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Iceblade: Chapter 2


DRAGAR, KEEP YOUR SPIES focused on the traitor Farang at all times. He is our best chance of discovering the location of the Eldrin base at Maratic. He may have guessed the Emperor’s real reason for wanting that knowledge. If you discover this to be the case, kill him immediately.

Akadian.

.

.

It is only a two hour ride to the cliff circle, a huge ring of jagged obsidian rocks towering above the trees. Marin dismounts and we tether the horses in a dense thicket. We spend the afternoon pacing the great circular arena formed by the rock boundary, making sure each of us knows the ground in detail. Then we retreat to make camp, out of range of the hunting dogs that will be brought in tomorrow morning.

Marin shakes me before dawn and I wake instantly from an uneasy sleep.

“Ariel, time to go. We need to get into position before the beaters get there with their dogs. Then we approach the hunt cautiously on foot, to spy on the hunters as they arrive.”

“I’ll follow your lead.” I hurriedly gather my equipment in the cool darkness.

Lupine is left guarding the horses with a baleful look that makes her feelings abundantly clear. As far as wolf opinions go, being left out of the action is even worse than being given a bath.

By the time we reach the circle of cliffs, the ghostly outlines of rocks and trees are just emerging in the soft grey dawn light. Marin signals a halt at the foot of the rock wall.

“The path to the top starts here. Then we can look down on the hunt from above without being seen.”

The dark cliff above looks impossible until Marin forces his way through the undergrowth and pauses at the foot of a jagged crack. He starts to climb and the four of us follow him.

The rockface is almost vertical but the climbing is not difficult, although I wouldn’t have exactly described it as a path. It takes a short scramble and a couple of grazed knuckles to join the others on a hidden ledge, looking down on what will soon be a wide arena full of strutting Rapathian nobility, all pretending they are actually hunting these lions.

I can hear the beaters in the distance. Their yelling and the baying of their dogs draws closer as they drive the lions towards one of the gaps in the rock circle. Every now and then a piercing scream rends the air as one of the dogs is attacked by a lion. This only provokes more noise from the beaters as they drive the animals once more to the opening.

Marin pauses for a few moments and points to the flat area of trees and meadow below us. “Ariel and I will move into the middle of the circle and use the trees for concealment. Brac, you stay here, keep watch, make as many drawings as you can. Nem and Lania, take the ledges at each end of that high section of the wall on the far side. Observe faces but don’t attack unless I give the signal.” He hesitates, and then grips each of us by the arm. “If we don’t come back from this, I just want to say it has been a privilege to serve with all of you.”

The others seem unable to find words to reply and neither can I. All I can manage is to squeeze his hand before he turns and climbs down another steep scramble into the circle.

He points to the key sections in the arena. “I’ll cover the area to the south of here. You find a decent tree that gives you sight of the other end. By the sound of it, the beaters will have the lions here any minute, and the hunters will come in soon after.”

He hesitates for a moment, his deep hazel eyes holding my gaze. “Ariel, I know how hard you’re working at keeping this power of yours under control. Just make sure you manage it this time.” Before I can answer he disappears into the dappled light and shade under the trees.

It sounds as if I don’t have much time to spare before the place starts swarming with lions and people. Marin was right about getting trapped inside this circle the instant we reveal ourselves by attacking the Emperor. I break into a run, glancing around to select the best tree to hide in until a large evergreen oak appears in front of me.

Perfect. I leap for the lowest branch and swing myself up into its welcome protection.

Now I have to find the exact balance between caution, getting as high as I can to stay out of sight, and the best position to observe the Rapathians and to get a clear shot at the Emperor. I settle for a broad horizontal branch with a couple of leafy branches below it. Marin thought I would be better off in chainmail covered with dark green silk for this operation rather than go the whole way with Sylvani body-painting. There is no reason for anyone to look up if they are on high alert for approaching lions at ground level.

Until one of us starts the arrows flying, that is.

There is a kind of freedom in knowing this fight will probably be my last. Maybe there will be songs about how we killed the Emperor and saved Samaran from a devastating final battle. Marin has revealed his feelings for me and the others seem to have accepted me as one of their own. I just have to trust that Jantian will acknowledge my contribution and take care of Alina in the peace we are about to buy with our lives. Given the dark choices I’ve made recently, it is a better outcome than some possible futures I have looked at.

I have not been in position long when one of the lions limps out from the cover of the surrounding trees to cross the open grassy clearing below me.

They have already wounded it! This is no hunt, just butchery.

Blood is streaming down one of its forelegs, making it snarl in pain. And it has already scented me in the tree above its head. I had not considered the possibility of being outed by one of the lions. I hold my breath, willing it to move on before its focus draws attention to me.

The air is shattered by the braying of horns and the clash of spears against shields. The lion turns its head away from the noise and lopes off, dragging its wounded leg in the dirt. The first riders come into view, gaudily clad and waving spears decorated with silk pennants. The Rapathian army commanders are easily identified by their red and black uniforms but it takes a few moments to make out the rest of the motley horde.

Once I have figured out the pattern of this foreign elite, it becomes fairly easy to distinguish one group from another. Brac’s drawings were perfect preparation. There are seven great houses in the Rapathian aristocracy and each house has its own livery and sigils. The servants’ clothes are similar in style but plainer and cut in coarser cloth. And only the masters wear jewels.

Actually, it seems like the piling on of jewels is the quickest way to identify the nobility, and even work out who is the most important in their strange hierarchy. I concentrate on as many faces as possible, straining my ears to catch names as they whoop and shout to each other.

Two of our traitor generals emerge from the trees, looking a little awkward among their new foreign allies. They are wearing red and black Rapathian uniforms now, but with a stripe of grey and silver across the shoulder, marking them as neither one side or the other––and no doubt still being watched suspiciously by the Emperor. I recall Marin’s comment about the rapid turnover in the Rapathian hierarchy and wonder how long it will be before the Usurper decides that these turncoats have outlived their usefulness.

Then I see him in the middle distance, Ashur Purmut himself, riding a huge grey warhorse. He is the only one here wearing a steel breastplate and chainmail. His heavy attire and the enormous horse he needs to carry it look grand and impressive but the destrier is not the best animal for hunting. It thunders along on clumsy feet without the agility to twist and turn properly between the trees. Still, I remind myself, this isn’t really a hunt, just a dressed-up slaughterhouse. I grip my bow and slowly bring it into line with the narrow eye-slits in his gold-crowned helmet.

Marin was right about the difficulty of getting a clear shot. Too many people and too many trees. And a terrible price for all of us to pay if I get it wrong. If only the Usurper would get a bit closer. I steady my breathing and wait…

And the Emperor and his entourage move off to the far side of the circle. Maybe Marin will have better luck.

The deep roar of one of the lions comes from close by. I can’t see it yet but my sentan awareness feels it approaching the clearing below my tree. One of the beaters runs into view, pointing in the direction of the lion and blowing his horn to alert the hunters. A moment later I hear the twang of a bowstring and a dull thud as an arrow cuts across the young man’s throat. His hands go to his neck but the blood spurts between his fingers and he falls to the grass, his breath gasping and bubbling through the wound. A whining voice cuts the silence. One of our traitors, speaking Samarian.

“Akadian! That was one of mine you just used as bait!”

And then a voice whose harsh, heavily-accented Samarian I would know anywhere.

“Stop whining Murtal! The Emperor promised you rich enough rewards for your convenient services. You can spare the odd slave now and then. I’ll buy you another one.” Akadian charges through the trees astride a heavily-built destrier as unsuitable for hunting as the clumsy monster Purmut is riding.

In the same instant the lion smells the blood and leaps from the shadows to tear at the dying servant’s throat. Akadian gives a yell of triumph, flings his bow aside and raises his spear.

“Perfect bait! Got the thing in just the right place for a bit of sport.” He throws his spear with deadly accuracy, but not to kill. The point pins the lion’s foot to the ground, driving too deep for the creature to pull free.

“Murtal! Give me your spear––this is my kill!” Akadian throws himself from his horse and waves imperiously at the sullen turncoat who has just followed him into the clearing. He reaches up and snatches the spear from the man’s hand.

The lion is roaring and screaming in agony as Akadian circles, spear poised ready to strike. To my disgust, he still isn’t ready to kill it just yet. Instead, he jabs at it, wounding it repeatedly in the throat until blood is pouring from its mouth.

“You see, Murtal? This is how it’s done. It looks good on the paintings and sculptures.” Akadian is crowing with triumph, then shrugs offhandedly as Murtal turns his horse away with a grimace of frustration. The Samarian traitor sullenly shoves his way past the gathering crowd of Akadian’s admirers and rides back to find the rest of his retainers.

I grit my teeth as I watch, hand clamped on my bow. I could get a perfect shot at Akadian and I want more than anything to put an arrow through his cruel heart, put my sister out of his reach and the lion out of its misery. Desperately, I remind myself of Marin’s orders.

Only the Emperor.

The Rapathians edge forward into the clearing, laughing and applauding Akadian’s antics. The lion is on the ground now, writhing and struggling for breath. Akadian gives a harsh laugh and waves one of the jewel-laden Rapathian aristocrats towards the doomed creature. I can’t understand all their language but it’s clear he is telling the man to finish the job now he has done the hard part. Another way to show off I suppose.

Akadian swaggers back to his horse and rides away with his admirers following him, still applauding. The two remaining richly-dressed Rapathians dismount and approach the stricken lion.

And then my newly established self-discipline starts to go to pieces. They are flaying the animal’s skin from its flesh even before it is dead. All the anger I have been trying to keep under control is focusing into a white-hot blaze of fury and into the core of that anger comes the memory of how I held back on taking life-force from Deris because I knew instinctively that if he was unprepared, it would kill him. The opportunity is too much and the power-lust takes over as I suddenly understand what I could achieve with that additional strength.

No holding back now.

Silently, I replace my bow and draw my dagger, then drop from the branch onto the heavily-built man directly below me, hitting him with my feet on his shoulders the instant before the blade is in the back of his neck. He goes down without a grunt and I’m facing his companion, his knife red with the lion’s blood. I don’t give him time to recover from the shock of my arrival and the unexpected death playing out before his eyes. I sink my short blade into the back of his hand, making it easy to wrench the knife from his grasp.

But I’m not going to kill him with blade or arrow. Not this time. I press my hand to his neck. His pulse surges as it forces lifeblood through his over-stressed body. I know how much I need the sharp, savage power I can steal from him for what I intend to do next.

And then I drag his life-force out of him. His eyes widen in terror as the ice-cold shiver of death sweeps through him and I watch them glaze over as he sinks lifeless to the ground. For an instant I feel a sickening revulsion as his cruel, greedy energy runs through me like a poisoned river. And somehow, I manage to grasp the sheer brutal power of it.


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