Valour

Valour_BookTitle: Valour
Series: The Faithful And The Fallen #2
Published by: Pan MacMillan
Release Date: 11/09/2014
Genre:
Pages: 672
ISBN13: 978-0330545761

The second in The Faithful and the Fallen series, Valour by John Gwynne carries all of the excitement of the first.

The Banished Lands are torn by war as the army of High King Nathair sweeps the realm challenging all who oppose his holy crusade. Allied with the manipulative Queen Rhin of Cambren, there are few who can stand against him. But Rhin is playing her own games and has her eyes on a far greater prize . . .

Left for dead – her kin have fled and her country is overrun with enemies – Cywen fights to survive. But any chance of escape is futile once Nathair and his disquieting advisor Calidus realize who she is. They have no intention of letting such a prize slip from their grasp. For she may be their one chance at killing the biggest threat to their power.

Meanwhile, the young warrior Corban flees from his conquered homeland with his exiled companions, heading for the only place that may offer them sanctuary. But to get there they must travel through Cambren, avoiding warbands, giants and the vicious wolven of the mountains. And all the while Corban struggles to become the man that everyone believes him to be – the Bright Star and saviour of the Banished Lands.

Embroiled in struggles for power and survival, the mortal world is unaware of the greatest threat of all. In the Otherworld, dark forces scheme to bring a host of the Fallen into the world of flesh to end the war with the Faithful, once and for all.

 

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CHAPTER ONE

UTHAS

The Year 1142 of the Age of Exiles, Birth Moon

The cauldron was a hulking mass of black iron, tall and wide, squatting upon a dais in the centre of a cavernous room. Torches of blue flame hung on the walls of the chamber, pockets of light punctuating the darkness. In the shadows, circling its edges, long and sinuous shapes moved.

Uthas of the Benothi giants strode towards the cauldron, his shadow flickering on the walls. He climbed the steps and stopped before it. It was utterly black, appearing to suck the torchlight into it, consuming it, reflecting nothing back. Just for a moment it seemed to shudder, a gentle throb, like a diseased heart.

A muffled request from the chamber’s entrance reached him but he did not move, just continued to stare.

‘What?’ he said eventually.

‘Nemain sends for you, Uthas. She says the Dreamer is waking.’

The giant sighed and turned to leave the chamber. He brushed his fingertips against the cauldron’s cold belly and froze.

‘What is it?’ his shieldman Salach called from the chamber’s doorway.

Uthas cocked his head to one side, closing his eyes. Voices, calling to me. ‘Nothing,’ he murmured, unsure whether he heard or felt the whisperings from within the cauldron. ‘Soon,’ he breathed as he pulled his fingers from the cold iron.

A shape slithered from the shadows as he walked towards the exit. It blocked his way, gliding about him. A wyrm, white scales glistening as it raised its flat head and regarded him with cold, soulless eyes. He stood there, still and silent, let it taste his scent, felt an instant of unease as he waited, then the snake slithered away, its huge coils bunching and expanding, back to the shadows to rejoin its brood. He let out a breath.

‘Come, then,’ he said as he strode past Salach. ‘Best not keep Nemain waiting.’

He glanced at the chamber’s dour-faced guards, all wrapped in fur and iron, as he marched past them. Salach’s footfalls followed him. In silence they passed through the bowels of Murias, the last stronghold of the Benothi. It was nestled deep in the highlands of Benoth, carved into and beneath the grey, mist-shrouded land.

In time they reached a wide staircase that spiralled up into darkness and soon Uthas was muttering under his breath, the old pain in his knee gnawing at him as he climbed higher and higher.

Bitseach,’ he swore, thinking of Nemain waiting for him at the top of this high tower. Salach chuckled behind him.

Eventually they were at a doorway. Salach nodded to the warrior standing there, Sreng, Nemain’s shield-maiden. She opened the door for them.

The room was sparsely decorated, with little furniture apart from a large, fur-draped bed at its centre. A woman lay upon it, slender, sweat-soaked, her limbs jerking and twitching. A white-haired man sat beside her, his huge bulk crammed into a chair, holding her hand. He looked over as Uthas and Salach entered the room and stared at them, a ruined, scar-latticed hole where one of his eyes should have been.

‘One-Eye.’ Uthas nodded. ‘How is she?’

Balur One-Eye shrugged.

‘Where is Nemain?’

‘I am here,’ a voice said, drawing Uthas’ gaze to the far end of the room. A figure stood in an arched doorway, framed by the pale day beyond.

Nemain, Queen of the Benothi. Ravens gathered on the balcony beyond her. One fluttered onto her shoulder.

‘My Queen,’ Uthas said, dipping his head.

‘Welcome back,’ she replied, hair the colour of midnight framing her milky, angular face. ‘What news?’

‘Events are stirring in the south,’ Uthas said. ‘Narvon wars with Ardan, and the warriors of Cambren are marching east.’ He paused, breathing deep, his next words frozen on his lips. He feared the answer he expected. ‘Our enemies war amongst themselves. It would be a good time to strike and reclaim what was ours.’ Please, Nemain, give the order. Save me from what I must do if you refuse.

Nemain smiled, though there was little humour in it. ‘Strike south? We are a broken people, Uthas – you know this. Too few to fill this fortress, let alone the south that once was ours. Besides, we are set a different task, now.’ She walked out onto the balcony.

He sighed and followed her onto the balcony’s edge, where cold air stung his skin. A cliff face sloped steeply down, wreathed far below in mist, a sea of dark granite and snow and wiry heather rolling into the distance. Ravens swirled about the balcony, riding the updraught. One cawed and veered to land besides Nemain. Idly she reached out and scratched its head. It clacked its beak.

‘What of the west?’ she said. ‘What of Domhain?’

Uthas shrugged. ‘There we know little. I suspect that Eremon grows older, content to do nothing in his dotage. That bandraoi Rath keeps us out,’ he spat. ‘He does not rest. He hunts our scouts, raids our land, him and his giant-hunters. There have been some casualties.’

‘Ach,’ Nemain hissed, eyes flashing red. ‘I would like nothing more than to march out and take back what we have lost, remind Rath why he hates us.’

‘Then let us do it,’ Uthas urged, feeling his blood surge, hope flaring.

‘We cannot,’ Nemain said. ‘The cauldron must be guarded. Never again can it be used. It must not fall into the wrong hands.’

Uthas felt the words like a hammer blow, her words sealing his future.

‘But we must know of what is happening beyond our borders. Domhain cannot remain closed to us. You will lead a company south, learn what you can of Eremon’s plans.’

‘As you command, my Queen,’ Uthas said.

‘Choose who you will, but not too many. Speed will serve you better than strength in numbers. And avoid Rath’s notice.’

‘I will do as you say.’

A sharp cry rang out from the chamber behind them. The woman on the bed was sitting upright, sweat-darkened hair clinging to her face, eyes wild and bulging. Balur gripped her hand, murmuring to her.

‘Ethlinn, what have you seen?’ Nemain asked.

The pale-faced woman took a shuddering breath. ‘They are coming,’ she whispered. ‘The Kadoshim draw ever closer. They feel the cauldron. The Black Sun, he is coming to make them flesh. He is coming for the cauldron.’

CHAPTER TWO

CYWEN

Cywen woke slowly, like the tide creeping in.

First she felt. A dull throbbing in her head, her shoulder, her hip. She ached everywhere, she realized, but worse in those places. Then she heard. Groaning, low voices, the thud of footfalls, a dragging, scraping sound, and behind it the cry of gulls and the distant murmur of the sea. She tried to open her eyes; one was crusted shut. Daylight felt like a knife jabbing into her head. Where am I? She looked about and saw warriors in red cloaks dragging bodies across the stone-paved courtyard, leaving blood-smeared trails across the cobbles, piling them onto a heaped mound of corpses.

Suddenly it all came flooding back, memory upon memory tumbling together: talking on the wall with Marrock, Evnis in the courtyard, the black-clothed warriors within the walls, the gates opening, Conall . . .

There was something soft beneath her. She was sprawled upon a body, a female, staring at her with lifeless eyes. Staggering she climbed upright, the world spinning briefly before it settled.

Stonegate was wide open, a trickle of people passing in and out of the fortress, most in the red cloaks of Narvon. Columns of black smoke marked the pale sky, a soft breeze from the sea tugging at them, blurring where smoke ended and sky began.

The battle is lost, then. Dun Carreg is fallen.

Then another thought cut through the fog filling her mind. My family.

She looked at the bodies strewn about her, remembered falling with Conall but could not see him amongst the dead. Her mam and da’s faces flashed through her mind, Corban, then Gar’s. Where was everyone?

She left the courtyard unchallenged and drifted slowly through the streets, following the trail of the dead. They were littered everywhere, sometimes in mounds where the fighting had raged fiercer, some still locked together in a macabre embrace. The smell of smoke and fire grew thicker the deeper she walked into the fortress. Her feet took her to the stables. There were more warriors here, red-cloaked men tending wild-eyed horses. She glimpsed Corban’s stallion Shield in the paddock, then he was gone, lost amongst the herd gathered there.

Where is Gar?

As if in a dream she walked on, peering at the faces of the dead, searching for her family, relieved every time a lifeless face was not one of them. Her search continued, becoming more frantic until she found herself in the courtyard before the feast-hall.

Another pile of the dead was heaped here, greater even than the one before Stonegate. Warriors were everywhere, wounded, covered in ash and blood. In one corner Cywen saw the grey-cloaks of Ardan, the defeated warriors gathered together, many injured. They were guarded by a cohort of Owain’s men.

A great ululation came from the feast-hall. Something – a board, a tabletop – was being carried from the entranceway. As Cywen watched, it was hoisted upright and leaned with a thud against one of the columns that supported the entrance. A body was fixed to the board, covered in blood but still recognizable. Cywen’s stomach lurched.

Brenin. His head was lolling, arms twisted, wrists and ankles nailed to the tabletop. A great bloom of blood surrounding the wound in his chest. Cywen spat bile onto the stained cobblestones, motes of ash falling softly about her like black snow.

She wiped her mouth and stumbled towards the hall’s doors, eyes fixed on Brenin’s corpse.

‘Please, Elyon, All-Father,’ she prayed, ‘let my kin still live.’ She stopped before Brenin, stood staring up at him until a warrior bumped into her and told her to get out of the way. She glared at him.

Noise from the feast-hall leaked out into the courtyard, some kind of commotion – men shouting, a deep growling. Storm?

Then she was dashing through the open doors, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the gloom. Everything was chaos in here, tables and chairs overturned, timbers blackened and charred with fire, clouds of smoke still clinging to the rafters where the flames had only recently been doused. There were many people gathered in here. She saw Owain talking with Nathair, a cluster of the black-clothed warriors that had stormed the gates gathered about him. Evnis was amongst them, and Conall. Anger flashed in her gut and her hand instinctively reached for her knife-belt. She scowled as she remembered she’d used all the blades last night on the wall.

Then her eyes were drawn back to the commotion that had first caught her attention. A group of warriors were circling something, a snapping, snarling something.

‘Just kill it,’ she heard one of the warriors say and saw a flash of sharp white teeth, a flat muzzle, brindle fur.

‘Buddai,’ she whispered and ran forwards, elbowing through the line of warriors.

They were grouped in a half-circle about Buddai, the great hound standing with his head lowered, teeth bared.

Cywen stumbled to a halt and Buddai’s big head swung round to face her, teeth snapping. Then, suddenly, he knew her. He whined, his tail wagging hesitantly at seeing someone familiar in this place of death, someone that was pack. She threw herself upon him, arms wrapped about his neck, and buried her face in his fur. She stayed like that long moments, tears spilling into Buddai’s fur. In time she leaned back, got a lick on the face and looked down.

‘That’s why you’re here,’ she mumbled. Her da lay sprawled on the ground, eyes glassy, flat, wounds all over his body, blood crusting black. With a deep sob she knelt beside Thannon’s corpse and gently brushed her fingertips across his cheek. Are they all slain, then? She laid her head upon Thannon’s chest. Buddai snuggled in close to her and nudged Thannon’s hand with his muzzle. It flopped on the ground.

‘Girl,’ a voice said and a spear butt dug into her back.

‘What?’

‘You need to move,’ the man said, an older warrior, silver streaks in his red beard.

‘No,’ she said, squeezing her da tighter.

‘We have to clear the hall, lass, an’ that hound won’t let us near him.’ He prodded Thannon’s boot with his spear butt. Buddai growled. ‘If you can get that hound to go with you all the better, otherwise we’ve no choice but t’kill it.’

Kill Buddai. No more death.

‘I . . . yes,’ Cywen said, wiping her eyes and nose. She knelt before Buddai, running her hands over him. Blood crusted the fur on his front shoulder and he whined when she probed the wound. ‘Come with me, Buds,’ she whispered, ‘else they’ll kill you too.’ He just cocked his head and stared at her with uncomprehending eyes.

Cywen stood, took a few steps away from the hound and called him. He took a hesitant step towards her, then looked back at his fallen master and whined pitifully.

‘Come on, Buds. Come.’ Cywen slapped her hand against her leg, and this time he came to her. The red-bearded warrior nodded and continued with his work.

No one was taking any notice of Cywen; she was just another blood-stained survivor of the night’s dark work. All of the warriors in the room seemed to be busy clearing the floors, tending to wounded comrades. Owain and Nathair were still deep in conversation, though Cywen saw that the King of Tenebral’s shieldman – the black-clad warrior called Sumur – was staring back at her.

‘Come on, Buddai,’ Cywen said. ‘Best be getting out of here.’ She turned towards the feast-hall doors and with a thud crashed into someone.

Oof,’ the man grunted. ‘Watch where you’re— You.’

Cywen stood frozen, staring at the person she had collided with. It was Rafe.

The huntsman’s son glared at her. Buddai growled and Rafe took a step backwards.

His fair hair was dank, ash stained, his eyes red veined with dark hollow rings. He had been crying. There was a gash in one leg of his breeches, just above the knee, and drying blood soaked down to his boots. A ragged bandage was tied tight above the wound.

‘Your brother did that to me,’ he said, following her gaze to his wounded leg. ‘One more thing I owe him for.’

‘Ban,’ Cywen gasped, her heart twisting at the mention of her brother. ‘He lives, then?’ She was almost too scared to speak the thought out loud.

‘Maybe, but not for long. We’ll catch him, catch all of them.’

All of them? Who else? My mam, Gar?’

Rafe just looked at her, then smiled slowly. ‘All on your own, little girl? Best be getting used to that.’

She felt a swell of rage, hated Rafe at that moment as much as she’d hated anyone. She reached for her knives again, cursed silently when she remembered they were all gone. ‘Traitor,’ she hissed at him.

‘Depends where you’re looking from,’ Rafe said, but frowned nevertheless. ‘Way I see it, Evnis is my lord. I do as I’m bid. And it seems to me he’s on the winning side, at least.’

‘For now,’ Cywen muttered.

‘Things have changed around here.’ Rafe wagged a finger at her. ‘And if you don’t realize that quick, you’ll end up sorry. You’d best be minding your manners from now on. All your protectors have left you. Not so special are you, eh? Why’d they leave you?’ He grinned. ‘Think about that.’

Cywen wanted to hit him. His words were sharp, cutting deep like one of her knives. She clenched her fists, knowing attacking anyone right now was not a good idea.

Rafe looked over her shoulder and she followed his gaze. Evnis was beckoning to the huntsman’s son, Conall still beside him. ‘I’ll be seeing you,’ Rafe said. ‘And don’t worry, we’ll find your kin for you.’ He grinned, an unpleasant twist of his mouth, and drew a finger slowly across his throat, from ear to ear. Before she knew it, Cywen was stepping forwards, ramming her knee into Rafe’s groin.

He crumpled forwards, folding in upon himself and curled up into a ball on the ground, whimpering.

‘Best you keep away from me and my kin,’ she snarled at him, then heard a chuckling behind her. The red-bearded warrior was watching her, along with a handful of others.

‘You’n that hound, you’re a good match,’ the warrior said. He grinned and she flushed red, biting back angry words, thought she’d best be making herself scarce. Lowering her gaze, she headed for the feast-hall’s open doors, Buddai following. She glanced back as she stepped out into the daylight to see Rafe pushing himself up from the ground. Sumur was still staring at her.

Consumed with an urge to go home, she ran through the streets, Buddai limping along beside her.

When she opened the door and stepped into the kitchen she almost expected to see her mam standing there, bustling about by the ovens, her da sitting at the table, eating something. She even called out, hoping to hear someone. She searched every room until she found herself back in the kitchen. Her home was empty, as cold and lifeless as her da’s gaze.

Where are they?

‘Gone,’ she whispered. A sob bubbled out of her and she swayed, steadying herself against the kitchen table.

All gone. And they’ve left me behind. Rafe’s words rang loud in her memory. How could they just leave me? She looked at Buddai and the hound stared trustingly back at her. An image of her da flooded her mind, crusted blood all over him, those terrible, empty eyes. She wished her mam was there to hold her, comfort her. And Ban, her brother, her best friend. Why had he abandoned her? Another sob burst out of her and she sank to the floor, wrapped her arms about Buddai and began to cry in great, racking waves. The brindle hound licked Cywen’s tear-stained cheek and curled himself protectively about her.