“Asked the Governor to set him loose at nightfall,” Vaelin told him.
The thing roared in pain and rage, the axe arching round in a silver blur. Vaelin ducked under the blade, lancing out with the dagger, piercing the thing’s chest, seeking the heart. It roared again, swinging the axe with inhuman speed. Vaelin left the dagger embedded in its chest and caught hold of the haft of the axe as it swung round, backhanded a savage blow to the thing’s face and followed with a kick to the groin. It barely staggered and delivered a stinging head-butt, sending Vaelin reeling across the sand, falling onto his back.
“Something I didn’t tell you about Barkus, brother!” the thing said, leaping closer, axe raised. “When you trained together, I always made him hold back.”
Vaelin rolled to the side as the axe bit down on the sand, twisted to send a kick into the thing’s temple, surging to his feet as it shook off the pain and swung again, the blade meeting only air as Vaelin dived over the arc of the swing, ducked in close to snatch the dagger from its chest, stabbed again then stepped back to let the axe swing within an inch of his face.
The thing that had been Barkus stared at him, shocked, still, smoke rising from his burns, his ruined arm bleeding onto the sand. He dropped the axe and his good hand went to the rapidly spreading stain on his shirt. He stared at the thick slick of blood covering his palm for a second then slowly sank to his knees.
Vaelin moved past him and retrieved the axe from the sand, fighting revulsion at the feel of it in his hands. Is this why I always hated it so? Because this was its final purpose?
“Nicely done, brother.” The thing that had been Barkus showed bloodstained teeth in a grin of absolute malice. “Perhaps the next time you kill me, I’ll be wearing the face of someone you love even more.”
The axe was light, unnaturally so, making only the faintest whisper as he brought it up and round, slicing through skin and bone as easily as it did the air. The head of what had been his brother rolled on the sand and was still.
He tossed the axe aside and pulled Scratch from the dying remnants of the fire. Heaping sand onto the smouldering burns, tearing his shirt to press rags against the deep cuts in his side. The slave-hound whimpered, tongue lapping weakly at Vaelin’s hand. “I’m sorry, daft dog.” He found his vision blurred by tears and his voice caught by sobs. “I’m sorry.”
He buried them separately. For some reason it seemed the right thing to do. He said no words for Barkus, knowing his brother had died years ago and in any case he was no longer sure if he could say them and not feel a liar. As the sun rose he took the axe and walked to the edge of the beach. The morning tide was coming in fast, the breakers roaring in from the headland. He hefted the axe, surprised to find the revulsion had gone, whatever Dark stain it had held seemed to have dissipated with the death of the man who had fashioned it. Now it was just metal. Finely grafted and gleaming in the sun, but still just metal. He hurled it into the sea with all the strength he could muster, watched it glitter as it turned end over end before dropping into the waves with a small splash.
He washed himself in the surf and returned to his makeshift camp, covering the bloodstains as best he could, then made for the road, walking back towards Linesh. It was an hour or so before he came to the agreed place and the desert heat was coming on swiftly. He chose a spot near a road marker and sat down to wait.
The blood-song rose as he sat there, a new tune, stronger and clearer than before. As his thoughts turned in his head he found the music changed, mournful as he recalled the final whimper from Scratch, bombastic as he replayed the fight with the thing that had been Barkus, and with the music came images, sounds, feelings he knew were not his own. He understood that for the first time he was truly in command of his song, he was finally singing.
Somewhere in a place that wasn’t a place something was screaming, begging forgiveness from an unseen hand that dealt punishment of depthless pain, untroubled by mercy or malice.
In a palace far to the north a young woman composed the greeting she would offer her brother on his return, a carefully crafted speech combining grief, regret and loyalty with expert precision. Once satisfied she lay down her quill, requested some refreshment from her maid and, when she was certain she was alone, put her perfect face in her hands and wept.
To the west another young woman gazed at a broad ocean and refused to weep. In her hand she held two wooden blocks wrapped in a finely embroidered silk scarf. Below her the sea beat against the ship’s hull, scattering spume into the air. Her hand itched to throw the bundle to the waves, anger burning in her, a hard pain she couldn’t escape, making her hate the thoughts it provoked. A desire for revenge was not something she understood, never having felt it before. From behind came a shout of pain and she turned, seeing a sailor collapsed on the deck having fallen from the rigging, clutching at a broken leg and swearing profusely in a language she didn’t understand. “Lie still!” she commanded, moving to his side, returning the blocks and the scarf to the folds of her cloak.
Aboard another ship sailing another ocean, a young man sat, silent and still, his face a blank mask. Despite his stillness he provoked fear in those around him, their master’s orders having made it clear that to awaken his interest invited the swiftest death. Although the young man was as unmoving as a statue, within his shirt the scars on his chest burned with a continual, fierce agony.
Vaelin focused the song to a single pure note, casting it forth across the deserts, jungles and ocean that separated them: I will find you, brother.
The young man stiffened momentarily, drawing fearful glances from those who guarded him, then returned to his previous immobile, expressionless state.
The vision and the song faded, leaving him sitting in the blazing sun, a dust cloud rising in the east, soon resolving through the haze into a troop of horsemen, the tall figure of Grand Prosecutor Velsus at their head, riding hard, eager to claim his prize.
END OF BOOK ONE