The gelding had a broad back, making for a comfortable ride. Yedan rode at a canter. Ahead, the hills thickened with scrub, and beyond was a forest of white trees, branches like twisted bones, leaves so dark as to be almost black. Just before them and running the length of the wooded fringe rose dolmens of grey granite, their edges grooved and faces pitted with cup-shaped, ground-out depressions. Each stone was massive, twice the height of a grown man, and crowding the foot of each one that he could see were skulls.
He slowed his mount, reined in a half-dozen paces from the nearest standing stone. Sat motionless, flies buzzing round the horse’s flickering ears, and studied those grisly offerings. Cold judgement was never short of pilgrims. Alas, true justice had no reason to respect secrets, as those close-fisted pilgrims had clearly discovered. A final and fatal revelation.
Minute popping sounds in the air announced the approach of dread power, as the buzzing flies ignited in mid-flight, black bodies bursting like acorns in a fire. The horse shied slightly, muscles growing taut beneath Yedan, and then snorted in sudden fear.
‘Hold,’ Yedan murmured, his voice calming the beast.
Those of the royal line among the Shake possessed ancient knowledge, memories thick as blood. Tales of ancient foes, sworn enemies of the uncertain Shore. More perhaps than most, the Shake rulers understood that a thing could be both one and the other, or indeed neither. Sides possessed undersides and even those terms were suspect. Language itself stuttered in the face of such complexities, such rampant subtleties of nature.
In this place, however, the blended flavours of compassion were anathema to the powers that ruled.
Yet the lone figure that strode out from the forest was so unexpected that Yedan Derryg grunted as if he had been punched in the chest. ‘This realm is not yours,’ he said, fighting to control his horse.
‘This land is consecrated for adjudication,’ the Forkrul Assail said. ‘I am named Repose. Give me your name, seeker, that I may know you—’
‘Before delivering judgement upon me?’
The tall, ungainly creature, naked and weaponless, cocked his head. ‘You are not alone. You and your followers have brought discord to this land. Do not delay me—you cannot evade what hides within you. I shall be your truth.’
‘I am Yedan Derryg.’
The Forkrul Assail frowned. ‘This yields me no ingress—why is that? How is it you block me, mortal?’
‘I will give you that answer,’ Yedan replied, slipping down from the horse. He drew his sword.
Repose stared at him. ‘Your defiance is useless.’
Yedan advanced on him. ‘Is it? But, how can you know for certain? My name yields you no purchase upon my soul. Why is that?’
‘Explain this, mortal.’
‘My name is meaningless. It is my title that holds my truth. My title, and my blood.’
The Forkrul Assail shifted his stance, lifting his hands. ‘One way or another, I will know you, mortal.’
‘Yes, you will.’
Repose attacked, his hands a blur. But those deadly weapons cut empty air, as Yedan was suddenly behind the Forkrul Assail, sword chopping into the back of the creature’s elongated legs, the iron edge cutting between each leg’s two hinged knees, severing the buried tendons—Repose toppled forward, arms flailing.
Yedan chopped down a second time, cutting off the Assail’s left arm. Blue, thin blood sprayed on to the ground.
‘I am Shake,’ Yedan said, raising his sword once more. ‘I am the Watch.’
The sudden hiss from Repose was shortlived, as Yedan’s sword took off the top of the Forkrul Assail’s head.