Chapter 1 – Blood Thirst
Mazael Cravenlock awoke from a dream of blood and death.
He sat up, sweat trickling down his face. For a moment it seemed as if the bedchamber had been drenched in blood, that the corpses of the slain lay piled against the walls in ragged heaps. Mazael’s fists clenched in horror. He had killed them, he had enjoyed it…
Then the last shards of the dream faded, and his bedchamber was dark and quiet once more. Some moonlight leaked through the balcony door, throwing pale light over his bed. Romaria Greenshield lay on her side next to him, her dark hair a tangle around her head, her breathing slow and steady.
Good. He hadn’t awakened her.
Or done worse things.
The recollection of another dream flashed before his eyes, and he saw himself striding through Castle Cravenlock, sword in hand, killing and killing until the halls ran red with blood…
Mazael stood, walked barefoot across the room, and picked up a carafe of wine from the sideboard. A swallow of the wine felt bitter and hot against his tongue, helping to shock him back to lucidity.
They were just dreams.
But they came more and more often.
Mazael walked to the balcony, the autumn night cold against his bare skin,. His bedchamber occupied the highest level of the King’s Tower, and from here he had a fine view of Castle Cravenlock. He saw the sentries patrolling the curtain wall, crossbows in hand. Beyond the wall he saw the distant glow of torchlight in Cravenlock Town, throwing shadows over the new construction within the town’s walls.
Everything was peaceful. With Ultorin and Corvad dead, the remaining Malrag warbands had fled into the caverns of the Great Mountains. No neighboring lords had taken advantage of the chaos to seize lands from the Grim Marches. One did not cross Lord Richard Mandragon the Dragonslayer, after all.
So many people had perished in the Malrag attack, but now Mazael’s lands and people could rebuild, could grow fat and happy and prosperous over the years. It was everything he had wanted for his lands.
Peace and prosperity.
How it grated on him.
Mazael closed his eyes, hands gripping the balcony’s worn stone railing. His dreams had begun again after returning from Arylkrad. At first only a few fevered images, here and there. Then the nightmares.
And now dreams of death and blood every night for the last five nights.
His Demonsouled blood yearned to fight, to slay, and to kill. The dreams had not troubled him during the war against Ultorin’s Malrags, and Mazael had come to realize that the constant fighting had kept his Demonsouled nature sated, like a drunkard slaked by a constant flow of wine.
But now peace had come, and his Demonsouled blood was hungry.
Mazael gripped the railing, his knuckles white. He would not turn into a raving monster like Amalric Galbraith or Corvad. But it was so hard. It took so much effort to keep himself in check.
And if his control slipped…
A gust of wind struck him, so cold that Mazael’s eyes popped open, and he began laughing. Yes, he was a child of the Old Demon, the destroyer of the Dominiar Order, the vanquisher of Malrags and dragons. It certainly would be amusing if he died of a chill caught while agonizing over his woes on a balcony.
He went back into the bedchamber, closing the door behind him.
“Mazael?” said Romaria, her voice thick with sleep. Her blue eyes opened in her pale face. “Is something amiss?”
“No, nothing’s amiss,” said Mazael. “I cannot sleep.”
He had not told her of the dreams. He had almost killed her, years ago, caught in the grip of his Demonsouled madness, and he loathed the memory of his folly. Besides, she slept beside him almost every night. She knew already.
“Go for a walk, then,” murmured Romaria, closing her eyes. “It will clear your head.” She curled up beneath the blankets and sighed, the movement almost wolfish.
Mazael dressed, pulling on a tunic, trousers, and boots. His sword, its pommel shaped like a golden lion’s head, went in a scabbard at his belt. Lion had been forged in the ancient world, created to fight things of dark magic, and its power had saved Mazael’s life more than once.
He shrugged a heavy cloak over his shoulders and left, closing the door behind him. Rufus Highgate, Mazael’s squire, lay snoring on a cot in the anteroom. The boy could sleep through almost anything. Yet his weapons lay close at hand beside the cot.
He, too, had survived the Malrag war.
Mazael left the King’s Tower, went to the main keep, and began climbing. The castle was quiet, save for the rasp of boots and the clink of armor from the sentries. The smell of bread baking in the kitchens reached his nostrils. Mazael climbed the stairs and reached the roof of the keep, the cold wind tugging at his cloak. From here he saw the barbican and the stables, and…
A dark flicker from the corner of his eye.
Mazael whirled, his reflexes taking over, and yanked Lion from its scabbard. The blade glimmered with hints of azure fire. Steel flashed for his head, and Mazael parried once, twice, three times, Lion’s glow growing brighter.
His attacker, a young woman of about twenty, stepped back. She was short and trim, her pale face made ghostly in Lion’s blue light. She wore trousers of dark wool, a leather jerkin, and a sword belt around her waist. Her cold gray eyes gleamed with a battle lust Mazael knew all too well.
“Daughter,” said Mazael.
Molly Cravenlock smirked. “Father.”
Rage filled Mazael, and his blood screamed for him to attack, to cut her down. Yet he made himself hold back. He saw the same struggle reflected in Molly’s face, her eyes glinting like sword blades.
At last they lowered their weapons.
“You should probably put that away,” said Molly. “Else your guards will see the light and come running.”
Mazael slid Lion back into its scabbard. “We’re jumping at each other like two rabid wolves. If we’re not careful we’re going to kill each other one day out of sheer reflex.”
“Yes,” said Molly. “And wouldn’t that be a tragedy. Two fewer Demonsouled to trouble the world.”
They stood in silence for a moment.
“Ill dreams?” said Mazael at last.
Molly looked at him. “I always have ill dreams, Father. Ever since Corvad murdered Nicholas.” Her eyes tightened at the mention of her slain lover. “I used to dream about killing you, watching you suffer. But now that Corvad is dead, I simply dream about watching Nicholas die.” She shrugged. “I haven’t slept the night in a long time.”
“I’m sorry,” said Mazael. “But those aren’t the kind of dreams I meant.”
“Ah.” Molly smirked. “Am I lonely, you mean? Those kinds of dreams? Well. Your armsmaster Sir Hagen is a bit large for my taste, but…”
“You know,” said Mazael, “what kind of dreams I mean.”
Molly looked away. The wind caught at her brown hair, the same color as his own.
“The dreams,” he said, “of blood and killing.”
“Yes,” she said. “You, too?”
Mazael nodded. “They…went away for a few years. I think it was because of the Malrags. I had enough killing to keep even my Demonsouled blood satisfied.”
Molly laughed. “Now you’ve got what you’ve always wanted. Peace for the Grim Marches, and it’s driving you mad. Nothing to kill, eh?”
“Yes,” said Mazael, voice quiet.
Molly grinned without a hint of mirth. “Romaria feels sorry for me, you know. When I tell her how the Skulls raised me after my mother died. How dreadful it must have been, raised by master assassins. Well.” She shook her head. “It was dreadful…but I liked the killing. I liked the hunting. The Skulls can burn for all I care, but, ah…I like to kill things, Father. And you do too.”
Mazael said nothing.
“We’re monsters, you and I,” said Molly. “The world would be better off without us.”
“And if we kill ourselves,” said Mazael, “who will stop your grandfather?”
That kindled a harsh light in her eyes. Molly sometimes talked of killing herself. Yet Mazael need only mention the Old Demon and her rage returned. Corvad might have killed Nicholas Tormaud, but the Old Demon had given the command.
Still, Mazael wished he could give her more.
One could not live on hatred forever.
Molly looked into the courtyard. “What’s all that?”
“That?” Mazael gestured at the row of tents standing below the curtain wall. “Lord Toraine Mandragon will be arriving tomorrow, or possibly the day after.”
Molly laughed. “Lord Richard’s mad dragon of a son. What does he want with you?”
Mazael already knew. Toraine wanted to kill Mazael and claim Castle Cravenlock for himself.
“To haggle,” said Mazael aloud. “I’m going to wed Romaria, and Lord Richard does not entirely approve.”
“You’re going to marry Romaria?” said Molly. “I thought you loved her. Why inflict yourself upon her?”
He’d wondered that too, sometimes. Romaria would be better off without him. Yet their lives were bound together by blood and fate. She had helped him keep his Demonsouled nature at bay, and he had helped rescue her from the wild magic of the Elderborn half of her soul.
With Lucan’s help.
Mazael did not want to think about Lucan Mandragon just now.
“Because,” said Mazael. “I love her.”
Molly snorted. “You’re a lord. Lords marry for power and land, not love. Besides. You already have one Demonsouled daughter. Do you desire more?”
“No,” said Mazael. “Romaria is a half-breed. Half human, and half Elderborn. She cannot have children.”
“Just as well,” said Molly. “I have no wish for any half-siblings. Given that my one full sibling tried to turn me into a monster.”
Mazael thought of Amalric and Morebeth. “I understand.”
“So why doesn’t Lord Richard approve?” said Molly.
“Because he knows Romaria won’t have children,” said Mazael. “Which means when I die, Castle Cravenlock will pass to my sister.”
“Who is married to Gerald Roland,” said Molly. “And when she dies, her son Aldane will become Lord of Castle Cravenlock. Which means a Roland will be Lord of Castle Cravenlock.” She gave a nasty laugh. “Lord Richard will love that.”
“He won’t,” said Mazael.
“He’ll probably try to kill you,” said Molly.
“Perhaps,” said Mazael. He had given Lord Richard good service, and Lord Richard would not turn on his sworn men. But Richard Mandragon would put the stability and safety of the Grim Marches before anything else, and if he felt Mazael’s death was necessary to secure the Grim Marches…
“Is that what you want?” said Molly. “A war with Lord Richard? Oh, but you’ll have plenty of killing then.”
“No,” said Mazael.
“You shouldn’t lie to your daughter,” said Molly.
“Perhaps my blood does want a war,” said Mazael, “but it shall not have one. I will marry Romaria, and I will find a way to keep the piece with Lord Richard.”
He did not tell Molly that he intended to leave Castle Cravenlock to her, not to Rachel’s son. Molly would find out, soon enough.
Molly’s smile was brittle. “Father, Father. These things have a way of coming to blood in the end.”
“I know,” said Mazael.
They stood in silence for a while longer. The eastern sky began to brighten, painting the bleak plains of the Grim Marches with a pale glow. Mazael saw more lights flare in Cravenlock Town as the blacksmiths and the potters lit their forges and kilns.
“Father,” said Molly.
He looked at her.
“Do you think,” she said, voice distant, “that something is wrong?”
“What do you mean?” said Mazael.
He burst out laughing. “Quite a bit is wrong with us.”
“That’s not what I meant,” said Molly, and Mazael stopped laughing. Before leaving the Skulls, she had spent years as assassin. More specifically, she had survived for years as an assassin, which meant her instincts for trouble were invariably correct. “All these dreams, so suddenly. Like something is happening. Something’s going on, but I don’t know what.”
“Yes,” said Mazael. “I think…I think something is about to happen.”
“Do you know what?”
He gave an irritated shake of his head. “No.”
His sword hand balled into a fist.
But whatever it was, he would be ready for it.
In his dreams, Riothamus son of Rigotharic was always six years old again.
Riogotharic had been headman of his own hold, with over a hundred swordthains and spearthains sworn to him. Riothamus’s father had been a warrior of renown, tall and strong, his armor and sword fashioned from costly steel. All the clans of the Tervingi nation had respected him.
And none of that did any good when the Malrags came.
Riothamus ran, screaming, as the hold burned around him, the beams and thatch of the roof vanishing in curtains of raging flame. His father’s thains lay strewn across the muddy ground, their armor ripped apart by the black axes and swords of the Malrags. A blast of green lighting screamed from the black sky, setting the roof of the granary ablaze. Riothamus stumbled from his father’s hall, weeping, and stopped.
The Malrags ran at him.
The creatures were gray-skinned, with six-fingered hands and white, colorless eyes. Yellowed fangs jutted from their lips, and their long fingers ended in ragged claws. Black chain mail jingled as they ran, and black axes and spears gleamed in their hands.
Riothamus sprinted, his legs churning at the muddy street beneath his feet. The Malrags surged after him, roaring with glee and bloodlust.
A hard hand closed about his shoulder, and he screamed…
Riothamus jerked awake, his heart pounding.
A grim-faced man in chain mail stooped over him, face half-hidden behind a tangled yellow beard. The handle of a massive battle axe rose over his left shoulder, and a broadsword hung from his leather belt. A necklace of Malrag claws dangled from his neck, clicking against his mail.
“Arnulf,” said Riothamus, blinking.
“You were screaming to wake the dead, witcher,” said Arnulf, his voice a raspy rumble. “Half the camp was up.”
“Damnation,” said Riothamus. After twenty years, one would think the nightmares would stop.
Of course, the Malrags hadn’t stopped, either.
Arnulf snorted. “I’d heard that female demons visited witch-folk in the night for acts of unnatural congress. The way you were screaming, I think the rumors were true.”
Despite everything, Riothamus burst out laughing.
“No,” said Riothamus. “No such pleasure, I fear. Just…bad dreams.”
Riothamus could never recall Arnulf smiling, though the older man’s scowl did fade somewhat. “Bad dreams. Well, you’re still alive. The dead don’t dream.”
“No,” said Riothamus. “I suppose I’ve woken everyone.”
Arnulf grunted. “Aye. But it’s almost dawn. Past time we got moving.” He straightened up. “Up, lads! It’s a lovely day! And there are Malrags that need killing.”
The thirty men encamped on the hilltop cursed and bellowed insults, but began climbing to their feet. The swordthains and the spearthains were sworn to the great hrould Athanaric, all veterans of the long wars against the Malrag ravagers.
And all of them, these battle-scarred veterans, kept well away from Riothamus.
He tried to ignore that.
Riothamus picked up his spear, stretching his sore legs. He walked to the edge of the hilltop. It was a cold, gray day, the sky the color of hammered steel. Steep hills stretched away to the south, their slopes lined with barren trees. The Iron River flowed to the north, almost a half-mile wide. The air was still and silent.
A deceptive silence.
“Move, you sluggards!” roared Arnulf, pacing the crest of the hill. “Are you warriors or women? Move!” He stalked to Riothamus’s side. Unlike the others, he showed no fear of Riothamus. Of course, Arnulf showed no fear of anything. “Witcher. Any Malrags about?”
Riothamus shrugged. “No Malrags have been seen south of the Iron River since winter.”
Arnulf grunted. “You’re not that stupid. Check anyway.”
Riothamus nodded, drew in a deep breath, and cast the spell, just as the Guardian had taught him. He felt the power rise within him, obedient to his will, and he sent the magic out, soaking into the earth and air around him. For an instant he sensed the wind blowing against his face and the rock beneath his boots, the flow of the Iron River and the rustling of the barren trees.
He sensed no Malrags. A Malrag would have felt like a shadow against his senses, a corruption eating its way through the earth and wind.
The spell faded away.
“Nothing,” said Riothamus. “No Malrags for five miles in any direction.”
“Only five?” said Arnulf.
Riothamus shook his head. “I can’t reach any farther. The Guardian can, but I cannot.”
“It will serve,” said Arnulf. “Get moving. I want to reach Skullbane by noon.”
They saw the first dead village an hour later.
A few years ago the banks of the Iron River had been lined with villages of the Tervingi. The prosperous villagers had fished the river and logged the trees, trading with the Tervingi clans in the hill country or the other nations further south. But the Malrags had annihilated the other nations and driven the Tervingi from the hills.
And now the village lay desolate.
It squatted by the river’s bank. The stone walls stood like dry bones, their roofs and interiors burned away. Some of the docks had collapsed into the Iron River’s gray waters, and a half-sunken fishing boat jutted from the debris. Bones littered the village’s street. Some were the misshapen skulls and clawed fingers of Malrags, but most were the bones of the men and women and children the Malrags had butchered.
The hold of the village’s headman stood on a hill over the docks, now nothing more than a half-collapsed shell of loose stone. Riothamus saw the charring where the Malrag shamans’ lightning had ripped into the structure.
“Feasted there, once,” said Arnulf. “Old Eordric the Gray. Fat old bastard, but generous with his beer and his loot. Good man to follow into a fight. Suppose the Malrags did for him when they burned the village.”
He shook his head, and kept walking.
They passed three more burned villages, weeds growing in their fields and pens. Sometimes the Malrags preferred to amuse themselves with captives rather than slaughter them out of hand, and Riothamus saw ample evidence of that. In one village a row of empty skulls sat atop the loose stone wall of a sheepfold. In another a line of skeletons lay upon the earth, rusting iron stakes driven through the bones of their arms and legs. Every hour he cast the spell to detect the presence of Malrags, but he sensed nothing.
At noon they reached the hold and village of Skullbane.
Unlike the others, the village sat atop a large hill, secure within a stout ringwall of rough stone. It looked prosperous – pigs grazed in vast pens around the base of the hill, and Riothamus even saw a pair of mammoths, their long, furry trunks reaching up to pluck the remaining leaves from the trees. Yet the signs of fighting were everywhere. The docks and fishing boats at the river’s bank had burned, and Riothamus saw that the earth had been churned to mud beneath many running boots.
And a dozen fanged Malrag skulls hung over the ringwall’s gate.
“They’ve had hard fighting,” said Arnulf.
“Aye,” said Riothamus, looking over the hill.
“A good place for a hold,” said Arnulf. “That ringwall is strong. With those pigs and a source of water, they could hold out for a long while.”
“But not much longer, I think,” said Riothamus. He pointed. “See those mounds?” The Tervingi buried their dead in mounds outside their villages, especially warriors who fell in battle, and dozens of fresh mounds lay at the base of the hill. “They’ve lost many men, and recently. I’ll wager the Malrags have been throwing themselves against the walls, over and over again. They’ll wear down Skullbane eventually.”
Arnulf grunted. “Poor bastards. Well, maybe they’ll see reason and join Athanaric.”
“They know we’re here,” said Riothamus. “I saw the swineherds take off running for the gate when we came out of the trees.”
“Aye,” said Arnulf, scratching at his tangled beard. He lowered his voice. “Any Malrags?”
“A few,” said Riothamus. “Three or four, scattered in the trees around the hill. Scouts, I think.”
Arnulf spat. “No use chasing them. Lone Malrags are stealthier than cats. Well, if the devils come looking for a fight, we’ll give them a fight. In the meantime, let’s see if the headman will listen to us.”
He gave orders, and the spearthains and swordthains positioned themselves at the base of the hill, while Arnulf and Riothamus trudged to the gate of the ringwall. The gates remained closed at their approach, and no one stirred atop the wall.
Yet Riothamus was sure that someone other than the Malrag skulls watched him.
“Hail!” roared Arnulf, looking up at the ringwall. “I am Arnulf son of Kaerwulf, a swordthain to the hrould Athanaric of the Tervingi nation! I wish to parley with Fritigern, the headman of Skullbane!”
The echoes ran over the hillside.
No answer came from the ringwall.
“Perhaps they fled when they saw our approach,” said Arnulf, fingering the hilt of his sword.
“No,” said Riothamus. “They’ve held out this long, even when every other village for fifty miles has been burned. We won’t scare them off.”
The gate, built of heavy logs, shuddered open a few feet.
A woman stepped into sight.
She would have been pretty, thirty years ago, but despite her gray hair and wrinkles she still had an aura of vigor. She wore a diadem of polished bronze, and a golden torque around her right arm. The wife of a wealthy swordthain, or perhaps even the holdmistress herself.
“You seek Fritigern?” said the woman. Her blue eyes were cold and hard.
“Aye,” said Arnulf.
“You’ve come too late,” said the woman. “A Malrag spear took him in the chest seven days past. You’re Athanaric’s men, aye?”
“I am Arnulf son of Kaerwulf,” said Arnulf.
“I heard,” said the woman. “I am Ethringa daughter of Jordanic, the holdmistress of Skullbane. What is your business here?”
“I’ll be blunt,” said Arnulf. “The hrould Athanaric wishes you to join him.”
“Why?” said Ethringa. “Does the mighty hrould wish me to hold his cups and scrub his floors?”
“No,” said Arnulf. “He wishes you, and your clan, to come with us when we leave.”
“When we leave?” said Ethringa. “When who leaves?”
“The Tervingi,” said Riothamus. “Those of us who are left.”
The wind moaned over the hilltop.
“Why?” said Ethringa. “This is our home.”
“Our home is infested with Malrags,” said Arnulf.
Ethringa lifted her chin. “We are Tervingi. We have fought off the Malrags for generations beyond count.”
“So we have,” said Riothamus. “But we cannot fight them now. There are too many. Village after village has burned. Thousands of warriors have fallen. If we stay, the Malrags will kill us all. No one will be left to sing the songs of the Tervingi nation.”
Ethringa gave him a disdainful look. “And just who are you, stripling?”
“I am Riothamus, son of Rigotharic.”
Ethringa sneered. “The witch’s apprentice. Bah! Your kind has no place among the Tervingi.”
“Athanaric thinks otherwise,” said Riothamus.
“Athanaric may be a great hrould and warrior,” said Ethringa, “but in this, he is a fool.”
Arnulf snorted. “You sound like Ragnachar.”
Ethringa spat. “That is an insult, swordthain. Were you Ragnachar’s men, I would not even be speaking with you. I care nothing for Ragnachar, his orcragar pets, or the Urdmoloch he worships with such devotion.”
“Ragnachar,” said Riothamus, “agrees with Athanaric. He leads his clans from our lands.”
Ethringa blinked, once. “He does? And what do the other hroulds think?”
“They think nothing,” said Arnulf. “They are dead.”
For the first time shock flickered over Ethringa’s face. “All of them?”
“Fallen in battle against the Malrags,” said Riothamus. “Athanaric and Ragnachar are the only hroulds left.”
“And if Athanaric said the sun rose in the east,” said Arnulf, “then Ragnachar would say it rose in the west. Yet they both agree the Tervingi must leave the middle lands and find a new homeland.”
For a long moment Ethringa said nothing, her face blank.
“No,” she said at last. “This is homeland. The blood of my sons has been shed to defend it. I will not abandon the graves of my kin.”
“Then you will die here,” said Riothamus.
“We will hold out,” said Ethringa.
“How many fighting men do you have left?” said Riothamus. “Or are all of them buried beneath these mounds? Do you have only old men and boys left to carry swords and spears?”
“We shall endure,” said Ethringa. “We shall fight to the last.”
“Then you will die,” said Riothamus. “If you come with us, the children and the women might yet live. If you stay here you will die…”
“Then let us die,” said Ethringa.
“If they want to die, let them,” said Arnulf. “Athanaric sent us to ask Fritigern to come, not to force his folk to march with us.” He looked at Riothamus. “The rest of the Tervingi will reach the fords of the Iron River in another five days. We’d best join them.”
Ethringa hesitated. “Custom demands that you eat at the table of the hold for this evening.”
Arnulf shrugged. “You are kind, holdmistress. But we are leaving these lands, and you’ll need every scrap of food to hold out here. You may as well have full bellies when the Malrags butcher you.” He turned. “Come. I want to get as far west as we can before night falls.”
Riothamus said nothing, staring at Ethringa, and she looked at him with disdainful contempt. He could argue with her, plead with her, try to sway her to see reason. But she would ignore everything he said simply because he could use magic, because he was the apprentice of the Guardian.
He turned to go and stumbled, catching himself on the shaft of his spear for balance.
An icy chill washed through him.
Ethringa scoffed. “Are you drunk, witcher? Or have your pet demons begun devouring your flesh?”
Arnulf knew better than to mock him. “What is it?”
“I sense something,” muttered Riothamus, straightening up. Dread tightened in his gut.
“What?” said Arnulf.
“I don’t know,” said Riothamus.
But he did, deep down.
He cast the seeking spell, his magical senses reaching out.
And he sensed the corruption in the forest, a black mass like a rotten tumor.
A black mass moving closer to the ringwall of Skullbane.
His eyes opened widened. “Malrags. At least eighty. Heading for us.”
Ethringa grabbed Arnulf’s arm. “Call your men and come inside my walls. If you stay out here, the Malrag devils will butcher you all.”
Riothamus knew Arnulf wanted to go blade to blade against the Malrags. Yet Arnulf was no fool, and he only had thirty men to stand against eighty or more Malrags.
But if they retreated within the walls of Skullbane, they would be trapped here until they starved to death or the Malrags slew them all.
“No,” said Riothamus. “Listen to me. We must face them outside the wall. I can help.”
“Do not listen to him!” said Ethringa. “He is a witcher, a wielder of dark arts. Perhaps he is even in league with the Malrag devils! Come into the walls, before…”
“No,” said Arnulf. “We are Tervingi, and all men must die. And if this is our day to die, we shall do it as men, rather than hiding like rats in a hole. Come!”
He strode down the hill, Riothamus following, as Ethringa slipped back into Skullbane’s ringwall. A dolorous iron bell rang from Skullbane, the clanging echoing off the hillside, the pigs squealing in terror in their pens. An alarm bell, summoning the men of Skullbane to arms.
What few of them were left.
“Get in line!” roared Arnulf, his massive axe in his right hand, his shield on his left arm. “A wall of shields! Facing the trees, now! Let’s show those Malrag devils how men of the Tervingi fight!” The swordthains and spearthains hastened to obey, forming themselves into a wall of shields and spears and swords.
Yet there were only thirty of them.
A moment later the Malrags emerged from the trees.
Dozens of Malrags, clad in ragged black chain mail, black axes and spears waiting in their hands. Black veins threaded their leathery gray hides like the roots of a dead tree, and their blank white eyes focused on the Tervingi warriors. Riothamus saw no Ogrags among their numbers, which was a relief, nor any balekhans or shamans.
But still more Malrags than they could face.
They rushed forward, gray lips peeling back from their yellowed fangs.
Arnulf stepped forward from the shield line. “You have a plan?” he said, voice low.
“Aye,” said Riothamus, eyes fixed on the Malrag warband.
“Better do it, witcher,” said Arnulf.
The Malrags roared and surged forward, charging for the shield wall.
Arnulf bellowed a war cry and slammed the flat of his axe against his shield. He began to shout a song in his raspy voice, bellowing one of the ancient songs repeated by the loresingers of the Tervingi throughout the generations. It told of Tervingar, the great hero of old, and his rebellion against the cruel tyranny of the Dark Elderborn. The swordthains and the spearthains took up the song, and soon their shouts echoed over the hills, louder even than the Malrags’ howling war cries.
Riothamus stared at the creatures. For a moment he was six years old again, his father’s hold burning around him, and the Malrags howled for his blood…
But he was not six years old any longer, and he had other weapons.
Riothamus closed his eyes and concentrated, hands wrapped around the oak shaft of his spear. The magic welled up in him, drawn from the bones of the earth beneath his boots, the wind moaning overhead, even the tangled roots of the trees threading through the ground. The power flooded through him, almost more than he could contain. Yet he channeled and focused it, as the Guardian had taught him, and cast a spell.
He threw out his hands, fingers hooked into claws, and glared at the sky.
Lightning ripped down from the gray clouds…