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‘The unblooded warriors shall one day sit in the council, Trull.’

‘Is that not the reward of peace, Father?’

Tomad made no reply to that. ‘Hannan Mosag shall call the council. You must needs be present to relate what you witnessed. Further, the Warlock King has made a request of me, that I give my sons to him for a singular task. I do not think that decision will be affected by the news you deliver.’

Trull worked through his surprise, then said, ‘I passed Binadas on the way into the village-’

‘He has been informed, and will return within a moon’s time.’

‘Does Rhulad know of this?’

‘No, although he will accompany you. An unblooded is an unblooded.’

‘As you say, Father.’

‘Now, rest. You shall be awakened in time for the council.’

A white crow hopped down from a salt-bleached root and began picking through the midden. At first Trull had thought it to be a gull, lingering on the strand in the fast-fading light, but then it cackled and, mussel shell in its pallid beak, sidled down from the midden towards the waterline.

Sleep had proved an impossibility. The council had been called for midnight. Restless, nerves jangling along his exhausted limbs, Trull had walked down to the pebble beach north of the village and the river mouth.

And now, as darkness rolled in with the sleepy waves, he had found himself sharing the strand with a white crow. It had carried its prize down to the very edge, and with each whispering approach, the bird dipped the mussel shell into the water. Six times.

A fastidious creature, Trull observed, watching as the crow hopped onto a nearby rock and began picking at the shell.

White was evil, of course. Common enough knowledge. The blush of bone, Menandore’s hateful light at dawn. The sails of the Letherii were white, as well, which was not surprising. And the clear waters of Calach Bay would reveal the glimmer of white cluttering the sea bottom, from the bones of thousands of slaughtered seals.

This season would have marked a return to surplus for the six tribes, beginning the replenishment of depleted reserves to guard against famine. Thoughts that led him to another way of seeing this illegal harvesting. A perfectly timed gesture to weaken the confederacy, a ploy intended to undermine the Edur position at the Great Meeting. The argument of inevitability. The same argument first thrown into our faces with the settlements on the Reach. ‘The kingdom of Lether is expanding, its needs growing. Your camps on the Reach were seasonal, after all, and with the war they had been all but abandoned.’

It was inevitable that more and more independent ships would come to ply the rich waters of the north coast. One could not police them all. The Edur need only look at other tribes that had once dwelt beyond the Letherii borderlands, the vast rewards that came with swearing fealty to King Ezgara Diskanar of Lether.

But we are not as other tribes.

The crow cackled from atop its stone throne, flinging the mussel shell away with a toss of its head, then, spreading its ghostly wings, rose up into the night. A final drawn out cawl from the darkness. Trull made a warding gesture.

Stones turned underfoot behind him and he swung about to see his elder brother approaching.

‘I greet you, Trull,’ Fear said in a quiet voice. ‘The words you delivered have roused the warriors.’

‘And the Warlock King?’

‘Has said nothing.’

Trull returned to his study of the dark waves hissing on the strand. ‘Their eyes are fixed upon those ships,’ he said.

‘Hannan Mosag knows to look away, brother.’

‘He has asked for the sons of Tomad Sengar. What do you know of that?’

Fear was at his side now, and Trull sensed his shrug. ‘Visions have guided the Warlock King since he was a child,’ Fear said after a moment. ‘He carries blood memories all the way back to the Dark Times. Father Shadow stretches before him with every stride he takes.’

The notion of visions made Trull uneasy. He did not doubt their power – in fact, the very opposite. The Dark Times had come with the rivening of Tiste Edur, the assault of sorceries and strange armies and the disappearance of Father Shadow himself. And, although the magic of Kurald Emurlahn was not denied to the tribes, the warren was lost to them: shattered, the fragments ruled by false kings and gods. Trull suspected that Hannan Mosag possessed an ambition far vaster than simply unifying the six tribes.

‘There is reluctance in you, Trull. You hide it well enough, but I can see where others cannot. You are a warrior who would rather not fight.’

‘That is not a crime,’ Trull muttered, then he added: ‘Of all the Sengar, only you and Father carry more trophies.’

‘I was not questioning your bravery, brother. But courage is the least of that which binds us. We are Edur. We were masters of the Hounds, once. We held the throne of Kurald Emurlahn. And would hold it still, if not for betrayal, first by the kin of Scabandari Bloodeye, then by the Tiste Andii who came with us to this world. We are a beset people, Trull. The Letherii are but one enemy among many. The Warlock King understands this.’

Trull studied the glimmer of starlight on the placid surface of the bay. ‘I will not hesitate in fighting those who would be our enemies, Fear.’

‘That is good, brother. It is enough to keep Rhulad silent, then.’

Trull stiffened. ‘He speaks against me? That unblooded… pup?’

‘Where he sees weakness…’

‘What he sees and what is true are different things,’ Trull said.

‘Then show him otherwise,’ Fear said in his low, calm voice.

Trull was silent. He had been openly dismissive of Rhulad and his endless challenges and postures, as was his right given that Rhulad was unblooded. But more significantly, Trull’s reasons were raised like a protective wall around the maiden that Fear was to wed. Of course, to voice such things now would be unseemly, whispering as they would of spite and malice. After all, Mayen was Fear’s betrothed, not Trull’s, and her protection was Fear’s responsibility.

Things would be simpler, he ruefully reflected, if he had a sense of Mayen herself. She did not invite Rhulad’s attention, but nor did she turn a shoulder to it. She walked the cliff-edge of propriety, as self-assured as any maiden would – and should – be when privileged to become the wife of the Hiroth’s Weapons Master. It was not, he told himself once again, any of his business. ‘I will not show Rhulad what he should already see,’ Trull growled. ‘He has done nothing to warrant the gift of my regard.’

‘Rhulad lacks the subtlety to see your reluctance as anything but weakness-’

‘His failing, not mine!’

‘Do you expect a blind elder to cross a stream’s stepping stones unaided, Trull? No, you guide him until in his mind’s eye he finally sees that which everyone else can see.’

‘If everyone else can see,’ Trull replied, ‘then Rhulad’s words against me are powerless, and so I am right to ignore them.’

‘Brother, Rhulad is not alone in lacking subtlety.’

‘Is it your wish, Fear, that there be enemies among the sons of Tomad Sengar?’

‘Rhulad is not an enemy, not of you nor of any other Edur. He is young and eager for blood. You once walked his path, so I ask that you remember yourself back then. This is not the time to deliver wounds sure to scar. And, to an unblooded warrior, disdain delivers the deepest wound of all.’

Trull grimaced. ‘I see the truth of that, Fear. I shall endeavour to curtail my indifference.’

His brother did not react to the sarcasm. ‘The council is gathering in the citadel, brother. Will you enter the King’s Hall at my side?’

Trull relented. ‘I am honoured, Fear.’

They turned away from the black water, and so did not see the pale-winged shape gliding over the lazy waves a short distance offshore.

Thirteen years ago Udinaas had been a young sailor in the third year of his family’s indenture to the merchant Intaros of Trate, the northernmost city of Lether. He was aboard the whaler Brunt and on the return run from Beneda waters. They had slipped in under cover of darkness, killing three sows, and were towing the carcasses into the neutral Troughs west of Calach Bay when five K’orthan ships of the Hiroth were sighted in hard pursuit.