enough through shape of nose and mouth, and through eye colour, she expected Lyanna to have trouble telling them apart for a few days.

'You've lived together a long time, haven't you?' she asked.

Cleress smiled. 'A very long time,' she agreed. 'Three hundred years and more.'

'What?' Erienne was taken aback. She knew elves had a potentially very long life span but three hundred years was extraordinary. Impossible.

'We have waited here, scanning the mana spectra, conserving ourselves and planning for the next coming of someone who can take on the Way,' said Aviana. She smiled ruefully. 'We were getting a little desperate.'

'How long have you been waiting?'

'Three hundred and eleven years. Ever since the births of the babies: Myriell and Septern,' replied Aviana.

Erienne gaped. Septern having been an Al-Drechar wasn't really a surprise but the scarcity of the adepts certainly was. 'And there have been none since then?'

'Oh, there have been whisperings and our hopes have been raised and dashed more times than you have years in your body,' said Cleress. 'But let's leave that for later. I see your beautiful daughter is wilting and we do need to talk to her before she sleeps. It's been a long day.'

Erienne looked down. Lyanna was playing with the remains of her soup, trailing a piece of bread across its surface.

'Lyanna, the ladies want to talk to you. All right?'

Lyanna nodded.

'Are you still feeling shy, darling?' asked Erienne.

'A little,' admitted Lyanna. 'I'm tired.'

'I know, darling. We'll have you in bed soon.' Erienne nodded for the Al-Drechar to speak.

'Lyanna?' Ephemere's soft voice reached across the table and Lyanna raised her head to look at the friendly face of the Al-Drechar. 'Lyanna, welcome to our home. We hope you want to make it your home too, for a little while. Do you want that?'

Lyanna nodded. 'If Mummy stays here, I do.'

'Of course she will, my dear child, won't you, Erienne?'

'Of course I'll stay,'said Erienne.

'Now Lyanna.' Ephemere's voice took on a slightly harder edge. 'You know there is magic inside you, don't you?' Lyanna nodded. 'And you know that in your old home, it was starting to hurt you and your teachers couldn't help you any more, and that's why we came into your head and your dreams. To help you. Do you understand that?' Another nod. Lyanna glanced up at Erienne who smiled down and stroked her hair.

'Good,' said Ephemere. 'That's very good. And how do you think we will help you?'

Lyanna thought for a moment. 'You'll make the bad dreams go away.'

'That's right!' said Myriell, clapping her hands. 'And we'll do more. I know that the hurt inside you makes you angry sometimes. We'll teach you how to stop the hurt and make the magic do the things you want it to do.'

'You have a great gift, Lyanna,' said Cleress. 'Will you let us help make it safe for you?'

Erienne wasn't sure that Lyanna had understood the last question but she nodded anyway.

'Good. Good girl,' said Ephemere. 'Is there anything you want to ask us?'

'No.' Lyanna shook her head and yawned. 'Mummy?'

'Yes, my sweet. Time for bed, I think,' said Erienne. The cook and serving boy came back and started clearing away the soup plates as Erienne picked up Lyanna. 'I'll get her settled and be back. It could be awhile.'

Cleress shrugged. 'Take your time. We'll still be here. After this long, I think we can bear to wait a little longer to speak with you.'

Lyanna was asleep in Erienne's arms before they had reached her room and barely stirred as she was put into her nightgown.

'All too much for you, my sweet,' whispered Erienne, tucking the doll under the sheets beside her and experiencing another wash of guilt. 'Sleep well.' She kissed Lyanna's forehead and left the room, closing the door gently behind her. Ren'erei was waiting.

'I'll stand here and listen,' she said. 'If she stirs and calls for her mother, I'll come for you.'

Erienne kissed her on the cheek, a sudden relief running through her.

'Thank you, Ren'erei,' she said. 'You're a friend, aren't you?'

T hope so,' the elf replied.

Erienne hurried back to the dining room to find the table laid with meat and vegetables in serving dishes sitting over candles. A flagon of wine stood on a tray with crystal glasses, and smoke from a long pipe in Ephemere's hand curled towards the plain ceiling. A clear memory of Denser flashed through her mind; of him sitting against the bole of a tree, calmly smoking his foul-smelling tobacco while The Raven debated the end of everything. She smiled to herself and wished again he was with her.

'She went straight to sleep then?' asked Aviana. Erienne nodded. 'Good. Good. Help yourself to food and wine and sit closer, then we shan't have to raise our voices.'

Erienne took a little food and poured half a glass of wine before sitting next to Ephemere, who wafted smoke away from her.

T do apologise for this appalling habit,' she said, sounding hoarse. 'But we find the inhalation eases our lungs and aching limbs. Unfortunately, as you can hear, it rather affects our voices.' She passed the pipe on to Aviana who sucked deeply, coughing as she swallowed the smoke that smelled of oak, roses and a sweet herb she couldn't quite place.

As if seeing them for the first time, Erienne took in their age and frailty. In the candle- and lantern light, Ephemere's skin looked so stretched across her face it might tear at any moment. It was very pale under her thick white hair, giving a stark backdrop to her sparkling deep emerald eyes, that displayed her magical vitality so effectively.

Her robes hung on a fleshless body from which her long, narrow neck, tendons and veins standing proud, jutted like a rock from a dark sea. Her hands were long, almost spidery, unadorned by jewellery and shaking slightly, her fingers ending in carefully tended short nails.

Erienne returned to those eyes and saw the light and warmth burning within them. Ephemere smiled.

'I expect you're thinking you didn't get here a moment too soon,' she said. 'And you aren't far from the truth.'

'Oh Ephy, don't be so dramatic,' scalded Myriell, her voice ragged from the pipe.

'Is it so?' hissed Ephemere, tone hardening. 'I, for one, will not hide from the risk we all take and the likely outcome for us all.'

'The girl must know the truth. All of it,' added Cleress.

'Know what, exactly?' asked Erienne, feeling a shiver in her mind. All the warmth had gone from Ephemere's eyes though the power still burned there, as it did from all their faces.

'Off you go, Ephy,' said Cleress.

'Erienne, as you can see, we are old, even for elves and there is a limit to how long even magic can delay the inevitable,' said Ephemere.

'And it would be fair to say we none of us would still choose to be alive were it not for our enforced wait,' said Cleress.

Ephemere nodded. 'You're going to see things here that you won't like. You're going to want to stop us doing what we do with Lyanna. You will fear for her safety and you have every right to, because she will be in danger every day of her training. I'm afraid this is an unfortunate consequence of the damage done by her Dordovan teachers.'

'Damage?' Erienne stopped chewing, heart thumping in her chest, her head thick with a growing fear.

'Calm yourself, Erienne, there is no lasting damage, either physical or mental. We have calmed the nightmares that threatened her in your College. The problem lies in that she is so very young to be accepting an Awakening. And if she fails to understand our teaching, the harm to her could be severe,' said Aviana.

'Death?' Erienne hardly dared mouth the word.

'That is the ultimate price any mage may pay for attempting to realise the gift of magic,' said Cleress. 'But for Lyanna, the consequences before death would be most distressing.' She held up a hand to stop Erienne's next question. 'We know that Lyanna had already accepted Dordovan mana as if it were the most natural thing in the world, and it was this that first alerted us through the mana trails we have studied for so long.

'But in her mind there is a conflict caused by her Dordovan training. Only part of her ability has been stirred and now we must awaken the rest, but we fear that the Dordovan-trained part of her

mind will resist unless we can retrain it not to. It's a difficult enough concept to grasp for anyone but for a child so young…' Cleress shrugged.

Erienne put down her fork and held her hands to her mouth, searching for a way out. 'Can you not just wait until she is older. Protect her from harm until she's ready somehow?'

'If we could, we would. But the process of her Awakening has been started. Unnecessarily.' Myriell's eyes bored into Erienne's.

'I beg your pardon?'

'Whatever they may have told you, the Dordovan masters hoped their magic would stifle the rest within her, so like fools they went ahead to bring it out. No doubt they told you it was the only way to save her,' said Myriell.

'Well yes, but…' There was a clamouring in Erienne's mind, like an alarm bell ringing but far too late. She felt on the edge of panic.

'What they wanted was to save themselves from her. But they had no real conception of what they were dealing with, Erienne, and your trust in them has put Lyanna in great danger from her own mind. And us with it.'

'No, no, no.' Erienne shook her head but couldn't make sense of the tumble of thoughts. 'You're supposed to be able to help. Make her like you. How can she be in danger now? We've come here to be safe.'

Ephemere put a cold hand on Erienne's arm.

'Child, relax,' she said, her tone soothing despite its roughness. 'Here is what you must know, but first keep in mind that you are not to blame for anything that has happened and that your bringing Lyanna here was her only hope. And ours too. Had she stayed in Dordover, she would surely have perished.'

Erienne breathed deep and felt her heart slow a little. She nodded and looked up into Ephemere's deep green eyes and waited for the Al-Drechar to continue.

'Within Lyanna is an ability none but one of her own can understand and nurture. She doesn't merely have the capacity to understand all College lores but has the innate knowledge of the base single force of magic that all mages once had. But to release it, she must first learn how to harness the individual strands. For her it will

be like visiting the ManaBowl in each College to accept the mana and lore. This should be learned as one but Dordover has upset the balance.

'I cannot begin to explain to you the sheer power she holds inside her but her ability to shape mana can already be felt over hundreds of miles. If we don't teach her how to control her power, she could do immense damage before she inevitably kills herself. I'm afraid that in teaching her there will be problems. And while she learns, her mistakes will be a beacon for those who would do her harm. You will be the steadying influence on her life while she is at her most vulnerable. You must protect her.

'She is so young and physically frail. The poor girl should not have had to face this until she was your age.'

'But you can make it happen?' Erienne searched those eyes.

'We have to.' It was Aviana who spoke. 'Because if we fail, there will be no Al-Drechar.'

'Why, what will happen to you?' Erienne thought she knew the answer and so did Ephemere, who laughed.

'Why Erienne, it takes all our energies to maintain ourselves and the illusions that protect us. I'm very much afraid that training your lovely daughter will be the death of us all.' She smiled and squeezed Erienne's arm. 'But that is the way of things and death never comes quickly to an Al-Drechar.'

'When will you begin?' asked Erienne, not sure whether she should let them. Not just for Lyanna's sake but for theirs too.

'Tomorrow morning. Time is pressing. Ren'erei feels that our enemies are closer to us than they have ever been, as poor Tryuun's wound demonstrates. We must be vigilant. Nothing must deflect us from our task,' said Aviana.

Erienne had lost her appetite. In her dreams, she had seen the Al-Drechar as simply lifting the veil that fell between Lyanna and her understanding of the One. But now, with this talk of enemies, she was scared of what Denser would find in his way as he searched for her. And she found herself hoping he wouldn't find her.

'And now we should all take to our beds. The time for hard work and great strength is here. Sleep is the healer of the mind,' said Cleress.

'I'll finish my wine,' said Erienne, not able to even contemplate

sleep. She took a sip and watched as the Al-Drechar helped each other from their chairs and made painfully slow progress to the ballroom door, each supporting another; Ephemere bowed under a curved back, Myriell ramrod straight but limping, Cleress tottering as if true balance eluded her and Aviana clearly plagued by arthritis in her knees.

They were just four terribly old women muttering to each other as they made their way to their chambers somewhere in the huge house. Erienne almost laughed at the thought that it would be almost dawn by the time they reached their destinations but managed to stifle it.

She poured another glass of wine and held it under her nose, letting its deep fruity aroma enclose her. What in all the hells had she done? She was entrusting the life of her daughter to a quartet of witches who all looked as if their final breaths were imminent. It should have appeared utter madness but somehow it made perfect sense and, through her fading anxiety Erienne saw what she had been searching for but that had eluded her until now.

A purpose for her and a chance for Lyanna.

Perhaps she would sleep well, after all.

Chapter 5

Ilkar awoke to the familiar sounds of hammering from outside on the College grounds. By the smell of it, the day was another dry one and a steady light shone around the gently billowing drapes covering the open window. Beside him in the bed, Pheone shifted and turned over to face the wall. Ilkar smiled, as he had been doing every morning since the night of the long-room testing five days before.

That had been a wild night. They'd set up rough carved and painted wooden blocks depicting Wesmen Lords and members, past and present, of the Xeteskian Circle Seven and the Dordovan Quorum. Taking turns, they had destroyed them using an imaginative range of offensive fire and ice spells, some better prepared than others.

Twenty mages had joined in the barrage, easing a frustration that had been building up for weeks. It had been a spectacular sight, with mage fire thrashing off the walls, ice shattering wood and forming deep icicles in the corners of the long room, that were subsequently burned away with tight-beamed flame, filling the place with steam. And every time he wasn't casting, Ilkar had stood ready to deploy shields for those who didn't have the targeting skills of their companions.

Ilkar had felt Pheone's closeness the whole evening and in the drunken feast that followed, he'd found his arms around her and her head on his shoulder more times than he could count. His memories, though indistinct, were full of her flashing smile, her laughter and the revealing shirt she had worn.

The alcohol-fuelled sex had been abandoned and fantastic, though he had to confess to himself that time had blurred. He wasn't sure it had been a lengthy experience but the feeling of a female body against his, even that of a non-elf, had been wonderful.

Pheone had quelled his concerns once their hangovers had cleared enough for their brains to function. Elves shouldn't become involved with humans, the lifespan differences leading to inevitable heartbreak and, too often, the suicide of the almost-always elven survivor.

'I don't think either of us believe this will last,' she had said. 'But we need each other now. Try and enjoy it and don't think too much about tomorrow.'

Ilkar wasn't sure Pheone really believed her own words and their passion on subsequent nights had been physically if perhaps not emotionally profound. She had been right. Their sexual union had given him a new outlook on everything. He had allowed himself to become so wrapped up in the rebuilding of Julatsa, all else had paled. He had even found himself beginning to resent The Unknown's infrequent visits, which was unforgivable. Pheone had reminded him how to relax and he found himself beginning to love her for that at least, if love was the right word.

More than that, though, he had started to look beyond the physical rebirth of the College to the longer term. The rebuilding of its psyche. There was so much to be done to attract mages back to Julatsa, to help it begin again, and he knew that, ultimately, he would need to leave to spread the word that his College of magic lived and breathed again.

But right now it was dormant and the place he had to be was here. He leaned over and kissed Pheone's sleeping face before jumping out of bed on to the cold stone floor, grabbing green breeches and rough woollen work shirt. He pulled on a pair of sturdy calf-length boots, pushed his hands through his ruffled hair and, hunger building, walked out into the passage, heading for the refectory which lay across the courtyard.

Outside, the day was fresh and warming. Dawn was an hour gone and he glanced at the work being done on the library roof and to a new structure whose foundations had been laid over the last seven days. As he always did, Ilkar paused for a while at the hole in which the Heart lay, contemplating their greatest remaining task.

One day, it would see light again and the bodies of those entombed within, including Barras, the last elven negotiator, could

be paid proper respect. He mouthed a short prayer that the Gods would deliver him the tools to do the job.

'Ilkar!' He spun at the sound of his name, recognising the voice instantly. Its owner came through the gap that had been the north gate, leading his horse, and behind him, a second sight that gladdened Ilkar's heart still more.

'Denser!' He strode towards the gate. 'Gods, they'll let anyone in here these days.'

'Sorry. I thought I had the freedom of the place after last time I was here.'

'That you do.' The two old friends embraced. 'Let's look at you.' Ilkar stepped back and took in Denser's face. 'A bit dusty, perhaps. And certainly a touch of grey here and there. Oh, and you need a haircut. But still recognisable.' He shook his head. 'It's great to see you. You've brought your hammer and chisel, I hope.'

Denser smiled. 'Sorry, never did go in for it much. I brought my pipe, though.'

'And I've missed its rank stench.' Ilkar patted him on the upper arm and looked past him. 'Hey, Unknown, it's been a while.' Ilkar tried to keep a smile on his face but seeing these two men riding through his College gates together could only mean one thing. Something bad, probably very bad, had happened.

The Unknown walked over and shook his hand warmly, his grip, as ever, crushing.

'Too long,' he said.

'So.' Ilkar returned his attention to Denser. The Xeteskian was tired despite the hour of the morning and seemed solemn. 'How's Erienne and Lyanna?'

Pain flashed in Denser's eyes and his brows pinched slightly. Instead of answering, he looked to The Unknown for help.

'That's what brings us here,' said the Big Man.

Ilkar nodded, his suspicion confirmed. 'Oh I see. Are you hungry? We could talk over breakfast.'

The refectory was a long, low building set with a series of bench tables. It was quietening with most of the mages and paid workers already on site. Ilkar indicated a corner table and while the travellers made themselves comfortable, he went to the servery and packed a long wooden tray with bacon, bread and a large jug of coffee.

'Here,' he said as he sat. 'Help yourselves. There's more if you need it.'

While they ate, Denser talked of Lyanna's progress and her nightmares, of Dordover's obstructive Quorum, and of the disappearance of both Erienne and their daughter. Finally, he passed Ilkar the letter, which the elf read in silence, frown deepening with almost every line. He passed it back after he'd read it twice and refilled all their mugs.

'If they find them first, they'll kill them,' said Denser.

'Who will?' asked Ilkar.

'The Dordovans. Don't you see?'

'That's a little extreme, don't you think? There's more to it than simple conspiracy. There's potential risk to all Balaian magic systems.'

'Don't you start,' said Denser. 'Lyanna is the future for all of us, not our death and destruction. The Dordovans are just scared. All they need is education. No one is talking about an enforced return to the One Way, for God's sake. No one alive is capable of practising it.'

'Except Lyanna.'

Denser shrugged. 'Yeah, except Lyanna. Possibly. Look, Ilkar, Vuldaroq is not interested in any multidisciplined mage being nurtured by anyone. He told me Balaia didn't want another Septern. That's why, if he can't control her, he'll kill her.'

'So you want to find them?' said Ilkar.

'No, I want to offer them up to Dordover, chained to sacrificial altars,' replied Denser.

'Just checking you hadn't completely lost your sense of humour.'

'Of course I want to find them.'

'And do what, exactly?' asked Ilkar. 'And that's a serious question.'

Denser regarded him as if he were an imbecile.

'Ilkar, they are my family. I have to protect them.'

T think we both understand that,' said The Unknown. He put down the sandwich he had made but not eaten while he'd listened, and leant forward. Ilkar had to smile; he'd lost none of his instant authority. 'But you have been depicting the might of Dordovan magic lined up against us. What do you hope to achieve?'

'A warning, if it's needed. Organisation too. Erienne and Lyanna are already well protected, I know it. But we can help. We even the odds.'

'Who?'asked Ilkar.

'The Raven.'

Ilkar took a long draw on his coffee, feeling the strong bitter taste flood down his throat. He'd known his fate the moment he'd seen The Unknown and Denser come through his gate together. Whatever The Raven could do, he had to help. Futile, possibly. Deadly, probably, if Lyanna and Erienne were in the hands of the power Denser thought they were. But whatever, he had to make sure they understood what they were up against.

'Denser, there's something you need to know.'

'Go on. I feel sure it won't be to my advantage.'

'We've been seeing random mana activity in the sky. Lightning, flaring, showers, that sort of thing. Not a lot but definitely odd. We got talking about it a few days ago. Have you heard of the Tinjata Prophecy?'

Denser shook his head.

'Didn't think so. Neither had I, though perhaps you should have done. Haven't you researched the Sundering at all?'

'Not really,' said Denser. 'Beyond conditions for producing a child with the correct potential and those are well enough documented in Xetesk, I don't think Erienne even disturbed the dust in the open vaults. Who was this Tinjata, then?'

'Well Erienne should certainly have heard of him. He was the first High Elder mage of Dordover.'

'She probably has,' said Denser. 'But she hasn't told me about him.'

'Never mind. We'll ask her when we find her. The point is that Tinjata was instrumental in the Sundering and culpable in a number of horrific actions against mages of the One, the Al-Drechar. He formulated a prophecy based on some kind of extrapolation of mana theory and dimensional connectivity – the roots are long gone – and he posted it as a warning to all who believed in the continuation of the four-College structure.'

'How do you know all this?' Denser was frowning.

'I asked around. Do you remember Therus? He helped you in the

library during the siege? Well, he survived. He's an ancient writings archivist and the time around the Sundering is an area of particular specialisation for him. And that includes the Tinjata Prophecy.'

'And?' Denser beckoned Ilkar to speak it.

'Right. Well, Therus' knowledge is incomplete because the Dor-dovans would never let him into their library but the summary is enough. "When the Innocent rides the elements, and the land lies flat and riven; the Sundering shall be undone and from the chaos shall rise the One, never again to fall." Pretty clear, don't you think?' Ilkar felt his heart beating as he spoke the words, finding it impossible to imagine Lyanna, a child he had never seen, presiding over the destruction of Balaia. The idea was frankly ludicrous.

Denser and The Unknown were quiet. The big man finished his sandwich while he thought, the Xeteskian's brows arrowed in as he digested Ilkar's words.

'And that's what Therus thinks your lightning flashes are all about, does he?' asked Denser. 'My child being this "Innocent"? One flash of lightning and the end of the world is coming?'

'Denser, you know what you hoped Lyanna would be. And perhaps she will be the first of a new race of mages, but there are wider implications,' said Ilkar.

'Well, what's certainly clear is that if the Dordovan Quorum believe the prophecy, they'll be desperate to recapture Lyanna,' said The Unknown. 'Or do something to stop her.'

'So what you're saying is that Lyanna is some form of destructive power, according to Tinjata,' said Denser.

'Or maybe the catalyst for something. We've seen lightning in a cloudless sky already and that is a clear elemental anomaly. And you know as well as I do the stories that have been going round. Tidal waves, hurricanes, thunderstorms lasting for days… hardly one bolt of lightning, Denser. Therus says they're all mentioned in the prophecy.

'And who are these people you think Erienne has gone to? What if they don't want to train Lyanna but to use her as a focus? We have to consider the possibility.'

'But don't forget on the other hand that, whatever the evidence, Tinjata would have had a vested interest in painting his findings as black as he could,' said Denser.

.¦…•'¦

Ilkar nodded. 'Also true. Look, I'm not for one moment saying that we should leave Lyanna to the Dordovans, or anyone for that matter, besides you and Erienne.'

'What are you saying then?' asked Denser.

'That we should be aware of the wider picture while we search. Putting aside whether the prophecy is true or not, or even relevant to this debate, Dordover will act on the premise that it might be; and their actions, if not stemmed, will divide the Colleges, and none of us want that. It doesn't take a genius to see Dordover and Lystern seeing a threat to their independence and identity, and Xetesk looking to broker power and ultimately force a reunion as the dominant party. It all hinges on who controls Lyanna. As for Julatsa, well-' he gave Denser a rueful smile '-we're nowhere, but no less determined to see our magic and beliefs survive.'

Denser rested his head in his hands, pulling them down his face and talking through his fingers. Tlkar, you're taking this too far,' he said. 'She's one child. She can't do anything alone.'

'From what you've told me yourself, the Dordovans clearly don't share that view,' returned Ilkar.

'And we are fairly sure she isn't alone,' added The Unknown.

Ilkar sighed and drained his coffee. 'Look, Denser, you have to make a full report to Xetesk on this. You know you do. Gods, I don't suppose they even know Erienne is gone yet. The point is that they can apply significant pressure on the Dordovans to curb any designs they may have on Lyanna's life. That leaves us to search for your family unmolested, so to speak.'

'Officially, anyway,' said The Unknown. He stretched his arms above his head, his shoulder muscles bunching, shirt stitching pulling.

'One more thing,' said Ilkar. 'This is going to spread. The rumours about Lyanna have been around even here, though as no more than a point of interest. But soon there'll be a lot of questions, particularly if Colleges start throwing their weight around. Tinjata's prophecy intimates a return to the One Way and that bothers most mages, me included.

'We can't afford a conflict so let's tread a little carefully, eh?'

Denser shrugged and his mouth twitched up at the corners.

› 1

'You're right. I know you're right. That's probably why I came here first. I needed a level-headed view. Thanks, Ilkar.'

'A pleasure. Right, I suggest a day's rest for you while I sort out my affairs here and make my excuses, then a ride to Dordover and then to Xetesk.'

'Why Dordover?' asked Denser.

'Because Therus is away from Julatsa and you really need to read the prophecy, and that's where the original lore script and translation are held. Assuming they'll let you in.'

'And someone must have seen something of Erienne at the time she was escaping,' said The Unknown. 'You just have to ask the right questions. Hmm. We could do with Will or Thraun. They knew Dordover's underbelly well. Still, perhaps their names will open a few doors.'

'There's something missing here,' said Ilkar.

'Hirad,' said The Unknown, nodding.

'We'll collect him after we've been to Xetesk,' said Denser.

'It won't be that simple,' warned The Unknown. 'After all, his dragons are still here.'

Hirad kicked sand over the fire outside his single-roomed stone- and-thatch hut and walked into the Choul. It was not ideal, not for a Kaan dragon. The wind echoed down the gaping maw of a cave forty feet wide, spreading a chill in the winter months for which even three dragons nested together could not fully compensate.

What they really needed was the heat and mud of a Kaan dwelling, but for that Hirad had to have builders, ironsmiths and labourers. And as with so much that concerned the saviours of Balaia, people simply turned their backs and chose to forget.

To a point, Hirad understood. Half a day's ride away in Black-thorne, the Baron still struggled to rebuild his dismembered town. And he alone had sent people to help make the mountain as comfortable as it could be. At least Hirad had a roof separate to that of the Kaan, and a lean-to stable for his nervous horse.

Lighting a lantern, Hirad turned the wick low, aware that his dwindling oil supply would force a trip to Blackthorne before long. Increasingly, he was anxious at leaving the dragons, even for a day and a night. One day, hunters would attack while he was gone.

Walking into the Choul, Hirad pulled his furs tight about him. It was a cold night, unseasonably so, and rain had fallen for much of the day. He yearned for a warm inn with roaring fire, ale in one hand, woman in the other. But he couldn't forget what he owed Sha-Kaan. It seemed, though, that he was the only one.

The stench of dragon filled his nostrils. Undeniably reptilian, it was layered with wood and oil and a sour taint that he knew was exhaled from huge lungs. It wasn't a smell you could ignore but it could be endured. Around a sweeping shallow bend, widened by Blackthorne's men, was a low, domed cavern, big enough for ten dragons. In its centre lay three, and their enormity staggered Hirad no less than it had the first time.

An initial glance revealed a mass of golden scales, moving with indrawn breaths and glittering faintly in the lantern light. A second glance, along with a boosting of the lantern wick, revealed three Kaan dragons. Nos- and Hyn-Kaan lay to either flank, tails coiled, necks laid inwards, bodies dwarfing Hirad as he watched, wings furled tight, claws skittering against the rough floor, tiny movements giving great comfort.

And in their midst, fully a quarter and more their size again, lay Sha-Kaan, Great Kaan of his Brood, exiled by choice to save two dimensions. His head lifted as Hirad entered the Choul and his one-hundred-and-twenty-foot body rippled along its ageing, dulling golden length. Hirad walked to the Great Kaan, standing before the mouth that could swallow him whole.

'I trust you enjoyed your meal, Hirad Coldheart,' rumbled Sha-Kaan, voice sounding only in Hirad's head.

'Yes, thank you, it was an unexpected feast,' replied the barbarian, recalling the sheep Sha-Kaan had deposited outside his hut, undamaged but for a neatly broken neck.

'When we can, we provide,' said Sha-Kaan.

'Though the farmer might right rue the fact you chose his flock.' Hirad smiled.

'Surely a small price for our continuing sacrifice.' Sha-Kaan did not share Hirad's humour.

The barbarian's smile faded and his heart beat a flurry as unsettling thoughts crowded his head for an instant. He stared deep into Sha-Kaan's eyes and saw in them an intense sadness, like grief at

a loss; the kind of enduring emptiness The Unknown spoke of when his link with the Protectors was severed.

'What's wrong, Great Kaan?'

Sha-Kaan blinked slowly and breathed in, Hirad feeling the air flow past him.

'This place ages us,' he said. 'It dampens our fire, dries our wings and starves our minds. The Brood psyche cannot sustain what it cannot touch. You have done everything you can, Hirad, and our gratitude will not fade. But our eyes dim, our scales dull and our muscles protest our every movement. Your dimension drains us.'

A chill stole down Hirad's neck and spread through his body.

'You're dying?' he ventured.

Sha-Kaan's startling blue eyes reflected the lantern light as he stared.

'We need to go home, Hirad Coldheart. Soon.'

Hirad bit his lip and strode from the Choul, his anger brimming, his frustration complete. There would have to be action.

In the warming early morning, following a breakfast of fruits, milk and rye bread, Lyanna played in the orchard, skipping around trees and singing to herself, engrossed in a game the rules of which Erienne couldn't fathom as she watched from a bench.

The night had been quiet and peaceful. Lyanna hadn't woken and as a result, had risen refreshed and full of energy. Erienne was glad, knowing she'd need it all and more. This was the calm soon to be shattered and Erienne felt a dreadful anxiety grip her as she watched her little girl play. Her innocence, her essential childishness, her carefree spirit, all were about to be deluged by an overwhelming need to unlock and then control the power within her.

And last night, as she had sat alone in the dining room, sipping at her wine and thinking, she had reached an inescapable truth. Lyanna was to be changed forever and it didn't take a great leap of understanding to realise that the risk of this change was mortal. If for any reason her teaching went astray, Lyanna would die.

'Come here, my sweet.' Erienne held out her arms, the desire to hug her child so strong it hurt. Lyanna trotted over and Erienne crushed her in an embrace she never wanted to release. But all too soon, Lyanna struggled and Erienne allowed her to pull away.

'You promise me you'll be good and listen to your teachers?' she asked, stroking Lyanna's hair.

Lyanna nodded. 'Yes, Mummy.'

'And you'll try to do everything they ask?'

Another nod.

'It's important, you know. And I'll be here if you need me.' She looked into Lyanna's eyes. All the Dordovan training had been taken in her stride, accepted like learning to use knife, fork and spoon. This could be the same but somehow Erienne didn't think so. 'Gods, I wonder if you have any real idea what's happening?' she breathed.

'Of course I do, Mummy,' said Lyanna. Erienne laughed.

'Oh, darling, I'm sorry. Of course you do. Tell me, then.'

'The teachers will help me chase away the bad things. And then they will open the other magic doors and then show me how to hold the wind in my head.'

Erienne gasped. Her heart lurched. She was too young, surely, to have any concept. Erienne had anticipated rote learning. It seemed she was wrong.

'How do you know all that?'

'They told me,' said Lyanna. 'They told me last night.'

'When?'

'While I was sleeping.'

'Oh, did they?' Erienne felt a sour taste in her mouth and a quickening of her pulse.

The door to the orchard opened and Cleress stepped outside, a broad smile on her face. Gone was the tottering of the night before, replaced by an almost youthful stride.

'Is she ready?' she asked brightly.

'Well, apparently you know more about that than I do,' said Erienne sharply.

'What's wrong?'

'Next time you wish to invade my child's mind while she sleeps, you will have the decency to ask me first, is that clear?'

Cleress' smile was brittle. 'We must prepare her, and there are many things she will not accept awake that her subconscious mind will.'

'Cleress, you aren't listening.' Erienne stood up, putting Lyanna

down and holding her close. 'I didn't say, don't do it. Gods, I brought her here because I believe you know exactly what you are doing. I merely want you to check with me first. No one understands Lyanna like I do. Sometimes she needs her solitude.'

'Very well.' Cleress scowled.

'She's my daughter, Cleress. Don't any of you forget that.'

'I understand.' She nodded at last. 'We've been alone a long time.'

'Let's just get started, shall wer'

Chapter 6

Denser had no trouble gaining access to the Dordovan College library despite it being after dark, when the grounds were closed to all but College mages and staff. Indeed, on The Raven's arrival in the city the previous day, Vuldaroq had been anxious to help them in their investigations and offer any information available. He had even welcomed Denser and Ilkar's suggestion that they read the Tinjata Prophecy but had extended his official invitation to Denser alone.

Denser was, of course, extremely suspicious. But, with The Unknown and Ilkar out combing the streets for contacts and anything the Dordovans had missed, there was nothing for him to do but read and hope it became apparent why Vuldaroq had been so accommodating.

The original Tinjata Prophecy was kept under airtight glass in another part of the College. What Denser's assigned archivist produced for him was a large leather-bound volume, light brown and titled in embossed gold leaf. It contained upwards of sixty thick parchment pages, the left-hand pages being a transcript of the original lore, the right, a translation, which was incomplete.

Denser had asked why there were blanks in apparently random places, to be told that those parts of the lore were for the eyes of lore scribes only. He had frowned, curiosity aroused, and read what he could.

The early pages turned out to be a rambling account of the dangers of inter-College sexual union, the threat to Balaia of a return of the One Way of magic, and the importance of identifying and retarding the development of any such mage identified.

Denser raised his eyebrows. It seemed that Dordovan thinking hadn't advanced too far on this subject in the intervening millennia.

He read on, past some blank and fractured passages of translation, the prophecy moving to encompass the likely results of ignoring the threat or of failing to control the developing mage. Denser's heart began to beat faster, his mouth drying. Balaia had already been struck by tidal wave, hurricane and days of unbroken thunderclouds and here they were, all laid out. It was hard to believe it was a prophecy, not a diary because, not only did Tinjata foresee the weather systems, he also knew where they would strike.

' "The sea will rise and smite the mouth of the land."' It didn't take a genius to deduce that Tinjata had meant Sunara's Teeth. ' "The sun shall hide its face and the sky's smears will grow thick and deliver floods upon the earth. And when the gods sigh, the tall will be stunted where they felt most secure and the proud will be laid low, their stone temples the graves of their families." '

And further on, Denser shivered at what might be to come. ' "The beasts from below shall rise to gorge themselves and the mountains will crumble, their dust seen by none, for the eyes of the world will be blinded, awaiting the new light of the One. It shall be the light of hell on the face of the land."'

'Dear Gods.' He looked up and found the archivist looking at him. 'It really is happening, isn't it?' The mage nodded. 'Is there more?'

'It's worth you reading,' said the archivist. 'It might help you understand our fears more fully.'

Denser blew out his cheeks. T already understand. I just don't agree with your methods. This is my daughter we're talking about.'

'What can I say?' The archivist shrugged.

'You could say, "can I get you some coffee and a sandwich".'

'I'll be back in a moment but don't leave the library. There are still those who are very bitter about what happened the last time you were in our Tower.'

The archivist bowed slightly and walked away, Denser hearing the door shut gently. It wasn't so much Denser they were bitter about, he assumed, more his Familiar who had, at his bidding, killed a Dordovan mage in a room high up in the Tower. He had never felt any sympathy for the man – his had been a stupid action in capturing the mind-melded demon in the first place – but he had regretted the necessity of his death nonetheless. Dawnthief and the salvation of

Balaia had been at stake and there was nothing that couldn't be sacrificed.

Denser turned his attention back to the prophecy, flicking on, the pages creaking against their bindings. He frowned, looking again at one of the partially blank pages. There was something not right about the parchment. He brought the lantern closer and looked, smoothing down the opposite pages. They were different colours, the translated paler than the transcript. And the clinching evidence was there in the spine and the bindings. He quickly checked all the blank and part blank pages, six of them. There could be no doubt. They were newer.

He really had no choice. With his heart thumping in his chest, and his ears straining for any sound of the returning archivist, Denser drew a dagger and slit the untranslated pages from the volume, folding them hurriedly and stuffing them inside his shirt. He resheathed his dagger and turned to an undamaged spread as the door opened.

'Thank you,' he said as a tray containing coffee and bread were placed on the table. He poured a mug with a slightly quivering hand. That had been a little close.

'Anything you need help with?' asked the archivist.

'No,' said Denser, smiling. 'I'm all but done. Just a few more passages.'

The Dordovan moved away. Denser leaned back and watched him, blowing on his coffee and taking a sip. It wasn't too hot and he gulped down half the mug. He took a bite out of the cold meat sandwich. The archivist disappeared behind a shelf and Denser took his chance, closing the volume and snapping the clasps into place. To him, it looked so obvious that pages were missing; to one who wasn't looking, there probably wasn't anything to arouse suspicion. Probably…

Deciding not to take the risk, Denser drained his coffee, grabbed another mouthful of sandwich and stood up, chair scraping slightly on the smooth wood floor and picked up the book. Heading back to the shelf where he thought the prophecy sat, he was intercepted by the archivist.

'Don't trouble yourself,' he said. 'I'll take it.' He held out his hands.

'It's no trouble.'

'I insist.'

Denser smiled as generously as he could muster. 'Thank you.' He followed the Dordovan to the gap in the eight-row-high shelves. The man raised the book to slide it home and paused, a slight frown on his face. He hefted it, feeling its weight. Denser held his breath. It could only have been a heartbeat but it felt a lifetime before the archivist shrugged and replaced it, turning to see Denser's renewed smile.

'Thanks for your help,' he said.

'My pleasure.' The frown hadn't quite disappeared from his face. 'Take the food on your way out. The guard will see you to the gate.'

Denser proffered a hand, which the Dordovan shook.

'Goodbye,' said Denser. 'Let's hope this ends well for all of us.'

T can second that.' At last a smile.

Denser walked as calmly as he could to the door of the library and summoned the guard to see him out of the Tower, across the grounds and into the streets of Dordover. Only there did he start to relax, a broad grin spreading across his face. He had to find the others and quickly. Vuldaroq might not welcome them for much longer.

It wasn't until early the next morning that the archivist's nagging itch led him back to the Tinjata Prophecy for another look. His swearing shattered the calm of the library.

The Raven, if you could call them that, had come and gone in two days. So far as Vuldaroq and his network could gather, they had found out nothing new, which was something of a shame but hardly a surprise. The Dordovan College guard and mage spies had interrogated every possible contact and lowlife in the City. Spies and assassins were tracking every lead but so far, though some clues to her direction were known, there was nothing as to her final destination.

Yet still he felt satisfied that his plans were forming well. The bait had been taken and Vuldaroq felt he could relax in the knowledge that Balaia's finest were immersed in the search. All that irked him was that, though Denser had taken in the information Vuldaroq had wanted him to from the prophecy, he had stolen that which was not

on offer. And the Tower Lord did not want to risk him finding someone to translate the lore for him. Someone, for instance, like his lore scribe wife, Erienne.

He had come to a bar well away from the College and just east of the central cloth market, a well-to-do area where a senior mage could relax without interruption and meet discreetly with whom he pleased. This time, his companion was less brash and arrogant than at their first, rather difficult meeting, but was no less driven.

'You have to understand that the nature of mages has changed since the Wesmen invasion. We cannot afford to wantonly sacrifice each other to satisfy the cravings of a maimed Black Wing. We are trying to regain our strength, not pare it still further.' Vuldaroq took a long drink from his goblet and refilled it from the carafe of very expensive Blackthorne red. A serving woman brought another bowl of Korina Estuary mussels and oysters. 'Excellent.'

'But you understand my price cannot be reduced,' said Selik, his face hooded. T will have the bitch, with or without your blessing, but together it will be easier for us all to achieve our ultimate goals.'

Vuldaroq chuckled. Selik had been lucky to escape with his life from the College and had done so only with Vuldaroq's personal intervention. Even so, the Black Wing had left pale and shaken, freed from the entrapping spells in which he had been so quickly entwined. There had been shouting, pushing and recrimination but most of all there had been a shocked disbelief, and it had been this that had allowed Vuldaroq to get Selik away.

'Erienne is still one of our most talented and fertile mages. Her death would be a blow the College would feel keenly. I do not necessarily share the College's view.'

'So?'

'So I will meet your price but you must operate only through me. And now I have organised for you a little assistance.'

'Who?' Selik's single eye stared bleakly from his cowl.

'The Raven.'

Selik laughed, a pained, rasping noise that shuddered his ruined lung. 'And what help can they give me? I am already closer to your precious prize than they will ever be.'

'I would advise you never to underestimate The Raven or their resourcefulness. And for all your torture of the elf you suspect of

belonging to this Guild of Drech, he revealed nothing. The Raven are a useful extra force. Monitor them as I will and use what you find as you see fit. As I will.'

Selik rose. 'Then I am already late. The Raven left some hours ago.'

'And headed south,' said Vuldaroq. 'One more thing, Black Wing. Remember with whom you are dealing. Erienne left in response to a signal that pierced our mana shield as easily as a knife through water. They retain great magical power and I need to know where they are. See that Erienne does not die before she tells you their location. But see that she does die.'

Selik bowed very slightly. 'My Lord Vuldaroq, strange though this union of ours is, we both understand that magic is a necessary force. The Black Wings only seek to cut the mould from the otherwise healthy fruit. We are both fighting for the same cause.' He left the inn, Vuldaroq's eyes on him all the way.

T don't think so, Selik,' muttered the mage to himself as he prised open another oyster. Unexpected pieces were being added to what could turn out to be a very satisfying conclusion. Perhaps more than one enemy would be laid to rest forever. In a while he would have to organise the interception of The Raven and the taking of the stolen parchment, but for now he had more oysters to enjoy and Vuldaroq was not a man to let excellence go to waste.

Outside, the wind was getting up, ratding the windows of the inn. Dordover could be in for a stormy night.

The day dawned bright, light streaming through cracks in the barn walls. Ilkar, The Unknown and Denser had begged the shelter from a farmer, happening upon his land late at night with the wind battering at their bodies. But it had blown over quickly and now was just an unpleasant memory.

Ilkar rolled over and sat up in his makeshift bed of hay, in the loft above the animals, and came face to face with Denser.

'Gods, but I shouldn't have left Julatsa,' he said. 'Every morning for days, I've been waking next to a beautiful face and figure and for some twisted reason, I've exchanged that for your bloody beard and stinking armpit odour.'

'You know you've missed them,' said Denser, scratching at his short-trimmed beard.

'No,' said Ilkar, heading for the ladder. 'I have not.'

'Hey!' The Unknown's voice came from below. 'Stop chattering and get moving.'

'You heard the man,' said Ilkar, smiling.

'Just like old times,' muttered Denser.

'Absolutely nothing like old times whatsoever,' returned Ilkar.

Outside the barn, they followed The Unknown who was striding up towards the farmhouse across an empty paddock. All the horses were still in the barn and stables. Inside the two-storey house's kitchen, a plate of ham steamed on a long table and the aroma of a sweet leaf tea filled the air. Ilkar raised his eyebrows.

'Very decent of him,' he said, sitting next to The Unknown and forking some meat on to a thick slice of bread.

'Not really,' said The Unknown. 'I've paid him.'

The farm was fifteen miles south of Dordover and one of a cluster lying in a shallow valley near the main trail to Lystern. Occupied during the Wesmen invasion, they had been rebuilt, their fields replanted and animal stocks replenished, restoring them to their key position, supplying both Colleges. Mage-friendly, Ilkar had been confident they'd get a good reception from any of the farms and, since neither he nor Denser had been keen to remain in Dordover, the settlement had been the obvious choice.

'Now listen,' said The Unknown. 'It's apparent that the Dordo-vans are very serious in their attempts to find Erienne and Lyanna and that means we have to be efficient. So far they've squandered their fifty-day advantage but it can't go on forever and their mage spies will be everywhere, just listening. We should also consider the possibility that we'll be followed.

'Now, that curious friend of Will's told us about activity to the south of the City on the night Erienne left, if you can believe what he said, and even more unreliably, that drunk you found, Denser, reckoned he'd seen a woman and a girl getting into a carriage in about the same place.'

'So what?' asked Denser. 'We already knew they left Dordover. It tells us nothing.'

The Unknown shook his head and sipped the tea. 'Think, Denser.

You've spent too much time dabbling in Xetesk's politics. It tells us two things and we can infer a third. First, that they had help, wherever they were going. Second, a carriage suggests a longish trip. Third, they headed south.' He held up a hand to stop Denser speaking. 'Now I'm sure the Dordovans have guessed as much and no doubt they have representatives in every town and city south of here. What they don't have is the information I found out yesterday afternoon.'

'What information?' Ilkar frowned.

'Sorry not to share this until now but too many people knew why we were in Dordover. I bumped into an old merchant friend of mine who travels a good deal between Greythorne and Dordover. He saw a carriage driven by an elf leaving Greythorne three weeks back and heading for Arlen. I know it's not much but it's more than Vuldaroq knows. I think that's where we should be headed.'

'Will this friend talk to anyone else?' asked Denser.

The Unknown cocked his head. 'Hey,' he said. 'It's me you're talking to.'

'Arlen's a long way round from Xetesk and the Balans,' said Ilkar.

'Just what I was worrying about,' said The Unknown. 'Here's what I propose. Denser, you get to Xetesk as fast as you can. ShadowWings would be best and we'll bring your horse. Ilkar and I will head for the Balan Mountains and talk to Hirad. This could get nasty and we need his blade and his strength. Then we meet up as soon as we can in Greythorne.'

'You reckon you can persuade him?' asked Denser.

'Well we've got more chance if you're not there, put it that way,' replied The Unknown. 'He had some particularly legitimate grievances.'

'I know, I know,' said Denser sharply. 'But you know Mount politics, Unknown. Gods' sakes, how far have you got in pressuring the completion of research into safe release of the Protector army?'

'The group I am funding is considerably more advanced than yours which seeks understanding of the realignment of the dimensions. Besides which, I cannot be in Xetesk for long periods. I don't live there, unlike you. And however much Diera understands my desire to see the Protectors have some sort of choice, I am supposed to be retired. Anyway, I don't think this is the time to debate the

rights and wrongs of the Mount's organisation,' said The Unknown. 'But you haven't helped yourself, Denser. You haven't kept him informed so he's gone and sought his own information. All he's heard is about your ascension to the fringes of the Circle Seven, and nothing about serious dimensional research.'

'He has to be patient,' protested Denser. 'It's a delicate-'

'Denser, don't try it with me!' snapped The Unknown. 'For one, Hirad has never had any patience and you should always have borne that in mind. For another, it's been more than five years and nothing has happened. Those dragons saved Balaia and so far as he's concerned, Balaia, and more particularly Xetesk, has turned its back on them. And I have to say I have a good deal of sympathy for him.'

'We need him, Unknown. Dordover are a real threat to my family, I can feel it.'

'I am aware of that. All I can say is, we'll do what we can and we'll see you in Greythorne in fourteen days or so.'

'That's a long time,' said Ilkar.

'Then we'd best not hang around,' said The Unknown. 'Come on, eat up. It's time we were on our separate ways.'

Erienne sprinted through the orchard and flung the door aside, her daughter's screams resounding in her ears. She turned right and ran down the corridor towards the Al-Drechar teaching chambers buried in the hillside.

Lyanna was sobbing now, the sounds a torture in Erienne's mind. Her anger flared. Through a set of double doors she all but flattened Ren'erei, who caught her by the arm, arresting her progress.

'Let me go, Ren'erei,' she hissed.

'Calm down, Erienne. What's wrong with you?'

Erienne struggled against her grip, unable to break it.

'Those bloody witches are hurting my daughter.'

'Erienne, I can assure you that is the very last thing they intend.' But her dismissal and the laughter in her voice merely sent Erienne's blood racing yet higher.

'Let me go. Right now.'

'Not until you calm down.'

Now she looked at Ren, seeing her eyes flinch involuntarily. 'Let

me go or I'll drop you where you stand,' she whispered. 'I will sec my daughter now.'

Ren'erei stepped away and Erienne ran on without a second glance, following the sounds in her mind, reaching the door to the Whole Room and throwing it open.

'What the hell is going on?' she demanded, but the last words almost died in her throat. Lyanna, apparently happy, was drawing on a chalk board with bright coloured chalks, the Al-Drechar clustered around her desk, staring intently at her work.

Ephemere glanced up. 'Erienne, you look flustered. Has something happened?'

Erienne frowned. The wailing sobs in her head were gone, the screams a distant echo.

'I heard-' she began and took a pace forward. 'Lyanna, are you all right?'

Not even looking up, Lyanna nodded. 'Yes, Mummy.'

Erienne turned back to Ephemere who, with Aviana, was walking towards her across the bare but warm, firelit chamber, the flames dancing across the polished stone walls and ceiling.

'Do you feel all right?' she asked.

'No, I-' Erienne's frown deepened. 'I heard… in my head. Lyanna was crying and screaming. It was horrible.'

'I can well imagine,' said Aviana. 'It's probably memories she's exorcising subconsciously. I'm sorry that they are affecting you. This isn't a side effect we'd anticipated. But, as you can see, Lyanna is quite contented.'

The two Al-Drechar continued to move toward her and Erienne felt herded back to the door.

'It wasn't a dream,' she said. T wasn't imagining it.'

'No one's suggesting you were,' said Ephemere, her arm out, shepherding Erienne away. 'Perhaps you need some air.'

'Yes,' said Erienne. 'Lyanna, do you need Mummy?'

'No,' came the bright reply.

'Fine.' She couldn't fathom it. The cries had been of pain and fear. She had felt them and come running as she had done a hundred times before in Dordover. Yet Lyanna was completely untroubled, on the outside at least. It didn't make sense. Exorcising memories.

Perhaps. She had to think. 'I'll take that flight above the house, if you don't mind,' she said.

Ephemere smiled. 'Of course. An excellent idea. Clear your head. Come back when you're done. Lyanna will be finished by then, I'm sure.'

'See you later then, darling.'

'Uh-huh.' Lyanna continued her drawing.

A loud, flat crack, echoing in the distance brought Lord Denebre to a slightly confused wakefulness in his chair by the roaring fire. Taking a nap in his warmly-decorated tower chamber as he always did after lunch, with the sun streaming in through the widened casde window, the old Lord shook his head, wondering whether the sound hadn't been part of a dream. His health had never fully recovered since his town's occupation by the Wesmen and the pain that periodically gripped his stomach was getting worse and more prolonged as the seasons went by. It was an occupation that had claimed the life of Genere, his wife of forty-five years, and the pain in his stomach was eclipsed by that still in his heart.

Lord Denebre levered himself from his chair and walked slowly over to the tower window which overlooked the castle courtyard and across into his beloved town, from which every scar of Wesmen invasion had been scrubbed. It was a warm late afternoon, though there were clouds sweeping up from the south that promised rain.

Looking down over the beautiful lakeside town, Denebre saw that the noise hadn't been a dream. Everywhere, people had stopped to look. Though he was old, Denebre's eyes retained all their sharpness. He could see his townsfolk point or shrug, shake their heads and continue on their way. The market was picking up again after the midday meal, the hawkers' cries floated above the hubbub, men and women had turned out of the handful of inns and traffic moved sedately down the cobbled, impeccably clean streets.

Lord Denebre didn't have a vast fortune but what he could spare, he set to keeping the place of his birth as he remembered it as a child. His people respected and protected the town and those who travelled in and sought to take advantage of what they saw as a soft underbelly soon discovered a hard edge to the Lord's governance. He wouldn't have gibbets on display in the town, but on the

approaches they occasionally swung with the corpse of robber or thief. In his naivete, he had thought a couple of examples were all that it would take but over the years he had never ceased to be amazed at the arrogance and stupidity of criminals.

Mainly, though, his life had been a joy and his sons and daughters had pledged to keep the idyll when he was gone. That had made it all the harder when the Wesmen had come, threatening the destruction and death of all he held dear.

Gone now, of course. Back across the Blackthornes. He doubted they would ever invade again. And certainly not before he was long entombed. Denebre smiled to himself and took a deep breath at the window. A second crack shattered the calm of the day, bringing silence to the market. It was an unearthly sound, reverberating through the ground and sending a tiny shudder through the castle walls.

Denebre's face creased into a frown and he squinted out, shading his eyes with a shaking, mottled hand and peering away towards the low hills that bordered the small lake's southern shores where he had fished as a boy.

A black scar ran down the face of the grass- and bracken-covered slope. Denebre had not recalled it being there before… perhaps a fire during the hot, dry summer. He dismissed the notion; it was not something he would have missed.

His heart skipped a beat and raced. The scar was moving. Outwards and down, swallowing more of the lush green and belching a cloud of dust into the sky.

'No, no,' he whispered, breath suddenly ragged. Two more cracks assaulted the ears, two more fractures appeared, land falling into the instant chasms, the hideous brown-black lines rushing down the hillside accompanied by a low, dread rumbling.

The vibration through the castle increased. In the marketplace, voices were raised in anxiety and incomprehension. Stalls were rattling, a stack of oranges spilled and bounced onto the street as stallholders rushed to make their goods secure, first instincts for preservation of business, not self.

Moving impossibly fast, the ruptures, which the town's people couldn't see, tore through the south shore and disappeared beneath the lake. For one blissful moment, Denebre thought the water had

halted the charge but the rumbling never died and the tremors increased their intensity. A picture fell from the wall behind him. The logs shifted on the fire.

Turmoil churned the placid surface of the lake. Waves fled out from its centre in every direction, great bubbles boiled to the surface and finally, with a huge, sucking thud, a wall of water erupted, sending a mist into the air, falling back like a deluge of rain.

Denebre gripped the window sill, the vibrations through his feet leaving him uncertain of his balance. Dust shivered from every crevice and his chair rattled against the stone flags.

Devastation was coming. The farmland north of the lake fell into the void as if hell were pulling it down. Tears were streaming down the old Lord's face. What the Wesmen couldn't achieve, nature would wreak in the blink of an eye.

He leaned out of the window. Down in the town, milling confusion reined. People were screaming or barking warnings. Feet slithered on heaving streets, doors were closed, windows fell from frames and the roar of approaching doom still had no face.

'Run, run.' Denebre cursed his voice. Weak with age, it couldn't hope to carry and though he waved an arm frantically, even if anyone was looking, they couldn't hope to understand what he was doing. He was helpless, and the earth was swallowing his town.

Land folded inwards at its borders, the fractures tore into the first building and moved on, faster than a horse could gallop and straight as an arrow, heading for the casde. The world was shaking. Sudden subsidence robbed Denebre of his purchase and he fell heavily, feeling a bone in his hand snap as he tried to absorb the fall.

He cried out, his breath coming in short gasps, but no one would be hearing him. Outside, the rumble had become a deafening roar, as of some earthbound leviathan finding its voice at the surface.

Denebre clawed his way back to his feet, the floor around him shaking, the window frame creaking, glass long since gone. A timber crashed down behind him, thumping into the fire, scattering burning logs across the floor, embers filling the small room. The old Lord ignored it all.

Panic had engulfed the streets and market place. Men, women and children ran blindly away from a threat that showed no mercy, Timbers split, stone cracked, and whole buildings heaved, struck by

giant ripples of land before collapsing into the maw of the beast, crushing anyone in their path.

A choking dust mixed with smoke thickened over Denebre. People scrabbled desperately against the tilting land only to lose grip and slip shrieking into the depths of the earth. The castle gatehouse rocked violently and crumbled, huge gashes fled along the courtyard walls and orders from guardsmen were lost in the awful wailing of horses and the chaos of a hundred poor souls trying to save themselves from a fate from which there was no escape.

Lord Denebre's tower shifted ominously. Behind him, another timber hit the floor. Slates from the roof fell past the window to land in the crevice opening up before the front doors of his own house and not pausing before sweeping under the keep.

'May the Gods have mercy upon us,' he whispered.

The tower shuddered again, the window frame loosened and fell. The air was filled with dust and the creaking of protesting stone and wood. Denebre stood firm, leaning against the shifting wall but the keep groaned, a mortal wound struck in its foundations.

Beyond the walls, the market place was gone, replaced by piles of rubble, mounds of earth thrown up by the leviathan and scattered with bodies, precious few of whom were moving.

Lord Denebre took one last look at the sky, blue and peaceful, the sun shining down. Beneath his feet, the tower moved sickeningly sideways, the violence of the movement all but breaking his grip on the loose window sill. His knees gave way and he sagged forwards, determined not to lose sight of his beloved town. A thudding far below him, reverberating through his feet, told him of central supports breaking.

The tower teetered, the roar of hell pounding at his ears, the sounds of collapsing stone only just audible. His chamber shifted and sagged. Slabs of rock fell through the ceiling to smash into and through the floor and the fall of slate outside became a torrent.

A third massive shudder and the tower leaned outwards at an impossible angle, slipping, sliding on inexorably. Denebre wiped his face clear of dust and tears.

'Not long now, Genere, my love. Not long now.'

The air was clear, warm and pure in her lungs, as Erienne's Shadow-Wings took her slowly higher, revealing more and more of the quite

extraordinary structure that dominated Herendeneth's single shallow peak.

She'd meant to let the air blow through her, dismissing confusion to allow her to think about all that was going awry. But the scene below her changed all that and for an age it seemed, it filled her eyes and her mind.

The house of the Al-Drechar was sprawling, disorganised and magnificent. She hovered, identifying the orchard where Lyanna loved to play, and worked outwards.

Immediately below and towards the path to the landing, she could see what would have been the original grand entrance to the house when it had first been built. Half-towers and gallery-sized rooms were covered with a slate roof which itself was bestrewn with vibrant green creeper. More recently built and making the new frontage, was a lower structure of wood and glass, a long slender entrance corridor that Erienne remembered running along after Ren'erei, on their arrival that now seemed a long time ago.

To the left of the orchard, three slate-roofed wings jutted like the legs of a monstrous insect, not quite straight as if built around immovable natural features. Swooping a littie closer, she could see these features were gently steaming rock pools and delicate water-falls none but a fool would destroy.

To the right, one massive structure dominated. She moved slowly over it, seeing courtyards and follies built into the intricate multilevel building of white stone, grey slate, dark wood and an extra-‹ ›rdinary abundance of flowers as if the Gods had sprinkled them from the heavens. A gorgeous confusion of reds, yellows, blues and purples, strung with emerald green, every pigment strong and pure.

But the real majesty was to the rear of the orchard and it dwarfed t he rest of the house. Cut into steps up the shallow incline to the peak of the hill were terrace after terrace of arches, statues, pillars, domed roofs as of small temples, grottos, pools, intricate rock gardens and perfectly formed trees. And on the peak itself, a stone needle, thirty feet high and six across its base, pointing to the sky, swarming with ivy, covered with weathered carvings and exuding a deep and ancient aura of mage power.

Erienne flew lower, extending her wings for a long slow glide

across the extraordinary architectural and cultural diversity of what she saw. Approaching, she looked for a likely landing place, already imagining herself walking in the tranquillity, lost from herself and everyone for a few precious moments. But as she neared, the air chilled and she retreated upwards, feeling all at once like a trespasser in the past.

She wasn't flying over the fanciful notions of artists brought to fruition, she was flying over graves. One, surely, for every Al-Drechar that had lived to dream of the reunification of the colleges and died, unfulfilled and fearful of the end of all in which they believed.

To land now would be to desecrate the memories. First, she had to carry through her mission, despite her burgeoning misgivings. She flew a little higher and tried to make sense of it all.

Lyanna's training had performed an almost instant change on her, exacdy as Erienne had feared. Gone was the carefree spirit that sang nonsense songs to her doll, to be replaced by a considered, almost introverted, quiet. And though she would still talk, Erienne could see there was more than just the thoughts of a child behind her eyes. It was as if she were assimilating everything she saw, felt and heard; and presumably it was the same on the mana spectra.

Erienne was at once scared of what her daughter would become, proud that she was the future of the One Way and jealous of the wonders she might see.

It was all so different from her time in Dordover, where Lyanna's training, based on generations of developing the minds of infants, left her with all her innocence and gave her the gift of mana acceptance. Erienne felt yet another sweep of guilt as she rode the warm thermals above Herendeneth. She knew Lyanna's mind was suffering in Dordover and they had had to leave, but was this really any better? She still shouted out in the night, she still awoke crying from the pain in her head. There was comfort, though. Here, at least, Lyanna stood a chance of living and giving Balaia back the gift that stood on the precipice of extinction.

But she couldn't banish the worries. She'd seen the Al-Drechar leave the Whole Room and fail to disguise the anxiety in their faces. She had seen them become visibly more frail at the end of each day though the training was barely seven days old. And she had

interrupted whispered conversations that stopped too abruptly when she was noticed.

Determining to speak to Ephemere later, she rose higher, interested to see where the illusion began. She was perhaps only fifty feet from the ground when the house started to become indistinct. Like grey cloud washing across the sky, blotting out detail, the house disappeared under the enormously complex spell with every beat of the ShadowWings. At a little over sixty feet, all she could see was the top of a mist-obscured long-extinct volcano.

As she watched, the illusion flickered and steadied. She thought it a trick of her eyes until the shimmer was repeated. To her left, a roiling in the spell left a wing of the house plainly visible for several beats and closer inspection revealed light shining through illusory rock.

Erienne's heart raced and she dived for the orchard. She'd seen enough poorly maintained static spells to know the illusion was decaying towards the point of collapse.

Something was badly wrong. Surely the Al-Drechar's strength could not be so seriously impaired this soon. A failing illusion was worse than none at all, sending flares of mana whipping through the spectra. To the trained eye, they'd be like a beacon fire in the dead of night. No clearer signal would be needed. All it would take was a master mage searching the southern coasts of Balaia and out to sea.

And then Dordovcr would come in force. It would be no contest.

Chapter 7

Two days after leaving Ilkar and The Unknown Warrior, Denser sat in his chambers, a warm fire heating the small study, its crackling frequently drowned out by the storm assailing Xetesk. Lightning flared and spat across the darkened heavens, thunder rolled and crashed, reverberating through the stone of the College, while rain drove against the shutters like the furious knocking of a thousand angry demons.

But no sound came from the pair in the study; Denser at his desk and the promising young lore diviner, Ciryn, in a chair by the fire. She was one of a relatively new breed trained to develop an empathy with certain aspects of another lore, in this case Dordover's. And scattered around the room was every text and scrap of information Xetesk had on Dordovan lore and its meaning. It amounted to precious little but they had shed fragmented light, held together by educated guesswork, on one of the Tinjata passages Denser had stolen. It had been easy to see why Vuldaroq had ordered the translation removed.

Denser seethed at the danger Lyanna had unknowingly been in every day of her stay in Dordover, a death threat hanging over her. And Erienne could not have known of it, though she would surely have researched Tinjata during her years in Dordover. But, he reasoned, Vuldaroq would have seen this abhorrent passage withheld from her just as he had from Denser.

He reread the words they had pieced together, his anger and relief clashing uncomfortably. '… silenced forever… ritual… order of casting… and only then can the breath be stopped and the celebration begin… scattering of ashes accordingly… lore demands.'

'There's no mistake in this?' he asked.

Ciryn shrugged, her lank brown hair lifting on her shoulders as she did so, and looked at him though dark eyes set in a face too long to be anything but plain.

'Almost certainly in the words, Master Denser, but not in the meaning.'

He shouldn't have been surprised, he supposed. But the ritual magical killing the words implied made the Dordovans no better than the Black Wings. Just a little more precise.

Denser returned to a passage towards the end of the prophecy. So far, Ciryn had determined that it dealt with another danger to the Dordovan order. There were words describing some odd type of shielding but no apparent reference to a casting. It also suggested, Ciryn thought, that the shielder would die as a result of the process, or at least become what she called, 'irrevocably altered', but that the One Mage would grow in some undefined manner.

Much as Ciryn did, but less logically, Denser scoured the texts at his left hand, looking for anything that might unlock just one of the words of Dordovan lore for which they had, as yet, no clue. Their knowledge was so frustratingly slight. And the Prophecy was written in a lower lore. Had it concerned spell construction or generation, they would have read nothing whatever: the higher Dordovan languages remained completely closed to Xetesk.

Denser sighed and Ciryn looked up, frowning, her finger propping open a scroll, her teeth irritating at her bottom lip.

'Master Denser?'

'Sorry, but I can't make any sense of this.'

'But I'm afraid I think I can,' said the diviner.

'Why afraid?'

'Because you are the child's father. I'll write down the piece I have translated,' said Ciryn.

'No, just tell me,' said Denser.

'Oh. All right.' She took in a deep breath. T don't think it's a shielding, I think that was the wrong interpretation. But it's a way of bringing a One Mage from Night undamaged.'

'How?' A chance to really help his daughter was there for him to grasp.

'By the father opening his mind to the storm and surrounding his

child with the power of his mind, so showing the light the mage needs to complete Awakening.'

Denser felt suddenly cold. 'But that would mean I would d-'

'Be irrevocably changed, yes.'

The Circle Seven had taken Denser's words in complete silence the following mid-morning. Deep under the Tower of the Lord of the Mount in the Laryon Chamber, they had granted him unwilling audience then sat transfixed as he recounted recent events in Dor-dover, spoken of Erienne's letter and the work he and Ciryn had completed the night before.

The Circle Seven, Xetesk's Tower Masters, chaired by Dystran, the fortunate incumbent of the Mount, had been expecting more pressure for research. What they heard was a cry for help and the raising of the spectre of a threat from another College.

'How long since her disappearance?' asked Ranyl, an ageing master, hairless and hunched but still vital in his magic.

'More than sixty days.' There was a hiss of indrawn breath.

'And you still hope to find her,' said Dystran. His tenure had aged his young face, his eyes looked heavy and his black hair was shot through with grey.

'Yes,' said Denser firmly. 'There seems little doubt who she has gone to.'

Dystran chuckled. 'Indeed, but we are now entering the realm of myth and blind belief. And we have no idea where these one-magic mages of yours live, should they turn out to be real.'

'You should read more,' responded Denser. Tlkar says there's significant evidence that they're on or near Calaius and that's backed up, albeit tenuously, by the leads we found in Dordover.'

'So what do you want of us?' Dystran regarded Denser over steepled fingers, affecting a pose of studied contemplation. Denser almost laughed. This Lord of the Mount was a ridiculous figure who had done nothing but engender political instability since his surprise tenure had begun more than five years before. A bigger surprise was that he remained alive. Ranyl was doubtless the architect of his continued survival. Denser wandered how long it would be before the old man made his move.

'I need Xetesk to keep Dordover away. Their intentions are clear enough and we can't let them take Lyanna back, or worse.'

Dystran's eyes flashed fanatically cold. 'Oh we'll keep Dordover away, all right. We can't have them meddle any further with the natural order. And you clearly understand your role. It's certainly fortunate we've delayed implementation of the volunteer release plan your Unknown Warrior so desires, isn't it?'

Denser shuddered. The Protectors would be marching again. The Unknown wasn't going to like it.

Selik rode with a guard of eight Black Wings, his journey from Dordover to Arlen pausing in the ruins of Denebre. He wanted to show his men what it was they were fighting for. Not that they were wavering. It just never hurt to reinforce beliefs.

But what he saw didn't merely do that, it added a whole new dimension. And for Selik personally, it set his anger raging afresh and brought an ache to his dead eye. The nine men rode slowly around the edges of the once beautiful lakeside town. They couldn't even get to what had been the centre; chasms in the earth blocked their way.

And perhaps that was fortunate. The stench of death was everywhere. Above the wind, the buzzing of myriad flies was a warning to keep away and everywhere they looked, rats scurried. Disease would be running into the rivers and soaking into the ground. Selik hated to think about the state of the poor innocents lying dead and unburied.

He could imagine all too easily the panic that had engulfed the town. As the earth heaved and buildings plunged, people would have abandoned everything that was dear to them. Their homes, their possessions. Their families. The air would have been filled with the screams of the terrified and the wounded and dying. Dust would have clogged lungs, chips of stone and glass would have slashed faces and hands; and everywhere they ran, the people of Denebre would have encountered the ground at their feet tearing itself apart, swallowing them whole or ripping their bodies to shreds.

Looking across the ruins it was hard to imagine the life that had been there so recently. Not one building was left standing. On the opposite side of the town, the castle was rubble. Selik could make

out parts of the keep, piles of tottering stone and snapped timbers suggested where the walls might have been. But the outer structures were gone. A gash seventy yards wide had driven through the centre of the courtyard in front of the keep and taken it all down.

Nearer to where they sat, mute, the Black Wings couldn't make out a single road or where the marketplace had stood. Debris littered the ground, great boulders and shelves of earth had thrust from below and, here and there, a ragged piece of cloth or the smashed remnants of furniture were all that signified the life that had been so brutally snuffed out.

Selik was amazed that anyone had survived and indeed only a handful had, taking their story to Pontois or Lystern, some south to Erskan. But who was to say it wouldn't happen again in any of tiiose places?

Selik turned to his men, taking in their disbelieving expressions and the hands over their mouths to keep out the worst of the smell that drifted by on the breeze.

'This is why we fight magic,' he said. 'This is why we are right. Magic caused all of this, never forget that. It is a force of evil and we are the only ones who can see it. The rest of the world is blind.'

But not for long, he thought. The destruction across Balaia had to change the perceptions of its people. They would demand more control. The mages couldn't be trusted to keep their power benign and innocents were dying in their hundreds and thousands, taken by forces they couldn't understand.

The worst of it was that she was behind it all. The bitch had given birth to the abomination whose mind was destroying the land. All in the cause of greater power, of domination. Selik seethed and as he put his heels to his mount and spurred it on southwards, leaving Denebre to rot, he began to imagine the pain he would cause her before he allowed her to die. Justice for the righteous. Agonising death for the mage.

The rain was falling hard on the Balan Mountains when Ilkar and The Unknown Warrior arrived late one evening, tired and hungry, eleven days after parting company with Denser. It was a bleak and cold night following a chill and sunless day. The rain had fallen incessantly and the pair had ridden into the teeth of a biting wind,

every part of their bodies soaked despite cloaks and leather. Bemoaning the sharp change in the weather from the sun and warmth of Julatsa, Ilkar was walking his horse and wishing fervently he was caressing Pheone's body when a movement in the rocks above caught his eye.

'Unknown-' he began, but with a shriek, a huge shadow tore through the clouds, sweeping low over them. Ilkar's horse reared and bolted, the elf making no attempt to hold on to the reins. The Unknown was pitched from his, landing in a heap on the ground, a flurry of hooves narrowly missing his head as his mount followed Ilkar's in a desperate attempt to escape.

The dragon banked and turned, its black outline only just visible against the heavy cloud in the darkness. Ilkar, shield spell on lips and heart hammering, moved towards The Unknown as the big man surged to his feet. He was swordless but no less imposing and his face was creased in irritation.

'Hirad!' he barked over the noise of wind, rain and wing. 'That is not funny.'

Nos-Kaan flew overhead, heading back to the Choul.

'Can't be too careful,' came the shouted reply. A figure moved down from the rocks above them. He had a few days' growth of stubble on his chin, long unkempt hair blowing about his head and heavy furs covering his trademark leather armour. He moved quickly and surely over treacherous wet rock, displaying no fear of the steep falls any slip would bring. Ilkar expected nothing less from Hirad Coldheart.

He leapt the last few feet, his tough leather boots smacking in a small puddle, and pulled Ilkar into a rough embrace.

'Gods, it's good to see you, Ilks,' he said. Ilkar pulled away, his nose wrinkling.

'You haven't built the bathhouse yet, then?' he said. Hirad grinned, his teeth white against his dark stubble.

'Sorry, it's these furs. I haven't got much in the way of curing tools up there. I'm taking them to Blackthorne in a couple of days, get them seen to.'

'I don't think so, Hirad,' said Ilkar. The barbarian's smile disappeared and he looked from one old friend to the other.

'This isn't a social call, then?' he asked.

'In this weather?' said Ilkar, wiping a sheen of water from his face.

'We'll tell you all about it once you've found our horses and kit,' grumbled The Unknown. 'Was that little display really necessary?'

Hirad's face was sombre. 'I can't take chances, Unknown. I couldn't see who it was and neither could Nos until he was closer. The hunters are getting too clever.'

The Unknown nodded. 'Later,' he said. 'Let's get ourselves out of this rain first, eh?'

It was a beautifully warm sunny day in Dordover, quite at odds with the chill that had swept over the city the day before. The scent of late-flowering blooms hung in the air of the College grounds and the chittering of birds gave an almost spring-like atmosphere. But it was moving towards late autumn and Vuldaroq did not enjoy sweating in the heat during this season. He bustled along the cloister to the Chamber of Reflection where visiting College dignitaries were met, sighing in satisfaction at its cool ambience as he swept in, dark voluminous robes flapping behind him.

The Chamber of Reflection was a room built entirely of polished granite slabs, in each corner of which a fountain or waterfall had been built to engender peace and calm. Woven reed chairs sat about a low marble table and beyond the doors opposite the cloistered corridor was the rock garden. It was a place much loved by mages for its intricate arrangements of pools and plants but hated by Vuldaroq for its ability to trap the sun's heat. He would not be entering it today.

Waiting in the Chamber were two men recently arrived from Lystern, Balaia's fourth and smallest College. Heryst, Lord Elder Mage, and General Ry Darrick, Balaia's brilliant young soldier. He was scowling beneath his mass of light brown curly hair and plainly uncomfortable, shifting his tall frame as if in a hurry to leave as he stood behind the seated Heryst. Three goblets and a jug sat on the low table next to a large wicker bowl of fruits.

'You took your time,' said Vuldaroq, bridling at Heryst's refusal to rise as he entered.

Heryst merely smiled. 'There are many issues demanding my attention in Lystern. We travelled as soon as was practicable.'

'Pour yourself some juice, Vuldaroq,' said Darrick. 'Sit down. You're looking a little flushed.'

Vuldaroq met Darrick's eyes. The General didn't flinch, staring back placidly until the Dordovan reached for the jug.

'Your Communion was not detailed,' said Heryst. T take it you have a problem too severe for Dordover to handle alone.'

Vuldaroq eased himself into a chair, his bulk causing the weave to creak and protest. He took a long draw on the cooling mixed apple and orange juice, determining to retain a modicum of control.

'As you may be aware, the child has left Dordover. This would not be a problem in itself but she and her mother have disappeared, to all intents and purposes, and we believe them to have been contacted by servants of the One Way.'

Heryst laughed. 'Vuldaroq, you always did have a penchant for the dramatic. For you, the most outrageous of conclusions to any scries of events has always been the most likely. No doubt Erienne is relaxing with her husband. Or perhaps she and Lyanna have merely taken a break from the rigours of training. They are not your prisoners, remember; they can go and do whatever they like without your permission.'

Vuldaroq mopped his sweating brow and allowed himself a patronising smile.

'Busy your College may be but it faces inwards from dawn 'til dusk. Lyanna is a child of the One, that much is now achingly obvious, and her effect is already being felt across Balaia. Presumably you are aware that Greythorne Town and Thornewood have been struck by winds the like of which none have ever experienced, and that Denebre has been all but swallowed by the earth.' He leaned hack, waiting for reaction. Darrick's shrug disappointed but did not surprise him.

'Portents of some greater doom, are they?' The soldier couldn't keep the cynicism from his voice.

'Absolutely,' said Vuldaroq, hoping his sombre response would disconcert the cocky General. 'You are clearly not conversant with the Tinjata Prophecy. Your High Elder Mage, of course, is.'

Heryst was suddenly a shade paler, his swagger gone. Vuldaroq watched him replay the words of the prophecy in his head before he spoke, his voice quiet.

'Are you sure?' he asked.

'About what?'

Heryst shrugged. 'All of it.'

'How much more evidence do you need? Surely the word is spreading around Lystern as it is here. Denebre has gone, swallowed by the earth. Thornewood has been flattened by a hurricane, we've had reports of flooding from a dozen and more towns, and Blood Lake now covers over twice its original area. Even Korina hasn't escaped. And that's not to mention all the stories of lightning storms, hail lasting days and cloud so dense the sun never penetrates.

'Look, Denser was here a few days ago with Ilkar and The Unknown Warrior. The Raven is reforming to search for her. They share our concerns. This child must be found and returned to the College before more harm is done.'

'And Xetesk?' ventured Heryst.

Vuldaroq blew out his cheeks. 'We can expect them to be troublesome. Though they too are at risk from the elemental forces battering Balaia.'

'But surely they believe the outcome will be better for them if the girl is not found and returned,' said Heryst.

'Indeed, so long as the storms cease,' agreed Vuldaroq. 'We must be very wary of them.'

'So what do you require of us?' asked Darrick, mindful of Heryst's reaction.

'Both The Raven and the child will need protection. I have people shadowing The Raven. When the time is right, I want you, General, to be in the right place to help them. That could be before or after they find the girl. If Heryst agrees, I want you to lead a force of Dordovan and Lysternan cavalry to achieve that aim.'

'Naturally,' said Heryst. 'Anything.'

Vuldaroq smiled. 'Thank you, Heryst. Your cooperation will see both of our Colleges remain independent.' Darrick was frowning, looking down at his feet. 'General, is anything bothering you?'

'There's something not right about this,' said Darrick. T don't see why The Raven were called upon so late and I don't see why Xetesk would cause any trouble. Surely they share your – our -interest in the child?'

Vuldaroq's lips thinned. 'My dear General, The Raven had retired. And while Denser was fully in support of our early efforts to find Lyanna alone, it subsequently became clear we needed more help, hence The Raven and your good selves.

'And you are right, Xetesk does share our interest, but they have an agenda other than our own. They want to see a return to the One Way of magic and that would spell, if you'll pardon the pun, the end of Dordover, Lystern and, for that matter, Julatsa.'

'I can't see why Xetesk would desire that. Not now – surely they are as anxious as any of us to maintain equality among the Colleges?'

'Well, that rather depends on whether they feel they can survive and become the dominant force without the need for battie. And I believe that's exactly what they think.'

Darrick nodded, though Vuldaroq could see he remained unconvinced. 'And what of Erienne and Lyanna's feelings and desires?'

'They are Dordovans,' said Vuldaroq sharply. 'And it is our right as well as our duty to train them in the Dordovan ethic. Lyanna will, of course, be allowed to expand her compass to other disciplines but she should remain, at root, one of ours.'

Darrick raised his eyebrows. 'Surely Lyanna is a child of Dordover and Xetesk, at the very least, and perhaps of all Colleges.'

'Ry, please? I'll explain later.' Heryst looked oyer his shoulder.

Darrick shrugged. 'They are my friends, my Lord Mage. I am merely anxious to see right done by them.'

'And it will be,' assured Heryst.

'There is far more at stake here than friendship,' said Vuldaroq.

Darrick regarded him coolly. 'No, there isn't,' he said. 'Not for me.' He bowed to both mages and left the Chamber of Reflection.

Vuldaroq scowled. 'You keep your General in line,' he said. 'We've already got The Raven out there and I can't have any more mavericks. This is too big.'

'Don't worry, Vuldaroq. Darrick may be possessed of a big heart but he is also possessed of an unflinching loyalty to Lystern. He'll do as I ask.'

'See that he does.'

Lyanna was walking alone down the corridor to her room as Erienne hurried into the house, a confrontation with the Al-Drechar on her mind.

'Lyanna?' she called, a little more sharply than she'd intended, taken aback that Ren'erei wasn't shadowing her.

The little girl stopped and Erienne felt the air move about her. She turned a scowling face to her mother and walked towards her. Erienne had seen that scowl a hundred times before but this time she felt threatened, though the notion was absurd.

'Oh Lyanna, what's happened? Don't look like that,' she said gently, crouching down. 'Come and give me a hug.'

'I don't feel well,' said Lyanna. 'Ephy's very tired and Myra was sick. I hurt them, Mummy, and I hurt you.' She was close to tears.

Erienne frowned. 'You didn't hurt me, darling. I was just worried about you, that's all.'

But Lyanna shook her head. 'No, Mummy, I know what I did.' A tear rolled down her cheek. Erienne wiped it away then pulled Lyanna close.

'You could never hurt me, Lyanna. I love you.' She stood, picking her daughter up and taking her to her room, setting her on the bed. 'Tell you what, why don't you tell me what you did today? What made Ephy so tired?'

T draw pictures,' said Lyanna, her tone a little brighter. 'Of what the magic inside me shows me. Then they tell me how to hold the wind it makes in my head.' Lyanna looked up and more tears were in her eyes. 'But I can't make it work and they have to help me and it makes them ill and things happen. I know they do because they all look so frowny and then they have to stop and make my mind quiet again.'

She started to grizzle and Erienne held her tightly, her heart lurching. She couldn't grasp exactly what Lyanna was trying to explain but one conclusion was clear enough. The Al-Drechar weren't coping.

'Will you be all right here on your own for a little while?' she asked.

'Yes. For a little. Maybe Ren will come.'

'If I see her, I'll ask her to visit you.' Erienne smiled and leant to kiss Lyanna's cheek. It was wet with tears. 'Don't worry, my sweet. Everything will be fine.'

But as she hurried along to the dining room where she hoped to find the Al-Drechar, her words echoed in her mind like betrayal.

They were there, as she had hoped, sitting around one end of the table as always. Myriell had the pipe in her hands though it was only late afternoon.

'Sit, Erienne. Sit.' Cleress waved a hand wearily at the empty chairs. Erienne chose one where she could face them all.

'I think it's time you told me what is really going on,' she said.

'You sound as if you think something's wrong,' said Aviana.

'And it's time you dropped that illusion too. It's as full of holes as the one I flew over just now.' There was no reaction. Erienne pointed at her eyes. 'These work, you know.' Then her ears. 'And so do these. So why don't you drop the high and mighty all-conquering Al-Drechar bit and tell me what's happening.' Erienne felt her anger stir. She saw a frown flash across Ephemere's face but it was Cleress who spoke.

'Your daughter is an exceptionally talented individual but her abilities are unfocused. It is taking longer than we anticipated to calm her mind. Then we can begin to train her to use the Way.'

'Gods, I get straighter answers from Lyanna,' Erienne said. 'Look, I don't know whose benefit all your bluff is for but I'm not buying it. I may not be Al-Drechar but I know when I see a major illusion disintegrating and I know what that causes in the mana spectra. I also know when I see four exhausted old elves and I'm looking at them right now. I'm asking you, please, don't fail because you're too proud to call on me to help.'

The Al-Drechar were silent, expressions neutral while they conversed with each other. Erienne waited and presently Ephemere focused on her.

'Erienne, the depth of your daughter's potential power exceeds our hopes but brings such problems. Her youth makes her mind so vulnerable to surges and uncontrolled expression of mana and we have had to absorb and refocus so much as she learns to accept the feelings within her.

'She is not currently at risk because we are able to accommodate her energies but, as you have made clear, it has depleted our own and leaves us somewhat exposed.'

'Somewhat? Look at you Ephy, Myra – all of you – taking the pipe

in the afternoon, sitting like it takes all of your remaining energy to stay upright. And that illusion above our heads is a liability. Why do you even sustain it?' Erienne felt a crawling in her chest. The Al-Drechar looked so frail. Such power and venerability reduced to sunken-eyed exhaustion.

'It is our only defence,' said Aviana. 'We are so few and our enemies are so near.' She sounded close to panic.

'But how long can you go on, Ana? Gods, you're killing yourselves. Let me help, I implore you. Tell me what I can do.' She searched their faces through the wisps of smoke, 'deny? Ephy?'

'We have already taken steps,' said Cleress.

'Ren'erei is leaving on the predawn tide,' said Ephemere.

'To do what?'

'To seek mages who can sustain the illusion and allow us to focus all our energies on Lyanna,' replied Cleress.

'Where's she going? I mean, do you have mages you can trust?'

Cleress shook her head. 'I'm afraid it's a little more urgent than that. We have no mages in the Guild and Ren'erei goes to Calaius to recruit those who believe in our myth.' She tried to smile. Erienne was horrified.

'You're going to invite total strangers here? Think of the consequences!'

'And think of them if we don't,' said Myriell harshly, her voice thick with pipe smoke.

'No, no. Sorry, Myra but you misunderstand,' said Erienne. 'I'm talking about trust and betrayal. You've spent so long keeping your location secret, you can't afford even the slightest risk that Ren'erei finds the wrong people.' She paused, her heart swelling in her chest, ashamed at the rush she was feeling. 'I'm going with Ren'erei but not to Calaius because you need people, and not just mages, that you can trust utterly. We're going back to Balaia. You need The Raven.'

Chapter 8

The vanguard of the Protector army scouted half a day ahead of the rest, at the limits of contact with their brothers. Twenty men, masked and silent, accompanied by four mages directing their movement but no longer with the ultimate punishment for disobedience available to them.

The Protectors represented a declining but still awesome Xetes-kian calling. The last man had been taken more than six years before and subsequently freed in a ceremony that could not be repeated until it was further researched. He was The Unknown Warrior and they would never forget him.

A frighteningly short time ago, a Protector transgressing the harsh rules of the calling would have suffered soul torment by demons for as long as his Given mage wanted. That was no longer sanctioned although the demons hadn't been told that. Souls to torment was their part of the bargain for maintaining the Demon-Chains that linked each Protector to his soul held outside his body in the Soul Tank, deep in the catacombs of Xetesk.

In truth, the punishment wasn't needed now anyway. Aeb, at the head of the vanguard, could barely remember the years before he was taken. He would have been in his late teens, he thought. What he knew now was that the Soul Tank, where his soul linked with those of his hundreds of companions, meant brotherhood beyond all human meaning. It meant strength, comfort and understanding on the most basic level. It was what made them the power they were.

He understood that one day, he might be asked to choose freedom. He wasn't sure what he would say.

But some rules remained. A Protector could make no decisions except in a battle situation unless his Given was lost. And Protectors were never told to where they marched. They followed and fought

or threatened as directed. Aeb accepted it had to be this way. And though the souls often swam in unhappiness in their Xeteskian containment, their abiding joy was their closeness and the power it gave them. There were no dissenters. It had ever been so and the concept was alien. It would undermine the whole and that was unacceptable. Abhorrent.

Aeb was aware that research would break the brotherhood and it saddened him. But for now, people feared the Protectors and that was right. People like the Dordovan cavalry they had encountered.

They had been travelling south and east from Xetesk for four days, stopping late in the night and setting off at dawn each day, their pace fast, their rests dictated by the tiredness of mages and horses. An hour from the borders of the mage lands, in an area once rich for farming but now battered by incessant rain, they had paused for refreshment.

All day, low cloud had released a shifting rain mist that eddied in the wind and made visibility poor. The damp penetrated armour and mask, the land was quiet as if every other living thing had sought shelter, and the mist played with the eyes, making shapes where there were none. For some time before the Dordovans had ridden up, they had heard hoof falls echoing dully, the rain and wind making their direction of approach difficult to determine. Eventually, the Dordovans had appeared, their lead warriors pulling up sharply as the Xeteskians loomed at them out of the mist.

Aeb permitted himself the tiniest satisfaction at their manner. He could see the mask of Elx, dark and shining, and knew that they must have startled the horsemen. Aeb signalled the body of the army, using his nineteen brothers to augment him over the range. The mages stepped into the centre of the trail as a rider trotted up from the middle of the Dordovan column. He was another mage, but fat, the skin of his face unhealthy under the hood of his cloak. His horse had the girth to match.

Their lead mage, Sytkan, spoke.

'Vuldaroq. What an unpleasant, if predictable sight.'

The fat mage smiled. 'Likewise, Sytkan. We've heard reports of you and your abominations on the move for days. I suppose it's pointless to enquire after your destination.'

'A waste of your breath, but more a waste of mine.' Sytkan looked

about him. He was a young mage, a junior master but being schooled for greatness. He was tall, quick and heavy-boned, his grey eyes glaring out from under his tight-fitting skull cap. 'You know something, I do believe these lands to be under the care of Xetesk.'

'Care? An interesting term. And I believe we have full rights of passage as laid down in the Triverne Agreement on Mage Land Propriety.'

'An old and dusty legislature,' said Sytkan. 'And rendered void in times of open conflict between Colleges, as I recall.'

'Is that what you call this?' asked Vuldaroq. 'Since your insults are directed at the Lord of the Mount, yes.'

Tension flared. Aeb watched the ripple through the Dordovan cavalry. He could count more than a hundred but guessed that twice that many stood hidden by the chill swirling mist.

Stand down ready. No weapons. Check left, aggressive intent, centre is fear, right neutral, Aeb pulsed to his brothers. None of them so much as moved a muscle.

In the centre of the trail, the four Xeteskian mages stood calm but Aeb could feel one preparing a HardShield to defend against projectile attack. Beside her, another prepared spell defence. He assumed the Dordovans were doing the same.

'It would be unwise to threaten us, Sytkan,' said Vuldaroq. T have three hundred cavalry here. I'd hate to see them run you down.'

'And you will not,' replied Sytkan, voice firm but cool. 'A clear act of aggression in Xeteskian lands would be a great mistake with the bulk of the Protector army not far behind you.'

Vuldaroq chuckled and dismounted, his horse twitching its gut and back as the considerable weight was removed. The mage walked forward.

'There. Far more civilised. Now, I think this little spat should end here. Let's agree to differ on our agendas and move on.' He was a few paces from Sytkan and Aeb could see the fear in his eyes though he covered it with overconfident bluster.

'Absolutely,' agreed Sytkan. 'But for you that means journeying by the quickest route from Xeteskian lands. You understand you cannot be allowed to ride ahead of us. So, north, I think that means. Aeb, do you concur?'

'The lands north are easier for horses, Master. It is a quicker route than south.'

'Exactly. I am sorry, Vuldaroq, but I have instructions from Dystran himself. Due to the unfortunate reaction of Dordover and Lystern, our lands are temporarily closed to your traffic. I require you to respect that.'

'You expect me to accede to the word of a Lord of the Mount who is nothing more than a puppet to his Circle Seven and die advice of a masked thug?' Vuldaroq spun on his heel and stalked back to his horse.

'Retract your remarks concerning my Lord of the Mount,' demanded Syfkan.

'I never retract the truth.'

'Aeb, deploy,' muttered Sytkan, signalling his mages to cast their shields.

Space across the path. Move to ready.

Like ghosts in the mist, the Protectors reacted, their movements precise and efficient. In moments they had blocked the path in a slightly concave line. As they came to ready, axes and swords snapped from back mounts in a clatter of steel which echoed across the windswept space, its chill sound accentuated by the silence that followed. Aeb looked and saw fear. It was expected.

Sytkan spoke into the void. 'This is not a bluff. Your insults are crude, Vuldaroq, but our threat is not. Ride north. Leave our lands and take some advice. Go back to Dordover. You'll find nothing but death in Arlen.'

Vuldaroq sniffed. T will ride where I please.'

'North.'

'And if I refuse?'

'Then we will attack you. Aeb has freedom to act. He needs no further command.'

Vuldaroq considered and smiled. He shrugged.

'Horses are quick. Your creatures are on foot. I can order the cavalry to ride north a mile if it will assuage your conscience. We will return to the path at a time that suits us and well ahead of you.'

'How little you understand about the mind of a Protector. He is bred to snuff out threat and aggression against Xetesk. You can only ride so fast and we will track you down. Don't challenge us.'

'I am getting very tired of this. We are three hundred horse and one hundred and fifty mages. You are twenty and four. Stand aside.'

'You are a split force,' said Sytkan. 'And no, we will not yield. All Xeteskians are pledged to defend their land, as you are yours. If you can't show civility, at least show respect.' He tempered his tone and added. 'Come on, Vuldaroq, neither of us needs to fight here. You know I can't move. You aren't losing face. You're just doing the right thing.'

'So be it.' Vuldaroq wheeled his horse and began to trot back down the centre of the four-abreast cavalry column. At once, FlameOrbs soared up from its middle, arcing across the space to splash against the shield covering the Xeteskians. It held, the fire lashing over its transparent surface, searing and cracking as it dissipated into the ground, sending steam clouding up.

'Damn you, Vuldaroq,' muttered Sytkan.

Aeb needed no invitation. '

Front rank, horses, second rank, flank support. Force width, pincer in.

Standing at the centre point of their formation, Aeb, with Elx and Ryu at his sides, stepped up just as the Dordovan cavalry started moving. Dropping to his haunches, Aeb swung his axe right-handed into the lead horse's front legs, catching the left just above the knee and slicing clear. The animal screamed and reared, Aeb already moving forward and away from the flailing limbs. Its rider crashed off, seeing nothing but the Protector's sword thrash through his undefended neck.

Left and right, Aeb's brothers struck low with axe, high with sword, horses and riders collapsing as the frightening onslaught gathered momentum. Blood fizzed into the air, painting the mist a hideous shade of pink and, all around, the terrified cries of horses mingled with the urgent shouts of riders attempting to force their mounts to forward action.

Aeb was pressed on all sides. He lashed out with his axe, feeling it bite deep into an unguarded flank. The horse leapt sideways, rider hanging on, sweeping his sword down where it connected with Aeb's protective block. But the man was unbalanced and the next axe strike knocked him from his saddle, to die under the hooves of

his stricken mount which, eyes rolling, searched for a way out of the death, the scent high in its flaring nostrils.

Aeb let it go, to add to the confusion, and turned for his next target. Ahead of him, the cavalry had stopped and left Elx decapitated a rider who had made the mistake of leaning down to strike at what he had been sure was an unguarded back.

Regroup. Withdraw centre. Outer flanks hold. They are massing. Charge imminent.

Aeb looked along the line. No Protectors were lost and a dozen cavalry lay slain. He backed off, each footstep sure, guided by a brother. Overhead, more FlameOrbs covered the sky, boiling the spray of rain as they travelled, detonating harmlessly on the Xeteskian shields. There was no return.

The Dordovan cavalry had disappeared back into the mist but in the eerie half-silence, shouted orders filtered out. Visibility was perhaps sixty yards. The Protectors stood in two ranks of ten, ten paces from the carnage they had created. Their weight was towards the flanks, eighteen each side, with only Aeb and three others holding dead centre. Long before they could see anything, the ground vibrated as the cavalry advanced at a trot. Clashing metal sounded from the mist, and the snorts of horses impatient for the charge.

Aeb waited, his Protectors solid and immobile. Shadows moved in the mist ahead, ghosts in the rain. Slowly, they resolved and Aeb could see the outline of their formation. He felt his pulse quicken and his brothers joined him in the surge that came before battle. Behind him, the mages were mounted, spell shields doubled, Hard-Shield dropped, ready to run but confident in their Protectors.

Perhaps fifty yards away, at a barked order, the cavalry charged, the riders roaring as they came, weapons glistening in the rain, their horses sleek and powerful, bred for the run.

Aeb had assessed the charge before it came. 'Front ranks, Master Sytkan. Break the flanks.'

They will attempt to flank, be ready. Low stance, quick strikes. Axes front. We are one.

We are one, came the response.

Xetesk had a weapon and Sytkan, having already suffered spell attack, was not shy of retaliating with it. He had been preparing

since the skirmish began. As the first horses in the eight-wide column broke into the gallop towards the bodies of their fallen comrades, he and his spare mage crossed arms over their chests before pushing their hands out to cover the cavalry's flanks.

'HellFire.'

Blasting away the mist, steam trailing and gushing, a dozen columns of fire hammered down from the sky, each seeking a living soul. To the left, the Dordovan shield held, sending the flame lashing and spinning into the ground where it scorched the wet earth to ignition, panicking horses and riders alike. But to the right it cracked, and beneath it, the cavalry never stood a chance.

Men blew apart under the sudden tumult, with no time to scream before their bodies were splashed to the winds, the fire driving on, breaking horses in two, finally spending itself against the ground.

The right flank disintegrated in terror, surviving horses bucking and twisting, taking their hapless riders back into the teeth of the charge that smashed into them, unable to pull up in time. Horses tried desperately to jump others in their path, catapulting riders out of saddles and the slap of horse on horse as well as the agonised cries of riders with legs crushed between two beasts filled the air.

To the left, the splashing fire caused similar chaos, though less pain and only in the centre did the charge come on. Skittish but well-trained, the wild-eyed mounts drove steadily on, slower now, picking their way over the bodies of the fallen.

In front of them squatted Aeb, axe cocked and ready in both hands, his sword discarded, lying in the mud at his feet. He fixed his eyes on their strides, establishing the pattern and calculating the fast diminishing distance. At the last, he rolled left and forward, returning to the crouch and swinging up and out with his axe. He felt it slice flesh and he hardened his grip, letting the blade bite deep and his body be dragged forward by the momentum of the horse, keeping his body tucked.

The animal shuddered. Aeb looked up and saw the axe deep in its thigh. He clung on, dragging it down, its rider unable to strike out effectively as he fought his wounded mount. The horse stuttered and pitched on to its nose, other cavalry milling behind it, disconcerted by the belligerence of the Protectors. But two broke

through, bowling over the men in their path, horses clattering over bodies, riders exhorting them on.

Taken by surprise for an instant, one of the second rank was taken by a wheeling sword that whistled through his chest, lifting him from his feet. But the rest were so fast. Forming up seamlessly, Protectors crouched and swung to slow the horses while more brothers dived at the riders, bearing them from their saddles to the ground and with sharp twists, ending their lives in a snapping of necks.

Aeb wrenched his axe clear of the fallen but struggling horse.

Aeb, three brothers down. Sword underfoot. Right lower rear quarter strike.

He struck without looking. A cavalryman died.

Stooping, he swept up his sword, straightened and saw the endgame. Protectors forged in on both sides of the crumbling charge. Wide spaced and with weapons free, they struck without error, bringing down horse before taking rider, a relentless advance. Aeb moved up. In front of him, a cavalryman wrestled his blade from a tangle of reins and forced his horse around. He blanched as he saw the Protector advance but was already too late. Ignoring the animal, Aeb lashed round-armed with his axe, lifting the rider clean out of his saddle, the blow catching him high in the chest, his last breath exhaled as a fountain of blood.

They are broken. We are victorious. We are one.

We are one.

Aeb surveyed the enemy. They were wheeling and galloping away down the trail, shouts of recrimination echoing through the swirling mist that smelled so much of death. Satisfied, he turned, counted all the mages safe and knelt to take the mask from Elx.

The brother had taken a hoof clear in the face, splitting the mask and snapping his neck. His face, bloodied and bruising, stared sightless to the sky. He was released. In the Soul Tank, they would grieve. His body, they would burn. His weapons, they would take.

Aeb walked back down the path to where Sytkan sat on his horse, his young face angry, his body tired from the HellFire casting.

'Will they attack again?' he asked.

'No, but we will track them, master. Now they are running south.'

'Good. Then tend to your wounded and dead. We need to be away from here. It's still ten days to Arlen.'

Chapter 9

'Has the water clogged your ears, Ilkar? I said no.' Hirad slammed his tin cup down on the stone table and stalked to the door of his hut, leaning against its frame and looking out at the dreary night.

The rain hadn't stopped and by the time they'd found the horses, all three men were drenched and miserable. Hirad had banked a good fire in his hut and now their clothes were steaming on a rail hanging in front of it while they each wore a blanket. But despite the ridiculous picture they made and the meal they shared, Hirad's mood had not lightened enough to hear what Ilkar and The Unknown wanted of him with any real reason.

'You shouted it, actually,' said Ilkar evenly, picking at some lamb stuck in his teeth. 'And I heard you the first time. I just hoped I'd heard wrong.'

'Well you didn't,' growled Hirad, turning half face. 'Why the hell should I help that prat? Everything he promised, he failed to deliver. The Kaan are still here.'

'It was never something that was going to be solved quickly,' reasoned The Unknown.

'I know. I didn't expect quickly. But it's been almost five years. And nothing has happened. Nothing.' Hirad's voice was cool and angry. 'They're dying, you know.'

'I understand your feelings,' said The Unknown. 'But Denser's not been idle, he's-'

'Oh yeah, I gathered that. Close to the Circle Seven, has the ear of the Lord of the Mount, good chambers. Not idle at all.' Hirad cleared his throat and spat out of the door. 'Tell you what, when he comes here with clear evidence Xetesk is working on getting my dragons home, I'll help him find his family.'

'He doesn't have that sort of time,' said The Unknown.

'He's had five years!' Hirad stormed back across the room. 'Five bastard years! My dragons are dying and the only people capable of helping them are sitting on their fat arses congratulating each other about how they beat the Wesmen. The real heroes are being left to rot.' Hirad stared at The Unknown and Ilkar in turn, taking in their faces in the firelight.

'I'm not getting through, am I?' he said quietly. 'Get your boots on and come with me. The Choul's right next door. Saying hello is the least you can do.'

The three men scurried across the short space to the cave, blankets held tightly around them. Hirad's lantern lit the way in the chill, damp gloom.

'Gods, Hirad, it's cold,' said Ilkar.

'Yes, isn't it,' said Hirad. They rounded the corner into the Choul proper, the stench of dragon nauseatingly strong. Hirad grinned fiercely at his friends' gasps.

'Great Kaan, visitors for you.'

Sha-Kaan raised his head and opened a shining blue eye.

'Well met, Ilkar. Well met, Unknown Warrior.' His voice was low and tired, that of a dragon close to sleep.

'And you, Sha-Kaan,' said Ilkar. T won't ask about your health. Hirad has already been forthright. I am sorry.'

'Sorry will not take us home.' The lack of lustre was plain. The immensity of the Kaan's size and presence was undiminished but the verve was gone from his voice and his languid movement was a sign of his growing inertia.

'Hirad mentioned your desire,' said The Unknown.

'It has always been a desire. Now it is a necessity.' Sha-Kaan gazed at the pair unblinking. 'You have picked a curious time for your visit. Rain and dark, I understand, are not to human liking.'

The Unknown shrugged. 'We need Hirad. The weather is inconsequential.'

'And I told them I wouldn't be helping,' interrupted Hirad.

'With what?' asked Sha-Kaan.

'Finding Denser's daughter.'

'Ah.' Sha-Kaan opened his mouth wide, his jaws stretching impossibly wide, fangs glinting in the lantern light. T might have

guessed the thief was at the heart of your anger, Hirad Coldheart. Presumably he isn't yet offering a way back to Beshara.'

'No,' said Hirad curdy. 'He hasn't quite finished worming his way to the top of the Xeteskian mage society.'

Ilkar sighed.

'You have something to add?' asked Sha-Kaan.

'Hirad knows I believe he's being harsh on Denser, though I understand his and your frustration at the length of your wait. But we're talking about the safety of Erienne and her child, Lyanna. They are in considerable danger though they probably don't know it. Right now, Dordover is searching for them both and Denser thinks they don't necessarily want to catch Lyanna alive.'

'And I said he's creating shit,' said Hirad. 'Dordover has been training her. Why would they want to kill her?'

'I tried to explain but you weren't listening. It's because of what she represents and where they think she's gone,' Ilkar said.

Sha-Kaan breathed out, a low rumbling sound that sent echoes through the air.

'This child is a mage?' he asked.

'"Mage" hardly covers it,' said Ilkar. 'She is almost certainly a four-College adept and probably capable of encompassing the One Way.'

Nos- and Hyn-Kaan's heads snapped up and all three dragons stared at Ilkar, who took an involuntary pace backwards. The Kaans' necks moved, giving the impression of a three-headed beast with a single monstrous body.

'Where has she gone?' demanded Sha-Kaan.

'Denser suspects she's with practitioners of the One Way but we don't know if they even still exist, let alone where they might be.'

'Al-Drechar,' breathed Sha-Kaan. 'If they live, they must be found. Hirad, you must help.'

'Who are these Al whatever?'

'Keepers of the One,' said Sha-Kaan. 'Septern will surely have shared his knowledge with them. He was one of them. They can send us home.'

Dordover had ignored Xetesk's call for a Triverne Lake meeting. That in itself would have been an act of aggression had they not

invoked a dusty but very useful clause in the four-College treaty which in this case covered Julatsa. The College was inquorate, temporarily at least, and unable to fulfil its duties. More, its acting High Mage, Ilkar of The Raven, was absent.

Vuldaroq fully expected the deputation he received a few days later, particularly as it came in the aftermath of his mobilisation of a one-hundred-and-fifty-strong Dordovan mage force, enhanced by three hundred mounted swordsmen. That, added to Darrick's Lysternan and Dordovan cavalry, however reluctant their commander, amounted to a significant troop movement. Xetesk were bound to be unhappy but, as in all things, it was the way in which they were told that was important.

This was not a stroke Vuldaroq would have pulled with Styliann still incumbent on The Mount. Whatever his personal feelings, Vuldaroq had respected Styliann's intelligence and political acumen. But the pup, Dystran, had no respected network, no quality advisers and no sure thoughts of his own. Even Denser wasn't on hand to help. Everything seemed to be working rather well and Dystran's entirely predictable responses merely added to Vuldaroq's feeling of control.

He chose to meet Dystran and his unimpressive entourage in the austere surroundings of a student's study chambers, the small living area of which contained a round table and four straight wooden chairs, a basic iron-grated fireplace and plain brown drapes which hid ill-fitting shuttered windows. Candles cast a wan illumination amid gaunt shadows, and the air was heavy with old damp.

The only concession to the seniority of his guests was the ubiquitous bowl of fruits and an insulated jug of Dordover's much vaunted herbal tea. It was cold, wet and very windy outside and the enlivening infusion would banish thoughts of that particular unpleasantness and stop tired minds from wandering.

Vuldaroq and High Secretary Berian were ensconced early in the chambers, situated in an outbuilding off the central courtyard behind the Tower. As the door opened to admit a scowling Dystran, Vuldaroq had positioned himself to greet him with a perfectly modelled expression of apology on his face. Behind Dystran, came Ranyl, an average mage in Vuldaroq's opinion, and a pair of Protectors.

'Gentlemen, I must apologise for the sparseness of our surroundings but your arrival finds us at rather a loss for quality accommodation.' He held out his hands in a gesture of supplication. Dystran regarded him coldly before moving to sit opposite Berian.

'We have come here to talk, not debate the fine points of your College's architecture and wallhangings,' he said.

'Indeed not,' said Vuldaroq, smiling thinly. 'Berian, tea for our guests. My Lord Dystran, your Protectors?' Vuldaroq found it difficult to contain his distaste at the abominations that insulted his College by their presence. They should all have been put to the sword years ago.

'They need nothing. If they make you feel uncomfortable, they can remain outside.'

'Most kind.' Vuldaroq took his seat and waited while the tea was poured. Ranyl selected an apple but he was the only one who ate. The Dordovan Tower Lord watched while the Xeteskians drank, noting with satisfaction their obvious pleasure.

'Very good,' admitted Dystran.

'Perhaps our best kept secret,' said Berian, inclining his head.

'Hmm, and you keep very few of those these days, it seems,' said Dystran, turning to face Vuldaroq.

'You have issues you wish to discuss,' said Vuldaroq smoothly.

T have not ridden here to idly pass the days,' said Dystran shortly. 'And I will not keep you from my point. Your mobilisation of forces is a clear act of aggression and an insult to the peace not only between the Colleges but that presiding across Balaia. And, I will add that your Arch Mage's decision to send, with all due respect to yourself, a lesser lord, to attend me is a personal slur that I find both mystifying and unnecessary.'

Vuldaroq lifted his hands in a placatory gesture while he seethed behind his carefully neutral expression.

'As I'm sure you are aware, my Lord Dystran, Arch Mage Herolus is in very poor health and his death is close. I and Berian act as his voice and his ears in his stead, as it has always been during times of Arch Mage sickness. There is no slur.' He sipped his tea before continuing. 'Furthermore, I find your use of the term aggression a litde surprising. I fail to see who it is that we threaten. My meagre forces are acting on reputable intelligence suggesting a threat to our

child, Lyanna, and her mother. We are naturally concerned and have dispatched a protective force to travel south, where we believe we have most chance of finding our people before our enemies do.

'I fear the same cannot be said for your considerable number of, and I use the term advisedly, "Protectors" now marauding along the borders of the mage lands blatandy intimidating any Dordovans they and their masters encounter.'

Dystran frowned. 'Against what are you protecting the child? You haven't even found her yet and indeed probably never will. The Raven may bring her back but I fear even they will be left searching for spirits in the wind.

'As for my Protectors, they are there as a reminder to Dordover that shows of strength and force will not go unchallenged or unmatched. They also provide a security net for those within and without the mage community who do not share Dordover's parochial views.'

Vuldaroq chuckled and leant back in his chair, taking a mouthful of tea that he sloshed over his tongue, letting the flavours enrich his mouth. At least the pup had spirit.

'My dear Dystran, Dordover's views can hardly be considered parochial, shared as they are by Lystern and Julatsa. It is Xetesk that is out of step with College thinking and College desire.' -

'But surely your desire to control Lyanna will lead to her losing her life,' said Dystran.

T have mentioned no one losing their life,' replied Vuldaroq. 'Our intention is to return the girl here to continue her training.'

'Which, as I think we are both aware, will result in her quick and painful demise.'

T beg your pardon?'

'Don't play me for a fool, Vuldaroq. We both understand what is happening here and we both know that Erienne left Dordover because she believed your training was harming her daughter. We both think we know to whom she has gone and we have both read the Tinjata Prophecy. But instead of being excited about the possibility that the Al-Drechar still live, your sole concern is grasping at something that is not even yours to take back.'

Dystran's eyes burned while beside him, Ranyl drank tea as if he hadn't a care. In contrast, Vuldaroq could sense Berian's discomfort

without the need to look. He let the tension settle, choosing to refill their mugs, the new burst of revitalising herbal scent a perfect tonic.

'I have never thought you a fool,' he said at length, the lie slipping easily from his tongue. 'But the chaos and destruction visited on Balaia is the principal reason Lyanna must be returned to us quickly. It's clear to the Masters here that whoever holds her, and I'm not at all convinced it is these Keepers of the One you seem to think it is, haven't the skill to prevent her from unleashing these mana storms. There was no such problem while she was here, was there?'

Dystran gave a slight nod. 'Stories of freak weather were around well before Lyanna left Dordover. Still, a predictable response. However, Xetesk considers Lyanna a Dordovan by fluke of birthplace only. We believe her to be a child of the One and that while Tinjata was mainly accurate, his conclusion was flawed and based in fear of a return to the One Way, not in real belief of ultimate disaster.'

'And you don't consider earthquakes, hurricanes and tidal waves the prelude to ultimate disaster?' Vuldaroq was surprised by the basic flaws in the Xeteskian take on events. 'If we're right, and by we, I mean you and us, then just one small child is causing all this. She must be properly controlled until she is able to harness her undoubted powers effectively.'

Dystran shook his head. 'Let's not pretend, Vuldaroq. Lyanna represents a threat to the magical order that Dordover wishes to maintain. But she is the future for us all. The way forward, not back as you seem to believe. And we will not stand by and watch her destroyed by you while you hide behind your pretty words.' Dystran set his body and pushed his mug away from him. 'We will stop you taking her. Recall your forces. Let The Raven see her safe.'

'The Raven?' Vuldaroq couldn't help but scoff. 'Pawns in a greater game and in too deep. They are a help to us all but no solution. Surely you can see that.'

'Yet you let them run because part of you believes them to have the best chance of finding the child.'

Vuldaroq inclined his head. 'Their skill is unquestioned. Their strength as the years pass is more open to debate.'

'And assuming you should recover the child by whatever means, when will you be handing her to Xetesk for further training?'

The Dordovan Tower Lord was taken by surprise by the question and blew out his cheeks while giving an involuntary half shrug. 'Dystran, that is a decision for our lore masters and not one that can be given now.'

Dystran leaned forwards, clasping his hands in front of him on the table. 'On the contrary, Dordovan, it can. The girl is to be left with the Al-Drechar, if it is they who hold her. And that is because we believe they have the best chance of halting the mana storms in a timely fashion. Or she is to travel to Xetesk before enjoying training in both Lystern and ultimately Julatsa. She will not be returning to Dordover.'

Vuldaroq felt his jaw drop a mote before he caught it. 'You dare to threaten this in the halls of my College?' he managed.

'Oh, please, Vuldaroq, this is no threat and my Protectors are not marching for pure effect. I tried to ask you politely but now I demand that you withdraw your forces and those of Lystern and allow this matter to be settled in the natural way.'

'Meaning?'snarled Vuldaroq.

'Meaning Lyanna be allowed to develop unhindered in the place that her mother and father deem the most appropriate. That place clearly not being here.'

Vuldaroq turned to Berian and raised his eyebrows. Berian responded with a slight shake of the head.

'I'm afraid that we cannot agree to such conditions. We have a vested interest and will see it through.'

Dystran stood abruptly, followed a heartbeat later by Ranyl. The door to the chambers opened and a Protector stood in the frame, his sheer presence imposing and frightening even to the mages.

'Then I am afraid that relations between our two Colleges, and presumably Lystern, are not, for the time being, on a cordial footing. You are so notified and warned. Good day.'

The Xeteskians swept from the room. Vuldaroq leaned back in his chair and poked his tongue into his cheek.

'Stupid young pup,' he said and turned to Berian. 'Oh dear, old friend. It does look rather as if we have a little trouble on our hands. Heryst and Darrick must be informed immediately. See to it, would you? I have others to contact and we both have journeys to make.'

Erienne found herself more than a little hurt that Lyanna hadn't cried when told her mother was leaving. In fact, she displayed precious litde emotion bar a smile when Erienne explained the reason for her abrupt departure.

'They are tired,' Lyanna had said. 'And I think they look older. Daddy can help.'

And much as she had tried to dismiss her feelings as a purely selfish reaction, Erienne couldn't help but think that Lyanna's response was simply too calculated. Not right for a five-year-old girl.

Erienne waved again and Lyanna waved back as the long boat pulled out of the tiny bay to dock with the Ocean Elm. Ephemere stood to one side and, as the long boat reached the less sheltered water, ushered Lyanna away back up the path to the house.

Inside the failing illusion, the trees flanking the path waved in a light breeze and the rocks that flanked the small beach and the path closed in quickly as they moved further from the shore, taking from Erienne her last view of Lyanna's hair and back.

Erienne let her head drop, her heart already heavy. This was going to be her first break of more than a couple of days from Lyanna and she wasn't at all sure how well she'd cope with the separation. She felt a lump in her throat, tears behind her eyes. It would have been easier if she thought Lyanna felt the same.

Ren'erei didn't approach her until the ship was underway, joining her leaning on the port rails, watching the deep blue waves passing by.

'She'll be fine. The Al-Drechar will care for her,' she said.

Erienne smiled to herself. She couldn't help but like the young elf despite her deeply ingrained serious nature but sometimes she missed the real issue completely.

'Oh I have no doubt she'll be fine. It's me I'm worrying about.' She didn't lift her head, letting the white-flecked water fill her eyes.

'You'll miss her terribly.'

'Yes, I will. Let's just find Denser fast.' She looked across. Ren'erei wasn't looking at her but she was nodding as she gazed down at the sea.

'It will be a pleasure to meet him,' said Ren'erei. 'The father of Lyanna and the keeper of your heart.'

Erienne blushed and was glad for the elfs studying of the Ocean Elm's load line.

'Don't get too excited. He's Xeteskian first and my husband second, I think.'

'Then his priorities are askew.'

'Not really. I am a mother first and a wife second. We both have tasks to fulfil before our lives together can really start. I think it's best we're honest in the interim.'

Ren'erei contemplated Erienne's words. She could see the elf raise her eyebrows as she thought, and suck in her lips. Erienne felt very safe in her company. She was solid and dependable and her thoughts ran deep. And her naivete was endearing. Ren wasn't streetwise like anyone with a normal education in the ways of Balaia but she harboured great strength of feeling and inside the elf there was the confidence to kill. The Raven could have done with her a few years ago.

'How will you find him?'

'Communion. When we arrive in Arlen, I think I have the range to reach Xetesk. I'm sure he'll still be there. Or possibly Dordover. Either way I can contact him. Then we wait.'

'And The Raven?'

'He'll bring them. If I know Denser, he's already contacted them.'

'You sound very sure.'

Erienne shrugged. 'They're all such different people but when one is troubled, they all do the same thing.' She smiled, a little surprised by another surge of longing. Not for Lyanna but for them. The Raven. To stand among them once again. Should that happen, she knew they'd be all right. After all, The Raven never lost. Erienne suppressed a laugh at her own ludicrous arrogance and looked back to the beautiful blue sea.

Chapter 10

Hirad's meeting with Denser was never going to be warm but the devastation he saw at Thornewood and then Greythorne took much of the venom from the barbarian's mood. Ilkar had watched him brood ever since they'd left the Balan Mountains, unwilling even to entertain the thought of cordial relations with the Xeteskian. He had grumbled about leaving the Kaan who were all but shovelling him from the Choul and his temper had remained frail for the entirety of the three-day ride.

But Thornewood had changed him. The three original members of The Raven's first ride, almost fifteen years before, had seen signs of wind damage while they were over a day from the forest. Flattened grassland, bushes uprooted and drifts of broken twigs, leaves and dirt, all told of a powerful gale.

But nothing could prepare them for Thornewood itself. It was gone. Just a tangled mass of twisted and shattered trunks, scattered debris and piles of foliage covered in dirt. It was as if some giant claw had gouged across the forest, scooped it up, crushed it and then let it fall once again. Where once a stunning landscape had been, there was now just a smear on the face of Balaia.

T can't even see where the farms might have stood,' whispered Ilkar. 'There are no borders to the wood. Nothing at all.'

The Unknown pointed north and east. 'There's the trail though it's mostly hidden now. We should see if there's anything we can do.'

But close to, it was clear that what little could be done, had been done. A few foundation poles from one of the farmsteads that had lived off the forest could be seen snapped off low to the ground and, here and there, a piece of treated hide was wedged in a shallow crack in the earth. All other signs of life had been swept away.

Hirad stared into the havoc that had been visited on Thornewood and voiced the fear they all felt.

'Thraun?'

'We just have to pray he escaped,' said The Unknown quietly. 'But even he would have been hard pressed to survive a falling tree.'

'And as for the pack…' Ilkar left his words hanging. Though he was a wolf, Thraun would always retain vestiges of humanity in his mind. It was the way of all shapechangers, even those lost to their human form, and Thraun had already experienced more sadness than most of his fragile kind could bear. The Gods only knew what he would do if he lost the pack.

'What caused this?' The Unknown shook his head.

'I'm scared to even think about it,' said Ilkar.

'What do you mean?' asked Hirad.

'Let's get to Greythorne,' said Ilkar by way of reply. 'Find Denser.'

They rode on, expectations of finding the town undamaged dismissed. But as they travelled the decimated lowlands surrounding the wrecked forest, it became clear that their worst fears were liable to be realised.

It was like a journey through a foreign landscape though they all knew the land well. So many landmarks and waypoints had gone. Trail posts, cairns, copses and spinneys, all had been scratched from the face of Balaia. Any remote homestead had been destroyed, timbers scattered wide and even the topsoil had been ripped away on the exposed slopes, bringing rock to the surface for the first time in centuries.

The wind, if such it was, had been utterly indiscriminate and totally ruinous.

They were under a day's ride from Greythorne with the morning all but over when The Unknown turned in his saddle for the third time in as many miles. He dropped back slowly before shifting in his seat and pulling up.

'Hey!' he called, dismounting and scrutinising the girth buckle and strap. 'Wait up.'

Hirad and Ilkar wheeled their horses and trotted towards him, slipping off as they approached.

'Girth slipping?' asked Hirad.

The Unknown nodded. 'No,' he said. 'Don't look up. We're being followed. Tell you what, get out your waterskin and let's have a break, all right?'

Hirad shrugged. 'Sure.'

The Unknown unbuckled the strap and tugged it back to the same position before joining his friends sitting at the side of the trail. The horses grazed a few feet away.

'How many?' asked Hirad, handing him the waterskin.

'Impossible to say.' He took a swig and rinsed his dry mouth, handing the skin back. 'I've seen metal glint and shapes moving against the background.'

'Distance?' Ilkar pushed a hand through his hair and lay out on his back.

'Three miles, maybe a little more. Certainly horse-borne. I think they've been trailing us since the Balan Mountains.'

'But you didn't want to worry us, eh?' Hirad's tone was only half joking. The Unknown's lips thinned.

'No, Hirad, I just wasn't sure. You know how it is,' he said. 'It's of no importance anyway. They haven't attacked us so we have to assume they're just trailing us for information. That also means they'll probably have a mage to communicate with whoever.'

'Dordover,' said Ilkar.

'Most likely,' agreed The Unknown. 'And suffice to say, we can't let them find out any more than they can already guess.'

'So where do we take them? The forest?' Hirad nodded at the wrecked woodland. They had been skirting it to the south having ignored the north-east trail through the farmsteads as they headed for Greythorne.

'Yes. At the rock.'

Whatever the state of the forest, the crag at its centre would still be intact until the earth opened up to swallow it.

'Assuming we can persuade them to follow us in there.'

Thornewood was a mess, just a shamble of dying vegetation and twisted wood. The birds had returned and their song could be heard above the wind that was gusting stronger again, clouds bubbling across the fast greying sky.

'I don't think they have any choice,' said The Unknown. 'They can't simply watch the hunter trails because there are none, not any

more. We can pick our way in and out anywhere. And they can't go on to Greythorne and risk us not stopping there.'

'But they'll assume our decision to go in means we've seen them, won't they?' queried Ilkar.

The Unknown shrugged. 'Possibly. But it hardly matters. It'll make them wary perhaps but it doesn't change what they're doing. And if we lose them, then so much the better.'

'So, Unknown, any ideas about how to get in?' Hirad smiled. The Unknown blew out his cheeks. The force of the hurricane had snapped off almost every tree at a height varying between eight and a dozen or so feet. Tangled foliage was knotted across the forest floor and banked up in huge drifts against close-packed stands of trunks and, further in, no doubt against the rock itself. It had left no obvious entry point and the Raven trio would have to pick or hack their way through the least dense obstructions.

'We'll find a way. C'mon, break over, no time like now.'

They mounted up and trotted gently to the borders of the forest, indistinct now with debris scattered so widely. Making their way inside, the destruction was brought into stark focus. In places, the forest floor had been swept clean, the mulch and dust of years, the loose topsoil and every plant, flower and shrub scoured away. No tree was undamaged and everywhere arches of fallen boughs crisscrossed just above their heads or were impenetrable, forcing a change of direction, as if they wished no living thing to see the death of Thornewood.

For three hours, The Unknown ensured they left a traceable trail as he bullied his horse through the debris. Where it thickened too much to be trampled, he dismounted and used his sword one-handed, sweeping through leaf and branch alike. Behind him, Ilkar and Hirad followed, saying nothing until they reached the crag.

'Make sure you clean your sword. Sap's a real killer for rust,' said Hirad, sliding from his horse. The Unknown looked at him, his expression carefully blank.

'Really? Thanks, Hirad. I'd have hated to have lost my sword through ignorance of sap's rust-inducing qualities.'

Ilkar chuckled.

'Just saying,' muttered Hirad.

'I have been at this a couple of years myself,' said The Unknown.

'And don't get comfortable. You've twenty yards of path to make thataway-' he waved his sword across the clearing around the crag '-while Ilkar goes and listens for them and I work out our best point of contact. All right?'

Hirad nodded. 'What about the horses?'

'Take them down the path to tether when you're done. I'd help you but I can see little brown spots on my blade. What do you think they mean?'

Hirad pulled his sword from its scabbard. 'Funny, Unknown, but leave the jokes to me next time, eh?'

'To prove you're even less amusing, presumably,' said Ilkar.

'All right, come on,' said The Unknown. 'They won't be far behind.'

Hirad was convinced it wouldn't work. Dordovan spies or assassins weren't the type to blunder into a hastily laid ambush. But he had to concede they couldn't lead anyone straight to Denser or Erienne at this stage; and if all it served was to throw them off the scent, then he'd take that as a positive result. And there was no desire to kill those that followed them, after all, they might have some very useful information. They were merely under orders. What they needed was some clear guidance on why following The Raven was an occupation with no future.

It was with some surprise then, that he heard Ilkar whisper that they were coming, just as the wind picked up suddenly, gusting through the remains of the forest and sifting at what it had so brutally created.

The Raven had taken up position a few yards from the crag itself, hidden from the path they'd made by a tangle of pine branches and thick, sharp gorse.

There were four of them, leading their horses, treading carefully and not uttering a sound, as if aware that all was not right in Thornewood. All were men, clad in varying shades of dark leather armour, long swords in free hands, helms framing faces older than those watching them. Hirad raised an eyebrow at the oddity. They were clearly an experienced team but the carelessness with which they'd revealed themselves to The Unknown made him wonder why Dordover had chosen them to follow The Raven. At least with no

elves or willowy athletes in the party he could be fairly sure they weren't mage-assassins. Just trackers.

They entered the crag clearing and were edging around it cautiously, two by two, when The Unknown stepped out directly in front of them, the point of his sword down, tapping on the earth before him, its sound dull but music to Hirad's ears as he moved next to his old friend.

'Lost or looking?' asked The Unknown, not unpleasantly. The quartet had stopped abruptly and Hirad saw the front pair share a glance, sudden fear in one's eyes, confusion and surprise in the other.

'I don't like being followed,' said The Unknown.

'We're not-' began the left of the pair, a heavyset man with greying temples and long brown hair beneath his helm. He had a few days' growth of stubble, thick eyebrows and a stooped forehead.

'I don't like being lied to either,' said The Unknown, interrupting smoothly. Hirad felt Ilkar step up behind them, a spell shape no doubt already formed.

'Now,' continued The Unknown. 'We aren't looking for any trouble. We're just helping a friend. I understand this is all of great interest to your masters but they'll find nothing by sending people to follow us. Just bodies. Do I make myself clear?'

The men shifted a little, one dropped his gaze from The Unknown but the other held firm, brow creasing..

'You'll kill us if we continue to follow you?'

'Quick, isn't he?' said Hirad.

The Unknown ceased tapping his sword point.

'We don't want to but we can't risk you jeopardising what we have to do either. So turn around now and go back the way you came.'

More hesitation. Behind the front pair, the second whispered urgent words.

'Is there something you're confused about?' asked Hirad, his voice loud and harsh in the silence of the forest. The wind stilled momentarily before a fresh gust plucked at cloak, hair and mane, whistling through the jumbled branches.

'I'm not used to being threatened,' said the heavyset man.

'It's not a threat,' said The Unknown. 'Call it heartfelt advice.'

Hirad couldn't stop the smile touching his face. The Unknown had used the same words to face down Styliann, a former Lord of the Mount and a rather more powerful adversary.

T don't see this as a laughing matter,' said one of the second pair, stepping forward between the horses. He was mid-height, younger than his companions, with a long nose and small mouth below hooded eyes.

Hirad felt the tension rise. The four men hadn't been ready for a fight before. Perhaps they were now. He and The Unknown gazed on unmoving. From behind them, Ilkar spoke.

'Please don't make this difficult because it's really very simple,' he said. 'You were following us, we don't want you to, and we've asked you very politely to stop doing so. I suggest we all calm down and go our separate ways. What do you say?'

Hirad and The Unknown both nodded and Hirad saw three of the men relax but the heavyset one pursed his lips.

'We have direct orders,' he said, more in explanation than anything else.

'Well now you have new ones,' said Hirad.

'Hirad, shut up,' hissed The Unknown. 'Look, no one's watching you. Just report back you saw us headed in the direction of Grey-thorne but lost us in Thornewood.' He shrugged. 'But before you go, tell me who sent you to follow us. Dordover?'

The man nodded. 'And losing you was not an option we were given,' he said, and as if he'd reminded his colleagues of a forgotten fact, the tension returned.

Ilkar chuckled gendy. 'Oh, come on. I know Vuldaroq and the Dordovan Quorum are keen to get their prodigy back but they'll hardly have your heads for losing us, will they?'

The answering silence hinted that they believed otherwise.

'Either way, fighting us will not help you,' said The Unknown. 'Because whoever wins, you will have "lost" us, won't you?'

For a moment, they stood on the verge of fatal indecision. Then, the heavyset man's face twisted in what passed for a lopsided grin. He inclined his head and put up his sword.

'Let's not spill blood here,' he said. Hushing his companions, he turned them round and they mounted and left the crag clearing.

The Unknown put a finger to his lips and the three of them stood silent until the hoofbeats died away.

'You know what they'll do, don't you?' he said.

'Of course,' said Ilkar.

'Then if you'd be so kind, Ilkar,' he invited.

The elf smiled, formed the shape for a CloakedWalk, stepped forward and disappeared, his footfall utterly silent in this mockery of his ancestral home.

'C'mon Hirad,' said The Unknown. 'Let's go. They won't be tracking us back through here.'

'Ahead, you think?'

'No doubt about it.'

Hirad smiled and they led all three horses on an angled path to exit the wood about half a mile from where they'd entered it, a slow enough passage to give Ilkar time to find their followers and let them believe The Raven had swallowed the lie.

Ilkar was disappointed. They really weren't very good at all. Having exited Thornewood the way they'd entered it, the quartet had turned east and trotted along not far from its edge, leaving a trail only the senseless could fail to follow. He broke into a jog and skirted the boundaries of the wood, the wind steadily picking up in strength at his back, clouds now thick and threatening overhead in the grey, dank afternoon sky.

He found them a couple of miles down, slowed to a walk and deep in discussion, one of them making angles with his hands and pointing first into the woodland and then away over the open ground towards Greythorne. Apparently arriving at a decision, they ducked back under cover, having to force their way into the tangled foliage. Ilkar noted their position before walking back to where he estimated Hirad and The Unknown would be waiting. Knowing the way through the forest would be difficult, particularly while leading horses, he took his time.

'Well?' came The Unknown's voice from a deep patch of shadow.

Ilkar grinned and pushed into the foliage, its shelter cutting the strength of the wind that was gusting up to gale force. It was gone mid-afternoon and the light was beginning to fade.

'A mile and a half ahead, just under the eaves, probably split to cover a wider angle. How do you want to play it?'

The Unknown thought for a moment. 'Hirad, fancy a little forest stroll?'

Hirad knew they'd be there. He hadn't fought with either of them for four years and more but his confidence in them was undimmed. He'd been able to move quickly through Thornewood now he wasn't encumbered by his horse, the increasing wind creaking through shattered trunks and twisted limbs of trees, rustling dead leaves to a parody of life, dancing in the air and along the dusty floor.

Hirad was a quiet mover but not like Ilkar. The elves had something with the forests that he had never been able to fathom, let alone replicate. Only Thraun, of any human he had known, had come close and there was tragic reason enough for that.

The Dordovan trackers were well-spaced and well-hidden along the perimeter where they expected The Raven to either exit or pass by before turning to Greythorne. But Hirad had done enough hunting to understand shadow and silence and he was only scant yards from the right-handmost man before he drew his sword and spoke.

'Was there something we said you didn't quite grasp?' he growled.

The man started violently and spun round as he stood, twigs snapping underfoot.

'Trouble!' he called.

T never strike at unarmed men,' said Hirad. 'So I suggest you arm yourself.' He came to ready in the tight space of tangled branch, leaf and bramble.

The man pulled out his long sword. T need help over here!' There was an answering call but it was troubled, not supportive. He was scared. Hirad could see it in his eyes and in the set of his body, and chose to be wary. Scared men were unpredictable and there was no room for manoeuvre.

'No help is coming,' said Hirad, and stepped back a pace, beckoning his opponent on with one hand. He heard other urgent shouts echoing on the wind and knew he was right.

The man sprang forward, unleashing a swift attack, his tall frame and long arms giving him good reach. Hirad stood his ground, blocking high, then to his midriff, eventually pushing away with his free hand as he deflected a second strike to his neck. The man stumbled back off-balance, one arm flailing out at an outstretched branch as he sought to steady himself, feet slipping on a dusting of leaves.

Hirad moved in, thrusting straight at the stomach, expecting and getting a half-block. He used the pace and change of direction to wheel his sword in a tight circle around his head, left to right. Almost too late, the tracker saw the blow coming and ducked, the blade skipping hard off his helmet.

Hirad swore, his assailant gasped and swayed but didn't go down, shaking his head, clearly groggy. He formed an uninspiring defence, wobbling slightly and backing away. Behind him, he could see two more shapes, one advancing on and hulking over the other, his sword low, no doubt tapping at the earth.

Hirad grinned harshly, batted aside the attempted jab and buried his blade in his opponent's neck, stepping smartly aside as blood spat from the severed artery. Gurgling, the victim fell, his life blood draining away into the forest floor.

Looking up, Hirad saw The Unknown straight-arm his enemy in the face before smashing his sword through his legs. The man dropped, screaming his last. Two down. Hirad moved. Ilkar had the other two. The ghost of concern flickered across his mind but an icy blast roared across him some twenty yards away and he knew he shouldn't have even begun to worry.

The Unknown appeared at his shoulder, sheathing his cleaned sword.

'Good work. Ilkar wanted the other two. They were a mage pair.'

'Oh, I see.' Hirad scrambled towards the source of the IceWind he'd felt surging into the dead woodland. 'Ilkar?' There was no answer for a while.

'Over here.' Hirad changed direction and came upon the elf kneeling by the twisted corpses of the tracker mages. He'd always found the sight of IceWind victims unnerving. Frozen in the attitude of life but with the pain etched in their faces of the instant of death, like paintings depicting the onset of terror.

'Didn't think you were keen on that spell,' he said.

'I'm not,' said Ilkar vaguely. 'It's somewhat indiscriminate. Still, nothing much else in the firing line on this occasion.' He hadn't looked round.

'What's upr' asked Hirad.

'See for yourself.' He moved away and indicated the exposed neck of one whose helmet lay nearby. 'This isn't right at all.'

Hirad frowned and bent to look. The light wasn't good but it was enough to show him the telltale tattoo below the ear.

'What the-?' He looked up and round. 'Unknown, what the hell is going on?'

The men hadn't been sent by Dordover. They were Black Wings.

Chapter 11

Selik finally found an outlet for his anger and frustration a day north of Arlen. The ride towards the town, where all of his reports indicated he should station himself and the bulk of the Black Wings, had been brooding and unpleasant. The changeable weather had alternately frozen and soaked him, practically blown him from his horse on more occasions than he cared to count and finally, a hailstorm had bitten lumps from his face.

Yet still most of Balaia just thought it was freak weather. They hadn't grasped what was behind it. Why would they? After all, the mages held such sway over their minds most of the time that the truth would be denounced as something akin to heresy. But he couldn't keep silent and still sleep at night. Magic was causing chaos all across his country and it was a cancer that had to be excised.

Vuldaroq had been fulsome in his explanations of the Tinjata Prophecy and how the bitch and her child were the only ones to blame but Selik knew it ran deeper than that. When magic was the problem, all mages closed ranks, making them all as guilty as each other. The time for tolerance of any College was past and what he couldn't use from them, he would discard.

He finally lost his tenuous hold on his temper on the borders of Easthome. A small farming community numbering perhaps one hundred and fifty families, Easthome lay close enough to Arlen to enjoy healthy trade from the prosperous port. Its hardworking people had farmed the land for generations, their crops feeding themselves and selling into Arlen's busy markets, their grain reaching as far as Calaius. But not this year.

With late afternoon waning towards evening, Selik and his eight cohorts rode up to the village, looking for lodging before joining the rest of the Black Wings in Arlen the following day. The calamity

that had befallen Easthome unfolded before them as they neared. Crops lay flattened, fences and hedges had been uprooted, barns and farms had lost roofs. Stables had collapsed.

Outside one farm house, Selik reined in by a man who stood staring out across his ruined fields, barely acknowledging the men who stopped beside him. Selik dismounted and the farmer turned to him, the expression on his face one of disbelief and defeat. He was a young man, not yet thirty, with a broad muscular frame, fair hair and a heavy brow.

'What happened?' asked Selik.

The farmer looked at him closely and then past him to his men who remained mounted.

'Black Wings?' he said. Selik nodded. 'Come to try and stop the wind from blowing, have you? Best you leave us to sort ourselves out. We don't want trouble.'

'And I will bring you none,' slurred Selik, attempting a smile. 'Wind did all this?'

The farmer nodded. 'Blew out of nowhere just a night ago. From a clear sky. Every one of us has lost his crop. Some have lost their animals and houses too. I've been luckier if you can call it that.' He turned back to his fields. 'I mean, we'd be all right but… We've grain in the store to see us through but no one else, and four days ago a hundred and more from Orytte came here. They've lost everything.'

'I didn't know,' said Selik, though he could guess exactly what had happened. The farmer confirmed it.

'The sea came and took the town,' he said. 'Most of them are dead, so the survivors say. We'd have sent them on to Arlen but none of them want to see water again. I guess you can understand that. So we took them in and now we can't feed them. Not for long.'

Selik glanced back at his men who were listening to the exchange, some shaking their heads. Selik breathed out, his chest suddenly painful where the cold had touched him so deeply. It merely served to stoke his determination.

'So what are you doing about it?' he asked not unkindly.

The farmer jerked a thumb towards the village centre. 'There's some meeting about it now down at the inn. There's a lot of anger

down there. People want answers before they starve this winter. Apparently Evansor's going to appeal to the Colleges for help. They've got the wealth, haven't they?'

'And Evansor is…?' Again, Selik knew the answer.

'Our mage,' confirmed the farmer.

Selik spat. 'Mages. You'll get nothing from them.' The vehemence of his words made the farmer start. 'Gods, man, they are the cause of all this. Do you really think it's natural? A hurricane from a clear sky, the sea taking Orytte? And there's so much more it would break your heart. Magic is to blame.'

The farmer frowned. 'Well we've heard stories but Evansor…'

'Evansor, yes,' said Selik, his voice chill. He ached to confront him, to declaim him for the fraud he undoubtedly was. 'Very persuasive. Very understanding, no doubt.' He leant in. 'But believing a mage is offering your life to a murderer.' He swung away and hauled himself back into his saddle. 'And why aren't you there, at the meeting?'

'Because I have to look out for my own. And because there'll be trouble there before the night's out.'

'Yes, there will,' said Selik. 'But it's the start of something righteous.'

'So what do we do when we find her?' asked Hirad.

The Raven had stopped not long after leaving Thornewood, dismounting to sit on the top of a slope up which the wind roared, blowing away the scent of blood and death. They were sitting in a line, the harsh cold wind in their faces, sharing a waterskin before riding the last leg to Greythorne. They planned to arrive a couple of hours after nightfall.

The Unknown put down the skin, ramming home the stopper with the heel of his palm.

'Good question? But don't you mean "if'?'

'No, I mean "when",' said Hirad, looking across at his friend, his close-cropped scalp dull under the heavy cloud, his eyes suggesting his mind was elsewhere. 'Like always.'

Ilkar chuckled. 'Glad to see you haven't lost any confidence in your ability, Hirad.'

'It's just a job, when all's said and done.' He shrugged. 'Pay's not

up to much but still, once taken, always completed. The question still stands, though. The way I see it, we've got Witch Hunters and Dordovans, Xeteskians and the Gods know who else after this girl. Where will she be safe?'

'Where she is, I expect,' said Ilkar a little gruffly.

'And you think that's a bad thing?' asked The Unknown. 'Surely, we're not necessarily doing anything with her. Perhaps we are just making sure she's safe. Lyanna's Denser and Erienne's daughter, let's not ever lose sight of that.'

Ilkar made a growling noise in his throat. 'It's not that simple, Unknown, and you know it. You can't dress it up as a search for a little girl. Who she is and what she represents are driving this whole mess. Look around you. Gods, look above you now. See what she is unwittingly creating.'

They all looked. The heavens were filled with a dense dark cloud, driven hard across the sky, unbroken and malevolent. When the rain inevitably came, it would be torrential.

'You're blaming Lyanna for it being cloudy?' asked Hirad. 'I've got to tell you, I'm finding this all rather far-fetched.'

'Hirad, the evidence is overwhelming,' said Ilkar.

'Is it? An ancient mage writes a prophecy two thousand years ago and all of a sudden he's talking about Lyanna?' Hirad shook his head. 'Look I know we've had some unseasonal weather lately but-'

' Unseasonal? Ilkar gasped. 'We're supposed to be bringing in our crops in the next few weeks under the warming autumn sun. Instead we're having earthquakes and hurricanes and I've forgotten what the sun looks like. Gods, Hirad, in the Balan Mountains, it rained so hard I thought my head would shatter. You can't possibly think this is normal.'

Hirad shrugged. 'Fair enough, it's not normal but nothing you've said points the finger at Lyanna. I mean, it could be anyone.'

'Like who?' snapped Ilkar.

'He's right, though, Ilkar,' said The Unknown. 'This is all so much theory.'

'But back in Julatsa you said-' began Ilkar.

T said that Dordover believe the Tinjata Prophecy. And now it seems that the Black Wings have jumped on the wagon, which is

hardly a surprise. And that's why I'm chasing Erienne and Lyanna. To stop them. That doesn't mean I believe it myself

Ilkar paused to think. He pushed a hand through his hair. 'I can see I won't persuade you both now but you'll see. I just need you to trust me on this. Lyanna is an innocent child but this elemental mess is caused by magical forces and I believe she is the focus, just like Dordover does. I can all but smell the mana playing around us now and it's not the natural way of mana. If we're proved right then there are ramifications for the whole Collegiate system. This has to be handled right.'

'Meaning what, exactly?' The Unknown wore a deep frown.

'I don't know yet. That's one of the reasons I'm here. As a Julatsan, scared of what she may symbolise. I know it's probably of no concern to either of you right now but Lyanna and the Al-Drechar could so easily herald a return to dominance of Xetesk under the guise of the One Way. That would be bad for all of us.'

'But particularly Julatsa, eh Ilkar?' The Unknown said. 'Doesn't matter now, though, you're right. So securing Lyanna and Erienne is paramount, don't you agree?'

Ilkar hesitated before replying. 'Like I said, it's not that simple.'

'So tell me what's so damn complicated,' demanded The Unknown. Hirad started at the anger edging his voice.

'I just have,' snapped Ilkar. 'No one wants to see her harmed but I'm not sure what we're securing her for or from, all right? And I don't know how we stop her causing this mayhem. Denser thinks the Dordovans want her dead and I can believe that very easily. I think we can dismiss the Witch Hunters. They surely aren't numerous or powerful enough to really threaten. But I also think Xetesk will have an entirely selfish agenda and that does threaten my College – particularly with us being so weakened. The Al-Drechar want to perpetuate themselves and I'm not so sure that's something we should support.'

'So where does that leave Lyanna?' asked Hirad. 'Strikes me your little outline has her surplus to Balaia's requirements.'

'Yes, Ilkar, perhaps you'd like to put your foot down in one camp or another,' invited The Unknown, his eyes cold and body tensed.

Ilkar's ears pricked and he sucked his top lip while he thought. 'I want the magical balance of Balaia maintained. I think that's best for

everyone, not just Julatsa. I think Lyanna should not be allowed to return to Dordover, Xetesk or any college. She should be taught by the Al-Drechar to contain the outbursts that are causing all the trouble but that's as far as it should go. There shouldn't be a return to the One. Not ever.'

'And if Denser or Xetesk or whoever doesn't agree with you?' asked The Unknown. 'If they determine her training should continue to its natural conclusion?'

Ilkar shrugged and looked away over the wilds in the direction of Greythorne, still obscured by rolling heather-covered moors ahead.

'You would, wouldn't you? I bloody knew it!' The Unknown stormed to his feet and took a pace towards Ilkar. Hirad scrambled up and stood between them.

'Take it easy,' he urged, putting up a hand in front of The Unknown. 'What would he do?'

The Unknown stared past him at the elf. 'He'd see her die.'

'Kill her?'

'No, I don't suppose so. But I don't suppose he'd stand in anyone's way, either. Would you Ilkar, eh?'

Ilkar didn't turn his head.

'See?' The Unknown's face burned and Hirad realised he couldn't move aside. 'She's just a little girl, you bastard. And she's Denser's daughter. How could you even contemplate it? Gods, I thought better of you, Ilkar.'

Hirad was desperate to turn but was fearful of The Unknown's next move. It dawned on him sickeningly that this powerful man was a genuine threat to Ilkar for the first time ever. From behind him, Ilkar spoke.

'You know me well enough, Unknown. Perhaps it's me that's misinterpreted you.'

'I'm a father, Ilkar. And I understand what Denser must be experiencing.'

'And he's an old and trusted friend of mine and I would see no harm come to him, Erienne or Lyanna. But she's a child of the One, that's becoming clearer to me at least, by the day. And Tinjata's Prophecy is so far proving depressingly accurate. Or so I believe. Lyanna's Night has only just begun, Unknown, and it promises devastation for us all if she isn't controlled. Or stopped. And I don't

see anyone coming forward with ways to control her. Clearly the Al-Drechar haven't yet, have they?'

Hirad felt The Unknown's body relax. It was enough for him to turn and look at Ilkar, who was still seated. The expression on the elfs face, and the desperation in his eyes, told of the depth of his belief in what he had said.

'But aren't you being overdramatic?' he asked. 'What do you mean, "night"?'

'No, Hirad, I'm not. Unless you count Thornewood as over-dramatic. And that, as we know, is far from being a one-off storm. Look, when a mage tries to learn to accept the flow of mana, there is a period, usually short, of darkness for the mage. Where the senses are uncontrolled, and the mind turns inwards while the mana batters inside the head. It's like being in a gale in the pitch black and that's why it's come to be called "Night". Mages training in the Colleges have the ManaBowl around them to direct and control the otherwise overpowering flow of mana. Lyanna only has the Al-Drechar and they clearly aren't up to shielding her from her Awakening or her from us. Her Night could last a long time. And again, that's just what I believe but I'm better placed than you to make a judgement.'

'And you think it would be better if she died?'

'Dammit, Unknown, no!' Ilkar pushed himself to a standing position. 'It may come to that but I certainly will have no hand in it.'

'Denser hears nothing of this,' warned The Unknown.

Ilkar shook his head. 'If he doesn't already know it inside, I'd be very surprised. He is a mage and no fool. He knows what he and Erienne wanted to create and so far as I'm concerned, he has rather unfortunately succeeded.'

'Then we'd best get to him, hadn't we? Sounds like he might be needing our help.'

The three old friends mounted up and rode for Greythorne, their silence as angry and dark as the sky above them.

Selik listened to the furious voices inside the inn for a few moments before slapping open the doors and striding inside, his men crowding behind him but for one who stayed by the horses. Three men stood against the bar opposite, looking out over a crowd of approaching fifty people who sat on chair or table, or leant against

walls and beams. The inn was lantern-lit and low-ceilinged. Pipe smoke lay thick across their heads in the poor ventilation, its sweet odour obscuring that of ale and wine.

His loud entrance having had the desired effect of silencing the crowd and having every head turn in his direction, Selik walked calmly to the bar, coming to stand between the three men. He kept the man he knew had to be Evansor on his right and the two older farmers on his left. The mage was young and slender, his body not used to hard physical work, and his clothing was of a cloth too fine-woven to be of any use in the fields.

Selik took in the gathering with a lazy sweep of his head. Some were fearful, others burned too deeply with anger to worry about what he represented, while most just looked on, waiting for him to announce himself. Perfect. He hushed the objection of one of the older farmers with a raising of his left forefinger and spoke.

T am Selik and some of you may have heard of me and the work I and my associates undertake on your behalf.' He indicated his men who had spread themselves around the inn. T have seen the wreckage in your fields. And I have heard of the extra mouths you have to feed. I feel for you all.'

Beside him, the mage scoffed quietly. Selik ignored him for the moment. He threw back his hood and waited for the sounds of revulsion and sympathy.

'You can see what magic has done to me, and now you experience its malignancy for yourselves.' He held up a hand as voices became audible. T know you don't understand but your mage does, don't you Evansor?' He sensed the mage flinch as his name was mentioned. 'Because this was no natural wind, was it? Magic did this to your village.' Selik affected a look of surprise. 'Oh, did he neglect to tell you? Well, perhaps he might choose to do so now?'

Selik turned to face Evansor and felt the gathering do the same. This was easier than he expected. Evansor's pale face pinched into a half-smile and he spread his hands.

'My friends, the Black Wings have always hated magic. Don't let him sway you. We have more important matters to discuss. Like how we are to survive the winter if the weather does not improve.'

He'd mollified a few but Selik wasn't even nearly done. 'You have dodged answering the question. A simple yes or no will do. Was the

wind that destroyed the livelihood of this village natural or not?' Selik let his voice soften. 'Come, Evansor, you're among friends. You said so yourself. Answer the question.'

Evansor looked around at the gathering, Selik watching him squirm. The net was tightening beautifully. The silence grew and with every heartbeat, suspicion grew with it.

'I-I tasted magic on the wind,' he said. 'But, but…'

'But you didn't think these people worthy of knowing? That the filth your kind creates has visited ruin on them all?' He swung round to face the crowd whose expressions ranged from the confused to the red-faced furious. He could see his men whispering in certain ears, guiding thoughts, suggesting actions. 'And how do you feel about that, eh?'

T don't understand,' said one voice. The query was taken up by others.

'What's there not to understand?' said Selik. 'The wind that wrecked your crops was fuelled by magic, not by an act of the Gods. And this "friend" of yours didn't want you to know that. Do you think Orytte's flood was a natural disaster? Or Denebre? Or any of a dozen others I could mention. Magic is tearing our country apart and yet you sit and ask him what to do. You've going to starve and he and his kind are the cause of it all.' He heard the crowd stirring and muttering. Close, so very close. 'Would you ask the devil the way out of hell?'

Selik heard a voice say 'no' and there was a sudden rise in the volume of noise, angry voices shouting out for answers and only quietened by one of the older farmers to his left.

'He's taking this too far,' the man said, half-pleading. 'Marching in here, spreading his poison. Evansor is our friend.'

' "Friend"?' Selik spread his hands theatrically. 'And who needs the sort of friend that won't tell you the truth when it suits him? Who's happy to take your money to keep the rats from your barns and the sores from your hands but who is only loyal to his cursed College? Because believe me, he isn't loyal to you. Any of you. Don't be fooled like I was. Don't let my face be your face.' Selik let his voice rise in strength. He had them, he was sure of it. 'This travesty of a man is the problem, not the answer. And problems have to be stamped out!'

He smacked a fist into his palm and glared at Evansor, hearing the clamour of the crowd grow. The mage was badly frightened but Selik knew he would speak and condemn himself.

'Please, my friends,' he said, shouting to make himself heard. 'I'm not your enemy, I can help you.'

'Yes, by getting out!' came a voice. It was a Black Wing voice but nobody cared. The crowd was shouting.

'Out! Out! Out!'

'Please!' Evansor's eyes were desperate, flitting around the room.

Selik grabbed the collar of his shirt.

'Don't touch me, Black Wing, or I'll-'

'What?' And Selik's voice stilled them. 'Cut me down like your kind have the crops of these good people? Which spell will it be? Fire or ice?'

Selik dragged him closer, then shoved him into the crowd. The fist of a Black Wing came out of nowhere and slammed into his cheek, snapping his head back and sending him stumbling. The crowd was roaring now, but none would move forward. Evansor, though, was losing control. Selik smiled as he saw the mage's eyes narrow in anger then unfocus as he prepared.

'He's going to cast!' shouted a voice. A Black Wing voice.

Selik gestured at two of his men. They rushed in. Evansor let the spell go. It was a ForceCone, hard enough to fling the men back, where they clattered into those behind them.

'Get back. I mean you no harm!' shouted Evansor. 'Please.'

A bottle came flying across the bar, missing the mage by a fraction.

'He's broken my arm!' moaned a man. And the surge was triggered.

Selik stepped smartly aside as they came, leaving his foot out to trip one man who fell into those in front, pushing them on. They'd surely only meant to grab him, take him to the village borders and sling him out but Selik's men were in the rush and after the first punch was thrown, Evansor didn't stand a chance.

With the old farmers desperately trying to pull their people away, blow after blow rained down on the helpless mage, whose shouts and begging cries were swallowed up in the pack howl and the desire to mete out punishment on the blameless.

Selik saw a chair leg flash across Evansor's face, splitting his nose; he saw boots stamping and kicking his body and he saw a knife flash in the lantern light and plunge into his heart. They were still punching him long after he had died.

The Black Wing commander gathered his men to him while the hatred dissipated as quickly as it had grown. Village men started to back off, stunned at what they had done. Voices began to rise, expressing shock, and in the background a woman was crying.

Selik smiled and walked to the door of the inn and turned.

'The path of the righteous is ever drenched in the blood of the evil,' he announced into a gathering that was only too willing to hear justification for the murder it had collectively committed. 'This is a great day for Balaia. Magic has wreaked its havoc on our country for too long. It's time we sought recompense. Tell everyone you meet. We shall be second to mages no more.'

He swept from the inn, a swell in his heart and his anger assuaged. Next, the bitch.

Lyanna didn't understand it, only that it hurt and she wanted the hurt to stop. They had promised her peace from the nightmares that made her wake so frightened. And they had promised that they could calm the wind that blew inside her head.

But they couldn't.

Well, they did at first, but now Mummy was away looking for Daddy and they seemed to grow older. They walked slower and their eyes were all dark, inside and out. And that made them cross so much.

So the nightmares had come back. And the wind roared in her head and made it hurt and sometimes she felt like it was dark although it was day. They always helped her when that started to happen. She wished Mummy was here to cuddle her and lie with her when she cried.

Lyanna looked up into the blue sky through the trees in the courtyard orchard. The leaves on the branches blew patterns across her eyes, like little sprites waving hello. She smiled. Perhaps the sprites would talk to her. Ephy and the others never seemed to find the time. Too busy with that smelly pipe.

For a moment, the wind stopped inside her. It was a relief. She

thought hard and the branches of the nearest trees moved towards her, bringing the sprites to where she could talk to them. This would be a fun game.

Cleress dragged deeply on the pipe, feeling the inhalation throughout her wracked and tired body. The mixed weeds calmed her muscles and anaesthetised the arthritis twisting her left knee into a gnarled, swollen parody of a joint.

Beside her at the table, Myriell slumped in her chair, the exhaustion plain on her face. She could sleep soon, much as Aviana did now. Only Ephemere watched over die child who was destroying them all so fast.

They had disastrously miscalculated her power, or rather, the power they would have to expend in shielding such an unbalanced Awakening. And the girl had such energy outside of magic too. She was a lovely child but was becoming more demanding every day. Her moods swung wildly between joy and wonder; and fear and darkness.

Cleress had been at pains to remind them all that, despite the ravaging mana surging barely checked through Lyanna's head due to the Dordovans' clumsy Awakening, she was still just a small child. And that brought its own rash of idiosyncrasies, demands and responsibilities. With Erienne gone, however temporarily, all four of them had to assume the role of understanding grandmother. And though Lyanna undoubtedly trusted them, while she didn't trust any Guild elves now Ren'erei had gone, they had not practised that particular quality of care for decades.

So there were mistakes, the worst of which was to assume Lyanna could always amuse herself when at play. They kept a watching brief on her mind and the flow of the mana around her, yet that wasn't really the point, and Cleress knew it. But they had to rest and the temptation to do so at any time they weren't actively teaching or shielding was overwhelming.

Cleress took another long draw on the pipe, ensured it stayed lit and passed it to Myriell, having to place the stem between her sister's lips before she acknowledged it was there.

'What time is it?' she mumbled before inhaling.

'Too early to be relying on the Lemiir in that pipe, Myra. The sun is riding down but night-time is way away.'

'Or maybe not so for the child.'

'No,' agreed Cleress.

Myriell's brief assessment nagged at all their shattered minds. They supported each other, gave each other their strength and tended their bodies and minds as carefully as they could. But the question remained. Would Lyanna learn even a modicum of self-control before their capacity to teach, control and protect her was finally gone?

Cleress feared the worst.

Cleress, orchard, now. Ephy's voice rang through her head, an alarm that sent her heart racing.

'Trouble, Myra. Stay here. I'll call you if we need you.'

'Try not to,' muttered Myriell.

Cleress dragged herself to her feet and hobbled towards the orchard, the effects of the Lemiir not strong enough to fully dampen the pain that shot up her leg and through her back every time she put pressure on the arthritic knee.

Out of the dining room and through the ballroom she moved, worry hurrying her step, Ephemere's anxiety dusting across her mind.

Ephy was standing at the doors to the orchard, staring out, one hand on the frame to brace herself. When Cleress joined her, she didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

In the centre of the orchard sat Lyanna in her favourite blue dress, cross-legged. Her arms were outstretched before her and her face turned up, a beatific smile across her features. And all around her, the trees moved at her bidding. Whole branches turned down towards her, their leaves rippling, flowers opening, embryonic fruits shifting in colour.

Like a dance, choreographed by Lyanna, eight or nine trees moved to her order, their boughs swaying, crowns dipping and twisting. But it was the leaves that held Cleress rapt. Their movement, like a pulsing wind over the top of a corn field, sent them shimmering in surely impossible directions. Their synchronicity was beguiling, their dark green top surfaces and silver undersides blinking like ten thousand eyes as they twisted gracefully on their slender

stalks. And the noise they made was like voices, whispering and laughing, joyful and so real.

Beneath them all sat Lyanna, still but for her lips, which moved soundlessly as if…

'She's talking to them,' breathed Cleress.

'Yes,' agreed Ephemere. 'Or trying to. A child's imagination has no boundaries and Lyanna's has the power to animate what she dreams. The trouble is, she's flaring. She'll have a headache when she's done.'

'And Balaia will have another gale,' said Cleress. She attuned her eyes to the mana spectrum and saw what Ephemere meant. Though the mana shape Lyanna used unconsciously to manipulate the trees was a stunning spiders' web formation, all around it dark brown spears of mana tore away, creating eddies and vortices which gathered in size and strength as they whipped away beyond vision -beacons for those who searched for her and would do her harm.

She had no idea what she created but the after-effects were felt all over Balaia, where her birthplace was and where the core of her mana strength would always reside. Cleress could only imagine the problems her flares were causing, but knew the dissipation of focused yet unfettered mana energy of this magnitude typically manifested itself as terrifying elemental forces.

Tinjata, for all his senile meanderings those thousands of years ago, had been right about one thing. An awakened Child of the One could lay waste to Balaia in less than half a year. It was up to the surviving Al-Drechar to stop that by keeping her from the worst excesses of herself until she was old enough to understand the control she had to master. If she couldn't, the Al-Drechar would be left with one alternative and its mere contemplation was hideous.

Not for the first time, Cleress cursed the Dordovans for disturbing something in which they should never have meddled.

'What do you want me to do, Ephy?'

'Go in and speak to her. Hear how she describes it. I'll cap the flaring and monitor the mana shape.'

Cleress nodded and entered the orchard. It had an eerie quality to it, though the late afternoon sun cast a warm yellow light. The birds weren't singing and the creak of boughs and branches under Lyanna's control was alien in the windless air.

Close to, Cleress could see Lyanna's eyes darting from leaf to leaf, her mouth moving, her smile alternately thinning and broadening as if the answers she thought she received to her questions pleased her. Her outstretched arms trembled with the effort of maintaining the mana shape and a frown creased her brow. She was tiring.

Cleress knelt by her and smoothed a loose hair from her forehead.

'Lyanna, can you hear me?' she asked, her voice soft despite the effects of the Lemiir.

'I've got my friends here, look, Clerry,' replied Lyanna, not turning from her work, her voice distant with effort.

Cleress looked and had to smile at what kept Lyanna spellbound. From an arc in front of her, branches flowed in, almost touching her face, caressing the arm in front of her and moving over and floating across each other, like the tentacles of a benign sea creature, the stiffness of the bark and grain gone, replaced by a flesh-like suppleness.

And in the branches, the leaves danced and rustled, twisting and bending along their lengths, their gentle susurrations almost musical. It was a beautiful sight and Cleress gazed back at Lyanna, wondering what it was the little girl imagined she saw and heard.

'Are they good friends?' asked Cleress. 'They look pretty.'

'Yes they are, but they can't talk to you because you wouldn't understand.'

'Oh, I see. And what are they saying to you?'

'There are bad people coming here but good people too, to help us. And you're very tired and it's because of me but it's all right really.'

Cleress was speechless. She glanced over to Ephemere but her sister was deep in concentration, eyes closed, hands held at her midriff.

'How do they know that? They must be very clever.'

Lyanna nodded, the leaves rustled as if in applause.

'They know because that's how it feels, silly.'

The elderly Al-Drechar stifled a gasp. Lyanna was feeling communication through the nuances of the mana flow. Some of it she probably picked up from conversations with Erienne but the rest was somehow being filtered from the random force roaring through

her head. Had to be. But it also had to be terribly draining and dangerous. She only hoped Ephemere was in control of the flaring.

'And have your friends told you anything else?' Cleress almost feared the answer.

Another nod from Lyanna but this time her smile was gone and her eyes moistened.

'It's going to get dark soon and I won't be able to see them for ages. And I might get lost but you will help me.'

'Oh, Lyanna, dear,' said Cleress, her heart brimming with sorrow. 'Say goodbye to your friends. I'm afraid Night is coming.'

Chapter 12

There it was. Quite unmistakable. Like the first breath of wind on a becalmed sea. And again.

Far to the south, north of Calaius, the mana spectrum was in flux. This far away, the movement was slight but its very abnormality was its fascination and its betrayer.

The experienced mage could sense the casting of spells throughout Balaia with the mind tuned to the base spectrum, brief oases of order rising from total chaos. But these eddies were altogether different, almost alien and undoubtedly emanating from a collapsing static spell. Interpretation was still difficult, though. They were slight, mere nudges at the random whole.

The Dordovan master, Gorstan, stood and sensed until he was completely sure. This was not Balaian magic. It had a quality of completeness even in its distress, that he could not have achieved. This was magic from another power, a greater power, and through his distaste, he felt awe.

Gorstan turned, reattuning his eyes to the dull grey light from the heavy Balaian sky.

T have them,' he said.

Selik smiled, a twisted sneer affecting only half his disfigured face.

'How far?'

Gorstan shrugged. 'Days. It's impossible to be more accurate from here but I suspect its base to be in the Ornouth Archipelago.'

'If you'll excuse me, Gorstan.'

'With great pleasure,' replied the Dordovan. Selik nodded curtly and swept away, the hood of his cloak back over his face, two aides by his sides.

Gorstan watched him go then turned back towards the south,

head down, eyes fixed on the ripples on the largely still waters of the River Arl as it fed into the Southern Ocean.

He supposed Vuldaroq was right and that Selik was a useful ally for now. But he couldn't help thinking that Dordover would be forever mired by their now open contact with the Witch Hunters. Gorstan was nominally in charge of the one hundred mages and two hundred foot now billeted all around Arlen and it wasn't hard to sense the nervousness among the sleepy port's populace. And, with rumours of Xetesk on the way, backed by Protectors, he wondered whether it wasn't really Selik who was driving it all.

Vuldaroq was due in Arlen shortly and the sooner he arrived, the better.

Hirad, The Unknown and Ilkar led their four horses into Grey-thorne late in the evening. Cloud still hung heavy in the sky, the wind whipping across open land. Everywhere, the ravages of the wind had been evident as they had ridden in: flattened plains grass, interspersed with sections of dirt where stalks had been torn out at the roots and, here and there, the corpses of animals and even two people that none of the survivors had yet found.

They had been a middle-aged couple, huddled together inside a barn that had collapsed on top of them, crushing their bodies beneath thatch and beam. Ilkar had spotted them as The Raven had ridden past to see if they could help. All that was left for them was a burial.

Not long after leaving Thornewood, they'd come across a ragtag column of refugees heading south to Gyernath from Rache in the north. Rache had been struck by gales off the Northern Ocean and a massive mudslide from surrounding hills. It had engulfed most of the town, burying many alive. Those that had survived had fled, believing it would be safer in Gyernath, a warm, tranquil southern port. The Raven hadn't the heart to tell them that nowhere was safe.

The last leg of the journey had been slow and largely silent, each of them brooding on what they had seen and heard on the road. Greythorne was the worst of it.

As The Raven approached, the multiple lights had given them hope that the quiet market town had escaped the hurricane. But closer to, the gathering gloom could not obscure the reality.

What Hirad thought were sloping roofs revealed themselves as part-collapsed walls, leaving angles of broken stone spearing into the sky. The lattice of swept cobbled streets that ran to the market place was filled with rubble and debris. Dust blew through the town and the only roofs standing were tented ones, raised as emergency shelter.

The Raven had seen this sort of destruction before, albeit not on such a scale, but it was the people that brought home the horror of what had befallen Greythorne.

Although the hurricane must have struck two or three days before, the shock was only now setting in. Hirad could well imagine what had happened in its immediate aftermath. Adrenalin and panic would have banished fatigue as teams of survivors battled to find loved ones, free the trapped and salvage anything useful. Indeed, stacks of crates under skins and canvas spoke of the scale of the effort.

But the first night without proper shelter, sleeping in the ruins of once proud houses and, following that, the first dawn, would have sapped wills and leached morale away. Those awash with energy the previous night would have woken dark-eyed and exhausted as they looked on their town, and realised that all they were going to uncover now were bodies.

And this is how they were. Faces streaked with dirt, men and women worked as hard as they could but the spirit was gone. Eyes were wide and uncomprehending, still disbelieving.

They walked past a child wrapped in a blanket and sitting under a small, staked-out leather bivouac. No more than five, he was too traumatised even to cry. He just sat, stared and shivered. The Gods only knew what he had seen and the fate of his parents.

Walking into the main square, The Raven, who had been largely ignored, saw signs of the organisation behind the desperately slow but determined activity. The town hall and grain store were gone but for a corner which still supported windows, their glass reflecting lantern light like malevolent multifaceted eyes. An open-fronted marquee was pitched below it, lit up like daylight, and within, men and women swarmed around tables marking maps and parchments or prepared hot and cold food and drink.

In the centre of it all, sat a man bandaged around the right eye

and right leg. Even from twenty yards, he was pale and haggard, a deep-etched face, grey hair and a drained body fighting hard against exhaustion.

'We need to speak to him,' said The Unknown.

'You two go on. I'll find somewhere for the horses,' said Ilkar.

The Unknown nodded and he and Hirad walked into the warm tented space to be stopped by a young man, scared and tired.

'Out-of-towners? Come to help?' he asked, long blond hair hanging all over his pale, thin features.

'We are The Raven,' said The Unknown by way of reply. 'We're looking for Denser.'

The young man drew in a sharp breath.

'He said you'd be coming.' He nodded them on towards the bandaged seated man. Hirad put a hand on his shoulder.

'And yes, if we can do anything to help, we will.'

A smile brought a spark of life to his bloodshot eyes.

'Thank you,' he said. 'Thank you.'

The Unknown walked up to the man who still wore his mayoral chains and dark green cloak of office around his shoulders. He put out a shaky hand which The Unknown took and shook warmly.

'Gannan. At least you're alive.'

'Barely, Unknown, barely. I'd say it was good to see you but I fear your appearance here has little to do with salvage and much to do with the causes of all this mess.'

Ilkar had walked up to Hirad's shoulder.

'Is there anyone he doesn't know?' whispered Hirad.

'Apparently not,' replied the elf. 'I've left the horses with a local. There's a makeshift picket and stable in the west of the town.'

The Unknown ignored them.

'You've spoken to Denser?' he asked.

'Not at great length, but yes.' Gannan shifted on his chair, using both hands to adjust the position of his injured leg. 'He's very agitated, Unknown. Not making too much sense.'

'Where is he? We need to speak to him.'

Gannan gestured towards a table nearby. 'Some refreshment first, surely?'

'No,' said The Unknown. 'Save it for your people. We'll find our own.'

'He was behind the grain store a while back, wanting some peace and quiet. You could try there.'

'Thanks Gannan, we'll talk later.' He turned away. 'Hirad, you staying or coming?'

Hirad shrugged. 'I've got to talk to him sometime. It may as well be now.'

The Unknown nodded. 'Good.' He led the way outside.

The grain store had butted on to the town hall but was little more than a pile of rubble. Beyond it, to the north end of Greythorne, the activity and light were lessened, though the devastation was equally as severe. Clearly, there were simply not enough survivors to work everywhere.

But someone was moving through the debris, punctuating the windblown quiet with the shifting of slate and the grating of stone on stone.

'Denser,' said Ilkar, pointing away into the gloom.

For a time, Hirad couldn't make him out against the drab, dark background, then he saw his head move.

Denser was crouched in the rubble of what had probably been a house. Timbers were scattered around and slate, thatch and stone was piled where the corners of the walls still stood, defiant. He was holding something and, as they moved closer, they could see it was a tiny human hand.

He appeared not to notice them as they approached, just held the hand in one of his and stroked it gently with the other. Close too, over the noise of the wind, Hirad could hear he was murmuring but couldn't make out the words.

'Denser?' The Unknown's tone was soft. The Dark Mage started and turned to them, his face streaked with tears, his eyes black holes in the shadow of the night.

'Look what she's done,' he whispered, his voice choked and thick. He swallowed. 'This has gone too far.'

Ilkar crouched by him. 'What are you talking about?'

Denser indicated the hand in his. Ilkar followed it. It belonged to a young boy, no more than five, though in truth it was hard to tell. His head had been crushed by falling stone.

'You can't blame Lyanna for this,' he said.

'Blame Lyanna?' Denser shook his head. 'No, but she's the cause

of it all. You can feel what drives the wind even now. Imagine it fifty times as strong and tearing down your walls. It's a miracle any of them lived. If anyone's to blame, it's me and Erienne.'

'I don't think it's that simple,' said Ilkar. He shifted his position and took the child's hand from Denser's unresisting fingers and placed it back in the rubble.

'Only I can stop this thing. Only me,' said Denser, his eyes wild, his voice wavering. 'You have to get me to her. You have to.'

'I think it's time you stopped torturing yourself and came away from here.' Ilkar looked up. 'Reckon we can find anywhere private?'

Hirad shrugged. 'If we build it ourselves.' Ilkar's eyes flashed anger. 'We'll sort something out. C'mon, Denser. Time you had a hot drink.'

Every covered and sheltered space was crammed with people, the very young, the injured and the precious few carers. The Raven walked out of the centre of the town and laid a fire in a scrabbled together circle of stone from a building that had been cleared of any victims. With borrowed water heating in The Unknown's old iron jug, Denser calmed a little but his hands were jittery and his attention wandered fitfully.

'Surprised you're even here, Hirad,' he said, attempting a smile. Hirad didn't return it.

T wouldn't be but Sha-Kaan needs the Al-Drechar. Apparently ancient mages are the last chance now everyone else has let him down.'

'Can we leave that for another time?' Ilkar's voice was pained. 'How long have you been here, Denser?'

The Xeteskian shrugged. 'A day. I was delayed. There's so much mess. I had to try and help, didn't I?'

'You can't hold yourself responsible,' said Ilkar.

'Can't I? Isn't this what Erienne and I wanted? The Child of the One. Balaia's most powerful mage.' He spat out the words. 'But she's out of control and we must stop her. I must stop her.'

Ilkar looked at The Unknown and Hirad. 'What did I tell you?'

The Unknown nodded. 'If he believes it too, then I guess I'm prepared to. But that doesn't change why I'm here, and don't you forget it. Denser, we'll find her and help her control this. Or rather, you will, if you say so. Ilkar's explained it may be her Night.'

'And what will be left when dawn breaks for the Night Child, eh?' Denser swept an arm around him. 'Just look at this place. All the death. And I've heard the other stories. They're all over the town. Not just what we've seen. This is happening everywhere.'' He put his head in his hands. 'Magic has done this. That's what the survivors are saying here. But it's not just that, is it? It's my daughter. Mine. You've got to get me to her.'

'Come on, Denser, calm it down now. You need some rest. Hirad, we need a hot drink for him,' said Ilkar.

Ilkar sat back and let the silence roll over them all. Denser was biting back more tears. The Unknown and Hirad presumably were digesting Denser's words. There seemed little more to say and Ilkar found he'd lost the energy. He hoped that daylight would bring some level-headed talk.

But it was a long time until daylight.

All was not right. Thraun had left the remnants of the pack in safety, hidden deep within Thornewood, in a shallow den dug under a stand of trees the wind hadn't managed to destroy. He had chosen to scout Greythorne where the humans lived. To forage for food and look for any sign of the ones with the mist he recognised from a dim and confused past.

But when he'd arrived, with night full and blustery under a sky hidden by cloud, all he'd found was more sorrow and more destruction. He'd sat on a rise above the town, gazing down, his lupine heart beating strangely as if sympathetic to a race he considered a threat. There would be no food. No fowl to take, no dog or cat to chase down, no scraps from the tables of the humans discarded in alleyways.

Because though it was night, the town still moved as if it was day. Men carried stone from fallen buildings. Lifeless bodies, once exposed, were moved to an open space in the centre of the town and everywhere, lanterns and torches dazzled his eyes. He could not risk venturing in -he didn't want to bring the hunters back to Thornewood.

And so he had returned to the pack but decided on a different route to the new den, hoping for a kill. It was there that he had found them. Tour humans, two killed by metal and two by something else, their faces telling of sudden terror and brief agony.

But there was something more. A scent in the air and on the leaves

that he recognised, a cleanliness in the kills and a residual knowledge within him that sparked into life. He knew who had done this. He could taste them in the air. It had to be linked with the two he had seen in Thornewood before the wind had come. They and their tree-shadow people.

Thraun stopped, his mind clearing slowly. Thornewood felt bad. Not because of the breaking of so much, but because of how it had happened. The suddenness, the wind out of all keeping with all that was natural and its links to the mist he could sense but never touch or feel around him.

And that sense of wrong was still everywhere. With every gust his heart lurched, and with each drop of rain he feared flood from a clear sky. It had to be stopped. The threat to the pack had to be removed. And somehow, those humans he recognised so faintly were involved. Perhaps they sought what he now sought. Perhaps they didn't. But one thing was clear, he couldn't stay in Thornewood and live on hope alone.

Thraun had always known he was different from the rest of the pack. He understood things. He didn't get damaged. He felt a curious kinship with humans that led him to forbid the pack to hunt them. Now, though, he needed the wolves.

His mind set, he trotted back to the pack, left the cubs with the female least able to fight and took the rest back towards Greythorne.

Somewhere out there were the answers.

Hirad was poking at the fire, sending new flame spiralling into the air and embers scattering. Beyond the fire, the night was anything but quiet. Although it wasn't raining, the wind was blowing more cloud across the sky and, closer to the ground, savage gusts were whipping up dust, mourning around the broken ruins of Grey-thorne's once proud homes.

Down in the centre and south of the town, the lanterns still burned as the work to uncover the dead continued. Hirad had enormous admiration and pity for the townspeople who clung to each other for what support they could get, while their inner strength drove them to sift the ruins for their dead so that those who survived could begin to live again,

Hirad added another dried-out branch to the fire and looked away from the town centre to those he guarded. The Raven. It felt

undeniably good. He hadn't imagined ever watching over Denser, Ilkar and The Unknown again, yet here he was, and their sleeping postures said everything about their confidence in him.

There were so many memories to recall, he didn't know where to begin. He hooked the hot pot off the fire and refilled his mug, the soaking herbs Ilkar had gathered good enough for one last infusion.

A gust of wind played across the campsite, sifting through the cloaks and furs of his friends as they slept, the whispering pickpocket that stole nothing. He smiled, recalling the countless times he'd seen it before.

But the smile died as his eyes rested on Denser's form. Because the gust had gone, yet the riffling went on, his cloak moving under the order of some unseen hand. Unseen.

He'd witnessed more magic than most non-mages would see in a lifetime and he knew a CloakedWalk attack when he saw it. Mindful that the mage, who would be moving very slowly around Denser to avoid becoming visible, would not be alone, Hirad stood leisurely, his gaze never slipping entirely from Denser, his mind framing the likely position of the mage-thief.

Denser was the other side of the fire from him, with The Unknown to his left and Ilkar his right. Hirad stretched, his heart rate increasing. Another gust blew across the ruins. Hirad half-turned as if to look down in to Greythorne, swung back, took a single pace and launched himself across the fire.

Fists clenched and arms outstretched, he dived to land beyond Denser's body but connected with the Cloaked mage's shoulder and upper back as he bent to steal. Hirad heard the mage grunt in surprise and suddenly he was there; a long figure, dressed in close-fitting black clothes, his arms flailing as the barbarian slammed him to the ground.

'Raven! Mage attack!' called Hirad as he landed, hands grappling for a hold. The mage was fast, sinewy and supple, scrabbling furiously and jamming an arm between himself and Hirad, pushing the barbarian away.

Hirad rolled again, letting go his grip and coming to a half crouch, seeing the mage still disorientated and, behind him, The Raven surging to wakefulness. The mage made to run but Hirad was

quicker, lashing out a leg to trip him, the mage tumbling head over heels, sprawling in the dust.

The Raven man jumped after him, the mage quickly on to his feet and facing the barbarian. He swung a fist which Hirad ducked, stepping inside the man's long reach to slam a punch into his midriff and follow up with a left hand which caught him square on the nose. Hirad felt it crack under his fist and felt the blood wet and warm on his hand.

The mage staggered back, gasping in pain. Hirad went after him, double jabbing to the mouth with his left and swinging with his right in a hook that the mage swayed away to avoid. Hirad squared up but never landed his next punch, taken off his feet by a body slamming into his side.

He tumbled to the ground, aware of shouting and seeing another figure all over his vision as he rolled. He heard The Raven shouting.

'Three! There are three!' Denser shouted.

A sword was drawn. Hirad saw the glint of metal and blocked instinctively left to right, connecting with a forearm. He scrambled back, trying to gauge his surroundings, seeing people everywhere.

Denser shouted something unintelligible and rage filled the space. In front of Hirad, his attacker jumped to his feet but doubled over as soon as he straightened. Hirad felt the spray of blood over his face and the man collapsed.

'Gods!' he shouted, getting to his feet and looking for the mage with the broken nose but Denser had seen him first.

'Bastards!' shouted Denser. The Xeteskian swept by Hirad, bloodied sword raised to bring it down, again and again.

'Stop! Stop!' The Unknown was shouting.

By Hirad, the other mage lay writhing, clutching his side, screaming his agony. Hirad lashed a foot into his face to quiet him while behind, the dull thud of metal on dead meat sounded in his ears.

'It's over. Denser, it's over!' The Unknown again.

'No!' shouted Denser.

'It is over!' The Unknown's voice had finality about it and quiet reigned.

Hirad dusted himself down. He flexed his fists, feeling the knuckles and rubbing at the soreness he found.

On the ground near him, the body of one mage lay twisted in the

rubble. His kick to the face had snapped the man's neck but given the gaping wound in his back, it was probably a blessing. A few paces away, a second body. There was blood everywhere. In the garish light of the fire, it glistened on seemingly every stone, trailed over the churned mud and slicked in pools by the bodies. The third was nowhere to be seen and Hirad drew his sword, staring around into the night.

'The third one's still out there somewhere,' he warned.

'He won't be back,' whispered Denser. 'He knows we'll be waiting.'

Denser still stood over his second victim, blood dripping from the blade he clutched, dragging in huge breaths, his head down, face blank. The Unknown and Ilkar stood near each other and to Denser's left. Neither had drawn a weapon and both looked on in almost comical shock at the carnage Denser had so quickly wrought.

'Denser, it's time to clean and sheath,' said The Unknown quietly.

The Xeteskian nodded and knelt to wipe his sword on the dead mage. They watched him make his very deliberate movements and walk back to the fire to retrieve his scabbard, refusing to catch their eyes. He sat on his bedroll and stared into the fire.

'Who were they?' asked Hirad.

'Dordovans,' said Ilkar.

'Assassins,' grated Denser.

T don't think so,' said Hirad. 'Or it'd be your blood on the ground, not theirs. What the hell happened to you?' He gestured at the bodies and walked back into the warmth of the fire, Ilkar and The Unknown joining him. T can't believe you did this.'

Denser shrugged. 'They attacked, we defended.'

'Interesting angle,' said Ilkar. 'Someone else might say you ran after an unarmed man and hacked him half to pieces.'

'They didn't attack,' said Hirad. 'They wanted something from you.'

Denser looked at Hirad, his fury still burning. 'And they didn't get it.'

'Didn't get what?' asked The Unknown.

'It doesn't matter,' said Denser, hand reflexively touching his stomach.

'No?' Hirad saw the wildness in Denser's eyes and chose to keep himself calm. 'It mattered to the Dordovans. And it mattered enough for you to kill them.'

'That's not why I killed them.'

'Then tell us,' said The Unknown. 'You're keeping secrets from us again and, again, we couldn't be prepared. You're putting us at risk and that's not The Raven's way.'

'Gods, you sound like Hirad,' said Denser.

'That's because, on this, he's dead right,' said Ilkar, adding his weight. 'We need to know, Denser. And we'll sleep easier if we know now.'

The Xeteskian raised his eyebrows and nodded, somehow making it a grudging gesture.

'The Prophecy wasn't all translated. And I was curious. So I took the pages that weren't translated to Xetesk and found out Dor-dover's intentions, all right?'

Hirad breathed out sharply and looked down into the town. Lights were weaving through the streets, heading their way. Not surprising. The screams of the dying mage were bound to have been heard despite the wind. At least it would keep the third mage away. He sheathed his sword and sat down.

'And you thought this little snippet not important enough to mention?' said Ilkar, voice quiet but angry. 'You've put us at risk ever since we left Dordover and didn't bother to mention it. Thanks very much.'

T didn't think they'd find out,' said Denser.

'That isn't the point,' said Hirad. T hope it was worth it.' He looked over at Denser and could see that, to him, it was.

'If they get hold of my daughter now, they'll conduct a ritual spell sacrifice. They'll murder her but they won't do it quickly. She'll die in agony. And I won't let that happen. Enough for you?' Denser stared back into the fire.

'For now,' said The Unknown.

Hirad looked at the big man. He suspected there was more. Time would tell but he was seldom wrong. Right now, though, with the lanterns bobbing nearer, there was some explaining to do.

Erienne knew they had made good speed but to her their passage still felt so slow. She knew it was her anxiety but the nagging feeling wouldn't go away. She'd have blown into the sails herself but the stiff wind whipping white horses across the surface of the water, and without doubt a product of Lyanna's mind, was obviously power enough. Indeed at times, the captain of the Ocean Elm could be seen frowning out from the wheel deck, confused as to the direction of the wind which didn't necessarily accompany cloud or follow its direction.

But he was a skilful sailor, used to the vagaries of the Southern Ocean and the tides around Calaius; and though clearly irritated by the conflicting information he could see and feel, had enough faith in his judgement and kept the sails full.

Erienne had risen with the first signs of dawn, as she had each morning, marvelling at the sight of light breaking across the eastern horizon as she stood at the bow, dressed in thick woollen breeches, shirt and cloak. This morning, she could see Balaia on the horizon. It was a clear, bright day without a hint of haze and the sight boosted her spirits, quelling the impatience that Ren'erei had found both funny and frustrating.

'Be calm,' she had said. 'There's nothing you can do. The wind and the ship are beyond your control. If you relax your mind, the days will pass more quickly.'

Erienne smiled and half-turned to see the pretty young elf standing on the wheel deck next to the captain. She had tried to teach Erienne mind-calming exercises which were surprisingly similar to those taught at the Colleges to mages suffering severe mana drain. Ren'erei asked her to think of her tensed mind as a muscle, cramped by fatigue, before imagining it slowly unwinding and stretching, then feeling the cool wash of blood begin to flow again.

She knew she could do it, she just didn't want to, and her smiling admission had caused Ren to throw up her arms and stalk away.

Now, of course, Erienne wished she'd tried harder. She was tired, having not had a solid night's sleep since leaving Herendeneth. Lyanna's cries of pain and fear still echoed around her skull in the dead of night and her own anxiety surfaced to wake her a dozen times from her rest.

She'd survive. The coastline was looming large and the trip up the

river to Arlen quick, if the captain timed the tide well. Erienne had no doubt that he would.

Her emotions were so mixed. She was desperate to see Denser but feared his reaction after so long out of contact. She needed his strength and thought but disliked the admission of failure it had come to represent within her. And she still thrilled at the prospect of standing with The Raven once again despite knowing the confidence it would give her was entirely unfounded. After all, how could they possibly help? She had to smile at that. They had achieved enough against the odds to make the question ridiculous. The fact was, they'd find a way.

There would be problems, though. She knew Ilkar would be ethically opposed to a return to the One and she could well understand the conflicting thoughts that would be running through his mind. Perhaps he wouldn't even be with them. But somehow, she thought he wouldn't miss it – if only to ensure right was done by his College. As for Denser, well, Denser's College had a vested interest and they'd no doubt be irritated he wasn't working directly with them. But he was a father before he was a Xeteskian and he'd fight his own College if he thought they threatened Lyanna. And in that, as in so much, Erienne and he were one.

But through all her feelings at what she would find back in Balaia, her strongest tie was to the child she had been forced to leave behind. Poor Lyanna. The innocent in a game with no rules, no defined sides and no obvious way to win. Erienne yearned to see her little face, her delightful smile and her beautiful eyes. And she feared that if this mission went astray, and the Dordovans found Heren-deneth, she would not.

The strengthening wind drove the bow of the Ocean Elm into the next wave, sending spray flying into the air and across the foredeck. Erienne wiped a film of water from her face, turned and walked to the wheel deck, her balance true and confident after six days at sea.

Trotting up the eight-ranged ladder she came to stand by Ren'erei, the elf smiling at her, green eyes sparkling.

'Getting a little rough down there, was it?' she asked.

'No. It's just that I've already washed this morning, that's all,' she returned. 'How close are we?'

The Captain turned to her, reddened face pinched, his strong

hands rocks on the wheel. 'A day and a half, no more. Less if we go upriver through the night and I have a mind to.' His voice was melodic and gentle, so different from when he bellowed orders to his crew.

Erienne nodded. 'Then it's time I tried to contact Denser. I'll be in my cabin and I need to not be disturbed.'

'Then I'll be standing outside the door.' Ren'erei's face was solemn.

'You don't have to.' Erienne smiled.

'Nevertheless.'

Erienne led the way below decks, turning to Ren'erei as she reached the door to her cabin.

'You should hear nothing,' she said. 'But even if you do, don't worry. Occasionally, dispersal of Communion is a little painful.'

'Good luck,' said Ren'erei.

'Thank you.' She closed the door, lay down on her bed and closed her eyes. As she settled into the mana spectrum, searching for the spike that she would recognise as Denser, she prayed he was within her compass and, more importantly, that he would answer her at all.

She was not to be disappointed.

Chapter 13

Darrick faced down the angry Dordovan mage master in front of him. The young General hadn't slept, though his cavalry and mage charges had grabbed a few hours after arriving in the ruins of Greythorne in the middle of the night. Having overseen the picketing and feeding of the horses, he'd toured the ruins, resolving immediately to leave half of his four hundred cavalry to help the salvage effort, taking the balance on after a day's rest and assessment.

What he didn't need, with the stubble itching his chin, his eyes red and smarting and still wearing his riding garb, was the mage, Tendjorn, to disagree.

'These people need our help,' said Darrick. 'While you were resting, I was walking these streets. My decision stands.'

Tendjorn, not yet forty and with a flat, supercilious face, looked along his wide, veined nose from where he stood in the centre of Greythorne, clearly able to see the situation for himself.

'Your orders, if I'm not mistaken, General, are to support the forces now in and around Arlen and rendezvous with Vuldaroq on his arrival with your entire force. Our latest intelligence from Gorstan indicates we are close to finding the girl but will need to move fast. Ornouth is a long way and Xetesk and the Protectors are not far behind.'

'Open your tiny eyes, and see what I see, Tendjorn. I see a small town destroyed by a hurricane. And it was a hurricane that, by your own admission, was probably a result of Lyanna's awakening power.

'Now I understand your need to recapture her to stop all this but we have a duty as responsible ambassadors of magic to help those who have become innocent victims of whatever this actually is.'

Tendjorn smiled, a patronising gesture that sparked Darrick's anger, though he kept himself in check.

'General, I think you fail to fully understand the situation. This is not the end, though if we don't find the girl soon, it will be the beginning of the end. Every hour spent here is an hour wasted.'

'My decision stands and I would advise you to lower your voice next time you choose to utter such an insensitive remark. We do have the time.'

Tendjorn shook his head, his untidy dark hair flapping around his small round ears. 'I don't think so, General. Might I remind you-'

Darrick grabbed Tendjorn's shirt at the neck with both hands and dragged the mage close.

'Listen to me, Dordovan, and listen very well,' he grated, his eyes cold. He could see the sudden fear in the mage's face. 'These people need our help now. Not in a day, not in seven, but now. Do you really believe that I, as an emissary of Lystern, can ride out of here without lifting a finger? Never mind the unconscionable moral wrong, what the hell sort of a message do you think it would send them about us?

'This operation is under my control. It is two and a half days' ride to Arlen from here. It will take twice that time to secure and provision enough ships to sail as far as Ornouth. My cavalry are tired, my horses exhausted. We will stay to oversee the cleaning up here. Only then will half of us move to Arlen. There, I will decide if Izack and his men stay here or join us. Do you understand me?'

Darrick let the mage go and stepped back. 'Attempt to remove me from command if you dare.'

'Don't challenge me, Darrick,' spat Tendjorn, straightening his clothing and failing not to appear ruffled.

'It's not a challenge. I'm in charge here, remember that.'

'And remember who wields the real power,' returned the mage.

Darrick laughed. 'Yes I do. But we're not in Dordover now, are we? And you are among Lysternans.'

The young General stalked out of the square towards the camp to rouse his tired men to uncover more of the dead.

There had been no trouble with the townspeople who'd come to check on The Raven after the attack by the Dordovan mages. They had no energy to question their story and anyway, The Raven could always be trusted. A further blessing was the dry weather overnight

and The Raven woke shortly before dawn, at the insistence of The Unknown. The Communion to Denser had come with a pale light filtering beneath fast-moving, thin, high cloud across the wrecked town, the renewed noise of activity drifting up to them. Another weary day.

'Who is it?' asked Hirad.

Ilkar regarded him blankly. 'Well, it's a little difficult to tell, strangely enough.'

Hirad made a long face. 'Thought you mages knew this sort of stuff.'

'Tell me, Hirad, if someone gives a friend of yours a letter while you're standing there, do you immediately know who it's from?' Ilkar's ears pricked in irritation.

'Well, letters aren't magical, are they? Isn't there an aura or something?'

'Gods, Hirad, how many Communions have you seen? Isn't it obvious that it's a personal and private conversation?'

'But that doesn't mean you don't know who's talking,' said Hirad evenly but a smile was edging the corners of his mouth.

Ilkar pointed at his face. 'See these? They're eyes. See that? That's Denser, lying on the ground, receiving Communion from the Gods know where or who. I am a mage, not a seer, all right?'

'You know, I've really missed our intellectual debates,' said The Unknown dryly. He knelt by Denser and moved the mage's head further on to his rolled-up cloak. 'So well constructed and delivered.'

'Glad you think so,' muttered Ilkar, throwing a sideways glance at Hirad.

'What I think,' said The Unknown. 'And you think too, Ilkar, is that Denser is most likely in contact with Erienne. After all, few enough know his signature, let alone can guess or have worked out his likely whereabouts.'

'That presupposes Erienne to be not too far distant,' said Ilkar, nodding nonetheless.

'A meeting was always inevitable,' reasoned The Unknown.

'A bit convenient though, isn't it? I mean, we show up here in the middle of basically nowhere and Erienne drops a message in after weeks of nothing?'

The Unknown shrugged. T think we've been together long enough not to believe in coincidence or convenience. Erienne left Denser a letter knowing he would try to find her and that we would help him, should he ask. If her need for him has grown, she'll try to find him now too. It just makes sense for them to meet where she believes he will come to.'

'Clever lady,' said Ilkar.

'I never doubted it,' said The Unknown. He straightened and looked back down the small rise into the centre of Greythorne. 'Some horsemen arrived last night. Cavalry by the order of the hoofbeats. We should find out who it is.'

'Dordovan, no doubt,' said Ilkar, scowling.

The Unknown nodded. 'In all probability. We can show them the bodies of their colleagues, can't we? When Denser comes round, we'll go and look. Just keep your ears open and your eyes sharp. It's looking like we aren't on the same side. All right?'

'Mummy! Mummy!' Lyanna's repeated screams woke Cleress before Aviana's urgent message reached her tired mind. The Al-Drechar's house was dark as she came to but even as she fought for focus in mind and eye, she heard the urgent speech of Guild elves and the snap of Ephemere's voice ordering calm.

But as Cleress emerged into the corridor from her room, a shawl about her shoulders, feet rammed into sandals, night dress floating about her skeletal frame, it was clear Herendeneth was anything but calm.

Outside, a wind howled down the wood-panelled passageway, rattling the pictures hanging on the walls and ruffling the rugs underfoot. Behind Cleress as she limped towards the guest wing where Lyanna slept, a vase crashed to the floor and the breaking of glass echoed from a distant part of the house.

Ahead of her, Ephy had stopped at a set of doors and was speaking to a Guild elf, Cleress couldn't make out who. She saw him nod, bow slighdy and hurry back up the passage towards her.

'Ephy!' called Cleress. Ephemere turned, her face grey and anxious.

'Let Aronaar help you,' she replied. She opened a door but the

wind snapped it shut, the dull bang reverberating along the corridor. Ephemere frowned.

Aronaar trotted up to her, deep green eyes tight with recent sleep, shirt and trousers hurriedly put on. He was barefoot.

'Thank you,' said Cleress, leaning gratefully into him, taking the weight from her stiff and painful right knee.

'You set the pace, my Lady,' said Aronaar, inclining his head slightly.

'Then we'd better make it quick.' They started towards Ephemere. 'We're following you, Ephy. Is she in bed still?'

Ephemere had dragged the door back open and braced it with a foot. She nodded.

'Sitting up but still asleep, Ana says. This could be trouble. She's in danger of becoming uncontained.'

Cleress felt fear shift through her, tensing tired muscles and catching her breath.

'Faster, Aronaar. Much faster.'

It was the flow of the mana they had to assess. The depth of any flaring and the vortices it produced. Without that knowledge, they could do Lyanna incalculable harm, shutting off streams that, with no escape, would disperse themselves inside her mind. Hurrying down the corridor, towards her room, Cleress wondered if that wasn't already happening.

Outside, the orchard was largely still, but every window overlooking it had smashed outwards, leaving jagged spears of glass and warped frames swinging on the wind that gusted strong into their faces.

Above it, Lyanna's wails ran like acid through Cleress' veins and she could but imagine the torment of the young child as she fought a desperate battle to bring her burgeoning power under control.

For days now, the four elderly Al-Drechar had kept unflinching vigil over Lyanna as she descended into her Night. At no time was she left alone in her mind; it was the only way to monitor her acceptance of the mana as part of her being and discern any hint that she was understanding control.

Only now would the Al-Drechar find out whether their terribly short time of teaching had given Lyanna the knowledge that would save her life. But what nagged at them all was that, though Lyanna

was obviously bright and a talent with no bounds or equal to her potential, she shouldn't have had to deal with her fall Awakening until her teens. Not just her mental wellbeing but her physical state too had to be monitored.

The Al-Drechar did everything they could, though in truth it wasn't much. They kept her exercised and fed during the moments she was awake and shielded her from the excesses of mana strength while she lay semi-conscious. But so much of the battle was within her undeveloped psyche and they were helpless to aid her there.

The lucid periods were shortening dramatically and, more and more, Lyanna either lay on her bed or walked the corridors of the house, oblivious to all around her, Al-Drechar shadowing her every step of the way.

A keening cry split the whistling of the wind and with it, a jolt in Cleress' brain as Aviana's tenuous grip on Lyanna's mind slipped again.,

'Hurry, please,' came the exhausted thought. 'She's breaking me.'

'Almost with you,' pulsed Ephemere. 'Be calm, Ana.'

Aronaar reached out with his free hand and pushed open Lyanna's door. Ephemere strode in first, with Cleress unwrapping her arm from the elf s shoulder before following her in while he stayed outside.

Lyanna was sitting on the bed, legs not touching die ground. Sweat matted her hair and ran down her face and across her tightly closed eyes, dripping from her cheeks and chin. Her mouth hung open and she dragged in great breaths, moaning for her mother or whimpering, her brow creased by some savage inner pain.

In a chair near the bed slumped Aviana, her face white in the gloom and drooping to her chest. Her arms were gripping the sides of the chair and her legs were tucked hard under it. She was shivering, her eyes restless as they searched the mana spectrum.

Immediately, Cleress and Ephemere attuned their eyes to the spectrum, revealing the full enormity of what they had sensed on walking in.

Rippling and shimmering, unstable but holding, Aviana's mind-mana shield played like a hood around Lyanna's consciousness, its deep brown cut through with a brilliant emerald green that was Aviana's alone. Beneath it thrummed the chaos of Lyanna's

desperate fight to accept and control the mana flow coursing through her head, drawn there by what she represented as if it was alive.

And what the Dordovans had done was there for them all to see. Dominating the gentle brown that gave them cause for hope, indicating as it did her Drechar capabilities, was the poisonous orange of the Dordovan College. Here was where the fight would take place.

Looking deeper, Cleress could see striations of deep green, pale yellow and dark, dark blue assimilated in the streams. Much of it appeared calm but at the centre of the helical structure was the pulsing orange that signified Dordovan Awakening.

Like a lunging animal, no, a snake preparing to strike, the rogue Dordovan mana bunched and coiled before expanding explosively, ripping die gently modulating brown as it did so; and punching outwards as flares or, intriguingly and worryingly, part-constructs.

Aviana, with minute adjustments to her shield, accommodated her instant decisions, letting the flares and stronger constructs escape or, if she could, containing them, allowing them to disperse harmlessly away from Lyanna and almost certainly taking damage in her own mind in the process. It was impossible to see how she could do otherwise.

Cleress' pulse quickened. It was an onslaught, unintentional and quite without malice, but one under which Aviana, even Aviana, was beginning to wilt. The power it represented was quite without precedent. Should Lyanna complete the miracle and survive, she'd be a mage with no peer. It was something for the Al-Drechar to cling onto. At least they wouldn't be surrendering themselves point -lessly.

'Cleress, apply yourself to the shield,' said Ephemere. T need to calm the inner structure.'

'Be careful,' urged Cleress, already plucking at Aviana's mana strands to knit together the shield and provide a fresh and safer outlet for the flare. 'She's attempting to cast.'

'She's trying to contact Erienne,' said Aviana, relief in her voice as Cleress accepted some of the brunt of Lyanna's outpourings.

Through the jolt she felt and the concentration she partitioned to

help Ana, Cleress had enough about her to be irritated she hadn't spotted it straight away.

'Of course,' she muttered. Though Lyanna hadn't been taught even the rudiments of Communion, her innate knowledge led her subconscious mind to attempt it. Her constructs were ill-formed and impossibly unstable, lasting a few heartbeats at most, but they were there nonetheless as she attempted the flow across the spectrum that would lead her to her mother's mind.

It was lucky she had no hope of success. The base power of her casting occasionally reached dangerous peaks which would have slammed into Erienne with the force of a MindMelt. It was these Aviana had been filtering through the shield to dissipate away from that young, helpless mind. Even so, the pain must have been at times intense. Small wonder Lyanna cried out for Erienne so often.

'Aviana, let go if you need to,' said Cleress. Despite her tiredness, she felt able to sustain the shield while Ephemere cut off the source of the flares.

'I'm all right. I'll just pull back a little,' she said. 'Ephy, you'll have to talk her down quickly. The Gods only know what this is doing outside.'

'No, I'm not going to talk. I've got a better idea. I'm going to mana meld with her.'

'Risky,' said Cleress. The mass of trapped mana in Lyanna's mind coiled and sprang, spitting out another embryonic Communion. It was weak as Lyanna began to tire and Cleress was able to disperse it within the shield; a containment that represented a small victory for the seas around Herendeneth.

'She needs to understand how to bind the Dordovan magic into the One at source. She may be able to stand the reaction in her mind of not doing so but I don't think we or Balaia can.'

'Then do it, Ephy, if you believe you can,' said Aviana. 'Just hurry.'

Cleress watched closely as the smooth brown sphere that represented the calm of Ephemere's mind began to reach out, all the while never letting her concentration slip on the shield.

Strands of mana waved out from the sphere. Tiny filaments like hairs on an otherwise bald skull, probing so gently into the multicoloured confusion that was Lyanna. At first, the little girl seemed

unaware her mana coil was being touched and Ephemere was able to spread the gossamer tendrils wider, linking and diffusing areas of deep Dordovan orange, melding their flow with hers, removing its aggression.

But though Lyanna herself had no formal training in defence against such magical intrusion, her innate abilities, unschooled and uncontrolled, fired within her mind.

'Now it starts,' whispered Ephemere. 'Be ready. Accept the pain.'

Cleress frowned but in the next heartbeat understood only too well. The coiling core of Lyanna's mana focus dragged inwards at extraordinary speed, moving from the size of a skull to that of a fist quicker than the mind's eye could follow.

Ephemere gasped, her probing tendrils whipping away from their tenuous hold. Immediately, she constructed a convex surface and suspended it, base down, above the fist which punched outwards with blurring energy,

'Dear Gods,' whispered Cleress as the mana energy deluged Ephemere's deflector, disintegrating against the unyielding surface held by a mind of huge experience. Mana strands flashed away, tearing into the shield held by Aviana and Cleress, the two Al-Drechar modulating desperately to absorb the impact or let it pass through on its way to play havoc with Balaia.

Absorption was a hammer, pounding on her exposed brain. Lyanna's flares coursed the shield, seeking a path, their outlet Aviana and Cleress. Naturally, the Al-Drechar could have completed a circuit, building a contained sphere, but Lyanna would have been irrevocably damaged at the very least as her mana energy gorged itself in the active mind that had so recently given it its freedom.

And that could not be allowed to happen. So the Al-Drechar's old but strong minds had to take the force of it, letting go only that which would have compromised their concentration and hence the shield, so risking catastrophic flaring into the mana trails that covered Balaia. It was an acceptable state, but only for now.

Lyanna's resistance was violent but brief and Cleress realised that Ephemere had fully expected it to be so. Quickly, the mana flow subsided, the coil relaxed and the girl's breathing returned to a regular pace from its fevered speed.

'Join me,' said Ephy. 'She is spent.'

'We should keep the shield,' said Aviana immediately.

'It's done its work,' replied Ephy. 'Trust me.'

Together, the three Al-Drechar forged a lattice of tendrils that stroked the angry, tired coil of Lyanna's failing defences, teasing out the Dordovan strands and calming them to brown. Doing so, Cleress felt Lyanna's energy seep away, as did her own, and she reacted just quickly enough in the physical world to hold the child as she slumped, peaceful for now, to a deep and dreamless slumber.

'We should wake Myra,' said Ephemere. 'She can take the rest of the night.'

'No,' said Aviana firmly. 'I can do it. Just pray she keeps quiet through the day too.'

Cleress knew what she meant. They couldn't cope with another outburst like this without rest. Ideally, Myriell shouldn't be woken until noon and Aviana would have to sleep the whole of the next day and night. She and Ephy were in little better shape but had the rest of this night before having to once again take their stints guarding Lyanna from her own mind. Her Night was far from over.

Cleress and Ephemere made their way slowly and painfully back to their own rooms, spurning the Lemiir for the totality of rest. In truth, neither had the energy to sit and smoke.

Closing her door, Cleress mouthed a silent prayer that Erienne would return soon.

Chapter 14

The Raven walked purposefully back towards the centre of Grey-thorne, their direction clear at last. All their clues, thoughts and suspicions had been proved right. Erienne had travelled south, she had received help and she had met with the Al-Drechar. But not on Balaia.

Denser had woken thoughtful, quiet but determined from his Communion, his fury of the night gone and giving them only a brief summary of his conversation. He was very anxious to be on his way but The Unknown was determined to make proper assessment of Greythorne, both in terms of support for its beleaguered survivors and the potential threat of the cavalry force.

They would leave town after midday all being well which, with Erienne probably arriving in Arlen the following morning, depending on wind and tide at the river's mouth, was all Denser would stand. It would still leave Erienne alone for two days but Denser had advised her to stay aboard the Ocean Elm, advice she had been given by the Guild elves already.

'Like I said earlier, keep your eyes open. We've heard all sorts of rumours about College mobilisation and we don't know where allegiances have finally fallen, if anywhere. Don't necessarily trust anyone. And remember, even within a College, not everyone thinks the same way.'

'Meaning what?' asked Hirad.

'Meaning Dordover don't want us to find Lyanna first,' said The Unknown. 'They want us to lead them to her and then they want her back inside the College and probably dead. All right?'

Hirad nodded. 'I'll be careful.'

'Good.'

It was a short walk through the ruins to the centre of the shattered

town, coming again to full, painful life, such as it was. The smell of porridge and the steam from water vats drifted across the main square. Squads of men and women moved with dread purpose to their next tasks and inside the marquee a babble of voices signified the day's activities being organised.

The Unknown Warrior stopped one of a group of men heading past them with shovels. 'I heard some cavalry come in last night. Do you know where from?'

The man shrugged. 'West. One of the Colleges.'

'Which one? Dordover?'

A shake of the head. 'I'm not sure. Lystern, I think.'

The Unknown nodded and walked on, heading for the marquee.

'Good news,' said Ilkar.

'If it's true,' said The Unknown.

'Will you ever stop being sceptical?'

'Will you ever stop being an elf?' The Unknown smiled.

T think you've said that before, sometime.'

T know I have.'

'But he was right about Lystern, that man. Look,' said Hirad, pointing towards the marquee. Standing just under its awning and talking to Gannan was a tall young man in plated cavalry leather. A cloak was about his shoulders, deep green with gold braiding at the neck, and his curly brown hair waved in the breeze that blew without pause through Greythorne's streets. He was obviously tired, his shoulders having the minutest droop, but he was still unmistakable.

'Darrick,' said The Unknown.

The Raven walked faster across the square to their old friend who didn't look up as they approached, his face half turned from them.

'Well, well, well,' said Hirad. 'There's a face it's good to see in bad times.'

Darrick's head snapped round and he took in the four of them, a rare smile crossing his face.

'But why is it always the bad times, Hirad, eh?' The smile faded as he gripped hands with them all in turn, his habitual serious expression replacing it. 'I didn't expect to see The Raven together again. The situation must be worse than I thought.'

'We're just helping a friend,' said Ilkar. 'Old habits die hard, you know.'

T do know.'

'So what brings Lysternan cavalry to Greythorne?' asked The Unknown.

'Orders,' said Darrick. 'Some of my, um, superiors deemed it necessary to increase the weight of our already significant forces in Arlen.'

'Already significant?' Denser's face displayed his agitation.

'Look,' said Darrick. T know I'm not speaking to fools. There's been plenty of College mobilisation and the potential for trouble in Arlen is high.'

'Someone else knows Erienne's landing there tomorrow, do they?'

'Hirad!' snapped The Unknown, his voice an angry hiss.

'No, they do not,' said Darrick, but he couldn't help a glance over his left shoulder where a cloaked man was standing hunched over some papers.

'But they do now,' said Denser. 'Nice work, Hirad.'

'What's wrong with you? This is Darrick we're talking to,' said Hirad, though his tone betrayed the knowledge that he'd made a bad mistake.

'And you think Lystern alone sent him and his cavalry, do you?' The Unknown scowled. 'Gods, Hirad, sometimes I wonder whether you understand anything at all.'

'Can we conduct this somewhere else?' suggested Ilkar.

Denser nodded curtly and strode back into the square, heading for the makeshift stabling.

'Sorry,' said Hirad, shrugging. 'I didn't think-'

'No, you didn't,' said The Unknown. 'C'mon. Time for a slight change of plan.' He looked deep into Darrick's eyes, the General nodding almost imperceptibly. 'Thanks.'

He turned and followed Denser out into the wan sunlight, Ilkar and Hirad behind him.

Tendjorn straightened and turned, watching The Raven hurry away. To his right, Darrick stood impassive, his eyes glinting, his body

still. The Dordovan mage could feel his anger though and found it a comfort. He opened his mouth to speak.

'Don't say it,' warned Darrick. 'You will leave them to do what they have to do.'

Tendjorn snorted. 'Sentimentality is something you can ill afford,' he said. 'They have done what we expected and located Erienne. We can handle it from here.'

'Meaning what exactly? If you've used The Raven, you'll pay. Not by my hand, by theirs. You'll do well to remember that.'

'Five years ago, when they rode the dragons to save us from the Wesmen, I would have believed them capable of anything. But now? Look at them, General. They're looking exactly what they are. Past it. You're supposed to be a friend of theirs; perhaps you should start acting like one.'

T beg your pardon?'

'I will be contacting Gorstan at Arlen presently,' said Tendjorn, ignoring Darrick's anger. 'We'll have Erienne as soon as she docks. I expect you to be ready to ride with however many you consider necessary as soon as you have completed your assessment of Greythorne.'

'And The Raven?'

'Will be kept away from causing trouble. Now that can be by you, or by Dordovan forces already in Arlen. Either way, they are not to be allowed contact with Erienne.'

Darrick looked at him, his jaw clenched, eyes betraying his feelings, but said nothing, choosing to walk away. Tendjorn enjoyed his discomfort.

'Oh, General?' Darrick stopped, his back to the mage. 'We don't want bloodshed in Arlen, do we? Like I said, The Raven are your friends. I do hope you decide to, how shall I put it, look after their wellbeing. Stop them doing anything foolhardy.'

The General walked on.

Thraun had tracked the scent of the ones for which he had dim but certain memory. Trotting with the pack towards Greythorne, other disturbing recollections fought to resurface, distracting him and worrying the pack, who kept a wary distance behind. Like dreams while he was awake, the flashes rocked him. Of standing

on two legs; of a friend he knew as man-packbrother; of great winged beasts and of primal fear reaching down from the sky. At least they confirmed that those humans he followed were known to him sometime.

And that they were strong and, he thought, good.

The pack kept above the trail the humans and their animals used as it wound past the remains of Thornewood and arced across open ground, latterly turning full south to enter the town itself.

It was a habit born of caution but he shouldn't have bothered. Nothing travelled the trail and, with the moon shining dully through a cloud-covered sky, there would be no one. Just the spirits of the wind to keep the fear alive within them.

The pack had stopped to rest and watch on a shadowed rise above Greythorne. The scene was much as the previous night, with lights burning, voices calling and stone and wood rumbling, cracking or falling.

Well before dawn, horses and riders had thundered into the western end of the town and Thraun had taken advantage of the disruption to scout the empty streets. He had picked up the scent of his humans very quickly and, satisfied he knew where they were, by smell and the embers of a fire he could see like a puddle in the dark, he had returned to the pack.

But they hadn't stayed in Greythorne. With light across the sky once more, the humans had taken to their horses and ridden south and east. Thraun hadn't known what he expected but it wasn't this. Perhaps the wrong in the air covered more than he dared imagine. Perhaps the two female humans he had seen in Thornewood were not returning to Greythorne. Or perhaps those he knew were doing nothing to change the wrong to right.

Whichever way it was, the pack had to follow him. He ignored their desire for food. That could come later. Choosing to track by scent rather than shadow by eye, Thraun took the pack on to a destiny none of them could guess at or hope to understand.

The Unknown hadn't even paused to say goodbye to Gannan, such was the haste with which they left Greythorne. With their horses' hooves kicking up mud and the surprised and disappointed faces of the town's survivors following them, they galloped through the wreckage and out into the countryside, heading east and south to

Arlen. It was just under a three-day ride and though they were bound to have a good start on any pursuit, that wasn't Denser's principal concern.

They rode hard for two hours before the horses needed a break. Ilkar took the horses to a stream while Hirad built a fire to make coffee.

The barbarian didn't look up when Denser stalked up and ignited the damp timber with a brief but intense FlamePalm. The Unknown dumped a few more short branches by the growing flames.

'Hirad, you are a bloody idiot,' he said, squatting down by his friend. 'What did I say about being careful?'

'It should be all right. We can trust Darrick,' said Hirad, though the pit in his stomach told him it wouldn't be.

'Darrick isn't the problem,' said Denser. 'The Dordovan behind him was.'

'But even so-' began Hirad.

'There isn't an "even so",' snapped Denser. 'Unless they've made a major tactical error, that mage will be able to commune as far as Arlen easily and will have already done so.'

'Always assuming there's anyone there.'

'Oh, assuming that, of course.' Denser cast his eyes skywards. Above him, the cloud was moving and rolling, pushed by a quickly strengthening wind. Already, Hirad had changed his position to shield the fire over which The Unknown hung his pot.

'Hirad, it's become obvious to everyone that Erienne took Lyanna off Balaia. It was a just a question of where. Dordover will have been covering every port for weeks. After all, they've had a fifty-day advantage over the rest of us,' said The Unknown.

'So what do we do?' Hirad at last picked his head up and looked at The Unknown. There was no anger in his expression, just frustration.

'Well we have to assume any Dordovans in Arlen are already aware of Erienne's imminent arrival. And so we have to stop her walking into trouble for a start.'

'Which means Denser communes, right?'

'Yes, Hirad,' said Denser curtly. 'Not exactly how I'd planned to deplete my stamina but still.'

'I'm sorry, all right?' Hirad couldn't keep the irritation out of his voice. 'We'll sort it out.'

'Will we?' Denser's eyes flashed angrily. 'There's four of us. What exactly do you suppose we'll do if the Dordovans get to her before we do?'

'They're not going to hurt her, Denser.'

'But they'll take her from me and time is so short,' he said, fidgeting again. 'And capturing her is all they need to get to Lyanna. Only I can save her.'

'So you keep saying. So get them to avoid Arlen and we'll meet them further down the coast. Don't panic' Hirad stabbed another branch into the fire, sending a few sparks past the gently steaming pot. Ilkar scrambled over and sat the opposite side of the fire to the barbarian.

'I'm not panicking, Hirad. I'm worried for my wife and daughter. I hope that's all right.'

'And I'm worried for my dragons but I'm still here helping you.'

'Oh, Gods,' muttered Ilkar under his breath. 'Must you?'

'Yes, such helpless creatures,' said Denser. 'So vulnerable. I can't imagine how they'll survive without you.'

'They're already dying, Denser,' snarled Hirad. 'Not that you'd know, eating delicacies in your comfortable tower.'

'That's not how it is,' said Denser, leaning back deliberately, attempting to calm the situation a little,

'No, sure, I mean the fruits of your hard work are everywhere, aren't they?' Hirad waved his arms expansively. 'Do you see Protectors freed? Are the Kaan dragons any closer to going home?'

'Those are just two issues in-'

' "Just?" In case it's escaped your attention, Denser, those two issues saved Balaia. One knowingly exiling themselves in the process, the other fought at great cost outside the Septern Manse. Unfortunately, it was some time ago, and perhaps your memory has dimmed over the years.' Hirad's caustic tone echoed around the fireplace. There was a contemplative silence.

'Hirad, I know this is critical to you,' said Ilkar. 'But temporarily, we have more pressing matters. And getting to Erienne and then the Al-Drechar could solve your problem anyway.'

Hirad nodded. T know I made a mistake and I'm sorry. I just

want him to know what he's done. Or rather not done.' He jabbed a finger at Denser.

'At the risk of seeming stupid, what does finding the Al-Drechar have to do with Hirad's dragons?' asked Denser.

'The Kaan think they can solve the dimensional riddle,' said The Unknown. 'They have Septern's knowledge after all. And one other thing. Hirad's right, the Kaan are dying and the Protectors aren't free-'

'Hold on, I-',

'Don't interrupt me, Denser,' warned The Unknown. T know Mount politics are complex but you're a senior master now. We've seen no results. No progress. And we want answers. Just as soon as Lyanna is secure.'

Denser regarded The Unknown with a slight frown on his face. A corner of his mouth turned up as he spoke, a little nervous reaction.

'Let's face it, unless we can secure Lyanna, and the Al-Drechar for that matter, dragons and Protectors will be the least of our worries.'

'All the worse that you've let it go this long, then,' said Hirad. He lined up a row of mugs and tipped the coffee into them.

Denser shook his head. 'You see, the trouble is, you haven't grasped the seriousness of all this yet, have you?'

'Credit me with some notion,' said Hirad, thrusting a mug at Denser roughly enough for coffee to spill over. 'If we don't get to Lyanna first and keep her from Dordover, we'll have this bad weather for longer.'

Denser gaped. 'Haven't you told him anything?' he demanded of Ilkar.

The elf shrugged. 'We tried…'

'I understand,' said Denser, nodding in resignation. 'Let me try and put this in words you'll understand.'

'Don't patronise me, Xetesk man.'

'Sorry. I didn't mean that the way it came out.' He took a sip of his drink. 'This isn't like a passing storm front. "Bad weather" does not cover what might happen – this is only the start. We've already seen a raising of the earth, a hurricane, floods and tidal waves. Imagine that happening a hundred times worse and all across Balaia. Because if Lyanna is taken from the Al-Drechar and slips into

unfathomable Night, as would be inevitable, that's what'll happen until she dies. And that's why the Dordovans will kill her.'

'And can we, or rather you, control her?' asked Hirad, his voice quieter as the weight of Denser's words sank in.

'Yes, I keep telling you,' Denser replied, anxiety back in his voice. 'But we have to get to her quickly. The Al-Drechar can't contain her for long, even at this level of mess. At least the fact that Erienne has left her means she believes the Al-Drechar are capable for the time being.'

'But then she won't know the extent of what's already happened,' reasoned Ilkar.

T think the Al-Drechar will have guessed,' replied Denser. 'But the point is that letting Lyanna fall into Dordovan hands would be a disaster. They'll either try and fail to control her because they don't understand or they'll kill her because they're scared of her. I need my wife. We haven't got long.'

Hirad opened his mouth to speak, saw the depths of worry in Denser's eyes and chose to drink some coffee instead. What he had been about to say was inflammatory anyway. Perhaps another time.

'We have to deal with the here and now,' said The Unknown. 'Denser, Communion. If you can get Erienne to persuade them to anchor in the bay we can ride down the estuary to find them. Hirad, go and check the horses. Ilkar, a word if I may.'

'Are you all right, Unknown?' asked the Julatsan.

'Yeah, fine,' said The Unknown but they could all see a distant look in his eye.

Hirad shrugged and walked over to the stream, a smile breaking over his face as his irritation faded. The horses looked relaxed and ready and were grazing contentedly. He patted one on the neck and ran a hand down its foreleg, feeling the fit muscle and bone beneath his fingers.

His smile broadened. They may have been apart for five years but still, when The Unknown spoke, they listened. That fact alone would, he considered, give them the ghost of a chance in the days to come. And it sounded like they might need every ghost they could grasp.

Chapter 15

Selik leaned back in his richly upholstered red and gold chair in a private room of the Lakehome Inn and allowed himself a smile. It still felt like a smile to him though the humour was gone. Another would have seen little more than a grotesque distortion of his face.

He wouldn't have described the feeling as 'happiness' either. A bitter satisfaction, maybe, an easing of the burning hate in the knowledge of its ultimate extinguishing through sweet revenge. But happiness, no. That was an emotion he hadn't experienced since the bitch had frozen him. Lesser men would have died. His strength and breastplate had saved his life when the IceWind had struck him. Nothing so resistant had been protecting his hands and face, though, and he'd borne the stigma for six long years, just waiting his chance.

And now, he was to be presented with it.

It had been good news Gorstan had given him as they'd stood at t he mouth of Arlen Bay and he'd ridden hard for the town to set about hiring ships and crews and buying provisions. But there'd been a nagging anxiety. It was one thing knowing where the bitch and her abomination of a daughter hid. It would have been quite another getting there through the famously treacherous rock and coral straits. Many men would have been lost and he didn't know how many, if any, he could afford to lose.

He'd dismissed the mage who'd bought him the latest, far finer news and now sat alone in front of an open fire, a rug beneath his bare feet, mulled wine steaming on a table in front of him and the other three chairs in the tapestry-hung room empty. He enjoyed the peace, broken only by the crackle of flame.

He relaxed, feeling the anxiety slip away. He was not a keen sea

traveller and the thought of danger he couldn't see lurking beneath the water at Ornouth made him nervous.

Now, though, the answer to his prayers was sailing up the Arlen River. And he would be waiting at the dock to welcome her.

He sipped his mulled wine, then took a long swallow, draining the glass. Gods, but it tasted good.

Denser ceased his probing, released the Communion shape and opened his eyes. The Raven were around him and the concern on their faces told him he'd shown facial expression during his search for Erienne. He felt tired and lost, somehow, and his heart beat hollow in his chest. He moved gingerly to a sitting position and felt for his pipe and weed pouch.

Ilkar laid a hand on his shoulder.

'That didn't look comfortable, Denser. What happened?'

Denser filled his pipe and lit it, suppressing an unwanted smile at Ilkar's choice of words. The Communion hadn't merely been uncomfortable. It had been like searching in a hailstorm. He felt battered and a little confused by what he had encountered in the mana spectrum.

He knew he'd searched the right area and he knew Erienne's signature intimately. She wouldn't attempt to hide from him. But he'd found a sudden impenetrability, like coming across a bank of fog in a sheltered valley. And it had been a painful experience.

He looked up into Ilkar's face and past him at Hirad, who was examining the blade of a dagger, apparendy uninterested.

T couldn't reach her,' he said quiedy. 'Couldn't even feel her. There was something in the way.'

Ilkar frowned. 'How do you mean?'

'Well…' Denser fought for the right words. He scratched his head and took a draw on his pipe, the smoke funnelling pleasantly into his mouth. 'Like there was another power there, occupying the space. I couldn't feel her because there was focused mana in the way, I suppose.'

'What shape was it?'

'That's why it's so confusing, there was no shape. It was a coalescing of mana, like a wall.'

'Produced by another mage, though?' Ilkar frowned.

'Presumably.' Denser shrugged. He sighed. 'I guess it doesn't really matter. The fact is that I can't contact her.'

'Not now, anyway,' said The Unknown. 'Come on, we'd better get away. Try again when we stop this evening.'

Denser nodded. 'Yes. It's unlikely to be a long-lived effect. Or I hope it won't.'

'Unless it's a deliberate obscurement,' said Ilkar.

'Hmm. How, though? It's not a structure I recognised. It wasn't right, though.' He bit his lip, frustrated.

Hirad sheathed his dagger and got to his feet. 'It'll be all right, Denser.'

Denser blew out his cheeks. 'Nothing like a non-mage to give you confidence, is there?'

Erienne leaned over the post and retched again, her muscles convulsing, the taste of bile strong in her throat. Her stomach was long empty but the nausea sweeping through her didn't subside and hadn't for most of the morning.

Ren'erei had stood just far enough away to give her comfort but not too near to crowd her and add to her acute embarrassment. As Erienne straightened and turned to let the wind blow into her face, cooling the sweat on her brow, she walked forwards.

'It isn't seasickness,' she said. 'How can it be after this many days?'

'I know,' managed Erienne, her head thumping, her belly aching and protesting every time she took a breath.

'It must be something you ate,' she said, helping Erienne to sit on one of the net-covered crates on deck.

Erienne shook her head; she didn't have the energy to speak. She knew where the nausea originated but didn't want to have to explain it to Ren'erei. It wasn't food, it wasn't the gentle motion of the Ocean Elm, which was speeding towards Arlen Bay on a stiff and consistent wind. It was nothing that Ren'erei could comprehend even though she was an elf and so inherently magical. She didn't understand what it was that touched and aided her in everything she did. After all, she wasn't a mage.

Erienne was under attack. She didn't know from where or by whom and that scared her almost as much as what she was feeling.

On the mainland, only The Raven knew she was coming, so how she could have been targeted, she didn't know.

It had crossed her mind that she had fallen victim to a mana sickness. There were always claims bouncing around the Colleges that mana within a mage could become somehow infected. Erienne had always dismissed them but in the first flush of her nausea, she had been prepared to believe anything that would provide an explanation.

But as the hours passed and she regained some rationality, she'd ignored the notion in favour of hard fact. Her nausea had come on her like a blow from a hammer, and stirring her head like thick soup so she couldn't focus on her hand in front of her face. It had provoked a reaction in her body that was nothing to do with any physical sickness. And it had gone on long after she'd established in her own mind that there was nothing wrong with her mana capabilities.

So there was no infection, there was no food poisoning and there was no focused drain on her mana stamina.

This was something no textbook had ever covered. It was what happened when someone who knew your signature launched spells at you without knowing exactly where you were. Enemy or friend, Erienne couldn't tell but she could guess. Lyanna. Seeking her mind. But in her innocence she was damaging her mother and until it stopped, the world of magic was closed to Erienne.

The realisation rocked her. It was a powerful weapon. It made her defenceless. Fortunately, she'd be meeting Denser in a couple of days.

He would know what to do.

It was the same that night. While the fire burned and The Raven waited, Denser tried and failed to make contact with Erienne. If anything, the fog obscuring her was thicker than either of the times he'd tried before.

He dispersed the Communion and lay still, desperation beginning to steal over him, a feeling of tears behind his closed eyelids. He was tired. He had never found Communion an easy spell and his three attempts so far had left him depleted of stamina. He needed to rest and pray, to rebuild his strength for another casting, but his mind

raced with possible solutions and he could see sleep would be a long time coming. He didn't have time for this. None of them did.

'Denser?' It was Ilkar. He didn't open his eyes. He could feel the fire warm the left side of his body as he lay, its flickering glow orange on his eyelids.

'C'mon Denser. I know you've released the spell. There's tea here for you. Herbal. It should help you sleep later.'

Denser opened one eye. Above him, through the trees that part sheltered them from the strengthening wind, he could see cloud tumbling across the sky. It was darker than the night it covered. There was going to be heavy rain. Very heavy.

'I hate herbal tea,' he said. He tried to smile but nothing happened. He dragged himself to a sitting position and accepted die mug Ilkar offered, wrinkling his nose at the heady, sweet smell. Across the fire, The Unknown was building a makeshift spit and he could see Hirad laying snares through the gloom about fifty yards away.

'Food could be a while,' said The Unknown, following his gaze.

They lapsed into silence. Denser forced his tea down, wincing at its syrupy texture. He could see Ilkar smile but it was an effort. Denser looked back at the sky. There were no stars at all now, just thick darkest grey cloud. The wind blew chill through the evening air and despite the shelter of the trees, it would get cold. The Unknown clearly intended to keep the fire stacked, not considering the blaze as a risk.

'Anyone in Greythorne who wants us that badly will find us anyway,' he'd said. 'And anyone coming from Arlen is too far away to get to us tonight.'

Too far away. The words haunted Denser.

They were two days' ride from Erienne and that was a day and a half too many. He felt angry that he couldn't reach her, frustrated she wouldn't hear his warning and scared of what they might find in Arlen if he failed in his contact at dawn.

Bloody Hirad. This could prove one indiscretion too many. And despite the barbarian's confidence, Denser still boiled inside. His wife and daughter were at stake here. Hirad seemed to forget that and he clearly had not grasped how desperate Dordover was to get hold of them both.

The wind ratded the branches and blew dying leaves over the ground. The rain was in the sky now and the odd spot hit his face. Dust kicked into the air and the flames of the fire blew hard, tinged with a telltale blue-brown corona.

It was so wrong. Denser wasn't a man of the woods but he was a sensitive mage. And this was deeply disturbing. It even tainted the air they breathed, or so it seemed to him. Perhaps it would be better if the Dordovans found Lyanna first. At least then…

He quashed the thought, ashamed it had even arisen. But the rational part of him acknowledged it as a solution to the ravages Balaia was increasingly suffering. Hideous, but a solution.

Hirad walked back into the firelight and sat down. He dumped an armful of leaves and roots on the ground by him.

'There's not exactly a mass of wildlife around here. I've set for rabbits but it might not be rich pickings tonight.'

Ilkar chuckled. 'Get your excuses in early, Hirad.'

'You're funnier than usual tonight, Ilks,' returned Hirad. 'Which isn't hard.'

'Right,' said The Unknown and the moment's levity was banished. 'We have to face the possibility that Erienne will sail straight into Dordovan hands.'

T take it the Communion was no better?' Hirad looked up at Denser who shook his head, his eyes not quite holding contact. 'Maybe in the morning.'

'Maybe,' said Denser.

'But the worst case is that Erienne is captured,' said The Unknown. 'What then?'

'Well presumably the Dordovans will demand Lyanna and that means all of them going back to Ornouth with her,' said Ilkar. 'It's pretty simple.'

'Agreed,' said The Unknown. 'But there are variables.'

'Aren't there always?' grumbled Hirad.

Ilkar patted his knee. 'Wouldn't be the same otherwise, would it?'

'No indeed.' The Unknown drew a mark in the soil. 'One. We don't know whether the Dordovans are there in sufficient numbers to take the ship. Even if they are, it will take two days to resupply, maybe more, depending on exacdy how unhelpful Erienne and the Guild are able to be.

'Two. The Dordovans may only be able to stop the ship putting back to sea themselves. Given Darrick's arrival at Greythorne it's clear they aren't there in the numbers they'd ideally like in order to go to sea. We also have to assume that Dordover are working with Lystern on this. But that leaves us still not knowing the numbers in Arlen now.

'Three. The Guild could manage to put back to sea having rumbled the Dordovan presence. We need to think how to get out to sea and meet them – assuming Denser still can't get in touch with Erienne.

'Four. Earl Arlen. He isn't going to sit around and watch people fighting on his docks. He may be a good starting point for us because he may well not be aware what is happening in his town. On the other hand, of course, he may be entirely complicit in the whole thing.

'Five. Because of that latter point, we can't be sure that anyone we meet or talk to is with us or even neutral. One thing that we can be sure of is that the Dordovans in Arlen will be looking for us. And it all means that getting to and helping Erienne is going to be extremely difficult. There are other possible factors but I think you get the picture.'

'And what help can we be if the odds are overwhelming?' asked Denser. He shook his head. The rain began to fall steadily. Not hard but that was just a matter of time.

'We can always help,' said Hirad. 'We're The Raven.'

'Well you'd better start thinking how. This mess is all down to you in the first place.'

Hirad nodded, brushed his hands together and stood up. He walked past Ilkar and The Unknown, heading for the horses.

'Where are you going?' asked the elf.

'Away.'

'What do you mean?'

'I mean I don't need to hear his smart-arsed superior remarks any longer. I made a mistake and it was a bad one and I'm sorry. But I can't undo it, only try and make it right. But every opportunity, he's going to remind me and I don't need it. So you people who never ever make mistakes can rescue Lyanna on your own.'

'So you'll find your own way to the Al-Drechar, will you?' asked

Ilkar, ears pricking. A gust sent rain thrashing around the clearing, stinging the face and sending spats of dirt from the ground as it struck. The fire hissed and crackled in protest, shadows speared across the ground, flickering and jumping.

'I expect we could work it out, me and the Kaan,' said Hirad. 'All I'm asking is a little respect for the fact that I'm helping a man who hasn't lifted a finger to help me in the last five years.'

'A little respect, I can grant you,' said Denser.

'Drop it, Denser,' said The Unknown, his voice a growl.

'One more word, Denser,' Hirad raised a finger. 'And you'll be riding to Arlen alone.'

'Run off to your precious dragons, Hirad. And you can all die together in your chilly cave while I try and save Lyanna, and Balaia along with her.'

Hirad spun round and ran at the Xeteskian, hurdling the fire and kicking over the pot, scattering water to steam and hiss in the hot ashes. Putting a hand up he pushed Denser in the chest, knocking him back a couple of paces. He might have been a few years older than when The Raven last rode together but he'd lost none of his speed; there had been no time for Denser to react.

'You'd like that, wouldn't you, Denser, eh?' His voice grated low, his eyes, hooded, his face muscles bunched and taut. 'You and your powerful friends up in your towers.'

He pushed Denser with both hands this time, forcing him to fight to retain his balance.

'Let them waste away, you thought. People will forget, you thought. We'll play a little at research but we know we aren't going anywhere with it. No one will really care. Bet that's how it was in nice warm fire-bright Xetesk, wasn't it?'

Denser met his gaze but said nothing. Hirad grabbed his cloak at the neck and marched him backwards, spitting out his words, his whole body shuddering with his anger.

'But I haven't forgotten, Xetesk man. And neither have the Kaan. You've made them suffer, you bastard, and you never gave it a thought. They are no closer to going home now than they were five years ago are they? But you're too wrapped up in your petty politics and power climbing to give a shit.

'But I've been there. Every day and every night. Seeing their eyes

dim and their scales go dull and dry. Seeing their confusion grow and their minds seethe. Because every day they die some more while every day the ungrateful scum they saved forget a little more.'

Denser was backed against a tree with nowhere to go. Rain was running down its trunk and thunder barked overhead. The torrent increased its ferocity, its hammering in the leaf cover a cacophony into which Hirad shouted.

'Get where I'm coming from, Denser? Understand even a little bit?' Hirad made a tiny space between thumb and forefinger. 'Because right now there's a death sentence over the Kaan. It's long and slow but it's certain because no one's going to help them, are they?'

'Hirad, enough.' It was The Unknown's voice but Hirad ignored it, pushing his face very close to Denser's.

'But now, it's your wife and child. Now, it's different. And we're all expected to drop everything and help you, aren't we? No, more than that. We have to.' He leaned in until their noses all but touched.

'Well I've got an answer for you, Xetesk man, and it'll stop bloody magic tearing up my country. Let the Dordovans kill the child. Problem solved. Death sentence carried out. What do you think. Eh? Eh?' He shook Denser, banging the back of his head against the tree and seeing the mage's eyes burning hatred into him.

'Hirad, that's enough.' The Unknown's arm came between them, levering the barbarian away. He fought it.

'Lost your tongue, Denser, have you? Have you?'

T think you spend too much time with reptiles.'

'Fuck you, Denser!' He drew back a fist but The Unknown caught his arm and thrust his body in the way, forcing Hirad back.

'Don't do it,' he said, holding his hands out, his massive frame hiding Denser completely. But Hirad was too far gone.

'Get out of my way, Unknown.'

He came forward again. This time, The Unknown shoved him hard. He stumbled back on to his haunches, feet slipping on the slick ground as the rain beat down with ever increasing force, a net of water obscuring his vision. His hand reached reflexively for his sword but The Unknown stooped to the fire and shook the scabbard from his huge blade in one fluid movement.

'You aren't going to hurt him, Hirad. Back off.' The menace in

The Unknown's voice shocked Hirad who could only stand and stare at what he saw.

'Unknown, stop this!' shouted Ilkar. 'Hirad, you too. We're The Raven, for Gods' sake!' He marched in between them, trying to take them both in, unable to keep the disbelief from his voice or his expression as the rain washed down his face.

Hirad had taken his hand from his sword hilt and was gazing slack-jawed at the blade in The Unknown's hands.

'He'd see Lyanna die,' said The Unknown. 'And I can't have that. He'd see her die.' He didn't switch his eyes to Ilkar as he addressed him. 'A feeling you're familiar with, I believe.'

Ilkar ignored the comment. 'Put your sword up, Unknown, and do it right now. There will not be any fighting here, understand?'

The Unknown Warrior looked down at Ilkar, rain splattering across his shaven head, his eyes glinting orange in the wind-whipped firelight.

'I won't let him harm Denser,' he said. 'You know why.' He threw his sword to the ground.

'It's not about that,' said Ilkar.

'Isn't it?' said Hirad. He wiped a sheen of rain from his face and flicked his hand to disperse it. 'Trouble is, Unknown, you're still a Protector in here.' He tapped his chest above his heart. 'And you can't shake it off. And the ridiculous thing is, he's done the same to your brothers as he's done to the Kaan. Let you fester and hope you'll go away.' Hirad made no attempt to move closer.

'How little you know, Hirad. I'm a father, that's what I am. And I won't see someone else's child tossed aside.' The Unknown turned away but swung back. 'You're my friend, Hirad. Probably the best I've ever had. You brought about my release from Protector thrall. But I won't see you threaten a man through his child. That's a bond you won't understand until you experience it.'

'Yet you pulled a sword on me,' said Hirad, his anger gone now, replaced by a feeling of loss. 'We're The Raven and what you did doesn't belong. It was wrong.'

'Listen to yourself,' said the big man. 'It was your actions too, Hirad. Yours too.'

'Think I'll make a camp somewhere else,' said Hirad, and he walked from The Raven's fire.

Chapter 16

Jasto, twelfth Earl of Arlen, was a proud man who had paid the price of overstretching his resources and who, as a result, was now under the firm, fair but unshakeable grip of Baron Blackthorne.

Even in Blackthorne's weakened days following the destruction of his town towards the end of the Wesmen wars, Arlen had perceived himself too weak to challenge the younger man with any certainty of success. But that had not made him a weak man, as some of his resident merchant lords had intimated. It had made him wise and, latterly, very wealthy once again.

He recalled his hard-pressed merchant and shipping families coming to him those six years ago and urging him to break free of the bonds Blackthorne had imposed. They were weary of being beneath the Baron's fist and he, they had said, would never get a better opportunity to demand and achieve his autonomy.

And he had seen their point. There had not been a mercenary to be hired anywhere in Balaia, and Blackthorne's own men were either dead or tired of fighting. However, to Arlen, an attack would have been like betrayal of a man who had sacrificed so much to keep Balaia free of Wesmen domination. So instead of sending men armed with sword and spear, he had equipped them with pick, shovel, saw and hammer. Instead of riding to demand freedom of movement and impose conditions of their own, they had offered help and comfort.

Arlen had recruited quarrymen and stone masons to replace or reshape what the Wesmen had destroyed, carpenters and joiners to work the wood; and he'd encouraged as many of his people as could be spared to be willing pairs of hands.

The Earl smiled as he thought it all through again, his greying, bushy moustache accentuating the movement of his top lip, his

leathery, ocean-toughened skin wrinkling on cheek and forehead. It had been help where help had been needed but Arlen had never been a purely altruistic man. Blackthorne had seen that. It was business.

Craftsmen do not come cheap. Wood, stone, iron and steel all have their prices and in such a sellers' market, those prices had been high. Food too, can always be managed to be expensive. And every one of Arlen's merchants, shippers and fisher-fleet owners had seen the profits. Blackthorne had not raised an eyebrow. Indeed he had laughed, shaken the Earl's hand and fetched a bottle of superb wine from the cellars the Wesmen had found but left intact. Even savages enjoyed fine wine.

Arlen remembered sitting in a marquee, supplied by his town, and clinking glasses with the wily Baron. His words at the time would forever remain simple vindication of Aden's decision.

Blackthorne had taken a long swallow, leaned back in his chair, shrugged and had said, 'It's what I would have done.'

And he'd still reduced the travel levies across his lands that had squeezed Aden's merchants so hard. As a mark of gratitude, he'd said.

Riding away from Blackthorne that day, Arlen had wondered how long the gratitude would last. Almost six years later, he was still expecting the letter of withdrawal. He supposed he shouldn't have been surprised. Blackthorne's honour was unquestionable.

It had left Arlen in peaceful charge of a burgeoning town, attracting trade from Calaius and Korina to his docks. More and more farmers were attracted to his fertile lands on the town's northern borders, knowing the price for their produce would not be driven down by traders passing on the burden of Blackthorne's safe passage levy.

But now something smelled bad in his town. It had blown in on the foul breeze of magic and had taken root to the south along the River Arl. First it had been Dordovans. A few mages and their escorts. Nothing out of the ordinary. But ten days ago, they'd been joined – joined – by forty of the Black Wing filth and since then, the Dordovan military and mage numbers had swelled until over three hundred and fifty camped downstream.

His innkeepers and whores hadn't complained. Neither had his

fresh food market stalls. There'd even been some profit for his fine cloth and silk men but the pilfering had been rather more unwelcome, however well it had been contained.

But there was only so much you could forgive in the name of trade and that line had been breached this morning.

Word had reached him of aggressive buying of supplies and attempted secondment of ocean-going vessels. It had been the Black Wings putting on the pressure and they weren't prepared to take no for an answer.

He didn't mind the movement of supplies. That was easily balanced. But ships? There was a carefully maintained balance between supply and demand for vessels capable of travelling the tricky distance to Calaius. It was a balance his shipping owners were anxious to keep to maintain their lavish lifestyles.

But at this juncture it wasn't the owners he was concerned about. The trade in salted meats, wine, armour and weapons was lucrative but reliant on regular transport, and the return of coffee, cloth and jewellery among others was equally critical. Arlen could ill afford to lose transport space for these valuable commodities for an unspecified length of time.

He had already sent guardsmen to break up a dispute over, a ship already chartered by a consortium of traders. Apparently, Black Wings had offered double the rates for troop passage to Ornouth of all places. When the shipping agent had refused, choosing to remain loyal to his regular paying customers, he had been threatened and one of his clerks beaten for attempting to intervene.

That had been yesterday.

This dawn had seen Arlen forced to drag his very tall frame from his bed at an unseemly hour, with the sun barely cresting the horizon. A deputation waited in the drawing room of the castle. They were a merchant, a farmer and a shipper. He pulled on a white silk shirt, plain deep-blue wool-weave trousers and a black three-quarter-length coat. His silver rings decorated three long bony fingers on each hand and the heavy gold chain, passed on to each successive Earl, was placed reverently around his neck.

He drained his tea, dragged on white stockings and simple black, double-buckled ankle boots and loped from his bedroom, his long, easy strides eating up corridor and stair as he marched to what could

prove to be a difficult meeting. At the entrance to the room, a servant brushed the back of his coat to remove dust and the odd stray hair fallen from his fast balding head before opening the door.

'Gentlemen, good morning,' he said as he strode in. A murmured greeting met him from the three men, two seated and one standing near the fireplace. All were dressed well, though the farmer, a sour middle-aged man named Alpar, was garbed in working clothes having already no doubt been at work for two or three hours. Those seated began to rise until Arlen held up a hand.

'Please, let's not stand on ceremony here, I doubt we have the time.' He sat in his gold upholstered armchair across from the deputation and waited for a servant to pour him a cup of tea and withdraw before gesturing for his old silks merchant friend, Hancross, to speak.

'The situation on the docks is getting worse, Jasto. These Black Wings are nothing more than thugs intent on getting their way and wrecking our businesses into the bargain. Stealing from the outlying farms is getting worse by the day and now they have stooped even lower. Erik?' Hancross gestured at the son of Aden's most successful shipping agent, a man being groomed to take over the family business.

Erik Paulson nodded, fighting to keep his emotions in check. His eyes shone with tears. 'I think this is really why we felt we had to appeal to you directly, my Lord. While it was intimidation aimed at us, it was different. Now it's our families, it's unacceptable and we need action.' He paused, breathing deeply. For a moment, his chin wobbled. He gathered himself and spoke. 'Yesterday evening, my wife and daughter were returning from the market to our house. Three of those bastards knocked my wife to the floor. One held a dagger to my daughter's throat while the other two pawed at my wife's body, threatened her with rape and my daughter with murder.

T can't believe I can hear myself saying these words,' he swallowed hard. 'Not here. Not about my family.' He shook his head and a tear escaped to roll down his cheek. 'You should see them. They are both in shock in my house, too terrified to venture outside the front door. And this is Arlen. What the hell is going on?' He looked at Arlen then, his expression pleading. 'This is a peaceful

town, my Lord, but unless you act, we fear people taking the law into their own hands.'

'In fact we promise it,' said Alpar, his throaty voice grating on Arlen's ears. 'Paulson has suffered the worst but we are all losing here. Each morning, my flock is short by a little more, despite the guards I post. Hancross won't tell you but there's been a fire at one of his shops and we all know who started it.'

Arlen nodded and raised both his hands to ask for quiet. He felt a growing anger in his gut. He had worked so hard to rebuild after the austerity of the Wesmen wars. He had brought peace and prosperity to Arlen, not just the town but across the Earldom. And he deserved respect. The Black Wings would have to be taught how to show that respect.

'Gentlemen, this is my town and I abhor violence of any kind being committed within its borders or in the lands I also control. I therefore implore you not to raise arms as I will come down equally hard on either side in this dispute should violence ensue.

'However, your coming here together tells me all I need to know about your sincerity and your trust in my stewardship, and for that I thank you. Now, I will, as soon as I am able this morning, visit the Lakehome Inn, where I understand their leader to be in residence. He will be ordered out, never to return. Any monies that he has paid for goods he has not received will be returned minus costs for damages, stolen goods and sundry expenses.'

'Jasto-'

'No, Hancross, don't say it,' said Arlen. For the third time, he raised a hand. 'The reputation of this town is built on honesty, particularly in dealings for trade. Money exchanged in good faith will be returned. And petty thieves clutter jails to no purpose. However, Erik, if your wife wishes to identity her assailants, they will not leave Arlen before paying for their crimes.'

Arlen looked hard at Paulson and could see the man's fury burning in his hooded eyes. He wrung his hands and his tanned skin had an unhealthy grey tone. He didn't sit on the chair, more perched like some predatory beast. It was clear his chosen justice would be vengeful and violent.

'Erik?'

'They touched her. They touched her,' he said, another tear easing

from the corner of his eye, his control so admirable, cracking a little more. 'This is a violation. They should pay.'

'Then pay they will,' said Arlen. 'Trust me.'

Erik locked eyes with him then and it was clear that he did not. 'Yes,' he said. 'I just want them to be able to walk in the streets of their own town without fear.'

Arlen rose from his chair and walked over to Paulson, placing a hand on his shoulder and squeezing gently. T know, Erik. Leave it to me. They won't escape my justice.' He looked up at Hancross. 'Take him home and keep an eye on them all. I want the word passed around the dock that it will be cleared and I want no one getting in my way. I want word sent to Lakehome to delay Selik however is necessary. I will be there within the hour. Anything else I should know?'

The Unknown Warrior stared at his sword as if it were a snake waiting to strike at him. There it lay where he had thrown it during the downpour and where it shimmered in the dying glow of the fire, ignored now that dawn was close. It was a symbol. Of the death of The Raven, finally. Of the ending of the trust they had in each other, he and Hirad. It had been everything to him. Even through the years they hardly saw each other, let alone spoke or fought together. Something he always had was Hirad's unconditional belief. And last night, he had betrayed it.

And worse, Hirad had been right. When it had come to it, he had been driven to protect Denser. Protect. How hollow that word sounded now. All he had done was drive away the man that could keep them together long enough to save not just Denser but his whole family, and Balaia too.

The Unknown's reaction had been much more than just desire to see a family saved, though, and that fact worried him deep in his soul. He should have been thankful he had a soul to feel worried but he wasn't. Too much within him was still wedded to the Protectors and despite the relatively short time he had spent as one of them, he lamented the loss of the brotherhood. Even after six years and more, he had to accept it was a loss he would always feel and that was something he had not yet been able to fully come to terms with.

And they were coming again. They were close. He could feel

them and had told Ilkar so the day before. He couldn't describe to Ilkar the clash of emotion it sparked within him. The joy of being near them and the tragedy of their existence linked with the exclusion he felt now his soul was again his own. That was the most acute pain for him. He would always be able to feel them but he would never again feel the oneness that, despite its dreadful reality, the Soul Tank bestowed. He wondered if they could feel him too.

He looked over at Ilkar and Denser, sleeping under the hasty and inadequate shelter of leaf, branch and leather they'd created. He'd been glad for Ilkar last night. His sense had stopped a catastrophe. The Unknown had wanted to go after Hirad but Ilkar had stopped him doing that too. The elf thought Hirad would turn up in the camp come dawn. The Unknown wasn't so sure.

The rain had stopped at last but the wind was cold and whipped through the trees, chilling him as he sat by the fire. How they needed Hirad, now more than ever. After he'd.calmed down, Denser had agreed to Commune with a contact in Korina to pass a message to Diera. All that he'd heard was yet more bad news.

The contact was preparing to leave the city as, apparently, were tens of thousands of people, fleeing inland. Two days before, after an unceasing torrent of rain, the tide had risen along the estuary and, fed by run-off from the hills and mountains and whipped up by gale force winds, had kept on rising.

The docks were under water, as were all of the low-lying areas in the estuary basin. Further up into the centre of Korina, conditions were better but the waters were still rising. The Unknown's house had been in the estuary basin. The contact had no idea of the level of casualties in the city but knew The Rookery still stood and still served its patrons. He had promised to deliver The Unknown's message there.

All The Unknown could do now was pray his wife and son were still alive and under Tomas' welcoming roof.

He wanted to saddle his horse and ride to Korina now but knew he couldn't. If he wanted to save his family and friends, he had to get Denser to Lyanna. Hirad was central to that. The big warrior rubbed his hands over his face and shook his head, cursing himself for his actions.

It wasn't until the man walked into the camp that he realised the

watch he had been taking had been nothing more than an excuse to sit in the cold and damp, and disappear inside his own mind.

'Nursing a problem, Unknown?'

'You could say,' replied The Unknown after looking up to see Darrick walk in, leather cape around his shoulders, sword scab-barded at his waist, dark rings about his eyes. He must have ridden most of the night. 'Sit down. I'll put some water on for coffee.' But that wasn't why Darrick was there.

'I don't think we've got time for that,' he said.

'No,' said The Unknown. He looked hard into the woods but could see nothing but the shadows of trees moving in the wind as the sun gradually pierced the clouds that threatened more rain. 'Bring many with you?'

'A couple of hundred.'

'You were quiet,' The Unknown smiled.

Darrick nodded and almost chuckled. 'Well, we didn't ride right in, if that's what you mean.'

'Two hundred, eh?' The Unknown glanced again at his sword lying in the mud of the wood. 'That's probably enough.'

T thought so.' Darrick walked around in front of The Unknown and stood across the fire from him. T thought you deserved ovet whelming odds to help you make up your mind.'

The Unknown looked up into the General's eyes and saw the guilt painted there like the mark of plague on the front door of a stricken house.

'So what do you want?'

'To stop The Raven getting killed needlessly.'

'Really?' The Unknown raised his eyebrows.

'Yes, really.' Darrick scratched at his forehead with a leather-gloved hand. 'Look, you're in the middle of something bad and I don't think you fully understand how Dordover sees the stakes.'

The Unknown felt a flash of anger. 'Let me assure you, we know exactly how Dordover sees everything. That's why we're with him, trying to get to his daughter before anyone else.' He jerked a thumb at Denser.

'It's not that simple.'

'So Ilkar keeps saying. Only, it is that simple. Denser asked for our help. We're The Raven, so we helped him. He's one of us and he

says he can save her and Balaia with her and that's enough for us.' There was silence. The Unknown could see Darrick understood but couldn't do anything about it. His loyalty was to Lystern and, through them, Dordover. 'So where are you planning to take us?'

'Arlen.'

'Well that's fortunate. We were headed that way ourselves.'

T know. But you aren't doing anything when we get there.'

'Prisoners?'.

'Something like that.' Darrick looked away.

'Funny how things change, isn't it?' said The Unknown.

'Not really,' said Darrick. 'Now, are you going to wake them or must I?'

The Unknown smiled again. 'I'll do it. You know how fractious mages are if woken suddenly. Have you already got Hirad?' He saw no reason to hide the barbarian's absence. Darrick wasn't a fool.

But Darrick just bit his lip and gazed down at the ground. 'No,' he said. 'I'm afraid we were too late.'

'Good old Hirad,' said The Unknown. Hope flickered again but Darrick extinguished it.

'Unknown, you don't understand. We tracked him all right but we were there second.' He wiped his gloved hand through his matted curls. 'Gods, how do I say this? The wolves were already closing in when the scouts arrived. I'm sorry.'

Arlen eschewed his horse in favour of marching through his town accompanied by twenty of his guard in a very obvious show of strength. There were faster routes to the Lakehome Inn but Arlen wanted as many people as possible, friends and enemies, to see his intent.

So, with the sun trying to warm a cloudy day and dry the streets that had been swept once again by unseasonably heavy rain, Jasto Arlen strode from the gates of Arlen Castle. Walking quickly up the wide, stone-chipped avenue between his private gardens and the barracks, he turned right on to Market Approach, a meandering street that linked the town to the north trails. Market Approach was peppered by cross-streets the whole of its length, while to the east, increasingly sumptuous merchant and shippers' houses culminated in the magnificent Park of the Martyrs' Souls. To the west, south of

the barracks, the silk and fine goods market and the playhouse fronted a less affluent quarter including Aden's castle workers' cottages and tenements, the stables and the plain but most important Temple of the Sea.

Arlen headed straight down Market Approach, a slightly sloped, cobbled street that opened out into Centenary Square, which housed the main market, selling everything from food to weapons to fine carved furnishings, and ringed all round with eating houses, inns and even the odd gallery. This early, the square was only just beginning to fill but word would spread quickly and Arlen felt his anger rising further. His was a well-formed, prosperous town built on hard work and a tight business ethic. No one would be allowed to change that.

Waving at his townspeople and trading greetings with anyone he knew, Arlen turned right out of the square to walk through poorer tenement streets into the long-nicknamed Ice Quarter where the trawler men had traditionally lived and cold-stored late-landed fish before selling catches in the dockfront fish market each mid-morning. Arlen walked past the iron foundry and fish market on his way to the dockside, taking in the empty harbour that housed the fishing fleet and the first of the deepwater berths, before turning left and walking past an attractive, sleek elven vessel, obviously just tied up, and stopping finally at the doors to the Lakehome Inn.

Looking along the dock past die timber yard and on to the Salt Quarter, Arlen could see a few people about, including some of the Black Wings lounging around jetty-posts. They, like his townspeople and visitors, straightened quicldy, and before his sergeant-at-arms had finished hammering on the inn's door to demand attention, a crowd was beginning to gather, a hubbub of noise filling the air and taking men and women from their work as curiosity got the better of them.

Locks were slid back and the left-hand of a pair of painted black wooden doors squeaked open. One of the innkeeper's sons, a scrawny lad in his early teens, peered out, his freckled face blanching under his shock of tangled orange hair.

'Don't worry, Petren,' said Arlen. 'Just wake your father. I need to talk to one of your guests. Now.'

The frightened boy said nothing in reply, just bobbed his head

and turned back into the gloom. Presently, they could hear his voice echoing through the inn, reedy and high, unbroken.

'Father. Pa! The Earl's at the door, the Earl's at the door.'

Arlen allowed himself a brief smile, catching the eye of his sergeant-at-arms.

'At least he knew who I was,' said Arlen.

'Yes sir.'

During the short wait, the crowd swelled and amongst them, Arlen counted over a dozen of the Black Wings. Right now, the atmosphere was calm and curious but it wouldn't take much to turn it ugly. He leaned towards the sergeant-at-arms and ordered him to place men near the Black Wings.

'My Lord?' It was the innkeeper, Denat.

'Sorry to wake you,' said Arlen.

'Not at all, my Lord. I've been up cooking breakfasts a while now.'

'Busy time for you?'

'I'm full,' confirmed Denat.

'Hmm.' Arlen nodded. 'Unfortunately, I fear you are about to lose much of your current custom.'

'Pardon, my Lord?' Denat frowned and fidgeted at the door. He was a heavier set but balding version of his son.

'I want Selik, is it? Yes, Selik, at this door immediately.'

'Oh.' Denat hesitated. 'Of course. I'll fetch him for you.'

'Thank you.' Arlen's smile was thin. He regretted the necessity for men like Denat but had to concede his type was useful to the town's economy.

'I am quite capable of fetching myself,' drawled a voice Arlen hadn't heard before. Disabled. Not true. And when the misshapen figure appeared around the door and forced himself past the retreating Denat, the Earl could see why.

'Earl Arlen, I take it?' The figure proffered a hand which Arlen ignored.

'Correct. And you are unwanted in this town.'

Selik raised an eyebrow. 'Really? By whom?'

Arlen regarded him blankly. 'Me. And that is enough. However, I'm not an unfair man and I've watched your activities for longer than I should.'

'I-'

'Be silent.' Arlen raised a finger but not his voice, unused to being interrupted. 'And listen to me. Trade in this town is run by word, bond and delivery of goods and payment, not by threat, fist and intimidation. Goods stolen are accepted losses only if the perpetrator cannot be apprehended. And violations of the person, particularly the female person, are not tolerated under any circumstances.

'These key laws and numerous others have been transgressed by you or your men. So here's what happens now. With two exceptions, I want every one of your men accounted for and out of my town by midday. Any found still here after that time will be deemed in breach of the fair trading laws and suffer the appropriate penalties.

'Any goods you have bought legitimately but not received will be delivered to you beyond Arlen's borders. Any shipping deals you have struck, whether fairly or under duress, will be deemed void and any monies due will be returned to you.

'You, Selik, will remain here not only until your men have gone but more importandy, until you identify and hand over the two scum who molested a woman and threatened her young child in my peaceful streets.

'Do I make myself clear?'

Arlen's speech had brought a hush to the crowd that now numbered in excess of one hundred, every one craning to, catch every word. Even this close, the blustery wind off die lake snatched away the odd phrase yet enough was clear to send a ripple of applause around the gathering. Arlen did not acknowledge it.

Throughout, Selik had met Arlen's gaze, a sneer evident on his smeared face. He had not attempted to interrupt. The applause died down quickly, the crowd anticipating Selik's response.

T understood this to be a free town. It appears I was mistaken.'

'No, not mistaken,' said Arlen. 'But freedom has to be bounded by rules to avoid it becoming anarchy. This is what you have attempted to bring here and I will not tolerate it.'

Selik nodded, his sneer broadening into what might pass as a smile.

'We asked for co-operation and received none,' he said quietly. 'Yet we had to have what we tried to buy and I am afraid some of

your traders did not seem to understand that. You see, Earl Arlen, there is a war coming, though you might not see it as such. And I am on the side of the just, fighting against the rising threat of dominion over Balaia of a single magical power.'

Arlen scoffed. 'War. Selik, we are all aware of problems with the mana spectrum. I do talk to my mages, you know. But these problems will pass, and with them this irritating wind and chilling rain. Don't attempt to hang your perverse actions on a magical uprising.' Arlen took half a pace forwards, feeling revulsion grow for the man he confronted.

'I know your beliefs and you are free to hold them. But you are not free to impose them on my people or to use them to justify your simpleminded thuggery. Now do you understand what you are to do, or do I take you to the jail to think on it at greater length?'

Selik straightened and raised his voice.

'I will grant you this futile and very short-lived victory, merely because it would be a waste of my time to stand against you at this moment. But mark my words, Arlen. There is war coming. We will have what we need to conduct it and the innocent will die and their blood will be on your streets and your hands unless you turn to me for help. Mark what I say. And let your people hear it too.' And he tapped Arlen's chest with his forefinger.

The Earl grabbed Selik's hand and turned it away.

'There will never be war in Arlen,' he snarled. 'Unless you make the grave mistake of returning, that is, and, believe me, you will meet my steel if you try. Now get your men, give me the guilty and get out of my town.'

Selik laughed. 'Believe what you will, Arlen. But right will triumph over innocence and ignorance.'

The look in Selik's eye left Arlen cold.

Chapter 17

Hirad made a hasty camp between the trunks of a trio of young oaks, lashing his treated leather sheet to them at an angle to give him some protection from the weather. On leaving the Raven camp, he'd gathered his saddle and unhitched his horse, unsure of how far he'd travel. In the end, he'd walked for a mile, maybe a little more, while the rain pounded down, soaking him through his furs and completing his miserable but unforgettable evening.

With the wind at his back, beating the rain on to the leather, which thrummed and pulled, he set a fire with the dry sticks and kindling he habitually carried inside the leather, before collecting a few more to dry by the small blaze on the sodden ground.

He let his horse wander, knowing it wouldn't stray unless endangered and, with his saddle as a pillow of sorts, lay back to contemplate the mess in which he found himself. There was a pit in his stomach that stole any appetite and a burning in his throat that had nothing to do with his earlier shouting. But above it all in his mind rode a deep sense of unease and wrong, coupled with loss. He'd walked out on The Raven, the only family he'd ever really known. This was nothing like the sad, if inevitable and certainly amicable parting of the ways they'd shared a few years before. This had been an act of finality.

Hirad sought fruitlessly for a comfortable position on the soaking leaf mould, his mind distracted by the howling wind that tore at his sheet, threatening to rip it loose; the incessant heavy rain that poured from the leather, pooling on the ground before running downhill and away.

He wasn't a deep and clever thinker like the others, never had been. He just reacted to what he saw, heard and felt. It was his strength and his curse. He had no idea what had snapped in him

earlier. It would have been easy to blame Denser completely but he had to shoulder much of the blame himself.

It was a culmination of things. The way he was always expected to jump to and help other people though, when matters were reversed, those others always found reasons not to bother. And Denser was the worst of them. He'd been acting very strangely since they'd met him in Greythorne.

But still, Hirad knew he shouldn't have done what he did. Clearly, the man was scared for his family's lives and it unbalanced him. Made him say stupid things; and bringing the Kaan into it had been a mistake that had triggered so much.

Once more, Hirad brought the image of The Unknown's blade to his mind, saw its unwavering point and the intent in the grip. It had been no warning and although Hirad knew The Unknown's reaction had been purebred instinct, he also knew that the Big Man would have killed him had he threatened the Xeteskian further. It was, after all, what he had been born to do; and even though he had been released from Protector thrall and had his soul returned, the legacy remained.

And now Hirad didn't know how to feel. Angry at Denser, yes. Sad for what he had pushed The Unknown into, certainly. Disappointed he had walked out without solving the problem as well. That had always been The Raven's way until now. Not to run. But he had.

There was nothing more to be done that night. Ilkar would know he wouldn't come back immediately and there was no way The Unknown would sanction a search for him until dawn. But there was one question he wanted to answer before he slept. Did he want to be found? Actually, as the hours slipped by and he drifted in and out of sleep, disturbed by wind, rain and the odd rumble of thunder, the answer had become rather obvious.

Hirad awoke in a tight position that was scant protection from the chill. The dawn brought with it a strengthening of the wind but a welcome cessation of the rain. Hirad opened his eyes and stared at the taut leather bivouac vibrating against its ropes. He frowned as he blinked back the brightness of the morning, surprised he hadn't woken sooner. But that wasn't all that was amiss. Despite the wind, he should have been able to hear the sounds of forest birds, only it

was very quiet and the wind rushed through what to the ear was a dead wood. Like Thornewood.

He stretched where he lay before rolling over and sitting upright, rubbing his face and scratching at an itchy scalp. It was time, he thought ruefully, for Ilkar to clear his head of mites.

Pushing himself up, he ducked out from under the edge of his shelter and stretched again, his eyes coming to rest on his horse.

'Hello, boy, I-' he began but faltered. The stallion was standing stock still, eyes wide, legs quivering, too terrified to move. Hirad looked left, following its stare to where five wolves stood, partly hidden by shadows.

'Oh dear Gods,' he said. His sword lay by the ashes of the fire. He could grab for it but if he triggered a charge, he'd be killed in moments. So he stood, hoping against the odds that they would move on.

'Easy boy,' he said to his horse but the words were as much to himself.

The wolves stood in a close pack, the leader in front of two pairs. They didn't growl, didn't threaten and didn't give any indication of intent. Like Hirad, they stood and waited. It wasn't normal behaviour and Hirad, not blessed with patience, was anxious for an outcome. Any outcome.

He took a pace forwards, ignoring his blade, knowing that open aggression could be fatal.

'So what is it?' he demanded of them. 'Do something. We're not going anywhere.' His gesture included his horse, who suddenly pissed on the forest floor.

The lead wolf sniffed the air and then, with a low growl to its fellows, padded out into the dappled sunlight. It was a huge beast, four feet at the shoulder, its eyes yellow-tinged and its coat pale brown but for a sprinkling of grey flecks and an absolutely unmistakable white stripe down the front of its neck.

Hirad felt momentarily weak at the knees.

It was Thraun.

The Unknown, Ilkar and Denser rode in resentful silence but it could have been worse. The Dordovan mage guard had wanted the Raven mages bound but Darrick had instructed them otherwise.

The Unknown had smiled at that, a fleeting amusement. The instruction had been little more than thinly veiled threat.

And so the trio rode weaponless but not helpless in the midst of a Lysternan cavalry force heading at good speed towards Arlen. It had become clear to The Unknown that none in the column had any idea what they might find at the busy but sleepy fishing town whose docks had latterly attracted profitable attention. All they knew was that Erienne was due in on an elven ship and that The Raven weren't to be allowed access.

The big warrior could see confusion in many eyes, including Darrick's but he could also see loyalty and the drive to follow orders. As every soldier knew, not every action had an immediately obvious motivation. So long as the war was won, battles were immaterial. Achieve the desired objective, that was what was expected and required.

The Unknown Warrior recognised and deferred to it, as did Ilkar, who'd seen enough battles to understand every nuance of conscript obedience and the unquestioning respect a fine general commanded. Denser was another issue and his hostility wasn't merely directed at his captors.

T understood you to be pledged to protect me,' he said, riding a little closer.

'Pledged, no,' said the Unknown. 'Not any more. Protect, yes. You're Raven.'

T saw how you reacted last night. Don't make me remind you.'

The Unknown regarded him evenly. 'You don't have to, I remember it perfectly well. I experienced an unfortunate throwback. It's a reaction that will pass eventually. However, I will always be your friend. And Hirad's.'

'Unknown, he's dead,' said Denser, a heaviness in his tone.

'Believing it on seeing it.'

'Come on, Unknown, you heard Darrick-'

'Who saw nothing,' said Ilkar. 'Until we have confirmed sighting of a body, he's still alive. And there's something else. He's Dragonene and I don't see any Kaan.'

'Whatever you say.' Denser shrugged.

Ilkar shook his head.

'What have I done now?' demanded Denser.

'All these years and you still miss the point sometimes, don't you?' said Ilkar.

'Get what? Hirad lost it and now he's gone, dead, missing or whatever. I get that. What else is there?'

'He's angry, Denser. He feels betrayed by you and he's going to be confused and distressed by what happened between him and The Unknown last night. But he's Raven. We've been his whole life's focus despite his work with the Kaan and he won't walk out on us. He agreed to help you, under duress I know, but he agreed and he'll never fail a contract until it kills him. That's what being one of us means.' Another shake of the head. 'You should know that by now.'

'But we haven't been The Raven for almost six years.'

'It doesn't make any difference. Not to Hirad,' said Ilkar.

The Unknown listened to the exchange and wondered if Ilkar was right. He wanted to believe it but he had seen the look in Hirad's eyes before he left and it hadn't been distress, it had been shock. And if the barbarian couldn't rationalise what had happened, he wouldn't come back because The Raven as he understood it would have ceased to exist.

'That doesn't change the fact that we're caught, I haven't been able to attempt another Communion and he,' – he stabbed a finger at The Unknown – 'was supposed to be on guard. Some Protector you turned out to be.'

'Is alienating the only people you can trust just a recent hobby of yours?' Ilkar's ears pricked and reddened. 'Because you seem pretty well practised.'

'True, though, isn't it?' said Denser, glaring back at Ilkar.

T am no longer your given Protector, Denser,' said The Unknown, his voice low and menacing as he attempted to disguise the hurt inside. Perhaps he had failed them all. It was a thought not simply quashed though he had ample justification. 'None of us could have suspected this lot would have ridden all night to get to us – why would they?'

'But you didn't hear them,' insisted Denser. 'How could you not? There are two bloody hundred of them.'

'But only Darrick entered the camp.'

'So why didn't you kill him?' asked Denser.

'Because I was protecting you,' replied The Unknown calmly.

'And because I didn't fancy becoming target practice for the elven archers Darrick would have had positioned out of my sight. You may consider yourself able to outwit archers, two hundred cavalry and two dozen mages with range spells prepared but I'm not. You are alive because I chose not to fight.'

'But to what purpose? It's pretty clear your good friend Darrick is fighting on a different side to ours. He's hardly likely to let us go once we reach Arlen. What good can this do? Haven't you been listening to a word I've said? Only I can stop this.'

'Patience,' said The Unknown. It was easy to see how Hirad had lost his cool. But The Unknown could see further than that. He could see the desperation in Denser's eyes and had watched him fidget and heard him sigh, frustrated though they were still going in the right direction.

And what Denser hadn't seen was Darrick's unhappiness. The General was plainly not in favour of holding The Raven. But the ability to follow orders was just one reason he was such a fine soldier.

When they reached Arlen, the situation might well be very different and The Unknown planned to talk with his captor, fairly sure that he could turn the unhappiness to doubt and the doubt to insubordination.

The Unknown always liked to think there were options. If nothing else, he was riding with two of Balaia's more powerful mages. That couldn't hurt their chances. Deciding to say no more, The Unknown smiled instead and turned his eyes, as ever, it seemed, to the sky.

Thraun stared long at the human he recognised as a man-packbrother and bade the pack spare him. They would also spare the prey though the scent of the meat had them all drooling. The night before, he had howled into a tempest, his voice lost, drowned by the rain and tattered by the wind. It was a bad wind. It had scared him.

Others had been stalking those he needed. Whether to kill them he couldn't be sure so he had watched the forest until man-packbrother had left the fire, taking his horse with him. And when the stalkers found the others, and he knew the pack couldn't help them, he had left them and watched the one.

Man-packbrother had been scared but now he was not. He would

help them. And they would help him. Alone, he was surely vulnerable. He was alone no longer. Thraun licked the man's hand, then sniffed the sky again, hoping for comprehension.

Hirad knelt in front of Thraun, feeling the roughness of the wolfs tongue on his hand and watching as he pushed his snout into the air. The barbarian ran a hand across Thraun's head and looked briefly to the other wolves. All four sat alert, staring at him, animal confusion written across comically expressive faces.

'You can feel it, can't you?' he said and pointed skywards.

It was fascinating and it was an immense relief that the shape-changer was still alive, though the term didn't necessarily apply to Thraun any more. But, Hirad reasoned, if he were truly a pure wolf, his behaviour would have been very different.

Hirad supposed The Raven had been followed all the way from Thornewood. And the only possible reason Thraun would have done that was because he remembered them somehow. After almost six years, he should have been wild, with almost no vestiges of his human life to trouble him, but that was plainly not the case.

'There's something still going on in there, isn't there, Thraun?'

Thraun growled gently in his throat and locked eyes with Hirad at the sound of his name. The barbarian saw recognition there, and something he was sure wasn't lupine. It was a calmness, an assurance of purpose. And knowledge. Hirad understood wolves to be animals of instinct but Thraun knew things. That meant he had to retain memory.

Hirad leant towards him. Thraun didn't flinch.

'Remember.'

The wolf pawed at the ground and shook his head, actually backing up a pace.

'You can understand me, can't you?' said Hirad. 'But can I reach you to bring you back? And do you want to come back?' He remembered the spark in Thraun's eyes the times before when he'd assumed his wolven form. That wasn't in evidence now, so many years later, but he still had intelligence, there was no doubt about that.

Hirad pushed himself to his feet and looked around at his horse. The animal was still badly scared but would have some sense by now

that its life wasn't immediately threatened. Walking back to his camp, Hirad untied and rolled the leather, strapped on his sword and scooped up his saddle. Placing it on his horse's back, he felt the animal calm further and the stallion even managed to nuzzle his back as he bent to tie the girth strap. Attaching bit and bridle, Hirad planted a kiss on the top of its nose.

'Good boy. Now then.' He put his head close to its left ear and stroked its cheek gently, his voice carefully soothing, in the tone he knew would work. 'Remember you're the one that shares a home with dragons. These are just a few wolves. You aren't going to let me down, are you?'

The horse snorted softly and nickered, trying to turn its head to him, to look at him through a big dark eye.

'I knew you wouldn't. Come on then,' he said.

Never leaving his position close to its cheek, his free hand now caressing the front of its face, he led the still reluctant horse gently towards the wolves, speaking to Thraun as he came. 'We need to get to the others. To The Raven.' He pointed the way he wanted to go but Thraun growled and immediately the pack stood in his way. He stopped, grip tightening on the bridle, his horse digging in its back hooves.

He frowned and shook his head. All five wolves were looking at him, almost pleading. It wasn't a threat, it was a warning.

'What is it?' he spread his arms wide, bridle hand slipping down the reins. As if in answer, Thraun trotted past him towards the risen sun and in the direction of Arlen. He paused and looked back at Hirad, the growl in his throat sounding like an order.

'Come on, Thraun, the camp's that way.' Hirad pointed away into the forest. Thraun barked once and changed direction, the rest of the pack hesitating momentarily before following.

Hirad hauled himself into the saddle and goaded his unwilling horse after the wolves. He leaned forward and stroked the stallion's face, whispering words of encouragement into his ears.

He had only half expected The Raven to be at their campsite but was still disappointed to find it empty. But as he rode in, it was clear something was badly wrong. The fire hadn't been doused and cleared. A small pile of dry branches still sat near it. Surely they

should have been taken for the next blaze. He dismounted and looked around.

There were no signs of any struggle but The Raven had left in a big hurry, the mud churned by hoofprints as if horses had been galloped out. Hirad squatted down, his frown deepening. He dragged gloved fingers through the mud and looked over at Thraun. The wolf was standing with the pack, watching him.

'What happened here, Thraun?' he asked.

He walked along the route the horses had taken out of the small clearing. Then he saw it. The churning wasn't down to galloping. It was because more than three horses had been in the camp when The Raven had left. Many more. Hirad could see the widening column of prints as it drove away, back to the edge of the woodland.

They had been taken, surely. Ignoring the growls of Thraun, he remounted and rode along the trail carved into the sodden ground. Wherever they had gone, he would follow them and free them. He couldn't leave them as prisoners. They were Raven.

And so was he.

Chapter 18

After the heavy seas of the past seven days, the River Arl was placid by comparison. Coming across the estuary on the rising tide, the Ocean Elm sliced calmly through the water, all sails full on a run with the wind blowing dead north, funnelling along the tree-lined shores. Further north, the trees would give way to rolling hills westwards, and spectacular escarpments eastwards, before open lowlands came to dominate the miles until the Arl opened into the beauty of Lake Arlen.

Ringed from its southernmost point to its north-western arc by trees that climbed part way up stark, snow-capped mountains, it seemed idyllic to anyone sailing towards it, bettered only by the body of water at Triverne. The port town of Arlen occupied the west bank, its deepwater berths home to ocean going vessels, its fishing fleet sheltered in a shallow harbour, and its offshore anchorages served by craft fitted with rope-and-pulley assemblies.

Incoming sailors could see the whole town sweeping up a low rise, culminating in the castle whose white scrubbed stone shone in the morning light, flags from its four turrets snapping in the prevailing breeze. Today, though, the white would be muted. None in Balaia had seen the sun consistently for what seemed like an age, with lowering, rain-bearing cloud washing almost ceaselessly across the sky. The land had cooled dramatically and many species of bird had flown prematurely south, insects had died early or never hatched at all and farming communities were counting the cost of poor crops this harvest and the certainty of hunger next year.

Erienne stood near the prow of the Elm, her mind still a fog from the mana attack, her stamina yet to recover fully and her feelings mixed as they had been ever since she left Lyanna behind on Heren-deneth.

At least she felt she was doing something to try and maintain the safety of her daughter; and she felt an undeniable thrill at the thought of seeing Denser very soon. But ever-increasing had been her longing to hold Lyanna again, to sit in the orchard watching her beautiful child play, or to read her a story from her favourite book. She had found tears on her cheeks every morning, sleep having breached her defences. And, for the last three days, with her mana abilities damaged, she had known another emotion. Fear.

Fear that she would never be able to cast properly again, a threatened isolation that would soon become terrifying and unbearable. And fear of what she would find in Arlen. If Ren'erei was right, the Black Wings were strong again and Selik was still alive. He had been the right-hand man of Travers, and had the same zealous insanity in his eyes. She had only encountered them once but it had been an encounter that had cost the lives of her firstborn twin sons.

She knew now that the ache for them would never pass. Some days it was less, others more, but always there. And it was another reason she had to do what she was doing now. No one was going to take a child from her again.

Erienne let the wind whip at her hair as she stood in heavy cloak and trousers, looking back along the Ocean Elm's length. She felt a little better this morning. Better enough that when Ren'erei walked along the deck towards her, she didn't wish the elf gone.

As she approached, she looked hard at Erienne, trying to gauge her mood. She was wearing her brown and green cloak, laced leather trousers and brown shirt.

'How are you feeling?' Ren'erei asked, coming to lean with her back on the rail, arms folded, half turned to see Erienne's face.

She shrugged. 'Not bad. Less foggy.' She made a scrunching gesture at the sides of her head.

'Is that good?' Ren'erei smiled.

'Yes, it's good. Mostly, I'm just glad we're nearly there. This voyage has seemed very long.'

Ren'erei nodded, her expression becoming sober. 'I can understand your impatience. But we have to be careful in Arlen. Denser's right, you should stay aboard. We'll find him.'

T suppose so.'

'What is it?'

Erienne sighed. She wasn't used to feeling so helpless and it was something that did not aid her shortening temper.

'I'm irritated because I can't contact him and he, presumably can't contact me either. Gods in the sky, Ren'erei, we don't even know if he's there. And now you're having to search the streets and all that'll do is alert them.''

'The Black Wings?'

Erienne nodded, finding herself unable to speak the name. A sudden knot of anxiety twisted her stomach.

'They'll be nowhere near here.'

'No?' snapped Erienne, her anger flaring. 'How can you be so sure? Just ask Tryuun about them. When I was with The Raven we thought we'd destroyed them back before Dawnthief was cast. Gods burning, I swear I saw Selik die by my own hand. Yet you tell me he survived, and Tryuun's face is evidence enough.' She wiped a hand across her face, moving the stray hairs that blew about it. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she stepped forward and covered Ren's hands with her own.

'These men are dangerous. They have mages working for them. I'm just imploring you to be careful. You're a good friend, Ren. Don't go getting careless. My daughter's at stake here.'

Ren'erei nodded. 'I'll never forget that. And I'll mind what you say. We'll find Denser, don't worry.'

Erienne's next words were cut off by a shout from the wheel deck. They turned to see the Captain pointing away to the east bank where the trees were slowly thinning to lowland plains on the approach to the lake's mouth. Ren'erei followed the lookout's arm, staring intently into the trees. Erienne could see nothing. They were over one hundred yards off the bank, right in the centre of the Arl's flow. To Erienne, the shadow under the canopy obscured whatever it was the lookout had seen.

'What is it?' she asked.

'Riders.' Ren'erei continued to stare, unmoving. 'Four of them. Scouts.'

Despite herself and her knowledge of these elves, she had to say it.

'I can't see a thing.'

Ren'erei turned to her, her eyes alive, her face brimming with patience.

'Erienne, they are scouts because they ride horses with both short-sprint speed and long-ride stamina. They wear little armour and carry light weapons. But mostly, they're elves and they know we've seen them.'

'They're looking for us?'

'Who else?' Ren'erei's smile was forced.

'How?' Erienne felt suddenly exasperated, her fleeting good humour gone, her heart rate racing. 'And who? Who knows we're coming?'

T expect we'll find out in Arlen,' replied Ren'erei. The elf looked back across the shore, tracking the riders Erienne couldn't even see.

She felt more helpless than ever and scared for all their lives. Their docking at Arlen was suddenly so much more risky and people, maybe even Black Wings but more likely Dordovans, would be after them. But there was support close by. She wanted Lyanna but Lyanna wasn't near.

Fortunately, The Raven were.

By next morning, with Arlen less than a day's ride away, The Unknown had managed to persuade the Lysternan guard that he posed no threat to Darrick and the two men rode side by side at the head of the column. For once, the wind wasn't blasting across Balaia and there were breaks in the cloud, allowing precious spears of undiluted sunlight to fleetingly caress the ground.

The mood throughout the cavalry was lighter following another drenching night spent huddled under leather and leaf bivouacs. Around them, the gentle undulating moorland that led inexorably down to Lake Arlen's west bank seemed less bleak and The Unknown felt some small relief, though Denser's scowl had not eased.

'Some prisoner you are,' said Darrick, picking up another confused gaze from one of his men.

'I'm sorry you even think of me that way,' replied The Unknown.

Darrick chewed his lip, unable to meet The Unknown's gaze for a moment.

'You have to believe me that it's for your own protection,' said Darrick. 'And I'm sorry too. For the necessity to take your weapons and for keeping Ilkar and Denser under mage guard. None of us like it.'

'Just orders, eh?' Try as he might, The Unknown couldn't work up any anger towards the General. He just had to understand what it was all about.

'I was advised that your reaching Arlen might be precipitate,' said Darrick carefully.

'Gods falling, really?' The Unknown couldn't help but smile. 'What did your adviser think we might do?'

'Get yourselves killed trying to get to Erienne, what else?'

'We aren't known for getting ourselves killed,' said The Unknown. 'And anyway, we expected you to be behind us. Hardly a threat if you're not in town, are you?'

Darrick turned in his saddle, frowning under his helmet. 'Unknown, I would never have ordered my men to fight The Raven. You misunderstand.'

'No, I don't. We're aware there may be a few Dordovans scouting Arlen, trying to pick up the mana trails. We just think we can avoid them.' The Unknown shrugged.

'A few? You've been out of touch too long. There are three hundred-plus there now, and more coming if I understand the Dordovan messaging right.'

The Unknown's heart skipped a beat. 'Three… What are you expecting to happen down there? I mean Erienne's hardly an army, is she?'

'It's not Erienne we're worried about. Or her elven guardians. You know as well as I do that Dordover and Lystern are not the only parties interested in securing the child.'

Even as Darrick was speaking, The Unknown was going cold all over.

'Dear Gods, I should have guessed, shouldn't I?'

T beg your pardon?'

T felt them a couple of days ago. I knew they were close. I can't believe I didn't make the connection.' He looked into Darrick's blank face. 'The Protectors. They're coming to Arlen, aren't they?'

Darrick nodded.

'How many of them?'

'We have to assume all of them,' said Darrick.

'Then they'll slaughter you. Three hundred plus your two hundred? You'll be throwing your life away, Darrick. Even with more

support from wherever. You must see that.' The Unknown's pulse had quickened and he could see in Darrick's eyes that he didn't see at all.

'I've watched them fight. And we aren't Wesmen, Unknown. We have mage support. We can beat them, I'm sure of it.'

'Then you'll be killing my brothers. You understand I'll do everything I can to stop you.'

T have my orders.'

'And I have my loyalties.' At last The Unknown could feel some anger. It was just sad it was in response to a threat against the Protectors.

He found Darrick's confidence both arrogant and ignorant. He had watched the Protectors, maybe, but he didn't understand their minds, their drive and their devotion, the things that made diem so utterly different from mere soldiers. Tactics were great, but people feared Protectors and Darrick's men would be no different. And Xetesk would have sent mage support too, and plenty of it.

This was all getting completely out of hand.

'Why do you think Dordover are so keen to recapture Lyanna?'

Darrick chuckled. 'Come on, Unknown, you don't have to ask me that. She's out of control. Just look around you. Her powers are destroying Balaia. I'm sure it isn't her fault but it does have to be stopped. I take it we're agreed on that point?'

'Yes,' said The Unknown.

'But…'

'But it was Dordover that awakened her. Erienne took Lyanna because they could no longer control her. She's gone to the Al-Drechar.'

'And you call this control?' Darrick waved his free hand about him. 'I've heard the stories and I've seen Greythorne and Thorne-wood. Look, Unknown, I'm really sorry. I have such sympathy for you, all of you. And I know that you think you're doing the right thing. So did I at first but I've seen and consulted too much. Erienne has made a mistake. Lyanna has to be under College control. It's the only way.'

The Unknown was in no doubt about Darrick's belief. The General was not given to frivolity, or to making rash statements.

'Is that what you believe Dordover will exert? Control? They

mean to kill her, Darrick, and you're being used to deliver her to them. They won't murder her in cold blood but they'll see to it she dies. I know you don't want to let that happen.'

'And it won't. Not while I have a breath in my body,' said Darrick.

'Then look out for your own back, too.'

Darrick nodded and looked up at the sky. It was still flecked blue but rain-bearing cloud was again bubbling up from the east. Korina, Balaia's capital, would be suffering another storm already.

The General turned to his second.

'Izack, order slow to walk. We'll dismount in a mile.'

'Yes, sir.' Izack raised a flat palm above his head. 'Walking!' he shouted, the order relayed throughout the column. Darrick's well-drilled cavalry responded immediately.

'You know the Black Wings are in on this too,' said The Unknown as they moved more sedately through the moorland, purple heather blowing in waves across the gentle slopes.

Darrick gave him a sharp glance but then shrugged. T suppose I shouldn't be surprised. One sniff of a magical problem and they'll show up to stir trouble and twist the knife. All the more reason to get Erienne secure.'

'I'm with you there, at least.'

'You know, I hope that after all this has blown over, if you'll pardon the expression, we can still count each other as friends.'

The Unknown felt stung by the comment. 'Not if you deliver Lyanna to those who would see her die; and kill my brothers to do so. Now, if you'll permit, I'd like to return to the friends I do still have.'

Thraun's mind was ablaze and he knew the suspicious eyes of the pack were on him. He could sense their confusion, their fear and their anger, but he had no way to communicate what he felt deep within him. It was hard enough to come to terms with it himself. He first had to hope the pack would trust his judgement and neither turn on him or the man -packbrother.

And so, they travelled quickly across the land, following in the wake of all the men and horses, heading for a broad expanse of water and a

settlement where, he assumed, would be the answers to the questions and an end to the wrong in the air.

He hadn't known whether man-packbrother would follow him but had kept the pack quiet as they had approached his camp. And they had waited downwind until he awoke, with no way to tell him his friends were gone, taken by other men, but anxious to stop him returning to where they had been sleeping because it was the wrong way to travel.

Man-packbrother had spoken to him then, much as he had done again as they travelled, his horse scared as was right, but under control. The pack would have to wait for their feast.

Thraun still had no idea what would happen next. His instinct merely drove him to see man-packbrother safely to the end of the journey. His feelings clashed painfully within him. Men weren't prey, they were threat and he was used to removing threat from the way of the pack. It had always been so. Tet this man-packbrother, like another he knew from a buried sadness, understood like few men did.

Thraun could see this and that was why he led the pack but why he was alone. Different.

Memories flashed in his mind again. Distant and shrouded. Two legs upright… a lessening of speed, power and instinct… scent trails denied him. The memories hurt and he growled to clear his mind. But since the time he had seen man-packbrother and his companions, such clarity was denied him.

Thraun turned his head, checking the pack and the rider behind them. He sniffed the air as he loped on, feeling that time was short.

Following the wolves down the trail of a hundred and more horses, Hirad had felt the release of a tension he hadn't known he harboured. Ilkar, Denser and The Unknown were alive. Ilkar had dropped one of his gloves, assuming Hirad would find it. They were certainly prisoners but alive, and that meant he could find and free them. And Thraun was still with him.

In his mind he knew it didn't all add up but he couldn't shake the notion that Thraun knew what he was doing. And it went without saying, Hirad trusted Thraun's instinct, wolf or human.

After all, Thraun was Raven too.

Chapter 19

The Ocean Elm was signalled into Dock Berth One in the middle of what had become an unusually calm afternoon. The portmaster had long since stopped sending out a pilot to help the elven ship reach safe berth. If any were capable of navigating the shallows – which in all honesty were simple when compared to the approach to Heren-deneth – it was the crew of the Elm.

The ship moved serenely towards the berth, the Captain barking out a stream of orders, bringing the sails into furl until only die foresail drove her forwards. It would be another perfect docking.

'It's busy today,' remarked Ren'erei.

'Is it?' Erienne was scouring the dockside for evidence of her husband, indeed for any of The Raven.

'Yes.' Ren'erei shrugged. 'The docks are full. We're lucky to find a berth onshore.'

'So what happens now?'

'Well, if you'll allow, you go below and keep out of sight and try to gain contact with Denser if you are able. I'll go ashore and ask around, see what I can find out. Members of The Raven shouldn't be hard to find.'

'No,' agreed Erienne and she smiled. Being recognised was usually a boost to the ego but for her, right now, it was a risk. She flipped the hood of her cloak over her red-brown hair.

'Let's hope that will be enough.' Ren'erei smiled.

'We'll see.' She began to walk along the deck. Arlen and its people were scant yards away, the elegant elven vessel turning many a head as she understood it always did as it moved to tie up, crew swift and nimble, acting without error. She yearned for the ground beneath her feet – a security she never craved until it was denied her.

Ren'erei caught her arm. 'Erienne. I will find him and bring him to you as soon as I do. Trust me.'

'I do.' Erienne flung her arms around Ren's neck, crushing the elf to her. 'Thank you.' She found tears in her eyes, a welling of emotion she'd held pent up for the whole voyage. 'Please be quick.'

Ren'erei eased her away far enough to look into her eyes then leant forward and kissed her cheek.

'We'll be away from here on the morning tide and every pitch into a wave will bring you closer to Lyanna, and Denser will be at your side.'

The image filled Erienne with an elation that rushed through her body and sent those tears streaming down her cheeks even as a broad smile spread over her face. She kissed Ren'erei back and hurried below, hearing the tying-up orders sound across the deck. Just a day and they'd be resupplied and leaving for Herendeneth with The Raven on board, strong and invincible.

Erienne dropped her cloak over a chair and lay on her bunk, the first inklings of relaxation feeding across her mind.

Ren'erei walked quickly down the gangplank and on to the bustling dockside. It was just past midday and though the port was as busy as ever, the cranes creaking, the shouts of cratemen and netriders ringing out as they manoeuvred freight onto carts or into holds, there was an edge to the atmosphere.

Deciding to investigate, Ren'erei moved slowly along the water's edge, nodding at any she recognised but keeping her eyes and ears sharp, searching for the cause. With all four deepwater berths full, crates and boxes crowded the dock as she picked her way through workers hurrying to get goods to market or to onward transport into inland Balaia.

A netrider called out from above as he swung on a net filled with luggage trunks, looking for clear space before letting the tackleman lower it to the ground. Ren'erei waved acknowledgement and jogged on a few paces.

The elf moved effortlessly through the bustle, the wind blowing the nose-wrinkling smell offish from the market behind her. A little further on, the Lakehome Inn caught her eye. At first glance, it just looked unusually quiet and still but there was far more to it than

that. The doors were closed and windows shuttered and, outside, a ring of town guardsmen kept passers-by well away from the entrance.

Ren'erei moved closer, coming to the shoulder of a dock labourer who was standing with a knot of men and women looking at the blank face of the Inn.

'Trouble, was there?' she asked.

The labourer turned a salt-weathered red face to her. 'Just landed, is it?'

'That obvious?'

'Only explanation why you don't know, little elf. Town's been ablaze with it since sun-up. Earl's throwing the Black Wings out.'

Ren'erei must have blanched, or her face jumped a little, because next heartbeat, the man's face had hardened, his heavy brow creasing, his body tensed.

'Bothers you, does it?'

'That they're leaving, no. That's happy. That they're here at all, that bothers.'

'Scared, eh?' The hard face softened.

'Very. They don't like my kind.'

The man acknowledged the admission. 'Your business,' he said.

'Thank you.'

He nodded. 'I'll look for you.' He pointed to his eyes with splayed fingers. 'Go carefully.'

Ren'erei gave a small, respectful bow. 'Already in your debt. One thing. How many are there?'

'Black Wings?' The man shrugged. 'Thirty, forty. Long gone by sundown.'

T hope so.' She caught the man's eye. ' Ren'erei.'

'Donetsk,' responded the man. 'Always on the dock.'

The ghost of a smile. 'Always at sea. We'll know you. One last thing. See The Raven, come to the Ocean Elm.'' Ren'erei didn't wait for the response. She knew Donetsk would do exactly that should he see or hear of them. Dockers could be useful allies. There were always deals to be done and whispers to be heard but knowing the clipped patter made it possible. This time, though, Ren'erei wasn't worried about securing supplies at low cost. Security, muscle and discreet eyes were the goods of real value today.

The elf carried on along the dockside, assessing the readiness and flags of the other three ships at birth. All were ocean-going merchantmen as opposed to coastal vessels. None was less than one hundred feet long and while one was flying the flag of the much diminished Pontois barony, the other two were elven, hailing from Calaius.

All three were unloading or freighting normally and that was a relief to Ren'erei, who had considered the possibility that she might have been watching Black Wings preparing to board. She smiled. Not now. Arlen was a good man if sometimes a little overprotective towards his town. One thing was sure, the Black Wings wouldn't be granted re-entry.

With Donetsk able to put the word around the docks and Salt Quarter, where tenements and warehouses crowded, Ren'erei headed north to the Centenary Square market. The focal point of trade in all but the finest goods, the Centenary market was where she expected to hear if anyone as renowned as The Raven rode into town.

Ren'erei Could not keep the thrill from her heart as she scouted the thronging market, ducking into every inn and eating house, not even sure what she expected to find. In her mind's eye, she saw herself walking into an inn, maybe, and seeing The Raven seated quietly round a table.

She was sure she'd recognise them though she'd never actually set eyes on them. Because, even though she spent most of her time at sea or on Herendeneth, The Raven were a living legend. The massive, shaven-headed warrior they called 'The Unknown'; the dark-robed and bearded Xeteskian, Denser; the black-haired, quiet and assured elf, Ilkar, and the thickset, powerful barbarian warrior, Hirad Coldheart. Maybe even Thraun-the-wolf. They surely couldn't be hard to spot.

But she found no sign of them in the market or its surrounds. They weren't in the Park of the Martyrs' Souls or riding down Market Approach. She supposed she shouldn't have been surprised but she couldn't shut out the disappointment. Erienne's first, and only as it turned out, contact with Denser suggested they wouldn't arrive until later that evening. She'd hoped anyway.

Ambling more slowly back through the market, she dropped

words into the ears of those she knew she could rely upon to be circumspect if they found information, and made her way back to the docks.

By the Fish Market, she was ordered aside by a mounted town guardsman riding ahead of a knot of Arlen's soldiers and a column of other riders. Melting quickly into the mildly irritated crowds packing to either side of the street, she watched the Black Wings escorted up the hill and, presumably, out to the borders of Arlen. Staring at as many faces as possible, searching for the men who had tortured Tryuun, she bit back a shouted curse, leaving the jeers to the crowd. She felt a welling of hatred for these men, and the black rose-and-wings tattoos on their necks; and an utter contempt for everything they stood for. Tryuun would forever be scarred by their action and, while any of them lived, mages across the world would be at risk from the violent punishment they willingly gave out for the 'crime' of having magical ability.

Wishing death on them all, she watched their backs for a while before turning and immediately noticing a pair of tall, slim men walking a good forty yards behind the riders as the street began to move with normal traffic once again. For all the world, they looked like merchants headed for the silk market; however they were anything but.

Arlen wasn't a stupid man and mage scouts were just one more level of certainty that the Black Wings would not be back. A smile tugging at the corners of her mouth again as she walked back to the Elm, Ren'erei just wished they had been assassins instead.

Another thunderstorm was prematurely darkening the sky as Dar-rick's cavalry and its three prisoners approached Arlen from the north east. Communion with the Dordovan camp to the south of the town had left Darrick and the reporting mage a little puzzled and, once his scouts had returned with messages of cautious welcome from Earl Arlen, he decided to camp away from his allies of necessity and take his prisoners into the town.

The General was uneasy. The Ocean Elm, the elven vessel reportedly carrying Erienne, had been sighted sailing up the Arl in the early morning, yet she had not been boarded, nor even contacted by the Dordovan mage delegation. The reasons why were confusing to

say the least, and seemed to shelter behind obscure port regulations and protocols. And again, it became clear during the Communion questioning that no one had spoken to the Harbour Master or any of Aden's administrative officers.

It was equally clear that the irritated General would have to speak to the Earl himself. The actions of the Dordovans would be questioned later.

With ten guards in a loose circle around them, Darrick chose to ride with The Raven. He felt sick at the whole ridiculous affair and felt sorry for what he knew he was putting Denser through. The guilt he knew he couldn't fully admit was not helped by the venomous looks the tight-lipped Xeteskian shot him on the half-hour ride into the town.

'So, what's the deal?' asked The Unknown. 'Is there some problem with keeping us in the camp?'

'It's a military decision,' said Darrick stiffly. T don't want you getting hurt if there's trouble.'

'When,' grated Denser.

'Don't make this more difficult than it already is, please, Denser,' said Darrick, half turning in his saddle.

'Sure, no problem. I'd hate you to be in any way inconvenienced.'

'Look, I'm not enjoying this either,' said Darrick. 'But if it hadn't been me, it would have been somebody else and you'd be in chains.'

'I'm overcome by your kindness,' spat Denser.

Darrick turned all the way, left hand resting on the back of his saddle. 'Let me make one thing very clear, Denser of Xetesk. I am a soldier of Lystern and honoured to be so. In that capacity, I was ordered to bring about your capture and to deliver you to a secure holding point. This I will do. I don't have to like it, or even agree with it, I just have to do it. Right now, I am breaking every rule in the book regarding the transport of mage prisoners because I respect and trust you. Do not convince me I should act otherwise.'

He turned back in his saddle, a knot in his stomach. He hated what he said though he was glad his men had heard his words. It was a while before The Unknown spoke again.

'This secure place. The castle or the jail?'

Darrick raised his eyebrows. 'The jail, I'm afraid. It has a standing mage guard and I can leave some of my own men too.'

'You really are serious about this, aren't you?' said Ilkar, real disappointment in his voice.

Darrick didn't look round. He couldn't face the elf. 'I'm always serious.'

With the markets closed but the inns and eateries open, noisy and crowded, Arlen took on a very different aspect at night. Shore-leave sailors were intent on sinking as much ale and spirits as they could while whores turned brisk business as alcohol loosened purses, drowned promises to those back home and stoked loins with undeniable lust.

Trouble was a fact of life but the town guard patrolled in good numbers and serious problems were rare. So it was that Darrick delivered his charges reluctantly to a jailhouse that was so far empty of inebriates but stank eye-wateringly of those from previous nights.

'Don't let me down,' said Darrick, closing the grilled iron-clad wooden door.

'Can't think of any place I'd rather be,' muttered Denser.

'What do you mean?' asked The Unknown, coming to the grille.

T mean I know you've done nothing wrong but you have to believe that I'm doing this to keep you alive.'

'We don't need your help, General,' said The Unknown. 'And if we want to get out, we will.'

'My men have orders to kill you,' said Darrick. 'Please don't make them carry those out. You have no weapons, no armour and I have mages tuned to the mana spectrum right outside this door. Stay where you are. I'll be back as soon as I can.'

'You're making a very grave mistake,' said Denser. 'I'm the only one who can save her. They'll kill her. And the blood will be on your hands and I will hunt you down.'

'If it turns out that way, I won't defend myself,' said Darrick. He turned and walked away, his doubts resurfacing and shored up not just by The Raven but by the apparent ineptitude of the Dordovans. Once he had spoken to the Earl, there would be much to discuss with the Dordovan lead mage, Gorstan.

The Unknown swung from the grille to the complete contempt of Denser.

'Plan working well is it? I must say, Unknown, this tactical ploy of

yours is something else. Rescue Erienne by getting us locked up. Congratulations. You are responsible for the death of my daughter.' Denser had moved across the ten-foot-square cell as he spoke and now stood half a pace from the big warrior.

'Denser, I need you to let me think for a while, all right?' The Unknown faced the mage calmly, not wanting to go over the same arguments of the last two days.

'About what? Clever ways of getting them to shackle us to the walls?' Denser rattled one of the chains that hung at chest height all around the cell.

The Unknown looked past Denser to Ilkar. The elf had been very quiet since their capture and he knew what the Julatsan was wrestling with. He had always trusted The Unknown to make the right choice but even he had to be struggling to see what being locked in Arlen's jail could possibly do for them. The trouble was, The Unknown didn't know either. He had assumed first that they would remain with the cavalry, under guard in a tent in the camp. Even when they were riding to Arlen, he had been confident they'd be held in the castle and once there, he had no doubt he could persuade the Earl to release them. He was an old friend, after all.

But this. This was not in the plan. They had no weapons, no armour and no way of disguising magic from the guard outside. No way out. And the worst of it was that he had no answer for Denser. The Raven were caught.

'I know it looks bad now…'he began because he had to say something.

''Bad? Denser grabbed the lapels of The Unknown's jacket. 'This place is about to be crawling with Dordovans and my wife has sailed right into the middle of them and she won't even know. They'll have her before she has time to blink and then we can start to count down the number of days my daughter has to live. Gods falling Unknown, we were her only hope. And what did you do? Lead us into bloody prison! Bad. Bugger me, but that's understating our problem more than just a little.'

The Unknown pushed him gently away. 'I'm sorry. I hadn't considered we'd be put here.'

'So what are we going to do?' asked Denser, the pleading back in his face, his anger gone as soon as it had come.

The Unknown shook his head. There was no use saying anything but the truth.

T don't know.'

'Fantastic. I'll make myself comfortable, then.'

'You know, Denser, there's much more to this. You've always thought Dordover would kill her. Now you merely know the method. There's something else. I thought so outside Greythorne. I know so now. You've been rambling on about being the only one who can do something about this mess and now I want to know how. So let's hear it.' The Unknown loomed over Denser.

The Dark Mage stayed seated, looking up at the big warrior. 'Unknown, I don't know what you're talking about.'

The Unknown leaned in. 'Denser, you are an old and dear friend, and you are a mage of supreme talent. But this fist can still shatter your bearded jaw more quickly than you can cast. Now, you're hiding something, it's making you do and say stupid things, and I will find out whether you tell me or I divine it from examining your broken teeth.' The Unknown was not smiling.

Ilkar watched it all from his seat on the opposite side of the stinking cell, wondering how much intent lay behind the threat.

'Have we really been reduced to this?' he muttered. 'Sitting in cells, threatening each other?' No one answered him.

He could see Denser weighing up the threat. After a long pause, Denser waved The Unknown back a little, reached inside his shirt and pulled out some folded pages.

'I translated more of the Prophecy in Xetesk,' he said.

Ilkar stood up. 'Just how many-'

'Six,' replied Denser. He shrugged. 'I'm sorry.'

'And are you going to tell us that your next little secret's nothing important too?'

Denser shook his head, his expression terribly sad. 'No, I'm not. I can save her Ilkar. I can save Lyanna. I can save us all. I really can.'

Ilkar exchanged glances with The Unknown, knowing they were thinking the same thing. They'd heard these words before he cast Dawnthief. Both of them grinned. Ilkar spoke.

'But that's great, isn't it?' he said. T don't understand why you're being so weird about it.'

'There's a side effect,' said Denser. Ilkar went cold all over. T will die.'

General Darrick had ridden back through Arlen with four of his guard, Denser's cold certainty that Dordover would kill Lyanna weighing heavily on him. Arriving at the castle, he had been ushered into a plush fire-lit drawing room and asked to wait, if he cared to. The Earl, he had been told, was at a supper engagement to celebrate the birth of the son of a merchant noble friend and would return before midnight.

After days in a cold wet saddle or shivering in a tent, Darrick couldn't resist the lure of soup, bread and a warm fire to sit by and, after ensuring his guard were fed, despatched one with orders for Izack, and settled in.

Fighting the desire to doze, he reflected that he had fully expected to arrive in Arlen to oversee the provisioning of ships for the voyage back to wherever Erienne had come from in the Ornouth Archipelago. In fact, he'd thought he might even be able to just step aboard and sit with Erienne and help her understand while the elven ship led the Dordovans and Lysternans to the prize they all prayed they could take and control to save Balaia.

But now it seemed the Dordovans had no urgency at all and he would have to organise the whole lot himself. Hardly auspicious evidence of inter-College co-operation.

Riding through the gates of Castle Arlen, he had seen the relaxation among the guards, the smiles of those who handled the horses and what verged on informality from the squire who led them into the keep. It was as if they'd won a great victory and had no idea of the scale of forces converging on them, coming closer with every heartbeat.

Darrick had expected the Earl to be in good spirits when he arrived back from his supper, but instead, Jasto had been cool, though his words were kind enough as he shook the General's hand.

'General Darrick, what a pleasant surprise.'

'My Lord Earl.'

'I've just had a mug of mulled wine delivered. Care to join me?'

Darrick smiled. 'Perhaps a little. All this talk of soup and hot wine, it sounds like winter's upon us.'

'Perhaps it is,' said Arlen, filling two silver goblets, handing one to Darrick and gesturing him to sit on one of the plush chairs that flanked the fire. 'This magic smells bad, so they tell me, and it's making my town cold and wet before its time. It's all about a girl, isn't it?'

'Yes,' said Darrick, interested to find out how much the Earl knew.

'Hmm. And it sounds like we've been lucky here so far. Just wind, rain and a little lightning. Spectacular, too.' He mouth twitched up at the corners. 'We've had hurricanes, the ground eating a town whole. Even Korina has not gone unscathed; the seas have risen and smashed the docks there. So tell me, what is it you are here to do?'

'Find the child,' said Darrick. 'Bring her to safety where she can be controlled before more damage is done to Balaia.'

'And is that what all those Dordovans are doing in the south?'

'Supposedly,' said Darrick. 'But they don't seem to have achieved much aside from erecting their tents.'

'And they've been here over two weeks.' Arlen took a long sip of his wine. 'Now, I've left them alone because they have been the souls of politeness whenever they have come here. They have arranged charter of the Catalan Sun, they have eaten and drunk with my people and said nothing about what they're doing. Strange then, their alliance with the Black Wings, who are nothing but mindless thugs I have had to expel. I understood the Colleges to be united in their hatred of these people.'

T beg your pardon?' Darrick started, unsure he had heard the Earl correctly.

'And I'm even more surprised a man of your apparent honour and standing being linked with such an alliance. I thought Lystern above such mire,' continued Arlen.

'My Lord Earl, I must-'

Arlen raised a hand. 'This is my drawing room and I will speak until I am done. Now I understand you to have in the region of two hundred cavalry to the north west of my town. Take them home, General Darrick. They aren't needed here. I will not suffer College forces here any longer. The Black Wings are gone, your dubious allies are going to sail to Ornouth to find this child, and all will be put right.' He refilled his goblet.

Darrick rose, unable to keep seated. He couldn't believe what he had heard of the Dordovans.

'Earl Arlen, please,' he said, knowing his agitation was showing but not caring. 'The Black Wings. You are saying they are working with the Dordovans?'

It was such a bizarre question, he could barely credit it coming from his lips. Arlen looked at him for a long moment, confusion chasing itself across his face.

'You didn't know?' He pointed at Darrick. 'You didn't know.'

'No, and I'm afraid I cannot leave your town though I promise no harm will come to your people by the hand of a Lysternan,' said Darrick. 'There will be bloodshed and destruction here unless I stop it.'

'My dear General, you're being over-emotional. Ask anyone in the town what happened this morning. I snuffed out the situation. The Black Wings have been expelled, sent away with their tails between their legs. There is no one for you to fight.' He chuckled and shook his head.

Darrick fought to keep his temper. 'My Lord, there is a ship in your harbour. An elven vessel recently arrived.'

Arlen nodded. 'The Ocean Elm. Beautiful, isn't she?'

'You must give me permission to board her immediately.'

'Must?' Arlen raised his eyebrows. 'General Darrick, I am unused to having such demands made of me in my own drawing room.'

'Nevertheless, I stand by my request. Do I have your permission?'

'No, General, you don't.' Arlen rose to his feet. 'And until you can convince me it is a necessity for the security of Arlen, I shall continue to refuse.'

Darrick snapped, leaning across the table, his bulk throwing a shadow across the Earl. 'You want evidence of the need for security, then wait and it will come to you. But Erienne Malanvai, mother of the child who is causing all this destruction, is on that ship and she must be made safe. The only way to do that is to let me on board and have that vessel moved offshore immediately.'

'Step away, General, or I'll have my men take you to the cells I've let you borrow to keep friends of mine under lock and key. You seem so scared of them and perhaps I now know why. Want them

kept from Erienne, do you? And what else are you scared of, the Black Wings? You really think they can get to her through me?'

But Darrick did not step away. Instead he grabbed the Earl by the collars of his expensive silk shirt, ripping it even as he dragged the man halfway across the table. 'The Raven are in jail because I fear for their lives, as I fear for yours,' he said, his voice rising in volume. 'And not from the Black Wings, damn you. Though they are far more dangerous than you seem to realise. You haven't been keeping up with the news from the east.' He shoved the Earl back and the older man grabbed for his chair and sat heavily, his face pale. Darrick found his hands were shaking and it wasn't just with anger. 'Xetesk is coming and unless that ship is gone, the Protectors will rip this town apart to get it.'

Chapter 20

Donetsk stumbled from the Bow Sprit ale-house in the Salt Quarter and began his meandering walk home. It had been a good night, the atmosphere in the Bow unusually light, with people still talking about the Earl's ejection of the Black Wings that morning.

He hated that scum and had followed their sorry procession all the way out of Arlen, before returning to the docks to complete a day's work that dragged on until at last he could get to the Bow for the first of many celebratory drinks.

Now, with midnight approaching, he had been ushered out as the doors closed, pausing only to hug the innkeeper who'd extended his credit another night. In the morning he'd remember the sympathy in his eyes and be irritated as always. For now, though, he needed a walk to help clear his head and bring the memories back to him.

The bad weather was coming back. He could feel a bite in the wind; beyond the mountains to the north, thunder rumbled and out to the south, way down the Arl, lightning flared across the horizon. But for now, the wind was fresh rather than chill and Donetsk decided to walk along the dockside, maybe take in the Ocean Elm at rest before going home to lie alone as he had done every night for the last twelve years. He had heard the whispers in the town, the muttering that magic was bringing the trouble, but he paid it little heed. If that was the case, the Colleges would see them safe. They would know what to do.

With his footsteps echoing off the warehouse walls in the quiet of the night, he took in the stark shapes of cranes, heard the gentle creak of timber on the water and smiled his brief smile.

He had been so proud. He had married a mage who wanted little more than to settle in Arlen, have children and operate her wonderful cleansing and healing charms on those that needed them. Their

daughter was blessed too and when she was ten, he had cried tears of joy as they stepped into a covered wagon for the journey to Julatsa.

They didn't ever arrive. Robbers, the coachman had said but the truth had come to Donetsk later. Black Wings. Witch Hunters working against the survival of the next mage generation.

His smile disappeared as the depression rolled over him, as it always did in the dead of night and always would. No matter how much he worked or drank to forget, there would be a moment every day when it got to him.

Donetsk put a hand to his face and prayed to the sky that the Gods would care for their souls. There was nothing for him now. Not even revenge. He had once craved it but now it seemed unimportant because it would make him feel worse, just bring the pain closer. And the Gods knew that was the last thing he needed.

He stopped and leaned against an old mooring-post, strong but splintering. His heart was racing and for a moment he found it hard to catch his breath. He looked to the ground until it stopped swaying before him, breathed deeply and cursed his muddled, drunken mind that tossed the memories through him like bodies twisting on a flaming pyre. Slowly, he blinked back the tears, swallowed the sudden grief and stared ahead. The Elm was not far and, beyond it past the fish market, his home and bed. Empty but welcoming for all that.

Walking on, he opened his eyes wide and blew out his cheeks, letting the wind blow into his face. He yawned, looking forward to lying down until the dawn birds brought his aching head to reluctant wakefulness. Picking up his pace, he strode past the Ocean Elm, smiling and waving at the guard patrolling the deck. The elf signalled back. Donetsk couldn't tell whether he smiled too but the acknowledgement was enough. He liked elves, most of them. They had magic about them. He could feel it.

He yawned again, tasting the strong smell of fish in his mouth. Strong but secure somehow. He was nearly home. Donetsk walked around the corner of the market, out of sight of the dock and that was when he saw them, issuing from the night, all on foot, their steps slow and quiet, swords or daggers in their hands, metal flashing dully as it caught the remnants of moonlight. He looked hard, still approaching, confusion muddling his head. There were ten, a

dozen, then twenty. First reaction was that they were town guard but a heartbeat later it was clear they were not.

Donetsk kept moving though he knew in the back of his mind it was a foolish act. He did it because they had not seen him but kept their eyes on a far larger prize. The Ocean Elm.

Black Wings. Black Wings walking the dockside when surely they had been expelled. Anger gripped him. An unquenchable force stemming from his longing for his long-dead family and a grievous insult to Arlen, the Earl and the town.

'Hey!' He started running, heedless of risk. He was Donetsk and the people of Arlen looked out for him.

Men looked up, stopped their movement. One in front spread his arms and they all straightened, falling completely quiet. He was cloaked and hooded, his gesture calming the rest and he made no move as Donetsk came forward.

'Get out!' he shouted, flailing his arms towards the road north. 'Get out!' He was breathless, running hard. 'Guard!' He looked around as he came but the street was empty but for him and them. His heart missed a beat. Too late to retreat now. He stumbled to a stop in front of them.

'You're not welcome here. You're expelled. Leave.'

'Come, come,' drawled the hooded man. 'You're a litde the worse for drink and don't know what you're saying. We're friends to everyone but those who deny the truth. Let some of my men escort you quietly home.'

Donetsk shook his head. 'No. You shouldn't be here.' He heaved in a breath and turned his head towards the castle. 'Gu-'

Pain, hot and intense, flared in his chest. He snapped his head back and the hooded man was so close he could feel his breath. The man put a hand around the back of his neck and pulled him closer. The pain spiralled. Donetsk grunted, feeling his strength flooding away.

'You cannot stand in the way of the righteous,' whispered the hooded man in his ear. 'You cannot be allowed to stand between us and the evil. Rest your soul now.'

Donetsk could feel his mouth moving though it felt numb and clumsy.

The man stepped back, withdrawing the long dagger. Donetsk

slumped to his knees, absurdly aware of how dark his blood looked as it slicked the cobbles. He frowned then, as the darkness closed in, disappointed he hadn't made them understand what they'd taken from his life.

Ren'erei had returned to the Ocean Elm well before midnight, after a second fruitless search. She had heard no word that The Raven had arrived in Arlen, though a force of Lysternan cavalry were now camped to the north-west and her anxiety was beginning to grow. The Captain was keen to leave no later than dawn the following morning; any later and they risked hitting the Arl estuary as the tide turned. Not normally any more than an irritation, with the winds as fickle as they had been since Lyanna's awakening began, it could present a real obstacle to escaping into the open ocean.

Erienne had been quite calm and Ren'erei drew strength from her total confidence in The Raven's certain arrival, late though it might be. But now, with her asleep and midnight upon them, her mind was unsettled again and she took a walk on deck, knowing deep inside that all was not right.

Outside, the night was quiet but the wind was starting to bite. She nipped up the ladder to the wheel deck where the dead-hours sentry was standing, elven eyes seeing far into the dark.

'All well, Tryuun?' she said as she recognised her brother.

Tryuun turned and shrugged. 'Well, Erienne's friends haven't shown up but apart from that, I've seen one drunk a little while ago and heard some shouting just now from over there.' He gestured towards the fish market, a low shape on the shore to their left. 'Probably arguing with someone over a woman or another drink, I expect.'

They both chuckled.

'And what about you, Ren'erei. Can't sleep?'

'No. I'm worried about them. The Raven, I mean. There's no word of them in Arlen, the Black Wings have been here and were only thrown out yesterday. There's an edge to the atmosphere.'

'Edge?'

Ren'erei held a hand out, fingers straight 'On one side, people who sense something's going to happen but they don't know why,

and on the other, people who think all their troubles rode out of town with the Black Wings.'

'And what do you think?'

'I think we need to get away from here as fast as possible.' Ren'erei looked towards the fish market; there'd been a movement, probably the drunk or, if she was lucky, someone come to tell her The Raven had arrived. Maybe even the great men themselves.

'Do you-?' she pointed over to the market, wreathed in deep shadows but Tryuun was already drawing his slender elven blade.

'Yes. Ren, wake the ship. It's the Black Wings.'

Tryuun ran to the wheel while Ren'erei slid down the ladder to the main deck. Pushing open the doors aft, she heard the bell sound and Tryuun's voice rise in the call to arms.

'Awake! Awake! Weapons to the decks. Weapons to the decks. Attack from shore. Awake, awake!' He would carry on until the first elves appeared from below.

Ren'erei sprinted down the narrow corridor, slapping her hands on doors as she ran for the captain's cabin.

'Up! Up! Black Wings attacking. Up!' Not pausing to knock, she entered the aft cabin. The Captain was already out of his bunk and pulling on breeches. Ren'erei unhooked his sword belt from its hook on the back of the door and threw it to him along with his leather jerkin.

'How many?'

'Maybe thirty,' said Ren'erei. 'Tryuun's topside. We haven't much time. They came out of the shadows by the fish market.'

'Get Erienne and get over the side. We'll hold them.'

Ren'erei hesitated.

'Go. She's all that's important.'

Ren'erei ran out. Two doors to the left was Erienne's cabin. She half-stifled a scream as Ren burst in, surprising her as she pulled a shirt over her head.

'Erienne it's me, it's all right.'

Her white face appeared out of the neck of the shirt, her movements to straighten it quick and nervous.

'What's going on?' she asked, her voice small. Ren'erei could see in her eyes she already knew.

'Black Wings attacking the ship. We have to get you off but I need

you to remain calm,' she said though she could see it was already too late for that. Erienne was shaking at the very name and suddenly her fingers couldn't button the shirt at her neck.

'What, I-' she trailed off, staring at Ren, her eyes wide and confused, resembling nothing so much as an animal caught in a trap.

Ren'erei picked up her cloak. 'Come on. We have to leave now.'

'Hold on,' she said, her eyes flickering about her, wringing her hands then wiping them down her trousers. 'I need to-'

'Now!' snapped Ren'erei. She stepped forward and grabbed Erienne's arm. 'Be scared later. Now we have to go.'

'Don't let them touch me.'

'Not while I have a drop of blood in my body.' Ren half led, half pulled her into the corridor where the sound of pounding feet and shouted orders echoed through the ship.

Tryuun watched them coming as he rang the bell and shouted. There were well over the thirty he'd guessed when they had first appeared and they came well armed and carrying three long planks as well as grapples and ropes. There would be no time to set sail and cast off. This would go hand to hand. Inside, the fear churned his stomach and his ruined eye burned with remembered pain. But he couldn't let it show.

With the first crew dashing up from aft, he jumped down to the main deck.

'Go forward, make sure they heard,' he ordered the first elf before turning to the others. 'They have gangplanks, they'll have crossbows. We can hold them there, but I must have shields. And you-' he tagged another as he ran past'-bows. We must have bows now.'

The Black Wings ran on, breaking into two groups. The larger, carrying the planks and some with shields, came straight for the Elm. The second, smaller group detached and fell a few yards back, slowing.

'Crossbows!' yelled an elf standing on the wheel deck.

Tryuun looked to shore. So little time. He was disappointed by the sound drilling of the attack but had grudging respect for its organisation. He couldn't rely on any mistakes.

'Get those shields on deck!' he shouted. 'And where are my bows. Gods crying, let's move!'

'Ward!' Crossbow bolts flashed across the deck, most clearing the ship to splash into the water behind it, the odd one burying itself in deck or mast. They had been lucky this time.

Fore and aft, the doors slapped open and at last the whole of the Elm's crew surged on to the deck. Bowmen ran to stations behind all three masts, seeking angles and cover while shields were brought up to the shore rail.

At a shout from the dock, the gangplank carriers moved forward, flanked by shield-bearing swordsmen. Another volley of bolts swept the deck, better focused with lower trajectory, four striking shields, another piercing the leg of a crewman. He dropped shrieking to the deck and was hauled away by two others.

One after the other, the planks were raised and dropped, two bouncing off the rail and sliding sideways, the third crashing right through and lodging fast between splintered struts.

'Get that rotten wood off my deck,' roared the skipper, barging his way to the rail. Elves stooped to shove the loose planks aside as the first elven arrows whipped into the enemy, felling a crossbow-man and two swordsmen. The Black Wings were already running up the third.

'Take them down!' ordered the captain. One plank was shoved off the side, the second was braced from the shore and the third was a disaster unfolding.

The Black Wings had nine crossbowmen standing. Their third volley hammered into the elves guarding the rail by the secure plank. Three went down clutching bolts in stomachs and legs, bones chipped, flesh punctured. Black Wing swordsmen poured up the gangplank, launching themselves into the shield cordon, their cross-bowmen in two ranks releasing regular volleys at the crew of the Elm. It was a well-disciplined charge and even with the elven bows picking off the early runners, the Black Wings made the deck and the hand-to-hand fight commenced.

For Erienne, a blur of noise and shadowy figures, the smell of fear, and the excitement of action left her senses reeling. Her pulse was thumping in her neck, her throat felt fall of bile and her mind fall of visions of blood in a tower, of her murdered sons and of Selik's cruel

smile. She shuddered and closed her eyes in a vain attempt to clear the memories.

Ren'erei went in front of her, shoving others aside as she pulled her on towards the deck. The shouts were louder but there was no ring of steel. Not yet. They burst into the chaotic spread of running feet, flailing limbs and the thrum of bow strings. A pool of blood was spreading across the deck.

Erienne let Ren'erei pull her right and they skirted the wheel deck, heading away from the fight to come and ran up a narrow gangway to the stern of the ship.

'Right,' she said, stopping and turning to her. 'Don't think about it, just get up on the rail and jump over the side. I'll be right behind you. The water's choppy but warm enough. We'll move along the Elm and into the next berth to another vessel. All right?'

Erienne looked at her, eyes completely uncomprehending. Below them, the water which rocked the ship was dark and menacing. She stared down into the blackness, seeing it move, writhing, waiting for her to leap into its clutches and suck her down.

She swallowed hard, fighting back a sweep of nausea. Her head swam.

'Isn't there a boat?' she asked, unable to grasp what she was being asked to do.

'No,' she said sharply. 'There isn't time. Come on, Erienne, please. We'll be fine. I won't let you go.'

The stern of the ship was high and, despite being below the wheel deck, the drop was still almost twenty feet. She could hear the water slapping against the hull and it sounded so distant. She could imagine only too well the cold as she hit its surface and the enveloping as she submerged. And then those hands, waiting to drag her down, to keep her kicking under the surface until her lungs exploded and she had to draw breath but take in only water. Then she would choke, try to gulp more, cough and scream but none would hear her and she would submit to the will of the sea, forever a prisoner of the depths.

'Erienne, what's wrong?' Ren'erei had grabbed her, spinning her shaking body around, the elf s strength surprising.

'I can't,' she managed, her breath ragged. T can't.'

From behind them, shouts rose and the unmistakable ring of swords clashing echoed into the night.

'You've got to,' urged Ren. 'If they take the ship, they'll take you. We cannot risk you.'

'But you'll throw me into the lake instead? No.' She turned away again and grabbed the rail, knuckles whitening.

'What are you scared of?' Ren'erei turned her around, gently this time. 'Please, Erienne. We must do this.'

'I won't be able to see what's beneath me,' she said, sure that Ren wouldn't understand her fear, would think it stupid. 'Please don't make me do this.'

The elf fell silent and Erienne could see her thinking hard. A frown creased her forehead and her eyes narrowed. She shook her head.

'I shouldn't do this but…'

Ren moved fast. Too fast for Erienne to react. The elf bent, picked her up just below the waist and levered her over the side.

The elven bows flexed again but the Black Wings were massing, ignoring their other planks to concentrate on the one that the crew could not shift. They had forced a wedge on the deck and the hand-to-hand fighting grew in intensity. The remaining crossbows fired, a bowman took a bolt clear through the chest, he fell, clutching at the metal, agonised cry unanswered by his friends who were fighting for their ship and their lives.

Tryuun took a blow comfortably on his shield and struck back, meeting solid defence. His opponent came again, punching forward with his shield and sweeping left to right with his blade. Tryuun swayed back, taking one reverse pace, easily evading the push. The enemy moved in but didn't strike again right away.

Tryuun looked left and right: the crew of the Elm was in a loose semi circle around the Black Wings, ten of whom had made the deck with more on the gangplank. A moment's confusion cleared. He knew what they wanted, and he didn't have enough elves to stop them.

Another volley of crossbow bolts and the last bowman fell. A shout rang up from the shore and the Black Wing swordsmen pressed forward but hardest of all to the right-hand side. Engaged

in defence, Tryuun could do nothing as Black Wings smashed into the weakest part of their line. Pushing back his enemy, he winced as he watched a sword crash through the shoulder of an elf, blood fountaining into the sky, splattering the deck.

With the gap made, the Black Wings surged into the space, taking much of the deck while the rest of their number thundered up the gangplank and on to the ship. They would soon be surrounded. Tryuun called to the Captain and forged forward once again.

Ren'erei hurdled the rail immediately after, making barely a ripple as she landed in the water below. But Erienne hadn't fallen. Flailing her arms in panic, she'd caught the rail and hung over the stern of the ship, too scared to drop but unable to pull herself back on board the ship.

There was a roar from the other side of the wheel deck. Below her, Ren'erei called up, her voice, though soft, carrying easily.

'Come on, Erienne, we're losing the ship. You've got to do it now. There's nothing down here but water and safety.'

'I'm coming,' she said, aware her voice must sound feeble. Shutting out the images of the hell beneath the waves, the grasping hands and the world closing in as she drowned, she got ready to loosen her grip.

She felt the touch of steel on her neck and a strong hand gripping her arm.

'Let me save you,' drawled a voice that chilled her blood. 'In fact, I insist.'

She looked up, saw the face above her, and screamed.

Chapter 21

Darrick thundered into the Lysternan camp, shouting for Izack. The commander came running from the darkness. The General leapt from his horse.

Tzack, sound general alarm. I want this camp on horseback and ready to ride faster than you've ever done it before. Get a message to the Dordovans. Warn them away from the Ocean Elm. And if you can find our Dordovan mage guides, tell them they are no longer welcome to ride with us.'

'Sir?' Izack frowned.

'Later. We have to get to the Elm. There's going to be real trouble, I think.'

'Sir!' Izack turned and ran, Darrick watching him order a young soldier to the bell and snap out orders that had men running for the paddocks, had tent flaps flying and set the camp alive with the sounds of neighing and snorting horses, chinking metal and a rising tide of urgent shouts.

Darrick turned and ran for the paddocks for a fresh horse, one of hundreds of men for whom speed was everything.

The paddocks looked like chaos incarnate but Darrick knew different. All the horses were picketed according to precise instruction and every man could find his mount with the very minimum of fuss and delay. Closer to, Izack, who had somehow got there ahead of him, was bellowing orders.

'Mounted cavalry leave the paddock area and form up by squads

at muster point one. One!' He held an arm aloft, fingers straight up,

to indicate to those who couldn't hear him. 'Move Lystern, move!'

Darrick grinned. That would hurt the Dordovan mages, if they had heard it. The mages who shadowed them everywhere with a haughty air and who, he noted, were now conspicuous by their

absence. If they had any remaining sense, they'd have left the camp already.

Dodging wheeling horses, the last saddles being hurriedly fixed and the flare of cloaks as riders swept up and over, Darrick ran on, his reserve mount held by his personal handler. The mare looked perfect in the torchlight, her coat shining, her head steady, bit and bridle polished. Like always. Nodding thanks, the General surged into the saddle, slipped his feet into the stirrups and kicked the horse on, vaulting the paddock fence and galloping to the muster point where he found Izack fretting.

'Not fast enough,' said the senior captain in whom Darrick had utter faith.

'Gods, Izack, I'm glad you don't command me. From a sleeping start, this has got to be some sort of record.'

'Doesn't change the fact we haven't the time to waste.'

Darrick watched his men streaming to the muster, the last already in sight. 'Bring them to order.'

'Listen up,' shouted Izack, both arms up and spread above his head. 'General speaking.' Instant hush fell on the riders.

'This is no charge across open ground to an enemy. Those of you who have ridden to battle with me in years past remember the thrill of the ride. This has to be different. We will be riding through tight streets, past the houses of innocents and there must be no injury to any of them.

'We will ride fast, but we will ride with care. We will keep weapons sheathed until we reach the dockside and the order to arm is issued.

T don't know exactly what we will face on the docks but mind that those you thought of as allies may not be so. We ride to save a child from murderers. The innocent must survive. Lystern, ride on!'

With a roar, the cavalry kicked into action. They ate up the land to Arlen.

Hirad had turned north, leading the wolves away from the southern approaches to Arlen. This was no preordained plan. He'd wanted to be as near the docks as possible but what he had seen from a rise a couple of miles outside Arlen had shaken him.

Riding from a camp where fires still burned brightly and carrying lanterns and torches, hundreds of footmen and riders were streaming

towards the small port. Dordovans, presumably. And to the west of them, running, indefatigable and closing very fast, a dark smudge issued across the wan moonlit countryside.

Silent, awesome, like a monstrous black blanket flowing through the lowlands, they came. They had no need of lanterns, they had no need of horses. Or rest. And when they arrived in Arlen all hell would break loose. The Protectors. Once set on their purpose, they would carry out their orders ruthlessly, putting down any that got in their way.

Hirad knew a man who might be able to stop them but didn't know where he was. Held somewhere. Perhaps with the Dordovans but he'd never get through there until it was too late. Heading a couple of miles to the north of Arlen, where more campfires burned, was the chance he'd have to take.

With Thraun and the pack trailing him, he rode into the periphery. The camp was all but deserted, with signs of a hasty exit in evidence. Tent flaps not secured, fires untended and dying down, weapon stands empty, some lying on their sides. He could see only two men, not so much guards as camp minders, standing by the central fire over which hung various steaming pots. Their spears were jammed into the ground and the duo warmed their hands over the flames as the wind whipped at their cloaks.

Knowing he couldn't hope to persuade Thraun to wait, he decided to ride straight in, trusting that the wolves wouldn't attack unless he did and knowing that the pack of five behind him was more likely to secure quick response.

The soldiers didn't see or hear him until very late, the wind stealing sound as it roared across the countryside, the harsh firelight making shadows heavy. When they did, their reactions were both comical and predictable, grabbing their spears but both moving back, open-mouthed at what they were seeing. They glanced at each other, weighing up what looked a hopeless situation, knowing they could not run nor hope to win a fight.

Hirad pulled up his horse and slid off, sensing rather than hearing Thraun move with him into the warmth of the fire. The soldiers said nothing, staring past him at the wolves.

'Impressive, aren't they?' he said, hand resting on his sword guard. 'But not dangerous. Not necessarily.'

'You want something?' ventured one.

'Good guess. The Raven. Where are they?'

Recognition flashed across both their faces, frowns deepening nevertheless.

'We were told you'd been killed,' said the second soldier, both of them young men. 'By wolves.' He gestured at Thraun.

'Whoever told you was wrong. Now, The Raven.'

'They were taken to Arlen. To the jail.'

Hirad nodded. The Raven jailed. An insult but one he had to admit he'd triggered. He swallowed rising anger,

'And Darrick? Come to that, all the cavalry? Assuming you're the Lysternans I think you are. This camp is too well pitched to be Dordovan.'

'There's trouble in Arlen.' They looked from one to another. Hirad understood. They were, after all, Darrick's men.

'Look, I know you have your orders but, no matter how it may seem, we all want the same thing in the end. Tell me. I'm not about to announce to the General where I got my information but it might just help me save a lot of your friends and I do not have the time to argue with you.'

There was a moment's hesitation before one shrugged and the other spoke.

'The cavalry have ridden to the docks. The General thinks there's been a betrayal. He's gone to secure the Ocean Elm.''

'And that's it?'

Both of them nodded but Hirad hardly waited to see. He turned and grabbed the reins of his horse, speaking as he swung into the saddle.

'Gods burning, but it's much worse than that. The Dordovans are coming in from the south and the Protectors are right behind them. If you can get a message to Darrick, do it. You know where I'm headed.' He kicked the horse's flanks. 'And thank you. Thraun, come on.' He pushed the horse to a gallop, the wolves following in his wake.

Ren'erei wanted to shout, wanted to let Erienne know she'd seen and would do everything in her power to get the mage from Selik

but knew she couldn't afford to. It would only cost her own freedom and perhaps her life.

The Black Wings had taken the Elm so quickly and Ren'erei cursed herself for Erienne's predicament. But she'd been so scared and it had seemed the only way. She listened to her cries as Selik dragged her back to the main deck and prayed Tryuun had survived to watch over her. Poor Tryuun, whose fear must be almost as great as Erienne's.

But Ren'erei had more pressing matters that demanded her attention. The water was cold and, whipped up by the fast strengthening wind, spray stung her face. Her leather was heavy on her body and her sword, though light and slung down her back for balance, merely added to her struggles to keep afloat as she trod water. She had to think fast, weighing up the two available options.

Though slightly overhung in the classic elven style, the stern of the Ocean Elm could be climbed if, like all the crew, you knew how. But what purpose that would serve was difficult to judge. She was hardly going to liberate the ship single-handed and, besides hiding herself and waiting for some vague opportunity, would otherwise only provide company for Erienne as just another prisoner.

So, Ren'erei struck out, away from the stern of the Elm, aiming to get to shore in the safe harbour occupied by the fishing fleet. At least there, she would be out of sight of the Black Wings and anyway, their plan was obvious. Erienne and the Elm were a means to reach their ultimate prize; Lyanna.

The question was, how much more did they know? Enough to take the Elm with such apparent ease was shocking enough but Ren'erei had to assume they had some knowledge of their destination, at least that it lay south. After all, the degeneration of the Al-Drechar's shield was the reason the Elm was here at all and a smart mage would be able to sense the interruptions in the mana flow.

Ren'erei swam a powerful front crawl, her economical strokes moving her smoothly through the choppy water. Ahead of her, the fishers' harbour loomed, a stone and wood structure that had provided placid waters for the relatively flimsy skiffs and smacks for as long as Arlen had been built. Even on the calm lake waters, the winds whipping round the mountains brought squalls and storms and, periodically, the fleet needed a place to hide.

She swam to the end of the man-made promontory and opted to swim to shore as opposed to walking along the shingle on the lee side of the harbour wall. This wind was no respecter of land conditions and its chill would cut her to the bone as soon as she emerged from the water. Indeed, it crossed her mind as she watched the pitching fishing vessels that many of their owners would be spending a sleepless night, praying to the Gods of the Seas that their boats were undamaged come dawn.

In the last fifty yards, Ren'erei's mind turned back to Erienne and the Elm. There was no way they would refuse passage to their captors; nor even delay them for too long – Lyanna's Night was upon her; and her and Balaia's fate lay in Erienne, Denser and Ilkar, at least, coming to Herendeneth quickly to provide support for the ailing and weakening Al-Drechar. But that same need for haste brought the Black Wings closer too, and their solution could not be allowed. The One had to survive.

But the Black Wings had a problem. They needed the elves to see them safely through the waters around Herendeneth and the elves wanted Erienne alive. That meant Selik wasn't going to be in total command, which gave them all a chance. So, the second option was the only one really open to Ren'erei. Find The Raven and take a ship to follow, if not beat, the Ocean Elm to Herendeneth. There, they would have to hope they had the strength to prevail.

But as she pulled herself ashore, shivering in the sudden cold of the windswept harbour-side, Ren'erei heard elven orders barked across the echoing docks, heard the thundering of hooves coming closer with every heartbeat and saw moving lights approaching from the south-west. She ran north behind the fish market and towards Centenary Square, wondering if it wasn't all going to be taken out of her hands anyway. No matter, she had to try and that meant finding The Raven.

Erienne soon lost even the strength to scream and Selik had just stood, smiled his twisted smile and let her exhaust herself. Now, the fear, loathing and hopelessness swamped her, threatening to turn her legs boneless. There was a dreadful pain growing in her gut, a twisting agony of encroaching terror that blossomed and swept nausea through her whole body, leaving her shaking, tears streaming

across her cheeks. Her throat was raw from the screams and she didn't resist as Selik pulled her back towards the unnatural quiet that had engulfed the Elm.

Selik walked ahead, strong arm on the neck of her shirt, fingers pushing at the skin of her throat, threat in every kneading movement. At the main deck, he thrust her forward into torchlight and the cheers of Black Wings soldiers. She stumbled but didn't fall, turning to take in everything she could.

Blood-spattered timbers, elves with heads bowed and under sword guard, bodies lying where they had fallen, some still moving and one nearby clutching at the base of a crossbow bolt buried high in his leg. His slim face was white and strained and his attempts to stop the steady bloodflow were watched dispassionately by the Black Wings. And there she stood, still unable to cast a spell to heal him because of the damage Lyanna had inflicted on her.

There were lights on other ships now as crews woke to the trouble in the docks and she hoped that they and those who must have heard in the town would come and help. It was pretty much all she had to cling on to. That and Ren'erei doing the right thing and not trying to get back on board without help.

Erienne dragged herself to face Selik, summoning up her last dregs of self-belief.

'You've got what you want. Now help these wounded before their deaths add to those already on your vile hands.'

Selik paced towards her, shaking his head. 'Tut, tut, Erienne. Hardly in a position to make demands, don't you think?'

'You want a crew to sail this ship, don't you?' Erienne could hear the words spilling from her mouth but didn't recognise the voice as hers. It quavered, with none of its usual confidence and strength. She could barely focus on Selik standing before her, his ruined face and laboured breathing testament to what she had done to him. Yet he lived, and the bile in her throat was all the more bitter that she hadn't killed him those years ago.

And in his eyes, she saw hate. Deep, brooding and cancerous hate. It came from him in waves. He had pursued her for more than six years, that much was now obvious; and safe in Dordover's College for much of that time she'd never given it a second thought. Why would she? Gods she'd killed him, surely? But there he stood, her

nemesis, with complete power over her, and it was that which truly terrified her. Because it gave the Black Wings the ability to destroy her family and her life a second time, and the very thought set her heart lurching painfully in her chest. Because she could see no way to stop them. Stop him.

What choice did she have? He would never let her go now, and to refuse to show Selik the way would condemn Lyanna and perhaps Balaia to death, just as agreeing to do so would. She was trapped and the only option was to buy time while leading Lyanna's executioners directly to her. She swallowed hard, feeling close to collapse, her vision defocusing, threatening to unbalance her.

'Well?' she managed.

'I have no intention of letting them die, Erienne,' he said. He snapped his fingers at one of his men and waved him towards one of the stricken elves whose blood loss was surely critical. 'But far more efficient help, of a more, shall I say, mana-led nature, will soon be arriving.'

'What?' And it all crashed through Erienne's head once again. She was transported back to her time as a prisoner in Black Wings Castle. There she had as much as been told that traitor mages helped the Witch Hunters. She had felt sick at the thought then, now it just added to her overwhelming feeling of hopelessness.

Selik smiled, his slack mouth stretching unnaturally. 'Don't think of it as betrayal, lady mage, consider it help. After all, we all want an end to this mess which the uncontrolled magic of your daughter has placed us in.'

Erienne surged at him, fingers hooking to claw the skin from his hideous face, but he caught her easily.

'Don't you touch her,' she grated. 'Don't you lay a finger on her.'

'I? Erienne, you misunderstand me. I have no intention of touching a hair on her undoubtedly pretty head. Indeed no Black Wing will do so. Others know what is best for the mana creature you spawned and I am happy to leave it in their capable hands.' He pulled her very close, his fingers digging hard into her upper arms.

'Want to know why I'm still alive? Even after your spell froze my flesh? Your Raven friends dumped my body in the cellars to rot with my companions. They should have left me to burn in the tower, lying in the warm blood of your sons.'

At the mention of her boys, she hunched inwards, seeing their slaughter as if it were yesterday. Their sightless eyes, their torn throats and the red. The dark red that was everywhere.

'Well, I haven't finished with the Malanvai family just yet. There's one left I want. You. And now you are mine for as long as I choose to let you live. And when you are dead, I can live again without your cursed shadow over me. Think on it, Erienne Malanvai and savour your last days.'

He spun her around to face the ship. It was quiet and through her tear-fogged vision she could see every face staring at her. One thought thundered again and again through her mind. She was lost but Lyanna must survive.

T pity you, Selik, still a lackey for others better than you,' she said through a choked throat. 'Because if you ever set foot where my daughter is living, the Al-Drechar will snuff you out as easily as you might squash a fly. Their power is like nothing you have even begun to conceive.'

Selik began pushing her towards the aft doors below.

'If that's what you believe. But my sources have seen the flares in the mana and say they are distressed in the extreme. And clearly, your precious Al-Drechar are not powerful enough to control your daughter. Still, I think it's time you and I had a private word about them.'

The aft doors were opened for them as he marched her over. She lifted her head and looked straight into the eyes of the Captain of the Elm, whose humiliation was etched in his face. Behind him, a Black Wing held a sword to the elf's throat. He pushed it aside.

'Harm her in any way and you will reach nowhere but the bottom of the Southern Ocean.'

'Don't presume to threaten me, elf. You are beaten.' Selik didn't stop moving.

'It's not a threat. Without us, you can't navigate your way and you know it. And if Erienne is harmed, we will die before taking you a league further. That is a promise.'

Now Selik stopped, thrusting Erienne towards a Black Wing. 'Take her below. Her own cabin if it's down there. Now you, elf. With you, I'll make this bargain. While that bitch is on this ship, no physical harm will come to her. But if you dare to speak to me like

that again, I will bleed you in front of all your crew before feeding you to the sharks. And by my reckoning there'll still be enough of you left to sail. Understand?'

Erienne's last view was of Selik pushing the Captain in the chest, a contemptuous gesture for the proud elf that set her gorge rising. As she was ushered below, she heard his voice again.

'Now, ready your crew and this ship to sail on my order. When our guests arrive we will be leaving immediately. Ornouth is a long way, isn't it, Captain, and I do so hate delay.'

Erienne burst into tears. He knew so much but how did he know? And which College was it that would betray her? Entering her cabin to await Selik, she feared she already knew the answers.

Chapter 22

The Unknown sat with his face in his hands, trying not to believe what he was feeling. There was a closeness in his skull, a pressure he hadn't felt for years. He'd known they were marching before The Raven had been caught in the forest by Darrick but he hadn't dreamed they could make Arlen so fast. However, the Protectors should never be underestimated.

He snapped his head up. Ilkar was watching him.

'You all right, Unknown?'

'They're here,' he replied, rising.

'Who?' asked Denser from the opposite corner of the cell, only just visible in the light of the single guttering torch. He had been quiet since his admission, and their incarceration had gone on for hours now. Night was full and it seemed to The Unknown that he'd lost the will to act. It was as if he was beaten.

'The Protectors.' The Unknown strode over to the door and hammered on it with the heel of his palm. 'Hey. Get over here.' He continued the hammering until a middle-aged and scowling face appeared at the grille.

'Do you have to?' It was the night-watch jailer, a man who refused to give his name but was affable enough, given his prisoners' identity, and irritated by the intrusion of the Lysternan soldiers and mage seated just outside in the guardroom.

'Yes. Get me one of the others.'

'Not good enough for you, am I?'

'No, it's just not your problem. Or it shouldn't be. So, please…'

'Well, what is it? After all, I am in charge here.'

The Unknown grabbed one of the bars on the grille, the jailer flinching.

'There's going to be trouble in the town. Very soon.'

'Some sort of clairvoyant are you?'

'Some sort,' agreed The Unknown shortly. 'Look, I don't have time to debate this. Just get me one of the others.'

'Not going to try anything funny are you?' The jailer sucked his lip.

The Unknown snapped. 'Yes, I'm going to tell a few jokes. Gods, man, just get me a Lysternan. Now!' Another slap on the door which echoed through the jail.

The jailer backed off. 'I'm only doing this because you shouldn't be in here.'

'Thank you.' The Unknown watched him go. He felt a hand on his shoulder.

'Feeling better now?' asked Ilkar.

The Unknown turned his head, fighting down the smile that Ilkar's expression had prompted.

'This is serious. Darrick didn't believe what I said. I think he thinks he can talk to Xetesk, take on the Protectors if he has to, or take Erienne before they get here. But the fact we're still stuck in this stinking hole means he hasn't persuaded Arlen to let him board the ship yet. And now the Protectors are close.'

'How close?' asked Denser.

'I'm not sure,' said The Unknown. 'But near the town. They're in battle psyche, that's why I could sense them. It's loud.'

'Perhaps we should let them to do their job,' said Denser. 'Erienne'U be safer with them.'

'And never mind Lysternan casualties?' asked Ilkar. 'They're as much victims of Dordovan manipulation as we are. And that's not to mention innocents in Arlen.'

'Lystern has sided with Dordover,' replied Denser, his voice still coming out of the shadows.

'And what sort of choice do you really think they were given?' said Ilkar.

'We can't just sit here and let Darrick blunder into them,' said The Unknown. 'Well, I can't. You do what you like, Denser.'

'It'll be the best way to sort this out, I'm sure,' muttered the Xeteskian. 'The quickest way for me to get back to my wife.'

The Unknown ignored him and swung back to the door ready to

shout but instead finding the mage standing there. He was a young man, a great talent according to Darrick. Tall, muscular and fit, as would be expected of one of the General's cavalrymen. Right now, he was looking more than a little scared.

'Been standing there long?' asked The Unknown.

'Long enough, I think. What will the General be blundering into again?'

'The Protectors,' said The Unknown. 'And you need to let us out right now.'

'Because you'll do what?'

'Perhaps stop a slaughter.' The Unknown watched the mage fail to take it in, and felt his temper fraying. 'Oh, not you too. Look, the Protectors are after Erienne as well, and they aren't going to be talked out of it by Darrick. And despite his admirable confidence and the equally admirable discipline of his cavalry, they will be massacred. Believe me.'

'We are already taking steps. The General is on his way to the docks now and our Dordovan allies are also on their way.'

'So he knows the Protectors' arrival is imminent, does he?'

The mage tried to smile. 'No, but we'll be fully in position by the time they arrive and ready to talk to their masters. We'll have retaken the ship and-' The mage stopped, biting his lip, but the slip had been made and he found himself immediately confronted by all three imprisoned Raven, The Unknown at their centre.

'What do you mean, "retaken"?' demanded Denser, his eyes full of fire once again. 'Who has the ship at the moment?'

'It's a temporary situation,' said the mage.

'Who?' The Unknown kicked the base of the door which shuddered ominously.

'We think…' The mage paused, weighing up the admission in his mind. 'A small force of Black Wings have-'

The Unknown silenced him with a look and waved a finger. Beside him, Ilkar swore.

T bloody knew it,' said Denser. T bloody knew it.'

'Let us out. Right now,' said The Unknown, his voice dreadfully calm, belying the growing rage he felt inside. There, all was turmoil and in his head flashed visions of a three-way fight for the Elm which

could only end one way; and he did not want Erienne's blood slicking Arlen Bay.

'Those bastards, those bastards.' Denser had walked away from the door and was pacing a tight circle. 'Oh dear Gods, they've got her again.'

The words went straight through The Unknown and his heart went out to Erienne, almost certainly in the hands of her worst nightmare for the second time.

'Please, Unknown.' Denser's voice behind him was little more than a desperate gasp, all its earlier vitriol gone. 'You have to get us out of here.'

The Unknown still held the dithering mage's gaze.

'Now you listen to me very carefully. On two counts now. Darrick doesn't know what he's dealing with and we do. The Black Wings won't let him just storm the ship. They'll kill Erienne before giving her up. Believe me, we've seen their handiwork before and it was Erienne's sons that were the victims.

'This is too big for him, and it's too big for you. So let us out, give me a blade and we can prevent this getting completely out of hand.'

'I can't do that,' said the mage. 'The General was very specific'

'Damn his bloody specifics!' shouted The Unknown, fists pounding the timbers of the door with each word. 'They'll be the death of him. And you if you don't let us go.'

T can't,' he said, his tone all but beseeching.

'Then we'll do it without you,' said The Unknown. 'This folly has gone on long enough.'

'We have orders to kill you if you attempt to break out.'

'Try it. Now get lost or unlock this door.' The Unknown turned away and beckoned Denser and Ilkar to him. But his words were lost as a howl split the air, followed by a cry and the clash of swords.

'Gods falling, what's that?' Denser said, startled from his misery.

The Unknown smiled. 'Be ready.'

'For what?' asked Ilkar.

'Just be ready.'

Hirad knew exactly where Aden's jail was situated. He'd spent a night there years ago after a brawl in an inn off Centenary Square.

He'd won the fight but the cell bed and stench hadn't been worth the bruising.

It was gone midnight when he galloped into the town past a guard who'd begun to protest before seeing the wolves trailing in his wake and leaping aside, yelling to his companions to get word to Arlen.

'You're already too late,' said Hirad to himself, his horse thundering past the Merchant Quarter on the way to the Salt Quarter. The streets were quiet; only the inebriates who'd left Centenary Square after closing were shambling around as he reined in at the jail house.

It was a squat stone building set between warehouses and, he knew, with cells overlooking a walled courtyard that doubled as paddock and exercise area for any longer-term prisoners of the two small cells.

There were three horses tethered outside, all pulling desperately at their reins, whinnies echoing, hooves clattering as they tried to escape the wolves suddenly coming at them.

Hirad didn't have time.

'Thraun!' he roared, jumping from his saddle and drawing his sword. It felt good in his hands. The wolf seemed to understand, howling to deflect the pack from their feast. They bunched around him, all eyes on the human.

'Time for some fun,' said the barbarian, striding to the door which opened as he approached. A guard appeared in the light that washed over the dirty cobblestones.

'One chance,' said Hirad. T need The Raven now.'

'I can't,' said the guard, raising his blade.

'As you wish.' Hirad swept his sword up and right as he ran forward, meeting a sturdy block in a shower of sparks. The guard fell back, a seasoned soldier by the looks.