Authors: Fiona McIntosh
valisar: book one
For Will McIntosh, Jack McIntosh, Paige Klimentou
and Jack Caddy…
start walking towards your dreams today.
Whatever the dream, no matter how daring or grand
somebody will eventually achieve it
It might as well be you
Chapter Twenty One
Chapter Twenty Two
Chapter Twenty Three
Chapter Twenty Four
Chapter Twenty Five
Chapter Twenty Six
Chapter Twenty Seven
Chapter Twenty Eight
Chapter Twenty Nine
Chapter Thirty One
Books By Fiona Mcintosh
About the Publisher
King Ormond’s face was ashen. He wore the sunken, resigned expression of a man who knew he had but hours to live. Nevertheless, sitting on his horse, atop the mound overlooking the battlefield, his anger flared, his jaw grinding as he watched the horde from the plains make light work of his soldiers. His attention was riveted on one man: the enemy’s leader, who was easy to pick out in the fray, even from this distance. For while his warriors wore the distinctive colours of their tribe, inked all over their faces and bodies, this man’s skin was clean. His features, like his age, were indeterminate from this distance, but he fought with the speed and physical force of a man in his prime. And he led his men from the front, a sign of his bravado and courage.
‘Look at the arrogance!’ Ormond said, disbelief ringing in his voice. ‘Are we so pathetic that he doesn’t even care to take the precaution of armour? Does he have no fear?’
‘Majesty,’ one of his companions replied wearily. ‘I believe Loethar is driven by something more complex than a desire for victory.’
‘General Marth, what could possibly be more desirable than victory when one goes to war?’ the king challenged, staring down his offsider.
The general looked momentarily lost for words. He looked away towards the carnage, then back to his king. ‘Your highness, this man is not interested in simply winning. He is not looking to conscript a new army from the devastation of ours, or even to preserve much of the realm for his own needs. I sense he is only after humiliation for his enemy. He has shown the Set that his pattern is to kill everyone who carries a weapon against him. There is no mercy in his heart.’
The king shook his head, despair now haunting his expression. ‘I can’t let this continue. It has gone on long enough. He’s been on the rampage for four moons now. Dregon and Vorgaven are conquered and Cremond simply capitulated.’ He gave a sound of disgust. ‘The other realms in the Set that have been attacked have fallen no matter what reinforcements have been sent.’
Clearly forcing himself to remain calm despite the sounds of death below, the general took a breath. ‘As I counselled previously, majesty, it is not that he has an inexhaustible supply of fighters but that he has used his men with great cunning and insight. There has been nothing disorganised about his attack on the Set’s realms; it has been very strategic and we have not accorded him the respect he deserved. We should have taken him seriously when his men first started appearing. We should have sent our own men to help the Dregons and Vorgavese —’
‘For Lo’s sake, man! If Penraven didn’t why would we? Brennus obviously thought Ranuld could hold Vorgaven.’
‘We’re all neighbours, highness. We are the Set. We should have combined all our resources. Penraven has the largest army, the most well equipped army, the greatest number of weapons —’
‘Yes but still he didn’t! King Brennus chose not to send his men. Why? Because he trusted Ranuld to keep his end strong against this rabble upstart.’
General Marth looked away again, and like his king his gaze was helplessly drawn to the horde’s ruthless leader as his sword swung, hacking into one of their men’s necks. They saw the spume of blood explode and watched another life be given cheaply to the insatiable ruler of the plains tribes. The general turned back, a fresh look of fury on his face. ‘No, majesty. I don’t think the Valisar king trusts any of us. Forgive me, I know you consider him a friend, but King Brennus is not coming to anyone’s aid. I suspect he has seen the error of his confidence, knows the threat to Penraven is very real. In light of that we are expendable. His priority always has been, always will be, Penraven. He is saving his men for the final confrontation.’
King Ormond’s gaze narrowed. ‘He sent men to Dregon, he even —’
Marth shook his head sadly. ‘A token gesture, highness. We needed to combine our armies to chase this barbarian from our midst. Instead we brazenly allowed him the chance for his early and shocking victory against Dregon and Vorgaven — his audacity to fight not only on two fronts and two borders but to take both cities. His men are not mere rabble, highness. These are warriors … trained ones. We should have crushed him the moment he took his first footsteps into the Set.’
‘We all agreed to wait and see what his intentions were.’
of us, highness,’ General Marth replied and the bitterness in his voice was tempered by sorrow. ‘We didn’t act fast enough. We all left it to each other.’
‘But who would have thought Cremond would not even offer the slightest resistance? Why? Do they want a tribal thug as their ruler?’ Marth shook his head, seemingly unable to offer any light on the Cremond capitulation although it was a longheld belief within the rest of the Set that Cremond, rarely considering itself as close to the other realms, often tended to behave in a contrary fashion. ‘And then who in his right mind marches across the region, ignoring Barronel, in order to take Vorgaven at the same time as Dregon? None of it makes sense.’
‘None of it makes sense because that was his intention. Loethar constantly caught us off guard. If we’d acted with speed at the outset we likely would have cut him off before he even established a foothold. Now he’s had these four moons to put our backs to the wall, to somehow convince Penraven — in its own arrogance — to wait and see what happens. Did we really think he was going to say “thank you” and go home?’
‘Brennus and I believed he’d seek terms. Granted, we’re both shocked at his victory, but we never anticipated that he’d go after the whole Set.’
‘I don’t know why, majesty. He didn’t ask permission to enter it. Why would he give us any opportunity to sit around a parley table with him? He probably can’t even speak the language!’ Marth hesitated briefly. But what was there to lose in finally speaking his mind? Careful to speak without accusation, he continued. ‘The Valisars have always considered themselves invincible and I doubt Brennus feels any differently. Don’t you see, your highness, that Brennus has allowed us to be the fodder? The rest of the realm has borne the brunt of Loethar’s ferocity and yet I think he’s deliberately saving the biggest, the best, for last. I don’t think it’s because he’s frightened of Penraven. Quite the contrary. He has been playing games, convincing Brennus that the tribes would run out of interest — another reason why Brennus has hesitated to send the full might of the Penravian army to stand by us. I sense Loethar has deliberately made himself appear to be that yob you called him earlier, when in fact he is a long way from being a dull-headed, thick-skinned ruffian who might tire of the spoils of war and head back to the plains, sated. He has shown himself to be a shrewd adversary and now, my king, he is ready to topple our realm. I admire him.’
Ormond sighed deeply and hung his head. ‘Call the retreat, general.’
‘No, King Ormond. Our men are going to die anyway. I suspect they would rather die fighting. It is more worthy to fall in the heat of battle and to a noble wound than on one’s knees pleading for one’s life. That’s what the barbarian did in Vorgaven; put people to the sword long after the battle cries had stopped echoing. I think our soldiers should go to Lo yelling their defiance.’
The king shook his head gravely. ‘But you are a general and I am a sovereign. It is our role to think brave and be brave to the last … to give our lives for our land. Perhaps some of these men might escape and survive to recount Barronel’s bravery to the last. For that hope alone, we should surrender.’
‘Please, King Ormond. Let us all perish if we must, but let us fight to the last man.’
Ormond set his chin grimly. ‘No. I took an oath when I was crowned that I would not knowingly allow any of my subjects to be killed if I could prevent it. I have to believe some of my people, however few, can be preserved in the chaos of retreat. Let the men run for their lives. But Lo help me, Marth, I will see the blood of the Valisars flour for this betrayal.’ His voice had become a growl. ‘Sound the retreat!’
Loethar’s teeth seemed to be the only part of him not drenched in the blood of his foe. But he knew that would soon change and while his limbs worked savagely, tirelessly, to deny his enemies another breath, his thoughts focused around drinking the blood of King Ormond of Barronel. For Ormond was all that stood between him and his true goal … Penraven.
All the preparation — two anni in the making — had been undertaken for the moment that he was so close to now he could almost taste it. All the relentless training had been worth it — the toughening of his warriors, the breeding of horses, stockpiling of food and water near the main Set border … But none of that could compare to his mental preparation. He had grown up on hate, loathing, bitterness, and rage, kept under control, channelled into the groundwork that led to the surprise concerted raid on two realms at the same time.
The overconfidence, the bursting ego of the Valisars demanded that they would never have believed for a moment they were under any serious threat. Not at the outset anyway. Which is why he’d acted as though he lacked any strategy or battle knowledge, traversing the Set covering unnecessary, almost senseless ground. He made sure his men behaved like the unruly rabble he wanted them to appear, even sending a quarter of them back to the Set’s main border, as though they were making a straggly return to their plains, no longer interested in the bloodlust.
And gradually he had streamed them back to the main vanguard, usually under cover of darkness, running alongside wild dogs of the plains that he had had trained since puppies, killing their parents so they knew and trusted only the smell of his men. These dogs made the sharpest of scouts. They knew how to range, how to move silently and how to smell even the vaguest threat of their enemy. Many times they warned the tribes’ various leaders to change course, to return to the main army via a different route. They were a large part of why Vorgaven, for instance, had thought it was facing three thousand men, when it was actually confronted by close on five thousand.
Time and again over the four moons Loethar had baffled his enemy, an enemy that was fuelled by such self-belief, and worse, such disdain for the horde of the plains, that it had essentially crippled itself.
Now Loethar grimaced as a man fell near his feet, the Barronel soldier’s sword slicing into Loethar’s leg before the soldier’s body fell. Fortunately, Loethar’s nimble, intelligent horse moved sideways, allowing the man to fall beneath the advancing warriors and other horses so that the body was quickly trampled until it no longer had a recognisable face. Loethar barely paid attention to the wound on his leg; it hurt but there was no time to consider the pain. His sword kept slashing a path through flesh and bone, moving him ever closer to his prize.