16 Years prior.

  Conalin woke to burning thatch. He rolled off his bed and rose to his hands and knees, choking through the tears. Thick smoke filled the room and he stumbled over to his window, fumbling with the latch. Cursing, he opened it and clambered out into the night, sucking in a deep, clean breath of fresh mountain air.

  He looked up the winding road and saw shadowy figures running from house to house carrying torches. He suddenly realised what he was hearing: high pitched screams of terror and a low, grating tone he’d not registered before.

  He wiped his eyes, trying to make sense from the confusion. Three impossibly giant figures ran to Caras’ house. They were hulking, horned beasts, half again the size of an honest Barad man. An axe crashed against a window shutter splintering it, and a giant beast tossed in a burning brand.

  One of them had a sword the size of Conalin, and it gestured with the blade as it made a noise like granite slabs being ground together.

  “Voi shet, enok ruan.” The one with the axe huffed like a bull, and ran around to the other side of the house.

  Conalin crouched down behind some shrubbery, panting with fear. He closed his eyes and began to whisper the Litany of Light. Sweat trickling down his smoke stained back; he squirmed lower as Caras’ door burst open and the baker ran out, a short, rusty sword clutched in his hand.

  The baker staggered to a stop as he saw the abominations waiting for him, incongruously squatting in his well-kept garden. The sword point drooped and pointed at the ground as the man fell to his knees. A short scream sounded, and the creature that had rounded the house reappeared dragging Delba, the baker’s wife.

  The sight of her roused him to anger and he ran at the monster, sword raised. Without even dropping her, it slewed its axe through Caras’ arm, and kicked him contemptuously in the chest. He landed like a children’s doll and lay still.  Limp.

  “Vara mir, do shet megih dorak?”

  “Voi salat.” The third monster disappeared into the house, and returned with a burning brand. It crouched over the baker and spoke again.

  “Dara. Kien. Bolas.” The fire on the end of the stick seemed to trickle down its length, and as Conalin watched, it dripped like liquid onto the bleeding stump of Caras’ arm. At the first touch of the fire, he sat bolt upright and screamed, deep and piercing, and then he passed out again. The beast continued its work, tilting the brand this way and that, until the wound stopped bleeding.

  Conalin remained perfectly still as the three beasts moved up the lane towards his hiding place. The one who had performed the witchery with the fire kept sniffing the air, like a dog might, and Conalin squeezed his eyes tight as he started again to pray to Lelijah.

  “Creatures who walk in the dark should fear the light.” A new voice, deep and rich like molten gold rang out. “And if they do not, they should learn to.” Conalin opened his eyes again and saw, standing in the centre of the lane, a hero.

  Clad in shining armour, and drawing a silver sword, the figure spoke again.

  “Let these people go, and return from whichever hole spawned you.”

  “Garof, voi shet?”

  “Darek, fo Dielim!”

  Two of the brutish creatures lumbered towards the figure, weapons raised. He darted between them, belying the weight of his armour, spilling rusty iron chain links to the ground as he slashed his blade along the first one’s ribs.

  He swivelled and raised his sword in time to ward off an axe blow that would have split him to his navel, and lunged forward, dropping to one knee and thrusting the sword up and into the monster on his left. He turned again, ripping the blade out. Conalin saw the blood droplets flung out by the motion catch the ruddy glow of burning buildings. He looked on in awe as the swordsman parried a blow from the massive cleaver and seemed to flick out his blade towards the beast’s face. It stumbled back, and dropped its weapon as blood gouted from its throat. As it fell to its knees, its hands came up in a vain attempt to stop the flow of its lifeblood.

  “You fight like one of the Forechosen.”

  “I fight,” said the figure, dropping into an aggressive stance, “for those whose way is dark.”

  The last of the beasts drew its own weapon, a darkly pitted axe.

  “It will be a great honour to kill you. Not many of your kind can best two Delween Varsguards.” It hefted its weapon. “Come, and I will give your soul to my High Vars.”

  Conalin felt a sickening crunch, and inky blackness took him.

 

***

 

  Darheen was confused. This was not a rare state of affairs for the young Delween, but one of the things he thought he understood was raiding. They had sundered the human village almost entirely, winning many beasts whose meat he could already imagine the taste of, and a great number of slaves. Most had been bonded to a Varslord already, but one was bound, kneeling, in an open space outside the largest building. Many of the clan had gathered around to see why he had been taken this way, including a few Varslords. The High Vars’ champion, Grood was also there, and he was given a wide berth by the others; they afforded him a great deal of respect.

  There was a muttering which died down as Grood stepped forward. Was it he who had taken this human in such a way? He started to speak, quieting the crowd instantly.

  “This one is mine. I have marked him and claimed him in the name of High Vars Torn. He will be executed here in the name of the High Vars; his life has great power and this will greatly feed High Vars Torn.”

  He stepped back, and the muttering started again almost instantly. Darheen was grabbed roughly by the arm. He spun quickly.  Grood’s personal shaman, Tolig, hissed at him.

  “Fetch seven more captives marked for the High Vars. We will sacrifice them after this man to honour his warrior spirit.” Darheen blinked in confusion. “Quickly,” hissed the shaman, pushing him in the direction of the captives.

  Darheen went to find the marked captives, and corralled seven of them together with a length of rope and started to tug them along behind him. He roughly shoved them down at the foot of the little shaman, who was capering around the bound man, rattling finger bones around the inside of a skull.

  Feeling immensely proud of himself, he stood over them, taking strength from the weak noises they mewled to each other as the crowd began to slowly disperse.

 

***

 

  Conalin felt sick. His vision swam and his head throbbed. He was shoved to the ground, and he cried out in pain. He looked up and saw the man who had fought the beasts bound and kneeling before the beast with the axe. Stripped of his armour and weapons he looked less impressive; despair swamped Conalin. They were all going to die, sacrificed to some obscene beast god in a ritual that saw their blood drunk and skulls used as beakers. He whimpered as he lost control of his bladder, and shut his eyes tight.

  “It’s okay son. Hold onto that Litany you were praying earlier. The Golden Queen will see you home.”  Conalin sniffed.

  “We’re going to die.”

  “All men die. What matters boy, is how you live. Don’t give the beasts what they want.” The man grinned at him, showing bloodied teeth.

  The axe wielding beast spoke. Its voice low, grating.

  “Man. You are to die. Before you do, tell us your name, that we might beseech the spirits to grant you a place amongst the great warriors of Far’desh.”  The man shut his eyes tight, and said,

  “I am Tylen, called the Edgebreaker.” He opened his eyes and looked directly at Conalin. “And it is better to die in the light than to live in the darkness.”

  He surged to his feet, bursting the bindings that held him, as a bright golden light burst from his eyes. A shimmering golden mist coalesced around his fist into a bright sword, and he hammered the blade into the neck of the capering beast, tearing off its head. He spun on his heel, a golden shield appearing on his left arm, and caught the axe blow mid swing. He swept his sword up towards the beast but it leapt back.

  Wary now, they circled one another, a horned, hulking beast with an axe stained brown by countless beheadings and a blazing golden paragon of the Light, wielding a sword of faith and a shield of courage. Conalin looked at the dagger lying next to the bleeding corpse of the shaman, and up at the giant beast standing over him.

  It is better to die in the light than live in the shadow.

  He snatched up the knife and wheeled around, plunging it into the ribs of the monster. It stumbled back and snarled at him, backhanding him and sending him spinning. He crashed into a wall, and for the second time that night, Conalin felt the embrace of unconsciousness.

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