The chaos that followed the battle should please him. The disorder, the promise of rich spoils. Broken lands, broken lords, broken authority were all grist for the Varee.
Instead, the silence sank into him, a beast of a thing that pawed his neck with unease as the clanging, pealing iron and the screams of men ebbed away.
Not even a breeze stirred through the pile of ash from a pyre where a young warrior Dannon never knew had died before the fighting erupted.
Only death surrounded him. Beneath its pall, the world had become quiet and still: the forest, drenched with shadows, the castle rooted in stone on the edge of the sea, its towers spiking the heat-hazed sapphire sky.
The eye of the storm was upon this battlefield, lost moments when time eddied between combat’s fury and its miserable aftermath… so familiar to a Varee war captain.
Hidden on the edge of green-black trees, armed riders at his back, Dannon gripped his horse’s reins, his disquiet caged in his tensed hands. He could not forget that crash of metal on stone as guards flung the gates back and Isles warriors fell upon the king’s forces, breaking Cathmor’s line. How panicked men had trampled flags flat, abandoning their war engines to flee into the trees.
Barely an hour ago, Icemen had chased them down until the dead strewn through the forest outnumbered the dead upon the blood-churned field. Now the battle was done. A kingdom’s fate had turned. And he was here to pick at the broken realm’s bones.
A woman’s cry ripped apart the emptiness. She dropped to her knees beside a body in the tangle of severed limbs and shattered bone littered between the forest and the castle. More figures, pitifully waiflike, emerged from the castle gates to drift among the slain. Carts for the wounded rattled from Tide’s End.
A soldier wearing Isles livery, a dented helmet under his arm, whistled callously as he ordered dull-eyed captives to hurl their weapons onto a pile of iron. The breeze carried laughter that was shrill with relief.
An Isles victory then. Dannon shouldn’t care. No. He couldn’t afford to care.
“Sweep up those who fled,” Dannon told his companions. “Avoid the paths—they will. They’re displaced now, on the run and vulnerable. Be quick before whoever has command at Tide’s End chases them down.”
Leather scraped as well-trained warriors on horseback slipped away through the trees. There was only an indolent murmur of waves against the castle’s base.
The afternoon sun warmed Dannon’s face and slanted harsh light upon the naked rigging of the majestic Isles fleet at anchor. A wind finally awakened, breaking apart the heat, creaking through the ships. Its gusts carried a fresh, clean scent of fading summer.
A strange place this city with its ramparts and castle towers looming high above droning, white-tipped waves. A place where a man like him could never belong. Not just because of the Isles’ unfamiliar expanse of sky and sea or its relentless, draining heat, but because of this land’s rules, its fealties. The very conduct of life. All contrary to the code of the wild lands beyond the gorge.
Dannon laughed softly to himself. Morose man. That’s what his wife had always called him when he was lost in reflection. “Life is serious enough without the weight of your heavy thoughts,” she’d tease. “Come back to me, oh, Dannon the Deep and Distant.”
“Dannon the Deep and Dashing,” he’d reply, wriggling his brows so that she giggled.
A branch snapped. Dannon turned fast. Pain shot through his shoulders as metal jaws ripped him off his horse. Trees, sky whirled. He hit the ground hard, winded, his spine jarred.
The steel teeth bruised as they were torn away. Someone dragged him to his knees. Dizzy, disoriented, Dannon tried to focus on a weathered face and dirty brown hair tied in a thong. When he recognised who stood over him, sword drawn, his belly churned in disbelief.
“Volker? What is this? I ordered you to track down fleeing soldiers. The aftermath of battle is the perfect hunting ground for slavers.”
The man ripped Dannon’s sword from its shoulder holster and tossed it into the bushes. He dragged his tongue nervously over his thin lips. “Just stay still, Captain. Nice and still.”
Dannon started to rise. Volker jabbed his sword hilt into Dannon’s temple. He dropped in a huddle, moaning.
“Still, I said.” Volker waved his sword. “On your knees. Cross your ankles. Lace your fingers together on your head. Do as I say, or I’ll hit you again.”
Reluctantly, Dannon obeyed. His gashed temple dripped blood. A slow anger moved from his breast into his limbs. Volker had attacked him with a man-catcher. Even padded, its dangerous jaws could break bones. The Varee used it—rarely—to snatch armoured warriors from their horses.
“What’s this about? If I’ve wronged you somehow, we can talk about it.”
“Talk, talk, talk.” Volker dragged a grubby hand through hair lank with oil and sweat. “No more clever talk from you, Captain.” He groped for rope in his belt.
Dannon swayed on his knees. “How dare you attack me!” His fury burst up to cover his fear. “What do you want?”
Volker scuffed his boot on the grass and glanced into the trees.
Was his captor expecting someone? At the thought he had more enemies, a chill nipped along Dannon’s backbone.
“Suppose there’s no harm in you knowing,” Volker said. “I’m meant to kill you. Our oh-so-brave leader thinks you’re too clever, too dangerous. He won’t tolerate rivals.” His sly grin spread. “But I’m not going to kill you. Not when you’re worth a fortune.”
Dannon briefly shut his eyes, struggling to take that in. He knew the overlord resented him, but Conroy had broken every Varee code by coming after him.
“A battlefield is indeed the best place for slavers to scoop up merchandise. You’re right there. But none of the warriors we capture today will be worth half as much as you.”
“What?” Dannon groped at the pouch in his belt. The poison within was a last resort, a painful death, but a long while ago, he’d resolved never to be captured alive again.
Volker pricked Dannon’s wrist with the sword tip. “Touch that pouch, and I’ll cut your fingers off. You think I’m going to let you kill yourself with mord’s breath? There’s no easy way out for you, Captain.”
Dannon tongued his dry lips. “What—what do you intend to do with me?”
“When it’s dark, I’m going to take you back to the Mountains. Turn you in for the bounty.” Volker whistled. “It’s huge. Who’d think a lousy Cahirean was worth so much?”
“You snake.” Dannon fisted his hands. “You swore a blood oath to the Varee, to our god.” He seized a furious breath. “To me. We don’t turn on our own.”
“We do if the reward is rich enough.” Volker’s eyes gleamed with lust for wealth. “And it’s rich. So rich, the others whisper about how no host captain ever had such a price on his head. I had to act before they found the courage to betray you.”
“You’re Varee. Our loyalty to each other keeps us strong.”
“Our?” Volker sneered. “You’re Cahirean scum. Prey, like any other prey. Why shouldn’t I profit from turning you in? Word is the Lord of Vraymorg or even the king’s sheriffs will pay very well for your body—proof of death and all that—but they’ll pay more for a living Varee war captain to execute. A warning to the rest of us.”
“There’s a Varee expression about blood money. That it can only be spent fast or not at all.”
Volker jeered. “There’s another Varee saying too. That we dance with steel until we dance on a gibbet. You’re going to dance on a rope, Dannon.” He stepped closer, dangling a cord from his fingers. “Don’t be stupid. Either I take you in alive, or you cause trouble and I take you in dead.”
“The king’s sheriffs, you say—” Dannon reached for his anger. “Which king, though?”
Dannon jerked up. He smashed his head into Volker’s chin. The man stumbled, recovered, and slashed with steel. Still finding his balance, Dannon only just sucked in his belly. The blade sliced his tunic, missing muscle by a hair’s breadth.
“Scum.” Fading sun glinted wickedly on metal as Volker thrust again. “You’re going to die like your scum father. Grovelling. On your knees.”
Dannon flinched clear then backed up, his hands raised defensively. Volker was on him once more, bellowing and swinging.
Air parted Dannon’s hair as he ducked. Staying low, he tackled Volker’s legs. The man crashed down, his breath whooshing out as he hit the ground. Still dizzy, Dannon clambered up as fast as he could. He drove his heel into the fallen man’s wrist. Volker screamed. His fingers fell away from the sword.
Dannon stood over him, panting. Volker’s shriek and the flash of sunlight on the blade stirred up a childhood memory of swirling dust, drumming hooves, and the clash of iron.
He remembered his father’s knees hitting the dirt, a stain spreading beneath his fingers as he clutched at his belly. He remembered screaming, his high-pitched cry swallowed by the tumult as men grabbed his shoulders to hold him back. “My father wasn’t scum. He died fighting. Trying to save me.”
The man on the ground sneered. “Your father begged for his life. He offered anything, even you, to save his miserable hide.”
“You’re as pitiful as he was. He died on his knees, blubbering like a baby.”
Volker’s lips peeled back from blackened teeth. His eyes were cold and full of contempt. “Your father, that Cahirean coward, begged—right before I cut off his head.”
Shock numbed him. When it fell away, it left a hollow place inside. “You. It was you—” Dannon could not continue. This snake had not only killed his father but also defiled his memory with lies. That memory was all Dannon had of him, all he had of his other life. Now, this treacherous piece of filth, a man who had offered his blood oath, had betrayed him. For such a worthless reason as monetary gain.
Dannon’s rage exploded. His head spun with it, his body taut with the need for violent release. He yanked Volker up by his tunic to punch his face. Again and again, he struck.
One blow shattered a cheekbone. Another drove into Volker’s nose with a satisfying crunch. As he pounded flesh to pulp, Dannon’s knuckles grew slippery with blood.
He realised he was shouting. Sounds at first. Then words. Slowly, they penetrated his shut-down mind. “He never begged. He was honourable and brave, and you took him from me.”
“He was as worthless as you,” Volker wheezed. “Just Cahirean filth.”
“I am Varee,” Dannon yelled. “I have to be. I have to belong.”
The words hit him. He dropped a sagging Volker. Blankly, he stared, not seeing the bleeding man, only hearing his own voice fade away into the murmur of the waves. I have to be. I have to belong.
Groaning, Dannon pressed his torn knuckles into his cheeks. Everyone needed to find a place somewhere. To believe in something. Without the Varee, he had nothing. No one. At even the thought of such loneliness, a pit opened in his gut.
He retrieved Volker’s sword. Part of his mind again closed off as he lifted the blade.
Volker struggled to his knees. “No.” He scrambled back. “No.”
Dannon thrust. Once. The sword speared flesh then ribs. Blood spurted in a bright fountain, crimson against the shadowy trees. Volker dropped on the grass, limbs sprawled. More blood spilled from his slack mouth. His eyes glazed.
Dannon wiped the blade on the dead man’s tunic. “I am my father’s son,” he told the corpse. “I know who I am. I belong.” Digging his nails into his palms, he pushed aside the doubt.
“I belong,” he said and turned away.