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Letherii, the white-skinned peoples from the south.

He could imagine the anger of those in the village he now approached, once he delivered the news of his discovery – an anger he shared. This encroachment on Edur territories was brazen, the theft of seals that rightly belonged to his people an arrogant defiance of the old agreements.

There were fools among the Letherii, just as there were fools among the Edur. Trull could not imagine this broaching being anything but unsanctioned. The Great Meeting was only two cycles of the moon away. It served neither side’s purpose to spill blood now. No matter that the Edur would be right in attacking and destroying the intruder ships; the Letherii delegation would be outraged at the slaughter of its citizens, even citizens contravening the laws. The chances of agreeing upon a new treaty had just become minuscule.

And this disturbed Trull Sengar. One long and vicious war had just ended for the Edur: the thought of another beginning was too hard to bear.

He had not embarrassed his brothers during the wars of subjugation; on his wide belt was a row of twenty-one red-stained rivets, each one marking a coup, and among those seven were ringed in white paint, to signify actual kills. Only his elder brother’s belt sported more trophies among the male children of Tomad Sengar, and that was right and proper, given Fear Sengar’s eminence among the warriors of the Hiroth tribe.

Of course, battles against the five other tribes of the Edur were strictly bound in rules and prohibitions, and even vast, protracted battles had yielded only a handful of actual deaths. Even so, the conquests had been exhausting. Against the Letherii, there were no rules to constrain the Edur warriors. No counting coup. Just killing. Nor did the enemy need a weapon in hand – even the helpless and the innocent would know the sword’s bite. Such slaughter stained warrior and victim alike.

But Trull well knew that, though he might decry the killing that was to come, he would do so only to himself, and he would stride alongside his brothers, sword in hand, to deliver the Edur judgement upon the trespassers. There was no choice. Turn away from this crime and more would follow, in waves unending.

His steady jog brought him past the tanneries, with their troughs and stone-lined pits, to the forest edge. A few Letherii slaves glanced his way, quickly bowing in deference until he was past. The towering cedar logs of the village wall rose from the clearing ahead, over which woodsmoke hung in stretched streams. Fields of rich black soil spread out to either side of the narrow, raised track leading to the distant gate. Winter had only just begun to release its grip on the earth, and the first planting of the season was still weeks away. By midsummer, close to thirty different types of plants would fill these fields, providing food, medicine, fibres and feed for the livestock, many among the thirty of a flowering variety, drawing the bees from which honey and wax were procured. The tribe’s women oversaw the slaves in such harvesting. The men would leave in small groups to journey into the forest, to cut timber or hunt, whilst others set out in the Knarri ships to harvest from the seas and shoals.

Or so it should be, when peace ruled the tribes. The past dozen years had seen more war-parties setting out than any other kind, and so the people had on occasion suffered. Until the war, hunger had never threatened the Edur. Trull wanted an end to such depredations. Hannan Mosag, Warlock King of the Hiroth, was now overlord to all the Edur tribes. From a host of warring peoples, a confederacy had been wrought, although Trull well knew that it was a confederacy in name only. Hannan Mosag held as hostage the firstborn sons of the subjugated chiefs – his K’risnan Cadre – and ruled as dictator. Peace, then, at the point of a sword, but peace none the less.

A recognizable figure was striding from the palisade gate, approaching the fork in the trail where Trull now halted. ‘I greet you, Binadas,’ he said.

A spear was strapped to his younger brother’s back, a hide pack slung round one shoulder and resting against a hip; at the opposite side a single-edged longsword in a leather-wrapped wooden scabbard. Binadas was half a head taller than Trull, his visage as weathered as his buckskin clothes. Of Trull’s three brothers, Binadas was the most remote, evasive and thus difficult to predict, much less understand. He resided in the village only infrequently, seeming to prefer the wilds of the western forest and the mountains to the south. He had rarely joined others in raids, yet often when he returned he carried trophies of coup, and so none doubted his bravery.

‘You are winded, Trull,’ Binadas observed, ‘and I see distress once more upon your face.’

‘There are Letherii moored off the Calach beds.’

Binadas frowned. ‘I shall not delay you, then.’

‘Will you be gone long, brother?’

The man shrugged, then stepped past Trull, taking the westerly fork of the trail.

Trull Sengar moved on, through the gate and into the village.

Four smithies dominated this inland end of the vast walled interior, each surrounded by a deep sloping trench that drained into a buried channel that led away from the village and the surrounding fields. For what seemed years the forges had rung almost ceaselessly with the fashioning of weapons, and the stench of heavy, acrid fumes had filled the air, rising up to coat nearby trees in white-crusted soot. Now, as he passed, Trull saw that only two were occupied, and the dozen or so visible slaves were unhurried in their work.

Beyond the smithies ran the elongated, brick-lined storage chambers, a row of segmented beehive-shaped buildings that held surplus grains, smoked fish and seal meat, whale oil and harvested fibre plants. Similar structures existed in the deep forest surrounding each village – most of which were empty at the moment, a consequence of the wars.

The stone houses of the weavers, potters, carvers, lesser scribes, armourers and other assorted skilled citizens of the village rose round Trull once he was past the storage chambers. Voices called out in greeting, to which he made the minimal response that decorum allowed, such gestures signifying to his acquaintances that he could not pause for conversation.

The Edur warrior now hurried through the residential streets. Letherii slaves called villages such as this one cities, but no citizen saw the need for changing their word usage – a village it had been at birth, thus a village it would always be, no matter that almost twenty thousand Edur and thrice that number of Letherii now resided within it.

Shrines to the Father and his Favoured Daughter dominated the residential area, raised platforms ringed by living trees of the sacred Blackwood, the surface of the stone discs crowded with images and glyphs. Kurald Emurlahn played ceaselessly within the tree-ringed circle, rippling half-shapes dancing along the pictographs, the sorcerous emanations awakened by the propitiations that had accompanied the arrival of dusk.

Trull Sengar emerged onto the Avenue of the Warlock, the sacred approach to the massive citadel that was both temple and palace, and the seat of the Warlock King, Hannan Mosag. Black-barked cedars lined the approach. The trees were a thousand years old, towering over the entire village. They were devoid of branches except for the uppermost reaches. Invested sorcery suffused every ring of their midnight wood, bleeding out to fill the entire avenue with a shroud of gloom.

At the far end, a lesser palisade enclosed the citadel and its grounds, constructed of the same black wood, these boles crowded with carved wards. The main gate was a tunnel formed of living trees, a passage of unrelieved shadow leading to a footbridge spanning a canal in which sat a dozen K’orthan raider longboats. The footbridge opened out onto a broad flagstoned compound flanked by barracks and storehouses. Beyond stood the stone and timber longhouses of the noble families – those with blood-ties to Hannan Mosag’s own line – with their wood-shingled roofs and Blackwood ridgepoles, the array of residences neatly bisected by a resumption of the Avenue, across yet another footbridge to the citadel proper.