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There were warriors training in the compound, and Trull saw the tall, broad-shouldered figure of his elder brother, Fear, standing with a half-dozen of his assistants nearby, watching the weapons practice. A pang of sympathy for those young warriors flickered through Trull. He himself had suffered beneath his brother’s critical, unrelenting eye during the years of his own schooling.

A voice hailed him and Trull glanced over to the other side of the compound, to see his youngest brother, Rhulad, and Midik Buhn. They had been doing their own sparring, it seemed, and a moment later Trull saw the source of their uncharacteristic diligence – Mayen, Fear’s betrothed, had appeared with four younger women in tow, probably on their way to the market, given the dozen slaves accompanying them. That they had stopped to watch the sudden, no doubt impromptu martial demonstration was of course obligatory, given the complex rules of courtship. Mayen was expected to treat all of Fear’s brothers with appropriate respect.

Although there was nothing untoward in the scene Trull looked upon, he nevertheless felt a tremor of unease. Rhulad’s eagerness to strut before the woman who would be his eldest brother’s wife had crept to the very edge of proper conduct. Fear was, in Trull’s opinion, displaying far too much indulgence when it came to Rhulad.

As have we all. Of course, there were reasons for that.

Rhulad had clearly bested his childhood companion in the mock contest, given the flushed pride in his handsome face. ‘Trull!’ He waved his sword. ‘I have drawn blood once this day, and now thirst for more! Come, scrape the rust off that sword at your side!’

‘Some other time, brother,’ Trull called back. ‘I must speak with our father without delay.’

Rhulad’s grin was amiable enough, but even from ten paces away Trull saw the flash of triumph in his clear grey eyes. ‘Another time, then,’ he said, with a final dismissive wave of his sword as he turned back to face the women.

But Mayen had gestured to her companions and the party was already moving off.

Rhulad opened his mouth to say something to her, but Trull spoke first. ‘Brother, I invite you to join me. The news I must give our father is of grave import, and I would that you are present, so that your words are woven into the discussion that will follow.’ An invitation that was normally made only to those warriors with years of battle on their belts, and Trull saw the sudden pride lighting his brother’s eyes.

‘I am honoured, Trull,’ he said, sheathing his sword.

Leaving Midik standing alone and tending to a sword-cut on his wrist, Rhulad joined Trull and they strode to the family Ionghouse.

Trophy shields cluttered the outside walls, many of them sun-faded by the centuries. Whale bones clung to the underside of the roof’s overhang. Totems stolen from rival tribes formed a chaotic arch over the doorway, the strips of fur, beaded hide, shells, talons and teeth looking like an elongated bird’s nest.

They passed within.

The air was cool, slightly acrid with woodsmoke. Oil lamps sat in niches along the walls, between tapestries and stretched furs. The traditional hearthstone in the centre of the chamber, where each family had once prepared its meals, remained stoked with tinder, although the slaves now worked in kitchens behind the Ionghouse proper, to reduce the risk of fires. Blackwood furniture marked out the various rooms, although no dividing walls were present. Hung from hooks on the crossbeams were scores of weapons, some from the earliest days, when the art of forging iron had been lost in the dark times immediately following Father Shadow’s disappearance, the rough bronze of these weapons pitted and warped.

Just beyond the hearthstone rose the bole of a living Blackwood, from which the gleaming upper third of a longsword thrust upward and outward at just above head height: a true Emurlahn blade, the iron treated in some manner the smiths had yet to rediscover. The sword of the Sengar family, signifier of their noble bloodline; normally, these original weapons of the noble families, bound against the tree when it was but a sapling, were, after centuries, gone from sight, lying as they did along the heartwood. But some twist in this particular tree had pried the weapon away, thus revealing that black and silver blade. Uncommon, but not unique.

Both brothers reached out and touched the iron as they passed.

They saw their mother, Uruth, flanked by slaves as she worked on the bloodline’s tapestry, finishing the final scenes of the Sengar participation in the War of Unification. Intent on her work, she did not look up as her sons strode past.

Tomad Sengar sat with three other noble-born patriarchs around a game board fashioned from a huge palmate antler, the playing pieces carved from ivory and jade.

Trull halted at the edge of the circle. He settled his right hand over the pommel of his sword, signifying that the words he brought were both urgent and potentially dangerous. Behind him, he heard Rhulad’s quickly indrawn breath.

Although none of the elders looked up, Tomad’s guests rose as one, while Tomad himself began putting away the game pieces. The three elders departed in silence, and a moment later Tomad set the game board to one side and settled back on his haunches.

Trull settled down opposite him. ‘I greet you, Father. A Letherii fleet is harvesting the Calach beds. The herds have come early, and are now being slaughtered. I witnessed these things with my own eyes, and have not paused in my return.’

Tomad nodded. ‘You have run for three days and two nights, then.’

‘I have.’

‘And the Letherii harvest, it was well along?’

‘Father, by dawn this morning, Daughter Menandore will have witnessed the ships’ holds filled to bursting, and the sails filling with wind, the wake of every ship a crimson river.’

‘And new ships arriving to take their places!’ Rhulad hissed.

Tomad frowned at his youngest son’s impropriety, and made his disapproval clear with his next words. ‘Rhulad, take this news to Hannan Mosag.’

Trull sensed his brother’s flinch, but Rhulad nodded. ‘As you command, Father.’ He pivoted and marched away.

Tomad’s frown deepened. ‘You invited an unblooded warrior to this exchange?’

‘I did, Father.’

‘Why?’

Trull said nothing, as was his choice. He was not about to voice his concern over Rhulad’s undue attentions towards Fear’s betrothed.

After a moment, Tomad sighed. He seemed to be studying his large, scarred hands where they rested on his thighs. ‘We have grown complacent,’ he rumbled.

‘Father, is it complacency to assume the ones with whom we treat are honourable?’

‘Yes, given the precedents.’

‘Then why has the Warlock King agreed to a Great Meeting with the Letherii?’

Tomad’s dark eyes flicked up to pin Trull’s own. Of all Tomad’s sons, only Fear possessed a perfect, unwavering match to his father’s eyes, in hue and indurative regard. Despite himself, Trull felt himself wilt slightly beneath that scornful gaze.

‘I withdraw my foolish question,’ Trull said, breaking contact to disguise his dismay. A measuring of enemies. This contravention, no matter its original intent, will become a double-pointed blade, given the inevitable response to it by the Edur. A blade both peoples shall grasp. ‘The unblooded warriors will be pleased.’