In the thrilling conclusion to the “deftly and originally executed” (Booklist) New York Times bestselling trilogy, Vaelin Al Sorna must help his Queen reclaim her Realm. Only his enemy has a dangerous new collaborator, one with powers darker than Vaelin has ever encountered...
“The Ally is there, but only ever as a shadow, unexplained catastrophe or murder committed at the behest of a dark vengeful spirit. Sorting truth from myth is often a fruitless task.”
After fighting back from the brink of death, Queen Lyrna is determined to repel the invading Volarian army and regain the independence of the Unified Realm. Except, to accomplish her goals, she must do more than rally her loyal supporters. She must align herself with forces she once found repugnant—those who possess the strange and varied gifts of the Dark—and take the war to her enemy’s doorstep.
Victory rests on the shoulders of Vaelin Al Sorna, now named Battle Lord of the Realm. However, his path is riddled with difficulties. For the Volarian enemy has a new weapon on their side, one that Vaelin must destroy if the Realm is to prevail—a mysterious Ally with the ability to grant unnaturally long life to her servants. And defeating one who cannot be killed is a nearly impossible feat, especially when Vaelin’s blood-song, the mystical power which has made him the epic fighter he is, has gone ominously silent...
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Anthony Ryan is the author of the Raven’s Shadow novels, including Blood Song, Tower Lord, and Queen of Fire. He lives in London, where he is at work on his next book.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The raven knows no rest
His shadow ceaseless
Upon the earth.
—SEORDAH POEM, AUTHOR UNKNOWN
He was waiting on the wharf when I arrived with my prisoner in tow. Standing tall as always, angular features turned towards the horizon, his cloak wrapped tight against the seaward chill. My initial puzzlement at finding him here faded as I caught sight of the ship leaving the harbour, a narrow-hulled vessel of Meldenean design, sent to the Northern Reaches with an important passenger, one I knew he would miss greatly.
He turned to regard my approach, a tight, wary smile on his lips, and I realised he had lingered to witness my own departure. Our interactions since the relief of Alltor had been brief, somewhat terse in truth, distracted as he was by the ceaseless tumult of war and whatever malady had plagued him in the aftermath of his already legendary charge. The fatigue that turned his once-strong features into a sagging mask of red-eyed lethargy and his strident if coarse voice into a droning rasp. It had faded now, I could see. Recent battle seemed to have restored him somehow, making me wonder if he found some form of sustenance in blood and horror.
“My lord,” he greeted me with a sketch of a formal bow then nodded at my prisoner. “My lady.”
Fornella returned the nod but gave no response, regarding him without expression as the salt-tinged wind tossed her hair, a single streak of grey visible amidst the reddish brown tumult.
“I have already received ample instruction . . .” I began but Al Sorna waved a hand.
“I come to offer no instruction, my lord,” he said. “Merely a farewell and my best wishes for your endeavour.”
I watched his expression as he waited for a response, the wary smile smaller now, his black eyes guarded. Can it be? I wondered. Is he seeking forgiveness?
“Thank you, my lord,” I replied, hefting the heavy canvas bag to my shoulder. “But we have a ship to board before the morning tide.”
“Of course. I’ll accompany you.”
“We don’t need a guard,” Fornella said, her tone harsh. “I’ve given my word, tested by your truth-teller.” It was true, we walked alone this morning without escort or formality. The reborn court of the Unified Realm had little time or inclination for ceremony.
“Indeed, Honoured Citizen,” Al Sorna replied in clumsy and heavily accented Volarian. “But I have . . . words for this grey-clad.”
“Free man,” I corrected before switching to Realm Tongue. “Grey-clad denotes financial rather than social status.”
“Ah, quite so, my lord.” He stepped aside and gestured for me to continue along the wharf to the quay where the ships waited, a long line of Meldenean war galleys and traders. Naturally, our vessel was moored at the farthest end of the line.
“Brother Harlick’s gift?” he enquired, nodding at the bag I carried.
“Yes,” I said. “Fifteen of the oldest books in the Great Library, those I could identify as useful in the small time allowed in his archives.” In truth I had expected some argument from the brother librarian when I made my request, but the man had simply given an affable nod and barked an imperious order at one of his attendants to gather the requisite scrolls from the wagons that served as his movable library. I knew his apparent indifference to this theft was at least partly derived from his gift; he could always simply pen fresh copies, and openly since the need to keep such things hidden had disappeared. The Dark, as they called it, now revealed and discussed openly, the Gifted free to practice their talents without fear of swift torment and execution, at least in theory. I could see the lingering fear on the faces of those not so talented, and the envy, making me wonder if perhaps the wisest course would have been to keep the Gifted in the shadows. But could shadows ever linger in the fires of war?
“You really think he’s in there somewhere?” Al Sorna asked as we walked towards the ship. “The Ally?”
“An influence so malign and powerful is bound to leave traces,” I said. “A historian is a hunter, my lord. Seeking out signs in the undergrowth of correspondence and memoir, tracking prey via the spoor of memory. I don’t expect to find a complete and unbiased history of this thing, be it beast or man or neither. But it will have left traces, and I intend to hunt it down.”
“Then you should have a care, for I suspect it will not be blind to your attentions.”
“Nor yours.” I paused, glancing at his profile, seeing a troubled brow. Where is your certainty? I thought. It had been one of his most aggravating traits during our previous association; the implacable, unshakeable surety. Now there was just a grim and troubled man weighed down by the prospect of trials to come.
“Taking the capital will not be easy,” I said. “The wisest course would be to wait here, gathering strength until the spring.”
“Wisdom and war are rare bedfellows, my lord. And you’re right, the Ally will most likely see it all.”
“Then why . . . ?”
“We cannot simply linger here and wait for the next blow to fall. Any more than your Emperor can expect to remain immune from the Ally’s attentions.”
“I am fully aware of what message to deliver to the Emperor.” The leather satchel bearing the sealed scroll was heavy about my neck, heavier even than my bag of books, though only a fraction of its weight. Just ink, paper and wax, I thought. Yet it could send millions to war.
We halted as we came to the ship, a broad-beamed Meldenean trader, her planking still scorched from the Battle of the Teeth, rails bearing the scars of blades and arrowheads, patches on the sails furled to the rigging. My eyes were also drawn to the serpentine figurehead which, despite having lost much of its lower jaw, retained a certain familiarity. My gaze found the captain at the head of the gangplank, thick arms crossed, his face set in a glower, a face I recalled all too well.
“Did you, perhaps, have a hand in choosing this vessel, my lord?” I asked Al Sorna.
There was a faint glimmer of amusement in his gaze as he shrugged. “Merely a coincidence, I assure you.”
I sighed, finding I had scant room in my heart for yet more resentment, turning to Fornella and extending a hand to the ship. “Honoured Citizen. I’ll join you in a moment.”
I saw Al Sorna’s eyes track her as she walked the plank to the ship, moving with her customary grace born of centuries-long practice. “Despite what the truth-teller said,” he told me, “I caution you, don’t trust her.”
“I was her slave long enough to learn that lesson myself.” I hefted my bag once again and nodded a farewell. “By your leave, my lord. I look forward to hearing the tale of your campaign . . .”
“You were right,” he broke in, his wary smile returned once more. “The story I told you. There were some . . . omissions.”
“I think you mean lies.”
“Yes.” His smile faded. “But I believe you have earned the truth. I have scant notion of how this war will end, or even if either of us will live to see its end. But if we do, find me again and I promise you’ll have nothing but truth from me.”
I should have been grateful, I know. For what scholar does not hunger for truth from one such as he? But there was no gratitude as I looked into his gaze, no thought save a name. Seliesen.
“I used to wonder,” I said, “how a man who had taken so many lives could walk the earth unburdened by guilt. How does a killer bear the weight of killing and still call himself human? But we are both killers now, and I find it burdens my soul not at all. But then, I killed an evil man, and you a good one.”
I turned away and strode up the gangplank without a backward glance.
She was woken by the snow. Soft, icy caresses on her skin, tingling and not unpleasant, calling her from the darkness. It took a moment for memory to return and when it did she found it a fractured thing, fear and confusion reigning amidst a welter of image and sensation. Iltis roaring as he charged, sword bared . . . The ring of steel . . . A hard fist across her mouth . . . And the man . . . The man who burned her.
She opened her mouth to scream but could issue no more than a whimper, her subsequent gasp dragging chilled air into her lungs. It seemed as if she would freeze from the inside out and she felt it strange she should die from cold after being burned so fiercely.
Iltis! The name was a sudden shout in her mind. Iltis is wounded! Perhaps dead!
She willed herself to move, to get up, call for a healer with all the power her queen’s voice could muster. Instead she barely managed to groan and flutter her hands a little as the snow continued its frosty caress. Rage burned in her, banishing the chill from her lungs. I need to move! I will not die in the snow like a forgotten dog! Drawing jagged air into her lungs again she screamed, putting every ounce of strength and rage into the sound. A fierce scream, a queen’s scream . . . but no more than a rattle of air through teeth when it reached her ears, along with something else.
“. . . better be a good reason for this, Sergeant,” a hard voice was saying, strong, clipped and precise. A soldier’s voice, accompanied by the crunch of boots in snow.
“Tower Lord said he was to be minded well, Captain,” another voice, coloured by a Nilsaelin accent, older and not quite so strong. “Treated with respect, he said. Like the other folk from the Point. And he seems fairly insistent, much as I can gather from a fellow that don’t talk above two words at a time.”
“Folk from the Point,” the captain said in a softer tone. “To whom we have to thank for a snowfall at summer’s end . . .” His voice faded and the crunch of boots became the tumult of running men.
“Highness!” Hands on her shoulders, soft but insistent. “Highness! Are you hurt? Do you hear me?”
Lyrna could only groan, feeling her hands flutter once more.
“Captain Adal,” the sergeant’s voice, choked and broken by fear. “Her face . . .”
“I have eyes, Sergeant! Fetch the Tower Lord to Brother Kehlan’s tent! And bring men to carry his lordship. Say nothing of the queen. You understand me?”
More boots on the snow then she felt something warm and soft cover her from head to foot, her benumbed back and legs tingling as hands lifted her. She fell into darkness, untroubled by the jolting run of the captain as he bore her away.
· · ·
He was there when she awoke the second time, her eyes tracking over a canvas roof to find him sitting beside the cot where they had placed her. Although his eyes were tinged with the same red haze she had seen the day before, his gaze was brighter now, focused, the black eyes seeming to bore into the skin of her face as he leaned forward. He burned me . . . She closed her eyes and turned away from him, stilling the sob in her chest, swallowing and composing herself before she turned back, finding him kneeling beside the cot, head lowered.
“Highness,” he said.
She swallowed and tried to speak, expecting only a faint croak to emerge but surprising herself with a somewhat strident response. “My lord Al Sorna. I trust the morning finds you well.”
His head came up, the expression sharp, the black eyes still fierce. She wanted to tell him it was rude to stare, at a queen no less, but knew it would sound churlish. Every word must be chosen, her father had said once. Each word spoken by the one who wears the crown will be remembered, often misremembered. So, my daughter, if ever you find this band of gold weighing upon your brow, never utter a single word that should not be heard from the mouth of a queen.
“Quite . . . well, Highness,” Vaelin responded, remaining on one knee as she stirred herself. To her surprise she found she could move easily. Someone had removed the dress and cloak she wore the night before, replacing the finery with a simple cotton shift that covered her from neck to ankle, the fabric pleasing on her skin as she sat and swung her legs off the cot to sit up. “Please rise,” she told Vaelin. “I find ceremony tedious at the best of times, and of scant use when we’re alone.”
He stood, eyes never leaving her face. There was a hesitancy to his movements, a slight tremble to his hands as he reached for his chair, pulling it closer to sit opposite her, his face no more than an arm’s length away, the closest they had been since that day at the Summertide Fair.
“Lord Iltis?” she asked.
“Wounded but alive,” he said. “Also frostbitten in the small finger of his left hand. Brother Kehlan was obliged to take it off. He barely seemed to notice and it was quite the struggle to stop him charging forth to look for you.”
“I was fortunate in the friends fate contrived to place in my path.” She paused, drawing breath and courage for what she had to say next. “We had little chance to talk yesterday. I know you must have many questions.”
“One in particular. There are many wild tales abroad regarding your . . . injuries. They say it happened when Malcius died.”
“Malcius was murdered, by Brother Frentis of the Sixth Order. I killed him for it.”
She saw the shock hit home as if she had slashed him with an ice-cold blade. His gaze became distant as he slumped forward, speaking in a whisper. “Wanna be a brother . . . Wanna be like you.”
“There was a woman with him,” Lyrna went on. “Like your brother, playing the role of an escaped slave, come all the way across the ocean with a grand tale of adventure. From her reaction when I killed him, I suspect their bond was close. Love can drive us to extremes.”
He closed his eyes, controlling his grief with a shudder. “Killing him would not have been easy.”
“My time with the Lonak left me skilled in certain areas. I saw him fall. After that . . .” The fire raked across her skin like the claws of a wildcat, filling her throat with the stench of her own flesh burning . . . “It seems my memory has some limits after all.”
Vaelin sat in silence for what seemed an age, lost in thought, his face even more gaunt than before. “It told me he was coming back,” he murmured finally. “But not for this.”
“I had expected you to request a different explanation,” she said, keen to draw him back from whatever memories clouded his mind. “For the way you were treated at Linesh.”
“No, Highness.” He shook his head. “I assure you I require no explanation at all.”
“The war was a grievous error. They had Malcius . . . My father’s judgement was . . . impaired.”
“I doubt King Janus’s judgement was capable of impairment, Highness. And as for...
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