There were still echoes of sporadic fighting, but night was drawing in fast. Fodrun, finding himself suddenly alone in the middle of what had until less than an hour ago been a fierce battlefield, paused and looked around, taking stock. There was blood on him; none of it his own, but fatigue ached like a wound, and his wrists throbbed with the pain of simply holding his sword. He remembered very little after the incandescent moment when he had seen Red Dynan, the king, stagger and slide off his horse with a cursed Rashin arrow in his eye. Fodrun had succumbed to pure battle frenzy, leading his small knot of men directly into the Tath army’s flank, exposing all to certain death for an instant of revenge. All were now dead. All except him. And he seemed only now to have woken from a nightmare.
Sticking his sword point first into the turf, he sank down on one knee beside it, pulling off his helm. Scattered around his feet were broken weapons, discarded shields, the corpses of men and horses. There was one whose staring eyes implacably met Fodrun’s own as he looked in the dead man’s direction. The man wore Roisinan colours; he might well have been one of the men in Fodrun’s command, but then, he could have been almost anyone. He’d taken a slash across the face and his features were twisted beyond recognition in a frozen mess of mangled flesh and congealing blood. Even Fodrun, a battle-tempered soldier used to death, turned away at the sight.
Another memory surfaced, unbidden, vivid: a Rashin mace swinging inexorably…
“ ’Ware!” he had shouted, and Kalas had ducked, turned and met the mace with his shoulder. Fodrun remembered seeing his general stagger… did he fall? Are they dead? Are they both dead?
The voice was hesitant, very young. One of the pages. Fodrun looked up.
“My lord,” gasped the boy. He couldn’t have been more than thirteen or fourteen, and his eyes were round with horror. He had probably been sent to find Fodrun, or his body; instead he had found this blood-bespattered gargoyle with wild eyes… Fodrun tried to smile, the expression more grimace than anything else.
“Do not mind, boy, can you not tell black Tath blood when you see it?”
The wince that followed his words was lost on the young messenger, but Fodrun knew the reason behind it would soon spread its insidious poison in the army ranks. Not many knew he was Tath-born, but enough did. Enough to make men baulk at following him against the army on the other side of the river. His lineage tainted his loyalty. “What is it? Who sent you?”
“The Healers, sir… they have the general in their tent…”
Fodrun straightened, fatigue forgotten. His eyes blazed. “He is alive? Kalas is alive?”
“Yes, lord, but wounded… badly wounded… the Healers say he is in pain, and he has not been himself since they brought him in. The army, sir… they bid me find you… they need orders, sir, and the general…”
As quickly as they had kindled, Fodrun’s eyes faded into dullness again. His shoulders slumped. “The king…?”
The page hung his head. “Dead, sir.”
Dynan dead. Kalas, by all accounts, racked with battle fever. The army… headless. Except for him. Second General Fodrun. Tath-born.
Fodrun allowed his eyes to range across the churned plain that had been the day’s killing field. Somewhere in the distance he could see the blurred gleam of moonlight on the River Ronval; and beyond the river… what remained of Duerin Rashin’s army. They had withdrawn across the ford. Yes, he remembered that, too. They would be back tomorrow. And the army…
Fodrun sheathed his sword with a weary gesture. There would likely be no sleep for him that night. “Where are the other lords?” he asked the page, who stood shivering in the moonlight, whether from cold or the horrors of warfare, it was hard to tell. Faced with a direct question, something to do, the lad looked up with what was almost anticipation.
“I’ll take you to them, sir.”
They went the long way round, first stopping by the Healers’ tent, where Kalas was not alone. Perhaps more than a hundred men were laid awkwardly about, filling the tent almost to overflowing; Kalas, his rank pulling privilege even when he was unconscious, had been given a screened-off corner of his own. That much they could do for him, and bind his shattered shoulder; but even if he came out of the delirium that whipped his head back and forth on his pillow, already soaked with his sweat, Kalas would never be a soldier again. The arm hanging from his broken shoulder would never again be able to lift a sword.
And then, the other tent. There were even more men here, with more arriving as Fodrun watched; but inside, on a bier made from bloodied shields, the body of Red Dynan, King of Roisinan, lay in state in an open space within a ring of flaming torches. They had plucked out the arrow that had claimed him; he looked almost whole, almost asleep, until one looked closer and noticed the waxy pallor of his skin and the ruined eye-socket beneath one of the two heavy gold coins marking his state, payment for passage into Glas Coil. Fodrun stood for what seemed an inordinately long time, helmet in hand, and looked upon the king. Dynan had named him second general only a month ago, a deliberate act of faith against the background of rumbling discontent from those who knew the new general’s lineage; but the king had chosen to trust him. Fodrun remembered the day, Dynan’s laughing eyes, the strong brown hand that raised him from his knees. As chaotic thoughts tumbled through his brain, one suddenly coalesced out of the turmoil, presenting him with the narrow, thoughtful face of Dynan’s lawful heir. Princess Anghara. She was back in Miranei, with the queen. The only child of Dynan’s marriage, Anghara was heir to the chaos that had taken and slain her father—to this resurgent Rashin aggression, to war. She was only nine years old.
Fodrun shivered with what was almost a touch of prescience. Anghara would ascend the throne at Miranei, a puppet for a Regent Council for at least five or six more years. And in that time, Roisinan… Roisinan and the cursed Tath…
He turned to the page, who still hovered by him, waiting patiently until he had concluded his business. “Where are the lords?” Fodrun demanded again, his voice harsher than he had intended. “Take me there. Now.”
Behind Fodrun, a shadow that had waited for his departure slipped into the tent almost before the flaps fell from Fodrun’s hand. It was shrouded in a dark cloak, but armour gleamed beneath. The hood of the cloak was up, the figure’s face shadowed. It came to the king’s body slowly, almost hesitantly, and stood rigidly motionless beside the makeshift bier, shoulders stiff with pain. A guard, who had thought the cloaked figure was with the general, woke up to its unsanctioned presence. “Hey! You there! Out!”
The cloaked man ignored the words, bending to plant a kiss on Dynan’s pale brow. The guard strode over, took hold of the other’s shoulder, spinning him around. “You! What is your name? What are you doing here? You have no right to…”
The man threw back his cloak. His hair was a burnished red, almost the precise shade of the dead king’s, and his pale eyes, faded blue, were implacable steel as he haughtily met the guard’s angry stare. “My name,” he said in a low, precise voice, “in this army is Horun; I took that name because otherwise my father would have discovered I had disobeyed him. But I have every right to be here, soldier. My true name is Sif. Sif Kir Hama. And that,” he said looking down on the king, “is the father whom I disobeyed.”
The guard was out of his depth. There was a son, a young man called Sif, but how to prove… “My lord,” muttered the guard indecisively, “I must insist…”
Sif laughed, a harsh bark that had nothing of mirth in it. “I won’t be far away,” he said, and his words had the force of a vow, or a threat. He plucked the guard’s fingers from his shoulder, flung his hood back up again and melted into the shadows outside.
His name remained, a whisper in the dark, spreading from the death-tent out into the night—Sif is in camp, Sif Kir Hama, Dynan’s son.
Before long a messenger page stumbled into the tent where Fodrun sat with his war council, debating the morrow. Fodrun looked up sharply. “I thought I gave orders not to be disturbed,” he snapped. Already there was doubt in some of the commanders’ eyes; he could sense it, a cold, clammy touch on his skin like a dead man’s hand. Everything depended on him being able to hold them, and they were already wavering. And now this boy, breaking into the meeting, unravelling what Fodrun had already spent almost two hours trying to weave…
The page raised frightened eyes. “Lord,” he said, speaking in a hoarse whisper, “forgive me… there is important news.”
“Well,” said Fodrun impatiently after a pause, “what is it?”
The page’s voice dropped even further, Fodrun had to lean forward to hear him. “It is rumoured that Sif is in the camp, lord, Sif Kir Hama, King Dynan’s son.”
“Rumoured?” Fodrun said. “What use do I have for rumours?” He would have been a lot more forceful a few hours ago, but exhaustion and cold dread were beginning to take their toll; he was slow to kindle his swift and much-feared anger.
“Sir,” said the page, “one of the king’s guards spoke to him…”
Fatigue or not, Fodrun got up so fast his chair overturned behind him. “What?”
The message was repeated. Fodrun stood rigid for a moment, his jaw clenched. Anghara’s face swam into his consciousness again, the wide, guileless grey eyes of a child. He forgot, for the moment, the cool, precocious measuring those eyes had given him when he was presented to the queen and the princess at Miranei only a few months ago. All he could think of was the Tath army across the river, the dead king, the Rashin pretenders raising their hands again to a kingdom they had claimed once before in rebellion, a kingdom won back from them in days not too long gone. Bloody tales from the Rashin interregnum survived in the minds of the people. Roisinan could not hold against a renewed threat from the hungry Rashin clan, not with a nine-year-old girl on the throne and a foreign-born general leading her armies…
And now, this gift—Dynan’s first-born. Illegitimate, but a man of age who could fight, hold, rule. A soldier. A king.
Fodrun turned burning eyes to the frightened page. “This guard, take me to him at once. My lords… I will not be long.”
He chose not to notice the eyes that would not meet his own as he swept out of the tent.
The guard could provide little further information, but he did volunteer a name. Horun. Feverish now, Fodrun sent messengers amongst the campfires. The soldier called Horun, or anyone who knows of him, was to come to Second General Fodrun at once. At once.
Even as he strode back to his own tent someone touched his arm. Fodrun whirled. A young soldier stepped back from the general’s haunted face, but stood his ground. “You are looking for a man named Horun, my lord?”
Fodrun closed the distance between them. “Yes. Yes! Where is he?”
“He is in my cheta, lord. My commander ordered him to picket duty tonight. He should be with the horses.”
Fodrun had not even waited to hear the end of the sentence, already turned and halfway to the picket lines before the soldier finished speaking.
In the dimness of the horse-lines, far from the campfires, a shadowy figure stood amongst the beasts, lightly stroking the arched neck of a hobbled stallion. Almost stumbling upon him in the dark, Fodrun had to reach out and steady himself against the other’s shoulder. His breath came short. “Horun?”
It was too dark to see, but Fodrun felt rather than saw the other man smile. “It is one of my names.”
Fodrun drew a deep breath. “I hear,” he said, “that you claim another.”
The unconscious arrogance in those words convinced Fodrun of the truth. Still he asked, to hear it spoken. “What name?”
The soldier who called himself Horun stepped forward, flinging back his hood with high royal pride. “I am Sif Kir Hama.”
Fodrun closed his eyes for a moment, the burden on his shoulders lifted by a blessed relief; the evanescent image of Anghara Kir Hama’s grey eyes in the fastness of Miranei was gone almost before he was aware he had seen it. The only thing he could think of was Tath, and the honed blade he had just been handed to vanquish the Rashin clan. “Lord,” he said, opening his eyes. “You are an answer to a prayer.”
Sif offered no help, standing loose and relaxed, waiting for the general. Fodrun stumbled on, all soldier in this instant, a man whose friends were actions, not words. “An hour ago I sat with my commanders to plan tomorrow’s battle, knowing full well we face disaster. Now… now I believe we have a chance. King Dynan is dead; but if we had you to lead us in his place… Will you take this army, Sif Kir Hama? Will you lead us against the Rashin in the morning?”
Sif’s eyes were smoky, veiled. “And what of the aftermath, general?”
“The aftermath?” echoed Fodrun, caught off guard.
“When the battle is over, General. What then?”
And Fodrun met Sif’s eyes steadily, read the ambition there, accepted it. “They tell me Kalas is dying,” he said. “I command this army, set in my place by Red Dynan himself. You are no less his child than the girl at Miranei. Lead us tomorrow, lord, and I lay the army at your feet until you are crowned. We need a strong hand at the helm; Anghara cannot lead us, not now. You can. You must.” There was no disloyalty, no sense of betrayal; Fodrun was giving Roisinan into the hands most fit to hold it. He sank to one knee before Sif, his eyes never leaving the younger man’s for an instant. “Take us to victory tomorrow, Sif Kir Hama, and I will call you king in Roisinan; so will every man in this army. We will take Miranei for you. You are the only one who can hold your father’s realm.”
Sif reached out a hand and raised Fodrun, his own eyes burning intensely with a pale blue fire. There was something wolfish in his smile, something that, for the last time, called up Anghara’s gentle image in Fodrun’s mind, this time accompanied by what might have been regret. But the regret was swept away into a fierce joy as Sif spoke. Only two words, words that put a seal on the fate of a land and a small girl who did not yet know how easily she had been supplanted.